All hail the robot nation

Singapore has been lauded for having one of the top education systems in the world – our students topped global rankings in maths and science – yet it is not without cost. Our education system has shown a troubling preoccupation with grades, and isolates those who are wired differently. Now, we struggle to reverse this in the face of a changing economy.

An ABC report on the stress young children face is not far from the truth at all. Children who should be encouraged to discover their unique strengths are instead consecutively stuck in a classroom, after-school enrichment and tuition classes, in an attempt to top the class, or the school, or the cohort. During weekends, they shuttle between other forms of extra-curricular activities, that range from dance, music or sport. Even these activities are conducted purposefully: with a goal of passing a grade exam, or being able to make it into a sport program in one of the nation’s top schools. How is a child to discover what really makes him or her tick if we take the enjoyment out of it all?

But that’s not the only drawback to our education system.

Many children with varied abilities fall through the cracks and are left behind. Those who may excel at different things — and not core subjects like mathematics or the sciences — tend to lose interest quickly and don’t do as well overall as their counterparts. Because of this, they have to take a longer, if not harder, route to university. Most of these students will have to go to other institutes of higher learning (ITEs, polytechnics), where only a small top percentage of the cohort qualify to enter a government-subsidised university. Singapore is in the midst of expanding university places, but junior colleges remain the most direct route to a university.

Now, this would not be such a problem if the minimum expectation from the Singapore workforce was not a degree from a government university. But we’ve all got it in our heads that this is the only mark of a truly successful individual, and everyone else is second-rate at best.

It’s really a chicken-and-egg problem.

Parents will go to any length to ensure their child excels through primary school, to qualify for a good secondary school, to qualify for a good junior college, to qualify for a good university.(A ‘B’ in Mathematics? Accepted in a school that was second or third choice? They will fail at life. End of the world. For everyone.) And of course the paper-chasing workforce, for a long time, has only served to perpetuate this culture.

Everything we’re currently doing from the education standpoint is great — changing the curriculum, ensuring that every school is desirable, tweaking exam systems, creating more spaces in universities, etc., — but we should also tackle this problem from the other end of the stick (or, at the other end of the chicken’s reproduction system, if you will). Why?

Well, Singaporean parents are practical people. They know which industries pay the most and they know what qualifications future employers in these industries want. It is to be expected that they usher their children on this path to “success”.

And since we cannot change the definition of “success” overnight in people’s minds, perhaps we need to send a strong signal to all those in the education system — parents, teachers, students — that other types of professions are just as viable and respectable.

One way to do that is to implement minimum wage or income supplement specifically in these industries. For example, in the culinary arts, publishing or stage production. I am aware the markers for success will only show up after a long time, but anything is worth a shot at this point. I’m also aware that something like this may cause a disruption in the businesses’ operating costs, but a funding model (e.g., part employer part government) can be worked out to minimise impact on one party alone.

And this will also help adults who are looking to change careers. I mean, there’s no point encouraging Singaporeans to pursue their dreams via SkillsFuture if the industry they’re hoping to move into pays peanuts.

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