Thoughts : Singapore (Education) : The Economy and the Education System

I applaud the Economic Development Board’s (EDB) efficiency in getting nine world-class universities to set up their outposts here. However, I am disappointed by the type of universities selected.

Seven world-class varsities specialising in medicine, the sciences, business and engineering are already here. There are further plans to invite more universities of an engineering, technology and IT bent. Conspicuously absent are world-class universities or university departments catering to thesocial sciences and humanities.My question for the Government: Why is this so? Are there plans to invite universities with strong social sciences and humanities departments to Singapore? Or will the arts and social science faculty in the National University of Singapore do for the time being?

I am worried that we have become so pragmatic a nation that, because an education in the social sciences and the humanities is not seen as contributing to the economic prosperity of Singapore, we therefore do not educate our young in these subjects. Perhaps studying the social sciences and humanities will not contribute as much towards the economy of Singapore as, say, studying engineering, commerce or information technology. Comparatively, the latter subjects will probably yield more immediate and tangible results through technological advancements and by generating greater wealth for the nation. Yet are we focusing too much on economic development at the expense of enriching our culture as a whole?

Maybe I am wrong in even suggesting that one of the 10 world-class varsities should specialise in the social sciences and humanities. It is, after all, the EDB that was given the task to get 10 top universities to Singapore by 2008 and make Singapore an education hub. Perhaps I should be asking why it was given the task in selecting these 10 top universities in the first place, if the purpose was to make Singapore an education hub.

Are we not being reductionistic in our definition of education if we see its purpose as merely to promote the economy? Do we not err in making the ‘god of economic utility’ the pre-eminent reason for schooling? I would like to see Singapore not so much as an economy first but more as a culture and community.

Singaporeans, am I alone in my thinking?

Below are some additional comments by me:

Well, I hope I’m not alone in my thinking above. But the truth is that Singapore (as every other country) is ultimately economic-minded. James Carville’s phrase, “It’s the economy, stupid” (popularized by Bill Clinton during his 1992 presidential campaign) is surely a motto that every country holds dear to – dare I say foolishly and to its own peril.

And because the growth of our economy is the chief end of all government policies, we see the Singapore education system moulded in such a way that its goals conform to this higher calling – the calling to educate (or rather manipulate) people so they are of greatest economic value to the nation. Forget all other purposes of education – purposes, for example, to do with creating people who think and/or appreciate life in its fullness. All other purposes pale in comparison to the purpose of making Singapore a richer nation.

Take for example the Singaporean school curriculum. The curriculum dictates what the young are to study. And the curriculum is very limited. In Junior Colleges here, the GCE A level subjects offered are very limited. And the focus is more on subjects that will have a greater positive impact on the economy of Singapore. That’s why they offer all the main science subjects (Physics, Chemistry, Biology), but very few Humanities/Social Science subjects. And furthermore, the majority of places available are for those taking Science subjects. The reason is simple. Money talks. We need Engineers, Scientists…etc. People as such contribute greatly to our economy. Who cares about the Humanities and Social Sciences? Can they help in increasing the standard of materialistic living? Nope! They only make thinking and questioning people and create more satisfied people – in spiritual, emotional and intellectual terms. But of course all this iss not so important. Yes, this creates a people who have a better inner quality of life but let’s not forget we’re a pragmatic people here. Pragmatism rules in all government policies. The external rules for most of us. In the same way, the Singapore government is more interested in seeing a better standard of materialistic living because that’s measurable. You can’t measure the inner quality of people. Furthermore, that’s how most in the world think. After all, we measure our standard of living and progressiveness economically and materially – not by spiritual, mental or emotional standards – but by a vastly overrated concept of GDP per capita.

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