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Experiencing Singapore (12): Meritocracy and the Pressure-Cooker Education System

How many Western leaders are there that look like respectable men? Okay, we got Trump. We also have Trudeau, Macron, and a whole bunch of other clowns. There are people in leading positions, sometimes ministers, who dropped out of university. Handing out positions of powers due to quotas is also common. In Singapore, you have none of that. Instead, it’s a meritocracy. It may be flawed in some details, but overall, their system is incredibly sound.

To give you one data point: Singapore’s current Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, studied mathematics. He didn’t just study mathematics. He studied mathematics at the University of Cambridge, which, arguably, has the most highly regarded undergraduate program in mathematics in the entire world. Yet, he didn’t just study mathematics at Cambridge, he was the top student of his entire class, the Senior Wrangler. Other people you may have heard of who were Senior Wranglers include George Stokes (cf. Navier–Stokes equations) or Frank Ramsey, and a whole slew of most eminent mathematicians. Titans like
James Clerk Maxwell and Lord Kelvin did not become Senior Wrangler, but only Second Wrangler, which probably gives you some idea about the level of competition.

Now, if Lee Hsien Loong degree was some bullshit subject like literature, I would fully support an interjection like, “So what?”, but mathematics isn’t like that. I would say that a degree in mathematics at a reputable institution is one of the clearest proofs of having a very high IQ. While there are of course high-IQ people in fields other than mathematics — arguably not so much in Gender Studies, Education, and other joke subjects —, no moron will make it through a maths degree. Heck, you’ll probably have a pretty hard time if you’re not at least a solid two standard deviations from the mean.

Yes, Lee Hsien Loong is also the son of Lee Kuan Yew and he certainly got every possible advantage in life. Yet, I have little doubt that Singapore’s Prime Minister is, in raw intellectual power, the by far smartest person among world leaders. I’d be surprised if he wasn’t a good 30 to 40 IQ points above the typical buffoon that governs in the West. We have people like Angela Merkel who makes you wonder if she’s mildly retarded whenever she opens her mouth as she hasn’t even managed to master her mother tongue. Listen to her in an interview, and you’ll only shake your head. If you’re not a German native speaker, you’ll have to take my word for it, but you’ll surely find an apparent idiot in a position of power no matter in which Western country you live.

Singapore is run by a very smart man who is the son of another very smart man. I’m quite certain that Lee Kuan Yew, himself a Cambridge alumnus, and one who got the rare distinction of graduating with a ‘starred first’, was an intellectual giant among his contemporaries just like his son is. If you look up Singapore’s ministers, you’ll largely find people with very impressive pedigrees. Singapore is a country that is run like a company, and thus it is not surprising to have successful business people take powerful posts later in life. It is also not surprising to see people with stellar careers in academia change sides. Yet, in the West, we make someone a minister whose only distinction is that he came from an aristocratic woman whose only claim to fame is that her family has always had money.

Instead of just looking at the elites, we also have to look at the funnel at the other end, i.e. the educational system. Singapore gets some flak for its pressure cooker school system. Surely, those are the same people who secretly envy that country for its stellar results in international comparisons like PISA or TIMMS. Of course, according to them, those tests don’t capture “real intelligence” and “real knowledge”, at least if you’re your typical low-IQ Western academic working in the field of “edumacation.”

From what I gather, the system in Singapore is great. You have national exams, one after grade 6, the other after grade 10. If you want to go to a better school, you have to do well because otherwise, you won’t get in. There is a clear focus on academic achievement. If you’re a top-scoring student, you may find yourself at the world’s top feeder school to the University of Oxford, Raffles Institution. Seeing how much I had to suffer in the egalitarian Western system, Singapore sounds like a dream come true.

An alleged problem is the high pressure of the school system. I’d say if that applies to you or your kids, you’re playing the wrong game. Singapore is full of misguided parents as well who buy into all kinds of empty promises by private education providers who have developed curricula based on junk science. Thus, after a regular school day, plenty of kids get carted off to “enrichment centers” (no, this isn’t a place where they get mugged, raped or beaten up by illegal immigrants) for a few more hours of study. I had a look at Singapore exam papers. They clearly aren’t asking for anything superhuman. Yet, IQ is a reality, and dumb parents who make dumb decisions for their kids will mess up their lives more than they would by inactivity.

Another supposed problem is that there is no good alternative path in Singapore if you don’t do well in school. However, it’s like that everywhere. You can go into the trades, of course, but then you’ll compete with Indians and Malays, or guest workers. Yet, the same is happening in the West. You think you could learn a trade as an alternative, but then you realize that your boss is happy to pay you next to nothing during your vocational training, only to replace you with another apprentice afterwards, or cheap labor from Eastern Europe. If you romanticize the trades in the West, you should do more research.

I don’t think that primary and secondary education in Singapore are too demanding, if you stick to the public school system and don’t torture your kid with tutoring. Junior College, the last two years of the secondary school system, are seen as very difficult. I think this only applies to people who want to perform at a very high level both academically and athletically. I’ve heard the same complaints about German secondary education, back in the day when you learned Latin and more maths than most degree programs at university nowadays ask for. These days, only the least able German high school students complain about having too much to do. Instead, professors complain about the majority of incoming students requiring remedial classes.

I think a big difference between the West and Singapore is in tertiary education. I have only had some insight, but from what I gather from my girlfriend and her friends, no matter what degree you are studying, and at what university in the West, your workload in Singapore would be a lot higher. In the West, your professors do not expect you to work on the weekends. In Singapore, on the other hand, you are supposed to work all the time. According to my girlfriend, Asians consequently view all Western universities essentially as “party schools”, even in engineering, because there is so much less work to do. Well, in the West we believe that you “get out what you put in”, and willingly turn a blind eye, or two, towards students who don’t put in any work. I don’t have to tell you where I stand on that matter. I’d say Singapore simply holds its students to a very high standard, while we in the West are very willing to turn a blind eye towards the lazy and incompetent, especially if they are from some underrepresented minority.


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4 thoughts on “Experiencing Singapore (12): Meritocracy and the Pressure-Cooker Education System

  1. “dumb parents who make dumb decisions for their kids will mess up their lives more than they would by inactivity.”

    Man, this just hit me like a brick.
    Well said.

  2. “Another supposed problem is that there is no good alternative path in Singapore if you don’t do well in school. However, it’s like that everywhere. You can go into the trades, of course, but then you’ll compete with Indians and Malays, or guest workers.”

    Well, kinda.
    I’d like to make a point about both France and Switzerland here.
    As you know I started out as a cook and followed the apprenticeship model in France. Yes, me with a Bavarian Abitur I found myself with 15 year olds in school.
    My take-away is that if you give young people a chance to experience WORK while ensuring that they don’t bear too much of the downside in terms of “lost years” to study, then you are doing a good thing. The way CH and FR go about this is that you can get to a University diploma by starting with a trade or by going the plain vanilla college-high school-university route.
    It’s done by making dual apprenticeship attractive in terms of pay and work-school aka theory-practice balance.
    Hence, someone who started as a construction site worker, can end up as an architect or as a Real Estate Portfolio Manager in finance.
    Here’s the deal: It will “cost” him a year or two more.
    Yes, he’ll have to go to university as well, just like the guy going straight from high school into Finance, but you allow him to “fail” very early on, that is at 16, or even 14 years of age.
    My problem with the plain vanilla approach is that too many young guys have no clue what they want and HEY, REALITY FLASH: Go get some work experience and find out what you’re made up of.
    So many go and study sth and might find the associated work unappealing.
    So, the question is not “what approach do we put emphasis on?”, but “how interoperable are the different paths you can take?”
    And, we all know that the theory which you learn when you only go through school is very likely to not be representative of the reality one faces in a real work environment.
    Yes, I’m biased, I did not study and I had luck on my side to be where I am, but I just think that too much focus on things which include too little real life work-experience are no good.
    And in that respect, I believe France, Switzerland and to tome extent Germany have solved the trades/apprenticeship issue quite well.
    Is it for everybody? Hell no.
    Do you have to work hard and deliver in the last stages when you are in university? Of course.
    But, are you ultimately a more valuable worker after university, when you can show 4-6 years of working experience relative to the 6 months internship of the plain vanilla approach graduate who’s 2 years younger than you? I think so. At the end of the day, pragmatism is a damn good card to have up your sleave, and I think that a model where you start working early “at the expense” of a 1-2 year delayed degree, is favourable to getting just a sense of that.

  3. Man I read your blog after such a long time, and it was such a delight to come across your post on Singapore! I have been living here for the past one year 😉

    I can tell you from personal experience, that it indeed is as fantastic as you would imagine 😉 The only 2-3 things you can really complain about are:
    1) Climate
    2) High Rent
    3) Alcohol prices (if you drink a lot)

    Honestly, that’s it. I honestly cannot find anything else to even complain about in Singapore. Everything you wrote about, I can attest to that with personal experience
    1) The women here are better than most places I have been to anywhere in the world, and the health and fitness ecosystem is also way more developed.
    2) The safety thing, and law and order, is something that is actually insanely well done. You get totally used to this idea of leaving stuff around like your phone, bag, wallet etc. and the only problem is, when you travel, your subconscious mind starts assuming everywhere in the world behaves this way, and you have to consciously correct yourself that everywhere isnt like Singapore
    3) Fines are insane. People have even been fined if there are too many mosquitos in their house 😉
    4) The government works really really really well. In my job, I work closely with their transportation ministry. In a few meetings we’ve been to with them, there was a dude who was a PhD from MIT, another girl from Cambridge. The meeting was super professionally run, and the government people followed up with clear meeting notes and action items afterwards. I was completely blown away coming from India 🙂

    There’s a bunch of other delights which you likely didn’t experience about Singapore. For instance
    – Changi airport is so efficient, and it takes <5 mins from reaching to boarding, security, immigration etc. You actually feel the difference after living here, and then traveling to other airports in the world
    – I have NEVER seen a traffic jam in Singapore. The thing that Singaporeans call a traffic jam is like non rush hour traffic in most big cities of the world 😉
    – All things government works like clockwork. For instance, I recently got a new passport, and had to update my passport with the government. I assumed from my experience of other countries, that it maybe infinite paperwork hell, but turned out, it took <5 mins of logging into a website, and just updating my number, and 24 hours later, it was updated at all government touch points in Singapore

    The list of stuff goes on and on 😉 The only big thing you will miss living in Singapore, and this is only if you came from a place which is very dynamic and fast growing developing country (such as India, which have a whole bunch of other issues), is that stuff doesn't change much. Like 1-2 years in India, is a LONG time, and a lot changes rapidly. For instance, I went back to one of the large India cities after a year or so, and it felt like so much had visibly changed – bars, restaurants, popular startups, societal trends, etc. whereas in Singapore, I feel very little has changed in the last year or so. This is something that affects me somewhat, but otherwise, it is truly a fantastic place to live 🙂

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