Ask the expert: What makes Singapore’s education system so effective?

As a professor, head of the Policy and Leadership Studies Academic Group at the National Institute of Education, and author of Learning from Singapore: The Power of Paradoxes, Singapore’s Pak Tee Ng has spent his career sharing the wisdom of his country’s education system, which has garnered accolades across the world for its effectiveness.

The Holdsworth Center spoke with Ng about his philosophy and what American schools can take away from his country’s educational training and techniques.

Holdsworth: Why does Singapore invest so heavily in education?

Ng: Because investing in education is investing in our future. Singapore’s philosophy is that education is an investment, not an expenditure. When it’s seen as an expenditure, the attitude is to cut costs whenever possible. When seen as an investment, one aims only to maximize the return on investment.

During the financial crisis of 2008-2009, many countries cut their education budgets, but Singapore did the opposite. Instead, we increased spending from $8 billion to $8.7 billion. We believe that in hard times, the way to rise above is with education.

Pak Tee Ng

Holdsworth: How do teachers fit into the larger picture of Singapore’s economic success?

Ng: In Singapore, teachers are nation builders. Good teachers are the pillars of a good education system, which develops the citizens and workforce of the country. In 1966, Singapore’s Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, said: “Just as a country is as good as its citizens, so its citizens are, really, only as good as their teachers.” As a result of this mindset, the teaching profession is lifted up as a respectable profession with competitive salaries and professional development opportunities.

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Holdsworth: As someone who has helped train most of the principals in your education system, what is the most common challenge that Singapore principals face, and what advice do you offer?

Ng: I’d say dealing with different demands from different stakeholders. Principals are pulled in so many directions and they are faced with very tough decisions if they want to ensure the best education for their students. My advice to principals is to know who you are and know what you stand for. When the going gets tough, the tough will have what it takes to get going!

Pak Tee Ng

Holdsworth: In your opinion, how does a principal’s job in the US differ from a principal’s job in Singapore?

Ng: In Singapore, it’s quite clear that the principal is both the head of the school and a member of the leadership fraternity that leads the entire school system. The Ministry of Education (MOE) frequently transfers principals among schools. In many other parts of the world, the principal is often more clearly the head of a school, and less so a system leader. As a result, principals in Singapore work more in a “centralized decentralization” paradigm, an approach that aims to achieve “strategic alignment, tactical empowerment.”

Although schools report to the MOE in Singapore, the ministry also encourages innovation and diversity in the schools, so in implementing policies, schools should understand the policy intention but decide how they would like to carry out the policy. They should not simply follow a top-down approach to education reforms.

Holdsworth: Singapore students rank highly on global assessments. They test very well. How have you worked to expand on that success?

Ng: We’re moving our focus from quantity to quality, emphasizing higher order thinking and deeper engagement. We’re also opening more pathways for students to find success in their own way. Our motto, “Every Student, an Engaged Learner,” means that every child can learn, not just in school, but for the rest of their life. Teachers aim to develop an intrinsic motivation for learning and an attitude of lifelong learning.

As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said, “Education is not just about training for jobs. It is about opening doors for our children and giving them hope and opportunities. It is more than filling a vessel with knowledge—it is to light a fire in our young people. They are our future.”

Holdsworth: How do you go about changing the culture of an entire system to reach those new goals?

Ng: First of all, it’s much easier said than done. But essentially, this is our step-by-step process to changing the culture:

  1. Share a compelling vision
  2. Invest resources in the new goals and commit to them
  3. Support people in the right direction
  4. Start small and recognize little successes
  5. Be prepared for the long haul

Holdsworth: What are the strengths of the education system in the US?

Ng: One major strength is the great diversity within the system, which allows for pockets of excellence and many innovative practices throughout the country.

Holdsworth: Without extra funding, what’s one thing the US could do to improve its education system?

Ng: It’s not easy, but educators have to keep their spirits up. It’s up to each and every teacher to make the narrative of education more positive. Without a positive attitude, nothing can improve.

The Holdsworth Center's Singapore visit