Remembering Lee Kuan Yew

Access and Inclusion March 29, 2015

On March 29, 2015 world leaders both past and present from more than fifteen countries including China, India, Japan, Qatar, the United Kingdom and the United States, gathered on the island city-state of Singapore to pay their last respects and bid a final farewell to its founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, who passed away peacefully six days earlier at the age of 91. Through a lifetime of dedicated public service, Lee Kuan Yew, who remained a member of parliament until his death, acquired near legendary status as a tough-minded, pragmatic and incorruptible nation-builder; a leader who successfully guided his small island nation and its people from third world living standards to first, all within a single generation.

This singular achievement was attained in no small measure because of the investment Lee Kuan Yew and his successors made and continue to make in education; in order, as he would often remark, ‘to develop Singapore’s only available natural resource, its people.’ Today, Singapore routinely ranks amongst the top performers in educational attainment as measured by the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment better known by its acronym PISA. Moreover, this city-state of five million people boasts two universities amongst the top seventy-five in the latest Times Higher Education World University Rankings, the same number as China, Japan and Germany.

I had the privilege of meeting Lee Kuan Yew on a few occasions in the context of helping establish the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, where from 2005 to 2012 I served as its Executive Vice Dean. While a short opinion piece like this cannot offer a comprehensive analysis of Singapore’s approach to education, it is nevertheless possible to highlight some of its key design features that may also provide a glimpse into the thinking of its chief architect.

Firstly, it is important to note that Singapore’s education system was not designed de novo by Lee Kuan Yew and his colleagues. Rather, it was built on the very solid foundations inherited from Singapore’s colonial past. In contrast to many of his contemporaries amongst post-colonial leaders, Lee Kuan Yew was not afraid to embrace those elements from Singapore’s past as a British colony that would prove most useful to the enterprise of building a new nation. Nowhere was this approach more evident than in education. This is why today many of Singapore’s premier educational institutions, like the National University of Singapore (f. 1905)*, Raffles Institution (f. 1823) and the Anglo-Chinese School (f. 1886) are significantly older than independent Singapore (1965). Moreover, the Singapore curriculum for secondary education is modelled on the British O’ level and A’ level qualifications with some adaptation to take into account the generally higher average attainment levels of students in Singapore.

Secondly, Singapore’s approach to education prioritised and continues to prioritise investment in people over infrastructure. Whilst the latter is by no means neglected, it is clear that the primary focus is on students and teachers. A national system of generous scholarships enables the best students to avail themselves of an education at some of the world’s premier Universities, even as Singapore develops its own world-class tertiary institutions. Moreover, Singapore along with countries such as Finland is globally lauded for its ability to attract, develop and retain some of the best graduates for the teaching profession. Generous teaching scholarships and starting salaries above the median are just some of the features of Singapore’s efforts to attract and retain top talent in the teaching profession. 

Thirdly, Singapore’s education system is unabashedly meritocratic (some might say elitist) in its focus on identifying and developing the very best talent and, equally importantly, in directing it towards public service. Government scholarship recipients are obliged to serve in the public sector for a minimum of two years for every one year of study. The same meritocratic approach governs the development and promotion of teachers. Top performing teachers are given leadership responsibilities without excessive regard to tenure; and there is a revolving door between the ministry of education and principals offices and classrooms, which often sees serving educators seconded to carry out policy work. Many subsequently choose to return to the classroom.

Fourthly, any elitist tendencies of the Singapore education system are tempered by ensuring that quality education is available for all levels of academic aptitude. While Singapore is rightly proud of its elite secondary and tertiary academic institutions, one could argue that the hidden gems of the system are the hundreds of neighbourhood schools, institutes for technical education and polytechnics that provide good quality education for all.  

Fifthly, Singapore’s education system is forward-looking. From adopting bilingualism with English as the principal medium of instruction (in addition to the ‘mother tongue’ of Mandarin, Malay or Tamil), to the focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (‘STEM’), Singapore’s approach to education in many ways anticipated some of the key education dilemmas preoccupying today’s policymakers. Whilst the choice of English was driven by history and the need for a multi-ethnic society to adopt a common working language, it was also a prescient recognition that it was fast emerging as the lingua franca of global commerce and science, and that once entrenched it was likely to remain so for decades if not centuries to come. In this regard too, Lee Kuan Yew distinguished himself from other post-colonial leaders of his generation in avoiding the easy temptation of pandering to narrow nationalist sentiment and opting for the language and culture of the majority. Instead, he and his colleagues chose to adopt a global language for a global, multi-ethnic city.

Finally, and perhaps contrary to popular belief, Singapore’s education system, is not rigid but evolves with the times and in light of new evidence. Concerned that their approach to education might be somewhat regimented and overly focused on STEM, Singapore’s policymakers began to rebalance in the 1990s and 2000s to provide avenues for excellence in the humanities, arts and sport. That rebalancing is still going on today with a new emphasis on identifying ways to foster creativity and entrepreneurship.

It is my belief that Singapore’s world-class education system will be one of the most enduring legacies of Lee Kuan Yew. It is perhaps therefore, a fitting testament that his state funeral service took place at the National University of Singapore, home to the only institution in Singapore that bears his name. But for Singapore’s founding father, education went beyond formal schooling: “My definition of an educated man is a man who never stops learning and wants to learn.”** May he rest in peace.

* The National University of Singapore traces its origins to the King Edward VII Medical School (f. 1905) and its subsequent merger with Raffles College (f. 1928).

** From a speech given to Parliament in February 1977 extracts of which were published in the Straits Times on 26 March 2015. 

Stavros N. Yiannouka is the CEO of the World Innovation Summit of Education (WISE), an initiative of Qatar Foundation.