Singapore is trying to do something about the rigidity of Asian educational systems. The small city-state has made a successful transition from poor colonial entrepot to wealthy manufacturing and financial- services center. But Singapore's leaders realize that to continue to flourish, they need to move up the food chain of industrial production. As a member of Singapore's International Academic Advisory Panel, I've been invited to critique their strategy, and I'd give them high marks for diagnosis and design. Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew told me, "Singapore must look in the future to such growth industries as information technology, biotechnology and entertainment, and that will require more creativity in our education."
Can Singapore's leaders pull off real reform? In 1997 they realized they were short 7,000 students. The government projected that the economy would need something like 17,000 university graduates a year to service its economy in the year 2000, but its two universities were admitting only 8,000 Singaporeans, and overseas study was not making up the difference. Singapore's leaders realized that they needed not just more graduates but different graduates. Lee complained that Singapore lacked the freewheeling "buzz" of Hong Kong. And while Singapore trained its best and brightest for government service, both Hong Kong and Taiwan were more successful in producing entrepreneurs. "It's ironic that we should talk about building a more creative society," says Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. "We are aware of the irony: can you actually teach creativity? But we say that we [will] give it a try."
Singapore has some obvious advantages over its neighbors. Its meritocratic and largely corruption-free society will help it escape from one of the basic dilemmas of education reform in East Asia. A Beijing university official once put it to me this way. She lamented that her son had to cram so hard for university entrance exams that he "has no time to play or be creative. The exams make our schools teach the wrong way, but if we tried to change the exams, corruption would destroy what meritocracy we have."
In typical fashion, Singapore's topnotch civil service has designed a sensible strategy for change. At the primary- and secondary-school levels, the basic goal of its "Masterplan for IT" is to encourage creative thinking and lifelong learning. While the reforms are too new to see results yet, it will be easier to achieve computer literacy than to ensure creativity.
The next stage of Singapore's strategy is to create a "Boston of Asia"--a vibrant university scene that will both produce creative …