Norwegian language for kids school, ‘Norskskolen’, in Singapore has a new lease of life thanks to the establishing of the brand new Norwegian Cultural Center. But there is much more to it than just learning Norwegian. Its founder and education/Singapore enthusiast Mr Jon Vikan elaborates on this breath of fresh air for the Nordic community in the Lion City.
Coincidences can often have a game-changing impact on how things turn out to be. This happened not only once but twice for a newly arrived Norwegian family moving to Singapore. And as a result the Norwegian Cultural Center Singapore was born, with a new Norwegian language school operational in Singapore since the beginning of 2021.
First, Jon Vikan and his wife Olga and two children, who had decided to move to Singapore and have it as their Asian base, ended up with their original plan severely disrupted. They had previously been to Singapore on their honeymoon back in 2011.
“My wife and I always wanted to go back to Singapore and Southeast Asia We fell in love with the place and tried many times but it was difficult to find jobs etc.”
Now their time had come, however, as Jon had winded up his Norwegian real estate venture, capital firm and sold all the assets. A massive senior housing project in partnership with a large French investor – with a lot of effort gone into trying but failing to realise it – had been the last big business engagement left in Norway.
“It takes a lot of effort to start up something new and we had sold the last property investment in Norway. ‘Let’s sell our primary residence as well, our car, belongings and pack the suitcases and leave for Singapore and see what happens!’” they had thought. So they did, and left for Singapore together with their two children; then 4 and 5 respectively.
“We decided to try it out and go back to Singapore and use that as a hub to travel around Southeast Asia. We had many countries that we wanted to visit,” Jon explains.
But hardly had they set foot in Singapore when the country went into lockdown due to Covid-19 – along with all the countries they had planned to visit in Asia. Now they were stranded in Singapore on tourist visas. This required a change of plans if they wanted to remain there.
“We really enjoy Singapore and everything it has to offer – and still do as it’s all still quite new here for us. But since we had arrived on tourist visas, we only had 90 days and had to apply for extensions – each time with big uncertainty if Singapore would approve it or not. So we thought it would be better to find something more permanent.”
Second, Jon learned that the previous Norwegian school for native language learning (operational since 1983) was closing down. This would also influence things to take a different turn for his family than what they had planned.
“I thought the discontinuing of the school operation was very sad because I really wanted this tradition to be continued and of course to enrol my own kids. So I volunteered to look into continuing it, together with a former teacher in the school.”
This has resulted in setting up a company limited to use as an operation for the school, explains Jon. “But I also realised that between Norway and Singapore it has been very robust exchange of business but when it comes to culture, music and art exchange it has been almost negligible. That is why I decided to call it Norwegian Cultural Center to span over a much broader programme than just the language course for kids and include other cultural exchange between the two countries.”
Jon partnered up with the wife of Innovation Norway director Mrs Sigrid Maria Inderberg who had had the same thoughts for some years and who in turn brought along some other enthusiasts.
“In January 2021 we relocated to the Norwegian Seamen’s Mission in Singapore. Previously it had been held in an international school. A survey we did in the Norwegian community showed that they preferred to have the school on weekends and preferably at the church, so people could also meet up when taking their children to the school.”
The spring semester was a success with twice as many students as the previous one and with very good feedback, informs Jon. However, other obstructions have come in the way when it comes to having these physical classes. The Singapore government has discontinued the so called LOC system, which enabled people on dependent passes to earn a salary, so that a work permit is now required – something the Norwegian school cannot accommodate as it only entails a few hours of work per week.
“That in combination with lockdowns and restrictions due to Covid-19 made it almost impossible to continue after this semester. So we have decided to go online for the next semester, paired with the opportunity to arrange play dates between the kids,” he continues. “We can tap into the resources back in Norway, for example graduates from teacher universities in Norway willing to teach online.”
“People find online learning convenient. They have had some positive trials and you save so much effort that otherwise goes into bringing the kids out in the traffic to school etc. And especially when we can go back to a normal situation where people do more travelling again I don’t see why homeschooling should be a disadvantage. You can bring your kids with you and they can still learn while on the road.”
This online school has been named ‘Aquarius’. It encourages kids to be confident and follow their own path in life. Its online courses include games and activities to help kids develop critical thinking skills and identify what they really like and want to do. Aquarius represents a learning philosophy that combines online tutoring, daily app usage and opportunity to meet offline.
“Development is happening so fast now that there are extremely good pedagogical apps for kids as young as 4-5 years old. They learn so much faster than in a traditional classroom. It’s amazing how kids adopt these technologies much faster than our generation. I feel it is the right way to go,” says Jon.
“At least I want to try out an alternative. I really believe in this way of making the learning process more into a game scenario and encourage kids to play and learn at the same time, instead of sitting passively with a teacher in front trying to teach them – often things you can find out yourself on Google in a matter of seconds.”
“In addition to the Norwegian language there are more topics. We think ‘Mindset’ is very useful, which encourages students to follow their own path, passion, and to be able to overcome whatever challenge they might incur. So we will add that as a subject. And we’ll have ‘Physical activity & nutrition’ to learn about the body and how to stay in good shape, with good health.”
“We will also teach ‘Personal finance’ which we feel is lacking in traditional school today. We’ll also have ‘Logic’, and ‘Searching skill’, learning how to find what you’re looking for in the digital wealth of information.”
Since Jon and Olga have children themselves they have simultaneously started innovating with homeschooling. “We use them as guinea kids for our new educational system. Our homeschooling is now pretty good, involving a lot of different topics and languages. And we use our domestic helper to supervise them, ensuring that they do what they are supposed to do. The actual learning is either online teaching – through very good pedagogical apps on the market – or with a teacher coming to our home once a week.”
“I’m very much inspired by Elon Musk and the school he developed and I think it is more important for our children to try to follow their own passion and be supported in the way they want to progress and what they would like to do and become when they grow up. This is about providing value for people rather than make all children go through the same kind of funnel, with degrees. I think it’s more important what you have been doing and what ideas you have rather than just a piece of paper with a degree,” continues Jon.
“And this will not be a Norwegian school per se; it’s just what we are starting with. Our aim is to go a little bit away from that to focus more on a school that can work for everybody. We also hope to be able to include some cultural parts including music, painting and of course languages: Chinese, Swedish etc. You can then pick and mix your own subjects and based on that we make a schedule,” adds the Norwegian.
“And both the Danish and Swedish native language schools in Singapore are struggling, so we can be a guinea pig also for them and if it works out well I’ll be more than happy to collaborate with the rest of the Nordic community to let them use the same system.”
For the cultural center Jon informs that they are planning for physical events, such as dinners, once it can once again be allowed.
Among the activities an oral hygiene promotion show for families has been prepared, based on the well-known Norwegian tooth trolls ‘Karius and Baktus’. This is to be held in theatres around the city state.
“In Southeast Asia kids normally don’t start to brush their teeth before they are 6 or 7 years old, which is absolutely late, so we want to encourage them to start with it earlier.”
Meanwhile, the centre has turned to online also for its activities. A virtual weekend took place including film screenings and an ‘Artist spotlight’ that highlights up-and-coming artists from both the Nordics and Singapore.
“We want to give them a platform to reach a broader audience and give recognition because we feel that it’s difficult for such artists to achieve that. We want to help them as best as we can. Also we had something called Quiz night, done like a kahoot (learning games). It creates a lot of engagement and people find it to be great fun as a Saturday or Sunday evening activity. We got good feedback so we will continue that as well.”
Other online content are chef master classes, where Norwegian master chef Geir Skeie, winner of the cooking competition, Bocuse d’Or Bocour Dor in France, as well as Singaporean celebrity chef Jimmy Chok were featured so far.
“People can of course partake in this basically from all over the region, not only Singapore. And I see a lot of potential with these programmes, especially these days with lockdown in Singapore. People stay at home and it’s cool for them to be able to for example learn some new dishes. And if one can do that in an informative and knowledgeable way it can be attractive,” ends Jon.