Singapore Students Show Strong Intercultural Communication Skills & High Ability to Understand, Act on Global Issues

Published Date: 22 October 2020 12:00 AM

News Press Releases

1. Singapore’s 15-year-olds have demonstrated a high ability to understand and act on intercultural and global issues and show strong intercultural communication skills, according to the 2018 results from the Global Competence (GC) domain of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a triennial international benchmarking study co-ordinated by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

2. Reflecting on the GC findings, Deputy Director-General of Education (Curriculum), Mr Sng Chern Wei said: “Recent events such as the COVID-19 pandemic, with its worldwide ramifications, have underscored the continued relevance of global competence. We are heartened that our students are well-equipped with strong intercultural skills, good awareness of global issues and the ability to appreciate different perspectives, to help them navigate our interconnected, diverse and rapidly-changing world. We must continue to nurture such competencies in our students, so that they are empowered to participate constructively as responsible members of the local and global community.”

Key Findings

Singapore students demonstrate high GC knowledge and skills regardless of their background

3. Overall, our students demonstrated strong ability and disposition in the following key areas:

  1. examining issues and situations of local, global and cultural significance;
  2. understanding and appreciating different perspectives and worldviews; and
  3. taking constructive action towards sustainable development and collective well-being.

4. About 46% of our students achieved the highest GC proficiency levels 4 and 51. This is the highest proportion compared to the average of 14% across the 27 education systems which participated in the assessment. At these proficiency levels, our students showed a strong ability to identify and analyse different perspectives, evaluate information to differentiate between biased and unbiased sources, assess situations and make connections across multiple activities within a problem. Singapore also has the lowest proportion of students achieving proficiency level 1 and below (Singapore: 16%; average: 49%).

5. Our students from the bottom quarter socio-economic status (SES) have also done well, with about 26% performing at the highest two proficiency levels as compared to 6% of students from the bottom SES quarter across all participating systems. We will continue to provide all our students with varied curricular and co-curricular learning experiences – such as discussions of contemporary issues, learning journeys to local cultural and heritage sites, research projects on various cultures, and immersion programmes with schools in the region – to help them further develop their GC knowledge and skills.

Singapore students have high levels of awareness of intercultural communication and agency regarding global issues

6. Our students know how to communicate clearly with people of other cultures. For instance, when speaking to people who do not understand their language well, 93% of our students will try to get around the problem by carefully observing the person’s reactions to understand them better (OECD average: 82%); and 92% of our students will use ways such as gesturing, re-explaining or writing to get their point across (OECD average: 85%).

7. Our students have a strong belief that they can positively influence their own lives and the world around them, and that they can act responsibly to effect change. For instance, 81% of our students feel a sense of responsibility to do something when they see the poor conditions that some people in the world live in (OECD average: 67%); and 71% of our students responded that they believed they can do something about the problems of the world (OECD average: 57%).

8. Our students also tend to keep themselves informed about world events (Singapore: 74%; OECD average: 64%) and expressed a willingness to act for collective well-being, such as reducing the energy they use at home to protect the environment (Singapore 83%; OECD average: 71%).

Singapore students are generally aware of global issues, but may be more familiar and confident in some issues than others

9. Among the seven topics surveyed, our students were most familiar with “climate change and global warming” and least familiar with “international conflicts” and “global health”2. Relatedly, our students also reported relatively high self-efficacy in explaining specific aspects of some global issues. For instance, more than eight in ten of our students are confident in explaining issues related to climate change, such as “how carbon-dioxide emissions affect global climate change” (OECD average: 63%). In contrast, they are less confident in explaining issues related to the global economy. For instance, only about half of them could “establish a connection between prices of textiles and working conditions in the countries of production” (OECD average: 58%).

10. Our students are currently exposed to certain global issues through the secondary school curriculum (e.g. climate change in the general secondary Science curriculum; economic issues in Social Studies, and Elective Geography at the upper secondary levels). Slightly more than half of them also reported regularly reading websites on international social issues such as poverty or human rights (OECD average: 46%). To help students gain a better understanding of global issues, we will continue to encourage them to read more widely. This can also help them develop a deeper appreciation of different perspectives, and respect for different cultures.

Singapore students are less confident in their ability to adapt their thinking and behaviour as compared to their peers in OECD countries

11. Our students performed less well than their OECD peers in terms of their ‘self-perceived cognitive adaptability’ – which OECD defines as the ability to adapt one’s thinking and behaviour to the prevailing cultural environment or novel situations that might present new challenges. For instance, only half of our students said that they are able to deal with unusual situations (OECD average: 59%). Relatedly, PISA 2018 also found that cognitive adaptability is positively associated with students’ resilience (i.e. confidence in managing difficult situations) in general. We will thus continue to help our students strengthen their cognitive adaptability and develop greater confidence when facing new challenges through various learning experiences across subjects and school programmes.

12. Since 2010, MOE has developed a 21st Century Competency (21CC) framework that articulates the 21st century knowledge, skills, attitudes and values that are important for all students to develop, such as civic literacy, global awareness and cross-cultural skills as well as the values of respect, responsibility, care and harmony. These are increasingly important outcomes of education, beyond academic learning, for our students to thrive in adulthood. For the past decade, our schools have provided both curricular and co-curricular learning experiences to help our students develop these essential 21CCs.

13. In particular, our schools expose students to a wide range of learning activities to promote awareness of global and intercultural issues. On average, Singapore students reported being exposed to eight out of ten learning activities (OECD average: 5). For instance, 89% of our students reported that they “learn how people from different cultures can have different perspectives on some issues” (OECD average: 62%); and 68% said they “participate in classroom discussions about world events as part of the regular instruction” (OECD average: 56%).

14. Furthermore, our schools partner the community and agencies such as the National Environment Agency and NParks to promote awareness and student agency in environmental sustainability, through learning journeys and Values-in-Action projects. Schools also leverage everyday responsibilities, such as recycling and daily classroom cleaning, to reinforce the sustainability message and develop environmental consciousness in students.

15. Our language policies and programmes also contribute to the nurturing of GC knowledge, skills and attitudes. Our bilingual policy and programmes that allow students to learn the language of another community at a conversational level have resulted in more than nine in ten of our students having the ability to speak at least two languages. The OECD report notes that speaking multiple languages facilitates dialogue with people from other cultures and promotes social cohesion. In fact, the study found that students who can speak two or more languages have generally higher GC knowledge and skills and more positive GC attitudes.

Background of PISA 2018 study

16. PISA is a triennial OECD study that examines and compares how well education systems are helping their students acquire the knowledge and skills essential for full participation in modern societies. It assesses the ability of 15-year-old students to apply knowledge and skills in Reading, Mathematics and Science, and to analyse, reason and communicate effectively as they solve problems in a variety of real-life situations.

17. Besides the three core subject domains, PISA provides information on an optional “innovative” domain. The “innovative” domain for PISA 2018 was GC. A total of 66 education systems administered questionnaire items related to GC, among which 27 systems also administered the GC cognitive assessment (see Annex).

18. This is the fourth time that Singapore has participated in PISA. 6,300 students from all 153 public secondary schools, and 376 students from 13 private schools3 were randomly selected to take part in PISA 2018. They are representative of the population of 15-year-old students in Singapore.

19. For more information about OECD’s PISA, please visit .

  1. Performance in GC is described in terms of five levels of proficiency, from the lowest “Level 1” to the highest “Level 5”.

  2. PISA 2018 was administered in 2018, before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

  3. Private schools include international schools, religious schools, and foreign system schools.

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