Recently, a nation’s call was made all across the mainstream media: “Students must be innovators for Singapore to succeed”. In summary, acting education minister for schools Ng Chee Meng envisioned the need for schools to help students “develop the instincts and ability to be value-creators” so that we can hope to groom the next Olivia Lum of Hyflux or Tan Min-Liang of Razor.
To the Singapore tech startup ecosystem, what Minister Ng has highlighted is not new and has always been a major issue raised by various community members over these past few years. VCs and investors highlighted that Singapore-raised entrepreneurs lack creative out-of-the box thinking, have limited depth in their product ideation and the vision to go beyond Singapore. It is no wonder why they comment on the difficulty in investing in Singaporean founders and have sought foreign founders for investments instead.
See also: Can Singapore’s system product unicorns?
Minister Ng has a great vision and I am sure the tech startup community eagerly agrees that it is time to change the education system to suit the changing needs of Singapore. But many barriers and challenges abound, in particular the area of mindsets.
Mindset of failure
In a previous article “I started a business not to manage it, but to engineer it,” to quote Peter Ho, CEO of Hope Technik, “Failure is an expected continuous result for innovation to work. Creation of innovative products starts from a lot of ‘Oops, there we go again’, head-banging and accepting the poor initial results.”
But in this competitive and rat-race mentality that Singaporeans have, being a failure is branded as someone who has no future or a second chance. In fact, entrepreneurs that I advised and mentored get a lot of flak and judgment by their loved ones when they fail in their first venture.
This stems also from their younger years where parents will hurl disappointment upon them when they did not do well in their grades. This is slowly changing though, where Singaporean celebrities came out and shared their stories of poor academic results during the recent PSLE results announcement, to encourage those who have not done well that there is always other opportunities to develop oneself.
Minister Ng also highlighted Google, where employees are encouraged to take risks and feel safe about making mistakes. This is concurred by Singaporean Yew Jin Lim, tech lead manager of Google Now and based in Google HQ USA.
“At Google, we’re reminded to have a healthy disregard for the impossible and to take risks, without fear of repercussions in case of failure. We set ourselves goals we know we can’t reach yet, because we know that by stretching to meet them we can get further than we expected. This might mean that we might make mistakes as part of the creative and innovation process.
This is something that is part of our organizational DNA, our culture. We believe that it’s important to learn and to fail fast, and to have an open feedback loop with our users so we can continually learn and improve.I had the freedom to experiment and figure out the best way to achieve the goal. Google’s culture is not to micro-manage, but to strongly encourage employees to try new ideas, not stifle them. It is easier said than done, but it’s really refreshing and exciting that Googlers are invested in doing the right thing, and this really keeps me smiling everyday as I skip to work.”
For students, the mindset of failure needs to be nipped in the bud, especially among parents, siblings, and peers. But it will not change overnight. A sociologist I spoke with mentions that Singapore “celebrates successes, but not failures,” and there are no systems or safety nets in place to deal with the psychological effects of failure. Until this cultural issue is dealt with strongly, Singaporean students will tend to fear failure and be risk-averse, and the vision of being innovators dims.
Mindset of educators and the system
Soon after the announcement made, teachers whom I spoke with rolled their eyes. “Not another exciting innovation change.” Apparently, a new major initiative happens every time a new Education Minister takes the post and teachers have yet to complete the integration of the previous directive. They are supportive of the idea of raising students to be innovators but it will be bonus, not core, initiative.
A secondary teacher, who chose not to be named, explains. “We get graded on a yearly basis by the department heads. Our promotion is mainly on the number of good grade results that our students get, followed by the successes and achievements / trophies that our students got in the co-curricular activities (CCA).
As for getting students to aspire to innovate, it is a contradiction to suddenly include a KPI that says ‘how many times my students have failed in a project this year.’ It is also difficult to grade a student’s success on innovation, as such a development is long-term and beyond the school academic year. At the end of the day, we will still end up going back to focus on the core syllabus and the academic score, because that is what teachers are motivated to do.”
Derrick Koh, founder of game-based learning Singapore Mathematics portal, Kungfu Math, laments the resistance of teachers to change. In working with many schools to promote a new of learning and motivating students to learn Mathematics while playing, teachers have often rejected this new way of learning. “Studies have shown that game-based learning encourages creative thinking and adapting to dynamic situations, compared to the traditional rote learning of hard-core practicing. But teachers prefer to stick to their traditional tried-and-tested methods of pen and paper. If they are not even keen to innovate their learning methods, how could they encourage a nation of students to innovate?”
I asked another teacher about this, and she exclaims, “It is not about us being resistant, but the lack of time to implement. Expectations on teachers are very high now, to be able to deliver holistic and all-rounded students in both studies and non-academic abilities. Even during school holidays, teachers are in school either preparing students academically for the upcoming exams or an upcoming CCA completion. I struggle to include another initiative without losing focus. ”
Mindsets of teachers are needed to change to help students innovate, but perhaps relooking at their responsibilities and grading KPIs might help them see light as to why innovation is critical to a nation’s success.
Mindset of parents
In an ever competitive and kiasu (translation: fear of losing) mentality of Singapore parents, we can see how much finances and time parents can invest into a child. Despite the removal of announcing the top grades of schools for the national examinations, they get creative and start to crowdsource results online, in order to see where their child stands and plan for the next phase of education.
In fact, despite a great education system provided by the government, parents go in droves of private tuition and enrichment classes, spending a good 5 percent of household expenditure on education. The more popular, the more expensive, the more their friend’s children take the class, the more they want their child in it. In fact, shopping malls which specializes in such education and enrichment centers are having a roaring trade, feeding into the fear of losing out by parents where hordes of students and parents flock to the centers on a daily basis.
I recalled speaking to the Polytechnics and they jokingly mention, “Our Open House day to enrol new students is catered primarily for the parents, who are always asking most of the questions, while dragging their child in tow. While a child may be interested in trying out a new different course, the parents have the final say since they are paying for the school fees. And parents always focus on how much income their child can make when they graduate, before deciding whether it is a good course to take. The student does not get much say in what course they take.”
Parents, who have worked hard all their lives in raising their children, have a practical standpoint of ensuring their children have a better stable life than they did. There is also an undue peer pressure to keep up with the Jones and regular guilt shaming by grandparents and peers alike for not sending their child for more lessons, in the name of ‘reaching their fullest potential’.
Will parents agree to focus their children away from grades and allow them to try innovation and develop new products? Possibly, when there is a guarantee that innovation leads to successful and stable financial lives. But to allow children to have a high risk of failure with little security, that will be challenge to change mindsets.
Minister Ng has a bold and important vision which all Singaporeans involved with students should support. It should not just be left to the educators to build as innovation is a lifestyle that encompass more than school life, but also the parents, the tech community and society at large.
The government will no doubt do an excellent job in providing infrastructure to create a conducive environment for innovation among students. But the hard job it has, along with society, is to work out solutions to target psychological aspects and break away old mindsets as highlighted in this article. Only then, can we see a possible breakthrough for the vision of having a nation of innovators in generations to come.
This is the third article of the Heartware Singapore series, where the author shares on different topics to spur the Singapore startup ecosystem.
This article first appeared on Tech in Asia.