Speech by the Guest-of-Honour, Dr Ng Eng Hen, Minister for Education and Second Minister for Defence at the First Session of the 50th Graduation Ceremony of the Singapore Polytechnic at the Singapore Polytechnic Convention Centre on Tuesday, 18 May 2010, 9.30 am

Mr Tan Kay Yong
Chairman, Singapore Polytechnic Board of Governors,

Mr Tan Hang Cheong
Principal, Singapore Polytechnic,

Distinguished Guests,

Parents and Graduands,

Ladies and Gentlemen.

It is my pleasure to be with all of you at Singapore Polytechnic’s 50th Graduation Ceremony. Let me first extend my warmest congratulations to the graduands who are about to join the ranks of SP’s 150,000-strong alumni body.

Impetus for Technical Education

The history of SP follows closely that of Singapore. In 1959, a few years after SP was formed, Singapore became self-governing and was faced with widespread unemployment and a high rate of population growth. To create jobs, the Singapore government embarked on industrialization.

The education system had to evolve, and technical and vocational training played an important role to support industrialization and prepare our labour force to meet the “new” needs of the economy. As former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said in his 1970 National Day speech, victory “was won in the classrooms of vocational schools, technical institutes and polytechnics”, as it was these institutions, like SP which produced the skilled manpower critical for our industrial economy.

Singapore’s First Polytechnic

Even in its early days, SP’s leaders had to make many critical decisions with a clear mission to produce a technically-competent workforce for Singapore. Then Deputy Prime Minister Dr Toh Chin Chye who was appointed Chairman of SP’s Board of Governors in 1959, decided to terminate commercial courses such as Typewriting and Stenography so that SP could focus on technical training. Dr Toh also decided SP should set its own examinations and award its own diplomas. These were bold moves as they departed from the practices of long-established institutions in Britain. But they paid off and enabled SP to tailor its course offerings to meet specific, even urgent, manpower needs of new industries coming to Singapore. Within a short time, SP had established practice-oriented courses in accountancy, architecture, building, engineering and nautical studies. SP’s DNA of always been adaptable and nimble to remain relevant was already forged in your early years.

At around this time, the same urgent need for technical manpower also drove the introduction of Technical Schools in Singapore. They catered to post-PSLE students who chose a technical education, essentially an enhanced school curriculum with a few technical subjects like Woodwork, Metalwork and Technical Drawing.

Such were Singapore’s early efforts in technical education. Of course, there have been many changes since then to improve and refine how our education system can better produce technical manpower. Our polytechnic sector has expanded, and we have built four other polytechnics since SP. SP too has evolved over the years and responded to the changing environment, so that its graduates remain in high demand by employers.

Singapore Polytechnic’s Outcomes

SP has been a success in many fronts. First, it has consistently provided a stable stream of technically-skilled labour for Singapore. By the end of the 1970’s, SP had contributed over 19,000 graduates to the workforce. SP has come a long way. This week alone, 5,384 students will graduate and add to the 150,000 strong SP alumni.

Second, it is a shining example of how an educational institution can adapt to the times and demands of a constantly-changing economy. SP has built strong links to industry and economic agencies, co-opting practitioners and experts onto its School Advisory boards and collaborating with companies on different projects. As testimony to this, around 90% of your graduates have been employed within six months of entering the workforce — despite weak economic conditions.

Third, SP has groomed versatile, highly-driven individuals with a “can-do” spirit. Many SP graduates have moved on to become entrepreneurs and assumed leadership positions in multinational companies. Your Board Chairman Mr Tan Kay Yong is one good example. An SP graduate from 1977, Kay Yong is now the Vice-President of GlaxoSmithKline or GSK, a big pharma player on the international stage. Deputy Chairman Bill Chang, also an alumnus, is the Executive Vice-President of Singtel. The former President of NUS Prof Shih Choon Fong, has SP as his alma mater. Many graduate from polytechnic and move on to renowned universities locally and overseas. I understand that this year, SP will have its first graduate accepted into the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine in NUS. Recently, SP graduate Kuriakin Zeng made the news for being accepted into Harvard on a full scholarship. These are good developments; they set high standards. But I also want to echo what your principal said: the bulk are graduands who are the backbone of our society. This is a good analogy of what SP graduates are, with the rigidity of the bones but the resilience of the in-between “shock absorbers.” You can take the knocks!

Graduation Stories

Graduation ceremonies are opportunities to reflect on and celebrate the accomplishments of the institution and its people. SP’s 50th Graduation Ceremony makes this even more appropriate. SP graduated its first batch of 192 students in 1961. In 1961, there were 17 courses. This week, your batch will graduate from 65 different diploma and post-diploma programmes. In fact, today, we will witness the graduation of the first batch of students from the Diploma in Environmental Management & Water Technology. They could not be entering the workforce at a better time. Singapore just opened its fifth and largest NEWater plant in Changi earlier this month. By 2015, our environmental and water technology sector is set to triple to $1.7 billion, with the number of jobs doubling to 11,000 in total at skilled and professional levels . This is how Singapore Polytechnic keeps up. Each time the industry is ready to build a new one, you supply the manpower — it is a very important component that makes our economy thrive.

I want to take the time to acknowledge one of the graduands in your midst who exemplifies the best of SP. Nick Ng Guo Feng had always dreamt of being a landscape architect. In 2004, Nick completed his ‘N’ Levels at Ping Yi Secondary School. He could continue with the ‘O’ Levels but opted to study Building Drafting at Balestier ITE. He enlisted in the Singapore Police Force for his NS but stayed on one more year as a Prison Officer to save more money to support his studies before entering SP.

During his second year at SP, Nick’s project caught the attention of a landscape design company. He was offered freelance work and his earnings lightened his financial burden. But Nick also looked for ways to give back to society. Together with his course mates, he donated the income he received to an old folks’ home. For his leadership and talent, Nick was also appointed the chair of this year’s Graduation Showcase, held at Suntec City. Today Nick will be receiving the Tay Eng Soon Gold Medal, which is awarded annually to a top former-ITE student at each of the polytechnics. Nick’s journey to a diploma may be longer than many of his peers, but his perseverance has paid off. He is now a landscape manager at one of the most established landscaping companies in Singapore. My warmest congratulations to Nick.

Looking Forward

SP has grown from strength to strength over the years, and I am pleased to note that it does not intend to rest on its laurels. Instead, SP faculty and staff are continuously looking for ways to improve the educational experience for SP students, and enhance their employability in the workforce. These include:

  • Revising its curriculum to place more emphasis on values that include social responsibility and personal leadership to better prepare students for 21st century challenges;

  • Making Creativity, Innovation and Enterprise core aspects of the SP curriculum, and teaching Critical Reasoning Skills to develop analytical and communication skills across disciplines;

  • Introducing the Design Thinking Studio Programme to allow students to acquire new skills by participating in collaborative, multidisciplinary projects with students from different Schools — Engineering, Chemical and Life Sciences, Architecture and Built Environment, and Design.

The government will also continue to invest in our Polytechnic sector. We are very proud of our polytechnics which are a very important component of our educational landscape.

  • Today, about 42% of each Primary 1 cohort enters the polytechnics compared to just 5% in the early 1980s. By 2015, we expect this to grow to 45%. MOE will invest to increase capacity in the five polytechnics by 20%, over the next 4 years.

  • We will expand upgrading opportunities for polytechnic graduates. MOE has set up the Singapore Institute of Technology, or SIT to create a pathway primarily for polytechnic graduates, which builds on their strong diploma foundations. Partners like the Technical University of Munich, University of Newcastle, University of Nevada, Las Vegas and Digipen should make SIT very attractive. At steady-state, SIT will offer about 2,000 full-time places each year.

  • Government will support the polytechnics’ efforts to draw stronger linkages with industry through building capability in innovation and enterprise. Centres of Innovation with SPRING, such as SP’s Food Innovation Resource Centre can greatly help boost SMEs’ businesses and provide yet another source of real-world student projects. MOE’s own Innovation Fund that supports applied research at the Polytechnics (and ITE) should also spur more collaborative activity in the private sector-poly space. So far 34 projects have been approved.


In closing, let me congratulate all SP graduands on your achievements, particularly the 496 of you who are here today from the School of Architecture and the Built Environment. On this occasion, I hope you will take the chance to thank those who have supported and guided you in your journey — your parents, teachers, loved ones. I wish you success in your future endeavours.

Thank you.