Wednesday, August 02, 2006

ST Education Survey Debacle?

ST sent me an email with the following questions (in white) and none of the responses got published. To be fair, to the best of my knowledge, neither did the PAP's. The politically correct article appeared in the Sunday Times 30th July 2006. According to the journalist who was writing the story the Editor decided not to use any of the political parties' responses as they were 'too political.' Self-censorship at its very best eh?

The Straits Times had conducted a survey on Asian youths and their attitudes towards life. It's thrown up some interesting findings about young Singaporeans. So it'll be great if you can share your insights and thoughts in your capacity as a young politician, as the one in charge of the youth wing in WP. The survey was conducted among youths between the age of 13 and 19, from five countries - Singapore, Msia, China, India and Japan.The general feeling you get from the figures is that Singapore youths do not seem to have a very strong sense of ownership towards the country. For instance:- 53% of them said they would consider emigrating, the highest among the respondents from the five countries. When asked why, besides citing the pull factor of more jobs/business opportunities in other countries, a substantial proportion were also influenced by the push factor of "life being too stressful" here.
- Even among those who do not want to emigrate, the most popular reason is that of family/friends/relatives here, rather than the nationalistic reason of "I love my country" (which is generally the most popular reason for the same group of youths from the other four countries)
- When asked which of the following is the most important to them, the overwhelming majority put family and self before country (only 4% chose the latter, compared to 35% in Msia, for instance. Singapore is the lowest among the five countries).
- However, the level of their interest in political issues is fairly on par with that of youths from other countries. 66% are interested in political issues while 33% would consider taking part in political issues.1) Do you find this worrying? What do the statistics show? To you, what is the most surprising finding?

Yes, it is certainly worrisome that greater then half the respondents indicated that they would consider migrating. The statistics demonstrate the lack of emotional attachment to the country as an idea of a nation. It could well be that there is less of an emotional attachment to Singapore as a country because we are socialized and socially engineered to not have a care about the direction of the country from the personal perspective. I attribute this to several factors:

a. Active participation in politics and a questioning attitude have been discouraged for the longest time. This breeds a mentality of caring only for one’s immediate family or oneself. On the one hand it shows that the government might have been efficient to the point where the
necessity to care for others is diminished or even perhaps discouraged. On the other hand it truly demonstrates the level of ‘ownership’ in Singapore that our youth have. Very little. They are not made to feel that they belong in terms of decision making and they are most certainly not consulted if governmental and educational policy implementation styles are anything to go by. These two factors are the greatest mitigators to the first statistic relating to the desire to migrate.

b. The other factor to consider in terms of ‘stress’ is one where the government, through its various programmes, constantly strives to be first in everything. Life is more then being first at everything and I believe that today’s and tomorrow’s youths have already found that out. Variously and inevitably being first at everything does not guarantee a job for life or a career since Singaporeans are deemed easily replaceable by, in fact at times looked down on relative to, foreign talent in both the economic and non-economic areas of life. While the government may respond otherwise it is a matter of perception.

What is of surprise to me is that a good two thirds of the respondents indicate that they have an interest in political issues. This bodes well, as a first step, in establishing an emotional bond with Singapore as their nation of birth. The other statistic of political participation is insufficiently specific to dwell upon.

Moving on from political participation it is no surprise to see that youth want to move away physically as the local market for talent (as witnessed by local pop stars) of most aspiring talents are typically considered by our society to be inferior. This is most likely a societal issue where someone is considered talented only if he or she has made it abroad before returning home or visiting Singapore. It is a vicious cycle that needs to be broken both through governmental policy and societal behaviour. Is this paradigm attributable to a ‘colonial mindset’ perpetuated by governmental policies of hiring foreign talent and scholarship destinations? For me the jury is out on this particular question.

2) What are the repercussions of such opinions being held by Spore youths? What are the implications for Singapore?

Firstly, we will witness a dramatic brain drain. Sooner or later those who are able to establish themselves overseas will not even contemplate coming back due to the small size of the market in Singapore. This applies to all forms of talent.

Ultimately we will have to import every single kind of talent required. By then it will not be a matter of choice but one of survival for the idea of the nation to continue.

3) What do you think accounts for this seeming bochapness among Spore youths towards the country?

Back to the first point. A whole host of societal factors including governmental policies. A typical mindset might be: “If I don’t own (or am discouraged to even attempt to own) a place or a process why should I even bother about it?” Simple example. If I am made to work to own my first handphone relative to having it given to me would I take more care of it?

4) What can be done to increase the sense of ownership among the youths towards Singapore? (Eg change in educational system? Political system?)

A sense of ownership comes with the requisite responsibilities of making policies that govern that which is owned. Education is a key among others to promote that sense of ownership but it all boils down to what is delivered and how it is delivered. Very much like how a good teacher is able to promote an interest in a given subject. In my opinion, this can only occur with the provision of truthful and complete answers to an unfettered inquisitive mind – which by default all youth have. This may eventually translate into changes in the political system as youth come to be a defining force in politics.

But education alone is insufficient. There has to be a broad based societal consensus on educating our young to be ultimately responsible for the future of the nation. The loose confucianistic ideal of ‘sit down, shut up and listen’ needs to give way to one where youth are
encouraged to question as a form of learning. When one finds an answer to a question, burning or otherwise, one owns the answer for life – there is no more need for rote learning.

The old form of evasion for which an answer is not available to a question in the form of “you do not need to know about this” has to give way to one where the elder should be perhaps saying something akin to: “I do not know the answer but perhaps you can find it here (or there, or with someone else).” With this mindset change and where youth are encouraged to ‘own’ their answers is more likely to generate a sense of emotional attachment and ownership.

Most importantly, some of our elders need to understand that they way forward into the future is not to be found in any textbook. The Mandarin adage of: ‘ren shi huo de, shu shi si de’ [the
mind is alive whilst books are but dead text] comes to mind.

Another part of the survey pertains to the youths' attitudes towards education. - 82% of them said that they are either bored in school, most of the time, or sometimes. 17% say that what they learn in school will be of little/no use. 1) Is this troubling to you, and if so, what do you think can be done to remedy the situation?

It is certainly mind boggling to know that one is putting so much effort into something that will be of little use along the path of life. Could it be that that our educational system might have gotten some fundamentals wrong?

The original British ideal (on which our educational system is based) of an education is to provide for a well rounded individual. The grades assigned were an example of where an individual might be stronger at compared to another. The British system produced a lot of ‘generalists’ who could adapt to many tasks and few specialists to augment the generalists. The direction in which the Singapore educational system is heading is one of producing many specialists and few generalists – who are typically more adaptable to life’s changing requirements. The socio-economic and political considerations of this event are not to be taken lightly.

While I agree that basic education should remain a national goal the question should be one of what constitutes ‘basic education.’ Do I need to spend time on Higher Chinese just because it will get me into the JC of my parent’s (or my) choice when ultimately I plan to work or live in Europe or the US? Do I need to really spend time learning something which I deem to be of little use or no practical use whatsoever?

To ease the boredom I suggest watered down electives and even some major classes at the University level be introduced at the upper Secondary school level in lieu of some of the more hard core science and math classes. This serves several purposes:

a. youth will get a taste of what they might want to do professionally and pursue an academic career thereafter in accordance with the requirements of the day to meet their ideal destination. They will own their educational process and will have a keen interest in the subject matter since it is of their own choice and therefore a reflection of their desire.

b. youth will be more engaged, and hence less bored, with a variety of courses instead of the staid staple of examination based courses.

My present understanding with the full day program at many schools including the polytechnics and universities are that students are made to essentially ‘wait’ for the next activity be it a class or a CCA depending on the institution in question. Almost everyone gets bored waiting. It is a game of logistics where customer service levels should be much higher. In this case, the provision of sufficient teaching or coaching staff to ensure that students spend their time productively in school instead of having to wait an hour or more for the next activity. Yes, it costs more to have more teachers around the clock to cater to the students needs but this, in my opinion, is a far better investment then throwing away billions of dollars into construction projects to edifice government departments.