Speech by Dr Goh Keng Swee at the Anglo-Chinese School 81st Founder’s Day Re-Union Dinner on 01 March 1967

In recent months, there has been increasing attention paid in the Singapore Cabinet to educational matters. The first phase of the Government’s education policy has come to an end. In this phase the aim was to provide a place in school for every child of school age. There was an enormous backlog to be caught up with and the emphasis was just on quantity – producing enough schools and turning out enough teachers to give education to every child. The aim has been achieved and today there are more than enough places in schools and we are moving to a second phase.

In this phase, the aim is to improve the quality of education. How can we achieve this? We have to do some thinking on many basic problems and go beyond the purely professional aspects of education. That is to say, the content and syllabus of teaching, teaching methods and that kind of thing. For, when reshaping the whole education system, you have to be very clear in your mind what is the type of product you want to turn out. To answer this question, we must have some idea of what type of future citizen of our Republic we want the education system to produce. It is the model citizen of the future that we think the Republic should have which will decide what changes we have to make in our school system.

Every minister probably has his own views on this subject and I will give mine. I do not say that my colleagues agree with me on every detail. But for what it is worth, this is what I think on the subject.

In reforming an education system, we must build on what already exists rather than demolish the present structure and try to restart from the ruins. If we were Mao Tse-Tung and we had a million Red Guards in Singapore, we might be tempted to do this in a moment of insanity. But the proper thing would be to take advantage of what we have and improve upon it. I therefore want to speak only about the improvements that can be made. First, I think that there has been far too much emphasis on academic performance. The Higher School Certificate contains too many subjects and the number of subjects can be reduced to advantage. At present the general complaint is that the young have to spend so much time in studying that they have very little time to do anything else, such as playing games. An education that lays too much stress on the academic as against the physical and moral side of life is unbalanced and lop-sided.

I think this obsession with getting outstanding results in the Cambridge examinations is a very bad thing. After all, much of what a boy or girl learns in school – history, geography, mathematics or chemistry – will be forgotten in ten years’ time. What is the point, therefore, of all this effort? The real purpose is to distinguish the bright and clever boys and girls from the less bright and clever. A classification of this kind is necessary for purposes of university entrance and maybe eventually for selection of candidates in the Civil Service and other occupations. If this is the purpose of examinations, then obviously you can discriminate between excellent, good, fair and mediocre on the basis of, say three or four subjects as you can on a larger number. Further, you can take into account other activities of the students, such as sports, participation in extra curricular activities, leadership potential and so on. In fact, this is what we should do and what people in advanced countries are doing. The preoccupation in Singapore with examination results is unnatural and unhealthy and we should bring it to an end as early as possible. After all, good performance in examinations only proves one thing – ability to answer examination questions. This ability is, presumably, related in some way to intelligence. It is also related to the possession of good examination techniques. And it does not tell us a lot of other things about a person, for instance, his integrity, his character and so on, which are just as important than the mastering of examination technique.Going back to the reforms in the education system, apart from greater stress on the physical side of education, I think there are three matters or aspects of education which have been neglected in Singapore, possibly as a result of over-emphasis on examinations. These three aspects are 1) creative imagination, 2) character, 3) moral values. I do not say that the present system does not try to instill moral values or develop character or cultivate creative imagination. What I am saying is that the effort is not sufficient and must be greatly improved upon. At any rate, this is my impression, judging by the products of schools. Let me deal with each of these three points.

By creative imagination I mean the ability to think independently and find solutions to problems without reference to textbooks and without instructions from others. Imaginative thinking is, for instance, cultivated in playing an intellectual game like chess. It is encouraged in certain types of physical activities like outward bound training courses. It is inhibited by parrot-like teaching of textbooks and I hope that abominations of this kind will cease in all our schools.

It in only when a person can think creatively that he is capable of initiative, that he can form his own judgements on matters and that he can be entrusted with great responsibility. These are the qualities which we want to inculcate in the young.

The second point is character. The psychologists say that character and intelligence are independent attributes. An intelligent person can have no character; that is, he may be weak of irresolute. Conversely, persons of lesser intelligence can show high degrees of courage and tenacity when placed in trying or adverse conditions. I think I am right in saying that the development of character in this sense has not received the importance it deserves. In the British public school system there has been a very great stress on character-building and I think this is an admirable example which we would do well to follow.

Now I come to moral values. Imagination and character are necessary but not sufficient in themselves to produce a desirable type of citizen. For instance, the most successful leaders of pirates, brigands and gangsters have imagination and character in ample proportions but they, of course, are sadly lacking in moral stature. This part of education is receiving due attention in a school like the Anglo-Chinese School which, as an institution founded by religious missionaries, naturally puts high priority on training in moral values. This, of course, is a good thing and I hope that it will be extended to all schools, particularly government schools. The importance of moral values to good citizenship is obvious. We want people who have a sense of social responsibility, who are able to overcome their innate instincts of greed, personal vanity and other human weaknesses in the interest of the common good. Without a widely accepted code of moral values, Singapore will remain what it is now – a community which is basically self-centered and selfish. Such a community may be all right if it is governed by others, but it will not survive for long as an independent democratic national state if the more successful citizens continue to place their self interest before the interest of the community. This point is obvious, I do not think I need to labour it.

Now, why do we want to turn out citizens of this kind, that is, with creative imagination, stout character and a sound sense of moral values? I believe that without this kind of citizen, there is no guarantee that we can maintain on a continuing basis for our survival and prosperity. As an island-republic in the centre of a turbulent region, our society needs to be resourceful and adaptive. We should be able to seize every advantage which the current situation offers us. We must be prepared to innovate, to strike out into new lines of activity whenever these are necessary for our well-being. Without creative imagination there can be no innovation and without innovation we will not succeed in adapting ourselves to circumstances as they change.

As for character and resolution, these are always necessary in adversity. At present we have a community which tends to be complacent and arrogant when successful. At the first signs of coming troubles our people are liable to panic. There is no guarantee that in future decades all will be smooth sailing all the time. So, without some iron in the soul, without a strong backbone, a debacle can be brought about should we be confronted with a sustained series of misfortunes. Once people lose their confidence and decide to pack up, Singapore can quickly revert to the jungle swamp that Stamford Raffles first saw in 1819 for we have no natural wealth to fall back on.

These, then, are the qualities which I see as necessary in the future citizen, and indeed, in ourselves. The present thinking of the Government on the reforms in our school system will, I hope, stimulate public debate and public thinking on the subject. Both the professionals – school principals and teachers – and the laymen – community leaders and others – have an important contribution to make in the reshaping of our education system. First we have to decide what kind of product we want to turn out. This is something which concerns all of us. Once this is decided then we can leave it to the professionals to say how we go about achieving what we want. I hope that the Anglo-Chinese School will play a leading role in this process and that the Old Boys’ Association will also have valuable ideas to contribute.


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