Two months ago, I was conducting the weekly open house at The Workers’ Party HQ. Two young men came in panting midway through the session. They had gone to the wrong end of a rather long Syed Alwi Road, finally located our office and rushed over before the session closed. I had an interesting chat with them despite the short time remaining.
One is a Singaporean who has been working and living in China for several years. He is happily married there with a young child and is now the investor manager for a China public listed firm. He was back on a holiday to Singapore.
As we chatted, we strayed into their education background. Both were classmates in a neighbourhood school in Bedok. They were from the Normal Academic stream. One went to polytechnic and is now a home-based entrepreneur in Singapore. The one currently in China went to a private education organisation in Singapore and graduated with a degree awarded by an overseas university. He paid full fees, with no subsidy by our government, of course. He had failed to make it to our local universities.
He spoke well and confidently, not showing any indication that he had previously come from a neighhourhood school. He held a good and demanding job, having to deal in mandarin daily with all sort of investors in China. So I asked if he believed that he is good. Without hesitation, he replied, “If I had not gone abroad and landed this job, I never knew I could be this good!”
A confident young man indeed. Independent, articulate and fluent in mandarin. We conversed further as I was curious what it was like for them in our local schools being behind many others academically and having failed to make the cut into our local universities. Throughout their academic studies here, they had felt they were not good enough. They had not done well in their examinations. Yet here they are now, doing well in their careers.
His words have stuck in my head since that day. “I never knew I could be this good!”. Why? Because he had not done well enough in examinations. He became confident later after striking it out abroad and discovering he could actually be quite good.
His family had to fork out a lot for his education in a private institution. He was not one of the 25% of his cohort that qualifed for our local universities. I had asked in February this year on the number of Singaporeans pursuing private undergraduate courses. The figure is astonishing. 41,000 locals are currently enrolled in private universities and private education institutions on undergraduate programmes alone. That’s about the number of locals in the government funded universities. The government does not keep track of Singaporeans enrolled in undergraduate courses overseas. There must be many more in this category.
I see two issues here. The first is whether the number of places in our local universities are sufficient to meet the aspirations of Singaporeans. 41,000 locals in private undergradate courses plus many more overseas. Are we grossly underproviding and the market had to step up to meet this aspiration, with no support from the government? The young man I met is one of them. Fortunately for him, his family could afford it. He received the education, landed a good job in China and did well there.
A study on higher education has been going on since last year. I await eagerly to see the recommendations that will come forth to see how we can better meet Singaporeans’ increasing aspirations for higher education and to make fees affordable.
The second issue is whether our system could have made some who did not do as well academically become less confident of themselves. Our young friend was one of those until he was given the space to flourish later in life. It made me recall the words of the senior Finnish educator I had met by chance in London earlier this year. I had asked why they decided not to stream students but instead put students of mixed abilities in the same class. His answer was simple but thought provoking, “We do not want students to be labelled. Otherwise, later in their lives, they would remember that they were branded as ‘no-good’.”
I am glad the story turned out well for my new young friend. It could have turned out differently. How much do our students believe that they can be good at something, regardless of academic results? How sufficiently have we provided for to meet rising education aspirations? How well are we preparing students for the test of life?