Is Singapore society too unimaginative for a proper revamp of our education system?

By May 12, 2017Current

TL;DR – Maybe it’s time we learn from Israel again. 

Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung followed up on what he said in St Gallen recently in Parliament. He said that we shouldn’t be fixated with the proportion of Singaporeans who graduate from university (aka university cohort participation rate). Minister Ong said,

“Our ability to keep pace with changing needs of the economy is what helps us earn our keep.”


In Singapore, a person with a degree will, on average, earn more than someone who doesn’t. Sure. There are exceptions. But those exceptions probably prove the rule. Why is that the case? Is it because a degree definitely makes a person better able to perform at work? Perhaps.

Got degree = can do work better?

But that may not necessarily be true. A degree is, at best, an indication of a person’s competency in a certain set of skills. And the level of competency in that set of skills may or may not necessarily be a good indication of whether that person can perform in a particular job.

For instance, a person may obtain good grades in university because that person is exam-smart, or that person may have spotted and prepared for the ‘right’ questions. He may be great at finding answers to a fixed set of questions. But he may not be able to extrapolate and flexibly apply what he learnt to problems that are less clearly defined. Yes, like problems in real life. Also, he may not have the creativity and entrepreneurial spirit required to excel at work in an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world.

And that is a key point that Minister Ong made in Parliament. He said:

“It would truly be “unimaginative” to confine ourselves to university academic education as the only way to develop to our full potential. Degrees don’t define us, individually, or as a society….. Our society needs to evolve, such that all occupations, crafts and trades, whether the skills are acquired through a degree education or not, are respected and recognised.”

Singaporeans truly unimaginative

Yet, Singaporean employers still put premium on degrees. There are still employers who will only hire people with degrees, even if there are people who, though without degrees, can perform just as well, if not better. Some employers may not even consider an applicant who doesn’t have a degree. That is a reflection of how unimaginative Singaporean employers are.

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But it’s not just Singaporean employers who are unimaginative. Often, Singaporean parents are unimaginative too. How often have we heard parents telling their children that if they study hard, get good grades, go university, then they’ll have a stable career, good pay, and successful, happy life? But if they don’t get good grades and go university, then they are doomed to a life of failure and ignominy.

It’s as if we have unnecessarily and artificially limited all of our options. Why? Why can’t our society do what Minister Ong said, and evolve so that we respect and recognise all occupations, crafts and trades, whether the skills are acquired through a degree education or not?

The only thing that seems to be stopping us is our lack of imagination. But it isn’t just about getting a degree or not. But it’s the inability to radically re-imagine our education into something that would be most suited for an increasingly VUCA world.

How can we begin? Where can we look for inspiration? 

We recommend Israel.

Singapore once learnt how to set up a defence force from Israel. Perhaps it’s time we learnt from them again. But this time, to learn how reimagine our education system.

Israel’s unusual system that fuels their tech startup boom

Israel is a country of 8.7 million people. It’s in a region of harsher climate, in every sense of the word. Its very existence is under constant threat. Yet, Israel keeps thriving. Today, it is the birth place of numerous tech companies that have a net worth greater than USD1 billion. And these tech companies are very different from the “tech” startups in Singapore. Few of the “tech” startups in Singapore actually have inventions of their own.

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In contrast, Israeli tech companies aren’t only worth a lot of money, they also develop high-tech tech inventions. Take for example Mobileye. It’s a company that develops the sensors and artificial intelligence that allow a vehicle’s on-board computer to essentially know where it is in relation to other vehicles, pedestrians and the surroundings, the key technologies needed for cars to eventually safely drive themselves. Recently, Intel bought Mobileye for USD15.3 billion.

How did Israel do it?

So how did Israel come to be ranked No. 2 in innovation, according to the World Economic Forum’s competitiveness report? There are different factors. Education is certainly one of them.

Unlike Singapore, which regularly ranks top in the PISA assessments, Israel is in the bottom 40 percent in mathematics and science.

What gives? PISA evaluates students based on their ability to provide specific answers on a standardized test.

Neither the Israeli education system nor the Israeli culture is good at teaching children to do this. Instead, the Israeli education system and culture encourages students to debate and discuss.

They learn that multiple answers to a single question are often the case.

Also, the Israeli system has a  peer-teaches-peer model of Jewish youth organisations, membership-based groups that we call “movements.” Teenagers work closely with younger children; they lead groups on excursions and hikes, develop informal curricula, and are responsible for those in their care. Being given responsibilities at a young age helps shape students into independent, responsible thinkers and learners.

Lastly, Israeli youths learn from their National Service experience. Israel is constantly defending itself from neighbours who want to wipe them off the face of the Earth. Because of that, 18-year-old boys and girls are drafted into the military for stints of two or three years. You could say that young Israeli adults must literally make life-or-death decisions every day.

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Consider, hypothetically, a 19-year-old soldier in the intelligence corps, analysing aerial photographs or intercepted communications. She must decide if the material in front of her indicates an impending attack or not. This isn’t a rare occurrence. Thousands of Israeli soldiers experience it daily. That forces the Israeli youths to be very critical and analytical thinkers.

Lessons for Singapore to Learn from Israel

Good teachers in vibrant classrooms are necessary for children —and nations— to succeed. Schools provide a base of literacy, mathematics and social interaction. But Israel’s extracurricular system goes further. Peer-led debate and intellectual dialogue enhance learning. Actual responsibilities, like caring for and leading younger children, nurture growth and maturity. Real-life tasks show young adults how much they are capable of achieving.

If Singapore wants to ensure that Singaporeans continue to have the skills needed to build great companies, have meaningful jobs with good pay, then we should really need to ensure that Singaporeans actually have the skills needed. Not quibble about how many people make it to university. And to ensure that Singaporeans are equipped with the skills needed, we need to re-imagine our education.

But… Are we able to? As a nation, as a society, do we have the courage and imagination to do so?


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Joey Wee

Author Joey Wee

I am nice, most of the time!

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Join the discussion 5 Comments

  • tworavens says:

    “Singapore ranks 2nd for the sixth year in a row thanks to a remarkably strong performance. It features in the top 10 of ten pillars. It tops the higher education and training pillar and the goods market efficiency pillar, and ranks 2nd in a further five. Singapore’s public institutions (2nd behind Finland) are transparent and highly efficient (1st on public-sector performance). Its infrastructures with healthy public finances (government budget has been in surplus since 2010). Singapore still lags behind the best-performing nations in the most sophisticated areas of competitiveness, with a relatively disappointing 19th rank in the business sophistication pillar and 9th rank in the innovation pillar.”

    Only a Singaporean would find #9 worldwide for innovation to be disappointing and write an article about how crap Singaporeans are.

    • number one says:

      only another singaporean will choose to focus on the ranking bit, right after reading an article debating the merits of rethinking the education system.

  • Alex says:

    The comment above just reinstate the credibility of the article…. The fact that it ranks high here and there doesnt change the point – imagination is much needed.

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