Education: What Finland Taught Me.

Finnish Education

I read with interest this incredibly articulate post on “Tuition Culture in Singapore: Abundance and Anxiety”.  The original post was made in response to the Singapore’s recently announced budget, on the shift towards education that is more skills-focused, than solely grades-focused:

“We must become a meritocracy of skills, not a hierarchy of grades earned early in life” says Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam.”

And you know what? It’s this “meritocracy of skills” that I want to expound on today. Also, I read the comments section of the original blog post, and I realised quite a few people made references to Finland. So, I found some time today to pen my own thoughts, and hopefully can add a little bit of my perspective to the discourse:

  • First as a previous private tutor who used to work for some time teaching JC and University Economics, and General Paper;
  • Next as a Singaporean currently doing my masters in Finland; then
  • Lastly, as a human being.

Caveat: I don’t profess to be an expert–on the contrary, I’m pretty narrow-minded. This is just my opinion, you don’t have to take it as truth, and of course you can politely disagree. I just want to offer my perspective as part of this #SG50 (LOL to the “simi sai also SG50”) discourse, and give you something to think about as part of my culture shocks and learning in Finland. Since–I have a similar background as you–the Singaporean.

OK so let’s get started! Here are quotes that really resonated with me on the original post:

“How many people consider interest, passion, or impact when they evaluate the ‘goodness’ of a job? I dunno what my generation of working adults thinks, but as someone who’s worked with teenagers quite extensively regarding talent development and career discernment, I can tell you that it’s a vanishingly small number. And the more safely-ensconced they are in the academic environment of our local schools, and the more potential they have to score well, the less likely they are to consider such factors. It’s a sad state of affairs when our very best and brightest aspire towards the least risky and most boring jobs possible, simply because those jobs provide the most security and earning power.”

Read my public status and note on this issue. Recently NUS folks are about to graduate, and I do get a number of panicky, anxious emails from them via linkedin. So I agree 110% with the author’s statement. Next,

“I’ll beg people to take my money just so my kid can grow up with a different set of anticipations and expectations. And I anticipate that if I can’t afford to give my children a better life, and better expectations, than what I’ve got, I’m just not going to have them.”

Many of my friends with kids agreed with this quote. I think I can understand a little too– whenever I look at how stressed my friends’ little children are. Last but not least:

“My take on things is that every Singaporean lives in fear, a fear we’ve been infected with since we were kids. Every Singaporean lives in fear of failure, of poverty, and of the social stigma of being a dependent. We’ve been taught as students that a good citizen contributes to society instead of leeches off of it, and I think this sort of thinking is very elegantly fostered to absolve the government of the responsibility to provide social security and a minimum guaranteed standard of living.”

This is beautifully articulated. Ever since I came to Finland, I’d been wondering why I have culture shock almost everyday. Mainly, the culture shock came because I always wondered why Finns (Or for that matter, Norwegians) are so damn honest. 

I can’t tell you the number of times I misplaced my iPhone in both countries. Both times, even after 20minutes when I finally realized the phone was gone, the phone was either returned to lost and found or left intact in the original place. There was a time I even misplaced my ultrabook as I was helping someone take a photograph, and I put it down to hold the DSLR. Ten minutes later when I went back to the location, the ultrabook was untouched. o.O

Why are Finns/Norwegians so honest? I believe it is because most of their basic needs are well-taken care of. There is no need to keep (and sell) an item someone lost, because–what’s the point? The government takes care of you–if life screws up for you somehow, you can pick yourself up because the state will give you a “recovery time”.

It’s a concept of “insurance by the state”, agreed by everyone else in the country, through payment of higher taxes. The unspoken social contract is that you pay high taxes, you get security and peace of mind when you screw up (which happens to all of us sometimes), or when you are old, or when you have some sort of accident. But you are also not expected to abuse this contract.

For that reason, Finns are very, very fiercely proud of their basic public education system, because it ensures YOU have equality of opportunities irrespective of your parent’s incomes.

I am always puzzled about equality, for instance. Basically, I don’t get it–doesn’t equality mean that you have less incentive to be ambitious? Because equality means you can’t be so rich too, right? I mean the taxes are so super high in welfare states, as compared to in Singapore! If you think about it, meritocracy is all about working hard so that you can be “unequal”, based on sheer hard work. So I never really fully understood the ideology of “equality”, probably somewhat because of my own upbringing.

Maybe one day I will–more coffee with Finns! :DD

But I do understand that this ideology of equality also means that you won’t be that poor. Which means people won’t look down on you (that much), if you are poor due to whatever reasons. It’s a social contract. Beccause, it’s also human nature to be condescending sometimes.

Then let’s think back to Singapore/Indonesia– How many times have you lost something, and discovered that it was gone for good? I’d had money in my wallet stolen before twice, but I knew that the people who took my money are not that bad because my credit cards and IDs were left intact. When I was in JC, there was one incident when I volunteered at a primary school for lower income kids, and the student stole my phone. (Like what???) The principal of the primary school investigated, found out, and then explained to me apologetically later.

Why is it like that? I think it is because in Singapore at least, we kind of know that we have to fend for ourselves. If someone fails you, if you do a business and someone takes your money and flees, if you somehow fail your A levels– pretty much society tells you: you are screwed.

Do you think anybody likes being a leech? I don’t think so. Then why do people feel the impulse to steal? I think that’s because they feel very insecure, in the Singaporean context. I can only imagine: if you are poor in an environment where the income gap is so high (>0.46 in the GINI coefficient recently), you would probably feel insecure all the time.

Also, for this reason–that I myself tend to measure achievements and successes in dollars and cents. Yes, I am pretty narrow-minded. I only saw it clearer after coming to Finland. And I don’t like it, and that’s why I am attending more random conferences, talking to more random people, learning random things, to broaden my own mind.

One day, while talking to a professor I really respect a lot (Her name is Professor Leena), I randomly realised, “I really don’t know what I don’t know, and because I like to measure success in terms of figures, I do tend to judge people and things without knowing the full context!”

That sort of judge-y, “I don’t give a shit about your context” thinking inevitably manifests itself through education in Singapore. Through tuition. Through “more is better”–because I can measure my success against yours. Why quantitative measures? Because I/you/we–are RESOURCES. “Singapore only has human resources“–how many times have you heard this? Yes, so education is to fine-tune human resources, and hence the average Singaporean measures himself and his successes in numbers.

As much as I get culture shock often in Finland, I’m pretty sure I give Finns culture shock all the time too, because I’ m quite a competitive bitch too. I’d also taken one class at the University of Helsinki on freedom of expression, and I fought a lot with my classmates there. But in the end we became good friends. Haha I digress.

Oh yes! One other thing about the Finnish friends I made in Aalto is that–THEY ARE SMART! I took this particular research class before the thesis seminar, and I had to do group work with Finns. I ended up with this group who were all super smart and sharp thinkers. By coincidence or otherwise, I don’t know, but I really love that group because all three Finns were just brilliant–even if they don’t necessarily get perfect score academically.

You know why a stellar academic score is not so important here? Because perhaps, there are better things to do in life as a youth, on a daily basis, way more than academia. For instance, work part time. For instance, falling in love. For instance, sports. For instance, walking in the forest and enjoying nature. For instance, building your own kitchen. For instance, travel.

This is why I think most Finns are smart. They don’t think “How will this education help me with my career” FIRST. They think–“How will this education help me with my life” or, “How will this education make me a better human being“…first.

Also income gap isn’t really that huge, so whatever profession you choose, you kind of get around the same level of remuneration as your peers. The gap isn’t that crazily huge in Finland.

Call me silly but it took me one whole year to see that–to see that life is more than numbers. I’m still trying to work less and live my life more, but it’s so hard because I’m used to the ” kiasu Singaporean” mentality. I feel uncomfortable when I don’t work and when I am lazing around, because that’s being unproductive.

Having said that however, the concept of “leeching” entails a thin, thin line between insecurity and a false sense of entitlement. I feel that the Singaporean government wants to avoid the “false sense of entitlement at all cost”, that the welfare states might have unwittingly encouraged. After all, as Margaret Thatcher reputedly said about the problem facing modern welfare states–is that they eventually they “always run out of other people’s money”.

Okay, I have to go eat my dinner now because I’m hungry. But before I sign off in this mini-reflection, let me share one experience with you, in the case of higher education in Finland.

In Finland, there is such a thing called academic freedom. This means in the free universities–you can choose to study whatever you want based on your passion. In Singapore, places in universities are pretty much pre-allocated and forecast based on industry needs in the future. I think it’s not a matter of “right or wrong”, but a matter of context to both countries.

So before you think–Eh but academic freedom is damn awesome! I can study whatever I want, and it’s my rights as a student!!

Maybe you would want to read this article, which I wrote after I attended a symposium organised by Aalto University School of Arts, guest-featuring war photojournalist Tim Page.

Basically that article is about how some Finnish photographers have super stellar education, but can’t get a job upon graduation. And they feel that it’s the state’s fault, and they are angry with the state! Why? Because the Finnish economy is not doing so well now and there are lack of jobs for photographers, especially in photojournalism. Because, the industry is moving towards digital and digital copyright of photos is just terrible–companies and people like to just take photos and use without payment to the original photographer. It’s probably a shade of grey of theft and it’s hard to eradicate such taking.

In addition, I think most Finns want to stay in Finland because they think it’s awesome here–with the nature and calmness and all. ^^So even if they have very good skills and education, my impression is that few would want to venture abroad to do businesses etc.

Also, Finland is part of EU, and they took a lot of debt to fund the EU bailout.In fact PM Stubb of Finland said that they have “lived six years beyond their means, and the national debt has DOUBLED.” You think this will happen in Singapore–the doubling of national debt?? So all these inevitably has consequences on the economy. In this aspect, I’m actually quite glad that the SG government sets reasonable industry quota for Singapore. (I might be wrong here, but this is what I currently think). Because you are more likely to get a job after you graduate, lah.

So–let me move on to conclude and recommend some stuffs:

I have one suggestion to make to the Singaporean and Finnish governments and to fellow Singaporeans and Finns through this pos:

To the Singaporean government: If you want to improve education in Singapore, one method is to do your utmost best to increase interactions between Finland and Singapore. MOE can do this through more student exchanges and immersion programmes. Another way to do this is through more collaboration on entrepreneurship between the two countries.

To Finnish government: If you want to be truly “international” and “global”, and generate more jobs for Suomi, a good way is to do more business with Singapore. Why? Because Singapore is the gateway to Asia.

More collaborations between SG and Finland would only help both countries. For one, I think the strengths in Singaporeans is that we tend to be very efficient, and good executors. We are very hard-workers! The weakness of Singaporeans in general, is that we tend to think short-term. So, perhaps, some of us might tend to be myopic but we get things done.

The strength of Finns–on the other hand– is that they in general tend to have the abilities to see the bigger picture, to plan properly first before executing, and in general not talk too much nonsense. The weakness, perhaps, is that they would insist on something of good quality before executing, and sometimes that might take too damn long. Like too damn long, really.

So I think it’s a good combination, because if somehow, more Singaporeans and Finns can work together. One can plan and one can execute. I’m serious you know–this combination works super well.

Finland is currently also encouraging entrepreneurship very, very strongly, just like Singapore. One good example is Slush, which PM Alexender Stubb has hailed as “the third reason why the world would look at Finland”. 

If you want to ask why this combination hasn’t worked out so far, it’s because Singapore and Finland are too far away. Also, Finns don’t like to do PR or boost about their own accomplishments–you can read this Business Insider Article on their shy national culture.

SO I do see more opportunities for these two countries to collaborate. I’m actually optimistic! So why don’t we work on this–as educators, politicians, citizens? 😉 You can email me for contacts if you want me to link you up with people from the Education Department at Finnpro. I met a whole team of them at Slush. ^^

Last note: if somehow, somehow, PM Stubb–if somehow you read this article, can I say even though I passionately disagree with your ideologies on EU, I really see you as an inspiring role model? ^-^ I’d already met President Halonen and I totally died with happiness that day I met her.


P.S. If you can read Finnish, here is an excellent article on why you should not think about public “universities” the same way as you think about “public schools”.

Because with the marketization of universities, professors have the obligation to first publish tons of high quality academic papers than teach, because at least in the Finnish context, teaching isn’t that of a big deal in the academic career path, but churning out papers for publishing is. So I guess, this affects what you learn in universities too. It’s something sad, but true. Just saying! ^^

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  • Reply
    March 23, 2015 at 8:47 pm

    I can only hope that Britain begins to adopt more progressive strategies from educational world leaders.

  • Reply
    April 13, 2015 at 5:06 am

    Fantastic post!!!

  • Reply
    October 10, 2015 at 1:23 pm

    OMG! I totally agree what you have written in the posts I’ve read so far. Let’s meet up and catchup.. I’m in Turku..

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