Speech By Mr Ng Chee Meng, Acting Minister For Education at the 18th Appointment And Appreciation Ceremony For Principals

Published Date: 29 December 2015 12:00 AM

News Speeches

Parliamentary Colleagues

Permanent Secretaries

Director-General of Education

Distinguished guests


Ladies and Gentlemen


1. Good afternoon. Every year, we gather to honour our senior education officers who are retiring, and to formally appoint our principals. I am very pleased to celebrate this significant occasion with you. I have joined MOE for about 3 months now and I have been warmly welcomed by so many of you. You have left a deep impression on me. Every conversation, every school visit, every interaction with educators, I see your passion, and I feel your drive. There is a very strong sense of mission in the MOE family, and I could not be happier to be part of this mission. Today, as we conclude the year, we are poised to start the next 50 years of Our Singapore Story. As this is my first address to all our school leaders, I hope to share my reflections on:

  • how far our education system and schools have progressed,
  • and also my thoughts on the key areas that we have to pay attention to in the years ahead.

Reflecting on the Past and Present

2. A Good Education System We have a good education system. I have full confidence in our system that has served Singapore and Singaporeans well since independence. We have moved from a fragmented multi-language school system to a unified one. We have progressed from a nation of low literacy rates to one that tops global benchmarks. From learners of a single language to fluent bilingual speakers. From a basic level of skillsv to high technical and vocational competence. From single pathways to flexible and multiple opportunities. We have stayed true to the belief of nurturing every child, no matter what their ability or achievement level.

Quality Educators and Clarity of Purpose

3. So, …….What has brought us this far? Among the many factors, let me highlight two critical features. First - we have high quality teachers and school leaders. Principals and teachers, from our pioneers in the past to those in our schools today, are, without doubt, the pillar of our system. Educators like you, across the years, have not only been competent, but committed and dedicated. You, and our teachers, are the secret ingredient to our success. WELL DONE. And thank you all. Second - we had clarity of purpose of education. Education has always been equipping Singaporeans with knowledge and skills to make a living, at the individual level as well as collectively as a people, as Singapore. Education is also an instrument of nation-building. From our independence, our schools have played a key role in bringing together a multi-racial, multi-religious society. Teachers have been instrumental in shaping our youths’ values. Over 50 years, we have shaped a Singaporean identity as children from all walks of life play, study and grow up together in our schools. Indeed, we have an education system to be proud of.

Looking Ahead Into the Future

4. However, looking ahead into the future, we cannot be complacent and rest on our laurels. We must continue to scan the horizons and understand the future needs and challenges that Singapore and our students will face. We need to boldly confront the facts and know the challenges and threats to Singapore’s continued success. For instance, look at the changing world economy. How would Singapore position ourselves to remain economically viable and relevant? And for us, what would education’s role be in this? Look at our declining birth rates and cohort sizes - how would this impact our economic, defence and even immigration strategies in the face of falling numbers? Similarly, what would the role of education be in these? How would we ensure that our students will be Singaporeans of character, who are open, nimble, resourceful, and perhaps most importantly, united as one people, to overcome these challenges, and more? Ladies and gentlemen, we are at an inflexion point. Much like in 1965, like our pioneers before us, we stand on the cusp of new challenges facing the country. Back then, education played a critical role in propelling Singapore forward. Going forward, education will again play a key role in our country’s progress.

5. It is timely as we are about to start SG51 to ask ourselves. What are our national imperatives and what would our roles in education be? What are the areas to improve and strengthen in our already successful education system? Besides our current focus on holistic education and SkillsFuture, I believe two other broad areas are important for all of us to mull over as we continue to nurture Singaporeans. First, to be ‘innovators and value-creators’ and Second, to possess ‘a strong Singapore heartbeat’.

Nurturing Innovators and Value-Creators

6. Globally, advanced economies are slowing down in growth. Singapore, as a maturing economy, is no exception. What then can we do to continue to progress, grow, stay relevant and excel?Our economy needs to transform from a value-adding paradigm to a value-creating one. This can only happen if our people learn to be value-creators. What implication does this have on education? It means we do not just educate our students to be good at solving problems. This is something our students excel in and must continue to do well at. But it is insufficient. Our students must develop the instincts and ability to be value-creators. ‘Value-creating’ is about finding and defining problems and opportunities, when these are not yet obvious. It requires joining disparate dots to form the picture. Value-creating is about inventing new, cutting-edge innovations that will change the game. Will our young people be ready to capitalise on new opportunities? Will they be innovative, creative and risk-taking, even as they continue to excel as they have been doing? Well, there is good news. We already have some home-grown, local-bred innovators who are not only household names, but also recognised on global platforms. Olivia Lum of Hyflux. She seized upon the idea that “the world was going to run out of clean water”, and from that single bold idea, built a water treatment empire. Of course there were many ups and downs but Olivia shared that, “There are no difficulties you can’t overcome if you have faced the challenges of hunger and poverty.” Tan Min-Liang of Razer, a world-leading company for gamer products. He took the path less travelled, and was passionate about pursuing his dreams. He believes strongly that the young generation of today is capable of creative persistence, if you give them something to believe in, “when they get an opportunity to be a part of something much greater and contribute back”. Going forward, we need more good news. We need more Singaporeans like Olivia and Min-Liang to push boundaries and in their own ways, create economic possibilities for Singapore and Singaporeans. If you agree that this is an important national imperative, our education system must then nurture our students to learn to be innovators. How? Encourage them to bravely persist in pushing frontiers. Help them have the courage, like Olivia, to ‘try’-‘fail’-‘try again’- ‘fail again’-‘try again’. Create an environment in our schools that give students something to believe in, to be inspired by and to contribute back to. That way, many more young people, like Min-Liang, can pursue their dreams and passions. Then our children will be capable of achieving more for themselves, more for their families, and more for the nation. Then perhaps they can live in a Singapore that is even better than the one we live in today. How do we nurture such an ecosystem in our schools for nurturing innovators?

7. Let me share two studies to point toward some possibilities for MOE and our schools. First, in Google, there is an organisational culture which encourages staff to take risks, and depend on one another. They feel safe that they can make mistakes. There are no “silly questions”. This “psychological safety” helps the organisation to be open to diverse views and ideas, and to harvest some very productive ones. Can we create a similar culture and learning environment in our schools? A safe environment? With diversity in viewpoints? Are students encouraged to explore, give opinions, right or wrong, and not feel self-conscious? Do they feel safe to fail? Or are they in a fail-safe operating mode, treading carefully to avoid failing, in case they are wrong? Second, in another study by the consulting firm Strategy&, innovation gurus identified a strategy called the “need-seeking” mind-set. The study found that the best innovators can identify needs, spot gaps, see opportunities, where others can’t. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs for instance, figure out peoples’ needs, before people even articulate them. The Post-it note is one such example - it was a product nobody thought they needed until they had it. The innovation was simple, elegant and in this instance, building on existing technologies in paper and glue. What will enable our students to become “need-seekers”? Do we teach them to be observant, insightful, to connect the dots, go beyond the obvious, sense and see the unspoken? DPM Tharman has talked about the importance of play, daydreaming, imagining, meandering. Do we encourage our students to play, daydream, imagine, let their minds meander? Are they curious about what is happening around them? Are they observant? Are they interested and have many varied pursuits? One of the best known innovators of our time had a curious mind and many seemingly unrelated pursuits - Steve Jobs. He chose to enrol in classes he enjoyed. One such class was a calligraphy course. He learned about serif and sans serif types, and what makes great typography. He found typography beautiful and fascinating. At that time, he did not know he would have a practical use for the new knowledge. 10 years later, the Mac was the first computer with beautiful typography. This shows the importance of following your passion and interest, which could be in diverse areas.

8. Linking these examples back to MOE and schools, I ask myself — what can we do more of? Because, going forward, we need more innovators, inventors, path-blazers, people who can push the envelope, who can create value for society. Very few education systems worldwide have achieved this capability of developing innovators. Frankly, when I tested these ideas out on some people, they even joked that education systems, school leaders, teachers are traditionally conservative and risk-averse. They say, “Minister, not the best place to help innovators blossom!”. Can we prove these nay-sayers wrong? I pose this challenge to us, as MOE, school leaders and educators. I understand there is no straightforward method. In fact, in true innovation tradition, there probably are many possible strategies to adopt to nurture these desired qualities in our students. But what is clear is that we, collectively, will need to work on the approaches and strategies.

Nurturing a Strong Singapore Heartbeat

9. Next, nurturing a strong Singapore Heartbeat. This is the second area that our education system needs to enhance and strengthen. Why? Because this is a core strength that would galvanise Singaporeans together as one. You see, our nation remains vulnerable to what happens around us. Geo-political relationships among the big powers, or climate change, natural disasters, or the threat of terrorism all impact us. Our good or bad relationships with our bigger neighbours impact us. A strong economy and a strong SAF give us the external strength. But a strong Singapore Heartbeat gives us inner core strength - a strong fabric that holds Singapore together. The question is, how do we help our students feel and own the Singapore Heartbeat, and not merely understand it? I know that our schools are already doing good work on this front. Through the CCE curriculum, History and Social Studies lessons - our children learn about the past, which enables them to understand the present, and ponder the future. But it must go beyond ‘head knowledge’. It must touch the ‘heart’ and weave an inseparable attachment. Our pledge to be ‘one united people, regardless of race, language or religion’ cannot be only understood, …… but FELT. We all saw this at Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s state funeral. We saw how children came home from school feeling different about the country, feeling different about being Singaporean. Yes , there was an outpouring of grief, but there was more —— There was shared pride, pride of being Singaporean, pride of belonging to Singapore! From the 4 CHIJ sisters I met at 4 am in the morning, to the 84 year old Ah Ma, whom I had to persuade to sit and join the express queue. I saw grief, gratitude, and pride. It bonded the nation like never before. I was then the Chief of Defence Force, chairing the State Funeral Organising Committee. I had never felt so privileged to see my fellow Singaporeans come together - in one spirit - like never before. In his passing, Mr Lee showed us who we really are, what we are made of, and what, together, we can be. Our people must love their country and take pride in their nation. We must be a people of strong character, a people with a strong sense of identity. We must all want Singapore to be special and make it happen, together. How can we, our schools, help our students engage in meaningful conversations about our shared values as Singaporeans? To ensure that our society is cohesive and inclusive? How will we afford our students the opportunities to commit themselves to each other, to knit a strong social fabric, and in the process, see that: we are Singaporeans first and foremost; that while we may have our own personal identities, we are also important members of a shared group, with a shared citizenship and shared spirit as Singaporeans. …….ultimately, at the end of this speech, what IS YOUR ROLE? What is OUR role? What WOULD YOU DO in nurturing this core strength, this ‘Singapore Heartbeat’?


10. I think I have spoken long enough. I am sorry that I may disappoint some because there are no convenient conclusions or answers today. I have asked many questions of you, of us. It will take some time to discover the solutions. But I hope you will think about the questions that would guide our work: What are our national imperatives and what would our roles in education be? What are the areas to improve and strengthen in our already successful education system? How will we enable our children to grow up to be innovative in their thinking, having the “dare”, and embracing risks to try, fail and try again? How will we instil in our students the Singapore Heartbeat? Such that they build on our national identity and contribute actively to our society and our nation? So that Singapore will always be HOME? I believe that the school leader’s role in our Singapore’s future cannot be overstated. In the coming months, I look forward to hearing your thoughts and views. It is important to me to harness your collective insights and experiences to chart the way forward together.

Appreciating Retiring Principals and Affirming Newly Appointed Principals

11. And on that note, let me speak about the important work of the school leaders, and express my appreciation to those who are retiring. Singapore is what it is today because of the thought, effort, care and will of the pioneer and older generation of Singaporeans. Our education system and schools have contributed to the last 50 years of nation-success and nation-building. We are grateful to our Principals. Your work is complex, with the full weight of responsibility as the many young lives, and the expectations of parents and society, are upon you. But it is also fulfilling as you can make a difference to improve the lives of our young. You enable the best chances for each child to succeed, regardless of his background, and his ability. You do all that because you have a strong sense of mission to build a better nation. I thank the 15 Senior Education Officers who are retiring at the end of the year. You have inspired, guided and encouraged many students and teachers. One such dedicated school leader is Mdm Teo Chwee Kee, Principal of Woodlands Ring Secondary School. Chwee Kee has served in education for more than 38 years, and has led 3 schools as Principal in the past 18 years. In all her postings, Chwee Kee designs the school programmes and policies with students’ interests as priority. She believes in working hand-in-hand with parents and the community. Another retiring school leader is Mrs Ang Chin Du, Principal of Horizon Primary School. She emphasises the joy of learning in her students and encourages the teachers to use interesting and engaging pedagogies such as storytelling, role-play and games. To all our 15 retiring officers, thank you for your years of service and leadership. As we bid happy retirement to our 15 colleagues, we also welcome and congratulate 63 Principals who are receiving their appointment letters today. Amongst them is Mdm Cheang Mei Heng. She will be helming Eunoia Junior College, the new JC which will receive the Integrated Programme or IP students of Catholic High School, CHIJ St Nicholas Girls’ and Singapore Chinese Girls’ School. I am told its name “Eunoia” has Greek origins; it means “beautiful thinking” and “goodwill towards others”. I’m confident that the college will work hard at nurturing students to possess innovative thinking and a passionate heart for Singapore. Every newly appointed Principal will know this phrase at the end of your appointment letter, “Through your hands passes the future of the nation.”Fittingly, it reminds you of the important role you play in shaping our next generation, and our country. Your impact is not only on individuals but on families, the community, and ultimately, the nation. I wish all school leaders every success in your role. Continue to be steadfast in building the nation. I wish you joy and meaning on your leadership journey.

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