SINGAPORE — When school officials from across the world come here to learn why Singapore's students score so well on international science and math tests, it doesn't take them long to discover the secret — a national obsession with education.
It even shows up on its dollar bills. While U.S. and Latin American currencies portray images of national independence heroes, Singapore's 2-dollar bill — the most widely circulated since there is no smaller denomination — shows students in a classroom listening to a professor, with a university in the background. Underneath, there is just one word, "Education."
During a week-long visit, I found symptoms of this national obsession everywhere: public libraries at malls, big media headlines about students who excel academically and an education minister who — perhaps symptomatically — also serves as second minister of defense.
There are some things that Latin America, a region that has some of the world's lowest education standards, could learn here.
Only four decades ago, when Singapore was told by Great Britain that it could no longer remain a British colony, Singapore was so poor — and hopeless — that no other country was interested in taking it over. Its per capita income at the time was the same as Jamaica's.
Today, largely thanks to its focus on education, Singapore is the world's ninth-richest country in per capita income. Comparatively, the United States is 10th, Mexico 82nd and Jamaica 123rd.
"For us, education is a matter of survival," National University of Singapore President Tan Chorh Chuan told me. "Singapore has no natural resources, so we can't survive if we don't focus on our people's minds."
Indeed, this country imports virtually everything, including — until recently — all the water it consumes.
When it comes to education, Singapore's rags-to-riches story is just as startling. Four decades ago, a sizable part of its population was illiterate. Today, Singapore ranks No. 1 in several categories of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study test of fourth- and eighth-graders' abilities in math and science.
While Singapore students were first in science in the TIMSS test, U.S. students ranked eighth. Most Latin American countries rank so low in broader international academic tests that they don't dare participate in the TIMSS.
At the higher education level, the National University of Singapore is ranked No. 30 in the London-based Times Higher Education Supplement's index of the world's 200 best universities. Comparatively, Harvard ranks No. 1 on the list, and the highest-ranking Latin American university on that list is the National Autonomous University of Mexico, in 150th place.
How did Singapore do it? The conventional wisdom here is that its founder, authoritarian leader Lee Kwan Yew, had the vision of turning Singapore into an English-speaking country with bilingual education, in which all students are taught in English and learn their mother tongue — be it Mandarin, Malay or Tamil — as a second language. That helped Singapore become a major world trade hub.
He also turned the education system into one of the world's toughest meritocracies, which produces highly skilled workers that attract major multinational companies, and increasingly exports high-tech goods.
Singapore's academic meritocracy starts in first grade, where children are ranked by their academic performance, from first to last.
At the Rulang Primary School, a 2,100-student public elementary school specializing in robotics teaching, teachers looked at me somewhat puzzled when I asked whether letting a 7-year-old child know that she is the worse of her class isn't putting too much pressure on her too early in life.
"No," school principal Cheryl Lim shrugged. "We rank them in a way to tell them that this is their ranking at this point in time, and that they can do better next year. It's not to tell them that they are the worst in their class."
Depending on how they score on a national test at the end of elementary school, students are sent to different secondary schools, each of which has a special focus — be it robotics or basketball. Through a process officials call "streaming," schools identify students' abilities and put them on various academic tracks that eventually lead them either to the university or to technical and vocational schools.
At the end of junior high school, students have to take another test. Those with the highest scores can apply to two-year junior colleges that serve as stepping stones to one of the country's three universities. Middle-of-the-road performers generally apply to three-year polytechnic institutes, and low-achieving students end up in two-year institutes of technical education, where they learn hair styling, assistant nursing and dozens of other skills.
U.S. expatriates here like to say that while America is a guilt-driven society, Singapore is a shame-driven society: Parents here dread others seeing their children doing poorly in school.
Discipline is strict. When a visitor shows up, children bow. Students wear uniforms all the way through community college-like technical schools. Mohawk haircuts, dyed hair, jewelry or baggies are a no-no, even in junior college.
But education authorities and academics deny that this is a draconian system. They point out that polytechnic institutes and institutes of technical education provide career opportunities — and self-esteem — for everybody.
"That is the jewel of my crown," Education Minister Ng Eng Hen told me in an interview. "Almost all countries have good universities, but few have a system of good vocational schools."
Indeed, the ITE College East, one of the largest vocational schools, has ultra-modern buildings and state-of-the-art sports facilities that are often more sophisticated than those of more prestigious universities. ITE officials say that sends a message to students that they are important, which helps motivate them.
During my visit to ITE, I was briefed alongside a visiting journalist from China, who told me that his country wants to learn from Singapore's success in offering educational alternatives to low-achieving students.
"By the time you are 10, you are put on a stream," says Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the National University of Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, and one of the country's best-known intellectuals. "No brain is wasted in Singapore."
Ninety percent of 18-year-old students finish either junior college, polytechnic institutes that focus on engineering or nursing, or vocational schools that train hair-styling professionals, cosmetologists and assistant nurses. Among those who go on to universities — NUS has 35,000 applications a year, for 6,000 openings — 50 percent pursue part of their studies in the United States, Europe or other foreign countries.
"Internationalization is key for us," says Tan, the NUS president. "We have 66 joint- or double-degree programs with foreign universities. We are changing the concept of the university from a place to a bridge, or a portal, to a much larger network."
My opinion: Because of its small size and its authoritarian regime — government critics joke that you can't fish in Singapore because even the fish keep their mouths shut — it's hard to pick this country as a universal model.
Still, Latin America — and the United States — could learn something from Singapore's obsession with education, and from its academic safety net for low achievers.
Perhaps we should start by putting the word "education" on our dollar bills, just to remind ourselves of what makes countries rich in the increasingly knowledge-based global economy.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at aoppenheimer @ herald.com Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.