The central premise of Singapore’s educational policy reform is leadership from the top. The ‘bottom-up’ approach seems to be missing. Even as Singapore’s education system prides itself as award-winning with recogntiion from fellow educators worldwide but Singaporean educators know that it is inherently driven by the senior policy-makers in MOE HQ. Education policies are now fast-changing; often ‘scheduled’ to roll out at ‘opportune’ times and delivered in ‘piece-meals’ to address specific pent-up frustrations faced by key stakeholders of the system. Ironically, with the implementation of these policies, teachers, parents, students and the public are increasingly stressed and perhaps perplexed to understand how policy dynamics can help cope with the challenges of a globalized world and social expectations in demanding Singapore. It is questionable if the ministry see educational policies as holistic or simply ‘measures’ alone (i.e. not policy work at all). One ponders the total ‘effect’ of these policies on Singapore’s future and if leadership is exercised diligently to ensure the new facets of these educational policies coming into fruition. Is leadership to blame when policy reforms are deconstructed this way? What would be the final outcomes for these educational reforms? Would anyone from the senior management able to answer (especially if we follow the timeline and trajectory of policy implementation closely)?
As much as educators know that students’ outcomes matter, it is also equally important to examine the major trade-offs at the policy level and at every level of the Singapore’s education journey. The policy design of these cutting-edge policies should go beyond the ultimate outcomes of getting professional qualifications such as coveted degrees from National University of Singapore (NUS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and Singapore Management University (SMU). Education has to be comprehensive to nurture new and existing responsibilities of students who are also able citizens and engaged Singaporeans that can be empowered in exciting ways to mold the future of Singapore. If education is student-centred, then it is also possible for education policies to be driven by students’ inputs and ideals. How would MOE leadership inculcate these possible developments in policy making?
Given the notable fact that Singapore’s education policies are elitist and self-serving – it is even more logical for school leadership and education policy makers to ignore student and public participation. New leadership in educational policy making should exercise greater wisdom and citizenship participation so that every child’s talents and abilities can be celebrated within the havens of schools. The recent spate of ‘SG conversations’ helmed by the current Minister of Education, Mr. Heng Swee Kiat and the policy announcement of abolishment of school banding are ‘thumbs-up’ experiences for Singaporeans as their voices are finally heard. It has been a long haul for younger Singaporean learners who have been stifled in a results-driven system and trying to prove to others. Striving for the ‘many peaks of excellence’ is equally good as competing in the rat race from a layman’s point of view. The ‘I am the best’ mentality is still perpetuated in the schools.
Even without the strategic push for school leaders and teachers for better grades and academic standing, the students will know implicitly the eventual consequences for being seen as ‘failures’ and ‘incompetent’ within the system. It is only right if leadership in such policy reforms can muster boldness and creativity to derive policy measures and shifts that will ‘transform’ learning and academic achievements to possible sustainable knowledge clusters (such as new technology & innovations) and actionable movements (such as lifelong learning and activists for a cause) that will birth a new beginning and a new dawn in our education landscape. It is almost deadly to reside the aggressive ‘paper chase’ ideology within the policy formulation. It will only serve to run a self-fulfilling prophecy of a myopic system that only cares for exams and worksheets.
If leadership is about change, then transformational change in policy leadership is what’s necessary now for Singapore’s educational policies. So what if every student is imbued with the 21 century skills? This is a short term policy stunt. In the near future, can the ‘piece-meal’ policies be aligned and coordinated between ministries and government agencies so that the 21 century student can also leverage on new opportunities at the same time? By doing our sums and ‘backward design’ in policy making, our educational polices can be more integrated and synergized to give students a better tomorrow. It is worrying if leadership in policy making has become a routine job than leveraging on true leadership that will customize new policies to change lives. In addition, will Singapore’s education policies allow our children a fair chance to survive? Is education still an effective social mobility lever for Singaporeans from low-income households? Our education system might have the right intent but possibly lack the leadership foresights to do so. The vision of the Ministry – ‘Thinking Schools, Learning Nation’ was first conceptualized in 1997 to inculcate ‘a nation of thinking and committed citizens capable of meeting the challenges of the future, and an education system geared to the needs of the 21st century.’ (Goh, 1997). However, the educational mission is still a ‘business in progress’ after 15 years. Why so? Apart from the complex business of education and its evolving nature, are we also lacking in certain leadership capacities and skills to tackle the policies in manners that it should be?
Education in Singapore is an emotional issue as it is directly linked to one’s future and social prestige. The concept of ‘good schools’ in Singapore is an understatement – the whole point is how leadership can be explicitly used to value-add schools and making new breakthroughs in our education story. If indeed ‘Every School, a Good School’, the discourse on education policies should also spell out clearly how it is so to nurture potential, active citizenship and nationhood experiences for young Singaporeans. How would the future of these new generations of Singaporeans looks like? Policy leadership is required to ensure the governmental approach to educational policies remains open, equitable, holistic and accountable to the citizens. These policy makers have to be compassing, forward-looking and enlightened.
At this point in time, it is mission-critical for the Ministry to review its policies with her people so that it is resolving the policy ‘cause’ than the ‘symptoms’. From politicians’ speeches to editorial and social media write-ups, we can see how the face of education has changed over time with participation. Leadership in education reforms cannot be a ‘solo’ experience. It needs to be kept imaginative with creative inputs from the citizens who are direct recipients of the public good. Leadership shall remain as a central feature in designing educational policies. If leadership is to be deemed by the people as another ‘top-down’ exercise, the soon-to-be ‘overheated’ educational policy scene (with new policy announcements almost every 2 weeks) will leave little room for herself to rejuvenate and innovate. ‘Parrot talk’ in educational policies will not create the positive long term impact on social development in Singapore desired by the electorates. This mode of leadership and rigidity in policy-making – i.e. passive leadership – will inevitably disrupt the course of policy development in education than to garner greater political legitimacy and implementation in schools.
Posted by Kelvin Yew