By Jian Feng (@1instathink), Instathink 

Education in Singapore has traditionally been focused on excellence, with an emphasis on mathematics and science and students performing well on international tests. Having a focus on excellence based on Confucian1 ethics like hard work is desirable in a country that has to rely on developing its human capital to maintain competitiveness. However, it should be asked: Is there an unforeseen and undesirable cost to it? According to a news report,2 total household expenditures on private tuition rose to S$1.1 billion in 2014. It might be asked if the notion of inequalities might be compounded by the differences in time and type of education students receive outside of the formal education system. For those who can afford it, more individualised education is available, which helps those receiving it do better academically than they might have otherwise. But, for those who cannot afford it, the opportunity to do better may be lost, which may play a role in perpetuating inequalities and uneven starting grounds. Also, unnecessary burdens may be placed on students to do better.

Fortunately, changes are being made in the education system based on feedback from the wider discourse that may reduce burdens on students. These include removing precise scoring for students in primary levels, focusing more on developing students’ curiosity and love for learning,3 creating the opportunities for students to develop their talents in holistic areas such as art and music, and supporting them socio-emotionally to allow them to develop their potential. This reflects a balance between the capitalistic goals of educational excellence and more holistic goals.

From such amendments, what can we possibly learn about better public policy?

Better policy might, in part, rely upon having the socio-emotional maturity and empathy to accept public feedback and change; it is not just about taking a singular approach to achieve goals based on tried and proven or accepted methods but an evolving discussion whilst accepting necessary changes. Better policy is also about developing rapport with people who may be affected by past and current policy, understanding their experiences and historical and social backgrounds,4 and making the necessary changes. This is done without neglecting practical issues. For instance, in education reform, change cannot be too drastic or simply go with the flow of public discourse to the extent of pushing education irrelevant to the realities of the global and technological changes of work. This would be an irresponsible, myopic and unfortunate thing to do. In other words, leaders who have a good sense of judgement and direction are needed to make the necessary changes. To facilitate this, there may be a merit-based form of selection of leaders,5 such as that suggested by Kishore Mahbumahni who was listed in the Top 100 Global Thinkers by Foreign Policy magazine. A foundation of past, current and expected performance focused on self-discipline, coupled with the ability of leaders to empathise with the wider public, will serve as a form of democratically based policy making. This may help play a role in having and developing better leaders and better policies.

Jian Feng is currently a business consultant in Singapore and is working on an affordable app, Instathink, to help businesses and individuals to think better.


  1. Wong, David, “Chinese Ethics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <;.
  2. Tan, T. (2014). “$1 billion spent on tuition in one year.” The Straits Times.
  3. Keat, H. S. (2013). “FY 2013 Committee of Supply Debate: 1st Reply by Mr Heng Swee Keat, Minister for Education: Hope – Opportunities For All.”
  4. Al-Habil, W. I. (2011). “Positivist and Phenomenological Research in American Public Administration.” International Journal of Public Administration 34(14): 946-953.
  5. Mahbubani, K. (2011). “Can Asia re-legitimize global governance?” Review of International Political Economy 18(1): 138.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s