Two Party System Will Not Work in Singapore? How about 3, 4 or 5 Parties?

This article is contributed by a Singaporean residing and working in Finland. He had earlier contributed the article on the Finnish Education System on my blog.


Written by A Singaporean Observer in Finland

 Mr Lee Kuan Yew hopes Singapore would just stop at having a competitive opposition in Parliament – and he hopes Singaporeans would not be swayed into wanting a two-party system, believing that it would be better.

“I do not think so,” he said. “Among other reasons, I do not think Singapore can produce two top class teams. We haven’t the talent to produce two top class teams.”

Mr Lee said it is popular democracy that has driven governments in the United States and Europe into its current debt crisis. – The Business Times, Thursday, Sep 15, 2011

There has been much debate on whether Singapore should and can have a two party system. Founding father Lee Kuan Yew made his points clearly during a dialogue at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and then again in an interview with China Central Television that aired on 6 July.

Since then, there have been much rebuttals and agreements in varying volumes. This title may seem rather more exacerbating and may generate even more debate. There can be no definitive answer to whether a two party system is feasible in Singapore since there is little evidence in Singapore’s context to support this claim and vice versa. We can only look at how other successful countries with a two party system (or more in this case) to see if we can draw some lessons from there.


The Finnish Government – Finished from the start?

Residing in Finland presented an opportunity to witness competitive elections in 2011. The elections concluded on 17th April 2011 but the government was only officially inaugurated on 22nd June 2011 after a lengthy coalition negotiating period.

Finland’s 72nd government, headed by Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen, is a majority coalition formed by the National Coalition Party, the Social Democratic Party, the Left Alliance, the Swedish People’s Party in Finland, the Green League and the Christian Democratic Party.  The opposition is formed by the Centre Party and True Finns (recently renamed as The Finns). In case, you missed the count, it is 6 parties in government, 2 parties in opposition. If you look at the overall results, the total count is actually a staggering 18 political parties taking part in the elections. Here’s a snapshot:

General Elections 2011 in Finland – Result by party 


20.4.2011, 19.14

Turnover 2011

70,5 %

Votes Counted

100,0 %

Turnover 2007

67,9 %

Counting Status


Turnover 2008

61,3 %


Changes with General Election 2007


% Share of votes

MPs elected


% share



National Coalition Party



599 138



-17 703

Social Democratic Party



561 558



-32 636

True Finns



560 075



+447 819

Centre Party ofFinland



463 266



-177 162

Left WingAlliance



239 039



-5 257

Green League



213 172



-21 257

Swedish People’s Party



125 785




Christian Democrats inFinland



118 453



-16 337

Pirate Party ofFinland



15 103



+15 103

Independent Groups



11 763




Finnish Communist Party



9 232



-9 045

Change 2011



7 504



+7 504

Freedom Party



4 285



+4 285




3 236



-2 305

Senior Citizens Party



3 195



-13 520

The Finnish workers’ party



1 857




Communist Worker’s Party



1 575




For the Poor



1 335



-1 186


If you look at the 6 parties forming the coalition government, they have similarities but their differences are equally stark when examined from the political spectrum. Similarly, on the Finnish opposition end, the 2 parties have major differences as well, one anti-EU, the other pro-EU. The question thus is whether such a government is in gridlock over policy making, or making simple decisions a major hurdle?

The truth is that Finland continued to function normally after the elections and inauguration of the government. Essentially, public services continued unabated.

The True Embrace of Diversity

What is the secret then? There is no secret.

“Finnish society is based on hard work, respect for application and entrepreneurship, equality, solidarity and caring for one another. Respect for everyone and openness to diversity are Finnish virtues. Finland’s status as a bilingual country is a strength and resource. Various religions and communities are valuable to moral growth. In Finland, everyone is equal irrespective of their gender, age, ethnic origin, language, religion, convictions, opinions, health, disability, sexual orientation, or any other factor. The Government will systematically act against racism and discrimination.” – Programme of the Finnish Government, 22 June 2011

Incidentally, the Finnish Government Programme is an action plan agreed on by the parties represented in the Government, including the opposition. Not convinced? One opposition member chairs the parliamentary administration committee.  The administration committee is tasked with immigration policy as well as with a range of other issues. To add further, this new chairman is an outspoken critic of Finland’s immigration policy. The entire government programme is a worthwhile read, only 90 pages; 100 pages if you include the appendices. All the Finnish government’s priorities and policies from climate to welfare are covered here in one document, which demonstrates clearly the government’s ability to work as a whole despite having 8 different political parties in parliament. The Finnish electorate can judge the government by this document when the next elections are called. I can’t seem to find the Singaporean equivalent… but please point it out to us if anyone finds it.

What qualifies as a minister in Finland? A very short answer is this: Ministers must be Finnish citizens, known for their integrity and ability to serve.  In case, this doesn’t quite make an impact, perhaps this will. The Minister of Labour, Lauri Ihalainen is a carpenter but he has loads of experience with trade unions. You can view the membership of the Finnish government here and decide for yourself if the concept of diversity is truly embraced.

In case, you are interested in the ministerial pay package. It is as short as this:

 “Monthly remuneration paid to cabinet ministers is equivalent to that of a deputy speaker of Parliament (9,729 € per month in May 2011). The prime minister’s pay is same as the speaker of Parliament (11,675 € per month in May 2011). Ministerial pay is subject to tax. Members of Parliament appointed as members of the Government forfeit half of the salary and expense allowance they receive from Parliament. A member of the Government is entitled to a 30-day paid leave corresponding to annual holiday.”

Source: Ministerial pay, Facts about the Government

 (note: 1 € is equivalent to SGD 1.74 in today’s exchange rate)


A Finnish Heritage?

Finland has a history of having multiple parties forming a government and perhaps, this may be the reason why the Finns are comfortable with such diversity in their political arena. The past Finnish governments (especially those in power over 1300 days) have never been dominated by one single political party. Some readers may like to dig this a little deeper. You will find more information here. When looking at the numbers, do bear in mind the history of Finland at those times, particularly the shortest serving governments.

If there is anyone believing that the Finns are all cordial with each other in the political arena, you can’t be more wrong than that. Have a look at these two pieces of news: Finns party MPs handed “forbidden words” list and Kiviniemi: Hard to work with Finns Party. Openness is better than keeping it under the table, when it can boil over; but clearly they practice responsibility for what they say.

The Finnish electorate (President Halonen: Voters Expressed Dissatisfaction) themselves show clearly that they are a matured lot. I personally think this makes a difference. In all my conversations with my local contacts here, we can differ on opinions in politics, sociology, economics and even the way we speak English, but we remain friends and close ones. You can have a civilised debate here, and no matter how heated it gets, you can part ways not as enemies or opponents, but as more knowledgeable people at the end. Perhaps, the weather here helps keep heads cool.  People respect each other’s vote, whether it is for the Pirate Party or Green League. Clearly, openness to diversity is already ingrained as part of the national identity. See my previous post on education for pointers why this is the case.

In Conclusion

I agree with Mr Lee that Singapore should not produce two top class teams. Why should there be two?  It should just be ONE, but that team needs diversity from all possible quarters, even from the opposition. If this team cannot even deal with diversity between themselves, how can they possibly deal with the diversity within Singapore itself? The political divide will only become a national divide if the leaders do not first take the lead to close the divide.

Following the aftermath of GE and PE 2011, there have been divides between friends and families. The Singaporean electorate (regardless of which side you are on) needs time to mature to see that the person who votes differently is not an opponent, trouble maker, anti-establishment and whatever label we can think of. We are all equals, who are different, but still Singaporean. Surely, we can embrace and respect diversity as well as the Finns do; Singapore being more a more ethnically diverse society than Finland is.

Tn my perspective, the senior Mr Lee’s comment on that popular democracy is the main cause for the current debt crisis is a little harsh and overbearing . A debt crisis is not solely the fault of a government and perhaps, we differ in this opinion since Mr. Lee believes that strong governments can avert all crises. Lest we forget, that the word ‘crisis’ in Chinese (危机), actually has an opportunity component in it. It may serve us better to embrace crises to seek out better opportunities.


The author attended ACS & Nanyang Junior College in Singapore, graduated from the University of Manchester, served in the civil service for 15 years and is currently residing in Finland.

A photo journey of Bhutan (part 3) – Education and religion

In March 2011, we made an education exchange trip to Bhutan. This blog is part 3 of a series documenting life in Bhutan in the form of a photograph journey, as I saw the country. The photographs in this blog are reduced in size for ease of download. All photographs are copyright of the author unless otherwise stated.
We visited a village school near Punakha town. Punakha, located in a valley is one of the towns at relatively low elevation. We took 1 hour 45 minutes to reach there, thanks to a wrong turn and bumpy roads. It would have taken an hour if we were on track.

Presenting gifts from Singapore to a Bhutan village school - books, eBooks and stationaries. This was followed by a dialogue between the school teachers and our delegation. Both sides learnt immensely from each other. We asked to have a look at some English composition by the children and were fairly impressed with the writings and poetries of grade 5 (11 year-old) students. English is used as the standard language for most of their textbooks. Teachers are all from Bhutan as well as from various parts of India.


Village school near Punakha town. The school's building is partly built by the Indian government, which also funded a computer laboratory with around 6 computers and provides IT lessons. The school takes in students from grades 1 to 9. The school has several buildings like this one. A new building was being added when we were there. Children would walk miles from farms to school every day.


Students in an middle primary class standing up to greet us. There are around 30 students in a class, one class per grade.


Young students seated neatly with folded arms awaiting instruction from the teacher. Students are generally well behaved.


A child's best friend. One of several dogs sleeping in the school. These dogs accompany their masters to school and wait there till school is dismissed. They then accompany the children home. Nice security escort!

We visited a private primary school in the capital city, Thimphu. A Singapore school, Xingnan primary had a delegation of teachers and students visiting them last year. Amongst its students is a girl whose mother is Singaporean.

Students performing in front of a princess to celebrate the anniversary of the King's visit to the school. I enjoyed their singing. A contest was earlier held for the best drawing of the King. The school is one of several private schools in the capital city, Thimphu. Fees are relatively inexpensive in private schools compared to developed countries, with fees under $100 a month per child.

A picture with the princess (in purple) and the owner of the private school (in green)

A classroom in the private school

Library in the private school


Our team and the workshop participants comprising mostly principals and vice principals of selected schools in capital city, Thimphu

Bhutanese are nearly all Buddhist. They practice Mahayana Buddhism, which orignates from Tibet. There are 4 major schools of Buddhism in Bhutan. Monks can either be celibate or can raise a family and work in the secular world.
Religion is pretty much integrated with daily lives. The dzongs or fortresses contain both administrative (government) offices as well as monasteries and  living quarters for monks. Our tour guide said it is an  honour for a family to have a monk. He aspires to be a monk one day, after a few more years of work as a tour guide. He turns religious every time we visit a temple.

The Punakha dzong, holding both an administration centre and a place of worship.


The temple inside the Punakha dzong

An old cypress tree, reputedly up to a thousand years old rises majestically in the Kychu Lhakhang temple near Paro town. Kychu Lhakhang, originally built in the 7th century is one of the oldest temple in Bhutan and an important Himalayan temple. Cypress is the official tree of Bhutan.

Cherry blossom in Kyichu Lhakhang temple.

Paryer wheels on the side of a temple wall. A mantra in Sanskrit is written on each wheel. Turning it is considered as meritorious as reciting the prayers.
 Paryer wheels on the side of a temple wall. A mantra in Sanskrit is written on each wheel. Turning it is considered as meritorious as reciting the prayers.

The Tiger's Nest monastery locked in a steep and high mountain cliff. There are various buildings on the mountain. The cluster in this picture is the most well known and highly photographed. It takes good stamina to reach the monastery.

 Close up of Tiger’s Nest. It was first built in 1692, destroyed by a fire in 1998 and rebuilt in 2005.

A young monk posing for us.


Monks in a row awaiting for the surprise arrival of the King at the Paro spring festiival

A photo journey of Bhutan (part 2) – People and life

In March 2011, we made an education exchange trip to Bhutan. This blog is part 2 of a series documenting life in Bhutan in the form of a photograph journey, as I saw the country. The photographs in this blog are reduced in size for ease of download. All photographs are copyright of the author unless otherwise stated.


Bhutan is a relatively closed country. Its indigenous population is the Drukpa, which is broken down into three main ethnic groups, the Sharchops, Ngalops and the Lhotsampas (of Nepalese origin). Bhutan’s earliest residents, the Sharchops reside mainly in eastern Bhutan. They can be traced to the tribes of northern Burma and northeast India. The Ngalops migrated from the Tibetan plainsa and bringing with them Buddhism, which is widely practiced in Bhutan today. Most of the Lhotsampas migrated to the southern plains in the early 20th century seeking agricultural land and work.

Merchant in Sunday market in capital city, Thimphu. The market is a vibrant place during Sundays.


A monk in a very old monastery. According to our tour guide, there are lay monks who can have a family and those who consecrate their lives for Buddhism. He said he would like to be a consecrated monk one day.


Grade 1 student in a village school


Cheeky boys getting ready to return to class after recess


Lady on handphone at the midway point in a 900 metres ardous climb up to the Tiger's Nest monastery. The monastery is located on a steep cliff at 3,120 metres above sea level. Many prayer flags are hung along mountains in Bhutan.


A lady merchant lying down by the path on the climb up Tiger's Nest monastery, waiting for customers to purchase her souveniers. Many peddlers have set up makeshift stalls along the mountainous pathway of this popular attraction. Not many sales take place, due to small number of tourists and large number of peddlers.

We were fortunate to be in Bhutan during the annual Paro Tsechu, a colourful festival in spring lasting for five days. Most of my photographs of Bhutanese in colourful outfits were taken at the event.

Three girls dressed for the Paro spring festival, watching the show from a vintage position.


A multitude of thousands lining the hillside watching the Paro festival show.


A young boy with titbits, waiting for Paro show to start.


Three girls walking to Paro spring festival. We saw many people on the road walking many tens of kilometres to the festival on our way by private bus there,


A boy concentrating on his handphone at the Paro festival, even in the mdist of much noise and movement.


Two ladies in their festival best


Young girl in sunglasses at the festival


Looking cool in traditional outfits


Deep in concentration despite noise and multitudes of people



 Life in Bhutan

Men at archery in an open field by the road. It is common to see men practising archery as it is their most popular pastime. The typical distance is around 140 metres from the target, as opposed to 50 metres in Olympics. Amazingly, a group of young ladies were happily dancing between the archers and the target, at a little angle off the line of shot. These men were fairly accurate. Unfortunately, Olympics archery format is different from that practiced in Bhutan and they did not do well in their first participation at the 2008 Beijing Olympics Games.

Young ladies dancing a little off line of flight of arrow from archer to target. One of our team members joined in the dancing. Nope, none of us were close to being shot at.


Children skipping rubberbands during breaktime in school


Rice sellers at the Sunday market in capital city Thimphu. The market is open only on Sunday.

Shoppers on Sunday in Thimphu. There are many Indians living and working in Thimphu.


Colourful handicrafts on sale at Sunday market in makeshift tents in Thimphu


A teacher from south India teaching in a private school in Thimphu. He was originally sent by the Indian government to teach in Bhutan and has now joined the private education sector.


A provision shop in Thimphu with a window shop front, manned by a young lady back in town during the school holidays.


Fresh vegatables in a roadside stall in capital city Thimphu on sale in the evening.


Negotiating to buy Yak cheese, apples and dried persimmons on a mountain pass trail. Yak cheese is tasteless and hard. After sucking at it for half an hour, my jaws were tired and I had to discard the half eaten Yak cheese. Good thing it's inexpensive.


Our tour operator giving us a surprise picnic with home-cooked food by a stream. Picnics are popular in Bhutan.


A dog lying peacefully amongst a crowd of people at the Paro festival. Dogs are very common throughout Bhutan. One of my team members woke up earlier to jog while at Thimphu but was scared off by a horde of dogs trailing her. I did not see cats though. Not with so many dogs everywhere.


A bull making its way through the crowd in Paro festival. People around it seemed unconcerned about its movement. Cows are fairly common in Bhutan, but not as much as in India.


With a Singaporean restaurant cum tour owner in Thimphu (in black). She is one of only two Singaporean ladies who have settled permanently in Bhutan after marrying Bhutanese. Her daughter now studies in an Indian high school based on the Cambridge examination system. By sheer coincidence, I met members of both Singaporean families on the same day. One was the daughter of the other Singaporean lady who is a student in a private primary school. In the evening, we stumbled into this restaurant and the owner recognised us by our 'Singaporean' English accent!

A villager with a basket of manure to prepare the padi fields for the next round of planting.

A villager giving direction to our bus driver when we lost our way navigating to a village school. There is hardly any road sign in the outskirts. We had to do a multi-point turn to change direction of the bus along a narrow dirt path on the edge of the cliff to backtrack our path out. I believed most on the bus prayed anxiously for safety as we perched close on the edge doing the multi-point U-turn.


A cluster of prayer flags on the way up Tiger's Nest. Such prayer flags dot the entire mountainous landscape. Bhutanese believe the wind will catch the prayers on the flags to take the prayers to their loved ones. At funerals, large prayer flags are flown.


An 'interesting' sign spotted at the Paro festival. Most Bhutanese speak English. In schools, most subjects are taught in English, except for learning of the Bhutanese language. Textbooks are in English.

A photo journey of Bhutan (part 1) – Architecture and environment

All photographs are copyright of the author unless otherwise stated. Future posts will cover education, life, religion and government.

An edcation exchange trip to Bhutan

In March 2011, I went with a group of 11 other educators to the Kingdom of Bhutan on an education exchange programme. It was self organised and self funded, with team leader and former MOE principal, Mr Koh Boon Long making the contacts with Bhutanese schools to tie down the 5-day programme.

Group arriving at Paro International Airport, 13 March 2011. I was not in the picture as I was the photographer.

That was my first trip to Bhutan and an enlightening one. This blog documents life in Bhutan in the form of a photograph journey, as I saw the country. The photographs in this blog are reduced in size for ease of download.

The small Drukair aeroplane that brought us from Bangkok to Bhutan. There are limited airports that connect into Bhutan. The most convenient for Singaporeans is from Bangkok, where there is a daily flight in the early morning. We stayed a night in Bangkok to be on time for this flight. Druk means dragon, the symbol of Bhutan. Drukair is the national airline.

Paro International Airport, at an elevation of 2,200 metres. It is 6 km from Paro town and sits in a valley at the bank of the Paro river. With surrounding mountains with peaks of up to 5,500 metres, it is one of the world's most challenging airport to fly into. Flight timings are often changed due to wind conditions. Our flight had to be push forward 1.5 hours because of impending strong winds. We heard some passengers missed their flight due to the change of timing and had to wait for the next day's flight.


Bhutan has its unique architecture, with buildings that seemed to have come from the 18th century. There is a blend of ancient Chinese and Indian influence in the designs. There are not many modern and tall buildings yet in this country of around 700,000 population.

Decorated wooden window frames of an entertainment centre in Paro town. There are some discos and night dancing entertainment places even in this reclusive country, a sign of globalisation influencing its culture. Smoking is banned but liquour is widely available and permitted.


New buildings in capital city, Thimphu. These buildings have less intricate designs and are more functional compared to traditional Bhutanese architecture

Village houses by the mountainside and beside padi fields, farms and rivers.


Houses by the countryside near town


A typical house by a mountain road

A roof made of zinc and wood with heavy stones holding the pieces down due to frequent strong winds.
Some houses, even in towns still have such roofs.

A hotel / commercial building in capital city Thimphu. Indian architectural influence on new buildings is quite strong. India has strong influence in Bhutan. They provide much of the defence and support in infrastructure development.


Interior of a dzong. A dzong is a fortress that contains both the administrative centre (government) of the area, temple and housing for monks. There are many dzongs in Bhutan.


Close up of wall and windows in a dzong. Walls are typically white and windows are crafted with fine designs.


A temple inside a dzong

A dzong by the river. Dzongs and houses dot the mountainside and valleys, often beside streams of fresh mountain waters.


Bhutan’s terrain is some of the most rugged in the world. There is huge variations in altitude for a relatively small geography. Bhutan’s elevation rises from 150 metres to more than 7,500 metres. Preservation of the environment is taken seriously by the Bhutanese. It is worded into its constitution to provide for the adoption and support of environment friendly practices and policies. At least sixty percent of Bhutan’s total land must be maintained as forest for all time. It currently stands at around 70%.

Bhutan is smoke free. Import and sale of cigarettes is illegal and punishable by a jail term.

Bright and warm morning sun on a mountainous route

Evening view from the window of our hotel facing a river near Punakha


View of the Himalayan mountains from Dochula pass at elevation of 3,150 metres. The pass separates capital city Thimphu and Punakha valley. Mount Everest can be seen from this pass.


Coniferous trees high up in Dochula pass with Himalayas in the background


A cuckoo bird hides amongst the tree branches near the Tiger's Nest


The takin is the national animal of Bhutan. It is found only in the eastern Himalayas. It has the body of a cow and the head of a goat.


Close up of cones. There are many coniferous trees on the mountains of Bhutan.


Red cherry blossom at a temple


The Finnish Education Model – Should Singapore emulate it?

After my recent blog post on Social Mobility where I touched on the Finnish education system, I received an email from a Singaporean living and working in Finland. I invited him to share with us a comparison of the Singapore and Finnish education system from the perspective of one who has experienced both systems first-hand.


 Written by A Singaporean Observer in Finland

Finland is a quirky country, known for Nokia and Angry Birds. The Finns spend less than Singapore on defence and yet shares a border with Russia, who has a nuclear arsenal. The latest fad about Finland though, has been its education model.

Singapore and most countries have been studying the Finnish model to see if they can adopt and adapt it for themselves.

As a Singaporean living in Finland for the last four years, I had the opportunity to learn, understand and experience the Finnish education system in detail. My son has just started his own education journey here as well. It is a purely academic exercise to learn and read about a model, but profoundly illuminating to experience it first-hand.

Comparison between the Finnish and Singapore Education Model

“In Finland, the basic right to education and culture is recorded in the Constitution of Finland. Public authorities must secure equal opportunities for every resident in Finland to get education also after compulsory education and to develop themselves, irrespective of their financial standing. Legislation provides for compulsory education and the right to free pre-primary and basic education. Most other qualifying education is also free of charges for the students, including postgraduate education at universities.” – Finnish National Board of Education (

For Singaporeans reading this statement, it must certainly raise intriguing questions. Free education and yet still the best? University education is free even for foreigners? How do they do it? Why do they do it?  Personally, the oddity for me is that this statement is in English. There are very few official Finnish websites in English although more of it is now being introduced as a result of immigrant inflows. I believe that the Finnish government sees it as an advantage to be understood rather than be dogmatically defending its stance. It is a politically brave move but a superbly wise one.

The Finnish education system depicted below:

Finnish Education System


The Singapore education system depicted below:

The Singapore Education System

Source: (page 3)

If you put them side by side, it would not take a genius to figure out which is simpler to understand.

There are three key differences here that can be identified immediately.

The first is the start and end points of the models. The Finnish model has a pre-primary education aspect in it and the ending point is actually a doctoral degree, whereas the Singapore model starts with primary school and ends at the undergraduate level.

The second is that work experience is only introduced at the end stage. If you take a look at another version of the Finnish education model here, you would see that work experience can start after ISCED level 3.

The remaining difference is that polytechnic degrees are on par with university degrees in Finland. Perhaps, those with keener eyes will also note the absence of private entities in the Finnish model.  Education is not a big commercial entity yet in Finland. There are private schools but few in comparison with Singapore. Those opting for private schools are still subsidised by the government, i.e. the government pays the equivalent sum as accorded for attendance in public schools, and parents pay the outstanding amount after the offset. Meritocratic enough?

It is not difficult to postulate from these differences, how one model will exceed the other. The Finnish model starts from a strong foundation at 8 months and finishes strong in the higher educational hierarchy. The Singapore model starts building foundations (officially) at age 7 and ends at the basic university education level. In Singapore’s case, MOE also does not have any focus on adult education since that is parked with the Ministry of Manpower instead. The Finnish model embraces adult education in its system.


Starting Young the Finnish Way and Never Finishing?

The Finnish daycares or päiväkoti (literally meaning day home in English) takes in children as young as 8 months. (Finnish maternity leave is 9 months, but you start your leave a month before the birth date. Once your maternity leave has expired, you either extend your maternity leave or send your child to the daycare.) From 8 months to 6 years old, the child is already learning through play. There is no formal teaching or learning at all. They sing, play indoors and outdoors (rain, shine or snow). My son willingly goes to school. My problem is now is getting him to leave school and remind him that school does not open on weekends. Perhaps, this is the Finnish way of cultivating a desire for school by associating it with fun times.

At 6 years old, all kids go through a pre-primary phase. 

“The general principles set forth in the core curriculum emphasise the child’s individuality and the significance of active learning and the importance of acting as a group member. Pre-primary education is based on the child’s own knowledge, skills and experiences. Its focus is on play and a positive outlook on life. From the educational point of view, working methods that accustom children to teamwork are of the utmost importance. Another central consideration is to promote the child’s own initiative and to emphasise its significance as the foundation for all activities.” – Finnish Board of Education

 In contrast, Singapore’s preschool is outsourced to the private sector with the following desired outcomes as listed here.

The question to ask is: Is early education critical enough not to outsource to the private sector, including community foundations, religious bodies, social organisations and business organisations, especially when some of the desired outcomes are important and fundamental to the formation of an individual?

The follow-on question would be: How do you ensure that there is no disparity at the end of the preschool education and ensure that the principle of meritocracy is adhered to?

Actually, the answer is provided by MOE here. It is a 40-page framework for kindergarten curriculum in Singapore. It contains an abundant sample of great quotes about education and the importance of early education. Here lies the irony. If the formative years are so important and perhaps even critical towards nation-building, why is it outsourced?

With regards to the end stage of the Singapore Education Model, a good question would be: Why end at the first degree? Is Singapore not interested in birthing new knowledge through greater numbers of locals pursuing further education or would it rather buy-in new knowledge? Or should people focus on getting girlfriends or boyfriends, get married, and procreate after graduation?

Much more can be stated about the differences between the models and functions of education in the two countries. Those interested will find all the information about the Finnish system here. Another good article on the Finnish Education Model can be found here.


Is there a weakest link in the Finnish Education Model?

The short answer is yes. The weakest link is actually at the university level. You will not find any of the Finnish universities in the global top 50 ranking. The highest is theUniversity of Helsinki, which ranks globally at 89. NUS ranks at 28 and NTU at 58. The Finns are not obsessed with ranking and not overly perturbed by this fact. However, they do recognise that there is a problem. There are some major policies and plans now in place to address the issue with clinical efficiency.

This does not mean that they churn out graduates that are inferior to the rest of the world. In reality, graduates here have a stronger sense of team working and the ability to embrace ambiguity. The phobia of failure and obsession with control is largely absent here. Failure and ambiguity are often perceived as opportunities in businesses, social development or personal achievement in Finland. I had a torrid time in my first year of university education here. 14 years of formal education and 15 years in the civil service in Singapore prepared me badly for embracing ambiguity. The Finns do not believe in a right answer, just an answer that may evolve with time.

Creativity and innovation is birthed from the beginning of their early childhood. Both of which involve embracing ambiguity. The key to success for the Finns is that their education model feeds into their ecosystem, which in turns nourishes it. Education is not a means to an end, nor is it an end in itself.  


The answer to the question is…

There are two key aspects to answering the question.  The first is the comparison between the Finnish and Singaporean Education Model. The second is the context, i.e. the Finnish ecosystem vis-à-vis the Singaporean ecosystem. The former, as outlined above, while inadequate, given the limitation of a blog piece, offers some insights. If we want a reasoned discourse on its merits and practicality for implementation in Singapore’s context, we need to have a more in-depth study. Experiential knowledge of the Finnish model would add a layer of practicality. While education is supposedly a universal concept, implementation, methods and functions can differ from country to country, given its own unique ecosystem at play. This is something to keep in mind, before we adopt or adapt any component of the Finnish Education Model.

You cannot do a “plug and play” of components from any ecosystem element and hope that it works miracles, although the Singaporean government has honed this skill over the last four decades. As a friend once imparted these wise words –

“You cannot hope to achieve different results by doing things the same way. You cannot hope to avoid consequences if you do things differently.”


Education is a vehicle that can effect changes in the entire ecosystem, be it social mobility or GDP. If a government changes its education model, it cannot hope to avoid consequences in one or more of the elements. I just wonder how ready Singaporeans and the government are for change and consequences. Perhaps, the focal point of the Finnish government supports its education model – the people’s well-being. If you are unwell, what can you achieve? How can you achieve?

My answer to the question thus, from the Finnish perspective, would be yes and no. I will probably ask my son, year after year, if he still enjoys school. The Abu Dhabi government though, has already decided to pilot the Finnish education system in two of their schools.


– The author attended ACS & Nanyang Junior College in Singapore, graduated from the University of Manchester, served in the civil service for 15 years and is currently residing in Finland.

Social inequality in Singapore

Last week, I wrote about social mobility in Singapore.

The ST Interview of Associate Professor Aneel Karnani of the University of Michigan in The Straits Times (14 Sep 2011) offers additional thoughts on what’s happening with regards to social inequality in Singapore. Social mobility and social inequality are interlinked. High social mobility is a tool to lower social inequality. According to Professor Aneel, income inequality is an inevitable by-product of free market economics. Technology and globalisation are two major factors why there is increasing social inequality in affluent countries, including Singapore.

Professor Aneel argued why despite being a firm supporter of free economics, he believes some degree of wealth distribution is necessary. A high degree of social inequality would lead to exploitation of the most vulnerable. I would add that having a large number of the underclass desperate for their livelihoods may lead to widespread social unrest and even to the overthrowing of regimes, as seen from the Arab Spring uprisings. Several Arab governments were forced down because of public anger. It was sparked off by a poor and desperate street vendor in Tunisa who burnt himself to death to protest against harassment and humiliation by the authorities. There is high social inequality in the Arab world.

The ST article reported some interesting statistics. 4.2% or 83,400 of employed Singaporeans and residents still earned less than $500 a month, the same way as they did back in 1999. 45,000 households are renting subsidised one- and two-room flats now, an increase from 40,500 in 2008.

Some of the top issues raised by residents at Meet-the-People sessions are rental flats and inability to deal with medical costs and living costs. Recently, an acquaintance told me her father draws $600 a month as a security guard. He works around 8 hours a day. He had previously worked as a food hawker in a market but could not earn much despite working long hours at his stall. Lacking other skills, he switched from being a hawker to become a security guard.

Professor Aneel felt that Singapore needed to debate what it can do to reduce social inequality. Our economy grew 14.5% in 2010 but our gap between the rich and the poor was the second largest among all developed economies, second only to Hong Kong. Our Gini coefficient, which measures income inequality on a scale between zero to one, has risen from 0.43 in 2000 to 0.452 last year despite government transfers of wealth through schemes like Workfare bonus and Growth dividend pay-outs. The Gini average among the developed economies represented by the members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is 0.31.

Professor Aneel argued that our inequality is even higher if we factor in the large pool of transient blue collar workers who are not captured in the Gini statistics. Many such workers have been brought in as cheap labour, which has suppressed wages at the lower end of the population.

In his Q&A for ST Interview, Professor Aneel said that too much inequality leads to an inter-generational transfer of inequality and no social mobility. He too, believed that education was the way to allow social mobility. But poor children tend not to get a good education, even if schools are free. I share the same sentiments with the Professor.

Another area he argued for is minimum wage, something our government has firmly rejected. He believed that there are many jobs that productivity cannot go up easily. Hence, some form of transfer of payments can be effected through minimum wage. It also prevents the exploitation of labour. Hong Kong and Australia have implemented minimum wage. Singapore has a per capita GDP comparable to Australia and higher than Hong Kong. Are our salaries at the lower income levels equivalent to these countries?

Singapore believes strongly in free markets and meritocracy. These have combined to contribute to our rapid economic transformation over the past four decades. But they do lead to situations where the rich get richer, the poor get poorer. Over time, they lead to higher social inequity and lower social mobility, something that many Singaporeans are experiencing over the last decade.

Our economic model has been one of relentless pursuit of GDP growth. GDP growth determines many things, including civil servants’ and ministers’ salaries and bonuses. We rely on it to grow the economic pie. The pie has indeed grown, but the distribution of it has been unequal. Median income has been fairly stagnant over the past decade but the cost of living has risen sharply, particularly in the last three years and continues to remain high.

Professor Aneel called for Singapore to have its own robust debate on our model of handling social inequality. I feel this would be useful. We need to occasionally pause to review our model of pursuing growth at all cost to see what effects it has had on society. We need to also do a more comprehensive study and debate on minimum wage to see if it can be one of the tools to help deal with social inequality.


Social mobility in Singapore

Associate Professor Koo Tsai Kee wrote in a Straits Times review that ‘social mobility carried three Tans to the Istana gate’.  In it, he described how Dr Tan Cheng Bock, Mr Tan Jee Say and Mr Tan Kin Lian were from humble family backgrounds but made it in life to qualify to challenge for the highest office in the land.

Professor Koo argued that Singapore practices a system of meritocracy, where it is possible for those from humble family backgrounds to rise to the top through performance. Hence, there is social mobility.

The question is, has it become harder over the years to be socially mobile?

The three Tans mentioned by Professor Koo came from an earlier era in Singapore when most Singaporeans were poor. Opportunities were there for those who strived hard. Most people did not receive high education. Career possibilities were opened to those who have a fair command of the English language. For those who were not academically inclined or were forced by circumstances to enter the workforce early in life, they may end up operating a small business after accumulating modest savings. The cost of doing business was much smaller then. Many prominent businessmen started that way and went on to build extensive business empires.

Our world has become very different since then. Change is necessary as our country and the world progress. It takes a lot more to move ahead today, or even just to keep pace.

Education continues to be an important avenue for social mobility. Today, a bright and diligent person can still move up socially by doing well academically and thereafter secure a good job. What has happened though is that over the years we had branded and ranked our schools and had greatly increased the pressures on students. These have created a system that has made it harder for those in the lower income group to bridge.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew observed recently that more than half the students at top schools like Raffles Institution had fathers who were university graduates. On the other hand, he noted that among the four neighbourhood schools he had obtained data on, the highest percentage was at Chai Chee Secondary where only 13.1 per cent were university graduates.

Mr Lee had earlier visited RGPS and Punggol Primary School and remarked that admission to primary school is not meritocratic, as it is based on the social class of the parents (one just needs to observe the queue of cars outside branded and neighbourhood primary schools at dismissal time to see the distribution of students by social class in primary schools). Mr Lee added that this gap will be bridged by the Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE), where those who do well will have the chance to enter a good school.

In a forum letter in February this year, NUS Assistant Professor of social work, Irene Ng reported her team’s findings that correlated young people’s earnings with their parents’ earnings. She compared Singapore and USA data on ‘intergenerational mobility’, or the extent to which children’s economic status depends on their parents‘. If the children of rich parents grow up to be rich, while the children of poor parents stay poor, then intergenerational mobility is low.

They found that Singapore‘s intergenerational mobility was similar to that of the United States, which is low compared with other developed countries. Low intergenerational mobility implies that those whose parents were at the bottom tend to also remain at the bottom, while those whose parents were at the top tend to stay there.

Assistant Professor Irene also cited research on intergenerational mobility that found that the type of education system has an impact on mobility.

She reported that countries with private and varied education systems tend to have low mobility, while countries with public and universal education systems tend to have high mobility. Also, low mobility is related to expensive tertiary education, and high mobility to low–cost tertiary education.

Our education system has changed a lot from the time I was a student. Tuition was rare then. I went through school without tuition. We had PSLE but we did not quite care about the branding of the secondary school we went to. Most of us chose schools out of convenience and to be where friends were. University fee was then about $1,000 a year.

We have since moved streaming down to primary three for selection of gifted students and to primary four for subject-based banding. We further streamed them at the end of primary six for secondary schools into special, express, normal academic and normal technical tracks.

With the exercise to rank schools, we have made the branding of schools more conscious to parents. Over the years, as better students moved to the more known schools and weaker students to the less known schools, branding became more distinct. Most parents today feel it is impossible for their children to do well without tuition. They feel helpless when their children are streamed into undesired tracks and when their children have to go into unpopular schools.

Students are enroled into primary schools mostly based on social class. In secondary school, it is possible for good and diligent students to move into good schools. Indeed, many have done so. However, as Mr Lee had observed, secondary schools were still very much divided by social class. This is due to the advantages accorded to children from better families in our competitive education system.

When the social classes do not mix much, it will in turn lead to greater elitism in society. The ‘haves’ will not understand the ‘have-nots’. This divide is not good for society.

Late developers who end up being streamed into slower tracks may have their confidence destroyed or may mix with the wrong company, making it harder for them to climb out of the situation.

Interestingly, Finland has gone the opposite direction from Singapore and from most other countries. The Finns have delayed streaming till the end of 9 years of compulsory education. They have moved away from concentrating resources on branded schools and have moved resources evenly to all schools. Their schools mix good and weak students together in the same class rather than separate them.  Finnish students also spend the fewest number of hours in the classroom in the developed world. Rather than suffer a decline in standards, Finland is scoring consistently high in the world ranking of students’ results in international tests. Finland also has a high degree of social mobility compared to other developed countries.

I am not advocating that we blindly adopt Finland’s model. Education is complex and culture dependent. The issues are not easy to solve. It is useful for us to pause at this stage of our development to critically question the path we have taken and see if there are alternative ways for us to still achieve good academic results with lesser stress on students and which will encourage greater social mobility.

Entrepreneurship is another way to raise social mobility. It has been so in the past, with poor immigrants making it good through shrewd business operations. However, in Singapore, there are two main challenges now when it comes to starting businesses:

  1. A risk averse culture. SMU Assistant Professor Chung Wai Keung in an interview with The Straits Times on 6 Apr 2011 pointed out that Singapore’s risk averse culture weighs down its social mobility because it discourages entrepreneurship, a crucial means by which the low-income can scale the social hierarchy. He stated that while the government encourages Singaporeans to take risks, the whole system discourages students from doing so. It becomes more rational for students to just find a job after leaving school.
  2. It is not easy to start a new business. Cost of doing business has increased greatly due to rents and manpower. Also, we have a small domestic market and an overbearing presence of government-run businesses that often compete with local enterprises. These factors have discouraged would-be-entrepreneurs.

Singapore has come a long way in its economic development. Experts in this field have also noted that social mobility has become more difficult now. Nominated MP and National University of Singapore (NUS) sociologist Paulin Straughan noted the path to upward mobility is not closed. In every cohort, there will be somebody from an underprivileged background who has made it. At the same time, she pointed to a reality that exists in all developed countries: Mobility declines with development.

While we congratulate those who have made it through the lower income ranks, we must also be aware that certain factors have now made it increasingly more difficult for social mobility to take place. By being mindful of these, we can hopefully give those who are less privileged a better chance to succeed.

Happy kids in Bhutan

A Street Party for Neighbourliness

(article was first posted on my other blog site:
On 12 Aug, I was pleasantly surprised to receive an email invitation by a resident of Jalan Bintang Tiga in Opera Estate for their annual street party on 3 Sep.

It was their 12th street party, an unbroken tradition started since 2000 around National Day to allow neighbours to get together in a fun setting.

Jalan Bintang Tiga is special to me. I had lived for 27 years in my parents’ house in the next street before shifting to my matrimonial home nearby. I had walked by this street nearly every day when I was young. It was wonderful to know of neighbours getting together for a street party. I accepted the invitation without hesitation.

Pinata and Agar Agar displaying “12th Jln Bintang Tiga Street Party”

I like the idea of street parties. It is organised informally by a group of residents. There is no formal committee, just residents who want to gather together in a relaxed environment so that children and adults can better understand one another.

The star resident on Jalan Bintang Tiga is Mr Yasin, a resident who turns 100 this month. He came out in his wheelchair briefly for the photo-taking. It was awesome seeing some 50 residents gathered on the street. Some had already moved out of the area but continued to return yearly for the annual party. Each brought their own food for the potluck event. My wife contributed the sushi.

The Jln Bintang Tiga ‘Kampong’, with oldest resident Mr Yasin in the centre

Residents mingled freely with one another. Children ran around playing with each other. Volunteers helped organised the event. One resident, who is a contractor helped put up the lighting.  There were many open doors that night. I noted residents and children moving in and out of various houses at ease. It brings back memories of the kampong spirit.

Hitting the Pinata

It was interesting to even see a Straits Times reporter and its photographer for event. I had viewed this as a social gathering which I was most happy to attend to meet old neighbours and make new friends. I guess in the light of recent revelations that the PA had for a long time imposed restrictions on residents inviting opposition MPs for grassroots events, the neighbourliness of this event caught the media’s attention.

 Chatting with Charles, Siglap CCC member and Opera Estate Neighbourhood Committee Chairman

Chatting with residents

My GE2011 opponent, MP Charles Chong was there too. I had met him several times since GE2011 at various national level functions. The street party was the first time we met in a social gathering inside Joo Chiat SMC. Several times when we bumped into one another at events, we would compare notes on feedback by residents. Despite not being elected and not holding any meet-the-people session, some residents continue to give me feedback over issues.

Living inside of Joo Chiat SMC itself makes it easier for me to interact with residents. For some feedback, I helped to write in directly to various government authorities for their attention, copied to the MP. Some cases which I felt required the MP’s intervention, I advised the residents to go direct to the MP. Indeed I am happy to note that park facilities, drains and pavements have been attended to quite quickly by the authorities after the feedback.

We sometimes hear of ugly neighbours’ problems in private estates. Often, we hear that Singaporeans close themselves to their neighbours, hardly knowing one another. During GE2011, I spoke of the importance in having a friendly neighbourliness spirit. I saw that last night at the Jalan Bintang Tiga street party.

Making the Ordinary into Winners: A Tribute to Teachers on Teacher’s Day

The task of the excellent teacher is to stimulate “apparently ordinary” people to unusual effort. The tough problem is not in identifying winners: it is in making winners out of ordinary people. ~K. Patricia Cross, Education Scholar

This quotation stood out amongst the many I came across searching for inspiration quotes for Teacher’s Day. I guess it is because I have always considered myself ordinary.

I attended ordinary neighbourhood schools throughout my formal education. My Chinese teacher parents enrolled me into St. Stephen’s Primary, a neighbourhood all-boys English school because they realised that the government was switching to the use of English in education, government and business. I would be at a disadvantage if I were to attend a Chinese school.

St Stephen's School

I moved along with the majority of my classmates to St. Patrick’s School, an affiliated all-boys English secondary school nearby. School was fun. I did not feel at all pressurised moving along the system and then into Temasek Junior College, then the only junior college in the east and near my home.

Throughout school, there were always more brilliant students who outshone me at every examination. Being in an all-boys school, there were more sporty and athletic students who outplayed and outran me in every sports. I was a fairly timid person in my younger days. I wasn’t the leader type who would become prefect and class monitor. My growth hormones came late. I was amongst the shortest and smallest size up till secondary three. In my uniform group, I wasn’t identified as a leader because of my small stature and timid personality.

I moved along with the tide, contented with taking a backseat in things. Somehow, I was given leadership positions, first in my uniform group in secondary school. It was more an accident that I became a leader and it led me to slowly open up myself.

Then in college, I felt more liberated with the lecture-tutorial system and with the freedom to take many CCAs (then called ECAs). I was actively involved in five areas, including being a student councillor and chairman of a club. Somehow the college didn’t control what we took. I took part in as many activities as I could and enjoyed myself thoroughly.

It was when I thoroughly enjoyed myself that I started to do better academically. My biggest bugbear was Physics. In my first year, we changed our Physics tutors four times. I was memorising but not understanding. At every test, I struggled to figure out which of the formulas I had memorised that I should apply to the problems. I hated to have Physics as a blemish in my report card and contemplated dropping the subject.

Then, in year 2, we had another new Physics tutor. Mr Yang Che Kay came just a week before the first term common test. I remember clearly that the lesson was on electricity. As usual, I had memorised every formula we were supposed to know but I could never figure out how to apply them definitively. Mr Yang used simple analogies of things around us to explain the basic principles. In one lesson, I understood what I had struggled a whole term to understand.  I understood and could derive things from first principle. It was my Eureka moment.

A week later, I scored very well for the common test. Understanding what went on behind the formulas unlocked everything I needed to know. Physics never bothered me thereafter.

Today, I still consider myself ordinary. I came from an ordinary family background, attended ordinary neighbourhood schools and did things just as people around me would. If there is something I feel proud of myself, it is the process that I went through from being a timid person to one willing to take on anything without fear of the unknown. It was that boldness I had developed that allowed me to take the plunge to become an entrepreneur and to accept many life challenges as they come.

This confidence building was a gradual process. I am grateful to the teachers that picked a timid boy with a small stature to hold leadership positions which allowed me to discover myself. I had many good and encouraging teachers throughout school, particularly in college. I like all my college teachers – Dr Chua Siew Lian (whom we still visit yearly during Chinese New Year), Mrs Beetsma, Mrs Mary Lim, Mr Goh Choon Leng and Mrs Chen Siew Har. I mentioned Mr Yang in particular because the transformation was so dramatic. The other teachers were equally good. I wanted to cite my example to encourage teachers that it is possible to make a dramatic change in someone’s life, even unknowingly. Mr Yang was just delivering his usual lesson. To me, it made a lot of difference. If I was constantly bothered by Physics, I would not have had the time and confidence to take on the other subjects.

Our education system today streams students and puts them onto different education paths and into education institutions of varying brand recognitions according to the students’ academic abilities. Society places a lot of emphasis on picking winners. From young, we find ways to identify winners and pile resources on them to make them into the crème de la crème. We feel this is the way to develop our best and the best will then lead us into the future.

The experiences I went through give me the conviction that it is better to make winners out of ordinary people. I do agree that different people have different levels of potential. How we guide them to discover their potential and reach to their best is something very important. Being winners also does not only mean scoring well academically. There are many other ways to be winners.  Last month, I met a junior from St. Patrick’s. He said he couldn’t study so he went into business early in life. Today he owns a chain of hostels and a pub. To me, he is a winner.

Teachers play a vital role in helping students become winners, just as my teachers did for me in subtle ways. Our education system, philosophy and the execution of it are also very important in how we develop winners out of our students.

This Teacher’s Day, do contemplate how we can make winners out of ordinary people.

I thank all my teachers for the roles they had played in leading me to where I am today. I wish all educators a Happy Teacher’s Day!