Drive to encourage creativity and innovation

But what about is political culture?


Singapore’s education system is geared to providing the skilled manpower for business and industry to sustain its economic success. It has a “strong focus on mathematics, science and technical skills”, according to the OECD .  Its system is particularly good, in recruiting, training and nurturing good teachers.  In a report this month the OECD said ‘Singapore is notable for its comprehensive approach to identifying and nurturing teaching talent. It has  developed a comprehensive system for selecting, training, compensating and developing teachers and  principals, thereby creating tremendous capacity at the point of education delivery.’ Who can knock that?

Although widely regarded as a highly successful education system Singapore has attracted two main criticisms. First, that it hot houses its children (like many other Asian countries, including South Korea)) putting too much pressure on them to perform and conform ,with  a particular emphasis  on after school tuition  . Secondly, the system hasn’t encouraged creativity and innovation in its students who may succeed academically but seem to lack flair, creativity and individuality.

It is noteworthy that Singapore, in terms of its population, is roughly the size of Norway yet one is hard-pressed to name a Singaporean who has world class stature in any profession now, or indeed in the past (excepting Lee Kwan Yew). The same cannot be said of Norway.  Of course it is difficult to link this causally to the education system but it does raise a big question mark.

In addition, Singapore’s political culture may also act as a drag  on creativity, individuality and innovation. Its political culture is authoritarian-a plural democracy it is not- and it has an underdeveloped democratic civic culture-which hardly encourages freedom of thought, speech and expression. Stability, respect for authority and continuity are paramount.

And,  while the education gap between the Chinese, Indians and Malays has narrowed since independence in 1965, there is still a “long tail” of stragglers behind the top achievers.

To be fair, the school system has been changing since reforms began in 1997 to promote creative thinking and lifelong learning to keep up with the knowledge economy.

Its small size makes it easier to manage and change with the times and Singapore couldn’t be accused of standing still . The government has also created bright career prospects to attract good educators.

An OECD report says that while Singapore has significantly closed its achievement gaps and focused on bringing up the lowest achievers, there is still a stronger correlation between socio-economic status and achievement than Singapore education leaders would like.

Singapore, of course, is very much aware of these criticisms, and its educators are open to new thinking .Indeed, it is seeking to drive home the importance of character-building and resilience among pupils.

Speaking in Singapore’s Parliament, recently, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat noted that the future is “less about content knowledge, as content will have to be re-learnt and even un-learnt during one’s lifetime”.  Mr Heng added: “It is more about how to process information, discern truths from untruths, connect seemingly disparate dots and create knowledge even as the context changes. It is about developing an enduring core of competencies, values and character to anchor our young and ensure they have the resilience to succeed.”  This will sound familiar to reformers across the world.

Among the changes now being brought in- The Community Involvement Programme (CIP) will be renamed “Values in Action”. More than just a name change apparently , the programme will move away from the quantitative aspect of clocking mandatory hours. Instead, students will be asked to reflect on their experience, individually and in groups, during curriculum time. Schools will also be encouraged to develop four- to six-year development plans for sustainable community involvement.

Mr Heng said  “I hope that the introduction of ‘Values in Action’ will, over time, allow students to see themselves as part of the larger community, and for the community to adopt the school as one of their own.”

In 1993, the Government started the Edusave Scheme aimed at maximising  opportunities for all Singaporean children. The Scheme rewards students who perform well or who make good progress in their academic and non-academic work as well , and provides students and schools with funds to pay for enrichment programmes or to purchase additional resources. The Edusave scheme was last reviewed in 2009. Mr Heng noted the existing scheme is “tilted towards academic achievements”. But he added: “As we place more emphasis on holistic education and character development, it is timely to align our recognition framework.”

Three major initiatives have been launched since 1997 in a bid to foster greater creativity and innovation in students. The first of these, Thinking Schools, Learning Nation, was launched by the prime minister in June 1997. It focuses on developing all students into active learners with critical thinking skills and on developing a creative and critical thinking culture within schools. It includes the explicit teaching of critical and creative thinking skills in the classroom , the reduction of subject content, the revision of assessment modes,  and a greater focus on process rather than outcomes when assessing schools (in theory at least).  The Master Plan for Information Technology in Education, was also launched in 1997. It is an ambitious attempt to incorporate information technology in teaching and learning in all schools.  The third and most recent major initiative focuses on university admission criteria. The Committee on University Admission System in 1999 recommended that admission criteria move beyond considering just the academic attainment of students for admissions and take into account extra-curricular performance.   But the Government still maintains its strong  say over curriculum issues.  And performance in competitive, academic exams remains the major determinant of educational and social mobility.

The new Edusave Character award will recognise up to 10,000 students each year who display traits such as resilience and civic responsibility.

The number of Edusave Awards for Achievement, Good Leadership and Service will also be doubled from 17,000 to 34,000 and its monetary quantum will be raised. The new awards will be given out from early next year.

The main changes are:

– New Edusave Character Award to recognise students who exhibit values such as respect and resilience. Up to 10,000 awards – of between S$200 and S$500 – will be given out each year.

– Doubling the number of Edusave Awards for Achievement, Good Leadership and Service (EAGLES) to benefit 34,000 students yearly. Monetary quantum of award will be raised by between S$100 and S$300.

– Community Involvement Programme (CIP) to be renamed “Values in Action”, with greater emphasis on reflections by students.

However, this extract below, from a  2000 report ‘ Education Reform in Singapore’ , is as relevant now,  as it was  then,    and  probably best sums up the real challenge facing Singapore-the elephant in the room. The report concludes ‘The larger problem for Singapore’s educational reform initiative is that Singapore’s nation building history resulted in an omni-present state that cherishes stability and order. A desire for true innovation experimentation and multiple opportunities in education cannot be realized until the state allows civil society to flourish and avoids politicizing dissent.’

Education Reform in Singapore: Towards Greater Creativity and Innovation? by Jason Tan and  S. Gopinathan (2000)



  1. Great article, Patrick. You make a good point about innovation vs order and stability. I think another problem with this type of thing is it’s difficult to measure students’ overall education without standardised tests that require at least some memorisation, so education systems refrain from teaching too much creativity.

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