Digital innovation can come from exam focused education

By Ng Kok Lim

Singapore’s economic troubles, exacerbated by globalisation, automation and China’s aggressive investment in Malaysia have made our political champion scream for an education system that can mould an innovative culture geared towards the digital revolution. Our current education system is deemed to be overly exam focused and to involve little more than memorisation and regurgitation of ten year series exam question answers than critical thinking. This, the champion argues, stymies the futures of the great majority of our people.

The starting point of the argument is the future of our economy – one that thrives on innovation and succeeds in the digital arena. USA, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and perhaps China are the best examples of these champions of digital innovation having produced digital champions like Microsoft, Apple Computers, Google, Samsung, Asustek, Huawei and so on.

Putting aside USA, when we look at South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and China and ask ourselves what kind of education systems they have, the answer is invariably the same. South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and China have education systems that are just as exam focused if not more so. The suicide rates of students in these countries are much higher than ours. The fact that these economies can thrive on digital innovation despite having exam focused education systems seriously challenges the notion that an exam focused education system is preventing us from becoming an innovation driven economy.

So what is the key? From the beginning, South Korea, Taiwan and China were like Singapore. We made all kinds of goods cheaply for the USA and the West. But over time, South Korean, Taiwanese and the Chinese governments worked closely with their local firms and created global conglomerates out of them. This is the critical aspect that has been missing from Singapore.

Today, a top Singaporean engineering graduate from NUS and NTU has no place to go except to work for foreign conglomerates. There is no Singapore Samsung for him or her to plug into to contribute towards the next Singapore Samsung Galaxy.

We had Creative Technologies, Mr Sim Wong Hoo was our poster boy. But Mr Sim turned out to be no Steve Jobs and Creative fell into oblivion. One wonders if things could have turned out differently had Mr Sim had more government support like the chaebols in Korea.

Samsung has demonstrated that success in the digital economy need not come from a man like Steve Jobs who can think out of the box. Success can also come from a workforce moulded by an exam focused education system and supported by a nurturing government.

This article first appeared on TR Emeritus on 23 January 2017. It is reproduced with permission.


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