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Principals, Teachers,

Friends and Fellow Singaporeans

1.         First of all, a very Happy Teachers’ Day to all of you. It is a real pleasure to be here, to meet 7,000 of you and to celebrate this year’s Teachers’ Day.

2.         It was a long walk coming in. I wasn’t sure whether it was an election rally or a religious revival…but it’s actually being surrounded by teachers and friends that I think is the best feeling.

3.         So, I’m very, very happy to be here because education is one of our top national priorities for the next phase as Singapore develops. This is one of the key things which we have to focus on. Why? Firstly, because it’s the most precious gift we can give our children. Secondly, because it’s the most critical investment in our future.  And thirdly, because it’s the most effective strategy which will enable us to survive and to thrive in a changing world.

4.         It’s not just a matter of putting in the resources and the people or the money. It’s finding the dedication, the commitment, the team; setting the goals for our education system and motivating and inspiring our teachers, our principals, our staff, to go ahead, give of their best and make it happen and change the lives of the students.

5.         So tonight I’d like to talk to you about some of the things which we want to achieve in schools, in our education system, as we move ahead. We’ve made a lot of progress; many changes, all kinds of new ideas, schemes, proposals. Some people say too many. But we’ve made a lot of progress; we’ve got here. Question is, what are the key targets as we move ahead?

6.         And I would like to suggest that we have four key targets to think about. First of all, to achieve many peaks of excellence for children with different abilities, aptitudes and interests. Secondly, to level up and lift the standards for our whole education system across the board, not just for a few people. Thirdly, to strengthen the emotional connections between the students and our country, a sense of rootedness and patriotism.  And finally the most important target, which enables us to do all the other three things – a first-class teaching workforce.  

7.         Let me start with many peaks of excellence. It’s something we have been talking about for quite some time. But it’s something which we continue to work on. To develop each child, his unique interests, his unique talents.  To help him to grow, and if he has something special, to enable him to express it, and to achieve that excellence, that fulfilment, that ability to become what he could be and make a contribution. Not all kids are the same. Not all kids can take the same approach. Some we can lecture, some we have to guide, some we have to encourage, others we work with them hands-on and inspire them by your presence. But whatever the kid’s interest, we must provide many paths for him to grow and to develop.  We need to build up this whole mountain range of excellence so that individually we are strong, but as a team, we are invincible.

8.         We are creating a wider range of options for our students; schools with all kinds of different expertise and specialisations. We have the NUS Math and Science School and the Sports School. Those are already up and running.  We have the Arts School, about to come – akan dating, because it is next to the old Cathay Building. And we are also developing many schools with strong niche areas where they excel and make a name for themselves. Not just the independent schools or the autonomous schools, but many of the neighbourhood schools too, become good at something, make a name, attract students, grow stronger.

9.         There are many examples, but I’ll just give you one. Northland Secondary School, which does well, excelling in Hockey. In the last ten years, more than 90 medals and awards.  And the result is through this excellence, the teachers, the students, the staff learn new skills, overcome new challenges and develop teamwork which enables them to do well in many fields of activity.

10.        This is what we want to do throughout our education system in many schools. And if you are able and you have the talent, we will give you the chance to express it. We want students to take advantage of these opportunities. We want students to find the school, and the option which fit them and where they belong, they can excel and do their best.  Choose the path which fits you, then do well, and if you excel, many possibilities will open up.  We do not want to pigeon-hole people, to put you on a track and then you are fixed and you have to go that way, and you must end up in that destination.  We want to put you on a track where you can grow, and depending on how you grow, how well you do, more possibilities will open up, and you make choices at each stage. And as you go up, you do better, you will go on further. It needs teachers to guide the students, it needs parents to make a realistic assessment of what their kids can do, and together you choose the best for your kids at that stage and take them forward.

11.        And I think we are getting kids who are doing this. I went to the Lee Kwan Yew Awards and I met two of the award winners and they encouraged me greatly. One was Brendan Lee, the other was Amy Tan. They were both in the Normal Stream; they have dyslexia so they chose the Normal Stream. One was in Normal (Technical), the other one in Normal (Academic). But they worked hard and as a result of that, did well, topped their streams, won the prize. And now Brendan is in ITE while Amy is in St Margaret’s Secondary preparing for the ‘O’ levels. And I think they made a good choice. They were happy, their parents were happy, their teachers I think were satisfied as they advised the kids well, treated them as they ought to be treated, that is do well, do your best and the horizons open. And it did for them and we must do that for many more kids. 

12.        It’s the sort of flexibility we want in our whole education system. I think we should take this seriously and set this as our goal for quite a number of years to come. And if we look forward, let’s say five years, ask ourselves, what do we want to see from this education system, which generates many peaks of excellence. I would set you several targets to aim for.

13.        I think our overall objective is that we want this to be a more diverse landscape, one where there are many different schools with many different systems all good in their own way.  We want more schools with niche programmes, like Northland which I mentioned just now. Right now, only ten per cent of the schools have niche programmes which are recognized. I think within 5 years we can get to one-third of the schools with niche programmes – something special which they excel in, which they can be proud of. Carve out their expertise, make a name for themselves, attract students, and become something different from any other school. So that’s the first requirement.

14.        Secondly, I think that in our education system, we should have more flexible streaming, so that kids can learn at their own pace for each of the subjects. Different abilities in different subjects can go to different streams in different subjects, so that you don’t have to be in a single stream for all of your subjects and be pigeon-holed.  We are already moving there. I think between EM3 and EM2, we have already blurred the distinction; there is some mix and cross-over. I think we can do more.

15.        Thirdly, I believe the schools should also have broader admission criteria, focus not just on the academic standards of the schools, but also on their broader performance, and character, and therefore take in a better mix of students with different talents and backgrounds. It is something we have moved towards in our secondary schools with direct admission and in Junior Colleges as well. I think we can take it further.

16.        Finally, we ought to have an education system which provides more support to children with special needs. We should do more to help some of the SPED schools in teaching the mainstream curriculum.  Some of them already do this, for example, the schools for the hearing impaired, the visually handicapped, or autistic children. I think we can give them more support, to help them to do well, together with the VWOs which run them. So that is the first priority we have, to make our education system have many peaks of excellence.

17.        Our second priority is to level up our education system, across the board, throughout society. Our income distributions are stretching out – the higher incomes are doing well, the lower incomes having more of a struggle. It’s a problem around the world, but it’s a problem which for us, we must solve through education. How? By ensuring that all the students have a good system and a good education, get the best chance to have the skills and end up on the upside of the income divide, end up able to look after themselves, able to do better than their parents. Give them the best possible start. And this is what we must do. But how shall we do this? I think there are three ways we can do this. 

18.        First, we want an education system which has excellence across the board. So I am not just talking about a few good schools in Singapore. We want all our schools in Singapore to do well. And I think we are able to do that. If you look at the neighbourhood schools across the board, many of them are distinguishing themselves and parents can tell. This one has a name, that one has done better, I will send my kid there. I will give you a couple of examples, you will forgive me if I use examples from Teck Ghee in Ang Mo Kio because I am most familiar with them but in fact, you can find examples all over Singapore.

19.        Chong Boon Secondary School, it is one of my schools. Why do I notice them? Because they have an outstanding Cheerobics team. They got a gold medal last year and they did quite well this year. They came and performed for my National Day observance in Teck Ghee and really put on a good show. Boys, girls, all races. They threw, they caught, they jumped, they somersaulted. I spoke to their principal, Mrs Saraspathy, she said it has made a tremendous difference to the kids. They are proud of themselves, their conduct has improved, their academics have improved.  And their parents are happy, the community is happy and we are proud of them. So I told her thank you for telling me and showing me, and I am going to mention you during the Teachers’ Day Rally. I don’t know if she is here but it is one of the schools, one of many who are doing good jobs.

20.        There are others too. Townsville Primary happens to be in my area too and these last couple of months have been school admission time. Phase 1, Phase 2, Phase 2B, now I see Phase 3, people sleeping in the schools overnight.  There was one parent who was very stressed. She went around, wanted to get her kid into a brand name school. Her son’s name is Clement. Eventually she scouted around, and she settled on Townsville. She is not even from my immediate neighbourhood. She is from Seng Kang, came over here, and she explained in an email why she chose this school which I think is worth sharing with you, with her permission. She said after visiting the school, after talking to the principals and staff, that

21.        “Townsville seems to be a great school.  The students seem to be very disciplined and well behaved. The working staff, teachers and the principal seem great. The school provides the CCAs that Clement is interested in: Violin and Wu Shu and IT.  Our major concern, she says, is to get Clement a good environment for his learning path.

22.        We want him to have a good childhood and enjoy his studies and after the registration with Townsville, both my hubby and myself received much positive feedback from our friends and even the bus drivers of Townsville that we had made a right choice of school.”

23.        So you see, parents go round shopping, and they examine the merchandise before they buy. But I think the merchandise is good and it is sold in many schools across Singapore and that is something which we are very proud of. So the first thing we must do is to have a system which is good across the board. 

24.        When we have got that, I think we have looked after the majority of the kids.  Then we have got to ensure that the system is affordable to all. Good system, every kid must be able to take advantage of it. However poor the family, you should not have to drop out of school. And I think we can give that assurance to every kid. And every teacher should know, every principal should know, if you ever come across poor children, this is our approach, and our cardinal principle. 

25.        If you are poor, don’t worry about schooling, we will make sure you can afford schooling. You just make the effort, your parents make the effort. Do your best, we will make sure you can afford it. If you have talent, we will make sure that you can move up. Be the best that you can be. The worst thing you can do is to tell your kid, “Drop out from school, I can’t afford it.” Once in a while I come across parents who want to do that and I tell them whatever else you sacrifice, make sure your kid carries on in school. We will look after him.

26.        We have many financial schemes to help. The schools have assistance schemes, the community has assistance schemes. We have Edusave which has been going on for many years now, I think the mechanism for spending the Edusave and doing projects with it is well-run by now.

27.        We have Opportunity Funds, which is a new idea which MOE came up with this year and we have it in the Progress Package this year. So every school, every neighbourhood school will have a hundred thousand dollars, and the most important thing is, it is at the disposal of the principals. You don’t have to ask your supervisor, you don’t have to ask MOE, no heavy paperwork. You decide, and you use it to help the kids who need help.

28.        I have spoken to some of the principals, and they are very happy that they have this little bit of ammunition for themselves to use.  They can subscribe to Sunday Times for needy students so that they can read the newspapers regularly, they can help the kids get PCs with internet access or participate in enrichment activities, adventure trips, music lessons.  It is up to you to imagine the best use of this scheme. I think it is a success, we will think of more such schemes, so that we can do this for more needy kids.  So this is a school system that is going to take care of all the families.

29.        The third aspect of having a school system which is good across the board, is that it must take care of kids who don’t do well in school. Some of them are from poor families, some of them from broken families, some of them may not as talented so they do less well in school. It’s a reality; I think we should be realistic and acknowledge it.  But at the same time, our attitude should be a positive one, that no matter what the kid is like, we make the effort and he or she makes the effort, and the parents make the effort, we will be better. They won’t all do equally well, some will do better because that is the way human beings are, but whoever you are, if you make the effort, you will do better and we will make the effort to help you. And that is what we have to do.  We will give you the skills, we will give you the training, which will enable you to take care of yourself, take care of your family and be able to uplift yourself.

30.         We have been working on the Normal (Technical) curriculum to help students who can learn better through practical skills, and to prepare them if they can go on from Normal (Technical) to ITE, to have a smooth transition into ITE and then move on to other things.  That is in progress and we will do more.

31.        We are starting a special school, NorthLight, to look after kids who are unable to pass their PSLE.  It will have a different culture and approach, in order to help the kids absorb and to do well.  There will be strong emphasis on hands-on learning, on work attachments, on what the teachers call experiential learning.  I ask what is that? I am learning. So they say experiential learning means learning by doing something.  For example by preparing food, by preparing beverages, by doing transactions at the counter, buying a cup of coffee or Milo, you learn about money, you learn about arithmetic, you learn about quantities, weights and measures. The students can immediately see this as something which is practical, useful, and which they will learn. 

32.        And remember, you need very motivated teachers to do this, people who believe in the mission, who want to do this. And I am very heartened that in fact we have such teachers and we have a principal who I think has got that record, who knows how to do this - Mrs. Chua Yen Ching. And we have got teachers volunteering for the school; they needed about 20 teachers, they had more than 90 who applied, and they came with passion because they think these are kids whom we can help and whom they want to help.  And with that attitude, something can be done. 

33.        And it is not just the teachers.  There are others too who have read about NorthLight School, and who are helping.  One of them is Jai Wahab, who was a former student of Mrs Chua’s.  He read about the school in the papers, got in touch with Mrs Chua.  He has now become a singer, a pop singer, and he has written the school song.  Not bad.

34.        So we will develop a school system which will reach all our kids.  We will reach the poor kids, and we’ll reach the weak kids, and the kids with family problems and help them all.

35.        We still have some who are dropping out of school. The numbers are not big, it is about 3%, but to us, every kid who drops out is one too many.  So we should really try and reduce the dropout rate; halve it; from 3% to 1.5%.  That means kids who do not complete their secondary education.  And I think in five years, we can do that. We work with the kids, we work with the parents, we work with the families, we give them that backing, support, encouragement, keep them in schools, try and prevent them from running into trouble, advise them, counsel them, guide them onto the right path, set them right. Masagos, Senior Parliamentary Secretary, is working on this and I think we will make progress.

36.        Our third priority is to develop in our young stronger emotional ties to Singapore. I spoke about this at the National Day Rally two weeks ago so I won’t talk a lot about it except to say that Lui Tuck Yew is chairing a Committee on National Education with Masagos and others, and we will see how we can do better.

37.        We need to get every young Singaporean to identify with Singapore, to know the Singapore story and understand the basic facts about our country.  Not just understand but to keep the Singapore story alive, special and help us to write the next chapter. This is important for all of our kids but this is especially important for the kids who can be the leaders in the next generation.

38.        We have very high expectations and hopes on them and they have high expectations and hopes on themselves.  But what we hope from them is not just that they will be able to do well individually but that they will be able to take Singapore forward and to fulfil all the hopes that Singapore has that they will contribute and they will make others succeed as they have been able to succeed.

39.        They come from many schools and in the polytechnics and ITE too.  But of course, a disproportionate number of them came from the top schools and Junior Colleges. And we have to pay special attention to make sure that we educate these kids not just intellectually, not just in terms of character but in terms of a sense of responsibility and mission.

40.        Many countries do this. So if you look at the best schools overseas, often they will emphasise not just education and academics and also character and leadership development. And it is true in the world all over. In Australia, you have Geelong and Melbourne Grammar School. In Britain, you got Eton and Harrow, elite public schools with that special ethos. In the US, you have Philips Academy at Andover, you have Groton and they also emphasise on character and leadership training. Or in Malaysia, you may have heard of the Malay College of Kuala Kangsar (MCKK) which in the 40s and 50s before and after the war, groomed a whole generation of Malay nationalist leaders, who played a key role fighting for Malay rights when the British were leaving Malaya and Malaya was becoming independent. They fought for their community and race and they stood up and made Malaysia what it is.

41.        How do these schools do this? I think there are three or four characteristics which we can study. One, they are boarding schools so the students don’t just attend classes together, but they live together, play together, do sports together, look after one another, older ones taking care of the younger ones. They do this day in and day out, for several formative years, as they grow up, as their characters are formed. So that’s one.

42.        Secondly, in the case of American schools, they set their own curricula and they issue their own certificates. And it is independent. So when you go to Philip Andover or Groton, it is what you did in the school which counts, more than what you get on the SAT. And you go to the Ivy League universities, the Ivy League knows the schools’ reputation and they know how to assess what the school masters write in their reports.  These schools have established long traditions and high reputations so that they have the freedom to do what they believe is right and maintain those standards and be something special. And therefore they can draw more good students and can innovate further.

43.        Our top schools already do quite a number of these things. For example, the NUS High School already issues its own certificate. Some of our independent schools have boarding facilities, although it is only a small part of the experience.  And I know for many Singaporean students, it is more comfortable to be staying at home, rather than staying in the schools boarding and making your own beds and doing your own housework.

44.        Several of our top schools have well established reputations, internationally and they are definitely moulding the characters of their students. So if you look at somebody from Raffles or ACS or Hwa Chong, you can see the mould of the person, the shape of it, and you know where it has been imprinted. So we have already gone some way in doing this. But I think we should consider what more we can learn from the experience of these top overseas schools, how we can learn from them in order to develop our future leaders better.

45.        We don’t want an elite system. But we want an open, inclusive, non-elitist approach.  All students can come in who have that talent and that abilities so that we can develop not just character and leadership skills, but also a sense of mission, a sense of readiness to serve.  Also to develop a chance to mix together with students from different backgrounds and different races, get to know one another, become friends, do things together, develop a loyalty to that group and therefore feel a group responsibility, a collective responsibility for Singapore.

46.        This is something which I know that our top schools are already thinking about and so is MOE.  This is a very important part of bonding our students to Singapore. And if we do all this then I think we can develop the next generation of Singaporeans who are committed and able leaders, with citizens who are rooted here and with a shared sense of mission to take care of our country.

47.        Finally, to achieve all these goals, we need first-class teachers. Not just doing a job, but people who are passionate about teaching, about nurturing young people. People who can teach the class, impact the kids. Year after year, your hair may grow a little bit greyer, but your spirit is still the same, and each time you see a new generation of kids, you are energized afresh and you get going again, get excited again.

48.        We need people like that, able to connect with a new generation, prepared to meet very demanding challenges.  I think we should make no pretence about it, teaching is a very, very demanding job and it has become more demanding than it used to be.  If you ask any teacher, he will say it is much harder now than it used to be.
49.        If you are teaching bright kids, outstanding students, you need the self-confidence to manage the group, to take questions, to admit that you don’t always have the answers. You need the maturity to guide the children to grow, and point them in the right direction. You will need to get them to excel in so many ways, and not just academically.

50.        And if you are teaching difficult kids, that also is very challenging. You are not just talking about education, but also mentoring, counselling and advising. Be able to help them to work out problems which may be very difficult, even for yourself to solve, never mind for a young child. After mentoring and counselling them, to be able to teach them and get them to pass and do more than pass examinations.

51.        And if you are teaching the majority of kids, ‘Teach Less, Learn More’ means prescribe less, work harder. Because it is much harder than teaching the textbook, or teaching the examinations. You have to understand the subject and you have to get them to understand the subject. Focus on what is meaningful, what is important, getting the kids to be self-motivated to want to learn and to absorb what is inside.

52.        We have talked about ‘Teach Less, Learn More’ for quite some time. I think it is happening in many schools. I just give you one example of what it means. This is a school from Bedok – it is Bedok South Secondary School. The things which they are doing, learning through projects – designing and making movies and posters for the Singapore Heart Foundation, designing gadgets, handphone charger and pencil holder using IT, Computer Aided Design.  Having prototype machines and making the things which they are designing. What subject is it? It is not one subject. It is a combined learning - Art, Music, Design and Technology, Food and Nutrition, all put together applied and through applying, you learn. I think it is very good, and it takes a lot from the teachers and we should recognise the efforts of the teachers who are able to make this happen.

53.        Whomever you are teaching, whatever your kids are like, you will need to work with the parents because nowadays, many parents take a very close interest in how their kids are doing in schools, in the education of their children. And they not only have a close interest, they also have strong views about how their children should be taught, whether they have been taught right and wrong. They will come and look for you and tell you about it. I think that is good.  You have to enlist parents’ help and build a fruitful partnership with them. And in fact, it has to be a two-way relationship – parents supporting the teachers, helping you to achieve the learning objectives and you giving the parent the feedback so that they can know how their children are doing and the kids can keep on doing better.

54.        I think you have a tough job, and we will help you to our best ability. We are building a high-quality and a very dedicated teaching force. We are getting the numbers up, it used to be 27,000 and now we have 28,000. By 2010, we will go up to 30,000 teachers. What does that mean? 10 more teachers per school which will be a big difference to your pupil-teacher ratio, maybe an improvement of 15%.  Plus the schools are getting up to 10 adjunct teachers, which will be of further help to you.  Which means more time for teachers to reflect, to plan, to make interesting lessons, to spend quality time with your pupils, not just in class but out of class.

55.        We are getting many good people applying to be teachers. Of course, we want more. They can be fresh graduates, they can be mid-career recruits, or they can even be retired educators, people who want to come back as adjunct teachers. If you have the passion and the skills, we welcome you.
56.        Sometimes, we have to be flexible about what we think, for example, for many years, we were very strict and restrictive about the qualifications you need in order to be a teacher. 

57.        There was one lady, Mrs Sandra Wong who worked in a Multi National Company. She wanted to be a teacher and for 20 years, she applied to MOE but MOE said sorry, you don’t have the qualifications. Finally MOE saw the light, changed the rules, took her in and now she is teaching in Zhangde Primary School and her dreams have come true. A little late, but we learn.

58.        So we will change, we will get the teachers in, we will give you our full backing and support. Provide you the resources and materials you need, take care of your well-being and career advancement, help you to develop professionally.  Not just at the beginning, but throughout your careers at key points, through training, courses, preparation for the next stage of responsibility so that we keep teaching an attractive career choice.

59.        MOE is working on this and I believe that in a few days’ time, they will be announcing more details on some of what they are thinking about.

60.        So on Teachers’ Day today, and in fact, on Teachers’ Day every year, we remember our teachers, we remember our children’s teachers. We recognise these very dedicated people. People who give of themselves and take a personal interest in their students. Teachers who have touched our lives, moulded us into what we are today, and are helping to shape tomorrow’s people, tomorrow’s students.

61.        Just as a country is as good as its people, so its citizens are only as good as their teachers.  Therefore a great deal depends on you and I salute you, all of you, those here today, and many more who are not here, for your passion, dedication, commitment and contributions.

62.        Thank you very much for making a difference to our children and to the future of our country. And keep it up, we expect even more from you. 

63.        Happy Teachers’ Day!



Page Last Updated : 02-Jan-2008

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