The purposes and implications of education in Singapore

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1. Introduction

As much as I love the song by Pink Floyd for its rhythmic beat, I beg to differ to the lines; 'we don't need no education'. I suppose it is only natural for me to put an opposing stand to such a statement because I am after all, a future-educator in the making. In other words; I would not have a job if education ceased to exist.

Setting aside my ego-centric reason for the purpose of education, many theories have been drawn to explain the purposes of education in a society. Philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau believed that education functions to aid a child to not merely exist - but to live, while Confucius is of the view that education is the tool to produce individuals that possess moral values.

However, for the purpose of this essay; we shall focus on an educational theory, that in my opinion is relevant to the purpose of education . We shall also discuss the implications that arise, on both students and teachers, to meet such a purpose.

2. Purpose of Education

2.1 Meeting the needs of the Society

"The man whom education should realize in us is not the man such as nature has made him, but as society wishes him to be; and it wished him such as its internal economy calls for"

- Émile Durkheim, 1956

The first time I read the abovementioned quote by Durkheim, the anti-education song by Pink Floyd came to mind. Perhaps the song by Pink Floyd is true - perhaps thought-control in the society is indeed the purpose of education.

However, the meaning of Durkheim's quote is far from the belief that education serves as a mind-control over the individuals in a society. This French sociologist believed that the main reason for education is to meet the society's needs. According to him, these needs compromise of survival and development. This means; should the living conditions of a society modify with time, these essential needs would modify correspondingly. For example; an increase importance of technology in a society would create the essential needs for more individuals to be tech-savvy.

Durhkeim's educational theory does not wholly disregard the interest of the individuals in the society. He believed that individuals' interests are, in actual, shaped by the society itself. Therefore, in order for their interests to be satisfied, the needs of the society have to first be fulfilled.

2.2 Application of Durkheim's educational theory

Durkheim's educational theory is apparent in the Singapore's education system. Since the nation's independence; the role of education in Singapore has always been aimed in meeting the needs of the society. For example, in the late 1960s, technical education was introduced to equip students with the necessary skills to prepare them for the workforce. This implemented education policy was not only a response to solve the issue of high unemployment rates and to ensure that the citizens are able to find jobs. It also served to adapt to the change in the economic-sector in Singapore, in particularly; the shift from entrepot-trading to manufacturing industry.

Change is the only constant.

- Isaac Asimov

As time passes, changes in the society and the world have great impact on Singapore. Technological advancement and convergence of the society's languages are examples of such changes. Currently; globalisation is one of the processes that have greatly impacted this Lion City. New societal issues arise from globalisation. Therefore, solutions in the form of policies are needed to tackle them.

For now and for the future, the local education system serves to acknowledge these issues and produce innovative ways to lessen and/or prevent their undesired impacts (e.g. losing national identity) from occurring in the society. The following section of this essay shall discuss on some of the identified societal issues. These issues are; influence of foreign ideas and the diminishing usage of Mother-tongue language.

2.3 Impact of globalisation - Societal issues

2.3.1 Influence of foreign ideas

The media is a tool of communication to share ideas and information. When we switch on our cable television, we get to surf a variety of channels from the USA, Indonesia, and India etc. As such, the values and culture of Singapore's society might be susceptible to the influence of undesired foreign ideas.

Apart from foreign-media influence, Singapore has evolved into a cosmopolitan society because of the influx of foreigners coming into the country. In the 2010 National Day Rally speech, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong mentioned that an increase of 80,000 foreigners coming into Singapore could be possible this year.

The influx of foreigners is another reason to the possibility of the influence of undesired foreign ideas that are detrimental to the nation's national identity.

2.3.2 Diminishing usage of Mother-tongue language

The bilingual policy was first introduced in the Singapore's education system to develop social cohesion among the people of different language groups, prepare the students to be participants of the future worldwide economy while still retaining their cultural identity and values. English language functioned as the communication language for the first two former purposes of bilingualism, while the learning of the Mother-tongue language served the latter purpose.

The implementation of this policy has been successful because it has not only achieved its initial purposes, but is also relevant to the globalisation process. The policy allows for effective communication with people from different countries.

However, today there is the controversial matter over the English language - in which most believe has taken over the role to be the local's 'Mother-tongue'. This is because, even at home; majority of the locals use the English language more than their Mother-tongue language. Thus, a concern that arises from the bilingual policy would be the society's perception of the diminishing importance and usage of the Mother-tongue language.

3. Implications

As mentioned, the purpose of education is to meet the needs of the society. Therefore the societal issues that have arose due to globalisation, requires the attention of the education system in order to serve its purpose. This section shall discuss the implications (in the form of policies) on the key participants of the education system - the students and teachers.

3.1 National Education

Singapore is our homeland; this is where we belong.

- National Education message

National Education ("NE") is known as 'Citizenship Education'. Literal to its other title; the basic purpose of NE is to educate students on how and why to be the desired citizens of the society. The government believes that NE will prevent the Singaporean values and cultures from being influenced by undesired foreign ideas. NE will also inculcate and sustain a sense of nation-belonging in Singaporeans, should they live overseas to study or work.

3.1.1 Implications on students

At different schooling levels, NE is incorporated into the curriculum formally and informally. An example of formal approach would be the requirement of students in the primary and secondary level to learn social studies. At the primary level, social studies are taught to inculcate a sense of patriotic-belonging to the country in the students. Social studies at the secondary level, aims for students to gain insight of the different challenges Singapore underwent in order to achieve the position it is at now. To instill values of commitment in contributing to the society; students in Junior Colleges undergo Civics lessons.

Informal approaches to National Education include students commemorating historical events in schools (e.g. National Day). Another informal approach would be the Community Involvement Programme in which students are able to experience contributing to the community (e.g. helping out at the old folk's home). This programme aims to build up social cohesion and instill responsible values in the students.

3.1.2 Implications on teachers

Practice what you preach

- American proverb

Teachers are one of the most important participants in equipping students with the desired Singaporean values. As such, fundamentals of NE are included into the modules of the National Institute of Education. This is to equip student teachers with the values and necessary skills to teach NE to students. For example; student teachers are required to undergo a module to teach social studies in primary schools.

Student teachers are also given the opportunity to participate in the Meranti Project (a "professional development programme") that aims to provide these student teachers with the understanding of NE and also encourage them to incorporate NE into classrooms by cultivating interesting teaching methods. Such participation also provides student teachers the opportunity for self-awareness.

3.2 Emphasis on the Mother-tongue Language

As mentioned, globalisation has created an increase importance of the bilingual policy in Singapore. Singapore's geographical location (near Indonesia and Malaysia) as well as the flourishing economic-growth of two Asian giants (China and India), has resulted in the Mother-tongue language being all the more important for the society. In the 2009 MOE Work Plan Seminar; Dr Ng Eng Hen regarded Mother-tongue to be a "valued asset" for Singapore to remain economically-competitive. Mother-tongue language has expanded in its function; from retaining cultural identity to providing effective communication in the globalisation process.

To counter the issue of diminishing use of the Mother-tongue language in today's society and to increase the people's proficiency in the language; programmes for both students and teachers have been initiated.

3.2.1 Implications on students

To encourage students to increasingly use their Mother-tongue language; students learn the language in unconventional ways that will allow them to appreciate and find interest in the language. Interactive settings are incorporated in classrooms to boost student's confidence in using the language and to increase their oral literacy.

Such approaches have already been taken in some schools. For example; Malay-language students from West View Primary school use podcasts to improve their listening skills. Tamil-language students in Crescent Girls schools are able to improve their speech via online recording and feedback.

Changes in language curriculum are also another implication on students. For example; primary school students studying the Chinese language undergo a new Chinese language curriculum that includes a "modular approach" to improve students' oral literacy.

3.2.2 Implications on teachers

"It doesn't matter what level they reach, they will like the language, its fun, and later on in life they'll use it." 

- Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew

The abovementioned quote by MM Lee was with regards to creating interest in the Chinese language, in students. He stated, "…educators should first get the child interested in the language by focusing on the way it is heard and spoken. This includes incorporating drama and IT into lessons to make them more engaging." 

As such; to inculcate interest of the Mother-tongue language in students, teachers are required to be innovative and creative in their teaching methods. One such way would bet to use technology to make lessons more interactive.

In Singapore, different language centres have been established in order for Mother Tongue Language teachers to improve their teaching expertise via trainings. Examples of such language centres would be the Malay Language Centre (established July 2010), Singapore Centre for Chinese Language (established on 6 September 2008) and the Umar Pulavar Tamil Language Centre (established in 1983). These centres not only provide teachers with educational trainings, but also advocate their culture and language.

4. Conclusion

The education policies implemented in response to the societal issues that arise out of globalisation has created some controversies. For example; some people are of the belief that NE is irrelevant and ineffective in its purpose in the education system. Others view NE as a propaganda-tool for the government.

In my opinion, it is impulsive to draw conclusions of NE being a "propaganda-tool". The fact that the government is heavily investing on the education system in order to create 'a

thinking-society' would be an irony if indeed NE is a tool for the government's propaganda. I doubt a government who wishes to exercise thought-control over a society would even allow for its people to be educated.

A good rebuttal to the belief that NE is irrelevant and ineffective can be found in a Channel NewsAsia Report. The report was carried out to determine whether NE was effective. A survey based on NE was conducted and the results showed that ninety percent of the students were proud to be Singaporeans. Eighty-four percent believed that in the next five years; the nation will continue in its prosperity.

Whether NE is controversial or debatable in relevance; the Ministry of Education is not deterred from standing their ground as to the purpose of inculcating NE into schools' curriculum. It is the role of the government to educate and inculcate good values in its citizens and prevent them from being negatively influenced by undesired customs that may harm the society. This is one way in which the education system is meeting the needs of the society.

"To say that learning Chinese would help local businessman do well in business in China is bull-****! US & European businessmen have been doing business in China without any knowledge of Chinese and they are doing very well! Language skills are important but they should not be restricted to mother-tongue - it's backward and restrictive! It also creates narrow-mindedness!"

- Jonno, a very opinionated blogger

I beg to differ that the learning of Mother-tongue language skills is "backward and restrictive" or creates "narrow-mindedness". In fact; many other education systems around the world (e.g. Finland) have decided to introduce foreign language to prepare their students for the globalised economy.

Sure, knowing the Chinese language to do business in China, does not confirms a multi-million dollar profit. However, it ease facilitations of the business transaction as well as cut cost to the need of a wonderful Chinese-speaking middleman (who would in first place, ceased to exist should Singapore and China go along with Jonno's opinion).

In my opinion, Mother-tongue language preserves an aspect of the cultural heritage of the different races and in a way; deters foreign influence over the society. It would be a great loss should Mandarin, Tamil and Malay languages be categorized as a 'dead language' together with the ancient Sanskrit and Latin.

The effects of the emphasis of Mother-tongue language has yet to be determine, but even so - just like to whether NE is relevant or not; these policies are just one of the ways that the education system supports, in order to meet the needs of the society - and not just the local society… but a global one.