Speech by Senior Minister Of State (Education), Dr Janil Puthucheary, for The 6th Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF) Rectors’ Conference And Students’ Forum 2017

Published Date: 13 October 2017 12:00 AM

News Speeches

Good afternoon.

1. I would like to thank the Asia-Europe Foundation for putting together such a platform for the exchange of ideas, best traditions, academic discourse and critical thinking. And also, Singapore Management University for hosting. I thought I would leave all the best bits for the Question and Answer segment, but I thought I might scope out how I think about some of the issues facing us today, some of the things that we are facing in Singapore, and some of the chances we see going forward.

2. This idea of the need to respond to change in the world, is not something that any single nation, but something that all of us is facing together. But there are some particular things about where Singapore is situated, our historical context, our current strengths as well as our vulnerabilities that change the way we think about this. I will break them down into a few dimensions.

3. One is that we have been doing globalisation long before that became a word. Ever since independence, due to the absence of resources, agriculture, a capital base and a hinterland, we had to be integrated into global trading. We had to, as a matter of survival, integrate with what was happening in the rest of the world. So we had become very aggressive about that process, looking around the world for opportunities that we could bring to Singapore, looking within our economy to see what would effectively benefit from a launchpad into the rest of the world. So we were doing globalisation aggressively, and we have succeeded, and we have benefitted from that.

4. Through that process, we have become incredibly connected. This is manifested in terms of the movement of trade and goods. And also in the movement of people, data and financial services. The availability of internet connectivity means we are a city connected to the rest of the world, as we have had to be in order to benefit from that push for globalisation. And part of that connectivity is the mobility of people, where we have had flows of people moving in. Partly due to a constant shortage in manpower – one-third of our workforce is now currently non-Singaporean. And we have had a constant flow of Singaporeans and Singaporean talents moving out around the world. The need for us to be well-versed in English and the other languages means that our people will find it very easy to re-locate elsewhere.

5. The push that we have had around science and technology, math and more recently computer sciences, means that our young are not just globally mobile. We know they are a desirable source of manpower around the world. They have a rich sense of opportunity, but it means there is also a sense that they could easily move elsewhere if the opportunities are not available in Singapore.

6. So as a result of all these things, the very factors that had driven our prosperity, progress and success, now make us far more exposed to the pace of disruption and change around the world. Those factors that have traditionally been our strengths, and the drivers of our success, make us vulnerable to the speed and pace of this latest wave of disruption and technological revolution that we are experiencing. So our response to those adverse winds of globalisation, needs to be equally robust. We need to move faster and make transformed changes due to the fact that we are so connected, and our people are so mobile.

7. When we then think about what we should do, and what our policy stance should be, what our strategy should be, I would argue that there are three things, three factors that we need to take into consideration. The first is obvious, as it has been well discussed and documented, which is the pace and extent of change of the Singapore demographic. Fertility rates are falling, and old-age dependency ratio is skewing quite significantly. And ultimately, cohort sizes are going to shrink. I don’t need to belabour that point, it has been well-discussed and documented. But the next two are not so well-discussed, so I will spend a little more time speaking about them.

8. The first is that we have had a position that there is no ideology in Singapore. If anything, we have always said our ideology is pragmatism. We would look around the world to identify best practices. We will find second-best practices in case it is a lot cheaper. We will cut, copy and paste, and put these practices together, bring them together for our people, as solutions to our challenges. And we will not hold ourselves to one philosophical view about something, almost ideologically wanting not to be ideological. But if you do the same thing, or if you think the same way for ten, twenty, or thirty years for some things, and we’re on fifty-two years. If, when a new idea, policy or proposal is brought up on platforms and put in front of you, and you hold it up and compare with that thing that you have been doing continuously for several decades. De facto, you have an ideology, you have started to develop some degree of clarity and crystallisation of what that philosophical position is, what the ideology is. And that is what is happening in Singapore today, where we have a reluctance to make a change unless it fits within our frame of reference of what we have been doing for the last twenty or thirty years, whichever domain you are referring to.

9. Now, if we want to hold on to the idea that we don’t have an ideology, we need to then break that mould. Or we need to accept that for some things, we have a Singapore way. We have some coherence around our policy position, our crystallisation and clarity around the strategy going forward. And deliberately measure up that new idea against our policy position and strategy. The extent of the pace of change around the world, our exposure, our demographic changes, and this idea that we are crystallising around the Singapore way on some issues at least, and we need to think about that as a potential ideology that either we need to break or measure things up against.

10. What does this mean then, about what we should do in the education space going forward? What should our education system look like, what are the outcomes that we want? I don’t need to tell an audience like this, why our students would need a significant amount of adaptability. If they are going to go out into that world, if they are going to derive from their primary, secondary and tertiary education the ability to find meaningful work, transform their lives and look after their families in those societies. In a world where there is so much uncertainty, the one thing that they need to take away from their education is adaptability. And the need then to be able to continually learn, to be resilient about that process of losing jobs and become comfortable with change and uncertainty.

11. We need to shift that conversation away from the formal pre-employment education into a process of continuous life-long learning where individuals re-skill, re-learn and re-train themselves. As a matter of course, this will become natural when they do so on a regular basis, as opposed to something provoked by an uncertain event.

12. How does that translate down into the schools, with so much uncertainty? With the expectation that the education you have may not adequately prepare you for your first, second or third job? I think that paradoxically, with that increasing uncertainty around specialised skills in the adult space, it means that in the primary and secondary school space, and potentially in the higher education space, we need to spend a lot more time focusing on the fundamentals of learning. The fundamental skills, of critical thinking, analytical skills, computational thinking, comparative analysis across domains, excellent numeracy and literacy. Because it is those things that will provide you with the mental and behavioural foundation to be adaptive later on. So, in a world with increasing specialisation around skills, but increasing uncertainty around that specialisation, we may need to drive an increasing focus on the fundamentals at the primary and secondary levels. And certainly, we’re thinking about that.

13. And yet, we can’t get away from the need for applied learning. We can’t get away from the need to demonstrate how these fundamental skills fit into industry. So, our approach has been to take both of these ideas together, and we don’t see that they are zero-sum nor mutually exclusive. As we revise the basic curriculum structures to focus and strengthen on the core fundamentals of numeracy and literacy, computational skills and scientific ways of thinking, we look for ways to demonstrate how that learning is applied in industry, and bring industry exposure, bring projects and experimentation, and blur the lines between education and industry. This is so that our students understand that these applied learning pathways, and applied learning opportunities demonstrate the need for them to continually update and adapt their skills over time, and they leave their education appreciating that it is so. Ultimately, we do have to prepare our students for that idea of lifelong learning.

14. How can we get that slightly confusing model right? Well, we have to accept that there is uncertainty about that model itself, and that it needs to be dynamic and resilient over time. We need to ensure that there are multiple pathways into each of our institutions. While we have standardised testing and unified entrance pathways, each institution, at each level, needs to keep a little bit of flexibility. We are having an increasing proportion of students admitted at our higher education level, through direct admission pathways, interview pathways, aptitude-based pathways, so that at that point of entry, you leave open the space that you may not have got the formula exactly right, for your course, your institution or organisation. And over time, you are going to be increasingly adaptable, and have the space to do so.

15. We need to leave open the possibility for lateral transfers across all these paths. What is the interoperability in our system, if you are not in the right course or institution? Do we have a structure to allow people to transfer across? And we have to preserve that as our system adapts to increasing uncertainty.

16. We need to make sure that what we do in our schools and in our Institutions of Higher Learning that our students are exposed to the world at events like this. But far more structured, like overseas internships, overseas colleges programmes, volunteerism overseas. It needs to become something that is not reserved for a handful of best-performing students. But becomes the de facto expectation that you’ll leave your tertiary education with an appreciation of how you, your skills, your aptitude fit into the opportunities of the region and the world. And we are looking at driving more of those.

17. Ultimately, we need to re-tool and re-focus on the efforts of our Institutes of Higher Learning. This journey has already started, to pay a lot more attention to adult learning. The provision of education for adults is not an after-thought. It is not a nice-to-have, nor an extra-curricular activity. It should and needs to remain at the heart of the tertiary education process, and that what we provide for pre-employment for the young undergraduate need not fundamentally be different from that process of life-long learning. Whether you modularise it or break it down, whether you provided or distributed it at a platform. But conceptually, that re-consideration of what is the mission of our education institutes, adult education remains a core part of that mission.

18. Actually, if you are a sixteen-year-old today in Singapore or any other country, I suspect what the educators and professionals are already doing are going to prepare you very well. The people that I am worried about, are the people of my age and older, who grew up with the expectation that they would maybe change career once or twice in their lifetime, that they did so on a ten or twenty year cycle, as opposed to a three to five year cycle. And if they change career, they wouldn’t necessarily change the domain of their work. If they made a choice in high school or university to concentrate on the arts or the sciences, that would never be seen as the wrong choice, because opportunities would be available to them downstream within that domain. And it is that generation, my generation, it is those jobs that I worry about. We do need to spend some time thinking about how we re-tool adult learning, not just to focus on technical skills, but also to address some of the fundamental aspects of education, that that generation did not access, while they were going through primary and secondary education.

19. So, these are lots of big changes and big ideas, and we have lots of plans around each of them. We have lots of work for the public policy space, and the educators and politicians to going to communicate all these. We have been working on some of these ideas. We have launched some of the initiatives through a programme called SkillsFuture, and we are going to look at all other aspects of our education system, to reconsider how we can make it operate and make it industry-relevant, and make it adaptable and resilient, as we expect our students to be. I won’t go through all the details, but I will be happy to take questions later.

20. Fundamentally, the fact that I am standing here in front of you, and explaining the extent to which we are prepared to re-consider, re-tool and re-calibrate our education service and education provision here in Singapore, is a marker of how seriously we take it. And the fact that you are here as an audience, is also a marker of what is happening in the world that is requiring us to take this stance and the aggressiveness with which we need to do so, to preserve pathways and opportunities for the next generation. I’ll stop here, and will be happy to take any questions. Thank you very much.

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