National Development and Technological Education–The Singapore Experience
Dr. N. Varaprasad
Principal and CEO
Temasek Polytechnic, Singapore


The notion of "national development" carries with it the implications of valued and positive changes that bring about a better quality of life for the population as a whole. Concomitant with this notion are economic and social development. Thus, developments related to increasing the efficiency of the production system of a nation (whether it be processes, goods or services), meeting the basic needs and satisfaction of the population, reducing poverty, creating employment and creating equality of opportunities and increasing the welfare of all social groups are embraced within concept of national development.

National development is a multi-dimensional process that involves the economic, social and political systems of a nation. At this point, there is a divergence of views on the process to achieve the goals. This divergence hinges on the degree to which economic and social goals should be achieved through state planning and state intervention.

Based on the experience of East Asian countries, one may conclude that systematic and strategic planning at a macro-level is a pre-condition for successful and long term national development. This involves the setting of economic targets for various sectors, determining the availability of manpower, determination of skill sets and so on. Economic development has been a forced draft process, designed to drive pre-industrial economies into the modern age. Once that process is well under way, state planning and state intervention give way to a more entrepreneurial economic system.

In this scenario, human resources development is seen as a strategic tool in the context of national development. Training and education create from scratch the technological knowledge and skills base that is necessary to support the economic targets. This focus on education as a tool of national development is essentially a post World War II phenomenon.

For example, British historians have noted that in the early stage of industrialisation in England (1780—1850), education was never seen to be related to economic advancement because the level of knowledge and skills required for the early factories were about the same as that required for successful farming. Even the industrial revolution was not credited to education. In fact, British historians tell us that formal education was expanded to "reinforce factory discipline and teach respect for authority". Thus, the expansion of education in Britain was more to feed, rather than to drive, economic growth.

But more recent history tells a somewhat different story. After World War II, Japan embarked on a formal education programme with emphasis on education as the key to economic growth. The success of the Japanese example has brought about widespread conviction that there is a direct link between education and economic development. In fact, education in the case of developing nations, plays a critical role in inculcating in them essential work habits and discipline, equipping their people with basic literacy and fundamental skills as well as the foundation of technical knowledge.

The development of human resources is now widely accepted as a strategic tool for socio-economic development, particularly in promoting industrialisation and technological upgrading. This utilitarian view is particularly strong in developing countries which have a lower starting point in comparison with the developed countries.

It is, therefore, not surprising that education, in particular technological education, is one of the most important agenda items for developing nations today. East Asian nations like Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan which emulated Japan with their emphasis on education for economic growth and investment in specific forms of technology, appear to have reaped the benefits in national development. The experience of Singapore since self-government, which I am about to share, underlines this view.

This paper will share with you the Singapore education system and its historical context, with particular emphasis on how technological education supports manpower development.

The Singapore Education And Training System

Education has always played a vital role in Singapore’s economic and national development, especially after self-government was attained in 1959 and full independence in 1965.

The early years just after self-government was achieved, were years of chronic unemployment, low educational levels, a demographic profile that showed the effects of the post-war baby boom, and communist labour agitation. The economic prerogative was therefore to create employment quickly. The strategy chosen was to attract multi-national corporations (MNCs) to Singapore to create jobs with low labour cost as compared with their home countries. This policy was, at that time, in marked contrast to the policy of economic self-reliance followed by most newly independent countries.

The consequential educational imperative was, therefore, the rapid expansion of primary and secondary education. Schools were rapidly built to standard designs and teacher training expanded. This served two purposes. The young population was kept in school and out of the influence of communist agitators and second, it enabled the Government to attract inward investments from MNCs to establish a strong manufacturing base. The emphasis was on quantity, rather than quality and on primary and secondary education, rather than tertiary.

There was another important imperative and this was to create in the multi-racial and multi-cultural population, a sense of national identity and commitment to Singapore as an independent nation. This continues to be true even to the present day.

The link between education and national development became closer as Singapore moved quickly into the next phase of economic development. Low wages went with low skills, and this was not sustainable in the long run, given the wage competition from other countries. The political leaders saw that to maintain a higher level of industry, the effective use and deployment of the limited human capital was essential. This meant that the education and training of the population needed to be ahead of industry demands, both in numbers and in type. Thus began the establishment of various agencies charged with mapping out the manpower needs of the country and to tailor the educational system to meet this need.

Prime among these agencies was the Council for Professional and Technical Education (CPTE), which was chaired by the Minister for Trade and Industry. Established in 1979, this Council sets targets for education and training at all levels. It institutionalises the link between trade and industry policy and the educational and training system, thereby ensuring that the human capital demands of new industries are met, by level, by number and by discipline. It de-aggregates the supply side of the equation into specific targets for universities, polytechnics, and the institutes of technical education. It also helps to highlight the required subjects for primary and secondary schools and junior colleges.

The CPTE’s inputs for its manpower planning include the projected investment streams in various sectors, productivity growth, the projected GDP/GNP growth rate, changes in the demographic profile and labour pool and the matching of supply and demand sides of the manpower equation.

The CPTE’s recommendations led to the rapid expansion of all levels of post-secondary education, from technical education at the skills level, polytechnics, and tertiary engineering education. This included the establishment of new institutions, as well as the expansion and upgrading of existing ones. The approval of the CPTE is often sufficient for government funds to be allocated for such an expansion by the Ministry of Finance.

The chief justification for this process of detailed manpower planning is that Singapore’s population base is small and scarce and hence needs to be optimally deployed across various sectors. Left to themselves, students will make decisions with less than full information about long term investment goals and trends. This justification therefore places the long term economic and national policy goals ahead of the personal interest of the individual. Allocation of places in the various levels and courses of study are by merit and performance at landmark examinations, in a transparent process. In any case, almost the entire education system is government provided and this provides further justification for government intervention.

This system creates stresses and strains when individuals do not get into popular courses of study, particularly at University level, for example into law and medicine. Many Singapore students therefore go overseas to study, especially if they are not satisfied with their allocated place and if they can afford to. There is a political price that the Government has to pay for its policy.

However, personal interests are served in the end by the continued growth of the economy which is fuelled by the timely availability of skilled manpower in the various technical, professional and managerial sectors. The direct inward investment into Singapore is currently in the region of SGD 80 billion annually. The ability of the population to see and benefit from this, has enabled the government to maintain public support for this policy.

Technological Orientation of the Curriculum

The education system of Singapore is also characterised by a strong orientation towards science and technology, rather than the liberal arts. This is another manifestation of the utilitarian nature of educational planning.

The system has thus succeeded in producing a work force that can manage technology, primarily through three key features:

  1. a bilingual policy with English as the language and the mother tongue as the second language
  2. streaming of students into different ability classes
  3. early incorporation of science and technology into the curriculum.
In the foundation years of primary schooling (Primary 1 to 4), one third of the curriculum time is devoted to the learning of English. Mathematics and science subjects are taught in English. As English is the language of science and technology, this policy has enabled Singapore to have a work force literate in English and competent to absorb new technologies quickly.

On the other hand, it should be noted that the emphasis of mother tongue in this bilingual policy ensures that our cultural and ethnic roots, as well as our Asian values, are not compromised or sacrificed in the rigorous pursuit of science and technology.

Secondly, streaming of students at Primary 4 (ten years old) and Secondary One (13 years old) according to academic ability has not only reduced the attrition rate but has also ensured that the potential in each child is maximised. At Primary level, slower learners will study their mother tongue at oral proficiency level so that more time could be devoted to the learning of English and mathematics. At secondary level, slower learners would take, as compulsory subjects, English, mathematics and computer applications, together with subjects with a technical-vocational bias. Such a system ensures that weaker students would have some technical skills to fall back on when they leave school.

Finally, to be prepared for life in a modern industrialised society, children must acquire the basic technical skills which will enable them to function effectively in a technological environment. As a result, on par with the study of English as the first language is the study of mathematics and science. Mathematics plays an important role in school curriculum from Primary One with 20% of curriculum time devoted to it. Science is part of the school curriculum from Primary Four. At Secondary level, less able students enter a five-year technical stream which will give them more application-based training in technical subjects.

The Special Role of Polytechnic Education in Singapore’s Development

Special mention should be made of polytechnic education in Singapore, as polytechnics absorb 40% of each age cohort, after completing secondary education. The polytechnics in Singapore provide a very intense work-related training and education leading to diplomas in specific career related areas. Students enter the polytechnics after their O-levels and study for three years. The polytechnics are unique in that they provide the highly very important middle-level support sector for business and industry. This has been a neglected area in many other systems where tertiary education almost always means degree level courses.

The four polytechnics, each sized for 12,000 students, have established a reputation for both innovation and strong industry relevance. 99% of their outputs are employed within three months of course completion. The four polytechnics collectively offer a diverse range of courses ranging from traditional engineering and information technology courses to non-traditional courses like nursing, tourism and hospitality, communication studies and design.

Adult Education

The rapid expansion of formal education according to the rate of economic development, has left a significant portion of the work force without appropriate qualifications. Many who where schooled in the early days of independence have only primary education, while those following have secondary education. Thus adult education for the working population to bring them up to date with modern technology and to keep them prepared for the rapid changes to come, is a key platform of the government. In this, it is working closely with the unions to ensure that members avail themselves of the opportunities being created.

The new growth industries require not only technical competence but also flexibility to develop new skills. A new apprenticeship scheme was launched in 1990, modelled on the German dual system. On-the-job or OJT training schemes have also been launched. The result has been skills deepening and broadening for many workers in the manufacturing sector.


The experience of Singapore illustrates how the driving force behind the education and training system, from school to university level, is not the needs of the individual, or even individual employers but that of the economy as a whole. While the emphasis is on encouraging individuals to participate in available courses and programmes, the objectives and standards are set according to what is seen as the needs of a future economy. In other words, the education and training system does not react to current needs but is planned to support future needs which are targeted by economic planners.

For the 1990s and beyond, our emphasis is for every child to be equipped with basic information technology skills so as to become independent learners. The use of computers as a teaching and learning tool within the classroom will be a fact of life and all schools and classrooms in Singapore will be equipped with computers. Computer literacy classes have become part-and-parcel of the curriculum such that pupils are often familiar with the latest developments in CD-ROMs, Internet and other multi-media systems.

The future, however, is less predictable and less capable of deterministic planning. The need for technical disciplines is balanced by problem-solvers who can work in multi-disciplinary environments on open-ended problems. This requires a shift to more information-synthesising skills from the current focus on content. Manpower planning will become more an art than a science and will be less exact than before. The challenge, therefore, for the Singapore education system is to respond to these challenges with creativity and innovation and to continue to anticipate the changes in economic structure that are inevitable.

However, what is certain is that the linkage between national development and education will not be diffused as the economy matures. What is more likely is that individual choice and private education will be factored in more into the equation.


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