Impressions on Singapore: Some lessons to learn

Despite the extremely humid weather of Singapore, it has been one of my favorite destinations. Unfortunately, I have gone there several times and yet have never written anything about it until now. It is a very young and diverse nation, its nucleus being a fishing village. It has slowly given birth to itself, first from the British and later the Japanese. One could easily lump it with other formerly colonized countries. But no! Its present situation as a modern and highly developed society is far from the conditions of the Philippines and most of the other former colonies. FROM NOBODY TO SOMEBODY Unlike the Philippines that has abundant natural resources, Singapore does not have much except its minimal number of human resource. This tiny state does not even have extensive agricultural lands or enough water to sustain its inhabitants. As such, it depends much on importation for food and water. More, Singapore lacks human resources such that it has become lenient in accommodating foreigners, both skilled and unskilled, to participate in economic activities. Singapore has divisions along racial and cultural lines considering its multi-ethnic composition: Chinese, Malays and Tamil Indians. Meanwhile, regionalism is present, too, in the Philippines. But common between the two countries in the 1970s until mid-1980s was the rule by a strongman. Yet, Singapore and the Philippines developed in opposite directions: the island state turned first world that is respected internationally while our country remained in abject poverty. With such situations in mind, one is forced to conclude that Singapore’s rise was somewhat unexpected, phenomenally unique and a class of its own where lessons cannot be drawn meaningfully. It can be argued, however, that what it has accomplished is primarily a product of forged unity in establishing a new social contract among its people. This unity has been typified by a remarkable adherence to the rule of law and the presence of discipline among its people. FIRST-CLASS CITY, FIRST-CLASS COUNTRY Not everyone in Singapore is happy, at least when one hears of the people poking fun of the very nature of the state being a ‘heavily fined city.’ It has very strict rules, banning chewing gums importation and consumption. Simple traffic rules violations and littering merit huge sums as penalty. It is also extremely strict in implementing the death penalty for drug traffickers and those convicted of murder. Thus, the country has very low crime rate, is pristinely clean, and very attractive to tourists and international business. Of late, its being a center for international commerce has evolved into its dream of becoming a cultural hub in Southeast Asia. Where it all began its journey into its present-day social and economic development is common-sensical: education! Lee Kwan Yew, a product of Cambridge education, knew early on that Singapore would never develop unless it develops its people through quality education. He asked his people to set aside racial conflict in exchange for a dream to become prosperous and well-respected as a nation. THE ROLE OF EDUCATION IN SINGAPORE In this atmosphere, Singapore developed the educational system geared to prepare its people for the future. It knew it had to start first from vocational-technological training in order to immediately give everyone the chance for employment. When the country has reached its economic target, the educational system has been upgraded to train its people into becoming professionals ready to take important roles in running businesses, both local and foreign. Having achieved medium-ranged economic targets, the educational system was further upgraded for its people to become leaders in a knowledge economy. Its current educational system is top in the world. Its basic education students top every possible international assessment like the Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). It has become a trailblazer in the world of education because it dreams big, plans well, executes these in efficient systems and constantly critiques itself to spot imperfections, then tirelessly innovates. A place to learn about education is just a few hours of flight away from the Philippines, yet the Philippine educational bureaucracy, educational institutions, political as well as economic elites, and our people in general do not seem to be interested in learning the hard but effective lessons about genuine change. We need not copy every single facet of Singaporean change. But to miss those that are applicable, especially in education, is to miss a whole boat ride of impactful solutions to age-old problems of Philippine underdevelopment. An award-winning educational innovator and education reform advocate, as well as a multi-awarded literary writer, PROF. ROLANDO S. DELA CRUZ is President of the Darwin International School System. He is an alumnus and former faculty member of UP Diliman, who was also a scholar at the Osaka University (Japan), the University of Cambridge (England) and the University of Leiden (the Netherlands).