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SINGAPORE, Aug 17 — Society needs to adopt a broader definition of success if it hopes to relieve some of the stress that students feel from being put through Singapore’s education system, Education Minister Chan Chun Sing said during a virtual forum yesterday.

To illustrate his point, he recounted a conversation he had with some secondary school and junior college students and the answers they gave him were very revealing about the “culture behind education” in Singapore.

He had asked the students how they would feel if the Ministry of Education (MOE) decided to cut their subject syllabus by half.

The students told him that he would have to be careful because it would mean that everybody would be trying to “ace the remaining half (of the subjects)… rather than just aiming for 90 marks for the whole syllabus”.

The students added that they would be in worse shape than before.

He said that based on the students’ feedback, if the extra free time were used to focus on the more commonly perceived yardstick of success — which is academic grades — the stress does not necessarily decrease, but might “paradoxically increase”.

Instead, that free time should be used to allow students to pursue new skills, interests or even hobbies beyond what was being taught in school.

This way, society can be “much more diverse and much more resilient”, he said.

Chan, who is also the Minister-in-charge of the Public Service, was speaking at the Social-Economic Nexus Speaking Engagement Forum, which was attended by more than 1,500 public servants.

He was responding to a question raised during a dialogue moderated by Chng Kai Fong, managing director of the Economic Development Board (EDB).

Referring to Chan’s opening speech, which touched on encouraging a diversity of views among students and thinking beyond academics, Chng asked the minister what needed to be done for Singapore to maintain its edge.

In his speech, Chan said that any reduction in teaching and testing must not lead to a “perverse outcome of bringing more intense academic competition”.

“How far we can move away from an over-emphasis on academic grades to truly embrace strength in diversity depends on the full participation and support of educators and parents,” he said.

Chan told Chng that from talking to the students, it showed that there needs to be a wider definition of success, what it means to go through a school system, and what it equips students with beyond academic knowledge.

Separately, Chan pointed out that many universities across the world often hold open-book examinations, because memorising “nuggets of information” was not as important as being able to make sense of it and how to use it.

Similarly, he said that MOE is looking at ways to move away from a rote learning system to one where students are able to use the information they have learned to solve problems.

He added that corporate leaders have told him that they are looking for something beyond the grades students have.

They are looking for a sense of curiosity and how much confidence jobseekers have in presenting themselves, among many other soft skills that go beyond what is taught in school.

“If more of our corporate leaders can come and share with our students and schools on what the new world is looking for, what are some of the skill sets that we are looking for, then I think we will have a slightly different perspective on what is most important going through the school system,” Chan said.

The education system needs more people who have found success after leaving school to return to their alma mater to share how they have succeeded, Chan added.

Highlighting his own experience as a student, he said he remembered that a vast majority of past students who returned to school to share their experiences did not say they had scored a certain number of A grades.

Rather, they attributed skills they picked up from their co-curricular activities, which were the qualities that allowed them to convince their employers to give them a chance because they had “gumption, creativity and so forth”.

“We need many more of these positive storytelling beyond what is just in the school curriculum,” Chan said, adding that society must also celebrate the success of those who do well in non-academic areas such as sports and leadership.

Appreciating people

During the dialogue, Chng of EDB also posed wide-ranging questions from public officers about the economy and the public service.

In some of the responses, Chan said that as a business hub, Singapore should not compete on the basis of offering attractive prices, but rather on the value proposition it can give in the long term.

He said that in a fractious global environment, it has become critical to be able to aggregate capital based on the rule of law, bring talent together from different parts of the world, protect intellectual property and evolve production processes and services faster than others.

He also addressed a misperception that the Government only looks to opening up more high-end, high-tech jobs, and said that there is a need to take care of another segment of the population that may not be involved in high-growth sectors.

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought a greater appreciation for various sectors such as healthcare, cleaning and security that were not on the radar for most people previously.

“There’s a greater awareness of how we need to give the workers in all these sectors a fair wage,” Chan said, adding that questions also need to be asked about how these jobs can be made more meaningful and dignified.

On a separate point about employers, he said that they need to understand that they cannot always get the perfect candidate for a job.

Rather than rule out a candidate completely for having only seven or eight out the 10 required skill sets for a job, both employers and employees should work together to bridge the gap in the remaining skill sets.

In addressing public service leaders, Chan told them to take care of those under them, noting that the past 20 months fighting the pandemic have been tough for public officers “who are always on” and ready to swing into action when a crisis occurs.

“If we can take care of our people, our people will take care of the mission. No questions asked.” — TODAY

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