Many Singaporean students feel that what they have learned when young – like how to solve problems – gets unlearned when they grow up.
AS we get older, we get to read more global rankings of our performance – the latest being on our kids’ problem-solving skills.
With everyone’s economy becoming global, world rankings are important for us to have, to compare competitiveness.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment found Singapore and Korea’s 15-year-olds top problem-solvers.
That Singaporean students excel in mathematics, science and reading literacy has been known for a while.
The latest test shows up the Republic as being among only a handful of places that excel in all of the assessments.
“It shows that today’s 15-year-olds in Singapore are quick learners, highly inquisitive, able to solve unstructured problems in unfamiliar contexts,” said a spokesman for the OECD.
Several considerations are on Singaporean minds. Firstly, how many participants were really true-blue Singaporeans?
What was the number of locally born versus permanent residents (PRs) who hail from Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Seoul and Taipei?
PRs are regarded by the government as local residents, and these are top ranking academic cities that add to Singaporean scores.
The same consideration applies to anything else in which Singapore is in the world’s top rank – whether in sports, music or scientific research. Secondly, how much do the grades of 15-year-olds really count in national competitiveness?
This is particularly true when surveys have found Singaporean workers diligent but lacking creativity and leadership.
While the political leaders talk of competing with South Korea and Taiwan in skilled services and inventiveness, others say it’s not possible.
Three years ago Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak said a company like Apple could not emerge in structured societies like controlled Singapore.
Talking of Singapore, he asked: “Where are the creative people … the great artists … the great musicians? Where are the great writers?
The 15-year-olds will soon find that the real world is something very different.
A Singaporean commented: “So what if our kids are number 1? After scoring all the As and graduating from university, they can’t get jobs.”
Many Singaporeans are often great at their studies, but turn out to be poor in their work life.
For a generation, they have been tightly regulated and disciplined from school and university.
As a result Singapore has become a clean and disciplined city, where crime and corruption remain low.
Not flushing a public toilet after use is an offence and the sale of chewing gum is still controlled.
They have plenty of training since young.
In schools, hair cannot be too long or skirts too short and coloured bras for girls are banned.
For boys who reach 18, the army takes over the discipline training during two years of national service.
At the work place people become especially careful about not disobeying superiors and flouting laws.
That is why many feel that what they have learned when young – like how to solve problems – gets unlearned when they grow up.
Despite all these global tests that talk highly of Singaporean students, the maxim “Don’t rock the boat” remains strong at the work place.
Many Singaporeans don’t want to disagree with the boss, even though he may be wrong.
The OECD study was, if nothing else, a morale booster for young people.
It’s only three years ago that the founding leader thought they were losing their forefathers’ drive – and needed new ‘hungry’ migrants to spur them on.
According to former PM Lee Kuan Yew – and quite a few employers – it was good to have brought in foreign workers to offset the decline.
“Over time, Singaporeans had become less hard-driving and hard-striving,” Lee said in a 2011 interview.
The hard-talking Lee then upset many people when he said that if Singaporeans were falling behind because “the spurs are not stuck into the hide”, that was their problem.
He described the new immigrants from China and the region as “hungry” – helped by parents who “pushed the children very hard”.
(Actually, Singaporean parents are often accused of putting too much pressure on their kids.)
Lee had often made known his preference for the entrepreneurial spirit of the Hong Kong people.
Predictably, some Singaporeans were angry about the remarks that implied they were becoming lazy and ought to be spurred like slow horses.
One retiree said Lee was partly right: “Many middle class Singaporeans are becoming spoiled and complacent compared with (their counterparts in) some emerging nations.”
Now at least, there is something good to say about their children –that they are the best 15-year-olds for solving problems.
Seah Chiang Nee is a veteran journalist who covered the region for more than 40 years in various capacities and from different stations. He started this column in 1986 to give readers an insight into happenings in the island republic. Seah was the first South-East Asian back in 1985 to undergo a heart transplant operation. The views expressed here are entirely his own.