Lessons on economics and education

[AJF Fellow Julius Mariveles presents a print of one of his photographs of Singapore life to Education Minister Heng Swee Keat.]

If ever there was doubt about how globalisation has changed the world, look no further than the sky-rocketing salary of sports stars.

Singapore’s Education Minister Heng Swee Keat cited famous footballer Pele who, in his heyday, was paid just a fraction of what top players earn today, even though the game has not changed much in the last four decades.

What has changed, however, is the price tag on talent, which has been inflated due to the widespread use of technology. “Today, with global broadcast, online and all that, the consumer demand is multiplied many fold. If you are the number one footballer, you have many people willing to pay to watch you play,” he said.

His cited this example to illustrate how a globalised world is bound to see widening income gaps, as those with sought-after skills get richer and those without skills stay poor. Singapore is in danger of suffering the same fate. Hence, the island state’s efforts to strive for inclusive growth, Heng said.

The minister was speaking to AJF’s 2012 Fellows in a wide-ranging two-hour dialogue at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information in April 2012.

The soft-spoken former central bank chief entered politics in 2011, when he was swiftly roped into the People’s Action Party’s fourth generation leadership. He explained to the visiting journalists the PAP’s pragmatic approach of doing what works.

[Education Minister Heng Swee Keat spent two hours with the Fellows.]

On the growing wage gap, he said that the answer was not to hold back the talented but to redistribute economic gains to ensure that all citizens would benefit when the country prospers. He noted that education had traditionally be seen as a social leveller, but acknowledged that it could become less effective. “It will continue to be so, but it will not be as easy as (during) the earlier phase of our economy,” he said.

There was more social mobility before, when Singapore was an immigrant nation where almost everyone came from a poor background with low educational levels, he noted. He pointed to recent international studies showing that those who come from richer families tend to get better grades, which also means better jobs and bigger pay packages.

But, he drew hope from the results of an international study comparing students’ test scores with their socio- economic status (SES). In Singapore, one in two who come from poorer families fall in the category of the “resilient student”, defined as students who score above a certain grade despite coming from a lower SES. This is far higher than the global average of one in four, and one in three for OECD countries.

Singapore’s relative success in this department is partly due to its public school system, with virtually all local primary and secondary schools having teachers and curricula managed by the government. “Because we don’t have private schools, it makes for a more egalitarian outcome,” he noted.

Not for export

For all its strengths, the Singapore model probably can’t be replicated elsewhere, Heng said, in response to a question about whether the education system can be exported to developing Asian economies.

A national education framework had to be relevant to a country’s stage of growth, he said. “You have to decide how much resources the country can put aside for education at that time. Then you have to design a system that is relevant to the context of the time, and link it in some way to the development process.”

He pointed out that, in the past 50 years, Singapore’s education system had gone through several revamps. It started with what he described as “cookie cutter schools” where everyone learnt the same subjects at the same pace.

“After the mass education phase, we found that it was done at such a hurry that there were a lot of drop outs,” he said. To ensure students were taught according to abilities, the controversial streaming policy was introduced in the 1980s. It segmented students into different streams, from “gifted” to the not so smart such as “monolingual” or “normal”.

“The results were very dramatic, but at the same time, it created a lot of anxiety and negative feeling, because it created a sense of labeling, and it was not necessary in the interest of the students,” he said.

While streaming is still a prominent feature, the system was tweaked to be more inclusive by offering a greater diversity of pathways for success. One pathway is vocational education, such as the Institute of Technical Education (ITE), which the AJF Fellows later visited. It caters to students who are not academically inclined, offering them practical technical skills such as digital animation, retail merchandising and cooking.

“One of the things we pay attention to, particularly in post-education, is to make sure that the education they receive will allow them to find good employment. If they can’t even find that, there will be very little chance to realize their aspirations,” the minister said.

But whether people can find happiness is another matter. Asked by one Fellow why Singapore is so fixated on economic success to the extent of apparently neglecting spiritual growth, he said: “Finding happiness should be an individual pursuit, and not something that the government should step in to ensure.”

Article by Sue-Ann Chia