Singapore: gearing education to its economic needs

By , Mrs. Viola is dean of the office of international affairs, Northeastern University.

* ''Singapore opens science and technology park.''

* ''American computer firm establishes software design school.''

* ''Singapore government subsidizes US corporate training programs.''

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* "Enrollments expected to jump 40 percent at Singapore Polytechnic.''

* ''Former minister of education becomes minister of trade and industry.''

These recent headlines tell a story. Singapore has launched its ''second industrial revolution,'' and human capital development has become a No. 1 priority.

A quick look at the Republic of Singapore: the Southeast Asian nation encompasses an area of 224 square miles, consisting of the island of Singapore and 54 islets.

The population today is 2.4 million, of which 76 percent is Chinese, 15 percent Malay, 7 percent Indian, and less than two percent European or Eurasian.

There are four official languages - English, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil - but the republic's administrative language is English, a legacy from its days as a British Crown Colony.

During the past 20 years Singapore has undergone an industrial metamorphosis. When the present government came to power in 1959, Singapore was little more than a stagnant entrepot. Unlike many postcolonial leaders, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew staged an industrial revolution by encouraging the manufacturing and commercial interests of multinational companies and welcoming the expertise of foreign entrepreneurs.

Today Singapore is a high-technology, capital-intensive economy. A recent Chase Manhattan Bank study predicts that during the 1980s Singapore will have the fastest-growing economy in Southeast Asia.

It's this fast-growing, high-technology economy which is throwing the spotlight on Singapore's educational system which has the responsibility for providing the needed workers.

Although modeled after the British plan, Singapore's primary and secondary schooling is conducted in four languages - English, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil. Bilingualism is encouraged, however, as all students are required to study two official languages, one of which must be English.

Elementary schooling is free, and although it's not compulsory there is, according to government studies, nearly universal attendance. The literacy rate is 77 percent and for those under 35 years of age, more than 90 percent.Higher education also reflects Singapore's cultural pluralism. The National University of Singapore is the product of an evolutionary process that began with the founding of the Federated Malay States Medical School in 1905, later renamed the King Edward VII College of Medicine. Its present status is the result of a merger in 1981 of the University of Singapore and Nanyang University, the latter established in the 1950s to serve the higher education needs of graduates of Chinese secondary schools.The key to Singapore's exceptional economic development has been its manpower, a key natural resource. The labor market is tight. Unemployment is only slightly more than 3 percent, but there are acute labor shortages, job-hopping is a common phenomenon, and vast numbers of expatriates are needed to maintain Singapore's exemplary growth rate. A declining birthrate, which began in the 1960s, has caused the government to consider some withdrawal from labor-intensive operations in the 1980s.At the same time, the Economic Development Board's chairman, Ngiam Tong Dow, says there are plans to train 1,000 engineers, 5,000 technicians, and 10,000 semi-skilled workers each year $ o he 1980s.Several approaches are being used to accomplish these objectives. The Singapore government is offering numerous incentives to foreign software computer firms, which, in return, are establishing training programs for computer programmers. Local wages have been increased substantially to attract semi-skilled and skilled technicians from nearby nations. Enrollments will be increased 20 percent at the National University of Singapore, 40 percent at both thu Singapore Polytechnic And Ngee Ann Technical College. Finally, a major effort will be made to increase enrollments by 125 percent at the government vocational and industrial training centers.The government's determination to gear education to the nation's economic needs has been graphically illustrated by the remarks of Tony Tan, vice-chancellor of the National University, former minister of education, and newly appointed minister of trade and industry. Speaking at a welcoming convocation for new students at the National University in July 1981, Dr. Tan stated:''Singapore today is a young nation, very much in the growth and development phase. Our economy has an insatiable demand for technological and professional manpower. ''For the present I do not see any escape from the necessity po gear university education to the demands of the market. Much as many may ,ament the decline of humanistic or liberal education and the ascendancy of professional and technical studies, our priorities do not permit any othEr course. ''Students want it, society needs it, and the university should provide it.''

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