We’re the best!

After putting more than half a million 15-year-olds across 72 countries through a bunch of tests – as if they didn’t have enough to sit through, the poor things – Singaporean students have risen to the very top, the wheat separated from the chaff, to be crowned the best in reading, science and ‘rithmetic. Worldwide.

Our muggers have made right mugs of the rest of the world. A true triumph of tuition. Turns out every school really is a good school, by global standards. Hey Hong Kong, good try, but no one remembers who comes in second.

Singapore topped the PISA 2015 charts.
We are the champions! Source: Programme for International Student Assessment. Graphics: Straits Times

What does this all mean? Like, in the real world?

“It shows that the deliberate curricular shifts Singapore has made over the years to emphasise higher-order critical thinking skills have worked in moving our students beyond mastering content knowledge to become problem solvers,” said the Straits Times, blurring the lines between reportage and opinion piece.

Singaporean students, you hear that? You are not just exam smart. You are not just good test spotters. You are problem solvers.

Which is great, cos I can think of a few problems that need solving. Help me out here.

For starters, how about health issues? ALS – Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis – for example? Can we do a bit more to help the ALS sufferers of the world than posting Instavids of ice (bucket) cold showers?

Or what about issues faced by the working population? How about the pervasive burden of OT? Overtime is the new normal working time, and it’s wearing away at families, friendships, faith. Solve this problem and I think you’ll solve a few others, including our falling birth rate.

What’s that you say? This isn’t the sort of thing they’re teaching you in school? I didn’t realise. How about some issues closer to heart? Maybe you can put your mind then to the pressing need to recraft the Singaporean Dream to ensure we’re not all hurtling around chasing after the wind. I mean, what bigger problem to solve than figuring out everyone’s purpose for living, right?

Oh. Not your thing either? Teacher didn’t teach that? So how exactly does our students being Best In Class benefit Singapore?

Sorry. I know I’m being rude, facetious. Upping our education game has good and real benefit. It ensures employability, it commends competitiveness. A workforce to reckon with is one that is less likely to starve.

But to what end are we really striving? If it’s just about survival, we don’t need to sell every last drop of our soul to be the very best. If it’s about success, surely the Internet Revolution has taught us that grades aren’t any determinant of greatness?

Greatness. Ever heard of Ozymandias? I know English Literature isn’t the most popular subject these days, so here you go, take a minute to read the poem. Mythical King Ozymandias achieves greatness. “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” But the monuments built have been swallowed up by the desert, the shifting sands.

Greatness: Is it worth it? Exam after exam, test after test, enrichment class after enrichment class, sacrificing childhood upon childhood.

Greatness? Empires come and go. Kings ascend, then descend six feet under. Dotcoms boom and bust. Markets bull north, then bear south.

Success is transient. Rankings are temporary. The thrill of being top of the table fades.

In the light of this – of greatness being of limited value – how about we try goodness as our North Star, our guiding light, our driving force?

How about we pump our kids full of character and conscience, rather than just facts and formulae? Internalising a code of conduct, rather than introducing them to reams of code? Focusing on what is right, rather than rote-learning ‘rithmetic?

How about we redefine the end-goal? Fulfilment, not fortune? Contentment, not consumerism? Purpose, not a Porsche?

In the light of this – of greatness being of limited value – how about we try goodness as our North Star, our guiding light, our driving force?

Singapore has a lot to be proud about. We’ve achieved greatness in so many realms, our education system being the latest feather in the cap.

But you know, some day we’re going to have to give an account of everything we’ve done in life. And it’s going to be a bit awkward if all we have to show for it is a nice airport and gleaming PISA scores.

On your gravestone, you’re not going to mention the amount you have in your bank account, your A-Level aggregate, the number of employees working under you, how many floors your landed property has, how many countries your coffee chain has branches in.

No – it’ll mean more for someone to say of you: “He was a good man.”

So, Singapore: We’re great at airports, hawker food, zoos, teenage test papers. How about we try to be great at being good?