The Next Chapter

The local education scene took a long, hard look at itself to make sure no child left behind. Be an Idea discovers individuals who are helping to write the pages.

Want to know which item on Singapore's agenda that - calls for a national conversation aside - is already jumping ahead by leaps and bounds? Look no further than Singapore's education scene. A number of key developments rolled out recently promise to help Singaporean students cram less and think more.

BETTER BUILDING BLOCKS

Stronger accreditation requirements; a renewed emphasis on child welfare; higher teaching standards; and improvements in curriculum and facilities - these are just some of the goals of the government's Implementation Committee for Enhancing Pre-School Education.

While there will be no immediate changes to the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), a rite of passage for generations of Singaporeans, what can be expected are fresh ways to help young students cope. A stronger consensus between educators, parents and students looks set to lift the weight off those young shoulders.

To go a step further, the government recently decided to abolish academic banding for secondary schools and focus on a more holistic education to help students realise their full potential.

"It is less about content knowledge, as content will have to be re-learnt and even un-learnt during one's lifetime," said Education Minister Heng Swee Kiat. "It is more about how to process information, discern truths from untruths, connect seemingly disparate dots, and create knowledge even as the context changes."

TAKING THE SPIN

Beyond the government's grand plans and aspirations, an active community of social entrepreneurs and educators has stepped forward to help shape Singapore's learning landscape.

Hearty SPIN, a new start-up that uses technology to create learning solutions for people with autism and special needs, is one such example. It recently released an app for low-functioning individuals with autism called Picture AAC that is used in more than 15 countries.

Founded by Koh Kheng Wah, a mobile technology and IT specialist together with his wife Carol, a special-needs teacher, who felt the need to give back to society after spending time with her students.

"I hope it encourages other passionate individuals and let young people know that there are other paths out there besides being a lawyer or banker," he said.

Although there is a long way to go, Koh is determined to help other parents cope with the challenge of bringing up a special-needs child.

"Everyone should reflect on their strengths and use it for the community instead of being keyboard warriors," he said. "There is a lot to be done."

Then there's Open Lectures, a fresh spin to online learning. The fledgling web platform, which went 'live' in August 2012, provides "free, online lectures for anyone who wants to learn." Supported by the North-East Community Development Council as well as three junior colleges, it is run by a team of 80 to 100 student volunteers and currently hosts around 300 free lectures on economics, chemistry, mathematics and biology online.

"Giving back becomes easier and more meaningful if you love what you do," said Kenneth Lim, project CEO at its launch.

Over at The School of Thought, its curriculum emphasises socially responsible education as much as it does test scores. Launched in 2002 by a group of ex-teachers who want to combat youth apathy by empowering students to bring about positive change. Through General Paper classes, where students discuss local and global affairs, it aims to make them more knowledgeable and empathetic.

"Kids, whether they were 'A' or 'F' students came out not caring about the community, only themselves," said Kuik. "We felt that education was meant to do much more than that."

Undergraduate Stanley Chia, who manages Envisage Education, often works with schools on community involvement programmes. He observed that most students were participating without a deeper conviction and involvement.

"It has to go beyond volunteering," he said. " Volunteering fulfils needs but with social entrepreneurship you become involved in creating solutions."

The educational enterprise committed to promoting compassion among youths, conducts programmes where students role-play to experience poverty, then come up with solutions for it. Students also get to work with non-profits on projects and learn how to do more for people from disadvantaged groups.

"Our culture is traditionally focused on academic achievement and it's not something you can change overnight," he said. "This is a way of showing students that you can be financially stable and do something for society at the same time."

"I hope that we can remind people that social change is not the sole responsibility of the government, but that of the community, and each and every individual."

Making it better together

Just the other day, I picked up Forbes magazine and the cover was a historic photo of America's legendary philanthropists beaming with their billion-dollar smiles.

Everyone has heard of their stories: Microsoft's founder Bill and Melinda Gates have given away $28 billion so far and helped to eradicate polio from India, while self-made billionaire Warren Buffett has pledged to give away 99 per cent of his fortune. Talkshow host Oprah, has been repeatedly named as the most philanthropic celebrity, focuses on educational causes. And the giving doesn't stop there. Together, Gates and Buffett have gone on to persuade 92 other of the country's wealthiest billionaires to pledge at least half of their wealth to charity through The Giving Pledge initiative.

Although it is hard for the rest of the world to relate to fortunes of that magnitude, the beautiful thing is that philanthropy is not a privilege exclusive to the rich.

A CHANCE FOR CHARITY

Here in Singapore, robust civic-minded interest groups, family philanthropists and businesses eager to pair profit with purpose have helped to cultivate a culture of giving in recent years.

As part of the government's ambition to be a non-profit hub, more than 130 international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have set up shop here, a figure that has tripled since 2007, according to the Economic Development Board.

Local NGOs have also constantly worked hard to improve life on our sunny island as new social trends form. Thanks to social media, many groups, otherwise distant from the public, now have a stronger presence and deeper relationships with the community-at-large.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is no longer just the responsibility of multinationals and large companies, as more small firms have embarked on efforts to work it into its culture.

While Singapore Compact for CSR, the national body that promotes CSR, positions it as a "source of competitive advantage," the Singapore Exchange has also pushed more listed companies towards sustainability reporting, as it progresses in tandem with other first world cities.

Singaporeans are generally both generous and giving - nearly a quarter of the population volunteers their time and last year, we donated nearly $1.07 billion to charities, according to the recent stats from the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre (NVPC).

Its chief Lawrence Lien, is determined that giving is at the core of being human and must be part of our cultural DNA. "At the personal level, giving not only gives our life meaning but it can also be highly enjoyable," he said. "At the community level, compassion that is manifested in action is important not only for social cohesion, but also for a thriving, engaged and happy society.

"If all of our relationships were merely transactional - defined by what we get back in monetary or other tangible benefits for what we put in - our world would be unlivable."

CONNECT THROUGH CONVERSATION

With so much going on, we have to find a channel to communicate the tireless efforts, convey those brilliant ideas and engage the people who want to be a part of this change.

BeAnIdea sprang from exciting chatter over coffee on how powerful storytelling could plant ideas in the minds of people and move them to act. It is a place to spread the ideas that make the world a better place, communicate with communities and to make good intentions accessible. Small ideas have shaped the course of history as the brave have inspired with their action and determination.

It was a dream come true to assemble our team of independent journalists and photographers, who are all passionate about their craft and cause, whatever they might be.

There's Debby, whose love for wildlife has been the focus of her journalism career and Sheralyn, who delights in healthcare writing and uses words to inspire people to take ownership of their health. Others like Justin, a guru on Singapore's visual culture, heritage and spaces and Huiwen, an ex business journo who is just plain determined to lead a meaningful life, have helped to form new bonds between their social spaces and work.

Each month, the portal explores themes related to community development, environment, healthcare, culture and animal welfare.

FROM US WITH HEART

In this wired world, where marketing messages bombard us during every waking moment and societal trends affect who we are, our hope is for BeAnIdea to be that positive seed from which change and significance germinate.

After all, it is storytelling with heart that drowns out digital noise; connection that galvanizes volunteers to action and turns apathy to empathy. We want our stories to inform, inspire and move you to learn about communities beyond your own.

Here's how you can play a part:

  • Read our stories and share them with your community.
  • Write to us and let us know what you feel and what issues you want us to highlight.
  • Join the Beancubation to receive updates on the upcoming plans we have in store.


Let's get this started!

Vulnerability affects everyone

The government and citizens need to rethink how we address societal needs, says Braema Mathi, co-author of the year-old report on unmet social needs in Singapore.

As part of the on-going 'national conversation' on how to improve Singapore, no stones will be left unturned, although some will be put back where they were if they work, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recently.

But one stone that the leader of human rights group MARUAH Braema Mathi says cannot be returned is social development in Singapore.

"To use the Prime Minister's words, we need to take that stone out, look at it and we cannot put it back into the same spot. This is one of the areas that needs a lot of attention, scrutiny and new settings," she says.

The co-author of "Unmet Social Needs in Singapore", a research report on Singapore's social policies and vulnerable groups, says since it was published a year ago by the Lien Centre for Social Innovation, some of the issues raised in the report have begun to be addressed, but more needs to be done.

The 74-page report examined the shortcomings of three important pillars of Singapore's social safety net: the Central Provident Fund (CPF), the home ownership scheme and the "many helping hands" approach to assisting those in need. It also looked at the lives of six vulnerable communities in Singapore including the disabled, the mentally ill, low-income workers, singles such as divorced mothers, foreign workers and new immigrants.

MORE TALK, MORE ACTION

Over the year, since the General Elections, Mathi notes that there has been more intense discussions about these issues. When equestrian rider Laurentia Tan won a bronze and a silver at the Paralympics 2012 but received lesser prize money than able-bodied Olympic medalists, Singaporeans very quickly questioned such discrimination against the disabled. Recently, the media has also held discussions about the unsustainable wages of low-income workers such as security guards and cleaners.

Such discussions would not have been so rigorous before. I think these are good things and the government has to respond," she says.

One shortcoming highlighted in the report that has seen some change is the state's housing policy. The announcement by National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan that "tens of thousands" more rental flats will be built in the coming years is significant because not everyone today can afford to buy a flat with their CPF money and wages.

However, what seems set to stay is the government's "many helping hands" approach to helping the needy. In her report, Mathi pointed out that this has led to duplication of services and those who help and need help are often lost at where to go. More importantly, much of the assistance currently does not eliminate the unmet social need, nor empower individuals to get back on track to relying on themselves.

Citing the International Labour Organization's latest call for countries to build a "social protection floor", she says Singapore's current social protection net is not enough, as people will fall through. She asks, "How are we picking them up and putting down a solid concrete floor that they can step on to move to the next level? Whatever we put at the bottom has to be effective, and it may mean more resources as this kind of intervention takes time."

Mathi is hopeful that the upcoming restructuring of Singapore's main social development government agency, the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports, will help move things along. With its new focus as the Ministry of Social and Family Development, she believes there can be more focus on rethinking current social development policies.

PLAY YOUR PART, SHAPE YOUR HOME

Citizens and the community-at-large have part of the equation too. While more are stepping forth to help, Mathi says it is important that people realise financial assistance alone is not sustainable. "The community needs to know it's not all about money. We have to give our volunteer time too."

"People should step forward to help, and listen to experts on the ground so that their contributions can be best used to address what vulnerable communities need most,"  she adds.

It is important to tackle unmet social needs in Singapore now before an underbelly grows in this society, says Mathi. Most importantly, people need to realise that regardless of social status today, they could very well end up being part of the vulnerable community in Singapore one day as vulnerability is not a condition reserved for the less fortunate.

She uses the example of the taxi driver who was recently killed in an accident involving a Ferrari. "I am sure he was stable and earning well for his family, he has bought a flat, and everything. But once he is taken out of the equation, through an unfortunate and untimely accident, there are problems. And how do we sustain that family to ensure that transformation for them when the father is no longer around?" she asks.

"We can no longer think in this paradigm of it as the down and out. Vulnerability needs to be recognised as a life-course. It can affect everybody and anybody, depending on the situation at that time.

Get involved and be the change:

  • Get your finances in order and plan for your loved ones.
  • Make an effort to find out about local initiatives.
  • Volunteer for a cause you believe in.