Educating for a Renaissance: Singapore’s Future as a Mediterranean City-State

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Singapore is seen as the central port between the old world and the new world. Just as the Mediterranean was seen as ‘the inmost sea of all the earth,’ within which Venice—the Lion of the Sea—exerted its prowess, Singapore the Merlion, is sitting astride the gateway between two worlds, having sailed through waves of globalisation.

In the discussion of globalisation, education tends to get short shrift: it is seen as a tool for overall development, but little consideration is given to the nuts and bolts of such an exercise. Education, we are told, will be used to make us more cosmopolitan, more technologically savvy, syncretic or synthetically unique.

Here I will provide my reading of what might be called the ‘Goh Doctrine,’ adduced from the speeches and writings of Singapore’s founding father, Dr Goh Keng Swee. He mentions five points in his 1961 piece, ‘Man and Economic Development’:

1)  the spread of education as ‘one of the primary objectives’;

2)  its general role in fostering basic literacy;

3)  its utilitarian role in talent development;

4)  his belief in a ‘suitably directed’ education as being able to ‘inculcate… a sense of social discipline’; and

5)  the duty of the state to ‘provide all its citizens with the same opportunities to make the best they can of their available talents and energies.’

His four educational aims could be stated as follows:

1)  provide a literate, competent and trustworthy workforce for continued economic growth;

2)  support a strong and stable state with low human resource wastage;

3)  be based on reliable and timely data and information processing; and

4)  respond rapidly and effectively to globalisation-related changes.

Given that the bulk of Goh’s public thinking on the matter can be reduced summarily to this, what kind of future would Singapore have as a Renaissance city-state?

In order to provide a literate, competent and trustworthy workforce, the foundation of learning must be built in practical skills, such as engineering at all levels as well as in the humanities. This means that every citizen would be able to contribute materially as well as intellectually.

Science and mathematics are the engines of this human enterprise, the means by which we harness the universe to our practicality. But formal qualifications in these disciplines at a high level cannot be the endgame for a city-state. Rather, citizens need enough mathematics and science education so that they can at least apply logical and experimental tests to the constant drumbeat of information.

Supporting a stable state with low human resource wastage requires citizens to stop being very judgmental and nasty, and to start valuing the entire diverse spectrum of humanity. If everyone is somehow worthy, then there is an element of discovering what form that worth takes, and how to develop that. This is about finding and nurturing, while agreeing on the few hard constraints of the city-state.

Executing policies that lead to these outcomes also requires a kind of mental robustness, agility and flexibility. People must learn to gather useful data, make use of data that might seem useless and make information out of data by using and designing data structures. People need to keep open minds to at least the point at which they can articulate a good reason for rejecting an idea or course of action.

Lastly, the globalisation thing. It is quite possible that nobody has yet managed to define globalisation satisfactorily. For a city-state, it can be thought of as a twofold phenomenon: the aggregate of pressures and forces from events outside the state, and the sociocultural adaptations triggered in its citizens by such events. Do we localise the global, or do we ‘leapfrog the region’ and spread the things we think of as ‘our stuff’ to the rest of the world?

Whatever it is, we need to continue actively discussing this with a view to positive action. As the mathematician Liebniz once said, ‘Whatever acts cannot be destroyed.’ In that, he was echoing Plato, just as Singapore must to some extent echo the city-states of the past in order to make its own future.


Dr Alistair Chew is Education Director at Findings, a shadow education consultancy. He thinks, writes, and talks about Singapore education history and policy.

The HEAD Foundation Commentary is a platform to provide timely and, where appropriate, policy-relevant commentary of topical issues and contemporary developments. The views expressed by the authors are solely their own and do not reflect opinions of The HEAD Foundation.

Tags : by Dr. Alistair Chew