The news that Singapore has risen to the top of the Programme for International Student Assessment ('PISA') rankings – a series of ratings tables based on standardised tests in reading, maths and science organised by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development ('OECD') which released its newest, 2015 iteration on 6th December 2016 – will come as little surprise to keen observers of the international education scene. The ASEAN city-state is well-known for the quality of its schooling system; indeed, Singapore has never been placed lower than fifth since it joined this increasingly influential global survey in 2009.
However, there is one aspect to Singapore's outstanding performance that does strike us as a tad shocking: the fact that most of the major technical factors behind the country's prowess – elements which are clearly not culturally contingent – have not simply been copy-pasted, or at least broadly emulated, by the rest of the world. While replicating phenomena such as a deep-seated thirst for formal education or high familial expectations of academic attainment is arguably as difficult as it is desirable, there are at least five more tangible policies which, while being pioneered and perfected in Singapore, can be implemented by pretty much any government:
- Allocate financial resources to education. Educational facilities in Singapore are some of the best in the world for a number of sometimes complex reasons, but one of them is obvious from even a cursory glance at the nation's budget: the enormous slice of the economic pie which is devoted to their excellence. In a world where developed states typically allot 10% of the budget for educational purposes, Singapore has consistently granted around 20% of its total public spending towards making and keeping its human capital peerless. Of course, simply throwing money at a problem is not a solution – Gulf Cooperation Council countries such as Saudi Arabia have also invested massively in education without any corresponding gains in performance – but there is no denying the value of going beyond platitudes about the importance of education and making sure one's money and mouth are in the same ballpark.
- Recruit the best for the best. Notably, Singapore possesses a centralised teaching system which only admits candidates from the top 5% of graduates. While this policy does have some drawbacks, it ensures that only demonstrably high-achieving people are in the core position of imparting academic knowledge within schools. The contrast with some other systems is striking: in the United Kingdom, there is no requirement at all for prospective teachers to have been outstanding or even good students themselves, which results in students being taught by instructors who may never have achieved a decent set of exam scores. Naturally, retaining talent from within the elite 5% of university graduates means compensating them handsomely – but again, this is a question of priorities rather than culture.
- Link the education system to the broader economy. In their legendary management tome Mastering the Infinite Game: How East Asian Values are Transforming Business Practices, Charles Hampden-Turner and Fons Trompenaars copiously and convincingly chronicle how central education has been to the very conception of economic development in Singapore. Technology transfer, knowledge transfer and localisation – which in too many places are nothing more than empty slogans – were and continue to be taken seriously: 'A condition for [multinational companies] doing business in Singapore [from the late 1960s onwards] was to share your learning with the host country. All new entrants had to agree to help make Singaporeans smarter.' This emphasis on economic advancement via accrual of expertise has shaped the entire education system; indeed, in the 1990s, Singapore branded itself 'The Learning Nation'. Interestingly, the definitions of 'economic advancement' and 'expertise' are increasingly interpreted with the fluidity that comes with self-awareness: despite the city-state's stellar performance in international comparative indices such as PISA, the need for a more creative and spontaneous workforce has been acknowledged at the highest levels of administration.
- Inspire the next generation. Scandals such as those emanating from the disclosure of the so-called 'Panama Papers' repeatedly confirm one indisputable fact: elites in many countries are consciously choosing to defraud their own citizens through their unquestioning (and often paranoid) adulation of money and material possessions. But instead of splurging countless billions of dollars on everything from personal property portfolios to luxury super-yachts – and facing near-universal revulsion for these legal and moral crimes – they could choose to endow their lands with the kind of soft power infrastructure that can not merely propel their populations to higher levels on the value chain, but add a profundity to the educational ecosystem which encompasses and transcends performance in comparative examinations. In this context, Singapore's US$400m> National Gallery – a new landmark that is the latest iconic addition to the city's Civic District, and which will spark the imaginations of future generations – looks an absolute steal.
- Set your own standards. In commenting on the PISA 2015 results, the OECD education director Andreas Schleicher stated that Singapore is 'not only doing well, but getting further ahead'. The country has been able to sustain this remarkable trajectory through one act of exceptional courage: calibrating and sticking to its own ideals. It has overwhelmingly not looked to its much larger (and at one time, wealthier) neighbours as benchmarks; it has not been content to bow meekly to certain fashionable extremist factions within Western economic orthodoxy, which began labelling state-guided development as heretical at precisely the time when numerous Asian nations were using this model to compress centuries of development into decades; and it stuck resolutely to its guns during the late 1990s Asian Financial Crisis, resisting all kinds of pressures to 'reform' its economy despite an apocalyptic regional currency environment. The lesson for other countries is clear: hold out against being intimidated into mediocrity and unfathomably large rewards can be yours.