“The Amazing Story of the Singapore Lion City” – by Gerald W Fry



Source : http://www.nationmultimedia.com/opinion/The-Amazing-Story-of-the-Singapore-Lion-City-30174285.html
The Nation January 23, 2012


What Singapore has accomplished in the past five decades in terms of extraordinary change is truly amazing.


In an earlier column, I had referred to the “Miracle on the Han River” (Korea). The Singapore experience might be termed the “Miracle of the Pacific” as it is one of the most significant Pacific Basin ports and is the headquarters for Apec, the AsiaPacific Economic Community forum.

In the 1950s, Singapore was characterised by political instability, large slums, and an active communist insurgency. Under the dynamic and honest leadership of the brilliant Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore rose to become one of the world’s most modern and wealthy countries and a city teeming with vitality.

Today, its income per capita stands at $62,100, making it one of the world’s wealthiest countries (No 5), well above the US. Being a citystate with a population of only 4.7 million, it has generated currently $225.7 billion of foreign exchange reserves, almost double that of the US with its over 300 million population! In rankings just released, Singapore is No 2 in the world in terms of economic freedom.

How has a new nation that came into existence in 1965, with no natural resources, achieved such dramatic economic success? Three key factors have been:

1 strategic location (it is within a seven hours flight of 2.8 billion people),

2 leadership, and

3 education/human resource development.


In this column I will focus on the latter and the key distinctive features of Singaporean education.

The first and most basic characteristic of Singaporean education is its Confucian character and value system that emphasises respect for education and teachers and high motivation of students. Singapore pays its teachers extremely well and has a new major initiative to make the teaching profession even more attractive. This factor has contributed importantly to the overall high quality of Singapore education.

The second characteristic relates to Singapore’s status as a multicultural and multilingual society. Currently, there is intense interest in the EU in the relationship between the multilingual mind and creativity. If this link does exist, then that augurs well for the future of Singapore. Its current policy is for all its students to be competent in both English and Mandarin, the world’s two most important languages. Many Singaporeans also have command of other languages such as Malay, Tamil, and Teochiew.

A third characteristic is pragmatism. Singapore has emphasised academic fields with high economic payoffs such as science, information technology, business, and economics. Also it chose to send many of its students overseas to utilise the excellent higher education infrastructure already built in the US, Europe, and Australia.

A fourth characteristic related to pragmatism is the country’s stress on multiple postsecondary paths for students and recognition of diversity of talent. Singapore has created strong polytechnic universities to meet the needs of students preferring that kind of skill set and training.

A fifth element has been the stress on the development of a knowledge economy reflected in former PM Goh’s aspiration to have Singapore become the “Boston of the East”. Boston is known as a higher education centre (presence of Harvard and MIT) fostering innovation and entrepreneurship.

A sixth element is a focus on globalisation and the development of Singapore as an international education, finance, tourist, and communications hub. Malaysia and Thailand have similar aspirations. Singapore’s key advantage is that its people have the best English in the AsiaPacific region. Thailand’s big advantage is that it has much lower costs than Singapore and its tourist attractions are much more diverse and “exotic”.

Finally, at the moment in Singapore, there is a new thrust on the development of character and citizenship education. Also there is the goal to broaden Singapore education beyond its narrow pragmatism with the development of a new liberal arts college in collaboration with Yale University, called YaleNUS College.

The Singaporean story is an amazing one demonstrating the compelling necessity of achieving both highquality education and honest, creative leadership.


Gerald W Fry
Distinguished International Professor
Department of Organisational Leadership, Policy, and Development
University of Minnesota
[email protected]


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