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Transcript of ST Insight interview with Mr Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills)

Published Date: 02 January 2018 12:00 AM

News Speeches

Question: How should students prepare themselves for jobs of the future?

Minister: It is almost impossible to guess what sectors will be hiring when students grow up and graduate. For this generation of tertiary students, when they were in primary school, it was hard to imagine that IT and coding would become such a big thing today.

It is more important that we have a lifelong learning mindset because that allows us to keep pace with whatever changes we experience. But in the formative school years, especially during higher education, it is important for them to be driven by passion and aptitude. However, that requires a foundation of basic skills such as literacy, numeracy and increasingly analytical skills. We teach these from a younger age, especially in primary and secondary school. There is still a certain logical sequence to education which we cannot escape, even though the system is becoming more customised, student-centric and diversified. That is how students can prepare themselves. According to their age, we put in place the right conditions to start building their foundation of literacy and numeracy, then help them find their passions, and lastly enable them to learn their whole life, in order to adapt to industry and technological changes.

Question: You mentioned that it is impossible to guess but very much what Singapore has done in the past is predicting the industries that might be coming up in the future?

Minister: We never predict. Even when Stamford Raffles came to Singapore, he did not predict that Singapore will be a transhipment port. We made it happen. As a small island, through our will, knowing we are in a good location, we welcome good people and build up a strong work ethic to make it happen. Even now, we look at the sectors we have: finance, shipping, aviation, tourism, services, life science, healthcare, education and IT. We, attracted big players, developed our people, educated and prepared them. It will continue to be so. The good thing is we have many sectors today. We do not have car manufacturing and agriculture for good geographical reasons. But we have many thriving sectors in Singapore. This provides our students with choices, but with choices also come confusion. Singaporeans are well travelled so they can also work overseas. This is different from small towns in Europe. Some towns in Europe only have one industry. For example, in Gruyères in Switzerland, they only make cheese. Some other towns may be port towns and they only do shipping. If you want to do something else, you have to move into the city.

Question: So are we doing things the same way then while people can look to the Government for signs of what skills to pick up and what to study to get a job?

Minister: The answer is yes and no. Yes, we will continue to promote sectors and attract top players here. Today, EDB attracts companies to do their most advanced R&D here, whether it is model-factory, AI, or data-analytics. We have many big companies here such as PayPal and Amazon. They are doing their state-of-the-art functions here. So that continues. The sectors which are hiring would be data analytics, IT, coding, and cyber security.

That is not enough. Things have changed. For the longest time, the Government tells us what sectors to join. It is a top-down, planning process. It is also functional so that we maximise our chances of finding a job. It is also integrating because different people are goading into a path to meet economic needs. Therefore, it is top-down, functional, and integrating. However, we need to increasingly recognise a bottom-up, aspirational and diversified process. Bottom-up because individual students now have a lot of choices. There will be overlapping areas between the choices where they can find something new. Innovation happens at the intersections of different disciplines. So from the bottom-up, people see different kinds of opportunities that they want to pursue and it could be outside of Singapore’s shores. It could be in Southeast Asia, China and Africa. It is also aspirational because we are no longer satisfied with what the Government tells us to do. We have our own aspirations and more students have that. As they choose to pursue them, we have a diversifying process. Different groups of students will take different paths. That is the main change in the system.

Question: Is this led by people themselves or is the Government also involved in this process, and how?

Minister: It is not a new process but it is happening in education over the years. It is now more explicitly recognised and it is the direction we are headed. Looking at the modules in universities, it is clear that it is becoming more bottom-up and aspirational. You choose and combine your modules outside of your discipline. For example, the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory is offering its music modules to the rest of NUS.

The move towards internship and applied learning is also aspirational and individualised. SMU’s students have to search for their own overseas experience based on their interests. To graduate, you must have an overseas experience. It could be a stint in an overseas charity organisation or internship in a company. If you look at the number of IHLs, schools and courses that we have, it is also diversified. This is reflective of a new generation growing up, with bottom-up aspirations and wanting to diversify. Our system has to recognise and cater for that.

Question: Will there be then changes in MOE such as more Continuing Education and Training (CET)? The education system is now organised from primary to secondary to tertiary but if someone has to keep learning until 65, how will the Government help or guide the person?

Minister: What we have been doing is essentially to recognise this. From Minister Ng’s side, he is focusing on values-based education, making learning fun and joyful and reducing the emphasis on academic grades so that students can discover the joy of learning and finding entrepreneurial dare. This lays the groundwork to maximise the options in future.

We are developing different paths and blurring the paths. For example, we have subject-based banding. N-Level students can take O-Level subjects. If they do well at the N-Levels, they can embark on the Polytechnic Foundation Programme (PFP) to enter Polytechnic. So the paths are blurred and cater to the individual’s pace and style of learning. Going up to higher education, we are increasingly taking aptitude into account in our admission and not just academic grades. We are putting in place strong Education and Career Guidance (ECG), which starts from secondary school. We are helping students find their passion and take that into account when they apply for higher education. Beyond higher education, we are promoting lifelong learning so that they pursue what they like to do. We will support them with the right and quality courses, delivered by industry and by IHLs. All the major steps that we have been making, point towards this direction, where the process is becoming bottom up, aspirational and diversified.

Question: You mentioned helping people find their passion, I am wondering how they can decide at a young age, especially with streaming?

Minister: There is no more streaming into EM1, EM2 and EM3. Those were tiers of learning that had nothing to do with our passion and what we want to be. Today, streaming is different and the streams can merge back. Streaming is recognising that some students take longer. It does not narrow chances but by catering to different paces of learning, we maximise their chances. A Normal Academic student can go to ITE and Polytechnic and have a big range of courses to choose from. What we need to do is provide greater guidance and exposure. Students nowadays are very preoccupied with studying and getting good grades. We need to take some of that attention away for them to focus on what they want to do. We have to time it right. We cannot do it when they are too young. At 16 years old, how do they decide whether they want to be an engineer, a creative IT person or a social worker? But at secondary school, they can start thinking about the subjects they enjoy the most. It is not too difficult to achieve that.

There are mainly four categories: science person, arts/humanities person, creative person and IT-type person. For example, a journalist is probably an arts and social science person, with the love for language. If we know the cluster of disciplines that makes us happy when we study it, that should be what we pursue when we move on to JC or higher education. From there, we go through another process of narrowing down to a career. Even in a career, we make sure they have enough generic and common skills to have versatility.

Question: You mentioned the need to move people away from grades but it has been many years that we are trying to shift away from this obsession with grades. Why is it so difficult?

Minister: Because it is not for MOE to decide. Grades are still important, but more attention should be given to think about the student’s future. It is the society’s culture, not just of students, parents but also employers and organisations. I meet many families when I go for home visits. The students are stressed. The parents do not send them to tuition because they do not want to pressure them further. Sometimes it is the students who put pressure on themselves. Other times it is the parents. Sometimes organisations hire only based on academic grades and do not work hard enough to look at the person intrinsically. All these drive this academic-based culture.

We are taking significant steps to signal how determined we are to change this. We are changing the PSLE scoring system. We are moving towards an aptitude-based admission system which is gathering momentum. Hopefully, more employers will also think about moving away from hiring based on academic achievements, and look at the person’s aptitude. I am quite confident it will change within one generation. When the children grow up and become parents, it will change. This is because when we speak to students now, they totally buy it. We are a diversified people and our worth is not measured by academic grades. The students truly believe in this. There are different people with different talents which we should all embrace and recognise. When the students grow up, they will have different expectations and different parenting techniques. This generation of parents grew up in a Singapore where they had to study hard to find a job. So it is reasonable for them to expect that of their children because they do not want them to go through what they went through, which is limited job opportunities because of low education level. They want their children to have good education and be a doctor or a lawyer. Scholarships become important too.

Question: Is there such a thing as the top five skills that people need to pick up?

Minister: According to World Economic Forum (WEF), there is. WEF has a survey of global executives, and they came up with problem-solving, communications skills etc. as the most important skills. We have to be careful because it gives the impression that it is all about soft skills, which is wrong. We must remember that it is a survey of MNCs and their global executives. These people are looking at their executives and thinking of the skills they need, like people-management and complex problem-solving skills. We forget that these are global executives because they have gone through the processes of laying foundations of numeracy and literacy, finding their niche, learning the subject really well in terms of knowledge and skills, stepping into the workforce and working for several years. WEF’s survey is probably useful in terms of CET but not in terms of guiding education policy. There is a logical sequence to the education system. Laying the foundational skills, discovering passion and then build up the skills and knowledge base.

Question: So how does SkillsFuture play a part in this? For example, the MySkillsFuture portal where Primary 5 students have accounts to login. Will a Primary 5 student really want to use it?

Minister: The MySkillsFuture portal is a tool. At Primary 5, the portal is like Harry Potter’s Hogwarts and putting your name in the sorting hat. So they can go into the portal, do some quizzes, and they will see if they are a creative person etc. It is a fun process. All these are tools to build up a strong ECG programme so that students discover their strengths, weaknesses and passions.

SkillsFuture boils down to three Ms: Me, Mastery and Meritocracy. That whole ECG process is about “me”, to discover oneself. Once you discover, you will pursue mastery. It is such a profound process. We have to learn so many interdisciplinary skills just to do that one discipline well. Finally, when we do it well, hopefully, society will change its culture and recognise people of different strengths and achievements.

Question: What exactly is SkillsFuture? Is it an initiative or scheme and will it be stopped at some point in time?

Minister: SkillsFuture translates to schemes and programmes, but we call it a movement. A movement is by the masses and we hope to eventually have a shift in societal culture. It goes back to the three Ms. If we achieve all that, then we will maintain it. It will not be stopped. Since the Middle Ages, German-speaking Europe has had a very strong apprenticeship system known as the dual-track system. Today it is the norm and they continue to invest in it. In the 60s, we were developing the home ownership culture so we had HDB. Today, the culture is very deep-seated and we continue to fund HDB. So it become institutionalised and part and parcel of life.

Question: There is still this perception that an apprenticeship is not as prestigious as being a lawyer or a doctor. How can you change people’s minds? Partly, it is also because of the pay? Let’s say that you are a master carpenter – you won’t really earn as much as a doctor…

Minister: It takes time. As I’ve mentioned, I believe it takes a generation. But today, it is a big breakthrough. We have the cooperative programmes from the universities – meaning that they have an apprenticeship programme leading to a degree, and (we are also) recognising that industry has a lot to teach us. It is not just academic institutions that can teach us. That is one big change in education – getting industry and companies to teach us; playing a part in education.

We asked students who picked those courses for their views. I spoke to the ITE students who are preparing to apply and were accepted into the ITE Work-Learn Technical Diploma. I asked them “Why did you choose this? Aren’t you afraid that this is less prestigious?” They said, “No, I prefer doing hands-on things. This, I think, I will benefit more (from)”.

You ask the employers why they are supportive of this, and are working with ITE to deliver these courses which lead to an ITE Work-Learn Technical Diploma. They say that it is because what they need are people who are hands-on. They (the students) will learn some theory, but they will apply (this theory) while working with the company – and they (the companies) value that.

Forget about what society thinks of you. If you feel that this is better for you, and your employer thinks that it is better and values it, and your loved ones appreciate it – then I think there is good reason to proceed. In time, as all movements are, it is a snowball effect. It will keep on accumulating and will keep getting bigger.

Question: You mentioned that there are many different aspects to SkillsFuture. One of the things that people keep looking at is the SkillsFuture Credit, since it is the most immediate and is in the form of money for individuals to use. It has been about two years since…

(Min intercepts) Yes, so the objective has been achieved. The whole point of the SkillsFuture Credit, is that it is just a small part of the SkillsFuture movement. But through the Credit, people are now aware of SkillsFuture. 

Question: So was that the objective of the SkillsFuture Credit?

Minister: Yes, absolutely. Once you have the money, you are aware and you start thinking about the courses you would like to take. That was the key focus.

Question: Are these courses really meant to help people to upskill or are they just a taste of what it is like to continue learning? A lot of people question why there are floral arrangement courses, or dress-making courses. How were the courses picked? 

Minister: I prefer not to judge people based on their choice – it could be leisure for me, but a profession for you. If we want this policy to say that with the $500, think about what you need – then let it be. Let people think about it, and when they decide, do not criticise them.

The whole purpose of the policy is to let you think about your options. The truth is that the funding that went into subsidising the courses upfront is far bigger than the SkillsFuture Credit. It is to the tune of $700 million a year, while the expenditure for the SkillsFuture Credit is about $40 million. The bulk of funding is still upfront, so that course fees are significantly lower at the IHLs, industry training centres, among others. To upskill, convert yourself professionally and deepen your skills – the funding comes from there, and not so much the $500.

Question: If people use the $500 just for interest, does that still achieve the purpose of what that money is for?

Minister: If in the process, they have thought about what they want to study, then it is worthwhile. Who are we to say that flower arrangement is not important for them? Having said that, the most popular course today is in IT.

Question: So they have heeded the Government’s call?

Minister: Yes. We have also come up with a national digital training programme – SkillsFuture for the Digital Workplace. Over 4,600 have gone through the programme. For those that need some guidance, we have the SkillsFuture Advice. (Note: Over 4,600 people have attended SkillsFuture Advice workshops or programmes organised by Community Development Councils since its launch in Oct 2017.)

Question: Since we have achieved its purpose, does it mean that people will not get more money in the future? There was talk previously that this sum might be topped up in future.

Minister: I have no immediate plans, neither do I rule it out. So far, 285,000 people have used it. Usage is meaningful, but not overwhelming.

Question: Related to this, how does the Government measure how successful these schemes are? How does the Government measure whether money is well spent in all these SkillsFuture schemes?

Minister: The issue of returns on training has vexed policy makers for decades and we do not have a KPI that measures the success. We can look at our track record. SkillsFuture does not exist in isolation. The whole point moving it under MOE is so that it becomes an integral part of our education system. If we look at our education system and the key signposts such as PISA scores, the student dropout rates, numeracy and literacy levels, and employment results for our universities, polytechnics and ITE graduates, all these are maintained at a high level. The quality of our workforce is also recognised internationally, hence we attract foreign investments. What we are doing has produced these results. The ranking of our universities and international reputation of our education system is high too. The system is a robust and strong one. When it comes to abuse, where criminals are all out to cheat the system, our audit and enforcement system must be better. When they are caught, they must be severely punished. However, we cannot unwind our system because of these people. We are in a situation where technology is advancing and industries are restructuring, so workers need to be trained.

Question: You mentioned that the apprenticeship programme in Switzerland has taken off and companies play a leading role in training the workers. However, it seems in Singapore, the Government is playing the leading role by coming with the schemes. Is this something that companies should do? Why does the Government have to help companies train the workers and why are the companies not doing it?

Minister: Many companies are supporting this effort, especially the established ones. Some are even training for the whole industry. For example, in the finance sector, certain bigger banks have good programmes to train their workers. Google also has a good data analytics programme for graduates. We saw the potential that companies can contribute more because they have the expertise and are up to date with the industry needs. We hope to bring industry into the IHLs and bring IHLs into industry. This is why we call it a cooperative programme. We have started it in the universities and ITE and we will continue to expand.

Question: How does it affect the SMEs given that many employers are SMEs and traditionally they have been less willing to spend money on training and let their workers go for training?

Minister: For cooperative programmes, we have to work with the big established players. I was in Switzerland and I visited Swatch. Swatch is training apprentices for the entire industry. Likewise, we have to approach the big companies, and hopefully they can train for the whole industry. We cannot dictate the HR and business strategies of SMEs. They have to decide for themselves how important training and human capital development is. The Government can provide the support, subsidies, courses, and interns but it is up to them to seize the opportunities.

Question: When people talk about the economy of the future, there are those who think that work will continue to be important but the nature of work will change. For example, we seem to preparing that in a lifetime, a person might have different careers, which are different from what we have studied. On the other hand, some think that all these will be done by machines and humans need not work anymore. Where do you think the reality lies and what the future that Singapore is preparing for?

Minister: There will continue to be work and humans will need to do work. It is a big part of our personal identity. When we describe ourselves in three or four sentences, our work will feature in the description. Therefore, work continues to be important and it defines who we are and our place in society. That will not go away. Robots will not replace us.

We have seen the industrialisation of agriculture. Farmers lost their jobs but as a result of industrialisation, there are many more factory jobs. Farmers moved into the cities. There are no more typewriters but we have a big computer industry. There will be jobs but the nature of the jobs will be different and the skills required will be different. Therefore, SkillsFuture is needed. Neither do I share the view that all of us will have many careers. Life is neither that long nor short. We do not have time for a few careers if we believe in mastering what we do. We may only have time for one and we will retire still with more to learn. It is just that the nature of the path we choose may change and we just have to keep upgrading ourselves. It may disguise itself as a change in career or profession but ultimately, we fall back on the skills that we have mastered best.