Opening Address by Mr Ong Ye Kung, at Singapore International TVET Conference 2015

Published Date: 03 November 2015 12:00 AM

News Speeches

A Bias Towards Aspiration

Mr G K Goh,
Chairman Temasek Foundation

Mr Bruce Poh, Director and CEO, ITE

Dr Benjamin Tan and Ms Sabrina Loi,
Chair and Co-Chair persons of the Conference

Ladies and gentlemen


Welcome to the Singapore International TVET Conference 2015. I thank ITE and the Polytechnics for organising the conference, and Temasek Foundation for supporting it. Today, I will speak on two topics. First, the importance of vocational trades to society and economy. Second, how we can harness the dreams and aspirations of our people to build a stronger Singapore.

Society and Economy

First, how are vocations relevant to society and economy? The simple answer is: In almost every way.

Part of a Social Order

A vocation has sometimes been seen as a job, and even a destination of last resort, an economic, rather than personal choice. But as a collective - artisans, craftsmen and tradesmen have always been part of a larger social order. It is also an evolving order, depending on economics, societal values and politics of the times.

The concept of Shi, Nong, Gong, Shang is an ancient Chinese concept. It is arguable if it was meant to be a hierarchical order, but over time, Chinese society did gave the Shi (court official) the highest regard, and it is the piece next to the king in Chinese chess. Nong (farmer) came next, followed by the Gong (vocational tradesmen). And finally Shang (businessmen), who were historically treated with suspicion. But in the year 2000, with the advancement and opening up of the Chinese economy, entrepreneurs and businessmen cemented their place in the Chinese system through the Three Represents theory.

Social hierarchies through occupations are even more entrenched in the Indian civilisation, with roots in the Vedic Indian society. Vaishyas, comprising merchants, artisans, tradesmen and farmers, are placed below priests (Brahmins) and Kshatriyas (warriors and public servants) and above Shudras (labourers).

Europe has quite a different social set-up. Feudalism in the Middle Ages made it necessary for tradesmen and craftsmen to get together to form guilds, to advance their own interests vis-à-vis the landlords. They were the first trade unions. Through the guilds, they charted career progression pathways from apprentices to journeymen to masters, stipulated and enforced standards, and imparted skills and knowledge to future generations. Today, the tradition continues in many European countries. In Germany and Switzerland, the vocational pathway is parallel - and not subordinate - to the academic pathway.

A New Order

The US has its own historical biases which it is still grappling with, but when it comes to acquiring skills and advancement in a vocational trade, it has taken a very pragmatic approach. It is a system with a myriad of certification courses for various trades. Indeed, in the US, after you get your degree and Masters, the next progression may be a certificate programme in a specific area or a particular task. Years ago, when we were promoting MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences, and Events) in Singapore, the Workforce Development Agency tried to bring in a US certificate course in event management.

Unlike China, India or Europe, Singapore as a young, multi-cultural country, does not have deep-seated historical biases or baggage. We can combine the rigour of European vocational training system and the pragmatic nature of the US employment market to develop our own system - one in which skills are not subordinate to academic knowledge, one in which both are needed for our society and economy to excel.

Blurring distinction between Vocations and Academia

Given economic realities today, the distinction between vocational training and academic tracks is becoming less meaningful. Traditional craftsmen need knowledge to distinguish their work and academics need hands on skills to excel. And at the highest levels, it is not possible, or no longer meaningful, to distinguish the two. Let me cite two examples to prove this to you.

Steve Jobs admired his father whom he described as being able ‘to build everything’, and followed his father around mending fences and repairing cars. He loved electronics as a child, did a summer job with Hewlett-Packard to make frequency counters on the assembly line, and designed circuit boards for video games. His foundation of vocational skills, which was in fact laid under his father’s influence rather than through formal education, and desire to make things, overlaid with his knowledge of technology, markets and consumers, enabled him to create the first computer with a Graphical User Interface. The GUI predated the Macintosh, and later the iPod, which in turn provided the technological foundation for the iPhone and the iPad.

A similarly inspiring story is that of JK Rowling, the creator of the world of Harry Potter. As a child, she wrote fantasy stories that she frequently read to her sister. Her true vocation is a writer, but Harry Potter has become a brand in itself and Rowling’s legacy has extended far beyond the book series, covering a multi-billion dollar enterprise of movies, merchandise and theme parks. To me, most importantly, her works have cultivated the reading interests of many millions of children around the world. She would not be able to do this without being a writer in the first place.

I believe to excel and accomplish something innovative and extra-ordinary, one must have deep skills sets hardwired into your anatomy, so your movements and responses are visceral and instinctive. It is like a professional player translating the complex coordination of movements of various body part into a smooth natural golf swing; or fluid beauty of Lionel Messi on the football pitch. This is a result of years of practice, coaching and hard work. But from the deep foundation laid by time and effort, you re-configure, re-arrange your competencies, invent new ones, and venture into the unknown. Those of us who grew up watching Kung Fu movies will know this is when you become unbeatable - and feel obliged to retire in the mountains, to avoid killing people who insist on asking you for duels.

In Chinese when you practice something hard enough you acquire Xin De, that is, something acquired through the heart, executed through the soul. That’s how high you can go in a vocation.

A Bias Towards Aspirations

Let me now switch to the second topic, which is how we can harness the aspirations and passions of our people in vocational skills to build a stronger Singapore.

In a recent speech, I spoke about an important tension present in higher education - balancing the collective good and the aspirations of individuals. The two are not inherently contradictory - allowing individuals to pursue their passions and interests can lead to, and is perhaps the only way to realise, the collective good.

According to a 2013 Gallup survey, if people work in jobs that make good use of their knowledge and skills, they are more likely to be engaged. Engaged employees are enthusiastic about and dedicate themselves to their work. They contribute to their organizations in a positive manner by being the ones who are most likely to drive innovation and growth, which is for the collective good.

Many Fields to Choose From

There are small cities or towns in Europe or US where one occupation, be it building ships, making cars, or producing certain food stuff, dominates the whole local economy. In Singapore, we have built a diversified economy with good jobs across many fields. Amongst all the sectors, trades and occupations, there is a good chance a young person can find something he is passionate about.

Starting with Selection

When our students progress from one education level to the next, they have important decisions to make about the education pathway and course of study to undertake. However, sometimes we can decide our pursuits based on how society fits us within a social hierarchy. I even hear about students choosing courses based on what their parents want, or what their friends are choosing, or what they think they can “realistically” get into even if they are not inherently interested in the subject matter.

I think there are better ways to choose and I encourage students to choose wisely. Choices should be based on a good understanding of self - one’s passion and aptitudes, and also a good understanding of the course and career - not just based on salaries or perceived status of a profession.

I think we can also afford to dial in a greater bias towards personal aspirations in that admission system. That is to say, to build a choice architecture that better allows individuals to enter a course of study that can better fulfil personal aspirations and help him go as far as possible.

Our institutes of higher learning already have existing frameworks in place that adopt a holistic approach towards admissions. Approximately 7.5% of our full-time Polytechnic students are admitted on a discretionary basis via the Direct Admissions Exercise, Direct Polytechnic Admission and Joint Polytechnic Special Admission Exercise. Our universities can also admit up to 10% of their intake on a discretionary basis, based on their own independent criteria. These could include recommendations, interviews to assess the passions, strengths and competencies of these students, over and above academic achievements.

Let me share some examples. Mr Lee Yong Hong Justin, a Nitec student, built his portfolio of digital animation work during his studies and his national service days. He was admitted into Nanyang Polytechnic’s Diploma in Digital Media Design (Animation), not on the basis of his grades, but through the submission of his work portfolio at the Direct Admissions Exercise. Today, he is with LucasFilm Singapore.

Mr Tengku Muhammad Khalaf bin Tengku Zainal Shah has a Diploma in Aerospace Electronics. Upon graduation from polytechnic, he worked as a quality assurance technician with the turbine overhaul services before moving on to project management work. The Singapore Institute of Technology recognised his work experience in site engineering and quality assurance and admitted him into its Bachelor of Engineering in Sustainable Infrastructure Engineering after observing the passion he demonstrated for his field during his interview.

Towards Holistic Assessment

These stories illustrate the heart of our education policy. Educators and employers should not be too quick to dismiss individuals’ interests and aspirations if they can demonstrate their strengths, passions, and capabilities through means other than their academic qualifications. We will encourage our institutions to place greater emphasis on holistic admissions beyond academic achievements by affirming and recognising practical knowledge and experience. In so doing, we do not compromise our standards or rigour - individuals would still need to demonstrate that they have a reasonable chance of completing their selected courses successfully. The same approach should apply to working adults who desire to further deepen their skills back at an education institution.


We know mastery when we see it, taste it, wear it, use it, or learn from it. We ourselves find meaning in a vocation that we have chosen that matches our interests, talents and personality. The challenge is to develop a system that best matches vocation and aspirations, to create a marketplace for this matching, to build the infrastructure that allows us to work through to the highest forms of our vocations. That will create many paths to success and broaden the definition of success in society, beyond how well a person does academically or how much he or she earns.

This will be a cultural shift. One that requires employers, education institutions and training providers and society to move in tandem, and openness in viewing the world and our society through new lenses. It is not a trivial shift, but one that will determine our economic prospects as well as the tenor of Singapore society. This will not be an easy endeavour, but if we manage to do it, it will be worthwhile. With all my colleagues at MOE, the polytechnics, ITE and the universities we will take this as our vocation.

Thank you.

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