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Speech by RADM(NS) Teo Chee Hean, Minister for Education and Second Minister for Defence at the NIE Teachers Investiture Ceremony at 2.30 pm on 8 Jul 2003 at the Singapore Indoor Stadium "Getting the Fundamentals Right"



1.            Good morning colleagues, ladies and gentlemen. 

2.            My warmest congratulations to all of you. You will be formally entering the ranks of the teaching profession. As teachers you will hold a unique position in the lives of the many young pupils who will come under your care. Your pupils will look to you not just for guidance in their studies but as role models on how they should lead their lives. You have been vested with the privilege of moulding the future of our nation. This is a heavy responsibility but also a deeply satisfying one. 


3.            Talented and dedicated teachers lie at the heart of Education. To do all the things we want to do in education, we need teachers who are able to instil a sense of curiosity and intellectual excitement, a love for learning, self-respect and personal discipline. I am therefore happy to note that at this afternoon's ceremony, the Outstanding Youth in Education Award (or OYEA) will be presented to 3 young teachers for their outstanding ability and energy in helping the children under their charge realise their full potential. I hope this award will spur you and your colleagues as you continue to reach out to your students, motivate them and challenge them to greater heights. 

4.            Good teachers are also active learners, unafraid of change. The speed and complexity of economic and technological developments are radically altering the way we live, work and organise ourselves. Knowledge becomes obsolete quickly. We must be forward looking to ensure that the education that our children receive today will still be relevant tomorrow. MOE has paved the way by introducing a series of changes in curriculum, school management, and infrastructure to provide an Ability Driven education that maximises the potential of our young. Similarly, teachers must continually refresh and renew themselves to stay at the crest of improvements taking place around us. 

5.            At the same time, a progressive outlook must be anchored on sound durable principles. An education system that is mired in the past can only produce people with yesterday's skills and outlook; but a system that seeks only to chase the future will lose its bearings. Therefore, it is important that our teachers also understand the fundamental values and principles undergirding our education system, and the time-tested features that underpin its continued success. By having a shared understanding of why education is shaped the way it is in Singapore, we can preserve and build on the underlying strengths of education in Singapore, even as we introduce innovations in our schools to better meet the needs of tomorrow. 

6.            The success of our education system in producing active citizens with the skills and outlook to be global players, is based on the choices we made in three areas -our emphasis on fundamentals in English, Maths and Science; access to opportunities based on merit; and a strong national orientation in our schools. I will elaborate on each of these in turn. 


7.            First, our schools have a robust academic programme that equips students with strong fundamentals in English, Maths and Science, the basics for participating fully in a global economy. 

8.            English, Maths and Science are core subjects at primary and secondary levels. The ten years of general education in schools equip our students with strong foundations in literacy and numeracy. By international standards, our students perform extremely well. At the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, conducted in 1999, our students came in overall 1st and 2nd in the world, in Maths and Science respectively. More recently, the 2001 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study ranked our Primary 4 students' reading literacy 15th out of 35 countries, or about the same level as English-speaking countries like New Zealand and Scotland, in spite of the fact that only a minority of Singaporeans, just 43% use English all or most of the time at home. Singapore students who spoke English at home fared better than students in native English-speaking countries like England and the US. About 15% of Singapore students did well enough to meet the top 10% international benchmark. 

9.            Strong fundamentals in literacy and numeracy are crucial because they lay the foundations for further learning. The study of English, the language of commerce and technology helps our students gain access to the knowledge of the world; maths and science help them understand and exploit the opportunities of rapid technological advances. Together, they provide pupils with the maximum amount of choice as they proceed up the education ladder, and prepare them for the diverse opportunities available at the post secondary level. It provides all our students with the global literacy that is crucial for connecting countries and people in a globalised world, and puts them all on the right side of the digital and technological divide. It ensures that everyone has the right toolkit to thrive in a knowledge-based future. By getting these basics right, we ensure that all our pupils get the head start they need in life. 


10.          Second, our education system delivers high quality education to students in all ability groups and provides opportunities for all to proceed as far as they are capable of. Let me quote from a card I received just last week from a group of parents: "Although our children are not in the better schools (they attached an ST report (dated 23 June 03) describing a high-tech school trip by students of Raffles Institution), we still have confidence… in our neighbourhood schools. We a group of parents would like to place our gratitude on record to the Principal of Peirce Secondary School for organising a life science workshop during the school holidays. Our children benefited from the hands-on experiments and lectures by their very own bio/life science teacher who single-handedly conducted them. A big thank you and kudos to Peirce Secondary School." 

11.          Today we have an education system that provides at least 10 years of general education for all children, with 8 out of 10 students proceeding to post-secondary education. This was achieved firstly, by expanding the educational opportunities available and secondly, by providing different educational routes to suit the abilities and interests of students. 

12.          One of the first things we set out to do after self-government was to deliver quality education for all to the masses. The government immediately embarked on an accelerated school building programme. Between 1959-1968, MOE built schools at the average rate of one school a month to provide school places for every child of school-going age. The teaching force doubled over the same period. 

13.          In 1979, we introduced ability based streaming so that students could proceed at their own pace and take up programmes that are best suited to them. Students in secondary school can now follow a 4 or 5-year programme that has an academic orientation, or a four-year programme with a technical orientation. All these programmes lead to opportunities for post secondary education in ITE, polytechnics or university. There are ladders and bridges between these programmes for students with the aptitude and ability to cross. 

14.          Over the years we have introduced greater differentiation in education according to need and ability so that there are opportunities for all to realise their potential. Customisation takes place through streaming, and special programmes like Elective Programmes in Language, Art and Music. We have also done much to provide opportunities for students from across the whole ability and aptitude spectrum to maximise their potential, including the Gifted Education Programme, Learning Support Programmes at the primary level, refining the Normal (Academic) Course, and developing the ITE into a premier technical institution. 

15.          Going forward we will introduce more options and opportunities at the secondary and JC levels. In Nov last year, Parliament endorsed the recommendation of the JC/ Upper Secondary Education review for a more diverse upper secondary and JC landscape, in terms of programmes, mix of schools and terminal qualifications. These changes will allow young Singaporeans to pursue educational pathways that best cater to their interests and abilities and maximises their potential. 


16.          Third, our schools provide a common educational experience that builds national identity and social cohesion based on shared national values. 

17.          Today we take for granted the fact that we have a national school system, with schools attended by children of all races. This was not always the case. Education in the 1950s and 60s was segmented into 4 language streams, a pattern that persisted into the 1970s. Government Malay schools, community-run Chinese and Tamil schools and English mission schools, each had their own curriculum and exam requirements. They implanted their own values and stressed different goals. In effect, there were four education systems existing side by side. Those who were educated, were divided along racial and ethnic lines. 

18.          A national school system emerged slowly, and only through conscious and deliberate effort. We instituted the flag raising ceremony and singing of the national anthem in all schools, introduced integrated schools in which two or more language streams were accommodated under a common principal, imposed a common syllabus and examinations, fostered inter-school activities across the different language streams, and made bilingualism and the study of civics compulsory. 

19.          A national school system has allowed us to create a multi-racial state whose people are united under one common identity. Schools are an important common area where our young learn about unity and togetherness. They are key places where our young interact with other Singaporeans, regardless of race, religion or social status. There, our children learn to set aside ethnic and religious differences and identify themselves as Singaporeans first. They learn that what we have in common is more important than our differences. Tolerance will allow us to avoid strife, harmony comes from mutual understanding, but unity comes only from commitment to building a future together. By providing students with a common attachment to Singapore's history and future, to Singapore's national symbols and values, and to its promise of a better life, our schools help shape a coherent, stable and united people made up of diverse traditions, languages and religions. By teaching our children that their obligations extend beyond our own families, religion or race, they learn the meaning of citizenship and what it entails - active commitment, responsibility to fellow Singaporeans and making a difference in one's community, society, and country. 

20.          Building up such national awareness is especially important at the primary school level because the primary school years are most critical for character building, and the inculcation of sound values and good habits. Schools must seek out opportunities, such as through CCAs and the Community Involvement Programme, for pupils from different social and racial backgrounds to engage in the same activities. They can then get to know one another better, learn to support each other in their common endeavours, and in the process strengthen the social fabric of our country. 


21.          A strong and robust education system in years to come will continue to be founded on these enduring principles - an emphasis on fundamentals, access to opportunities based on merit, and a strong national orientation. Education must anchor itself in these timeless values while seeking to embrace the future through refinements, improvements, and innovation. 

22.          But the right structures and policies do not by themselves promise our children a better future. We may have laid out the right systems and programmes, but it takes good people to translate them into action, to bring them to life. Teaching is ultimately a human enterprise, involving teachers, parents and the wider community, who all share in the task of educating our young to be good persons and useful citizens. Continued success depends on how committed our teachers are, how well we engage parents, and how eager our children are to learn. 

23.          Our recent experience with the SARS outbreak has shown that we have all these things - our teachers are committed, our parents engaged, our children always eager to learn. 26,000 teachers worked together with other operational support staff to implement unprecedented measures to safeguard the daily well-being of the 500,000 pupils in our national schools. They took the temperatures of all their pupils twice a day and assisted in rapid contact tracing and collation of contacts. They went the extra mile to stay in touch with their pupils who were subject to HQO or on Leave of Absence as well as during the period of school closure. They did all these things while ensuring teaching and learning went on as normally as possible in the classroom. The public's confidence in the dedication of our teachers showed when almost all parents sent their children to schools when they re-opened at the height of the SARS outbreak. Parents, on their part, were generally understanding and their co-operation was essential to the success of our SARS measures. Students played their part in fighting SARS by showing a strong sense of personal responsibility. It was especially heartening to learn how quickly our youngest pupils, at Primary 1 and 2, just 6 to 7 years, took to using and looking after their thermometers. They treated their daily temperature taking regime seriously and easily made a habit of good hygiene practices. At a crucial time, our students helped to carry the health and hygiene message into every home. 

24.          Teachers have given much of themselves over the last three months; they have risen to the occasion and performed admirably. I would therefore like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who through their dedication and commitment made our schools safe for our children. 

25.          Throughout the SARS crisis, our teachers have exemplified all the important qualities we look for in the education profession. Their care and concern, their strong sense of responsibility and motivation, and their passion for our children are powerful reminders of what it takes to be a teacher. 

26.          I hope you will learn and be inspired by their example. Like them, put the child at the centre of everything you do. Care for them. Be patient with them. Above all, be the firm and guiding hand that helps him find his way in life. 

27.          Once again, let me congratulate you as you enter the teaching fraternity. I wish you all a meaningful and fulfilling career.


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