Wing Lee Cheong / Canada

“Singapore’s ranked 1st in quality education system in the world” – Global Competitiveness Report 2007–2008

“Singapore ranked one of the world’s best-performing school systems” – McKinsey Report, published September 2007

“Singapore students ranked among the top in Mathematics and Science” – Trends in International Mathematics and    Science Study (TIMSS) 2007

“Singapore ranked 4th among 45 education systems” – Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) 2006

Those are very impressive achievements that one can be proud of.  Dr.Ng Eng Hen, the Education Minister of Singapore, cited a 2007 survey by the Fraser Institute that shows 94 per cent of Ontario students were dissatisfied with the Canadian public school system. Dr.Kishore, Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at NUS, proudly claimed that educational leaders around the world are flocking to Singapore to copy Singapore’s successful educational model. He said that some North American schools are even using similar textbooks in their schools.

Canada may not have a perfect education system but I seriously doubt the reliability of the survey cited by Dr Ng. One has to question the criteria and sample size used for the survey.

Most Canadians are proud of their education system and will not trade it for the aggressive streaming system of Singapore where one’s future and career is based solely on academic results. Studies have shown that passing standardized examinations with good grades does not necessarily mean that one has a better knowledge of the subject than another with lesser or failed grades. In most cases, it simply shows that the person is better in the art of taking examinations. There are controversies amongst Canadian educationists if standardized examinations can accurately assess students’ subject knowledge and the application of that knowledge. Not knowing how to apply the knowledge is no knowledge at all.

In the pursuit of academic excellence, Singaporean parents force their children to study long hours to make the grade.  In the fierce process, Singapore children are denied the joys of childhood. This explains why Singapore children are more stressed and tensed compared to Canadian children with their happy and carefree outlook.  Children of Singapore friends who visit me in Canada tend to be more reserved and do not interact well. More interestingly, almost all of them would bring their school work during these visits. The parents made sure that their kids did certain hours of studies everyday despite the fact that they were on holidays. It is a strange trend amongst Singapore parents who want to be one-up on others. It is a reflection of the typical Singapore “kaisu” culture.

Life is a marathon, not a sprint

Canada is one of the few countries that do not have a central or federal education ministry. All the thirteen provinces and territories have their independent education ministries to coordinate the national system through the Council of Education. This system has worked well for the country. Canada’s literacy rate is 99 per cent and placed at 19th in world standing, while Singapore’s  is 94.4 per cent and placed at 74th, according to UNESCO in its 2007 annual report.

Canadians believe that life is a marathon and not a 100-meters sprint. Children are encouraged at a young age to develop at their own natural pace. There is no streaming. Mentally-challenged children are put in the same class as the normal and gifted children. Exceptions are made for severe mental cases. Under this environment, Canadian kids learn to develop compassion towards the less fortunate and realize that the world comprises different kinds of people. Hence they grow to be less arrogant and less prejudicial.

It is mandatory for students to do part-time jobs or perform volunteer duties at seniors’ home and other charity organizations in order to graduate from high schools. The students get marks for doing charity or part-time jobs. It is not uncommon to see volunteers in the hospital reception areas, families picking litter on the streets, distributing food/clothing to the needy, volunteers in senior homes, even the mentally and physically challenged are taken care of by volunteers. While in Spore the handicapped are considered an embarrassment and kept in the homes by their families, here in Canada volunteers bring them out shopping and they are encouraged to participate in recreational activities.

Canadians constitute less than 1 per cent of the world’s population but provides 10 per cent of the world’s peacekeeping forces in its selfless and unceremonious way. Volunteerism has become second nature to Canadians.

Singapore – just study and get good grades

This is in contrast with Singapore where an increasing number of parents would have maids attend to every need of the children. The maids carry the school bags, bring the drinks and food. All the children need to do is to study and get good grades. It has come to a point where many kids cannot do without maids. I have friends whose kids would scream to their maids to do simple chores like getting a drink. Few of these kids know how to make a cup of tea let alone a simple meal for themselves.

Even our much respected figure of MM Lee, despite all the fine education and good grades he had, did not know that one needs to peel off the egg shell before a hard-boiled egg can be eaten. (As related recently by his daughter in a Straits Times article.)

It is a common practice for Canadian university students to take a year or two off to travel the world and return to complete their studies later. My daughter took a full year off to backpack in Australia two years ago. With another classmate, they bought a used car and drove all over Australia. Most of my friends in Singapore thought I was crazy to let a young girl postpone her studies and travel aimlessly for a year.

Perhaps to most Singaporeans, it was a complete waste of time and money. My two other boys similarly backpacked in Africa, South America, Asia and Europe during their summer holidays. They learned more from their travels than from textbooks. Most importantly, they enjoy their lives. It is difficult to reconcile how forcing our children to go on a relentless paper chase can be the right thing to do.

Canada may not compare well with the Singapore education system in world rankings. Canadian students may not compete well in mathematics and science tests against Singapore students. Despite these, however, Canada has produced eighteen Nobel Prize winners, 44 Olympics medalists, with 9 Gold Medalists in the last three games, plus hundreds of world-renowned entrepreneurs, artists, musicians, writers, actors, singers, etc. By population ratio, Singapore should produce at least three Nobel Prize winners and scores of artists and writers, etc. Even Hong Kong and Taiwan each managed to have one Nobel Prize winner, many Olympic medalists and entrepreneurs.

Trade-off and compromise

The Canadian and the Singapore education systems are built on different premises. Singapore trains its students to be 100 meters sprinters for fast results to show the world whilst the Canadian system train its students to be marathon runners for the long haul in life. Canadian public education is free for all its citizens and permanent residents – from kindergartens to high schools. Tuition fees for most universities cost an average of C$6,000 per year.

The unscientific assumption by Singapore’s leaders that if you are not good at passing examinations with good grades, you are unlikely to make good for the rest of your lives, is laughable. History has shown us that there are scores of high achievers without degrees, i.e Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Michael Dell, Richard Branson, Walt Disney, Henry Ford, Frank Lloyd Wright, etc.

History teaches us that we cannot get something for nothing. If we push our children hard to be super human beings, we may push most of them over the edge. There is always a trade-off and compromise.

These children would grow up to be blinded by materialism and money, potentially resulting in a lack of compassion, failed marriages, poor social interaction skills, aggressive behaviors, and so on. No one has managed to social engineer a super society. There are already signs Singaporeans are stressed out before retirement. If the people are pushed at an early age, they will wear out at an early age. Few people can last being stressed for their entire working lives.

Singapore may have a better education system (according to certain rankings and studies) and the citizens may be contented and proud of it. However, I still prefer the traditional Canadian education system where we are taught to be human beings rather than human machines. We may not be high in world rankings but we are happy. That is what life is all about. All the millions of dollars a year would not necessarily bring you genuine joy and happiness.

We were born with nothing and we will leave with nothing.

Cartoon by the author.

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