Go beyond book-smarts, to resilience and curiosity

Singapore's education system must embrace the frontier beyond academic achievement

ACS Independent students are all smiles after receiving their International Baccalaureate results early this month. A good education should spark the curiosity of a child, says the writer. Children are natural learners but making them sit for hours i
ACS Independent students are all smiles after receiving their International Baccalaureate results early this month. A good education should spark the curiosity of a child, says the writer. Children are natural learners but making them sit for hours in the classroom and do endless homework will kill all curiosity.ST PHOTO; MARK CHEONG

I was excited to read about Singapore's top ranking in the Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) tests and the perfect score of our IB (International Baccalaureate) achievers.

We should be proud of what we have achieved in such a short time as a country. Our position among the best today in educational terms is the result of the hard work and leadership of the Singapore Government and teachers. There are not many things from Singapore that are as world-famous as Singapore Airlines (and maybe Joseph Schooling), and our education system may be one of them.

Even as we celebrate our academic successes, there is a niggling question at the back of my mind: Are we adequately preparing our children for the globalised and digitalised future?

I have been in the financial industry for over 20 years, working in both American, European and Asian companies, and am actively involved in the recruiting of young people.

While global multinational employers overall think well of Singapore's hardworking and honest college graduates, a few of them look at the quality with increasing concern. Even as we are producing top students for many years, there still seems to be background chatter that we are not preparing our students well enough for the global job market.

I look at my own company as an example; we are a multinational firm with 76 offices globally, headquartered in Singapore. Each year 5,000 applicants globally fight for 20 places under our graduate programme - 21/2- year programme with rotation in three countries.

Singapore-based applicants form the largest pool of applicants - yet for 2015, we had only two successful applicants. Last year, there was just one.

Why and what can we do about this, I asked myself as an educator. As a father, I also wonder if my children would even make the cut.

Many may blame the communications skills of Singaporeans. But having interacted with many would-be recruits, I think Singapore students have upped their game materially and this is no longer the biggest hurdle.

Then what it is?

It is dangerous to generalise as interviews are happening at the individualised level but I submit to you that one of the reasons why Singapore students don't impress employers, is "mindset".


Time and time again, the students are, rightly or wrongly, perceived as academically smart but not savvy and not street-smart; not hungry and not as well-prepared for interviews compared with their global peers.

During interviews, Singapore students may try very hard to give the "perfect" answers to questions asked - maybe they see the interview as another examination. My company is prepared to invest in and teach these young recruits - we do not even care what they studied in school. And when they try too hard and give textbook answers, they may come across as naive, and are viewed in a different light by global interviewers.

ACS Independent students are all smiles after receiving their International Baccalaureate results early this month. A good education should spark the curiosity of a child, says the writer. Children are natural learners but making them sit for hours in the classroom and do endless homework will kill all curiosity. ST PHOTO; MARK CHEONG

Singapore is not unique in facing this problem, which is one employers in other well-off societies in the West encounter too. Rightly or wrongly, global recruiters view Singaporean recruits as lacking fire in the belly.

Many of our young people are reluctant to relocate even for short-term working stints. The can-do spirit of our pioneer generation is sadly lacking. There are not many success stories of Singaporeans who have made it big in the corporate and finance world globally.


Apart from having a sheltered mindset, I think another missing ingredient in our young today is resilience, which I consider a key predictor of success in life. Resilience is linked to hunger and the ability to fight and win.

Of course, resilience is difficult to teach, whether in school or at home. There is no one silver bullet solution. But resilience is an essential quality for our students to be future-ready.

Now that we have built a strong academic ethos - as evident by our Pisa and IB scores - we have to be bold and open-minded about tweaking the education system, to focus on the traits such as resilience, that we must instil in our students.

We should boldly go beyond achieving perfect scores academically and review how we teach in schools in order to best inculcate the right values in our children for their future.

I can only give you my personal experience as a fellow educator and as a father. We live in a house and have no domestic help - my three young kids have assigned duties to clean the house every day. These are simple tasks, but my wife and I believe these are small starting steps for them to learn to be able to neng qu neng shen (bow and submit to hardship; or stand tall - meaning to be adaptable and resilient).

In my company, we continue to experiment and to be better. In order to reach out to a larger pool of Singaporeans, we have started an apprenticeship programme and interviewed polytechnic graduates who are, rightly or wrongly, perceived to be more street-smart and hungrier.

The apprenticeship is one year and if they survive that year, they go straight to the 2 1/2-year graduate programme like the others. There is a lot of interest in this programme which we just started - it is too early to judge if it will succeed, but we will be tweaking the system as we get feedback.


A good education should spark the curiosity of a child. Children are natural learners but making kids sit for hours in the classroom and do endless homework will kill all curiosity. The kids will be too exhausted to be curious even if they become adept at answering examination questions.

Curiosity is an essential trait in the future economy.

I have a friend whose daughter studied in an international school in Taipei. His daughter loves the school but unfortunately detests the Singapore school she studied in for three years. A few simple things, other than the lack of homework, made a big difference. Sporting equipment like soccer balls, basketballs, tennis rackets, are placed around the school for the kids to use without any limits.

Second, the break time was an hour, not 30 minutes like in Singapore. Third, the school conducts regular outdoor activities that range from museum visiting, and supermarket shopping to watching selected educational movies.

All these activities allow children to have new and interesting experiences that enhance their love for learning as well as spark their curiosity.

I taught a master's class in finance in Shanghai Jiaotong University, and had a chance to see the best and the brightest in China first-hand. Most of them have full scholarships and came from the Ivy League of China. Not only are they articulate in their mother tongue, they speak good English and, most importantly, are hungry for success.

I often invited guest speakers from the financial world to share real-life experiences, and my students in Shanghai would diligently prepare for the class and actively engage the speaker after class. I have also seen such behaviour in the Ivy League university classrooms in the United States.

In Singapore, students generally do not prepare for such interactions because they see it as non-testable topics; so why bother to talk to these speakers?

Many a time, I had to push Singapore students to ask questions. As for engaging the speakers, Singapore students rush out of the lecture rooms as soon as the speakers stop, instead of staying back to talk to and learn from them.

I sometimes wonder why they have so little curiosity to learn from these luminary figures from the financial world that I invite to their class!

I am also concerned as to how we can instil a sense of community and responsibility among students. Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus reminded me that teaching kindness should start at a very young age.

So what is the use of having top students without good hearts? How can we build up the values system in our children at school and at home?

In short, is our system too rigid today? How do we gauge success beyond getting straight As? How do we train future leaders who can think of solutions instead of seeing their jobs as another examination they are afraid of failing?

We should be happy about the news of perfect IB scores and top Pisa rankings. But it is time to go beyond book-smarts, to relook our education system to instil a spirit of resilience, and of curiosity, that our students will need if they are to succeed in the future.

  • Tan Chin Hwee is the Asia-Pacific CEO of a global company and an advisory member of the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore and Monetary Authority of Singapore. He is also an adjunct professor at several universities.
  • This article is adapted from a speech to National Institute of Education recipients of teaching scholarships on Jan 25.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 31, 2017, with the headline 'Go beyond book-smarts, to resilience and curiosity'. Subscribe