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Global education lessons: Singapore leads in STEM, now takes on the arts

Just as the US is abandoning funding of arts programs in schools to focus more on testing of core subjects, a leader in math and science education turns to the arts as a way of improving "entrepreneurial" thinking it admired in Americans. Will it beat the US at it's own game?

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Alicia Lim abandoned an advertising career for the freer-thinking environment of an art school and a career in film.

Courtesy of Lasalle College of the Arts

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Chew Jun Ru knew he wanted to become a musician back in high school. But the eldest of four had parents who shared the traditional Singaporean view of the arts – they insisted he find a career with a solid future.

"It was crazy at the time. They could not believe what they were hearing," says Mr. Chew, now 24. "It's just music. I'm not doing drugs. It's not something I should be ashamed of."

In June, Chew – who plays the erhu, a traditional Chinese two-stringed bowed instrument – graduated from Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, an undergraduate arts institution here. In August he left for Beijing on full scholarship to the China Conservatory of Music.

His ability to win over his parents – they couldn't be prouder now – speaks to the growing acceptance of, and focus on, arts education.

Innovation and creativity are seen as increasingly important to core curricula in this traditionally buttoned-up financial center, at a time when American schools are cutting back on arts. Singapore's embrace of the arts isn't just for art's sake, but because of the growing recognition that arts education is crucial to Singapore's growing innovation-driven economy.

This is new thinking for Singapore, where schools are pressure cookers of high-stakes exams and sky-high expectations, and where the overwhelming focus is on learning examinable skills and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) courses.

Despite its international math scores – routinely at or near the top of PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) rankings, and well ahead of US scores – Singapore historically scores low in "perceived entrepreneurial capability" as determined by the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, a worldwide study.

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