Singapore's permanent secretary of education, Goh Kim Leong, understands the importance of training children -- and teachers -- in his tiny island republic. ``Singapore is a small country with no natural resources other than its people, so we have to maximize their development,'' he says.
This densely populated nation, which achieved independence from Britain only 20 years ago, packs its 2.5 million people onto a 250-square-mile island at the southern tip of Southeast Asia.
Under the paternalistic but stern guidance of Lee Kuan Yew, its first and only prime minister, Singapore has become Southeast Asia's commercial and banking leader. Its citizens enjoy Asia's highest standard of living after Japan.
A strong, British-style educational system, adapted and refined by Singapore, is widely seen here as having played a key role in Singapore's rise to power. Her people, mostly ethnic Chinese, take their children's education most seriously.
The Ministry of Education is constantly updating and refining the system, which employs 19,000 teachers to instruct almost half a million pupils. The school system is demanding and comprehensive; providing teachers for such a system is equally so.
Children must learn to be bilingual. English is mandatory and pupils may choose Mandarin Chinese, Malay, or Tamil as their second language. Languages and math -- mandatory through graduation -- and required homework begin in first grade. Science is introduced in third grade, history and geography in fourth.
Under a streaming system, all students are assigned to fast, normal, or slow tracks based on performance tests given at the end of third grade. (Late bloomers may change tracks later on.)
Graduation from each level and future advancement are determined by comprehensive national examinations given at the end of primary, secondary, and pre-university schools.
Vocational training is available at the many trade schools operated by the ministry for students not going on to secondary school. An array of private and public colleges and institutes awaits those who plan to continue.
The best of the post-secondary institutions run by the government is the prestigious National University of Singapore, with eight schools and a combined undergraduate and graduate enrollment of 13,000.
Next is the Institute of Education for the training of teachers and the Nanyang Technological Institute, which graduates project and design engineers.
Two technical colleges provide higher-level technicians. The Vocational and Industrial Training Board oversees a number of vocational and continuing education programs for 60,000 students.
Until the early 1970s, Singapore recruited its teachers from a variety of teacher colleges, the national university, and from other countries. The results were not always satisfactory and it was difficult to maintain the high standards Singapore expected of its teachers. Therefore, in 1973, the government opened its Institute of Education, the country's only approved institution for teacher education.
Fourteen departments are grouped under four schools, providing a full range of courses in teaching methods and subject matter, including, of course, all four languages spoken in Singapore. (Teachers must know English and at least one other language.)
The 150 faculty members hold impressive credentials -- advanced degrees (mostly PhDs) from the top universities in Europe, Asia, and North America.
Students are admitted to the institute from two sources: the prestigious National University and from pre-university centers.
University graduates spend one year at the institute and receive diplomas in education. Holders of advanced certificates from the pre-university centers attend the institute for two years and receive certificates in education. Diploma-holders may teach at well-paid secondary-school positions, while certificate holders may teach only at the primary level.
Of the 1,600 full-time institute students, more than half are university graduates in the diploma program. Some 2,800 others are working teachers taking in-service training. The institute also provides special certificate programs in such fields as special education and physical training.
Teachers seeking jobs as principals and vice-principals must attend a full-time one-year diploma course in administration.
Half of Singapore's teachers have served for at least 20 years, but with more than 1,000 new graduates from the institute joining the system each year, the quality of instruction is improving rapidly.
Although excellence is sought at all levels, Secretary Goh feels that good local administration is vital to success.
``The key to a good school,'' Mr. Goh emphasized, ``is a good principal. A good principal inspires and motivates his teachers. They in turn inspire and motivate their pupils.''
Goh was reflecting the firm conviction of Singapore's leadership -- excellence must begin at the top or it will not prevail.