The Education Paradoxes of Singapore

In the latest post in the Leading Futures Series, edited by Alma Harris and Michelle Jones, Pak Tee Ng reflects on productive paradoxes driving Singapore’s apparent success and future direction. Pak Tee Ng is an Associate Professor in the Departments of the Office of Graduate Studies and Professional Learning and Policy & Leadership Studies at the National Institute of Education in Singapore, and Associate Dean, Leadership Learning. He is currently leading several projects on topics related to educational change in Singapore, including teacher mentoring, teacher motivation, and school leader perspectives toward change. Pak Tee Ng has also been interviewed in the Lead the Change series, featured on IEN in 2015. His latest book, Learning from Singapore: Power of Paradoxes, expands upon the ideas raised in this post.

The Education Paradoxes of Singapore

The excellent results in various international comparative tests put Singapore into a select group of countries and jurisdictions hailed as shining examples of educational success. On the PISA 2012 tests, Singapore students excelled not only in mathematics and science, but actually did better in English reading and comprehension compared with those from English speaking countries (!). For a country in Asia, a continent where students are thought to be rote-learners rather than thinkers, it is against the grain that Singapore students also topped PISA’s 2012 computer-based assessment of problem solving. Interested parties from many countries and jurisdictions visit Singapore to find out its key success factors.  They are also curious as to where Singapore could possibly be heading next, if it is already at the top.

Key Success Factors

Many international experts have analyzed the key success factors of Singapore’s education system.  Generally, Singapore’s success is attributed to shrewd educational policies that take a long-term view, and that are implemented with high levels of fidelity by the schools. Its meritocratic system ensures that students’ advancement in the education system is not based on race, religion or family background, but on their academic merit.  Singapore invests heavily in education, not just for children but for the teachers as well.  It cultivates professional capital systematically by employing high quality teachers, supporting professional development, developing systematic career paths, and grooming promising educators to become leaders. The curriculum is rigorous and there are support programs for students who are lagging behind. There is strong school accountability through a sophisticated school self-evaluation system.

However, some people who know something about Singapore still find aspects of its education success puzzling.  Many people have asked me how Singapore could possibly develop students who were the best problem-solvers in the world, when these students were gearing themselves to do well in standardized tests. Others who have actually visited Singapore schools remarked to me that it was strange that all school leaders in Singapore they have spoken with seemed so proud about how they aligned themselves tightly with national policies and at the same time claimed that their school programs are different from other schools!  When I was overseas, one person asked me why some Singapore parents would want to send their kids to schools overseas if the Singapore school system was so good. Another from the same country asked me how she could get her children into Singapore government schools.  So, there seems to be a richer reality to these generalized key success factors. These are Singaporean paradoxes to be appreciated. That is why in my latest book, “Learning from Singapore: Power of Paradoxes” I shared the Singapore story, told from the lens of paradoxes, rather than the ‘usual’ key success factors.

To understand Singapore, one has to appreciate the multiple pictures of the country that sometimes appear contradictory.  You get a different picture depending on with whom you speak and the perspective that you take. For example, if you talk with the parent of a high performing student, you may get one picture. If you talk with the parent of a low performing student, you may get another picture. If you talk with the parent of a high performing student, who disappointingly did not achieve perfect scores, you may get yet another picture. If you talk with the parent of a low performing student who surprisingly achieved better-than-expected scores… you get the drift. Also, because Singapore’s education system is undergoing change, both new and old paradigms exist at the same time. So, you can find examples of activities that reflect the new paradigm. You can also find those that reflect the old one.  Singapore has students who are problem solvers and those who are rote learners, and even those who are both problem solvers and rote learners.  Therefore, there are many different pictures of Singapore, each focused on a different part of the rich tapestry of realities. That makes Singapore sometimes paradoxical.

But these paradoxes are sources of creative tensions. A key strength of Singapore is that it is able to embrace and draw strength from the creative tensions generated by these paradoxes. They drive dialogues, rather than wedges, because its educators are united in the moral purpose of education.  The result is positive change, albeit non-linear and non-clinical.

There are many paradoxes in Singapore, but I explored four in my book. The first paradox is ‘Timely Change, Timeless Constants’. Singapore pursues change relentlessly, especially in moving away from a system that is obsessed with examination results, to focus on holistic education and providing more pathways to success for children. Yet, it is also resolute in holding on to certain timeless constants – values that serve as the foundation for change. Singapore exhibits the courage to change what needs to be changed, and the wisdom to hold invariant what should not change.

The second paradox is ‘Compassionate Meritocracy’. Singapore adheres strictly to its governing principle of meritocracy. A person’s success should be based on merit, not on race, language or religion.  However, the meritocratic principle in the education system can also mean fierce competition among schools and among students.  Therefore, Singapore has been developing a compassionate side to the meritocratic system, where pathways are built to help children who may be left behind to find success too.

The third paradox is ‘Centralized Decentralization’, an approach of school system management that centralizes strategically to achieve system-level synergies, and decentralizes tactically so that each school may cater more specifically to its students.  That is why Singapore school leaders align their school tightly with national policies and at the same time design programs that are different from other schools to suit their own context!

The fourth paradox is ‘Teach Less, Learn More’, an exhortation to teachers to reflect on their pedagogies to engage students fully in the learning process. The idea is that if teachers teach less but teach better, students should learn more and learn better! In this way, Singapore tries to improve the teaching and learning dynamics in the classroom.

Future Direction

Where is the Singapore education system heading in the future? Although Singapore ranks highly on international comparative tests, it is keen to improve the quality aspects of education and to open up more pathways for young people with different strengths and aspirations to find success in their own ways.  Singapore aims to be an excellent school system for all, rather than a system with good schools for some.  In 2012, Heng Swee Keat, who was then the Education Minister, presented a vision of ‘Every School, a Good School’ for the education system. Actually, in Singapore, the baseline standard of all schools is held high enough so that any school is good enough to offer their students, regardless of socio-economic status, a good chance of future success.  Current Minister for Education (Schools), Ng Chee Meng, said in Parliament that “in many countries, parents are not optimistic that their children will have a good education if they come from the lower socio-economic quartiles. In Singapore, this is not the case. In the 2015 PISA results, about half of our Singaporean students in the bottom socio-economic quarter were found to be resilient, performing better than what their socio-economic status would otherwise predict. This is almost twice the OECD average.”  The current challenge is to get Singaporeans to embrace the idea that any school that their child may go to is a good one, and to reduce the competition in the country among parents to get children into ‘elite schools’.

The education system also hopes to develop in students an entrepreneurial spirit, so that they have the courage to pursue their passions beyond the classroom and the well-trodden paths in the future.  It starts with improving curriculum and pedagogy, so that children find joy of learning and will be intrinsically motivated to learn. The end result is a generation of young people with deep skills, expertise and zeal for lifelong learning. At an MOE awards ceremony in 2017, Minister Ng wore a bow tie and told the audience that it was special bow tie as it was made by a secondary four student from a local school.  Using cut-offs from tailors to make bow-ties suitable for different occasions, this student had won the 2016 National Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge and represented Singapore in the 2017 Network for Teaching Enterprise (NFTE) Global Showcase in New York. Minister Ng said “A Secondary Four student, who was inspired by his school and had the foundation of knowledge to see what is possible, started a journey to chase his dreams. I do not know if he will succeed, but I will certainly make sure I support him. I hope our whole system will support his journey of discovery and exploration to chase his dreams.”

But, this change in education does not stop in schools.  Lifelong learning is what Singapore needs of its people.  Minister of Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung shared in Parliament the story of one of Singapore’s top film-makers, who went to a Polytechnic for an Advanced Diploma in Film Production, after fulfilling her parents’ wish for her to complete her university education.  Pursuing her passion, she would later win a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance film festival.  Minister Ong commented that the story was one “of pragmatism and passion; of meeting parents’ expectations but still chasing your own dream; of lifelong upgrading yet not conforming to the notion that what follows a Degree must be a Masters degree or a PhD; of venturing beyond Singapore while remaining Singaporean at heart” and that this “is a story about what education can and should do for Singaporeans, for all of us, across every field.”


Singapore’s experience with educational change show that paradoxes can be powerful in driving positive change, provided people are united in a common purpose, and there is commitment and tenacity to see through meaningful and long-term education reform.  Despite achieving what would appear to be great success in education, Singapore is choosing to ditch its past success formula for the sake of the future.  It recognizes that every country or jurisdiction is different and each will have to find its own path.  For a small country that has survived against the odds for five decades, it has the gumption to chart its own path and every intention to thrive for many decades to come.

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