SINGAPORE: Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said the success in character education is only possible if real space is created for it in the education system.
Mr Tharman said: "In my opinion, it’s only possible to succeed in character education and encouraging students to question and think originally if we create real space for it in the education system."
"And this will require reducing the excessive focus on examinations early in life."
Mr Tharman was giving his personal views on education at a Chinese cultural event on Sunday.
It was the 40th anniversary of the passing of education philanthropist Tan Lark Sye, founder of the former Nanyang University in Singapore, the Chinese university which is known as Nantah.
During the opening address, which lasted some 30 minutes, Mr Tharman spoke about philanthropy, language and culture, and finally, his personal views on the Singapore education system.
"We have to provide more space for character building, and for encouraging our students to think for themselves, question more, to think in more original ways. You need space and time for it. There is no other way," said Mr Tharman.
Mr Tharman, who previously also held the Education portfolio, said a main refinement should look at how students are differentiated at the primary school leaving examination (PSLE), which rates students by exact scores.
The PSLE rating system is finer than at the secondary four examinations, where students are graded by alphabets representing bands of scores.
Mr Tharman said: "As long as we carry on with the present system of extraordinarily fine differentiation at the PSLE and consequently, for posting to secondary schools, it is inevitable that parents, teachers and principals, whatever else they may say, will place great emphasis on preparing their students and children for the PSLE."
"And it will have to be at the expense of something else."
"So if you want to create real space early in life for children to have a broad—based upbringing, to interact outside the classroom, get to know each other across races, to develop that zest for learning, for life, something has to give. We can’t keep everything else unchanged and try to add on more."
Mr Tharman also cautioned that the right trade—off has to be found.
"If we do anything, it has to be done without shaking the confidence of parents in meritocracy —— confidence in the fairness of the system."
"Whatever we do, we have to preserve that basic tenet of meritocracy and the fairness that it brings, so that anyone, regardless of who your father and mother are, if you work hard, if you do well, you feel you are able to go where you wish to go in education," he added.
On language, Mr Tharman said it is undeniable that the standard of the Chinese language today has dropped, compared to what was achieved in Chinese schools in the past. But he said the bilingual policy has given Singapore a common language between the races. Singapore has also gained in terms of the desire of English—speaking Chinese families today, who want their children to learn Chinese well, Mr Tharman said.
"What is more difficult is not language, but values. And this is not as tangible and we don’t focus on it as much. But I think there we have lost something in the values and the ethos of the Chinese—medium schools."
"Language policies can always be refined and if we need to strengthen in one area we can always do it. But values and ethos are not so easily turned on with a switch. They evolve gradually over time and there we have lost something, that attitude to life and society that was very much part of Chinese—medium schools."
"A certain reverence for standards of conduct, benevolence and contributing to society."
Mr Tharman added that there is a need to find ways to re—create these values in schools in Singapore today.
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