What would Goh Keng Swee do? – The challenges of education reform

By Yudhishthra Nathan

Education reform will, by no means, be easy to devise, let alone successfully implement. Any person with the onerous duty of effecting such change would, for the most part, not be in an enviable position in Cabinet. In attempting to envision a new consensus for public institutions and systems post-General Elections 2011, much has been said lately about the need to rethink our current pursuit of meritocratic ideals in Singapore. The desire for reform of the public education system in Singapore is a natural progression from such calls, for meritocracy has been the cornerstone of our education policy for decades. Before anyone should wish to delve into the intricacies of policy, however, we need to take several steps backwards, to come to a common agreement on the desired outcomes of education. What, then, are the purposes of education? Have they changed since then Minister for Education, Dr Goh Keng Swee, published his influential Goh Report in 1979 that helped to cement the framework of our public education system?

Surely, a primary objective of the education system is to confer upon young Singaporeans the knowledge, skill sets, experiences and, increasingly, metacognition to equip them with not only satisfaction in studying areas of general and personal interests but also, the distinction of employability ideally in a field of personal interest. Whilst the Government has made efforts over the years in opening up alternative pathways of education to foster holistic education and to bolster the academic competency of one pursuing a route other than the traditional ‘Secondary School (Express Stream)-Junior College-University’ pathway, the persistent pragmatists who are People’s Action Party policymakers will be amongst the first to forewarn that the education system must be able to not merely equip students for jobs in the wider economy but, indeed, to also equip the economy with sufficient manpower for its industries and sectors. This is not without reason. From any government’s perspective, a situation where a few industries host a great deal of competition for jobs amongst young Singaporeans simultaneously exists with one where other industries are undervalued and suffer a shortage of manpower would only exacerbate the manpower problems of the day whilst providing fodder for the argument that more foreign workers will have to be brought in to make up for the shortfall in labour. Hence, an unavoidable point of contention for the Ministry of Education is to decide how they can go about encouraging students to pursue their interests whilst deliberating where to draw the line on related issues such as limiting the number of university vacancies for certain courses, bringing in new degree programmes to cater to the needs of an ageing population and even setting unspoken and unpublished limits on the proportion of degree-holders in the workforce to comfortably support the existing or targeted national employment structure. Perhaps the most pertinent question is if the trade-off between encouraging students to pursue individual interests and meeting economic targets has to matter, let alone exist, in the first place.

Another main objective of a good education system is to empower students from across the socio-economic spectrum and our multi-racial society with the promise of the ideal that hard work will always be fairly and fittingly rewarded both during and after their schooling years. Such an ideal is one that is hard to find fault with. Meritocracy and fairness go hand-in-hand and are meant to offer social mobility rather than to intentionally contribute to a widening income gap. In fact, some might go so far as to postulate that meritocracy, first in schools and subsequently in the workplace, is complementary to incorruptibility which Singapore often prides herself on upholding. The idealistic vision of meritocracy is also a central tenet to the democratic socialist philosophy that parties such as the People’s Action Party and the Workers’ Party would ideologically attest to. Meritocracy, in and by itself, is not the problem our education system faces today. On the contrary, the relentless and mismanaged application of meritocracy is to be blamed for producing an education system too often labelled as unforgiving, stress-inducing and even unhealthy to the common psyche of young Singaporeans. Quite ironically, this has done nothing to close up the divide which exists between those who are academically successful and more likely to enjoy a stable career that affords better remuneration in the future and those who are at risk of falling into the gaping holes between the rungs of the steep academic ladder, left behind to either bloom later or perhaps not at all. Clearly, the apparent pitfalls of meritocracy demand reform of the education system. However, the appropriate answer is nothing short of challenging. How do we make the education system less stressful but more equitable whilst continuing to improve academic standards across the board? Do we, on the one hand, seek to reduce stratification and create a level playing field through making examinations and streaming easier or even doing away with them entirely at earlier stages of education? Or, should we, on the other hand, introduce a great deal of flexibility to the criteria for admission to secondary schools and post-secondary academic institutions (Junior Colleges, Millennia Institute and the Polytechnics) through an extension of schemes such as Direct School Admission (DSA)? Unfortunately, solely pursued together, both of these policy shifts alone will result in arrangements that are antagonistic to meritocracy. What, then, of the kind of academic excellence one can find in Raffles, Hwa Chong and other top Junior Colleges? What of the progress we have made in ensuring that our syllabi prepare our pre-University students with the best exposure the GCE ‘A’ Levels can offer, the world over? What of the great leaps and bounds made by Polytechnics and the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) over the decades that have made them, in their own right, respectable academic institutions with quality programmes that add diversity to the range of pathways available to students? The idea that a relaxation of examination procedures and admission criteria across the board will lead to a deterioration of academic standards in our best institutions amongst the JCs, Polytechnics and ITE courses is not entirely inconceivable and unwarranted especially with problems such as grade inflation prevalent in countries like the United Kingdom and across the Causeway. Equally, it must be seriously questioned if those who have proven themselves to be academically stronger at a younger age should be the only students deemed fit to enjoy the benefits of alternative methods of instruction and teaching strategies through elite programmes such as the Gifted Education Programme (GEP) and the Integrated Programme (IP). Another point worth recognising is that changing the way students are taught without also significantly changing the way they are examined or if they are examined at all in earlier stages of education, will not result in a reduction in the degree of stress our students are subjected to as the race for grades will continue as before, in the classroom and, more worryingly, in the hundreds of tuition centres across the island. Will such approaches truly prevent the academically disadvantaged from falling through the gaps? Certainly not. Moreover, any individual of an honest and sound mind would not be able to concur that ‘Every School is a Good School.’ It cannot be convincingly denied that schools vary in the quality of their academic and non-academic programmes. The challenge of our meritocratic education system, therefore, is to ensure that every school strives to become a good school by delivering programmes that are executed well by teachers who are equally qualified and determined to help their students whilst actively seeking out and guiding those who lag behind. That will be the true test of whether we can make meritocracy with safety nets work.

I would venture to add yet another key aim of education that rather nicely sums up its purposes and is derived from its etymology. The term ‘education’ stems from Latin words such as ‘educere’ and ‘eductum,’ which, in turn, are derived from ‘educo’ which translates to mean ‘to lead and to raise.’ Therefore, on hindsight, an overarching objective of the education system is to grow leaders in a myriad of fields out of the permissibly unwitting children each and every one of us starts off as at Primary 1. Holistic education, as the Government is fully aware, is an invaluable instrument in ‘Moulding the Future of Our Nation’. Hence, there has to be a shift in the manner in which students are taught to lead. Providing inspiration and genuine social engagement to students are forms of teaching, just as forced Community Involvement Programmes (CIP) and Co-Curricular Activities (CCAs) governed by points-based systems are. However, policy planners need to realise which type of teaching will produce students who are more motivated to pursue non-academic interests they are passionate about. Education helps us to not merely comprehend the world for what it is but also serves to guide us in understanding the roles we can play in it. This intrinsic value of education renders reform of the system serious business.

The multi-faceted nature of the slate of problems presented by the prospect of education reforms will have to be solved in a plurality of areas and by a plurality of means. Firstly, through suitably tweaking testing and admissions. Secondly, through accordingly revamping teaching and learning pedagogies. Thirdly, though rather crucially, re-energising the Teaching Service by reducing bureaucracy without compromising the professionalism of the Service. Moreover, from a practical perspective, appropriate changes to the Ministry of Education’s internal administration and operations will also be required eventually, should reforms ever be carried out. Exactly how reforms in these four areas are to be achieved will be up to future policymakers to decide. MOE is to be congratulated and thanked on a number of counts for attempting to make our education system fairer in recent times. On a note of caution, however, failing to seriously question the very foundations of our education system during the Ministry’s periodic reviews might be costly to future generations of Singaporeans. One cannot help but wonder – what would Goh Keng Swee do?


Goh C. B., & Gopinathan, S. (2008). The development of education in Singapore since 1965. In S. K. Lee, C. B. Goh, B. Fredriksen & J. P. Tan (Eds.), Towards a better future: Education and training for economic development in Singapore since 1965 (pp. 12-38). Washington, DC/Singapore: The World Bank/National Institute of Education.

Low, D., & Vadaketh, S. T. (2014). Good Meritocracy, Bad Meritocracy. Hard Choices: Challenging the Singapore Consensus (pp 48-58). Singapore: NUS Press.

Ministry of Education. (2010, May 15). Tribute to the late Dr Goh Keng Swee by Ms Ho Peng, Director-General of Education. . Retrieved June 7, 2014, from http://www.moe.gov.sg/media/press/2010/05/tribute-late-dr-goh-keng-swee.php

Ministry of Education. (2012, July 22). The Singapore Education Journey. . Retrieved June 7, 2014, from http://www.moe.gov.sg/education/landscape/print/sg-education-landscape-print.pdf

Seah, C. N. (2011, September 19). ‘A degree is nice, but we need something else’. Yahoo News, Singapore.

This commentary was first published over at the blog of Yudhishthra Nathan on 8 June 2014. It is reproduced with permission.


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