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My colleagues Vivien Stewart, Betsy Brown Ruzzi and I returned from another visit to Singapore a few weeks ago, 23 years after my first visit.  Each visit is dazzling.  None has yet disappointed.  In a way, a visit to Singapore is like benchmarking the rest of the world through this one tiny prism, because Singapore is constantly soaking up the best of what the rest of the world is doing and then adapting it to their own goals and values.

It is almost as if one could forego benchmarking trips elsewhere because you will find it all in Singapore.  That is true in the sense that you will find that Singapore has researched it, considered it and adapted it, but you are not likely to find the thing itself, because adaptation is not adoption.  Everything is made use of.  Nothing is replicated.

Ngee Ann Polytechnic

A few examples will do.  The purpose of this trip was to benchmark Singapore’s vocational and technical education system.  So these examples will be drawn from that arena.  But I could just as easily have drawn them from any other aspect of their education and training system.

Years ago, Singapore decided as it was developing its own vocational education system that it needed to have a system of occupational skill standards.  When I asked about that, they said that they had taken the methodology for developing their occupational skill standards from the American DACUM process for occupational job analysis and curriculum development and had borrowed the organization structure for involving industry in the development of skill standards from the Europeans.

But my organization, the National Center on Education and the Economy, has researched national occupational skill standards systems for years.  We long ago came to the conclusion that, notwithstanding their obvious value for getting students and training organizations to focus on the skills that industries feel they need, such systems have a very serious downside.  There is no point in having such systems unless industry drives the development of the standards.  The whole idea is to have standards that reflect industry needs.  The easiest way to do that is ask industry associations to take the lead in developing the standards. But, if you do that, you get a standard for average practice, which is almost always, by definition, behind leading edge practice.  When you set average practice as a standard, it takes a long time to change that standard.  The effect is to train young people for a standard that is more and more behind the times, making it less likely that industry leaders will be able to get people who can do the work the way they need to have it done.  They might be better off in a country with no skills standards.  So, you can see that national occupational skills standards can be an enormous advantage, but they can also be a deadly trap.

When we asked the leaders of Singapore’s polytechnics what they thought about these observations, they laughed and said that they, too, had come to the same conclusions.  So the government listened to what the industry groups had to say, but considered it only as advice, not as the last word, and felt free to change the standards that emerged from these processes if they felt that the standard needed to be changed to make Singapore more competitive, more in line with the most effective forms of work organization, better positioned to use the latest technologies, better aligned with the needs and practices of the world’s leading firms.  That is the essence of smart adaptation.

Ngee Ann Polytechnic Library

Here’s another one.  The Singaporeans looked hard at the famous German dual system of vocational education.  When we talked to them, they told is that the dual system is among the most important of the innovations they brought to Singapore.  But the dual-system, alternating formal education in school with on-the-job training in the workplace, is the primary upper-secondary education system for young Germans headed directly into the workforce.  In Singapore, young people not headed to University go either into the upper secondary vocational education system or into one of the polytechnics.  In the upper secondary vocational system, there is no sandwich program alternating time in the workplace with time in school.  It is all in school, but the Singaporeans have persuaded the companies to give them the state-of-the-art machines they need in the classrooms (working engines for current model cars, for example, with cutaway engines for the automechanics program) and have also persuaded the firms that it is in their interest to regularly cycle the school instructors through their firms to keep their skills up to date.  The Singaporeans figured out that, without the long European guild tradition to back it up, the German dual system would not work in Singapore.  Where they do use the apprenticeship system was in their adult education system, for employed workers who already had a firm attachment to the sponsoring firm.  Another smart adaptation.

Economic Development Board logo

In the late 1970’s, the Singaporean Economic Development Board (EDB), the nerve center of economic development strategy in Singapore, persuaded Germany and France to set up, at their own expense, several state-of-the-art vocational institutes in Singapore.  This was very similar to the move made in the 1960s by Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s then prime minister, when he persuaded several leading nations to set up high-powered institutes of technology in India, on the model of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).  The vocational institutes in Singapore were to be upper secondary schools.  One of the top officials at the EDB insisted that these new schools be set up as “factory schools,” that is, that they look as much as possible like the very kinds of work environments the students would work in when they graduated, and the training in the school would be based on the production of actual advanced manufacturing systems produced under contract to local firms, with the students doing most of the work required to build those systems.  The foreign countries and the foreign firms they partnered with to build and staff these schools were persuaded by the EDB to build them in part by important economic concessions offered by the Board but also by the argument that students trained on the machines provided by these countries and firms would be inclined to order them when they joined the staffs of Singapore firms as foremen and supervisors.  The faculty members in these schools were required to take paid sabbaticals every few years, during which time they were expected to get an assignment anywhere in the world on the staff of one of the world’s leading technology firms.  On that person’s return, he or she was expected to update the school’s curriculum on the basis of what had been learned.  In this way, the schools’ curriculum was constantly refreshed, always reflecting the global state of the art.  So Singapore had a constant supply of young people coming into their firms in mid-level technical positions who were very well versed in the latest factory automation and microelectronics manufacturing techniques.  Was this benchmarking?  Not of the traditional sort, but the spirit was certainly there.  It was a remarkably effective and efficient system for constantly bringing back to Singapore the very best manufacturing technologies in the world, and making sure that Singapore could offer a workforce very well versed in those technologies.  We had learned about the German-Singapore Institute and its French mates on our first trip to Singapore in 1989.  What we learned this time was that Singapore had since built an entire system of world-class polytechnics on this model.  When we talked with a group of Singaporean employers toward the end of our visit, it was clear that they place a very high value on the skills, knowledge and attitudes that the graduates of these polytechnics bring to their firms.

Again and again, I found myself very impressed by the quality of thought that had gone into the continually evolving design of the Singaporean education and training system.  I am choosing my words carefully here.  The keyword is “design.”  Everywhere one looks, one sees thoughtful designs of the kind that a very good engineer would create.  This was true of each subsystem and of the system as a whole.  And, indeed, when we asked about how the system was managed, this attention to systems design was reflected in the answer.  The organization of the system as a whole included features designed to assure that managers of all related parts of the system were in constant touch with one another, and that nothing was done that would affect the functioning of the larger system without close consultation with the managers of the adjoining system functions, both vertically in the system and horizontally as well.

This is no accident.  When I first discovered that the Economic Development Board is the nerve center of the Singapore government, during our first trip in 1989, I also discovered that the staff of the EDB was made up mostly not of economists but of engineers.  Economists tend to be analysts, but engineers are system designers.  This orientation came naturally to them.

But there was a related point that seemed no less important to me.  When Lee Kuan Yew took the helm in Singapore, even before Singapore gained its independence, he was determined to use economic development to lever his destitute little group of islands into a standard of living for his people far above what it was when Singapore was birthed.  And he believed that could only be accomplished by smart, honest, uncorrupted government officials.  He decided that he would have to attract to government the smartest people he could find in Singapore, so his policy was to provide people in government compensation comparable to what they would get for comparable jobs in private industry.  He identified the very top high school students and offered to pay for their education at institutions like Stanford, Harvard, MIT, Oxford and Cambridge if they would agree to come back and serve in his government.

It is those people who were responsible for vaulting Singapore from a tiny impoverished dot on the map in 1965 to its current status as one of the most successful economies in the world.  And today, this practice continues.  Leaders in government agencies in Singapore, including the Ministry of Education and its sub-agencies, are some of the most knowledgeable and forward-thinking education leaders we have met anywhere.

Many observers have likened Singapore not to a nation but to a large corporation.  This is partly because one does not see here the usual play of partisan politics and partly because the usual play of partisan politics has been replaced by a kind of rationale planning and attention to execution that is more characteristic of a well-managed corporation than of a liberal democracy.  That said, however, this is a nation that believes in government, in the capacity and legitimacy of government to lead.

And that, of course, could contain the seeds of a big problem for Singapore.  Countries and organizations with very strong leadership are often countries and organizations where everyone stands around waiting for the top to tell them what to do.  In today’s world, that is the death knell of economic competitiveness.  It is entirely plausible that the very instrument that enabled Singapore to climb to the top could be the instrument of its failure to compete in a world in which economic leadership is increasingly a function of innovation and entrepreneurship from below, not instructions from on high.

Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam

So I was especially happy to learn before we left for Singapore that we had managed to get some time with Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam.  In 2005, when Shanmugaratnam was Education Minister, he delivered a speech in which he commented on a trip he had just taken with several Ministry of Education officials to Japan. Japan, he said, had come to the same conclusion that the Singaporean government had come to, namely, that the future belonged to countries whose workforces could invent the future, could out-create and out-innovate their competition.  And the Japanese and the Singaporeans were in agreement on the kinds of changes that would be necessary in their schools to meet this challenge.  But, he said, the Japanese had imposed these changes from the top down, and there was no buy-in from the schools.  That would not happen in Singapore.  The goal would be reached with leadership from the schools, and support from the top, or as he put it, there would be “top-down support for bottom-up initiatives.”  For government to achieve its objectives, it would have to change the way it worked, in a pretty fundamental way.

I am telling this story in part because it says something very important about one small country’s route to top performance, but I am also telling it because it says something about the process of benchmarking.  Shanmugaratnam and his team learned something very important in Japan, but they did not copy it, just as they had earlier learned very important things from Germany and the United States, but did not copy them.  It is too early to tell whether Singapore will be able to make the deep cultural shifts that are needed to reach the goals they set for themselves a few years ago, and it is also too early to tell whether the Japanese will succeed in reaching similar goals, but it is, I think, a sure bet that Singapore’s deeply ingrained, almost reflexive, habit of constantly checking to see how their peers are responding to the neverending changes in the global competitive environment and then thinking hard about the implications of what they find for their own actions has served them very well over and over again as they have made their way to first world status.  It is a very powerful learning system.