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Civil service needs to change the way it recognises talent

Of late, we have heard many fourth-generation (4G) ministers speaking about the need to change the mindset towards education in Singapore by giving equal weighting to talent, skills, vocational training and academic performance (A PM without a degree? Possible, says Ong Ye Kung; May 6).

However, the reality on the ground, especially in the civil service, is far from this.

Singaporean parents want their children to become scholarship holders because they know that it is a sure-fire way to a successful career in the civil service and, later, to senior positions in a government-linked company.

The civil service contributes to this mindset by creating accelerated pathways for its scholarship holders to assume management positions based on their current estimated potential, which is largely attributed to their academic scores when they join the service.

School principals and teachers are focused on academic results as these are a key performance indicator for promotion. On top of that, there is an obsession with continual tests and exams, which have not been reduced despite Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's "teach less, learn more" initiative more than a decade ago.

The Ministry of Education needs to take a hard look at the curriculum and volume of content being covered. An overambitious curriculum leads to teachers rushing through the syllabus and students having to resort to tuition to help them understand the content.

Those who can afford good tutors do better, leading to an unfair advantage for the well-off and a rise in inequality in terms of opportunities for students from lower-income families.

Some schools conduct two preliminary exams for students due to take their O level exams in the belief that this will better prepare them. Other schools replace art and physical education lessons with more academic classes when the exams are approaching.

So while our 4G leaders speak of creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship, the reality in the civil service is that academic results matter the most.

If we are really serious about developing our young to their highest potential, encouraging risk-taking and enhancing the attitude towards vocational skills, the civil service has to set the example, not by aiming for a token non-graduate minister, but by changing the way we identify, recognise and promote talent and leadership.

Sreedharan Suresh

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 27, 2018, with the headline 'Civil service needs to change the way it recognises talent'. Print Edition | Subscribe