Education reform in Singapore - Hong Kong Subsidized Secondary

Education Reforms in Singapore
Ka-Ho Mok
Associate Vice President
Chair Professor, Department of Asian and Policy Studies
The Hong Kong Institute of Education
Changjiang Chair Professor, Zhejiang University, China
The Objectives of Singapore’s Education
Education Reforms in Singapore
Implications for Hong Kong
The Singapore’s Education Objectives
A child to bring out his greatest potential so that he
will grow up into a good man and useful citizen” (Lee,
1979, p. iii)
Education for Nation Building
Education serving economic development
Education serving social and cultural development
Education for maintaining and enhancing Singapore’s
global competitiveness
Education as tool for Globalizing Singapore and
assertion of Singapore’s soft power
The foundation Singapore’s education system was
laid in 1956 in the proposals of the All-Party Report
on Chinese Education (Singapore Government, 1956).
It proposed a system that met the educational needs of
the various ethnic groups (Chinese, Malay, Tamil and
The People’s Action Party, which released in 1959
went further to propose that education should break
down the walls of cultural and linguistic separation
through the encouragement of multilingualism, the
use of locally-oriented textbooks and by giving
schools a sense of common purpose and a common
The Singapore government thus provided the uniform
curriculum for all types of schools, taking English as
the instruction language.
The Changing Point (1965)
The year 1965 marked the most important turning
point in the history of Singapore as a complete
political independent country.
The new political, economic and social conditions
required that national policies be re-assessed. This
was also the case with education.
Changing Education Policies
(1960s - 1970s)
The study of a second language (native language) in
all secondary schools was made as compulsory since
With the export-oriented industrialization in the late
1960s, the school system experienced the shift in
emphasis from academic to technical education.
Changing Education Policies
(1960s - 1970s)
To develop post-secondary technical and vocational
education at the polytechnics, the Singapore
government has set up the Vocational and Industrial
Training Board in 1979 through a merger of the then
existing Industrial Training Board and the Adult
Education Board.
The Consequences of the Changes
For a large part of the 1970s, education managed to
provide a workforce to meet the manpower needs of a
burgeoning industrial economy. However, as the
economy matured, the types of skills required were
changing. In addition, there was high attrition when
the education system became too rigid and inflexible
and thus inefficient. The bilingual requirement, as
understood then, was also seen to be making an
excessive demand on the students. Reform of the
system was therefore inevitable.
Report on the Ministry of Education
The 1979 Report recommended a method of
streaming pupils based on academic ability,
principally ability in languages and mathematics. On
the basis of a series of tests, examinations and
teachers’ reports, pupils were to be streamed into
different courses of study to cater better to their needs
and pace of learning. This type of academic tracking
or streaming was adopted at both the primary and
secondary levels, marking a major structural
innovation to the system, which was then called the
New Education System.
Report on the Ministry of Education
This New Education System comprised the
provision of streaming and changes to the school
curriculum including the provision of an additional
year in school for those in the weakest stream.
Notable changes in the curriculum included greater
emphasis on language education in primary schools,
the provision of moral education as a subject in both
primary and secondary schools, and the introduction
in 1982 of religious knowledge as a compulsory
subject in the upper secondary curriculum.
Other Developments in 1980s
There are two other developments, namely, the
establishment of the Curriculum Development Institute of
Singapore (CDIS) in 1980 and the Schools Council in
1981 were very significant during this period. CDIS was
designed to produce teaching materials for schools,
including textbooks, multi-media materials and
educational television programs. The Schools Council
itself involved principals in the decision-making process
at the Ministry level. The establishment of the Schools
Council was also seen as the first step towards giving
school principals greater autonomy and wider
responsibility with regards to decision-making.
Recession in 1985
Since “in the modern world, education and economic
performance are indivisible” (Tan, 1992), the
recession in 1985 has deeply influenced the education
system in Singapore.
The negative economic growth in 1985 reminded the
government of the vulnerability of Singapore’s
economy to both internal and external factors.
Recession in 1985
The Minister for Education thus announced in 1986
principles or guidelines for Education Ministry as:
Education policy must keep pace with the economy and society.
The basics, i.e. languages, science, mathematics, and the
humanities, will be stressed to encourage logical thinking and
life-long learning.
Creativity in schools must be boosted through a ‘bottom-up’
approach whereby initiatives must come from principals and
teachers instead of from the Ministry (Tan, 1986).
Working towards Excellent in Education
The guideline has marked a new era in Singapore’s
education: the effort to establish excellent education
system. The Ministry of Education then organized a
study tour made by 12 senior school principals to the
USA and the UK to identify factors which would
make for a good and effective school. The report
prepared by this group of principals, entitled Towards
Excellence in Schools (1987), was seen as a
“breakthrough” in fostering educational innovation at
the school level, and marking “a new phase in the
development of education in Singapore” (Tan, 1986).
Working towards Excellent in Education
To support the move towards greater excellence in the
school system, teacher education was also upgraded
with the formation in July 1991 of the National
Institute of Education (NIE), by merging the former
Institute of Education and the College of Physical
Globalization and Economic Crisis
The 1990s saw globalization processes accelerating,
aided by the widespread use of the. In the later part of
the decade, East Asian economies also experienced,
as noted earlier, a sharp recession—beginning in 1997,
with differentiated rates of recovery as the decade
ended. These two developments, among others,
accelerated the questioning of the resilience of the
existing education systems in the context of new
demands for economic competitiveness.
From Quantity to Quality
Under this context, the Singapore government has
conducted another education reform emphasizing
“Thinking Schools, Learning Nation” (TSLN), which
provided direction to the transformation in the
education system since 1997. Senior Minister Goh
Chok Tong, then Prime Minister, explained that it was
a vision for a total learning environment, including
students, teachers, parents, workers, companies,
community organizations and the government (Goh
From Quantity to Quality
To be more specific, thinking Schools is a vision of a
school system that can develop creative thinking
skills, lifelong learning passion and nationalistic
commitment in the young. Learning Nation is a
vision of learning as a national culture, where
creativity and innovation flourishes at every level of
the society .
From Quantity to Quality
Realizing the importance of advanced technology,
The Singapore government issued the Master plan for
Information Technology in Education in the same
year, attempting to incorporate information
technology in teaching and learning so that the
quality of education could be improved. The
government has been generous in its pledges of
support both for physical infrastructure and for preand in-service training. Whole-school networking is
to be installed in all schools: the target is one
computer to be available for every two students and
one notebook for every two teachers.
From Quantity to Quality
To further improve the national competitiveness, in
2004, Prime Minister Lee called teachers to “teach
less” so that students might “learn more”. In 2005, the
Ministry of Education clarified this philosophical
statement to mean transforming learning from
quantity to quality—“more quality and less quantity”
in education. This is in line with the national vision of
‘Thinking Schools, Learning Nation’. This policy
initiative, which began in 2004, is set to change the
fundamental nature of education in Singapore.
From Quantity to Quality
Just as Minister Tharman (2005) said that:
Our basic approach, as we go forward, is to go for more
quality and less quantity. We will focus on the quality of
learning, quality of CCA and community engagements and the
quality of the whole school experience that the student goes
through. We will seek to cut back on quantity, careful and
calculated cuts, so as to provide more “whitespace” in the
curriculum, space which gives schools and teachers the room
to introduce their own programs, to inject more quality into
teaching, to reflect more, to have more time for preparing
lessons and to give students themselves the room to exercise
initiative and to shape their own learning.
From Quantity to Quality
Aims “to touch the hearts and engage the minds of our learners.
It reaches into the core of education—why we teach, what we
teach and how we teach”, Tharman (2005) claimed “less
dependence on rote learning, repetitive tests and a ‘one size
fits all’ type of instruction, and more on engaged learning,
discovery through experiences, differentiated teaching, the
learning of life-long skills, and the building of character
through innovative and effective teaching approaches and
strategies.” Moreover, more opportunities will be created for
“holistic learning so that students can go beyond narrowly
defined academic excellence to develop the attributes,
mindsets, character and values for future success”.
Higher Education Reform
The education reforms were also conducted in higher
education area. There have been three major stages of
higher education reforms in recent years:
The first stage was started by setting up an
International Academic Advisory Panel (IAAP),
comprising prominent scholars from international
higher education institutions or community leaders
from big corporations, to help the universities
develop into world-class institutions in terms of
teaching and research (MOE, Singapore, 2001).
Higher Education Reform
Taking the recommendations made by the IAAP
seriously, the government started to review its
university admissions system by adopting a more
flexible admissions policy (MOE, Singapore, 1999).
Moving beyond recruiting students almost based
solely on their academic scores, both the public
universities announced in 1999 that they would
henceforth pay attention to students’ non-academic
performance and recognize their achievements in cocurricular activities and school-based project work.
Higher Education Reform
In order to prepare and equip students for
globalization challenges, the Singapore government
has reviewed the curriculum design of university
education and emphasis is now placed on a broadbased cross-disciplinary university education. More
innovative ways of teaching and assessment have
been introduced with a focus on creative and critical
Higher Education Reform
Meanwhile, the role of universities in knowledge
creation has been strengthened through postgraduate
and research education in the universities.
Universities constitute a significant resource of new
ideas and inventions with the potential for
commercial applications by enhancing their research
capabilities and engaging in more multi-disciplinary
Higher Education Reform
The second stage
of higher education reforms saw the
establishment of Singapore’s third university in August 2000.
The privately owned Singapore Management University (SMU)
was formed in collaboration with the Wharton School of
Business at the University of Pennsylvania. The foundation of
the SMU was a landmark in Singapore’s higher education
history. By introducing different governance and funding style,
the government intends to make its higher education sector
more vibrant and dynamic. It also intends to inject a certain
degree of “internal competition” to the university sector (Lee
and Gopinathan, 2001).
Higher Education Reform
The third stage of higher education reforms is
closely related to University Governance and Funding
Review in 2000 embarked by the MOE, Singapore. The
purpose of such a review was to ensure that systems and
structures in relation to talent management, organizational
processes and resource allocation within the universities
were properly linked up to their mission and objectives of
development in the long run. Overseas study trips to
Hong Kong, Canada, the UK and the USA were
conducted in September 1999 to identify good practices
in overseas universities (MOE, Singapore, 2000).
Higher Education Reform
The review committee released its recommendations
on public university governance and funding in July
2000, In exchange for greater autonomy, the NUS and
the NTU were urged to be more responsive in making
timely decisions and adjustments in order to achieve
excellence. At the same time, the universities had to
put in place systems and structures of talent
management, organizational processes and resource
allocation to achieve highest value for money and
rates of return from public investment in university
Quest for Education Hub
During this period, repositioning itself in the
globalizing world, together with the ambition to
assert the “soft power”, Singapore government has
openly declared its intention and plans for regional
education hub projects. When discussing education
hubs, we should realize the diverse meanings of
“education hubs” since some may interpret such hubs
as “knowledge or innovation hubs” (Olds, 2007;
Wong, Ho, and Singh, 2007), others may refer to the
“education industry” (Lai and Maclean, 2011) or “a
way to internationalize higher education” (Chan and
Ng, 2008; Knight, 2004; Mok, 2007).
Quest for Education Hub
However, the pressing need for transforming into the
knowledge-based economy has exceeded the capacity
of Singapore to quickly expand their public
institutions to offer sufficient opportunities for higher
education to their population. One major strategy
adopted by some Asian governments to enhance the
global competitiveness of their higher education is to
bring in overseas campuses to offer different forms of
international education programs, attracting students
in the region and beyond.
Quest for Education Hub
However, as far as the quest for a regional hub of
education is concerned, policies of quality
enhancement and corporatization of public
universities alone may be far from sufficient. More
opportunities for higher education, both in terms of
the number and variety, have to be provided to
Singaporeans as well as foreign learners from the
Quest for Education Hub
The outcomes of Singapore government’s active
measures were obvious: by 2003, Singapore’s public
universities and polytechnics could only enroll
around 40,000 and 56,000 students respectively; on
the other hand, 119,000 students were enrolled by
around 170 private tertiary providers, of which 140
offered programs in collaboration with foreign
institutions and enrolled 75% of the total student
population in this section. The importance of
transnational education provision in Singapore has
therefore become obvious.
Quest for Education Hub
Meanwhile, in order to tap into the lucrative
education market more aggressively, the Singapore
government launched its Global Schoolhouse
initiative in 2002. In fact, ever since 1998, the
government, through efforts taken by its Economic
Development Board (EDB) instead of its Ministry of
Education, has strategically invited “world-class” and
“reputable” universities from abroad to set up their
Asian campuses in the city-state.
Quest for Education Hub
As a result, Singapore is today home to 16 leading
foreign tertiary institutions and 44 pre- tertiary
schools offering international curricula (EDB,
Singapore Government, 2009), ranging from business,
management arts, media, hospitality to information
technology, biomedical sciences and engineering.
Quest for Education Hub
In 2003, a further and more integrated step was taken
by the government to promote Singapore as a premier
education hub. Singapore Education, a multigovernment agency initiative, is led by the EDB and
supported by the Tourism Board, SPRING Singapore,
International Enterprise (IE) Singapore and the
Ministry of Education.
Quest for Education Hub
According to the official website of Singapore
Education (Singapore Education, 2006), EDB is
responsible for attracting “internationally renowned
educational institutions to set up campuses in
Singapore”, whereas the Tourism Board is tasked
with overseas promotion and marketing of Singapore
education, and IE Singapore is in charge of helping
quality local education institutions to develop their
businesses and set up campuses overseas.
Quest for Education Hub
Another significant strategy adopted by the
government in promoting transnational higher
education is the joint-degree program arranged
between the local universities and their overseas
partners. Local Singapore universities are actively
collaborating with peer universities across the world
in a diversified spectrum of academic programs,
bringing together rich resources in such fields.
Students are granted the freedom to study at both
campuses and receive supervision and teaching from
the faculties of both universities..
Quest for Education Hub
And finally, as part of its policy to support transnational
higher education, the Singapore government also offers a
comprehensive package of financial aid to international
students through several public channels. The tuition fees
for them are only 10% above the local rate, and they can
apply for whatever financial assistance schemes open to
local students, including scholarships provided by the
“Singapore Scholarship” and tuition grants conditional
on the agreement of working for a Singapore-registered
company for at least three years upon graduation.
Moreover, there are numerous bursaries provided by
individual tertiary institutions, and student loans are also
available at favorable interest rates.
Quest for Education Hub
In short, the most recent achievements of Singapore’s
quest for education hub are as follows:
In 2007, there were an estimated 86,000 international students
from 120 countries studying in Singapore.
Over 1,200 private HEIs and 44 pre-tertiary schools offer
international curricula in Singapore.
hasestablished its international headquarters in Singapore.
About 61,000 students are studying in its 28 colleges around
the Asia-Pacific region.
Quest for Education Hub
Public universities have also played a role in its quest to be a
regional hub of education. The three autonomous universities
enroll 20% international students who mainly come from
ASEAN, China and India. Most of them were enrolled in
Engineering and Science courses.
As of 2008, the education sector (all levels) contributed about
2% of Singapore’s GDP and is forecasted to reach 5% by 2015.
Implications for Hong Kong
Strategic role of the government in education
Closer cooperation between the state, education
sectors, market and civil society
Education not only for locals but also for
international students for soft power assertion
Education and nation building, as tool for
economic, social and cultural developments
Planning matters, importance of having strategic
vision and concrete implementation plans
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