Posted by: Principal/Editor | February 18, 2010

A Future of Uncertainty: Implications to Educational Leadership

Singapore has consistently used education pragmatically – through intentional and calculated management — as a strategic instrument to accomplish not only economic goals but social cohesion and nation-building objectives as well. [1] Moreover, the Singapore state has been transparent about its exclusive and “legitimate right to represent the whole nation”[2] and particularly its purposeful characteristic of leaving “nothing to chance”. [3] These characteristics of predictability and clear vision and determination of its trajectory epitomized by its impressive record of unwavering political will and implementation have served the nation well from its inception till the present.

However, with the dawn of the 21st century, the ideal feature of a “predictable society” subject to careful and deliberate planning seems to be a slowly vanishing reality.

One type of society and economy that would be dominant in a 21st century globalized setting is what is referred to as an Experimentally Oriented Economy (EOE). In EOEs “full penetration of state space for optimal positioning by all agents is impossible at each point in time, and (because of learning) at each future point in time”, which therefore presents a situation highlighting uncertainty and complexity as a feature of tomorrow’s society. [4] Given such a fluid state of affairs, what would be ideal are scenarios where “inconsistent (experimental) decisions” of “decentralized, individuals” are encouraged. A key implication of EOEs is the somewhat disconcerting tolerance of “constant and unpredictable change” which essentially becomes a feature that is a “necessary consequence of steady long-term growth”. In essence, nations preparing to become KBEs such as Singapore should be willing to “accommodate” the “associated change socially and politically” that would typify growing, experimenting and learning societies. [5] The need to come to grips with EOE and its “uncertain” implications becomes particularly acute in fast-paced and constantly changing sectors of the economy, just like the highly-competitive education sector.

This becomes of paramount importance especially since Singapore – not usually known as an education system open to uncertainties — methodically and strategically positions itself to become an “educational hub with not only its own enterprises providing education to foreign students but also foreign institutions setting up shop”. [6]

Taking into consideration Singapore’s undeniable strengths of careful planning and implementation, how realistic would Singapore’s aspirations of becoming a 21st century educational hub be in an increasingly uncertain and unpredictable future? What are the implications of uncertainty and unpredictability to educational leadership?

[1] Low, L., Toh, M. H., & Soon, T. W. (1991). Economics of Education and Manpower Development: Issues and Policies in Singapore. Singapore: McGraw-Hill.

[2] Vasil, R. K. (1984). Governing Singapore. Singapore: Eastern Universities Press.

[3] Mutalib, H. (2004). Singapore’s Quest for a National Identity: The Triumphs and Trials of Government Policies In A. Pakir & C. K. Tong (Eds.), Imagining Singapore (2nd ed.). Singapore: Eastern Universities Press.

[4] Eliasson, G. (2001). The Role of Knowledge in Economic Growth. In J. F. Helliwell (Ed.), The Contribution of Human and Social Capital to Sustained Economic Growth and Well Being: International Symposium Report (pp. 42-64). Quebec, Canada: Human Resources Development Centre Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development., p. 47

[5] Ibid, p. 59

[6] Lee Soo Ann. (2007). Singapore From Place to Nation. Singapore: Pearson Education South Asia., p. 185



  1. It is precisely how Singapore has used Education in such a precise manner that it is near impossible that change is left up to chance.

    I propose that this change as mentioned is not incremental, contagion effect etc. but purposeful and driven with the exact intention of imposing controlled change.

    To further support this argument, both constitution and law have not caught up with the changes as purportedly mentioned in the education system.

    Since 1999, the implementation of Desired Outcomes, Talent Development, SEM, EPMS have already been expressed explicitly by Teo Chee Hean. Therefore, on hindsight, it is a 5-10 year plan that is being rolled out to this day.

    I opine that if the intention is to CREATE change within controllable variables rather than change being an accidental discovery.

    Furthermore, this change is highly dependent on the need for economic strategic partnership with trading partners. The evidence is well supported by the new stance to send President Scholars to China to immerse themselves as well as the shift in the bilingual policies.

    In conclusion, if I am the master of the direction of Change, I will then be in full control of the nuances of the change.

  2. while Singapore has a national curriculum that provides a 6 year primary education and 4 to 5 years secondary education, we do see an educational landscape that does offer variety and challenges too. e.g. the IP prog for the acadeically ‘brightest’who are able to leap frog to the A levels; ; the autonomous schools for those bright students who may still prefer the traditional O level route; and the ‘normal’ sec schools offerring a range of express, normal academic and normal techical courses.
    On a system wide basis, I think this shows the dare by the govt to allow for a range of educational practices. As much as tight control that the govt has over education since Singapore’s independence in 1965, we have also seen huge amts of resources (financial, etc) being entrusted to the various schools where the Principals lead in the various iniatives. I would see such as the start of the approach towards empowering the people in education to take full ownership.
    Of course, the journey has just started – conscious effort is made to ensure accountability (after all, all these involve financial and human resources, and of course, tax payers money), to ensure the singapore education system continues to stand up to the test ; to continue to build on our strengths

    The experiences of the implementation of key educational iniatives in the last 5 years have shown that school leaders are able and willing to innovate (in addition to holding on to the academic focus) and certain processes are already in place.

    No,, we have not ‘arrived’ and we are not the ‘best’ . The learning culture (which includes the frequent reminders for the need to innovate and take risks) that teachers and schools continue to want to build on give me the confidence that we are in that culture of preparing to handle the uncertainties.

    The fact that we dare openly talk about them, to want to learn how to better manage, to learn good practices, etc. – these point to a growing community of educators starting out on a journey and probably ready to take on more challenges, with the ‘right ingredients’ coming from educational arenas and beyond.

  3. I do applaud our State’s foresight and courage to grant more autonomy to schools, recognising the need to change and meet challenges for various reasons, albeit, a quasi one, over the past decades. Although our school system appears centralized in some aspects, MOE recognises the need to ‘let go’ and be willing to live with ‘the somewhat disconcerting tolerance of “constant and unpredictable change” which essentially becomes a feature that is a “necessary consequence of steady long-term growth”.’

    Schools have been given the autonomy and encouraged to structure their schools and run many programmes. Over the years, we realise the many issues and challenges which arise during implementation and the outcomes have been varied. One major reason for this, I propose and many recognize, is mindset. While the educational direction has changed, the paradigm shift is lagging behind and has not caught up fast enough. Teachers’ mindset and leadership styles must shift direction to embrace the changes. These have been conservative and hence change may not have been so unpredictable or disconcerting, probably more incremental in nature. We tend to take ‘small steps’ with many other variables still intact. Is this necessarily bad? May be not. However, having tried and perhaps, tested many programmes and changes over the years, our school leaders may have to reflect on their motivation and paradigms, take bigger, bolder steps to meet the challenges of the future.

  4. Change has happened too fast in Singapore context. Looking at the implementation of TSLN and TLLM initiatives/philosophy, the Singapore’s education system has advanced way ahead of the other countries. These changes come fast and furious, considering that the country’s history is only 40 years!

    Our advantage is that schools received adequate support in terms of knowledge, resources and training from the Ministry to facilitate the reform. The centralized system initiates the reform providing guidelines for the schools, while the school innovates within the structure. It takes time for the schools and teachers to understand the rationale of the change policy, internalize the objectives, embrace the changes, and implement the changes.

    The problem here lies in the evaluation process. As change happens so fast, it is difficult for schools to evaluate the effectiveness of change. Take for example the TLLM Ignite Projects mentioned by Prof Colin Marsh this morning. How do we know whether these projects are effective after the Ministry spends so much resources, time and effort to support the schools? How can we maximise on these projects when they cannot be replicated in our schools? How do we know the projects are sustainable? What happens if the change agent/champion leaves the school or worse the system?

    My point here is that change requires time to see its effect. My understanding of change is that the person who initiates the change process, usually do not see the changes after they retire! Of course I am exaggerating. Usually, real change happens only after the school leader leaves the school. The change is only significant and sustainable, through constant efforts of reviewing and improving. In our context, before the previous initiative has impacted the system, a new wave of change has happened and the old policy is shelved or die a natural death.

    Look at initiatives such as WITs, streaming, TAF club, etc. They do not fix the current system and philosophy of our current education system. That is why they cannot co-exist with the other initiatives.

    Let’s slow down the change process. The other countries are waiting for us to innovate and change so that they can learn from us. But not every innovation or change is successful. Can we afford to wait for the other countries to try and prove some theories first before we choose to embark on them? Do we really need to stay in the forefront of innovation to be the best? Can we really stay balance and try to innovate within a bureaucratic system?

  5. As it is said and well known to all that Singapore’s only resources is human capital. Education is essential to move people and the nation forward in making Singapore dreams come true. Educational goals, plans and reforms have largely flooded the schools in the recent years (at least the last 10 years). The changes, if I may put it so, have been fast and furious. I do not doubt the effectiveness of these changes. Educators know that changes are inevitable and when the Government rolls out initiatives, we know it is for the nation’s good and people will benefit from these changes eventually. I am also certain that there are careful planning and proper processes are put in place to introduce and implement these movement. Be it TSLN, TLLM, NE, ICT Masterplan, RA and etc, the Ministry puts in place school programmes that will nurture, develop, prepare and equip our pupils for the future of the country. These programmes are of high calling to teachers and pupils, and perhaps even parents.
    In meeting with the challenges of the 21st century, it is necessary to review and evaluate the effectiveness of the school programmes. Policy-makers can re-visit the vision of the initiative, gather information on what actually is happening in schools and examine the current issues and seek possible solutions to overcome any potential threats. The schools – school leaders and teachers – need to identify what works well for the school and what does not. Both qualitative and quantitative data should be collected from pupils, parents and other stakeholders as supporting evidence. Evaluation reports should reveal the effectiveness of these reforms or initiatives in reaching our educational goals. There is a need to provide funds to encourage research studies and work in Singapore Education. While we cannot rely on our own people to evaluate the initiatives, experts from other countries can be invited as “auditors” to share insights on their findings of our educational system.
    Less haste, more speed. Changes are the constant factor in the ever-changing world. We should not rush from one reform to another. For now, there is enough for teachers to teach to learn and for our pupils to learn to teach others. It is time to sharpen our skills, to improve our knowledge and to gain greater confidence in what we are doing.

  6. Singapore does epitomise change. From snapshots of the city scape to an insight of the education system, the city does seem to have undergone a sea change over the last 30 years. By being at the forefront of change we advocate teaching these skills of adapting to change and being visionary in our schools. The use of school based curricula is an attempt to create an environment that allows students to be given the opportunities to create and recreate. However, for this to happen, it is necessary to have students who are sound in their fundamentals as we are not looking at change for the sake of change itself. Rather, we are looking at creating students who are able to thrive in the realm of uncertainty instead of those who are tossed about in the tsunami of change. However school leadership has to lead this change, creating environments where students feel safe t experiment and where teachers inspire.

  7. Regardless of how much change happens in Singapore’s education system, the school leader should always approach complexity based on their moral purpose. It means making a difference in the lives of the students that are disadvantaged as they need a longer route to be successful. It is also about social mobility, allowing them to move up the social ladder, getting out of poverty and narrowing the income and social gap.

    Michael Fullan, in this book, Change Forces, talked about the happiest society. It is not the richest or most affluent society that is the happiest. It is the society that has the narrowest income gap.

    School leaders should approach change from the inside-outside perspective. I agree with Prof. Fullan that this concept of looking at change in an organisation is stronger than looking at it from the top-down support and bottom up approach.

    School leaders also need to understand and learn to operate at the edge of chaos. It means fostering a culture of frequent change in the context under a few strict rules. The changes should be small yet incremental. The organisation should also be kept loosely structured with channels for real-time fact-based communication.

    The leaders need to constantly kept a sense of urgency in its organisation. Teachers should constantly learn from the outside world and continuously improve on its teaching and learning. Teachers also need to create knowledge, seek breakthrough and reflect on their approaches to ensure that the organisation is learning. Within the organisation, teachers should collaborate with one another, developing professional learning community. It is about improving pedagogical practices and assessment of learning. Leaders should foster and promote diversity while trust-building is encouraged. Teachers need to stay connected while approach changes openly.

    From the outside-in collaboration, one must understand that this is a two way street. The school needs to learn from the outside and the community is also benefitting the school. The school needs to continuously balanced between too much structure and too little structure. Too little structure and the school becomes chaotic. Too much structure and it stiffles creativity and limits change. Parents and the community is part of the outside-in collaboration. Their support is key to help school improves and find its values for its existence.

  8. Precisely when the world is increasingly uncertain, Singapore is predictably steadfast. It’s robust economy, safe and secure environment, comprehensive and extensive network and infrastructure makes it a choice location for a 21st century educational hub. Hubbing here may not mean brick and motar educational institutes or expenses of campuses. To me, it seeks out connectivity, where Singapore is the hub and the regional hinterland are attached to Singapore like spokes to the centre of the wheel.
    Having said that, being an educational hub implies that we earnestly require leaders in education. “We need leaders who will give their teams the confidence to operate in conditions of change and uncertainty, and to find opportunity in every challenge”-Mr Lee Hsien Loong, Prime Minister, Singapore. We need leaders who will bring Singapore’s education system to the next level. When we cast our net wide locally and internationally, hopefully, we will “catch” leaders who embrace the values and purpose of Singapore’s education system leading the hub to infinity and beyond.

  9. I thought that the title of this thread is quite curious. After all, do we need leadership if the future is certain and predictable? I would have thought that anyone could steer an organisation forward if they know what the future is going to bring. Mentioning the words “certainty” and “leadership” in the same breath is oxymoronic indeed.

    There is no doubt that the world is becoming increasingly dynamic and changes are coming upon us fast and furiously. This is, of course, at odds with Singapore’s reputation for careful and deliberate planning, micromanagement even. What this means is that it is becoming increasingly difficult for a central planner to plan for the long term, i.e. the planning cycle will become increasingly shorter in the future.

    But this difficulty does not mean that we should give up on our strength of “careful and deliberate planning”. Otherwise, we will end up reacting to change instead of anticipating it and preparing for it accordingly. We need to position ourselves to be ready for future challenges for Singapore is a small and open state that makes it especially vulnerable to global trends and developments. We might wish to consider the use of scenario planning as one possible systematic way of thinking about the future and planning for changes. While it will not be able to capture all possible black/grey swans, it can at least help us to understand our external environment more thoroughly and be more alert to external trends.

    In addition, although central planning is becoming more difficult, decentralised planning is still feasible, and indeed should be encouraged. In this respect, more autonomy should be devolved to schools that have demonstrated their readiness to take on the additional responsibility. This will allow them to better take into consideration local conditions and constraints when planning for and implementing changes, while keeping within the principles and broad guidelines articulated by the MOE. I guess this encouragement of diversity and different peaks of excellence is also another way of avoiding putting all our eggs in the same basket, which would help to make our education system more robust against widespread failure.

  10. There is a speech by PM Lee Hsien Loong, made at the Parliamentary debate on civil service revisions in Apr 2007 (, in which the following struck me:

    “Our model [of government] is “paranoid” government – a Government which worries all the time, which plays a crucial role in this system. It is proactive and looks ahead over the horizon. Whenever people tell you not to worry, you start getting concerned. You listen to people and businesses, you respond to their needs. You produce imaginative sound policies to transform Singapore. You are totally committed to improving the lives of all Singaporeans. That is our system. But it is not just words, it is not just rules, it is not just Instruction Manuals, or IMs, it is how the people inside work the system. It means that you must have a strong effective government – small, lean, efficient – but gathering the best possible team to provide the country with the best possible national leadership.”

    The strengths of Singapore, in my consideration, are not so much in the careful planning and implementation, but in the people and institutions which enable these. This is what I interpret and take away from the excerpt above. In taking this institutional perspective, perhaps I can be more optimistic about Singapore’s aspirations of becoming a 21st century educational hub. Singapore’s government and Ministry of Education have indeed been “paranoid” about increasingly uncertain and unpredictable future, and the recent initiatives relating to TSLN and TLLM, etc. arise from this “paranoia” so that Singapore and Singaporeans would be able to compete in the future.

    In particular, one institutional response to an uncertain and unpredictable future is to look to nature and learn to be adaptable. In a global landscape which shifts and changes in uncertain and unpredictable ways, the government and Ministry cannot go by “paranoid” planning, which may lead to evolutionary dead ends, but should learn to be adaptable, seeking out opportunities and niches where they present themselves, so as to evolve with, and perhaps ahead of, the landscape. Fortune favours the prepared mind – similarly, for us to be able to do so, our system would thus have to be adaptable and nimble. This is how I interpret the diversification of the education landscape in Singapore (i.e. independent schools, autonomous schools, Integrated Programme), as well as the opening up to private education, as Singapore cannot afford to be closed.

  11. The 21st century is an age characterised by rapid change and uncertainty. There has been much interest worldwide surrounding our cross over to the 21st Century and its accompanying effects on different stratas of the population. Educators and students, for one, face a set of unique challenges distinct from that of those previously encountered. As Singapore positions herself on the global educational front, we need a sense of greater flexibility and pro-activity (as opposed to reactivity) amongst our people.

    As an educational leader, it is about leading the way in embracing change. It is also about having the wisdom to preempt emerging trends and equipping our students with the necessary knowledge and skills to emerge capable of tackling the challenges faced.

    As an educator, I strongly believe that it would be of paramount importance to anchor students in their character. With unpredictability becoming a predominant fixture in our way of life, traits like integrity and moral courage are important in ensuring that our students are able to make ethical decisions should they be a position to do so in the future. If one does not have strong principles to fall back on, he or she may be swirled into the myriad of changes and swept along with the rapid currents of change. Our students need to be grounded in values so that they will not compromise on their pillars of belief despite the accompanying uncertainty.

  12. Singapore has been methodical and strategic in the past. In the future, we can continue to do so, with a shift in the desired outcomes, ie. to embrace change and not to be fearful of uncertainties. To do so, it all should start from the school. We have been used to pursuing academic excellence and success in all our undertakings. Failure is a taboo word. Therefore, not many students and teachers are keen to embark upon something that does not guarantee success. School leaders can take the lead in encouraging activities with unpredictable outcomes in the school. Through this process, students can also learn to become resourceful opportunists. However, the environment has to be slightly controlled so as to ensure that these activities are strongly grounded in values. What we would like to infuse in the students are resilience, flexibility and adaptability with no qualms about failing or meeting with setbacks. Our attraction of foreign educational set-ups here has provided us with best practices we can adopt and with the vast amount of resources that the government is pumping in, we can tap on our strengths in purposeful and carefully planned strategies in achieving becoming a 21st century educational hub.

  13. Principal’s post was made in February 2010. From then til now, many events had happened globally and locally that have affected everyone in one way or another, from global event such as Eurozone Debt Crisis to local event (Singapore) such as the recent General Election. Though there may not be a direct impact on education, it truely reflects the uncertainty and unpredictability of the world. It seems that it is really diificult to predict the future and the only predictable event is change. The implication, I believe is to learn to embrace change. The only way to embrace change is to adopt a mindset of continuous learning.

    But the most inspirational quote I have come across regarding unpredictablity is the one from Steve Job, “The best way to predict the future is to create it”. What it implies to educational leadership is that within his areas of influence, it is in the power of a leader to create the future he wants to predict.

  14. Educational leadership in Singapore is not much researched on. However, it has been noted that educational leadership in Singapore is akin to Confucian paternalism. The relationship between the leader and his people is analogous to that of parents and children. As parents treat their children benevolently and care for them, so should the leaders do for their people. The people, in return should be respectful to the leaders as sons are to their parents. The paternalism style of governance does not tolerate uncertainty and unpredictability. Indeed, school leaders and teachers in Singapore have developed a brand of education which is widely recognised to train students well in logical and analytical thinking. Yet, increasingly, companies and industries are looking for employees who can handle problems which are ill-defined and complex. Issues in the workforce are, at most times, illogical and unpredictable. These force us to take a hard look at our educational leadership.

    From the systems perspectives, there is really no incentive for our educational leaders to move away from the paternalism style of leadership which they are so used to. And why should they? This governance style has proven results. The rotation scheme of school leaders, every five to seven years, is another reason why educational leaders prefer the predictability of staff and results. This could lead to a non-risk averse kind of culture as school leaders are held accountable for schools’ achievements. Therefore, school leader perpetuate the culture of low risk appetite in schools and develop generations of students who are not used to uncertainty and unpredictability. So while MOE has given school leaders more autonomy to run the schools, school leaders may still be slow to adjust to greater uncertainty due to accountability issues.

    The idea that teaching is an iron-rice bowl analogy does not help either. School leaders and teachers could possibly take their jobs for granted and see no reason to tread on a less-taken path which may offer even better results. The challenge to shift a whole education system from one of high predictability to that of more uncertainties is immense.

    We, as a country, pride ourselves in careful and meticulous planning. Even then, we have, in recent months, seen the unpredictability of policies which brings about undesired intentions. We are still learning together how to deal with such instances of uncertainties. If we want school leaders to live with and be able to handle uncertainties, we should perhaps ask ourselves this question. How much risk can the system absorb?

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