Commentary: Are we still missing the point of education?

Commentary: Are we still missing the point of education?

The official narrative surrounding education has been changing, but is this powerful enough to uproot entrenched views in society, asks Channel NewsAsia's Bharati Jagdish.

Jack Neo I Not Stupid was the 2002 social commentary on the tough Singapore education system
Jack Neo's I Not Stupid in 2002 was a social commentary on the tough Singapore education system. How much has changed since then? (Photo: I Not Stupid)

SINGAPORE: It’s no secret that in Singapore, one’s academic prowess plays a pivotal role in the trajectory of one’s career and future overall success.

However, the official narrative surrounding education has been changing.

Finance Minister and former Education Minister, Heng Swee Keat recently said that an overemphasis on “credentialism”, or one’s academic results and material achievements, is a “narrow way of judging success” that could affect how well a country fares.

Mr Heng is not alone in raising such issues.

Current Education Ministers Ng Chee Meng (Schools) and Ong Ye Kung (Higher Education and Skills) both made powerful statements upon taking up their posts in 2015. 

They emphasised the importance of a well-rounded education taking into account values, non-academic interests and passions in order to set the stage for a lifelong love of learning.

Efforts are being made to further these objectives in schools today.

The question is whether circumstances on the ground have changed or are likely to change considering decades of assessment-focused conditioning.


Education is inextricably tied to employability. Have enough employers changed their hiring practices to consider factors other than academic qualifications? Has the government, the largest employer in Singapore, done so?

Soon after the release of the Applied Study in Polytechnics and ITE Review (ASPIRE) Committee’s report in 2014, it was announced that non-graduates in the civil service who perform well and are ready to take on larger responsibilities will be able to progress faster in their careers, based on their performance at work rather than academic performance. 

The ASPIRE Committee also stressed the importance of not relying on grades and paper qualifications in the hiring process. However, most civil service job postings still indicate a Bachelor’s degree as a pre-requisite.

This is compounded by the special status accorded to Government scholars.

Singapore Ministry of Education
What kind of future should education be preparing us for? (Photo: Alvin Chong)

In a recent On the Record interview, Dean of the Academy of Principals, Belinda Charles, told me the “reward system” for scholars over the years has perpetuated perceptions that increase academic pressure.

She talked about parents wanting to secure “advantages” such as priority employment in the civil service that come with such scholarships. She added:

Promotions may come more easily too. There is still this unspoken expectation that because he’s a scholar, he will be given opportunities more so than others.

The Government may not be walking the talk enough to change perceptions on the ground. Or if it is, it may not be doing enough to publicise its efforts.

Perhaps what we need are Cabinet Ministers who deviate from the traditional profile of high-credentialed technocrats.

Lim Soon Hock, the Founder and Managing Director of PLAN-B ICAG Pte Ltd, in an On the Record interview last year said, “Singapore would have arrived if our next PM is not somebody from the elite administrative service, but an ordinary person with special skills. Perhaps, a great painter, a successful businessman, a successful sportsman.”

teck ghee primary school
What kind of skills and talents are we prepared to recognise? (Photo: Teck Ghee Primary School)


Then again, one could ask why we need to take the cue from the Government.

Why aren’t we prepared to formulate our own benchmarks of success?

Business leaders have been saying that while our education system produces high academic averages and we do well on international tests, our graduates tend to lack confidence and creativity.

The fixation on academic qualifications is obviously not serving us. This should be our cue to effect an ideological shift and have it reflected in our actions. 

MOE seems to be making efforts in encouraging this within schools, but educators acknowledge that this will take time as they learn to adapt to new ways of teaching to encourage self-directed learning.


While employability is important, society also needs to answer what some might consider more complex related questions.

What is the point of education? Is academic competition killing our children’s love for learning? How do we define success?

secondary school students Singapore
Students awaiting their exam results. (File photo: TODAY)

Are those who pursue alternative careers such as the arts, encouraged to do so even if it means they won’t live particularly luxurious lifestyles as a result?

In the last few years, school rankings have been done away with.

PSLE results slips no longer indicate the cohort’s highest and lowest aggregate scores and the PSLE grading system will be changed. From 2021, the T-score system will be replaced by eight Achievement Levels (AL) delinking a student’s performance from his or her peers.

Whether this will really reduce academic competition is debatable. Many parents say they feel their kids will still face pressure as one point could make the difference between a lower and higher banding.

This raises the question of whether the changes at the top are powerful enough to uproot entrenched views and expectations in society.


Perhaps not, and one might say it’s completely understandable. Decades of an excessive fixation on grades and educational streaming have left a seemingly indelible mark on the Singapore psyche. 

Also, it’s believed the fixation on grades was, in some part, perpetuated by the Government so much so that its attempts at a paradigm shift are met with scepticism. 

primary student
What keeps us fixated on academics as the main indicator of success? (File Photo: TODAY)

Today, schools have introduced subject-based banding as a refinement to the streaming process to help each child realise his potential based on his interests and strengths.

This may lessen the impact of labelling that came with the old system.

Efforts to integrate students are also being made. From 2019, all affiliated secondary schools will have to reserve 20 per cent of their Secondary One places for incoming students who do not have any affiliation priority. MOE has also been setting aside at least 40 places in every primary school for children without prior connections to the school.

In principle though, if we were to operate on pure meritocracy, prior connections would never be a factor in school admissions at whatever level. 

Also, in spite of the current changes, as long as some of us believe that going to certain schools will make or break our children’s futures, the competition and stress will remain.

Is it possible to look at schools objectively and acknowledge that all schools in Singapore are well-resourced enough to support our children’s learning needs holistically? MOE perhaps has yet more convincing to do. 

The tensions over such issues have also raised concerns over how a "parentocracy" might have superseded meritocracy in Singapore.

Those who are able to afford tuition and enrichment classes manage to get their kids into what are considered the best schools and even have advantages when it comes to initiatives that aim to de-emphasise academic performance such as the Direct School Admission programme. After all, not everyone can afford sports or arts tuition.

ib tuition 3
A huge tuition industry exists today. (Photo: Justin Ong)

Experts often point out that meritocracy is about equal opportunities, not equal outcomes, but unequal outcomes could have deep societal implications, so the Government has made efforts to level the playing field.

School-based levelling-up programmes have been strengthened and more financial support is being provided for students from financially challenged families, but these efforts certainly may not be able to nullify the advantages that some in society will inherently have.


While providing students with equal opportunities in education is vital, the stress that comes with education could be markedly reduced if we stopped to consider the true objectives of education.

Should the main objective really be winning in the academic rat race?

Some experts say it should be about helping students find themselves – learning what they are good at, what they can be good at, learning how to overcome challenges and most of all, developing a love for learning.

In fact, there is a camp that believes one of the ways in which all these can be achieved is through integration of students rather than stratification along academic or socio-economic lines.

Cleaning time
What other kinds of skills and values should an education encompass? (Photo: Linette Lim)

Member of Parliament Denise Phua has suggested scrapping the PSLE and having through-train schools with students from diverse academic and socio-economic backgrounds learning together.  

This will free up more time for learning rather than just preparing for the PSLE.

Collaborative learning in classrooms where students with diverse abilities learn together could not only reduce academic competition, but have other positive societal impacts.

“That's how good leaders are developed. How can we have leaders come from schools where all the people they mix with are people who are just like them?” she said in an edition of On the Record.

Importantly, the through-train programmes need to be of quality and must be scaled for all students, not just a small group of elite individuals. 

To those who doubt teachers will be able to manage students of diverse abilities in a classroom, she said, “There's something called 'differentiated instruction' within the same workspace. It's not even rocket science.”

File photo of students in classroom
Is an education system that is inclusive and yet caters to different learning needs and styles achievable? (Photo: TODAY)

In the meantime, the culture of judgement needs to be eradicated.

I believe schools need to communicate differently about exams and assessments – it should not be about labelling or sorting children, but really just finding out in which areas they might need help or can be developed further.

We must also recognise that exams may not be the best way to assess a person’s abilities.

Key to all this is to encourage a love for learning which will further national efforts to encourage lifelong learning. One could argue that if you enjoy learning, success is a given whatever field you choose and success isn’t just about money or prestige.

Nominated Member-of-Parliament Kuik Shiao-Yin said it best when she connected our approach to education to personal happiness:

Many parents who are adopting a kiasu approach to their child's education are generally unhappy and their child is unhappy. If it's making you so grotesquely unhappy, why do you keep doing it?

The answer she usually gets is that they have “no choice”.

Do we really have no choice?

Let’s instead ask ourselves what the point of education is and how we define success. We might each have a different answer and the key is to help our children find the answers for themselves regardless of social constructs and government policies, especially since there are more educational pathways today. 

The process of finding those answers in itself could be an invaluable education. 

Bharati Jagdish is presenter and senior producer for Digital News at Channel NewsAsia.

​This is the eleventh commentary in Channel NewsAsia’s series on learning and education.

Read the first commentary on whether Singapore schools should adopt digital textbooks here.

Read the second commentary on how Singapore teachers should manage issues on race in the classroom here.

Read the third commentary on whether our young need expensive enrichment classes here.

Read the fourth commentary on the struggle parents face in choosing a good school for their child here.

Read the fifth commentary on the role parents must play in their child's pre-school years here.

Read the sixth commentary on whether passion and patience are sufficient qualities of an ideal pre-school teacher here.

Read the seventh commentary on whether private higher education is a 'second chance' option in Singapore here. 

Read the eighth commentary on why teachers should sensitise kids at a young age about racial harmony here.

Read the ninth commentary on how the ways in which we nurture children stay the same even if the tools have become digital here.

Read the tenth commentary on why the gifted education programme is but one of many paths to success here.

Source: CNA/sl