When I left Singapore in 1957 it didn't seem possible that I would ever return. This summer, though, I made it back. I found much of it unrecognisable - even the basic geography has changed as a result of the vast reclamation of land, making space for more shopping malls, high-rise hotels and business centres. It's very visibly living up to Senior Minister Lee Kwan Yew's vision of what he called: "A First World oasis in a Third World region."
Education is at the heart of Singapore's progress and the schools are impressive places. Many are new (there's a big school building replacement programme) and all are well equipped with information and communication technology.
This is the "Intelligent Island", with broadband connection to every household and two billion Singapore dollars (pound;80 million) earmarked for ICT in the island's 400 schools. Data projectors are common and computer suites are plentiful. By 2002 there will be one computer for every two students and one laptop for every two teachers. By then, 30 per cent of curriculum time will be spent using computers.
As a result, Singapore classrooms present an interesting mixture of formality and high technology. Students are well dressed in uniform, and are very polite. This formality is clearly both a strength and a weakness. It makes for good teaching conditions, but it sometimes sits uneasily alongside the possibilities offered by ICT.
Singapore's leaders have, to their credit, been quick to see that a regimented force of school leavers is no longer appropriate in today's world. Singapore education has responded with more emphasis on thinking skills and creative project work. Teachers are starting to change the way they teach - working alongside students, rather than dictating to them, and running cross-curricular IT-based projects.
I is against this background that UK educational software suppliers have worked hard at finding ways into Singapore schools. Granada Learning is undoubtedly the most successful, having so far sold 30,000 of its CD-Roms into 90 per cent of the schools, with the help of local partners New Era. Other suppliers include re-Animate and SIR Learning systems (both selling primary core subject software) and New Media, which has proven very successful in a smaller niche, and whose secondary science titles are in every Singapore secondary school. On the management front, CCM Software is selling its Facility product into higher education there.
According to Granada director Mal Hilton, Singapore teachers are keen to learn from the UK. "There's a burning desire to take the best of what's in English schools," he explains. "You can't patronise them, though. They take the best and apply it."
Despite the small number of schools, it's a relatively lucrative market too, says Tim Hever of re-Animate. "The Singapore government is providing huge funding, up to 2002, whereby a school can buy up to as many as 25 copies of a title at the same time."
As part of a "keep it simple" approach, the Singapore Government held back, for some time, from networking its schools. They judged it more efficient to put in stand-alone machines and fund multiple copies of software, rather than saddle themselves with the job of maintaining networks.
The challenge for the teachers, of course, has been to keep up with all of this. Here there are obvious parallels with the UK. Elaine Lim, vice principal at Yusof Ishak secondary, spoke of the teachers who are less confident with ICT. She's as understanding about them as you hope every UK head is. "I don't want to make them uncomfortable," she told me. "They are dedicated people who give good service."
SIR Learning Systems www.sirplc.co.uk
New Media www.new-media.co.uk
Granada Learning ww.granadalearning.com
CCM Software www.facility.ie