School became a bore to me after primary school. That was partly because of life circumstances and partly because it wasn’t fun anymore. I remembered slogging myself to lectures during Secondary school. When I was in Junior College, I spent most of my time doing martial arts, debating the idea of success that the school system and society conferred on to me: to get a good job and to be useful to society.
Needless to say, I didn’t take too well to the education system.
Singapore often boast that it has one of the best education systems in the world. If Singapore truly is that, then why Singapore hasn’t produced any Nobel Prize Winners, innovators, Pulitzer Prize Winners in the last 50+ years?
If you turned the clocks back, the education system was built for conformity, in an era where the government needed people to conform to move the country economically forward. The system hasn’t changed since.
In this article, I’ll offer a practical criticism of the Singapore education system, along with it’s pros and cons.
If you’re somewhat like me, not to worry: Einstein had a problematic academic career, refusing to learn or be tested through certain methods. Charlie Munger argued that Charles Darwin would have been an average student at best.
The Singapore Education System
Interestingly, despite not having a stellar academic track record, I never lost interest in learning and experimenting.
Over the years I took interest in multiple disciplines from martial arts, entrepreneurship, psychology, finance and music. Curiosity, and not grades were the driving force. Libraries and the internet were the two resources that I relied heavily on, not academic text books.
Fast forward a decade later, I decided to give a genuine shot at academia in Singapore. I signed up for a psychology degree under an autonomous University in Singapore. I was excited, for ONCE.
However, I had the premonition that the curriculum was going to be somewhat similar to that of the typical Singapore system. I am forced but to adapt. If I signed up for something, why not get the best out of it, to the best of my abilities?
Cons and Criticisms:
- Rote Learning
To my dismay, half of the curriculum was based on rote learning.
The way to get good grades was to sit down, memorize and write as much as you can remember when it comes to examinations. Something I detested and wasn’t exactly good at.
Through the years, I noticed I took to subjects that worked on principles, as oppose to rote learning. For example, in E Math, little effort is required once you mastered the logic and principles behind it, whilst A Math was always a bore. To get good at it, you had to drill repeatedly.
I remember being forced to memorize Chinese idioms in primary school so I can impress my teachers in Chinese essays. In my opinion, in a digital economy where information in readily available at a click of a button, there’s not much value in memorization.
In psychology class, I had a classmate who argued: how else can you measure and sift out people if not through examinations? There’s no better way.
That’s simplistic thinking. I don’t have anything against tests and exams. It’s the manner that it’s tested that’s more important.
If I ever become the Prime Minister of Singapore: every examination would be an open book examination.
You’re then forced to come up with an original idea through the resources given to you, to solve the problem presented to you in the examinations. You’ll be tested on your ability to solve a problem, come up with an original argument and not your ability to memorize a theory.
For example, in my recent exam, 50% of it of was based on memorizing theories, as opposed to the application of theories, much less the application of these theories my day to day life.
I am convinced that rote learning is pointless, meaningless and not an effective way to sift out innovators, thinkers or leaders.
Here’s a well written article on rote learning by the Straits Times. The author goes in depth on using short cuts, mental heuristics to ‘game the system’ as opposed to actual in depth learning in the Singapore system. I commend the author for the detailed article.
- Meaningful Practice and Repetition
There’s also a difference between dead learning and meaningful practice.
I’m all for practice and repetition on a task, or skillset until one gets it right. This can be applied across multiple disciplines of life, from entrepreneurship, investing in the stock market or relationships. They all require conscious, deliberate effort and practice.
However, I’m against memorizing for the sake of examinations.
I’ll quote Einstein: never memorize anything that can be looked up.
I’m actually amused that people are proud of their ability to remember details, names and facts. Yet, if you asked them to apply them in their day to day decisions, they can’t relate a theory to their life decisions. You can memorize the investing theories, score As for your investment module and never make a single trade in the stock market. That doesn’t make you a good investor or a much less an investment consultant.
It’s similar asking business advice from business consultants who never ran a business. It’s like asking a virgin how to fuck. To put things crudely.
How to Actually Win at Real Life
Through the years, I tended towards performance based jobs such as sales. I also decided early on that I was going to be an entrepreneur of some sort.
The game of life isn’t solely played in prestigious University settings. If you’re Singaporean (or human), you worry a lot about finances, jobs, careers and relationships. In these aspects of life, the skillset of communication and negotiation is require. Yet, there’s not a single module in University that teach social skills.
Hence you get articles stating that Singaporean lack social skills.
I’m plugging myself here, but that’s what I do as a dating coach.
- Learn and Master Social Skills
I spent years going out to bars and clubs talking to strangers, trying out pick up artist techniques. In dating and relationships, the market doesn’t lie. If you suck at communicating, you’re just not going to go out on dates. In dating and relationships, you are the end product. It’s one of the most painful ways to learn: direct feedback. However, one of the best ways to learn.
In entrepreneurship, the market is my feedback. Forget your finance textbooks, fanciful algorithms or your MBA. The bottom line is: can you persuade someone to take out cash from their wallet in exchange for something you created?
You’re no longer writing a paper for your lecturer. You’re exchanging product or service for cash. It’s not about impressing your lecturer anymore.
- Learn and Master Personal Finance
The financial education industry in Singapore is huge. I’m almost always bombarded by ads on Facebook telling me that I can get rich overnight if I attended some course by some company. There’s a reason behind this: Singaporeans do care a lot about money.
Through the years I’ve spoken to finance professionals ranging from hedge fund managers to students graduting from prestigious schools in finance. They are often quick to dish out advice, spilling out the usual valuation models of beta, alpha, financial jargon.
Since this article is about my criticism on the education system. Here’s an example of why I don’t think a finance degree is necessary for you to invest sanely in the stock market. Complicated valuation models such as: CAPM, beta, alpha, macroeconomics are ineffective methods to value a a stock.
Yet, they are published all over finance textbooks. When I was in my 2nd year in finance University, despite knowing that they are ineffective valuation methods, I’m forced to MEMORIZE and spill it out in my examinations.
Pros: Doctors, Lawyers and Skill Based Professions
Okay, Marcus, you’re saying you should ignore formal education in Singapore and they all suck?
I’m going counter debate my own arguments.
I’m not taking a black or white view. I think Singapore has one of the best education systems in terms of administration and regulation.
If someone desires to be a professional, yes, ideally he or she should be certified through a University as a doctor, lawyer or any other skilled based profession.
You still require regulation, skillsets and certification for certain professions. If there isn’t a proper academic system or structure, how can you make sure that doctors, lawyers, engineers and other skill based professions are properly certified? You wouldn’t go to a doctor that doesn’t have a medical degree, would you?
I’m NOT saying burn all your books and you do not need a formal education system. In fact, I’m all for formal education. It’s the method of evaluation I’m debating against. I’m arguing against the role of rote learning and rote testing in examinations. I’m not arguing against the need for education.
Closing Thoughts on The Singapore Education System
If you’re persuaded by my arguments, rest assured that I didn’t conjure them out of any form of formal education. They didn’t come from the school system, and they definitely didn’t arise from any form of rote learning. They came from hours spent in libraries, self research, personal observation and experimentation.