Sunday 26 January 2020

50 Secrets Of Singapore's Success: Tommy Koh

What is the secret of Singapore's success?
There is not one but 50 ways a small country can overcome its limitations
By Tommy Koh, Published The Straits Times, 25 Jan 2020

As this is my first op-ed in the new solar and lunar year, I would like to take this opportunity to wish all the readers of The Straits Times a peaceful, healthy and successful new year.

I have a new year present for Singapore. The present is in the form of a new book I have edited. The title of the book is: 50 Secrets Of Singapore's Success. The book will be launched on Wednesday by Mr Eddie Teo, the chairman of the Council of Presidential Advisers.


There are two stories behind the book. The first story is a meeting with 28 university students from the state of Guanajuato of Mexico last year. Following the advice of the governor of their state, the students had spent a week in Singapore on a study trip. They asked to meet me before they returned to Mexico.

During our dialogue, one of the students asked me for the secret of Singapore's success. I told her that our success was not due to one secret but many secrets. She requested me to write a book on the secrets of Singapore's success. I promised her that I would think about it.

A few days after meeting the Mexican students, I received an unexpected gift from the outgoing Ambassador of Finland to Singapore Paula Parviainen.

She gave me a book, entitled: 100 Social Innovations From Finland. The book is an international bestseller and has been translated into 27 languages.

The success of the Finnish book gave me the courage to edit a book on the 50 Secrets Of Singapore's Success.


It is not the purpose of my book to boast about Singapore's achievements. We are successful but we must remain humble and modest.

We live in a world which is dominated by bad news. The world is hungry for good news and for success stories. This is why the Finnish book is so well received by the world.

My hope is that the book on Singapore will be an inspiration to other developing countries. My message is that if your country is small and has no natural resources, do not despair. If you pursue sound policies and have good values, if you have competent and honest political leaders, a good public service and an industrious and adaptable population, you can overcome your limitations of size and the lack of natural resources.

Singapore is not a model but it is a source of solutions to many of the problems faced by the developing countries.


The book has nine chapters: economic, social, educational, cultural, law and security, infrastructural, environmental, foreign policy and individual well-being.

Economic achievements

I have identified 10 important economic achievements. The lead essay is by Professor Tan Kong Yam of Nanyang Technological University (NTU). I have asked him to explain how we managed to go from a per capita income of US$500 in 1965, to US$64,000 (S$87,000) last year, an increase of 128 times. It is probably the biggest growth story of the 20th century.

Many countries are faced with high unemployment, especially among its youth. I have therefore asked labour economist Hui Weng Tat from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy to explain how we have managed to achieve full employment.

Other essays in this chapter include essays on our policy of fiscal prudence by ST associate editor Vikram Khanna, sound monetary policy by Singapore Management University (SMU) economist Peter Wilson, our sovereign wealth fund by the former president of GIC special investments Teh Kok Peng, the Economic Development Board by its former chairman Philip Yeo, Ms Melody Hong and Mr Tan Suan Swee, the National Wages Council by Professor Lim Chong Yah, the founding chairman of NWC, tripartism by NTUC president Mary Liew, free trade agreements by Centennial Asia Advisors' Manu Bhaskaran, and the Singapore Airlines by its chief executive Goh Choon Phong.

Social achievements

By coincidence, I have also identified 10 important social achievements. Dr Jon Quah has an essay on our successful fight against corruption. Dr Mathew Matthews from the Institute of Policy Studies explains how we have managed to maintain racial and religious harmony. Dr Cheong Koon Hean's essay is on the Housing Board and how the HDB has succeeded in providing every Singaporean with a home.

Other essays in this chapter include those on our hawker centres by Professor Lily Kong, the president of SMU, the empowerment of women by Dr Kanwaljit Soin and Ms Margaret Thomas, our healthcare system by health economist Phua Kai Hong, low infant and maternal mortality by Dr Jeremy Lim, the public service by Civil Service College dean Ong Toon Hui, the Central Provident Fund by Associate Professor Chia Ngee Choon, and the Inter-Religious Organisation by its former president K. Kesavapany.

Educational achievements

I have identified seven important achievements in the field of education. Professor S. Gopinathan and Mr V. Naidu explain how we have succeeded in building one of the best school systems in the world. Professor Leo Tan, the founding director of the National Institute of Education (NIE), has an essay on our much-admired NIE. Dr N. Varaprasad, founding principal of Temasek Polytechnic, has written on our excellent polytechnics, National University of Singapore president Tan Eng Chye on our world-class universities, Mrs Elaine Ng, former National Library Board chief executive, on our public libraries, and ST's senior education correspondent Sandra Davie on Singapore mathematics. Cultural achievements I have selected five cultural achievements for inclusion in the book. Dr Nigel Taylor has an essay on the Singapore Botanic Gardens. Dr Tan Wee Kiat, the founder of the Gardens By The Bay, writes about this achievement.

Mr Goh Yew Lin writes about the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Mr Lee Tzu Yang on the Esplanade - Theatres By The Bay, and former CEO of the National Heritage Board Michael Koh on the transformation of our museums.

Law and security achievements

On law and security, I have selected four important achievements.

The first is our national service, by Mr Winston Choo, Singapore's first chief of defence force. The second is on our efficient and respected police force, by former police commissioner Khoo Boon Hui. The third is on the rule of law, by Professor Goh Yihan, the dean of SMU's law school.

The final achievement is the Singapore Convention on Mediation by Mrs Natalie Morris-Sharma, the chairman of the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law working group which negotiated the treaty. Infrastructural achievements On our infrastructure, I have selected five success stories. Mr Andrew Tan, the former CEO of the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore, writes about our seaport and maritime centre. Mr Liew Mun Leong, the chairman of the Changi Airport Group, explains how Changi Airport has become the best in the world. Mr Khoo Teng Chye, the former CEO of our Urban Redevelopment Authority, discusses the URA's role in the physical transformation of Singapore. Mr Gopinath Menon writes on our excellent transport system. ST's transport expert Christopher Tan discusses the merits and demerits of our electronic road pricing policy.

Environmental achievements

On the environment, I have identified five achievements. The first is our journey from being a dirty and smelly city to being one of the world's cleanest and greenest cities. Mr Kenneth Er tells this remarkable story. The second is our water story and the indispensable role which the PUB, the national water agency, has played in it, written by its chief executive Ng Joo Hee. The third is toilets for all, written by Mr Toilet Man himself, Mr Jack Sim. Fourth, National Parks Board's Lena Chan writes about the Singapore Index on Cities' Biodiversity and the role cities can play in the conservation of biodiversity. Finally, Professor Euston Quah, the head of economics at NTU, explains how Singapore has succeeded in balancing development and environment.

Foreign policy achievements

On our foreign policy achievements, I have selected only the three most important. First, Professor Chan Heng Chee writes about how we have managed to maintain good relations with all the major powers. Mr Ong Keng Yong writes about our successful Asean policy. Mr Burhan Gafoor explains how Singapore has been able to play a leadership role at the UN, in spite of our small size.

The well-being of Singapore

In the final essay of the book, I have requested Professor David Chan, director of the Behavioural Sciences Institute, to write on the social and psychological capital and the well-being of Singaporeans.


The book is graced by a foreword by President Halimah Yacob. In her foreword, the President wrote:

"Singapore takes pride in its diversity, openness and self-determination - values that shape our modern nation today. Our journey has not been easy, but we have always pulled through because we were determined to make something of ourselves. These traits are what have bonded us and defined our success stories… collectively, the essays illustrate the lessons behind Singapore's success over the past five decades.

"I hope they will enable Singaporeans to have a better appreciation of our nation's shared journey, and serve as useful case studies for other countries."

Tommy Koh is a professor of law at the National University of Singapore and an Ambassador-at-Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.


New book curated by Tommy Koh tells Singapore's recipe for success in 340 pages
Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh compiles essays on Republic's key accomplishments
By Fabian Koh, The Straits Times, 30 Jan 2020

A group of university students from Mexico and the United States asked Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh early last year what Singapore's secret was in its successful evolution in just a few decades from a developing to a developed country.

Professor Koh's reply was that there was not one secret but many, enough to write a book.

That gave him an idea, one that finally took form when he received a book from the former Finnish ambassador to Singapore, called 100 Social Innovations From Finland.

Prof Koh's book, Fifty Secrets Of Singapore's Success, was launched by Mr Eddie Teo, the chairman of the Council of Presidential Advisers, at the National Museum of Singapore yesterday.

Curated by Prof Koh and published by Straits Times Press, the 340-page book consists of 50 essays written by leaders and experts in various fields in Singapore. They address how Singapore, a small state, has succeeded economically and in eight other areas.

For instance, National University of Singapore president Tan Eng Chye writes about the country's universities, Singapore's first Chief of Defence Force Winston Choo gives his take on creating a people's army through national service, and Ambassador-at-Large Chan Heng Chee addresses Singapore's relationship with the major powers.

Straits Times senior education correspondent Sandra Davie penned an essay on how Singapore's students outshone the rest of the world in mathematics. She called it one of the most memorable stories she has covered in her over two decades on the education beat.

"Singapore Math, as our approach to teaching mathematics is popularly called, has travelled the world. It is available in print and digital forms and in many languages. It is cited, researched and used in many schools around the world and has lifted the performance of their students," she said.

Mr Christopher Tan, the national broadsheet's senior transport correspondent, also contributed an essay on the Republic's Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) system.

"ERP has served us well since it was launched in 1998, but I think it is high time we moved to a more sophisticated iteration which charges according to time, place, as well as distance clocked," said Mr Tan.

He said a sharper tool would also be a more equitable system.

ST associate editor Vikram Khanna wrote about Singapore's fiscal policies, which he called one of the country's greatest economic strengths, through his observations of over 25 years.

"But there's more to it than just prudent budgeting. The fiscal soundness for which Singapore is renowned also derives from its astute design of policies around public enterprises, pensions and healthcare, which have produced good outcomes without straining public finances," he said.

In a preface to the book, Prof Koh said: "My hope is that the 50 success stories in this book will be of interest to people around the world. I hope that this book will inspire other countries to achieve their own dreams."

Notably, Singapore is among the world's least corrupt countries, has one of the highest home ownership rates and world-class schools and healthcare facilities.

The country has also contributed significantly to the development of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean).

Singapore has played a leading role in the United Nations, such as in negotiations for the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and the UN Convention on International Settlement Agreements Resulting from Mediation - also known as the Singapore Convention on Mediation - which was signed here last year.

The Republic also contributes to the international community. For instance, it helped create the 2010 Singapore Index on Cities' Biodiversity, a UN-endorsed tool for assessing biodiversity conservation efforts.

It was also involved in the 2008 creation of the Santiago Principles, a set of International Monetary Fund-endorsed guidelines for sovereign wealth funds.

In a foreword for the book, President Halimah Yacob said: "Our journey has not been easy in the face of global challenges, but we have always pulled through because we were determined to make something for ourselves."

She said she hoped the 50 essays in the book would let Singaporeans better appreciate the nation's shared journey, and also serve as "useful case studies" for other countries.

Mr Tan Ooi Boon, supervising editor for Straits Times Press, said the book helps to showcase the literary works of Singaporeans to the world, and will benefit both local and overseas readers.

Hawker centres 'saved Singapore', says Tommy Koh
By Fabian Koh, The Straits Times, 30 Jan 2020

The hawker centre has "saved Singapore" as it is the one place ordinary Singaporeans can go to have a good meal at an affordable price, Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh said on Wednesday (Jan 28) at the launch of the book Fifty Secrets Of Singapore's Success.

Compiled by Professor Koh, the book consists of 50 essays written by leaders and experts from various fields in Singapore about how the small city state has succeeded in a number of areas.

In his opening speech, Prof Koh said: "Hawker food makes Singapore unique. It is part of our national identity."

He added: "I must say that my wife and I are great fans of hawker centres. We go to the wet market every week. We often have lunch on a Sunday or Saturday in one of the hawker centres."

Chairman of the Council of Presidential Advisers Eddie Teo, who launched the book, had earlier expressed surprise that it contained an essay on hawker centres, along with one on toilets. "At first glance, many will fail to see the relevance of these two subjects," said Mr Teo.

However, he said the essays written by World Toilet Organisation founder Jack Sim and Singapore Management University president Lily Kong "convincingly explained how important they are for nation-building and national development".

Mr Teo added that the 340-page book would be useful for young Singaporeans, who may not even recognise the authors of the essays.

"Sadly, my 10 years as chairman of the Public Service Commission has left me with the impression that many of our brightest students have very little knowledge of Singapore's history," he said.

Many, he said, admitted that they had never heard of former deputy prime minister Goh Keng Swee, and also confused former DPM S. Rajaratnam with veteran opposition figure J. B. Jeyaretnam.

"So I hope that this book will not only reach foreigners, but will also find its way into the hands of younger Singaporeans, if not the hard copies, at least the e-version," Mr Teo said.

But he added a caveat for young Singaporean readers. He said that while it was important to know the past to understand the future, they needed to think of their own solutions for new and future problems.

"I'm not advising them to be as frugal as Dr Goh, or as negligent about work-life balance as Lee Kuan Yew," he said, adding that they must help address Singapore's problems with their own unique solutions.

"But, to succeed, they must have the same passion, commitment and love for Singapore, which our founding generation leaders clearly had."

Prof Koh said the book explained to other developing countries that pursuing sound policies and having honest and competent leaders, along with a good public service, would allow them to overcome their limitations.

"Singapore is too small to be a model. And the world is too diverse to have one single model. We are not a model, but we can be a source of inspiration. We can be a source of practical solutions to many of the problems that developing countries face," he said.

In response to a question, Prof Koh said that the lack of natural resources had forced Singaporeans to accept the ethic that "the world does not owe us a living".

He noted that Singapore had been forced into emphasising heavily on education, healthcare and housing to ensure that the population remains "happy and productive".

Singapore maths adds up for educators around the world
A new Straits Times Press book launched last week, Fifty Secrets Of Singapore's Success, has 50 essays on various aspects of the nation that have gained acclaim over the years. This essay by Senior Education Correspondent Sandra Davie recounts how Singapore's maths has made a mark globally.
By Sandra Davie, Senior Education Correspondent, The Straits Times, 3 Feb 2020

The irony will not be lost on British educators. In 2019, Singapore commemorated the 200th year since Sir Stamford Raffles arrived on its shores. As the former colony reflected on what it inherited from Britain, schools there have joined more than 50 education systems around the world in adopting Singapore-style mathematics.

Little Singapore first started to draw a lot of attention when it came out tops among 37 countries, including Britain and the United States, in the 1995 and 1999 rankings of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), conducted by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA).

In the US, some like parents Jeffery Thomas and his Singaporean wife, Dawn, began importing Singapore textbooks to supplement their daughter's public schooling, and for other parents who were homeschooling their children. When a handful of schools also started asking for the books, the couple, based in Portland, Oregon, set up Singapore Math Inc in 1998 to import the books.

Beyond excelling at TIMSS, Singapore students went on to consistently outperform their peers in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) studies, dubbed the "World Cup for Education". The Pisa 2009, conducted by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), ranked Singapore students second in maths, fourth in science and fifth in reading. Three years later, in 2012, Singapore held its second spot in mathematics, and climbed up to the third place in science and reading.

In the Pisa 2015, the Republic's 15-year-olds were ranked No. 1 for mathematics, science and reading over their peers from 71 other economies. Furthermore, their scores - especially for mathematics - were way above everyone else's. The Republic's students on average scored 564, while students from Hong Kong, which was placed No. 2, scored on average 548, and third-placed Macau's students were on 544.


As the accolades piled up over the years, maths specialists around the world wanted to know the secret to the little red dot's success. They deduced that it is "Primary Mathematics" - the curriculum, teaching approach and textbooks first developed in 1982 in Singapore by the Ministry of Education.

OECD's director of education Andreas Schleicher, a mathematician by training, praised Singapore's stripped down mathematics curriculum. "Mathematics in Singapore is not about knowing everything. It's about thinking like a mathematician," he declared, adding that the decision to design the curriculum around how students learn maths rather than around the structure of the academic discipline was a stroke of genius.

That development involved a nine-member team led by mathematics teacher and curriculum specialist, Dr Kho Tek Hong, that had been tasked to create high-quality teaching materials. The team studied the latest behavioural science research and travelled to schools in other countries, including Canada and Japan, to compare the effectiveness of different teaching methods.

Aiming to move away from simple rote learning and focus instead on teaching children how to solve problems, the textbooks the group produced by the early 1980s were influenced by educational psychologists, such as American Jerome Bruner. He posited that people learn in three stages: by using real objects, then pictures, and then through symbols.

Based on this Concrete Pictorial Abstract (CPA) approach to learning, the team also developed a "spiral curriculum", where each topic is revisited in intervals at a more sophisticated level. A concept is represented initially by "concrete" materials, later by models (pictures) and then finally by abstract notation (such as plus or equals signs). There is also a strong emphasis on modelling mathematical problems with visual aids - using coloured blocks to represent fractions or ratios, for example.

Dr Kho, who retired in 2007, said that under the CPA framework, if a problem involves adding pieces of fruit, for example, children can first handle actual fruit before progressing to abstract counters or cubes that represent the fruit. The visual and hands-on aids work well in helping children master the concepts, he observed. "The blocks, cards and bar charts are like diagrams that tell a story of the problem, so the student can visualise how to solve it."

He noted that students are given time to think deeply about the maths and to really understand concepts at a relational level rather than as a set of rules or procedures, allowing them to create a solid maths foundation upon which to build increasingly complex skills. In short, Singapore maths is methodical and works - just like the nation, really.

American Bill Jackson, who discovered Singapore mathematics when he was a school teacher in New Jersey 20 years ago, recalled: "American math textbooks were thick and heavy and cover many topics superficially and usually in an incoherent way. In contrast, Singapore textbooks, besides having these strange, exotic fruits like rambutans and durians and using British English, had far fewer topics. They taught math in-depth for mastery and carefully built mathematical understanding in a systematic way." Of this CPA approach, which he liked, he said: "It makes the learning of math fun and meaningful, and helps students develop positive attitudes about math."

Mr Tim Oates, who was in charge of a review of England's curriculum in 2010-2013 and is now director of research at the exam board, Cambridge Assessment, is deeply impressed by the design and implementation of Singapore maths. He said: "It embodies the idea of 'curriculum coherence' - where policy and practice ensure that teaching practice, learning materials and standards all line up coherently. This is a feature of high-performing systems, and absent in poor-performing ones." He added: "It is based on ideas of all children are capable of learning anything, depending on how it is presented to them and the effort which they put into learning it... now frequently referred to as 'growth mindset'."


The approach does have its critics, who say Singapore maths is not so easy to transplant. Teachers have to be well trained to gain an in-depth understanding of the novel methods. Despite this, a growing number of schools around the world are investing in the textbooks and training their teachers in Singapore maths.

Marshall Cavendish (Singapore), the leading publisher of Singapore maths textbooks, said it sold its maths textbooks and licensed their publication to more than 60 countries currently. In 2018, it sold 5.75 million copies of Singapore maths textbooks to countries including the US, UK, Israel and Chile.

Ms Lee Fei Chen, senior adviser to Singapore-based Times Publishing Group, which owns Marshall Cavendish, said: "Our humble textbook has taken on a life of its own. It is now available in print and digital form, on devices and on various platforms as well. The Singapore curriculum is now cited, researched or practised in many countries, and integrated into many syllabuses around the world."

Mr and Mrs Thomas have published their own series of Singapore maths textbooks, called Dimensions Math, which are used by a range of schools in the US. They include those like Public School 132 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which serves mostly poor and minority children, and elite schools, such as the Sidwell Friends School in Washington, a private school once attended by then US President Barack Obama's daughters.

The series has made its way to schools in several other territories, including The Netherlands, England, Indonesia and, more recently, Chile and Bermuda. "Singapore Math has become an established part of national and international conversations about math education," said Mr Thomas.

And schools say the results speak for themselves. North Hills Christian School in North Carolina, which implemented Singapore maths in 2015, saw a 52 per cent improvement in maths scores after just one year. Another school, Alderman Road Elementary School in Fayetteville, North Carolina, adopted Singapore maths strategies when maths scores started declining in 2013 and 2014. Maths coach Andi Webb reported in 2016 that after one year of implementing Singapore maths, the school clawed back the 10 per cent decline in scores. And after the second year, scores increased by an additional 4 per cent.

In the UK, the Inspire Maths series of textbooks, adapted from the Singapore books, were trialled in 70 primary schools by the Department for Education in 2015 and 2016. Independent research conducted by the Oxford University Department of Education in 2016 found that British schoolchildren made more progress in maths when teachers used Singapore-style methods. Teachers reported that the programme could boost children's motivation and engagement, and the evaluation found that it could be used creatively and flexibly.

This led to the British government pledging £41 million (S$74 million) to fund a network of "mastery specialist teachers". It was reported that the Singapore style of teaching maths will reach as many as 8,000 primary schools in Britain over the next few years.

Clearly, Singapore maths adds up to success for educators, students, publishers and book distributors at home and abroad. Some have questioned the naming of this maths approach - based on international research - after Singapore, observed Mr Andy Psarianos, who is behind the Maths - No Problem! textbooks in the UK. "Whether you call it Singapore Math, math mastery or something else doesn't matter. What matters is that Singapore did something with math that made everyone stand up and take notice. Singapore went from obtaining mediocre math scores to the best in the world in a very short period of time - and they've maintained that momentum," he said.

Mr Oates added: "The initial development of Singapore Math was impressive in its own right. It was heavily research-based, scanned the world for the best models and approaches, and aimed to support all learners, not just some. But what is even more impressive has been the sophistication of the policy as a whole. The fidelity of implementation has been doubly impressive. It is one thing to get the right model, and quite another to ensure that practice is both transformed for the better and, over time, remains focused on key principles."

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