Getting into this box is what's best for both of us. During your time in the box, you will learn so much, and yet experience so little. It's a wild ride, my friend, one well worth the time spent...and let's face it, you don't have much to do these days anyway.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Public education system designed to churn out worker drones fails to foster entrepreneurship. What a big surprise.

Youths are holding back Singapore's startup scene. Who knew?

Over the past three months, I have been matching youths to startups as the founder and director of the HUB Internship Program (an initiative under The HUB Singapore). Now that the university summer vacations are ending, I finally have the chance to reflect.

And it hit me: Singaporean youths are not accelerating nor strengthening our startup ecosystem. Instead, they are inhibiting our growth.

Our youths do not have market-relevant skills and experiences to do their job.

Given that it's more or less explicitly stated that the Singaporean education system was designed to provide worker drones for the multinational corporations which were invited to set up shop here, why is that any of a surprise? It's basically a rip-off of the Prussian model, with a few extra kinks thrown in here and there to promote subservience.

Something made to produce cogs is not going to be producing control systems in a big hurry.

The Prussian model of schooling preys upon the mania for learning that's embedded in the North-East Asian psyche, I'd argue. If you look at the culture which surrounded education in Ancient China - masters of thought and learning who had deep, personal relationships with their disciples, stories of lone scholars living on a pittance who later went on to ace the Imperial Examinations and become high officials and marry daughters of the Emperor.

You have an entire sub-culture springing up about the task of education, exclusive to those who are worthy. In that sense, the Chinese culture surrounding education had a spiritual aspect to it.  You have social strictures that govern how scholars and seekers of learning are expected to behave, what they're supposed to eschew, and what can be expected of them in exchange for their unique station in society.

This is complete anathema to the Prussian model, for it is not merely dead, but never had a soul to begin with. The problem is not so much rote learning, which is required at the beginning of all sorts of education, but whether the rote learning gives way to something else eventually. Where a teacher is not attached to a student for a lifetime, but merely a year or so, to huge classes that come and go. Where the ultimate goal is not to produce people to think, but to work and be subservient. Where the spirit in a school is divorced from the spirit of a society.

Yet North-East Asians do not see the differences. We see "education", and that triggers the Pavlovian response built from centuries of cultural conditioning without wondering if this "education" is the same as that "education".

The Analects explicitly state that those who are truly devoted to learning would be willing to relinquish material wealth to do so, yet the primary goal of education today is...the acquisition of wealth. Get a good job, earn lots of money to...well, who knows what? Sure it didn't always turn out that way, but the ostensible reason behind rewarding successful scholars with positions and power was so they could use their merits to govern effectively, was it not?

Education with an end, education without an end, or education as an end in itself?
A handful of them even had no idea what business development was, and chose it because it sounded the most lucrative amongst other categories of internships such as design or tech. And these were no average-grade-students. They were top scorers in their JCs or Polytechnics and had GPAs of 4.0+ (on a scale of 5.0).


Arguably, startup internships are accurate litmus tests for youths thinking of stepping out into the working world. Put to the test are skills like the ability to absorb knowledge, think creatively and maturely, and communicate with partners, clients and team members effectively (rather than formatting Powerpoint presentations — the new ‘coffee-making’ in today’s evolved internship scene).

During our interviews, I was taken aback at how youths thought internships were only necessary to fill up space on their CV. They prefer to focus on their academic-related but non-essential activities, and were keen to intern for 1-2 months at best.
Public schools in both the East and West are failing - for different reasons and to different ends, but the end condition is hardly desirable for anyone but those who find cogs and gears useful for their grand machines.


  1. Wondering about that Asian propensity towards education; do you think it could be embedded within the language? My Mandarin's good enough for me to know how incredibly different it is, but not so good as to make a linguistic analysis.

    Here in Canada, we have a lot of first- and third-generation Chinese; the difference is palpable. While there are certain traits which - I suspect - are genetically embedded (Chinese women, no matter how white-washed, have a very distinct sort of adorable insanity), but the focus on schooling does seem to be cultural.

    Canadian-Chinese are smart, and their parents push them to succeed, but they don't have the same obsessive dedication that those fresh-off-the-boat have.

    That this is such a long running trend in Asia, I suspect it's more than culture; heck, with Mao's Cultural Revolution you'd expect a contempt of education. And yet it persists - suggesting memetics embedded in the language.

    I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.

    1. Thanks for dropping by again.

      I'm afraid I face the reverse problem - I may be familiar with the language, but I'm not well-read enough in the subject to make any sort of honest linguistic analysis past surface conjecture.

      I do have a few guesses, though - some years back, I read a paper which suggested that the Chinese numerical system could have contributed to numerical proficiency - where an English-speaking kid must make do with knowing that nineteen is nineteen and twenty-nine is twenty and nine, the way the same two numbers are in Mandarin are "shi jiou" and "er shi jiou", or literally "ten nine" and "two ten nine".

      Conversely, when it comes to English, words can be broken down into phonetics, and spelling reconstructed from there. Chinese pictograms have no such association, hence they must be taken on faith - leading to a lot of rote memorisation to learn the written language, and even more so for the spoken one, since pronunciation determines what is said (hence all the bad pronunciation jokes involving foreigners). It may account for the propensity Chinese attitudes towards education have towards rote memorisation.

      I'm not completely sure if 20 years of Cultural Revolution can completely obliterate more than 2,000 years' reverence for teaching, though. Your teacher was regarded in equal standing as your father (hence "shifu"), and your fellow students as brothers ("Shixiong" or "shidi") - which is quite impressive considering traditional clan ties back in the day. The Chinese classics deal with these relationships clearly portray the teacher-student relationship as something far deeper than the current one-woman-with-an-average-subpar-IQ-with-a-worthless-degree-to-many-drugged-up-kids we have today.

      Times are changing, and not for the better. Even after the adoption of the Prussian-esque school system here in Singapore, my father still remembers his classmates' parents bringing gifts of food and sundries to teachers out of reverence and deferring to them. Today, parents are more likely to blame teachers for their childrens' underperformance or misbehaviour.

      Perhaps the fact that now "shifu" is never used any more, and instead "lao shi" is used to denote a teacher. But then, few would call the average teacher of today a maestro.

      With regards to children of Chinese immigrants losing that thirst, I'd say modernity and affluence have done most of the damage. Many who subscribe to the Moldbuggian class system of modern western civilisation have noted that the children of optimates often end up as brahmins, while the children of helots end up as dalits; the degradation of nobility in both the upper and lower classes is obvious. I'm not surprised, honestly.

      Pardon me if I've veered off track a little; but I can't say much. What I can say for sure is that there ARE memetics within Mandarin that do show reverence for teachers and by extent education, especially when one goes into antiquated terms. How those compare with cultural effects, especially as both are changing in tandem, I'm not qualified to say.