3 areas in education that S’pore needs to focus more on to build future social compact: SM Tharman


Closing early gaps, broadening the range of merits, and developing a strong sense of togetherness are areas Singapore needs to put more effort into, said Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for Social Policies Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

Speaking at the Mendaki Symposium 2022 titled “Rethinking Education” on June 30, SM Tharman said that education has been and is the most fundamental social and economic strategy and shapes the character of Singapore.

He cited Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong’s Forward Singapore speech that touched on forging a new social compact. 

“Education has to be fundamental. It’s not just ‘where it starts’. It shapes our lives as we go forward together. Education is key to that future social compact, and I will offer a few thoughts on three areas which we are focusing more on, and need to put a lot more effort into, as part of the effort to build our future social compact.”

1.     Reducing Early Gaps

Singapore has to work harder to even the playing field in the youngest years, said SM Tharman as he touched on the first and critical objective of reducing early gaps.

“It’s critical for Singapore that everyone has a fair chance to do well and to move up. And it’s critical to us being an optimistic society – no matter what comes, what challenges we face, being an optimistic society. At its core, it is about the intrinsic optimism of our people that comes from feeling they’ve got a fair chance to do better – to survive the odds, to overcome and to do better in life.”

What the Government is doing

While the Malay community has clearly progressed at every stage of education, gaps remain and some of the gaps are “too significant for comfort”, said SM Tharman.

“The gaps faced by the Malay community are not just because Malays are over-represented in the lower socio-economic groups. Even within those lower socio-economic groups, there’s a greater proportion of Malays who start off weak in school, and remain weak.”

He then spoke extensively about what the Government is doing, signifying the importance of this area, citing a few initiatives:

– MENDAKI’s KelasMateMatika (KMM) and KelasSiapSekolah (KSS)
– Early Childhood Development Agency’s KidSTART
– MOE’s Learning Support Programme for English (LSP) and Learning Support for Mathematics (LSM)

“The Government’s efforts are race-neutral. Strengthening KidSTART, our preschools, and our primary school interventions like LSP, LSM. In fact, for LSM, as many of you already know, we’re now going beyond Primary One and Two, to Primary Three and Four as well, significantly expanding the scope of Learning Support for Mathematics.
The Government is doing more through these race-neutral interventions, but it requires greater community intervention as well. And the work you do with Malay-Muslim parents and children is really critical.”

He called for a wrap-around approach where the community, which include school professionals, professionals and volunteers work as a team and not be too seized by the division of roles.

“There’s some blurring of responsibilities when you talk about a wrap-around for the child. We have to take joint responsibility. Of course teachers will do what teachers do best, school counsellors too, but we need a wrap-around where we are taking joint responsibility for every kid from a disadvantaged background.”

SM Tharman also referred to studies conducted under the GUSTO project (a research collaboration between NUH, KK, A*STAR) which showed how pre-natal and early childhood years are critical for both maternal health and the child’s health, and for the child’s development.  More attention will be paid to the early years, starting from the pre-natal experience of the mother and the pre-school years of the child.

“For example, Gestational diabetes and maternal depression play an important role in the health of both mother and child, and they play an important role in the development of the child.” He said.

2.     Broadening range of merits and the definition of meritocracy

The second area involves broadening the range of merits that are recognised and promoted in our meritocracy and reducing a hierarchy of skills that is still “too sharp” between academic and non-academic skills and between some academic skills.

“We have blur that hierarchy of skills, develop respect for different skills as we grow up, and indeed give everyone a chance to pick up different skills. That too has to start young and continue into the working years, so that we have a workforce and society where every skill is valued, and every job well done is respected,” he said.

He added that SG needs to go further to expand the definition of meritocracy and “broaden the range of skills as children grow”.

What the Government is doing

Highlighting the importance of developing a broader range of skills for children, SM Tharman said that MOE has created space to do so by doing away with mid-year exams for primary and secondary schools at all levels starting next year; creating space for development with 21st Century Competencies; creating a new PSLE scoring system; and expanding Direct School Admissions across all schools.

“We are providing more space for this. We can’t keep trying to do more and more things in education, we’ve got to free up space as well.”

That said, more can be done.

“But we need to address what is still too sharp a hierarchy between the academic and non-academic skills, that then continues through into working life.”

One way he said is for top schools need to give students more hands-on learning experiences and such technical skills shouldn’t be limited to specialised schools.

“We shouldn’t regard technical and applied work as something to be done by those who are not strong in academic studies. We have too sharp a distinction in Singapore, and we need to address that too.”

3.     Strengthening sense of togetherness

While Singapore has avoided the problems seen in many other societies, we have to work harder on strengthening the sense of togetherness across different socio-economic and ethnic groups.

“It means avoiding social distances that develop when children are young and stay through life.  And importantly, to develop that sense of familiarity, friendship and solidarity that we must have with each other as Singaporeans. That comes not from textbooks, it comes from experiences.”

What the government is doing

The changes in Primary One admission rules to increase the number of places reserved for children without prior connection to the school; reducing the number of students enrolling into Secondary One thru affiliated primary schools; creating the “very important innovation” known as Subject-Based Banding scheme in secondary schools; moving away from the streaming system in primary schools to Subject-Based Banding a few years ago.

These helped to reduce socio-economic distances through some structural changes in the system, he said.

Another avenue is through CCAs.

“It’s not just more CCA, it is more mixing of students across CCAs. It has to be in the mind of the school principal, the vice principals, the teachers in charge, to look out for those who feel they don’t belong to a particular CCA and bring them in,” he explained.

“It starts from young. We don’t want a quota system, but it has to be part of the thinking of school leadership:  how to encourage the kids from different backgrounds to play together, train together, win and lose together. That is part of our responsibility in education.”

In developing the sense of togetherness, SM Tharman also reiterated the importance of having the ability to build consensus and mutual respect as a critical element.

“The ability to develop consensus, to respect each other, is one that we must develop as we grow up. That too has to be what education is about –  building the capability for healthy discourse, thinking through differences, thinking about compromises that are necessary, but very importantly, respecting different views and preferences.”

In closing, SM Tharman noted that while Singapore’s system is actually working much better than in most other countries, we have to put more effort into those three areas so that Singapore stays united.

“So that we remain together as Singaporeans, and our identity, first and foremost, is I am Singaporean.”

Cover photo credit: Mendaki