THE BACKLASH AGAINST globalisation has never been stronger, the oil and gas industry is in the doldrums and seems far from recovering, the adoption of clean energy is moving faster than anyone had anticipated, China is aggressively investing in infrastructure in Malaysia and beyond, and jobs are being rapidly lost to automation.

These developments are conspiring to render Singapore irrelevant to the world. Make no mistake: A crisis is in the making, that is, if it’s not already upon us.

Yet, there is little indication that the PAP gets it. If it did, it would not continue to stymie the development of our only lifeline: an innovative culture.

In this domain, nothing is more critical than education. But the system here, stuck in an era designed more for the industrial revolution than the digital one, shows no sign of a rebirth.

We put our children through endless rounds of tests and exams, and then pigeon-hole them according to their scores. This classification limits the options of their study for the rest of their school career and, thereafter for the overwhelming majority, options of their careers for the rest of their lives.
As early as Primary 3, students in selected ‘elite’ schools are subjected to a series of tests for entrance into the Gifted Education Programme. Only the highest-scoring 5 percent qualify.

The rest undergo the Primary School Leaving Examintion, or PSLE. Depending on one’s results, a student is shunted to the Express, Normal (Academic) or Normal (Technical) stream.

Higher-scoring Express students undergo a four-year secondary school career while the Normal-stream students will be put through their paces over five years.

At Secondary 2, Express students are further tested and streamed into those taking ‘Pure’ or ‘Combined’ Sciences, the former emphasise Physics and/or Chemistry and Biology while the latter is more focused in the Arts and Humanities.

At Secondary 4 (Secondary 5 for Normal-stream students), the kids sit for the O-Level examinations. The better performers go on to Junior College at the end of which the sit for the A-Level exams to determine their entry into the university. The remainder opt for a polytechnic or the Institute for Technical Education.

Delayed development, the various types of intelligence, and gender and individual differences are cast aside in a mill that grinds out students better equipped to regurgitate information than critically process it.

Students make the memorisation of answers in the Ten-Year Series (publications of past-exam questions) an art form. Tuition centres even advertise “How to spot the tricky questions that can make or break your child’s goal of getting A”.

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Observers, both at home and overseas, repeatedly point out that the rigid exam-oriented curriculum is antithetical to critical and creative thinking.

Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng sees the problem. He acknowledges that the system produces workers who are technically competent but “do not think out of the box and lack the derring-do to push boundaries”.

These traits, he noted, need to be nurtured from young. He exhorted pupils to chiong, the Hokkien vernacular for taking risks. “It’s a mindset,” he said. “An attitude of wanting to do better, find break-throughs, of wanting to innovate…taking into account the risks involved and doing it anyway.”

He warned of a rapidly changing world: “What has afforded success for one generation, may not for another.”

Mindful words, no doubt, but they remain, worryingly, words. He demonstrates no intention to revamp the education system. He doesn’t possess, in his own words, the derring-do to push boundaries.

When he finally roused himself to make changes, he declared that his ministry will discontinue the use of T-scores to rank PSLE results, ‘Achievement Levels’ will be used instead. The remedy is like applying Mopiko on a malignant tumour.

And get this, the switchover will only take place in 2021!

When a general exhorts his troops to chiong but he remains rooted behind the frontline, paralysed by fear, he runs the danger of being ignored.

Worse, his inaction risks jeopardising the nation’s future – a future that is already here.

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