Opening Address by Ms Grace Fu, Senior Minister of State, Ministry of National Development and Ministry of Education, at the Inaugural Symposium on Integration in Schools, on 24 April 2010, at 9.30am, at the Grand Copthorne Waterfront Hotel

Ms Yeoh Chee Yan,
Second Permanent Secretary for Education and Chairperson of the National Integration Working Group for Schools,

Distinguished guests,

School leaders and educators,

Ladies and gentlemen,

I am glad to see many familiar faces of leaders from our national schools, but also some new faces from the international schools and wider educational fraternity. A very good morning to all of you!

Immigration has played a major role in the making of modern Singapore. Most Singaporeans today are descendants of immigrants who came here in search of a better life. Our fore-bears brought with them the energy and drive of new immigrants—as well as diverse skills, networks and trading links which have enabled Singapore to grow and prosper. But as we developed from a trading emporium into an independent nation, there have been times, particularly during the racial riots of the 1950s and 60s, when we have had to confront the challenges of a multi-racial society. These painful experiences are etched on the national memory. They taught us to value inter-communal harmony and underlined the need for Singapore to work relentlessly at maintaining social cohesion.

Ensuring Continued Prosperity—Openness to Talent

For Singapore to succeed in the 21st century, we must remain an open and harmonious society. We must stay open to the international flows of talented people, trade and ideas. Our competitiveness depends on it. Many foreigners who come here to work make significant economic contributions. Some live and work here for a period. They refresh our international networks and add color and vibrancy to Singapore. Others choose to sink roots, become new Permanent Residents (PRs) and then citizens. This is vital to boost our resident population, given our declining total fertility rate.

At the same time, we must acknowledge that our success in attracting people from abroad brings with it the challenges of social integration. Having to share common spaces with people of different perspectives and cultural habits can take us out of our comfort zone. Foreigners are sometimes perceived as competition for jobs and places in our top schools. We need to address these issues openly and work actively to maintain social cohesion.

Successful Integration—A Two-way Process

To reflect the privileges of citizenship, the Government recently sharpened the differentiation of benefits between Singaporeans, PRs and foreigners in education and healthcare. And, as mentioned by PM Lee, we will also be calibrating the inflow of new immigrants, to ensure that it proceeds at a pace where we can integrate new arrivals while maintaining the tone of our society. But these measures should not be seen as closing the door on newcomers. Singapore cannot afford to become inward-looking. We must continue to welcome foreigners who can contribute to Singapore, while working tirelessly to ensure that Singaporeans and newcomers are well-integrated, so that society remains cohesive and harmonious.

Successful social integration is necessary for Singapore to reap the full benefits of an open, cosmopolitan society. Both Singaporeans and newcomers need to play their part in this two-way process. Both Singaporeans and newcomers need to reach out, to understand, respect and appreciate one another. It takes effort to accommodate others, but it is a worthwhile effort to build a harmonious and well-integrated society, one which we all would be happy to live in and to call home.

To lead this important effort, the National Integration Council (NIC), chaired by the Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports, Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan, was established in 2009 with leaders from the community, private sector and the Government. The NIC is supported by four Working Groups, including the National Integration Working Group for Schools (NIWG-S) which works with schools and educational institutions to promote opportunities for students of all nationalities to interact with one another and also with the wider Singapore community.

Critical Role of Schools and Educational Institutions

Many countries see strategic value in attracting talented immigrants and integrating them through their schools and educational institutions. The US is one such magnet for talent. According to a recent report, there has been a steady increase in the number of international students pursuing their higher education in the US, with an all-time high of just over 670,000 in the last academic year.

In Singapore, our schools and educational institutions also play a critical role in promoting social integration. More than just welcoming international students and helping them to fit in, we must ensure that our children have a strong sense of their own national identity, while cultivating a global perspective and the skills to work across cultures. These skills will stand them in good stead for the 21st century workplace.

This is clear to Zulaikha Zainol and Jimmy Tjeng, two Singaporean alumni of the Singapore Management University (SMU) who volunteer with SMU’s International Student Unit. Zulaikha told us that while Singaporeans often see international students as “competition”, she believes that if you are good at what you do, you need not worry “whether you compete with locals or foreigners”. Rather than viewing them as competition, she sees her foreign friends from China, Indonesia and Myanmar as part of her social network. They are, in her words, “as close as sisters” to her now. For Jimmy, who works in an MNC with a very international staff profile, his exposure to international students at SMU helped him to develop the cultural sensitivity and global perspective needed to succeed in his job. He rightly notes: “There’s no running away from it. Even if your office is local, you still need to work with people from other countries.”

These sentiments echo the theme of today’s inaugural Symposium on Integration in Schools, which is “A Shared Future”. While social integration is a national imperative, it is also about preparing our children for a globalised world. Fostering inter-cultural skills and a global perspective must begin in school, where students from all walks of life can share common experiences, learn to relate to one another, and form life-long friendships.

Many of our schools and educational institutions already have initiatives to help their newcomers adjust to life in Singapore and encourage a welcoming attitude among local students. Singaporean student Priyadharsini Sega from Paya Lebar Methodist Girls’ School (Secondary) (PLMGSS) has made friends with and learnt more about the cultures of classmates from South Korea and Nepal by hosting them at her home. Priya says that it helps to “treat them like family members to make them feel at home”. This positive attitude is the result of what PLMGSS Principal Ms Pamela Yoong calls “seamless integration” within the student community.

These efforts extend beyond our national school system. For instance, St. Joseph’s Institution International School (SJII) believes that integration must be a natural part of the school day and not an artificial programme or “add-on”. The school works hard to promote mutual respect and an international outlook amongst its students. SJII’s Head of Art, Julia Goodchild, told us that sports, clubs and community service activities “challenge students to come out of their comfort zones, and they bond as a result.” The students form firm friendships based on common interests and experiences. The result is a happy and caring school community which takes a genuine interest in cultural and global affairs.

Key Role of Parents

We must also recognise the role which parents play. Children naturally learn from what their parents say and do. Thus, schools can work closely with parents to help students develop a welcoming attitude towards newcomers. For instance, Opera Estate Primary School has a very inclusive Parent Support Group called the Opera Parents Club (OPC), which actively reaches out to the parents of international students. While the members of the OPC are from a variety of countries, British mother of four, Liz Banbury, has told us that the OPC parents are “like a family”. Their children will surely learn from such a good example!

Best Practices Package

These and other good practices by public and private educational institutions in Singapore can be found in the Best Practices Package developed by the National Integration Working Group for Schools. It is important that schools actively promote social integration and not leave it to chance. I believe that this package of best practices will serve as a useful resource for all schools and educational institutions in their efforts.

Finally, I would like to say how pleased I am to see such a healthy turnout at today’s Symposium. Your presence signals your understanding that a cohesive and well-integrated society is a national priority. As leaders in education, you play a vital role in equipping your students with the knowledge, skills and values to thrive in a globalised world. You are also pivotal in preparing your students for the responsibilities of citizenship and the part they can play in shaping an open and well-integrated Singapore of the future.

Thank you. I look forward to our discussion later.