I cannot speak for other races, given my limited knowledge of their culture, but for the Chinese, since ages past, education has been the way to move up the social ladder. Centuries ago, the imperial exams allowed a pauper student to become a powerful magistrate. It is hoped that the truly intelligent and gifted will be found to serve the country. This is something we have believed for centuries, and form the basis of meritocracy.
The question is: how relevant is this today?
Since education has been largely subsidized, almost all children can afford to go to school. Parents skimp and save to send children to extra classes. They buy practice worksheets, or what we locally call assessment books, look for sample exam papers and make their children practice endlessly. Practice does make perfect, and it is frightening how many are scoring distinctions these days. Doubtless we are more and more adept at answering exam questions. Does it necessarily mean that the children are smarter?
This is the problem. The examination system is not an error-free indicator of intelligence or knowledge. It is a pretty good indicator of diligence and perseverance. That is why the foreign student scores very well. Most of them know they have too much to lose. They subscribe to the adage: hard work never killed anyone.
We are motivated by success, and will pursue the same paths that gave us this success. Is it any surprise that in general, Singaporeans are credited with being extremely industrious, but also seen as a people who essentially only toe the line? We work doggedly, uncomplainingly, efficiently. Typically too, there is very little risk-taking involved – hence the “kiasuism” that is so prevalent – we just do not want to rock our boats too much.
The foreign students who studied here are likely to have a similar attitude as they join the workforce. We have replicated a newer model of ourselves. There are added incentives for the foreign students. They have seen the hardships of their parents. They know that with a good education, they can go places in their own country, when they eventually return. Or else, they can use the reputation of Singapore to gain them entry into other more advanced countries such as the US.
The local student on the other hand, probably enjoys a pretty good life in the first place. Even with a local degree, this merely translates to run-of-the mill work, with the same old small percentage making it to the top. This small percentage is likely to be reduced with the increased intake of “foreign talents”. What incentive is there is there left? They may not even better their parents’ achievements despite having so much more. For those rich enough, they may just hope for daddy to pay for an overseas education and maybe even migrate there for a richer, more interesting life.
Furthermore, given the increasing affluence of the country, is it any wonder our young ones clamour for more, but with minimal effort please? Don’t our leaders, our parents, our employers also want instant gratification and success? For instance we want instant population increase, instant cost cutting by employing cheaper foreign workers, fare increases to instantly maintain profit for a public transport company? Why should we expect the children to be different?
We label the children based on a system that needs to be improved. The brilliant student may really be an impractical academic. The dunce may be the one who is pure genius. I know students who perform poorly at academic studies, but score brilliantly in the SATs or are star performers in logic courses. These students tend to be “out-of-the-box” thinkers and are probably who we need in a rapidly changing world.
Andrew Loh is a good example of someone who “did not make it” yet he writes better than most university graduates I know. How many others are there out there? Will they be even recognized, given our examination system? [Andrew founded The Online Citizen and now heads publichouse.sg as Editor-in-Chief. He only has four "O" levels and nothing more.]
If we want to move on, we need to seriously look at our education system and our examination methods. We should review how we rank schools and not just base it on how students fare in their public examinations. We should not rate teachers according to the percentage of distinctions the students get alone. We need to foster thinking, problem solving, people skills, imagination and independence. We need to rethink meritocracy to include skills that may not be academically based.
Importing foreign students, then praising them for their better results, is to stay in the same old rut. We will produce the same old “intelligent” people who will restrict themselves to same old pet solutions, who will follow work manuals to a “t”, who are willing to work long hours. The stars of the show, the ones with impeccable university results, demand astronomical salaries – they think they deserve that for their sacrifice in spending the better part of their childhood years studying. We will keep reproducing the same “scholars” and stagnate while the world moves on. Sometimes I wonder if the local students, in defying this mould, are actually symptomatic of a people ready for the challenge of the changing world, a world that demands different skill sets.
I am not saying good results are unimportant. They are important because they are the tangible fruit that all can see. The process of getting good results however is even more critical. It is this process that will produce thinkers and pioneers instead of mere workers and followers.