Learning from Singapore

It used to be that Asians would point to some western country, usually the United States or Britain, as the model to emulate. In the last decade or so, it’s been Singapore.

I’ve always said, Sure, Singapore is advanced, but it’s really a tiny city-state, with a land area only slightly larger than Metro Manila and a population half that of Metro Manila. So really, Singapore’s more of a model for our cities to try out.

But the pressure remains, especially for academicians, because Singapore’s universities have consistently been ranked among the top 10 in various ratings, with the National University of Singapore (NUS) ranking first, beating many venerable centuries-old British and American universities. To say the least, then, Singapore can be intimidating for administrators.

Last May I joined administrators from six other Philippine universities—all government-run except for two—for a brief study-visit in Singapore that took us through the NUS, the Nanyang Technological University and the Singapore Management University. The visit was part of a yearlong project organized by the University of the Philippines and the NUS, to get administrators to think of what we could pick up from Singapore for our situation.

I finished the trip with many ideas and, overall, I have to say I was impressed. There were the usual feelings of awe right during the visit, but with time, I’ve allowed the impressions to settle in, and to think more about the basics, about why Singapore got to where it is. And my conclusion is that the basics are doable.

There is a tendency to equate Singapore’s achievements with its high-rise buildings and high-tech equipment, but what I saw there are available here as well, with private schools easily matching what I saw. Yes, our government schools will have to bite the bullet and invest a bit more for those technologies, but we are talking here about a whole ethos around education that needs to be promoted. That ethos is my focus for today’s column.

More than technology

First, while Singapore is a leader in the development of new information technologies, its educational system is going back to the basics of group learning, folded into the technologies. The Nanyang Technological University, for example, has reconfigured all its classrooms, moving away from the rows of seats where students listen to teachers lecturing, to each classroom having hexagonal tables, each with its own computer screen so students can work together and present results of their group work.

The NUS and Duke University in the United States have also put up a medical school which completely uses this group work approach: students reading up on materials uploaded on the Internet and then meeting in classrooms to further discuss their lessons, and faculty members present to clarify difficult points.

Perhaps most emblematic of this approach to education are the “huddle rooms,” small places where students can study in groups. The tendency for visitors is to see the technology and miss out on the friendliness of the rooms, inviting students to bring food and drink… and even blankets.

The huddle rooms are high-tech, but based on the much older principles of collective and collaborative work, encouraging students to learn together, speak up and challenge each other, even as they come to a consensus. It is a blend of independent thinking, articulation and consensus that I would like to see in our schools.

In many ways it goes back to older East Asian methods of teaching and learning, emphasizing group work and hard work. This is in contrast to western styles emphasizing individuals competing with each other. This group approach is crucial for success in science and technology. I fear that in the Philippines—and the University of the Philippines in particular—we are encouraging more of individual achievements and even combative styles of academic performance (just look at how faculty members attack each other and students rather than address basic issues). All this creates a meanness of spirit that erodes the academic environment. I fear especially for our students who will go out into the world thinking it’s mean-spirited aggressiveness that will get them ahead.

A second area for reflection is the way Singapore has been open to the outside world, pushed in part because of its limited land resources and human resources. It has gone into massive hiring of non-Singaporean professors, including Filipinos, something which we won’t be doing on a large scale because we have our own human resources. But more important than bringing in foreign faculty, Singapore, despite its being globally top-ranked, continues to be willing to learn from others, especially concerning teaching styles. It has moved away from East Asian schools’ memory-and-rote didactics to more participatory and creative styles that are seen in and outside classrooms.

The NUS, for example, has built several “colleges” in the English tradition, the colleges being dorms where students live and, more importantly, interact with resident faculty, visiting lecturers who will do a “tea session,” for example. The whole point is to keep students interacting with schoolmates, faculty and the outside world.

More than the money

Finally, the point about financial investments. The danger, I feel, is for us Filipinos to think that Singaporean universities achieved what they did simply because they became rich and therefore have money to pour into education.

We forget that Singapore became rich because even when it was poor—it was, in fact, even poorer than the Philippines—it saw the value of putting money into education.

In the Western European tradition, education in Singapore was almost totally handled by its government, but with heavy participation from private philanthropists. They, like Singapore, did not get rich overnight. Many of the earlier philanthropists themselves did not benefit from a university education and had to work hard, struggling and saving.

In Singapore Management University, there is a marker for S$550 million from a benefactor, Lee Kong Chian, with a quotation in Chinese that translates: “What you get from society must go back to society.”

The “need” to give becomes stronger with alumni who did benefit from the universities. We need to remind the private sector that it can’t just keep complaining about the decline in our educational system, and will have to give back to universities for what we did (educating them) and for what we are doing (educating their children and grandchildren).

On my last night in that study-visit, I had dinner with fellow participants from UP Los Baños, together with 17 of their engineering graduates, all now working in Singapore.

Now to figure out where we might have failed, and what we have done right, even as we try to pick up lessons from Singapore.

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E-mail: mtan@inquirer.com.ph