How Singapore Readies its Students for a Globalized World


As the world becomes increasingly globalized and interconnected, it’s becoming more important for students to learn skills that help them to interact across cultures and thrive in a global economy. To this end, “global competence” is a field of education that has been gaining momentum in schools around the world over the last 15 years. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) — a study that tests scholastic performance by 15-year-old students around the world — has even recognized it, and will include global competence assessment in its next round of testing in 2018.

Lee Sing Kong is a professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and managing director of the National Institute of Education International. On December 8 at Asia Society in New York, he will speak on a panel discussing the newly released results from the 2015 round of PISA testing. Ahead of the panel, Lee spoke with Asia Blog about how Singapore teaches its students global competence and why it’s increasingly important for today’s world.

How does Singapore prepare all of its students for success in work and life in the 21st century?

In the 21st century landscape, globalization, fast-changing demographics, and technological advancements are key driving forces that are considered when developing Singapore’s “Desired Outcomes of Education.” To that end, we developed a framework to guide how education can enable our students to acquire a range of 21st-century competencies and global competencies, anchored on a set of core values.

By building these competencies, our students become:

  • Confident people with a strong sense of right and wrong, adaptable and resilient, self-aware, discerning in judgment, independent and critical thinkers, and effective communicators.
  • Self-directed learners who question, reflect, persevere, and take responsibility for their own learning.
  • Active contributors who work effectively in teams and who are innovative, exercise initiative, take calculated risks, and strive for excellence.
  • Concerned citizens of Singapore with a strong sense of civic responsibility who are informed about Singapore and the world and take active roles in bettering the lives of others around them.

Here’s a set of core values anchors and 21st-century competencies that we teach:

  • Respect – Students demonstrate respect when they believe in their own self-worth and the intrinsic worth of all people.
  • Responsibility – Students recognize a duty to themselves, their families, community, nation, and the world, and they fulfill their responsibilities with love and commitment.
  • Integrity – Students are people of integrity; they uphold ethical principles and have the moral courage to stand up for what is right.
  • Care – Students act with kindness and compassion and contribute to the betterment of the community and the world.
  • Resilience – Students have emotional strength and persevere in the face of challenges. They manifest courage, optimism, adaptability, and resourcefulness.
  • Harmony – Students seek inner happiness and promote social cohesion. They appreciate the unity and diversity of a multicultural society.

Students are very much encouraged to practice these values in school and at home through the Values in Action initiative. Educating a child should be a partnership between the schools and the parents.

Values can be both “taught and caught,” so educators and parents are encouraged to be role models for the students. In school, activities beyond the classroom such as sporting activities, games, or group programs — often called co-curricular activities — are planned to help students acquire the values and competencies that form parts of the Desired Outcomes of Education.

Singapore has been known for its “globally minded, locally rooted” education. In practical terms, what does that look like? 

In an interconnected world, no one country is an island. In today’s globalized world, talents are mobile and skilled workers can obtain employment in many parts of the world. Singapore faces a paradoxical situation in that our students are well equipped with skills that make them strong global citizens, but, being a small island state, if a large number of our talented students were to move into the international realm, Singapore would suffer as a country.

Thus, one of the Desired Outcomes of Education that the Ministry of Education developed is for our students to become concerned citizens. To achieve this outcome, students are exposed to the many issues that confront Singapore and the world so that they are challenged to consider the issues encountered in Singapore while understanding the global context. Wherever they may be around the world, we encourage our students to maintain a strong national identity and understand that Singapore is their home — a message that is communicated to them even in adulthood. For example, when a Singapore Airlines plane lands at Changi airport, the staff will say “to all Singaporeans and residents of Singapore, a warm welcome home!”

Around the world, many politicians are finding success by appealing to nationalism and disillusionment with globalization. Do you think this is complicating globally minded education? Do you see global competence education as a counterforce to this?

No matter how politicians are appealing to nationalism, the reality is that the world is getting more interconnected through technology and also by physical movement through travel. Facebook itself is bringing people of the world closer as a community. Schools today are interconnected across the globe through cyberspace. Students are communicating even when they are separated by thousands of kilometers. Global competence will become even more important despite the appeal to nationalism or disillusionment with globalization. No matter what the political developments might be, our education system must continue to build global competence in our students — they are the future of our nation and the world.

What recommendations do you have for education systems around the world that want to develop global competence in their students?

Every education system needs to be responsive in order to maintain relevance with the demands of the 21st-century landscape. Education systems need to constantly review developments both locally and around the world and identify any new global competencies that need to be developed in their students. Once these are identified, a systematic approach has to be undertaken to review the curricula, pedagogy, learning environment, assessment, programs, and activities that could help students acquire these new competencies. In addition, teachers have to be empowered to deliver this education in the most impactful way. Education systems must take an ecosystem approach to incorporate such changes.