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What Singaporean Students Lack, And How Parents Can Help

We’ve got the grades, but are they sufficient for career success?

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In a Straits Times opinion piece that circulated on social media last month, lecturer and star financier Tan Chin Hwee expressed his doubts that Singaporean students were equipped for the global job market. Based on his anecdotal evidence as an educator and recruiter, he cited three qualities he considered lacking in Singaporean youths, namely curiosity, resilience, and civic-mindedness.

Children are natural learners but making kids sit for hours in the classroom and do endless homework will kill all curiosity. The kids will be too exhausted to be curious even if they become adept at answering examination questions.

What Parents Can Do: The antidote to textbook answers? Pair curiosity with critical thinking. To develop curiosity, children need to embrace ambiguity, says Jamie Holmes, author of “Nonsense: The Power Of Not Knowing.” “We’re much more certain about facts than we should be. A lot of this will be challenged, and it should not be embarrassing,” says Holmes. “The emotions of learning are surprise, awe, interest, and confusion.”

“We’re training kids to do what computers do, which is spit back facts. And computers are always going to be better than human beings at that,” says developmental psychologist and educator Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, who co-authored the book “Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells Us About Raising Successful Children.” “[We] need to change the whole definition of what success in school, and out of school, means.” She suggests that parents integrate thinking skills into their daily interactions with children, with questions such as “Can you think of different ways to make the bed?”

Rightly or wrongly, global recruiters view Singaporean recruits as lacking fire in the belly. Many of our young people are reluctant to relocate even for short-term working stints. The can-do spirit of our pioneer generation is sadly lacking. There are not many success stories of Singaporeans who have made it big in the corporate and finance world globally.

What Parents Can Do: When passion, drive, and motivation seem to be lacking in children, parents often attempt to compensate by herding their children into opportunities in the hope of stimulating change or growth. “Some kids will be highly passionate and some will be much lower key with respect to their interests,” says psychotherapist Neil Brown. “Yet it’s important to remember, all kids and teens have things they enjoy and want to do. There are just differences in how they feel and express those desires.” He concedes that parenting children with “low passion” can be frustrating, and proffers advice on ending the “parent-child control battle” and giving children the freedom to thrive. 

Passion alone, however, is no indicator of success—except when it is backed by perseverance. To build a resilient spirit in children, occupational therapist Anita Leo believes that parents must first create the physical conditions for them to flourish, such as ensuring ample rest and good nutrition. But unless a child is extraordinarily sheltered, he or she will certainly experience moments of failure, and a parent’s reaction—such as to an academic performance that has fallen short of targets—can be instrumental in laying the bedrock for future resilience. Leo stresses that children need autonomy to contrive their own solutions to problems, as well as space to realise that their worth and potential do not hinge on singular events.

I am also concerned as to how we can instil a sense of community and responsibility among students… [Teaching] kindness should start at a very young age.

What Parents Can Do: Model compassion and advocacy for your children by taking an interest in the world around you. Independent researcher and mother-of-two Stephanie Chok recommends staying “connected to civil society groups in Singapore” to find a cause for oneself (or the family) to get behind. But she cautions against passivity while waiting for the “perfect” cause to emerge. “Whether or not we are part of an organised group, if we feel strongly about an issue, we can write a letter to the press, lobby our Member of Parliament, or attend a town hall consultation to voice our concerns,” she says.

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