Sing Kong Lee: In Memoriam

Sing Kong Lee

Cross-posted at Education Week.

For most of us, the pantheon of education is populated mainly by great teachers. For others, it is populated by researchers who have made indelible contributions to the literature or critics who provided intellectual leadership for ground-breaking reforms.

But, for me, the prize goes to a handful of people whose contributions are of another sort, people whose unique gift is the ability to envision the contours of entire education systems that propel hundreds of thousands or even millions of students to a level of success rarely achieved at that scale, and, even harder, to persuade countless others of the merits of that vision and so nudge it into reality elsewhere.

Sing Kong Lee was such a person. Sing Kong died of a heart attack in Singapore last Friday.  He was 65. It is hard for me to imagine the world without him in it. He was a short man in measured height only, for he filled any room he found himself in. When he leaned forward in his chair, hand in the air, his voice booming, everything else faded into the background and the room was rapt with attention.

When I first met him, years ago, he was director of the National Institute of Education of Singapore, which he had built into one of the leading schools of education in the world by sheer force of will. He would have been the first to deny that, for he was very much part of a society in which all important achievements are the result of collective action and joint leadership. But, as a Westerner, I will perhaps be forgiven for seeing Sing Kong as a uniquely effective driver in a collective of remarkably able people.

Education was a second career for him. He started out as an agronomist, a man of plants. This was no small thing in Singapore, one of the most densely populated places on the planet. Land there is impossibly valuable and therefore impossibly expensive; too expensive to be used for agricultural purposes. In almost any other place, it would have been chock full of high rise buildings, choked streets and filthy air.  But Lee Kwan Yew, Singapore’s iconic leader through all of the country’s formative years, decreed otherwise.  He wanted Singapore to be a garden. And Sing Kong became one of the principal “gardeners,” figuring out how to grow all manner of things on rooftops and even the sides of buildings, thus adding greatly to Singapore’s beauty as well as its capacity to cool itself off, capture carbon and clean its air. His accomplishments as an agronomist were celebrated not only in Singapore but abroad as well.

That would have been enough to satisfy most of us, but Sing Kong went on to become the director of the National Institute of Education, Singapore’s only institution for the education and training of school teachers and leaders.  I remember sitting in his office, listening to him in wonder.  He was like no other education school dean I had ever met.  Many in a position like that see their responsibility as being to the institution and its faculty.  There was no doubt that he felt that responsibility, but it was clear that he mainly saw himself as responsible to the whole Singapore education system and to all the young people it served.  He saw the system whole and had a very clear vision of the principles that should govern its operation.  He could dream with the best of them but he was no dreamer.  He was absolutely convinced that virtually all Singaporean children could collectively set the world standard for achievement and was determined to make it happen.  He had carefully studied education systems in every corner of the world, knew their strengths and weaknesses and used what he had learned to help design systems that would work better than any he had seen.  He had a remarkable capacity to see the parts in detail while keeping in mind the contours of the system as a whole.

No one I have ever met more completely exemplified in practice in the field of education the principles described years earlier by Peter Drucker, perhaps the most astute student of leadership in business the United States has ever produced.  Drucker observed that the days of the reign of the forms of organization associated with mass production manufacturing had come to an end and the future belonged to companies and countries that embraced “knowledge work” and learned how to manage “knowledge workers.”  What Drucker meant by knowledge work was professional work and what he meant by knowledge workers was professionals.  He believed the future belonged to firms and companies that hired supremely competent professionals, gave them a goal, provided the right, carefully structured incentives and then got out of their way, while at the same time providing them as much support as possible.

I believe that was Sing Kong’s guiding vision for the schools.  He wanted Singapore to develop a true profession of teaching, a profession modelled not on the industrial model of organization but on a modern model more like that of the top-notch professional services organization, a career that could attract and retain many of Singapore’s outstanding high school graduates, that could inspire such teachers to get better and better at their work, through their entire careers.  And, working with his colleagues in the Ministry and beyond, he set about to build that model and make it happen.

He did this with boundless optimism and unending spirit and energy.  His smile was infectious. I saw his face cloud over only once, when he was, in a public setting, invited by the then-U.S. Secretary of Education to endorse the Secretary’s belief in the efficacy of test-based accountability as the tool for improving teachers and teaching.  Sing Kong politely declined as the cloud passed over his face, for test-based accountability is based on a set of ideas that are antithetical to everything he believed in.

Sing Kong was endlessly generous with his time.  Again and again, I would ask for his help and was never once denied.  Full of cheer, at what was for him one or two o’clock in the morning, he would appear, bright and cheery, on Skype to address some American audience about what could be accomplished with the right kind of system design.

When Sing Kong stepped down as the leader of the NIE, he could once again have retired secure in the knowledge that he had made a unique contribution both in Singapore and in the larger world.  But it did not work out that way.  In the course of a chance conversation with the President of the Nanyang Technological University, one of Singapore’s leading higher education institutions, the President asked for Sing Kong’s opinions about what his university should be doing in the next phase of its development.  Sing Kong’s impromptu answer was so intriguing that the President asked Sing Kong to forget retirement and instead become his advisor on the future development of the university.  Sing Kong, of course, as the President of the university clearly intended, took this as an opportunity to ask all the fundamental questions about the future, not just of this institution, but of all similar institutions in an age in which postsecondary education will undergo fundamental changes in mission, function and design.  It was this third career that was ended by Sing Kong’s heart attack.

I will miss this remarkable trailblazer, thinker, doer, designer, this man of big heart, booming voice and unique vision.