Speech by Mr Ong Ye Kung, Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) at the Roundtable on the Value of a Humanities and Social Science Education and Launch of the New Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Curriculum

Published Date: 08 September 2016 12:00 AM

News Speeches

University Leaders, Faculty Members, Educators, Students

Ladies and Gentlemen


1. Some questions are very difficult to answer. One difficult question to answer is, “What is the value of a humanities and social science education?” – which is the question that is posed to me today. Some questions are also not really questions, but assertions – this might be one of those.

2. I will say that from time to time, friends, colleagues and industry leaders will say to me that MOE should focus our education system on certain disciplines. Some say engineering best prepares our young for the biggest number of jobs; others say every organisation deals with money, so accounting should be a compulsory subject; still others feel art and the aesthetics are integral to every aspect of life. In recent times, the strongest call has been for all students to learn computer coding, because of the digital economy, and because we have a Prime Minister who knows how to code, which has made this all the more popular.

3. My response has always been that we can insist and plan all we want, but young people will eventually choose what they want to do based on interests and aspirations. We must accept that these interests are diverse, and if you are doing what you are interested in, you will do well.

4. Hence, there is little point in me trying to justify the need to study the humanities and social sciences. Those who believe it, already do. Those who do not, I hope they too will find an interest in time to come. Whatever professions and stations in life we find ourselves in, there will always be an inherent curiosity about the society we live in, the relationships we forge, and the entire human experience. When I was younger, I was curious about how society worked, and how people responded to incentives. That curiosity led me to become an economist.

Purpose of a Humanities and Social Sciences Education

5. My intention today is therefore less to convince you of the value of a humanities and social science education, than to tell you of its purpose. So not so much what your education can do for you, but what you can do with that education.

6. In terms of personal development, I have found that a humanities and social sciences education enriches both the head and the heart.

7. First the head. The hallmarks of a humanities and social sciences education are the rigorous standards of argumentation, writing, creative and critical thinking, and an appreciation of multiple perspectives to every single issue.

8. Next, the heart. Whether you are trying to get into the head of Macbeth, or trying to understand social inequality, what you study puts you directly in touch with human nature, and uncovers your sense of empathy and interest in public well-being.

9. But a humanities and social sciences education also has special importance for our economy, public policy and society.

Being Competitive

10. First, Singapore’s industries cannot be competitive without internalising the human and social perspective. Technology, robotics and artificial intelligence are very cool, and they are changing the world, but the revolution is as much social as it is technological. Take an example of a car-sharing app – it is not just a cool app that changes the way we travel. In many places around the world, cab drivers are protesting on the streets, because their livelihoods are affected. So you cannot look at technology in isolation, as it affects society. The best smart phones are popular not just for their cutting-edge technology, but also because their design and features suit and shape our lifestyles.

11. Hence some of the most sought-after people in Silicon Valley today are social scientists and humanists. One of the most influential women in technology today is Dr Genevieve Bell, who is Intel’s Vice President of Corporate Strategy, and an anthropologist. Her job is to ask important questions about how and where technology will integrate into people’s lives. Her team travels around the world to observe people in their natural settings, such as their homes, to get a sense of how they live their lives, what makes them tick, and what they care about. They then use those insights to see where the arc of social reality could be heading, and drive the next generation of technology development.

12. So even as many jobs progressively become automated, skills such as critical thinking, creativity, and emotional intelligence remain a very human preserve, out of reach of even the most advanced robots or artificial intelligence. Indeed, these are among the top 10 most desired skills in 2020 in the World Economic Forum’s report on the “Future of Jobs and Skills”. And these happen to be skills that the humanities and social sciences inculcate.

13. In Singapore, humanities and social sciences graduates have made inroads into different sectors in the corporate realm, ranging from hospitality to lifestyle to technology. Let me give a few examples. We have Claire Chiang, a sociology graduate, who co-founded Banyan Tree. Edward Chia, who majored in political science and economics, runs the Timbre Group. He has a very nice food centre called Timbre+, where everyone returns their trays to get their one-dollar tray deposit back. He probably thought of this because of his political science training – it is all about influencing human behaviour. And Lim Qing Ru, a philosophy major who co-founded the start-up Zopim. Claire, Edward and Qing Ru all graduated from the NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

Informing Policy-Making

14. Second, humanities and social sciences can do what everyone – from beauty contestants to politicians to Presidents – hopes to accomplish: to make the world a better place. Social sciences do this in a very special way, by gaining deep insights into human behaviour, and applying them in real and practical ways.

15. In 2010, the UK Government set up a unit called the Behavioural Insights Team in the Cabinet Office, also known unofficially as the “Nudge Unit”. The Nudge Unit, led by a psychologist, drew on behavioural science principles to redesign public services to be more cost-effective and citizen-centric. It helped to increase contributions to charity, encourage people to join the organ donor register, and increase tax collections through simple tweaks like changing the way forms were designed. It now offers advice to Governments around the world. In Singapore, we too have applied behavioural economics and insights in many areas of public policy design.

16. In Singapore, we have good public institutions that can act effectively on good research. But we need to complement this with a new generation of social scientists who can provide good insights on some of our most pressing challenges today. We have many good role models with us today. Professor Wang Gungwu is an internationally-renowned historian and a leading authority on China’s history and its future. Professor Chan Heng Chee made her career first as a political scientist, and then became our top diplomat to the US, and is now heading the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities, to help us imagine the cities of the future. Professor Kishore Mahbubani rose in the Singapore diplomatic service to become Permanent Secretary, before becoming the Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. They are all proud alumni of this faculty.

Staying United

17. That brings me to my third point, which is that humanities can unite society. We will continue to need outstanding scholars of humanities, who are well-placed to understand the complex and cross-disciplinary nature of the problems of our society, from political polarisation, social inequality, intolerance, radicalisation, terrorism, to the erosion of the global commons. In these times of shifting sands, values will be contested, social morality will go through uncertainties, mean-spiritedness will co-exist along good-heartedness, both online and offline.

18. We will need openness and generosity of mind to help our society stay strong. Now, more than ever, we need to cultivate a respect for differing views, build moral foundations, and develop an appreciation for all honest efforts to improve our collective well-being, regardless of political stripes or colour – as all these will help our society stay strong.

19. The education and study of the humanities and social sciences must therefore be strengthened. The new Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) curriculum will contribute to this effort. It aims to equip students with stronger skills in writing, communication and critical thinking. It will also give students greater flexibility over their education – FASS Dean, Prof Brenda Yeoh, mentioned there are about 190 combinations of double majors that students can choose from. So they can choose more electives outside of their major for a more broad-based education, or focus on in-depth training in their major.

20. Earlier this year, we established the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), on which Professor Wang, Heng Chee and Kishore sit. The SSRC launched a new Social Science Research Thematic Grant Call in May this year, which aims to support humanities and social science research on issues of great relevance to Singapore. The SSRC will support talent and good research, and build up the community of social scientists and humanists in Singapore. But ultimately, we can only achieve its objectives with the energies of talented young people who are passionate about these subjects.


21. The value of the humanities and social sciences cannot be denied. What remains for us to do is to support young people to discover and pursue their interests and aspirations, and fulfil their potential. This is a policy position that is pragmatic – because the jobs of the future need the humanities and social science perspective. It is also inspired – because these are disciplines that inherently cultivate open-mindedness and an appreciation for multiple perspectives, which we will need to tackle the complex problems of today and tomorrow. Above all, it is based on a faith that people do best in what they are interested in.

22. I hope you have a good discussion at this Roundtable. Thank you.

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