Posted by: Principal/Editor | October 3, 2012

Leadership and Education Policy Reforms in Singapore

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


  1. Being results-oriented, being competitive, being exam-focused, etc. are not necessarily bad – taken in context and looking and the country’s limitations. I am not an apologist nor an advocate but rather lets look at the processes and see where we can tweak it and improve it. People tend to see things in dualism where it’s either yes or no and that can be dangerous. We need to be results-oriented because, at the end of the day, those results do count and are valuable to our kids as they will be judged according to them by others. Maybe not so much by the parents but employers, school admissions offices, etc. People will compare (constant) especially when there are limited places and many applicants, people will want measurements and sorting mechanisms, for employment, for educational places, for marriage partners (apparently sometimes), for membership into some organizations, etc. One popular accepted measurement would be academic results. Results-oriented also links to accountability and the need to account for public funds. Results when taken in the right faith can also be beneficial, like AFL. Assessments can be used for sorting, measurement, , competition, exclusion but also it can be used for feedback to fix/change policies, for learning points, for providing tangible targets etc. Exams have been used for thousands or hundreds of years to measure capacity (albeit a narrow one). The issue is then, can we improve the assessment modes to assess more and assess better. The issue is differentiation and inclusiveness and not that assessments should be scrapped. What do we do with the assessment results? What inferences are we obtaining when we look at exam results and what are we trying to achieve when we have big exams? This is more important. Our cultural and societal values are what colors those questions. So the issue is not the exams nor the competition caused by the exams. If we do not care about exams and if our cultural ethos feels that exams are not as important as maybe having more “happiness”, and if Singapore society is not inherently competitive, maybe all of these would not be an issue?

  2. You touched on many pertinent points and interesting views and so I am gonna make 2 comments instead of 1! The issue of having greater and closer discourse with various stakeholders over the issue of public education strikes a strong chord and fear in me. We need to talk about it as it is a highly important and emotional and many citizens feel strongly about it. But have they been provided the relevant information and data to discuss it coherently and rationally? Are teacher representatives part of this direct discourse with the public? I fear the discourse will hover around general-isms, personal beliefs and principles and get side-tracked by politics etc. This problem occurs often in the West and their education policies suffer as a result. Education policy becomes an advertising campaign to gain political popularity.

    Even in Malaysia, the government leaders are trying to de-politicize education (waiting to see what happens). I personally prefer a more technocratic approach to education and get important representatives of all stakeholders in education to get the best possible or politically viable outcomes.

    This is where teachers become critical to the policy making system. Teachers-leaders have to be given the tools, expertise and data and time to process. We have to be one of the key stakeholders in the feedback loop and of education policy formulation. We are the practitioners, we are the front-line and we know best the context of our local settings. All the academic research / best practices out there cannot be copied wholesale or even implemented when local contexts are not considered. Policies must fit local contexts and it is us teachers as a fraternity and group who have the collective experiences to represent the local context.

  3. Thank you, Kelvin and Ivan, for raising such timely responses to the recent changes. The point about involving teachers in the conversation resonates strongly with me. Even though schools have acquired or rather, been given more autonomy and recognition in their own right, the teaching fraternity – so much a part of the educational system – does not as yet have large enough a voice to allow them to significantly influence the making of policy. While teachers are actively involved in reviewing their pedagogy and focusing more on developing their relationship with students, they are also bogged down by the need to achieve various results at the school and national levels and are often so fatigued by the process that they are unable or unwilling to engage in thinking at the systems level. Perhaps there is more ‘thinking’ taught in schools, but can there be more ‘learning’ as a nation if those who teach it do not extend their thinking beyond meeting the ‘requirements’ of school accountability? Until there is clear invitation to engage at this level and empowerment to do so, this is a part of the whole that will not work maximally. While I agree that not every part of a system needs to work maximallyI wonder if our present ‘harmony’ is really sustainable in the long run if such an important part is not more engaged nor stretched sufficiently to yield creative and innovative pedagogies that will help us achieve the outcomes of TSLN.

    I second Ivan’s point about balancing the opportunity for teachers be more greatly involved with more knowledge of the impetus behind policy changes. It took me 4 months of going through MLS to have a deeper understanding of some of our policies. Each MLS session admits 1-2 HoDs from each school. Even if we all went back and faithfully shared what we have learnt, how long will it take to equip teachers with enough understanding to fully engage in discussions at the policy level? The National Conversation is a step in the right direction, but it needs to be better facilitated in terms of greater transparency and supplying of information for participants to offer informed opinions and contributions. If we can teach our teachers first to do this, we go a longer way towards achieving a thinking nation.

  4. I agree that citizenship participation is important and should be encouraged. It is important for us to have platforms to capture the voices at different levels of society. The advent of social media has opened up another platform and made discourse on issues richer , more informed and balanced in that opinions, ideas and thoughts are allowed to be bandied about from different perspectives. If we are looking towards a student-centric education and active citizenship participating, we should be engaging our pupils in conversations at school level as well. At the national level, social media has proven to be one way forward in encouraging and nurturing meaningful conversations. Should we also be doing that at school level? After all, our pupils are digital residents and the use of social media is second nature to them. It would also put the whole idea of cyber wellness into context. We could probably nip a few potential Amy Cheongs in the bud while we are at it too.

  5. To be fair, I think Singapore has reached a crossroads to redefine the new educational landscape. The national convention is an indication of the intent to change. It is then up to us to recognise the following things:
    – change is not going to be immediate
    – curriculum leadership is an opportunity to bring about the change
    – this new cycle of educational reform will not be the only one we will witness in our careers and be in the position to affect meaningfully for the various stakeholders – the teachers in our department, the colleagues and peers in our teaching fraternity and our students.

    Indeed I agree with Ivan and Regina, saying that clear empowerment needs to be there before true change comes about. One of the things that in the course is that time frame that we want this change to come about. This change will not happen with the new implementation of curriculum. It will take longer than that.

    The most important fact is to recognise that despite the fact that we are not policy making levels, choosing to make meaningful change at our level will decide the new landscape. Choosing to follow the other changes that we bemoan half the time about will decide the new landscape. It really is about us making a choice and mapping it out

    I think we have all read various policy reforms and curriculum change documents from all over the world. We are definitely not the only one turning around and asking ourselves if educational reform has been effective. It is then up to us to decide.

  6. My response to the latest developments in the educational landscape is that of great relief, particularly in knowing that finally, as mentioned by Kelvin, Singaporeans are given a ‘voice’ in policy-making as can be seen specifically, in the recent spate of ‘SG conversations’ initiated by Mr. Heng Swee Kiat.

    For decades, Singaporeans have been reticent ‘receivers’ of educational policies. We will never know the reasons for this, but one assumes that we understood then that policies were for the greater good of our nation. Yes, we plodded along the years and have seen the fruits of our labour in one way or another but, what is ironic at this point, is that even with the exemplary results produced by certain policies (ie. Bilingualism), Singaporeans are becoming more and more critical about education in Singapore in these recent years.

    Could this be a result of better education for Singaporeans as a whole, more exposure and awareness of educational policies around the world or a mere reaction to education becoming more mercenary in nature rather than values-based?

    After so many years, I am concerned that even though the purpose of education in general, is to teach character above anything else, it is only NOW that education in Singapore is taking on a values-based turn. Are Singaporeans sensing a regression, that instead of education bringing a country’s social fabric together, it is in actual fact, tearing us apart? What with the income gap becoming wider because of opportunities and achievements in education, what with the ‘I am the best’ mentality perpetuated in schools, as shared by Kelvin, and what with the responses of lower-ability and special needs students who have the rest of their lives carved out for them just because they did not attain the national average in PSLE at the tender age of 12?

    Can the Singaporean ‘voice’ be heard and followed through by our government even though these ‘voices’ now speak up mostly for the underdogs in the educational landscape? Is our government going to give up ‘the greater good’ for them and if not, I look forward to seeing how a balance can be created.

  7. In any policy reform, be it in public or private sector, there is a need to have a concerted effort to see it through from start till end. In particular, education policy reform has a far reaching effect as it concerns many stakeholders and is a national concern. Just like any system change, we need to have a process in place to include consultation with users of the system, design of the system, pilot or trial testing of the system, evaluation and feedback loop, fine-tuning of system and lastly the implementation and monitoring.

    Though our education policy reform process has taken a more consultative approach lately with feedback gathered from stakeholders through national conversations, there is more to be done in order to see the intended outcome. However, one important element is the monitoring process after implementation. We need to ensure the actions on the ground is in tune with the intended action plans. Many projects failed because what is being carried out on the ground digress from the plan. Effective leadership in the reform is thus critical, especially at the school level.

  8. As I read through the comments, I hear that we are at “cross-road” of making changes with Singapore Conversation and finally someone is there to hear our voices. In the context of the Singapore education system, the purpose of education is to accomplish not only economic goals but social cohesion and nation-building objectives as well (Low, L., Toh, M. H., & Soon, T. W. 1991). In reference to the curriculum ideologies proposed by Michael Stephen Schir in his book titled “Curriculum Theory: Conflicting visions and Enduring Concerns”, the Social Efficiency ideology best fits the pragmatic purpose of education in Singapore. The Social Efficiency ideology advocates that the purpose of schooling is to efficiently meet the needs of society by training the youth to function as future mature contributing members of society. The goal is to train the youth in appropriate skills and procedures they will need in the workplace and at home to live and perpetuate the functioning of society. As long as we are stuck with this pragmatic approach to education, I would see changes happening in the line effectiveness, efficiency, accountability and of course minor improvements in the educational system. I think Singapore is at an infant stage of making any deep core change to education.

  9. You seem to suggest that a top-down approach to policy formulation might not be as effective as one that involves bottom-up participation. I do not disagree with you but I have my reservations. First, let’s not forget that our nation made it from third world to first solely based on sound and incorruptible leadership. Our government had always emphasised the importance of attracting the best and brightest to lead the country. The fact that I was able to obtain at least 10 years of formal education in Singapore while children in neighbouring developing countries could only continue to hope for such opportunities is by no means due to chance. It took visionary leadership, elaborate planning and relentless commitment, in spite of mistakes, to get us to where we are today.

    It wasn’t until the 1980s before the government shifted to a consultative style of leadership with the setup of the Feedback Unit in 1985. The watershed 2011 General Elections which led to the loss of a GRC from PAP to Workers’ Party and the advent of social media fuelled the greater need to listen to the needs of the people. The electorate has evolved and wants to have a say in national issues, especially education in which everyone has a stake. You have rightly pointed out that “education in Singapore is an emotional issue as it is directly linked to one’s future and social prestige”. However, the fear is that citizens, with their varied needs, would try to assert their own interests through the dialogues and consultations. In fact, it is not impossible that citizens would band together in their respective groups to pressure the government to accede to their requests. Think religious groups versus liberals and the issue of sexuality education. Should the government do what it thinks is good or popular?

    Governing Singapore has become a whole lot more complex than it was decades ago. Minister Heng is charged with taking Singapore’s education to the next level. While I am not sure exactly where we’re headed, I am certain it will not be a “solo experience” as you had pointed out and we will all need to take ownership in this future that we will collectively create.

  10. Educatioal policy reforms in Singapore seem to be ‘top-down’ but this could be far away from the truth.

    Of course, MOE HQ indeed set the stage by planning and then introducing the reform to all its officers.

    However, this could be the only role it is restricted to.

    Do all ideas for change or reforms come from MOE HQ? No.
    I argue that sometimes, good educational officers in schools use very effective teaching pedagogies, or adopt good and sound practices, and through various ways, MOE HQ officers came to know about it and then bring those ideas back to MOE HQ to see if these ideas can be transferable to all schools.

    After introducing reforms to schools, even with ‘obedient’ school leaders faithfully trumpeting the need to change, if teachers do not buy-in, then the reform would not take off. While these reforms my not ‘die a natural death’, but it may not be carried out with its full intent, with teachers carrying them out ‘half-heartedly’. Take for example, ICT, it is still not that pervasive. However, because teachers buy-in the need of holistic education, CCE is more well-received and teachers have been coming up with innovative ways to put across the CCE messages in their lessons.

  11. We have been results-oriented for very long. I am beginning to wonder if that’s entirely a bad thing.

    Having a keen focus on the outcome of our efforts compel is to be attentive to our tactical moves, ensuring that the way we deploy our resources and utilize our facilities will bear fruit to achieve the intended results. In any situation, this is a useful frame to have to help us stay on course, and move forward to progress to the next level.

    Currently, in evaluating the very competitive nature of our education that attack against competition has always been framed as how competition negates the process and focus only on the results. To a large extend this is rather true.

    When we compete, we identity the objectives. The objectives will be the endpoint to which we strive to overcome and achieve. In trying to achieve our goals, we need to be efficient and efficient.

    In our Singapore context, this frame of thinking has helped us attained success efficiently for the last few decades, leveraging on the support from MOE as we simultaneously ride on our economic success, to expand our resources to scale out our efforts to improve our education through a slew of new policies; ICT Masterplan for example.

    In my assessment, it isn’t competition that is the problem but the way we measure success. For far too long we measure only academic results to determine the success of how school functions. The function of school has been confined too much to ensuring academic success so much so that a successful is fast becoming one that competitively protects its academic achievements to the exclusion of the other functions of a school like an institution that develops future leaders of Singapore and an active citizenry.

    Things change as we made a paradigm shift with Thinking School, Learning Nations. This was very much precipitated by the wave of change that affected our economic landscape. As such, the education landscape responded. With refinements made to our SEM, it becomes apparent that the school’s capacity as a learning institution is not limited in churning superior academic results alone. However, the culture of competition is deeply ingrained in our culture. It takes a lot of daring for schools to pay an equal amount of effort to develop our child not just cognitively, but emotionally, physically and physically. That would mean, the measures of success has to be changed. We have to acquire a more holistic perspective what it is to be a successful learning in a successful learning institution, and how a well-designed process and the commitment to ensuring good processes assure the outcomes we need in preparation for an innovation-based economy.

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