Singapore Education Essay

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Singapore is one of Asias great success stories, transforming itself from a developing country to a modern industrial economy in one generation. During the last decade, Singapores education system has remained consistently at or near the top of most major world education ranking systems. This chapter examines how this tiny red dot on the map has achieved and sustained so much, so quickly. From Singapores beginning, education has been seen as central to building both the economy and the nation. The objective was to serve as the engine of human capital to drive economic growth.

The ability of the government to successfully match supply with demand of education and skills is a major source of Singapores competitive advantage. Other elements in its success include a clear vision and belief in the centrality of education for students and the nation; persistent political leadership and alignment between policy and practice; a focus on building teacher and leadership capacity to deliver reforms at the school level; ambitious standards and assessments; and a culture of continuous improvement and future orientation that benchmarks educational practices against the best in the world.

7 SINGAPORE: RAPID IMPROVEMENT FOLLOWED BY STRONG PERFORMANCE 160 OECD 2010 STRONG PERFORMERS AND SUCCESSFUL REFORMERS IN EDUCATION: LESSONS FROM PISA FOR THE UNITED STATES INTRODUCTION When Singapore became independent in 1965, it was a poor, small (about 700 km2), tropical island with few natural resources, little fresh water, rapid population growth, substandard housing and recurring con? ict among the ethnic and religious groups that made up its population. At that time there was no compulsory education and only a small number of high school and college graduates and skilled workers.

Today, Singapore is a gleaming global hub of trade, ? nance and transportation. Its transformation from third world to ? rst in one generation is one of Asias great success stories (Yew, 2000). All children in Singapore receive a minimum of 10 years of education in one of the countrys 360 schools. Singapores students were among the top in the world in mathematics and science on the Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) in 1995, 1999, 2003 and 2007. They came fourth in literacy in the 2006 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS).

Their excellence is further underlined by the fact that Singapore was one of the top-performing countries in the 2009 PISA survey (Table 7. 1 and Figure 7. 1), the ? rst PISA survey in which it participated. Singapore was rated as one of the best performing education systems in a 2007 McKinsey study of teachers (Barber and Mourshed, 2007), and was rated ? rst in the 2007 IMD World Competitiveness Yearbook (IMD, 2007) for having an education system that best meets the needs of a competitive economy.

At the higher education level, the National University of Singapore was ranked 34th in the world and 4th in Asia in the Times Higher Education Supplement Rankings of World Universities in 2010 (Times Higher Education Supplement, 2010). How has this little red dot on the map, as Singaporeans frequently refer to their country, a nation that is not even 50 years old, evolved from a backwater undeveloped economy into a world economic and educational leader in such a short period of time? What education policies and practices has Singapore employed? And are the lessons from Singapores experience relevant for other countries? This chapter attempts to provide some answers to these questions. First, however, we look at the broader context.

Table 7. 1 Singapores mean scores on reading, mathematics and science scales in PISA PISA 2000 PISA 2003 PISA 2006 PISA 2009 Mean score Mean score Mean score Mean score Reading 526 Mathematics 562 Science 542 Source: OECD (2010), PISA 2009 Volume I, What Students Know and Can Do: Student Performance in Reading, Mathematics and Science, OECD Publishing. 1? 2? http://dx. doi. org/10. 1787/888932366731 Under British colonial rule, from 1819 onwards, Singapore developed as a major seaport at the mouth of the Malacca Straits, on the shipping lanes between Britain, India and China.

During this period, it attracted large numbers of immigrants, primarily from southern China, India and the Malay Archipelago. At independence from Britain in 1959 and then separation from Malaysia in 1965, Singapore had no assets other than its deepwater port. There was no real economy, no defence, and simmering tensions with neighbouring countries. Moreover, it had to import most of its food, water and energy.

The Republic of Singapore seemed an unlikely candidate to become a world-class economic and educational powerhouse. The risks facing this nation at birth the sense of political and economic vulnerability to larger countries and global changes created a sense of urgency which in? uences policy to this day. Lee Kuan Yew, Singapores ? rst Prime Minister, set out two overarching goals: to build a modern economy and to create a sense of Singaporean national identity. He recruited the best and brightest people into his early government and sought to promote economic growth and job creation.

In the 1960s, the emphasis was on attracting labour-intensive foreign manufacturing to provide jobs for its low-skilled workforce. In the 1970s and 1980s, a shift to more skill-intensive manufacturing led to an emphasis on technical ? elds. From the mid-1990s on, Singapore has sought to become a player in the global knowledge economy, encouraging more research- and innovation-intensive industry and seeking to attract scientists and scienti? c companies from around the globe.

The results of the governments economic policies have been stunning rapid economic growth to reach developed country levels and a per capita income in 2009 estimated at current market prices to be about SGP 52 000 (USD 39 000). One of the so- called Asian Tigers, Singapore is a free market, business-friendly and globally-oriented economy, shaped by an active and interventionist government.

7 SINGAPORE: RAPID IMPROVEMENT FOLLOWED BY STRONG PERFORMANCE STRONG PERFORMERS AND SUCCESSFUL REFORMERS IN EDUCATION: LESSONS FROM PISA FOR THE UNITED STATES OECD 2010 161 The government of Singapore is a highly ef? cient, honest and ? exible meritocracy with a strong focus on integrated strategic planning and detailed execution. Dream, Design, Deliver aptly characterises its approach to policy development and implementation. Singapores small size and political stability (the same Peoples Action Party has ruled Singapore since Independence) have kept the vision of making Singapore a great global city constant, but have also enabled it to be versatile in responding to rapidly changing environments.

With a small limited domestic market, Singapore has had to become highly integrated in the global economy. To survive several global recessions and the ever-present uncertainties of the global economy, continuous innovation has been essential. With respect to Lee Kuan Yews second goal of nation-building, early race riots led to a profound commitment to creating a multi-racial and multi-ethnic society.

At independence, Singapore had multiple religious groups (Buddhist, Muslim, Taoist, Hindu and Christian); multiple ethnic groups (Singapores population is about 74% Chinese, 13% Malay, 9% Indian and 3% other); and no common language. Nor did it have a common school system or a common curriculum. A series of measures were gradually put in place to realise the Singapore pledge: One united people regardless of race, language or religion. Singapore recognises and teaches four of? cial languages Chinese, English, Malay and Tamil although English is the language of government and, since 1978, the medium of instruction in schools.

1 Two years of compulsory national service unite different ethnic groups, as does the policy of mixing each group within the government-built housing where most Singaporeans live. This has helped avoid the racial and ethnic segregation that af? icts many countries. Schools play a major role in inculcating Singaporean values and character, and civic and moral education play a major role in schools. Honesty, commitment to excellence, teamwork, discipline, loyalty, humility, national pride and an emphasis on the common good have been instilled throughout government and society.

Lacking other resources, human resources were and still are seen as the island republics most precious asset. Education was seen, from the beginning, as central to building both the economy and the nation. Its job was to deliver the human capital engine for economic growth and to create a sense of Singaporean identity. The economic goals of education have given education policy a very pragmatic bent and a strong focus on scienti? c and technical ?elds. Singapores education system has evolved over the past 40 years in tandem with the changing economy. SINGAPORES EDUCATION SYSTEM: THE PATH TO BECOMING A LEARNING NATION.

Over the past 40 years, Singapore has been able to raise its education level from one similar to that of many developing countries to match the best in the OECD. The current system did not emerge perfectly-formed, but has developed in three broad phases as it was adapted to changing circumstances and ideas: Survival-driven phase: 1959 to 1978 According to then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, the aim of Singaporean education in its early days was to produce a good man and a useful citizen. This ? rst phase of education has been dubbed the survival-driven phase.

In the late 1950s, 70% of GDP was from port and warehousing activities. This was not enough to sustain, let alone grow, the economy which was suffering from high population growth and signi? cant unemployment. The government decided that there was a need to expand the industrial base and, because of the small size of the domestic market, to make it export-oriented. It set about trying to attract foreign manufacturers who needed low-skilled labour (e. g. textiles, garments, wood products), both to provide jobs and to gain expertise. Prior to independence, only the af? uent were educated.

At independence, most of Singapores two million people were illiterate and unskilled. Therefore the focus of this survival period was on expanding basic education as quickly as possible. Schools were built rapidly. Teachers were recruited on a large scale. The schools that had been established by different ethnic groups were merged into a single Singaporean education system.

A bilingual policy was introduced so that all children would learn both their own language and English. A textbook agency was created to provide textbooks. The expansion was so rapid that universal primary education was attained in 1965 and universal lower secondary by the early 1970s. By the end of the survival-driven phase, Singapore had created a national system of public education.

However, the quality of education was not very high. In the early 1970s, out of every 1 000 pupils entering primary grade one, only 444 reached secondary grade four after 10 years. And of these, only 350 (35% of the cohort) gained three or more passes in O-level examinations. A signi? cant report by Dutch economic advisor Dr Albert Winsemius estimated that every year between 1970 and 1975, Singapore would be short of 500 engineers and 1 000 technical workers and would have a severe shortage of people with management skills (Lee, et al. , 2008).

The oil crisis 7 SINGAPORE: RAPID IMPROVEMENT FOLLOWED BY STRONG PERFORMANCE 162 OECD 2010 STRONG PERFORMERS AND SUCCESSFUL REFORMERS IN EDUCATION: LESSONS FROM PISA FOR THE UNITED STATES of 1973 and the increasing competition from other Asian countries for low-skilled, labour-intensive industry led to a growing realisation that Singapores comparative advantage was eroding and that it needed to evolve to a higher-skill economy. However, a large number of policy changes and changes of ministers for education caused confusion.

Teacher morale was low and there was considerable attrition. Although there were attempts to expand vocational education, it had low status and was viewed as a dumping ground. In 1979, a watershed education report highlighted the high dropout rates and low standards and ushered in the next phase of reform (Goh, 1979). Ef? ciency-driven phase: 1979 to 1996 During this phase of education, the focus shifted. The governments economic strategy was to move Singapore from a third-league, labour-intensive economy to a second-league, capital and skill-intensive country.

So in January 1979, a new education system was introduced. Singapore moved away from its earlier one-size-? ts-all approach to schooling that would create multiple pathways for students in order to reduce the drop-out rate, improve quality and produce the more technically-skilled labour force needed to achieve the new economic goals. Streaming (tracking) based on academic ability was introduced, starting in elementary schools, with the goal of enabling all students to reach their potential while recognising that all students do not grow academically at the same pace (Ho Peng, interview conducted for this report).

Students could have more time, for example, to complete different stages of schooling. The multiple pathways included three types of high school: i) academic high schools, which prepared students for college; ii) polytechnic high schools that focused on advanced occupational and technical training and that could also lead to college; and iii) technical institutes that focused on occupational and technical training for the lowest ? fth of students.

The Curriculum Development Institute of Singapore was established to produce high-quality textbooks and instructional materials for the different pathways. While streaming was unpopular when it was introduced, drop-out rates did, in fact, decline signi? cantly: by 1986, only 6% of students were leaving school with fewer than 10 years of education. 2 The range of efforts to raise standards also yielded results: performance in the O-level English examinations went from a 60% failure rate to a 90% pass rate by 1984, and by 1995 Singapore led the world in mathematics and science on TIMSS. As Singapore sought to attract companies with a more sophisticated technological base (e.

g. silicon wafers, computers), a major goal of this second phase was to produce technical workers at all levels. Concerned about the low status of blue-collar jobs, from 1992 Singapore invested signi? cantly in the Institute for Technical Education (ITE; Box 7. 2). With a number of campuses around the city, the ITE provides high-quality technical and vocational education, with high-tech facilities and amenities that are comparable to those of modern universities elsewhere. Each technical ? eld is advised by industries in that sector to keep it current with changing demands and new technologies.

New programmes can be built for multinational companies looking to locate in Singapore. There has been strong market demand for ITE graduates, and it is possible for the top graduates from the ITE to go on to polytechnics and then to university. As a result of these changes, the image and attractiveness of vocational education vastly improved. At the top end of the technical workforce, the number of university and polytechnic places was also expanded during this period to increase the pool of scientists and engineers.

Ability-based, aspiration-driven phase: 1997 to the present day By the early 1990s, the ef?ciency-driven education system had yielded clear results. But, as became clear during the Asian ? nancial crisis of 1997, the world economy was shifting to a global knowledge economy. The competitive framework of nations was being rede? ned and national progress would increasingly be determined by the discovery and application of new and marketable ideas. The growth of the global knowledge economy required a paradigm shift in Singapores education system towards a focus on innovation, creativity and research.

A key instrument as Singapore intentionally navigated towards the global knowledge economy has been the government Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A* Star), which provides generous funding for research and aims to attract top scientists and scienti? c companies. One million foreign nationals with scienti? c, technical or managerial skills have been encouraged to work in Singapore in international corporations and in higher education. Singapores three universities, and especially the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University, have research partnerships with leading universities around the world with a focus in selected ? elds, including bioinformatics, information sciences and medical technologies.

At the school level, Singapore created a new educational vision, Thinking Schools, Learning Nation. This major milestone in Singapores education journey recognised Prime Minister Goh Chok Tongs belief that A nations wealth in the 21st century will depend on the capacity of its people to learn (Goh, 1979). Thinking Schools 7 SINGAPORE: RAPID IMPROVEMENT FOLLOWED BY STRONG PERFORMANCE STRONG PERFORMERS AND SUCCESSFUL REFORMERS IN EDUCATION: LESSONS FROM PISA FOR THE UNITED STATES OECD 2010 163

represented a vision of a school system that can develop creative thinking skills, lifelong learning passion and nationalistic commitment in the young. Learning nation is a vision of learning as a national culture, where creativity and innovation ? ourish at every level of society (Lee et al. , 2008). Thinking Schools, Learning Nation encompassed a wide range of initiatives over a number of years that were designed to tailor education to the abilities and interests of students, to provide more ? exibility and choice for students and to transform the structures of education.

Career paths and incentives for teachers were revamped and teacher education upgraded, as described in more detail later. Curricula and assessment changes put greater emphasis on project work and creative thinking. A major resource commitment, involving three successive master plans, was made to information and communication technology (ICT) as an enabler of new kinds of self-directed and collaborative learning. A broader array of subject matter courses was created for students and a portfolio of different types of schools has been encouraged, specialising in arts, mathematics and science, and sports, as well as a number of independent schools.

We need a mountain range of excellence, not just one peak, to inspire all our young to ? nd their passions and climb as far as they can, explained Tharman Shanmugaratnam, then minister for Education (cited in Lee et al. , 2008). Major changes were also made in the management of schools. Moving away from the centralised top-down system of control, schools were organised into geographic clusters and given more autonomy. Cluster Superintendents successful former principals were appointed to mentor others and to promote innovation. Along with greater autonomy came new forms of accountability.

The old inspection system was abolished and replaced with a school excellence model. It was felt that no single accountability model could ? t all schools. Each school therefore sets its own goals and annually assesses its progress towards them against nine functional areas: ? ve enablers, as well as four results areas in academic performance (Ng, 2008). 3 Every six years there is an external review by the School Appraisal Branch of the ministry of Education. Greater autonomy for schools also led to a laser-like focus on identifying and developing highly effective school leaders who can lead school transformation.

This is also described in more detail later. In 2004, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong introduced the idea of Teach Less, Learn More as the next step under the Thinking Schools, Learning Nation umbrella. Its aim was to open up more white space in the curriculum to engage students more deeply in learning. Despite the systems widely-recognised successes, learners were still seen as too passive, overloaded with content, driven to perform, but not necessarily inspired.

Teach Less, Learn More aims to touch the hearts and engage the minds of learners by promoting a different learning paradigm in which there is less dependence on rote learning, repetitive tests and instruction, and more on engaged learning, discovery through experiences, differentiated teaching, learning of lifelong skills, and the building of character through innovative and effective teaching approaches and strategies. (Ho Peng, interview conducted for this report) Further moves in this direction were made in 2008 with an envisioning exercise that led to Curriculum 2015. According to Ho Peng, Director General of Education in the Singapore ministry of Education, this review asserted

that the Singapore education system had strong holding power and important strengths in literacy, mathematics and science, and that these should remain. However, it needed to do better on the soft skills that enable future learning. In addition, the overload of information has put a premium on the ability to do critical analysis. Working across cultures will require language skills and a larger world view (Ng, 2008). A review of primary schools in 2009 focused on the question of how each childs learning can be driven by their innate curiosity and love of play.

Art, music and physical education (PE) are also being enhanced in the curriculum. Finally, Curriculum 2015 re-emphasises that education must be rooted in values: Without a moral and ethical compass, all learning will come to nought. We must rebalance content, skills and character development to achieve a more holistic education, (Ng, 2008). Current structure In Singapores education system today, students receive six years of primary education, and four to ? ve years of secondary education, followed by two years at junior college, polytechnic or the Institute for Technical Education.

(Figure 7. 1). 4 Primary education consists of a four-year foundation stage during which all students follow a common curriculum that emphasises English, mother-tongue language and mathematics. Science is introduced from primary 3. Other subjects taught in primary school are civics and moral education, social studies, health, physical education, art and music. 7 SINGAPORE: RAPID IMPROVEMENT FOLLOWED BY STRONG PERFORMANCE 164 OECD 2010 STRONG PERFORMERS AND SUCCESSFUL REFORMERS IN EDUCATION: LESSONS FROM PISA FOR THE UNITED STATES Source: Singapore Ministry of Education website: www. moe.

gov. sg/education/. ¢ Figure 7. 1 ¢ Singapores education system organisation Specialised Schools For students who can bene? t from a more customised and practice-based curriculum Privately- funded Schools determine their own curriculum and provide more options for Singapore students (4-6 years) Universties (3 4years for undergraduates) Workplace GCE A Level/Other Quali? cation Polytechnics (3 years) (Diploma) Alternative Quali? cations Integrated Programme combines Secondary and JC education without an intermediate national examination (4-6 years) Junior Colleges/ Centralised Institute.

(2-3 years) (GCE A Level) Intitutes of Technical Education (1-2 years) (Nitec/Higher Nitec) Special Education Schools provide EITHER Mainstream curriculum whith programmes catering to students special needs OR Customised special education curriculum (4-6 years) Direct Admission to JCs/Polytechnics JCs and polythechnics have autonomy in admitting some students GCE O Level Sec N (A) GCE N Level Secondary: Express course (4 years) Government/Government-aided Schools ¢ Mainstream schools ¢ Autonomous Schools whith enhanced niches programmes ¢ Independent Schools whith greater autonomy in programmes and operations Specialised Independent Schools For students with talents in speci?

C areas Privately-funded Schools Priovide more options for Singapore students Special Education For students with special needs Direct Admission to Secondary Schools Independent Schools, Autonomous Schools, mainstream schools whith niches of excellence, and schools offering the Integrated Programme have autonomy in admission of some of their students Specialised Independent Schools and Privately- funded Schools have full autonomy in students admission Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE).

Primary Schools (6 years) All students follow a broad-based mainstream curriculum. Some schools offer niche programmes such as in aesthetics, sports and gifted education Specialised Independent Schools with specialised programmes to develop students talents in speci? cs areas (4-6 years) Secondary: Normal (Academic) Course [N(A)] (5 years) Secondary: Normal (Technical) Course [N(T)] (4 years) Vocational Course (1- 4 years) 7 SINGAPORE: RAPID IMPROVEMENT FOLLOWED BY STRONG PERFORMANCE STRONG PERFORMERS AND SUCCESSFUL REFORMERS IN EDUCATION: LESSONS FROM PISA FOR THE UNITED STATES OECD 2010 165.

Streaming, which was a key feature of the Singapore education system, was designed to allow students to progress at their own pace from primary 5 onwards. However, in 2008, streaming was replaced with subject-based banding. At the end of primary 6, all students sit for the Primary School Leaving Examination in English, mathematics, mother- tongue language and science. Based on the results of this examination, students are admitted to an express (60% of students), normal academic (25%) or normal technical (15%) course in secondary school.

Students in the express course follow a four-year programme culminating in the general certi? cate of education (GCE) O-level exam. Students in the normal academic course follow a four-year course to GCE N-level and may sit for O-levels in year ? ve (Figure 7. 2). The normal technical programme prepares students for technical higher education, jobs or the postsecondary ITE after a four-year programme leading to the GCE-N level. In recent years, more choice has been offered to students in secondary school, with a wider range of subjects at O-level and elective modules.

Students who are clearly of university calibre may study in Integrated Programme Schools where they can skip O-levels; this arrangement allows them to engage in broader learning experiences that develop their leadership potential and capacity for creative thinking. There is now more horizontal mobility between courses, and students who do well are allowed to transfer between streams. The ratio among streams is further enhanced with students being able to follow subjects from a different stream. Schools specialising in sports, art and mathematics and science are also available, as well as a small number of independent schools.

After 10 years of general education, students go to post-secondary education, either junior colleges (31% of students), polytechnics (43%) or ITE (22%). Academically inclined students can take A-levels during this period and then proceed to university. Students may also take diploma courses in technical or business subjects at polytechnics. Many polytechnic graduates who have done well also go on to university. Students with GCE O- or N-levels can take skill-based certi? cates in technical or vocational subjects at ITE. Outstanding ITE graduates can also go on to polytechnics or universities. About 25% of a cohort goes on to university in Singapore (the number of places will rise to 30% in 2015).

Many students also go abroad to university. SINGAPORES SUCCESS IN EDUCATION Singapore has pursued its vision of a high-quality education system over a long period of time and has accomplished signi? cant improvements at each stage of its journey. What are some of the key features that have helped Singapore become so successful? A forward-looking, integrated planning system In modern Singapore, education has consistently been the building block for economic and national development. As Prime Minister Goh Chok Thong famously stated: The wealth of a nation lies in its people.

Since the founding of the republic, the high value placed on education as the key to economic development and national cohesion in a country with no natural resources is evident in the statements of Singapores senior leaders. But the statements about nurturing every child are not just political rhetoric. They have been accompanied by willingness at each stage to invest considerable ? nancial resources in education. Education spending rose to 3. 6% of GDP in 2010, approximately 20% of total government expenditure and second only to defence (Annex 7. A).

The linkage to economic development is tight and is driven from the top of the government. As Singapore evolved from an economy based on port and warehousing activities, through a low-wage, labour-intensive manufacturing economy, and then to a more capital and skill-intensive industry and ? nally to its current focus on knowledge- intensive industrial clusters, the education system was expected to ramp up the quality of its education and the supply of speci? c skills needed to make Singapore globally competitive. Singapore has a uniquely integrated system of planning.

The Manpower ministry works with various economic agencies (such as the Economic Development Board) responsible for promoting speci? c industry groups to identify critical manpower needs and project demands for future skills.

These are then fed back both into pre-employment training and continuing education and training. In other countries, labour and education markets make these adjustments slowly over time, but the Singapore government believes that its manpower planning approach helps students to move faster into growing sectors, reduces oversupply in areas of declining demand more quickly, and targets public funds more ef? ciently for post-secondary education.

The ministry of Education and the institutions of higher and post-secondary education then use these skill projections to inform their own education planning, especially for universities, polytechnics and technical institutes. 7 SINGAPORE: RAPID IMPROVEMENT FOLLOWED BY STRONG PERFORMANCE 166 OECD 2010 STRONG PERFORMERS AND SUCCESSFUL REFORMERS IN EDUCATION: LESSONS FROM PISA FOR THE UNITED STATES In short, the ability of the government to successfully manage supply and demand of education and skills is a major source of Singapores competitive advantage.

As Singapore seeks to become a global scienti? c hub, it is bringing together all aspects of the government the ? nance ministry, economic development board, manpower ministry, education ministry, urban and environmental planning bodies, housing and immigration authorities to create the next platform for Singapores growth. Singapore demonstrates strong alignment among policies and practices. One of the most striking things on visiting Singapore is that wherever one visits whether the ministries of manpower, national development, community development, or education or the universities, technical institutes, or schools he or she hears the same clear focus on the same bold outcomes: careful attention to implementation and evaluation, and orientation towards the future.

Milestone courses bring together top of? cials from all the ministries to create a shared understanding of national goals. And a focus on effective implementation is shared throughout government. Because of the value placed on human resource development and the understanding of its critical relationship to economic development, Singapores government provides a very clear vision of what is needed in education.

This means that the ministry of Education can then design the policies and implement the practices that will meet this vision. Close links between policy implementers, researchers and educators At the institutional level, both policy coherence and implementation consistency are brought about by the very close tripartite relationship between the ministry of Education, the National Institute of Education (NIE, the countrys only educator training institution), and the schools. The ministry is responsible for policy development, while NIE conducts research and provides pre-servic.

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