Education, Happiness and a paradigm shift

Ghui /

Singapore is a relatively young country. While we have a distinct culture, our outlook on our way of life and the direction we want our society to take is very much still in transition.

When Singapore first attained independence from Malaysia in 1965, the government was focused on nation building, housing needs and job creation. In our infant years, we sought stability above all else. Perhaps things could have been done better, perhaps not. Hindsight is a beautiful thing. Time has passed and we have now achieved stability and a first world economy. So, what’s next?

There has been much discussion on the need to improve our education system. Our education system has been criticised for giving too much weight to memory work with too little emphasis on creativity. In the same vein, PAP politicians have been criticised for lacking initiative and being only able to parrot party lines without critical analysis. Quoting the article dated 13 July 2011, entitled “Is the current Singapore the Singapore we really want?“, Vivian Chueh had this to say: “In school, we were told to memorise things word by word and at most of the times, we don’t even understand the meanings.”

An uncreative schooling begets an unimaginative crop of graduates. With the PAP’s reputation of only recruiting “elites” who would have undoubtedly done well academically, the correlation between the education system in Singapore and the politicians it has produced is undeniable.

In the government’s quest to strengthen Singapore’s economy in the past, it channeled all its resources into producing graduates to meet this demand. Hence, over the years, there was an emphasis on professional degrees such as medicine, law, engineering and accountancy. Our pre-university education was designed to push students in those directions. Very little thought was put into education for the sake of learning. The overriding mindset was education as a means to an end.

This pervading mindset was enforced by the government and then reinforced by our parents in a relentless cycle such that learning stopped being enjoyable or stimulating.

Even if one enjoyed a particular subject, if the school deemed that he/she was not doing well enough, he/she would be persuaded to drop that subject lest he/she pulled the school ranking down! Not only is that demoralising, it also wears down one’s desire to learn. It reiterates the message that learning is not for pleasure but only to achieve a tangible result at the end.

While an education should serve the purpose of enabling students to find jobs in the future, there should be a balance between fulfillment in learning and career practicalities. In fact, the two are not mutually exclusive and should not be viewed as such.

In the article dated 13 July 2011 entitled “Stress: Government plays a part – Dr Ang Yong Guan“, he states: “Letting children play when young is the prevailing attitude. Most Danish pick careers that interest them – money and status generally don’t matter. Success to the Danes means being happy – having somewhere to live, enough to eat, and being surrounded by friendly people.” Incidentally, Denmark has been noted as the “happiest” nation in the world. It is important to note that while Denmark is a “happy” nation, it is also a developed country. It boasts a hugely successful design industry and is home to famous brands such as Royal Copenhagen, and the iconic Lego!  It is also home to one of the most renowned children’s writer of all time – Hans Christian Andersen.

Like Singapore, Denmark has very few natural resources and relies almost entirely on human resources. If Denmark can achieve that balance of being both a developed country with a “happy”, well-rounded and creative population, so too can Singapore.

A key difference between Singaporeans and the Danes is clearly mindset. While they focus on picking careers that suit them, we focus on picking careers that would make us the most money. While this is admittedly a gross generalisation, it is certainly a justifiable one. The quest for money pervades every aspect of our society. From the cars we drive to the type of houses we live in to the schools our children go to, all are pursued to achieve that enviable social status of being rich (in the material sense).

While there are many factors that contribute to this mindset, a large part of it stems from our education system and our motivation for education. Instead of learning to better ourselves, we focus on learning to enrich ourselves monetarily. This in turn leads to reinforcing a system that will emphasise on teaching subjects to achieve that end. Perhaps, this is why so little emphasis is put into subjects such as history, geography, literature and philosophy as these are deemed to be “airy fairy”, subjects that will not help one “make money”.  In that endless pursuit for wealth as a society, we have lost sight of the joys of learning.

I strongly believe that everyone will do well in that which interests them. There is no such thing as useless knowledge and the quest for learning should be a broad based one, especially at primary and secondary school levels. At that stage, young minds are still inquisitive, still seeking, still inquiring. Their learning should not be hampered by a system that arbitrarily tells them what subjects are deemed “fluffy” and what are deemed “useful”.

If the passion for all forms of learning is instilled when young, it will provide grounding for the future. If children are exposed to a broad range of subjects in their pre-university years, they will be more equipped to choose what they would like to pursue in university. They would have a “real” choice as opposed to a system that will pigeon-hole them into “arts” or science” students.

Why can’t people be in careers that they also enjoy? Who is to say that the pursuit of so called “useless” subjects cannot translate into meaningful careers? Let students rediscover the pleasure of learning for learning itself. A healthy attitude to learning would breed a more productive workforce anyway.

Besides, since our nation is no longer in survival mode, we now have the luxury to shape our national outlook! Being a young country whose outlook is not set in stone, why not take this opportunity to re-evaluate?

All the criticisms leveled at our politicians and the education system point to one thing – we, as a society, need a paradigm shift. Instead of the endless pursuit of social climbing, let us take a step back and take stock of what is really important. Perhaps, then, we can figure out what truly makes us happy and in that process, free ourselves to become more creative.