The place of pre-school education on the national agenda was underscored by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his National Day Rally speech. The Government will double annual spending on pre-schools in the next five years, to add 40,000 new places for children and improve the quality of pre-school education. The emphasis on the pre-school sector is not new. However, these substantial investments indicate the seriousness with which Singapore needs to treat an early and formative period in the lives of its children. That period prepares them for school which, in turn, positions them to take up their roles in the world of work and in society. In a sense, "pre-school" is a misnomer: It is early schooling in the ways of life.
Preparation for life is not new to the Singapore education system, but a wealth of data generated by international research points to the need to begin the preparation even before the onset of formal schooling. What occurs in many societies is that better-educated parents, whose expectations of their children are based on their own success in life, focus closely on pre-school education. Working-class parents, to say nothing of those who are under financial pressure or are struggling to keep dysfunctional homes together, are hard-pressed to pay attention to the needs of their pre-school wards. Consequently, a "class divide" appears even among very young children. Unless that gap is bridged soon, it could expand to erode a child's chances in life.
What is sad is that this diminution of possibilities is preventable. While no viable education system can guarantee equality of outcome, any credible system must strive to provide equity of opportunity. That provision must begin as early as is possible in a child's life so as to make a difference in later years. Time lost to the absence of preparatory pre-school education is difficult to recover because children who have benefited from their early exposure to cognitive and social skills simply move ahead, leaving it to others to catch up. The goal of the latest official initiative is to prevent the emergence and entrenchment of a "class society", even at the very early stages of life.
Education always has been a key factor in Singapore's international competitiveness, which sustains the quality of life here. The focus on pre-school education underlines the urgency of what the country has to do now to secure its place in the future. By all means, Singapore must concentrate on producing winners, but that end is no more important than the means employed in producing the winners. The new national institute that will train pre-school educators must view its work as a mission which is no less important than the contribution of educational, research and other institutes that deal with older Singaporeans. These institutions reflect the legacy of the past: Pre-school will be the legacy of the present.