MOE FY2018 Committee of Supply Debate Response by Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills), Mr Ong Ye Kung

Published Date: 05 March 2018 12:00 AM

News Speeches


1. Mr Chairman. We have heard a lot about how the future will be different. The questions from Ms Denise Phua, Ms Foo Mee Har, Mr Zainal Sapari, and Mr Thomas Chua boil down to one central question that should really preoccupy every Education Minister in the world: Is our education system preparing young people for a fast-changing future, or is the model as we know it becoming outdated?

2. Our system has a solid foundation. This is reflected in good PISA scores, good university rankings, good employment outcomes. By no means do they guarantee success. But they are indicative of how we have gotten the evergreen basics right.

3. We must build on, not sit on, this foundation. And indeed, this has been the mission of every single Education Minister in Singapore over the years.

4. 40 years ago, our schools suffered from very high dropout rates. The uniform curriculum also did not cater for students’ varied pace of learning.

5. The then-Minister for Education, Dr Goh Keng Swee, said that the starting point is to identify the “causes of things”, before putting in solutions to fix them. His solution then was to allow students to study at different paces that suited them. School dropout rates dropped dramatically.

6. Subsequent Education Ministers continued to tackle the problems of their times. It is due to all of them, and all our educators, that we have the strong foundation we have today.

7. Ms Denise Phua asked for the worldwide trends we are grappling with now. The fact is that today, the Education Ministers face a challenge that is entirely different in nature compared to 40 years ago. Things are changing so fast, and the future so dynamic, so uncertain, so VUCA, that it is harder to identify the ‘causes of things’, and come up with solutions before another future unfolds.

8. However, we can anticipate the shape of things to come, and build a system that can respond to and embrace the changes. We can already identify some features of the future system.

9. For one, education needs to wear lighter academic colours. Hence, we revamped the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) scoring system.

10. Education also needs to recognise the diversity of strengths and talents amongst our young. Hence we brought the Direct School Admission (DSA) scheme back to its original objectives; placed students into Institutes of Higher Learning (IHLs) based on aptitudes and demonstrated interests rather than just grades alone; and we started new applied and design universities, and we opened up work-learn pathways.

11. We also need a new kind of IHL, where success is not measured merely by pass rates, employment outcomes, or international rankings, but the long-term resilience of students, and their willingness to take risks, to innovate, to create.

12. By reshaping the education system, we can ensure the long term prosperity of Singapore, and continued social mobility across generations – an imperative of the education system that Ms Sylvia Lim raised.

13. In this system, you learn to learn, and you never really graduate. That is the essence of SkillsFuture, and the most important feature we need to build into our system today.

14. How do we do so?


15. Ms Denise Phua once told me – and you just repeated again in your opening speech – that of all the changes made to the education system in recent years, the one that got you most excited was the integration of SkillsFuture Singapore into MOE. And you remember in your words two years ago, this was ‘the game changer’.

16. And I agree with you, you’re right. This change marked the start of our IHLs breaking out of their traditional mould, from educating only students to becoming centres of lifelong learning.

17. The immediate impact is that the IHLs have started ramping up courses for adult workers. In 2017 alone, 54,000 adult learners passed through our IHLs, slightly over 10% of the entire adult learning market. But the more profound impact is what is going to come next – which is their new approach to teaching. Why is there a new approach?

18. Because previously, IHLs had the mind-set that they had three to four precious years to prepare students before they embark on their careers. So from the word go, IHLs were in race against time to pack in foundational knowledge, industry-related training, inter-disciplinary skills, and work attachments, all within that three to four years.

19. The result is a hectic and technically very intensive curriculum. Employers often comment that Singapore graduates know a lot of ‘stuff’ - technical stuff. But we can do better in terms of soft skills, be genuinely interested in the industries we chose and the careers we chose, and have some fire in our bellies.

20. The current approach will change when IHLs don’t have three to four years to work with their students, but 20 or 30 years to work with students, because they will keep returning for more knowledge and skills after graduation. So there is no hurry to pack stuff into the formal curriculum in that three to four years.

21. Instead, there can be a greater focus on laying a strong foundation, and giving them more time and space to seek counsel, and decide on their career and area of interest. Only an interest-driven choice will motivate students to want to learn their whole lives, to master their professions and their crafts, and to build deep expertise.

22. This paradigm shift will deeply affect the way education is delivered in IHLs. I will talk about three aspects today – Develop, Discover, and Deepen.


23. Let me first talk about changing the way we develop students.

24. Ms Foo Mee Har and Mr Zainal Sapari said that the education model and techniques must be updated to reflect the changing needs of industry and the real world. That is why what our children are going through today at IHLs is vastly different from we – the parents of today – went through when we were students. Vastly different.

25. IHLs can no longer merely be places to listen to lectures. Schools and IHLs must also be places where students make friends, build networks, seek mentorship, gain exposure to different cultures, discover what they want to do, and even find future lifelong partners – but only at IHLs, not the schools.

26. In short, as Mr Edwin Tong pointed out, learning must become experiential. Knowledge no longer carries the same premium it used to because technology has made knowledge very accessible. What is highly valued today is how someone applies knowledge in real life – in other words, what is valued is skills. That comes with experience and practice.

27. That’s why all of our IHLs are introducing more experiential learning into their curriculum.

Industry Experience

28. Today, industry attachments have become the norm, and practically all Polytechnic students are required to go through them. At the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT), industry attachments are in fact an integral part of education, and can last for up to a year.

29. Internship is at one end of the spectrum of industry experience in IHLs. At the other end of the spectrum, which Mr Ang Wei Neng asked about, are various work-study programmes. For example, we have 76 SkillsFuture Earn and Learn Programmes training over 1,700 students so far.

30. The Autonomous Universities (AUs) have also started offering SkillsFuture Work-Study Degree programmes in areas such as information security, business and analytics, software engineering, and finance. So far, close to 90 students have enrolled in such programmes. The number is not big, but the number will grow, and the number of courses offered will also grow.

31. We also announced the launch of the ITE Work-Learn Technical Diploma in four sectors late last year. A couple of Members asked for an update. Interest in the programme is strong; ITE received more than 300 applications for the 180 places available. Each course is at least 1.3 times, or 30%, oversubscribed. The technical courses are particularly popular, such as marine and offshore engineering, and mechanical and electrical services supervision.

32. ITE is engaging various industries, and plans to roll out ten new ITE Technical Diploma programmes in the next two years.

33. So to Mr Thomas Chua’s question on how do we bridge the gap between industry need and education, I call upon industries to participate directly in education. Our new programmes are bringing industries into the IHLs, and IHLs into the industries. Whether it is IHL or industry, both can initiate the discussion.

Overseas Exposure and Entrepreneurship

34. There is also greater recognition of the importance of overseas exposure. because our young will very likely grow up to work in global industries and international environments.

35. Today, around two-thirds of all AU students do at least one overseas stint, in the form of academic exchanges, overseas internships or entrepreneurship experiences, or short project-based trips.

36. SMU and SUTD are also focussing on exposing students to Southeast Asian countries, which form Singapore’s immediate economic hinterland.

37. In particular, overseas entrepreneurship programmes, where students are attached to start-ups in the United States, Europe, and Asia, are being ramped up rapidly in the AUs.

38. Start-up incubators, such as BLOCK71 and the Hangar at NUS, NTUitive at NTU, as well as Pollinate, jointly set up by Ngee Ann Polytechnic, Singapore Polytechnic and Temasek Polytechnic – they are all buzzing with activities.

Being Hands-On

39. Experiential learning also involves learning knowledge and skills that are contemporary, relevant, and hands-on.

40. At NUS, there is a strong emphasis on data science and IT. All students have to take a compulsory module – all students, whether you are learning science or history – all students must take a module on either quantitative reasoning or computational thinking. These are the foundational skills of coding and data analytics.

41. NTU too has announced that it will make courses in digital literacy compulsory for all students. SUTD made a similar move last week. This is a significant shift in IHL curriculum, and it has taken off across the board.

42. I visited our local engineering company, HOPE Technik, recently. Members will know them for building the Red Rhinos for SCDF. They are also building robots, autonomous vehicles, =exoskeletons for many international customers.

43. When I asked how we could improve the education of engineers, one of the founders, Mr Peter Ho, an NUS alumnus, said that engineering students should learn how to weld. He said knowing welding means you can do prototyping, and that makes you a better engineer.

44. I think there is a lot of wisdom in that comment. It reflects a growing need to incorporate innovation and creation into an IHL education. That is applied learning right there, as Minister Ng Chee Meng talked about. I am not sure if in time our engineering students will all learn welding, but they do learn 3D printing today. And perhaps all engineering students should learn prototyping.


45. Let me now talk about how we can better support our students to discover their interests and aptitudes.

46. The practice of IHLs today frontloading education and packing a lot of stuff into the first few years, is most stark in our polytechnics, where students are funnelled into occupation-specific courses right from the start. Over time, courses also proliferated, as employers wanted graduates with specialised skills and wanted them fast.

47. But it is daunting and confusing for our students, who at the age of 16 or 17, have to choose amongst 230 courses, very delicately salamied. Most of them hardly know what work life is like, much less the work nature in these specific jobs.

48. As IHLs transform into centres for lifelong learning, this approach will change.

More Common Entry Programmes

49. First, we will have more Common Entry Programmes, or CEPs, at the polytechnics, which Mr Seah asked about.

50. While there is a small group of students who are very clear about what they want to do from a very young age, the majority of students will actually be in a self-discovery mode when entering polytechnics. They may have an idea that they like engineering, Information Technology (IT), or social science, but they find it too early to pick a course that is specific to an occupation.

51. For these students, I agree with Mr Seah Kian Peng that giving them more time to explore their interests will help. Even an extra six months or an extra one year will help.

52. Thus, from 2019, polytechnics will offer more CEPs. CEPs comprise foundational modules common to a particular cluster of discipline, and students get to sample all of them and explore their interests.

53. Today, all polytechnics already offer an Engineering CEP, and they will introduce two more CEPs – one in Business, and the second in Information and Digital Technologies – two clusters. From next year, we expect the two new CEPs to account for 30% of their cluster intakes.

54. To illustrate, for a student in the Information and Digital Technologies cluster, he will take foundational courses in Computing Mathematics, Introduction to Programming, and Networking Fundamentals in his first year. From his second year, he then decides on his specialization. That will give them more time.

Streamlining Courses for Greater Versatility

55. Second, we will also streamline polytechnic courses.

56. Over-specificity puts students at greater risk of being displaced when the industry changes. It can also stifle the versatility of students. By streamlining the course choices for students, we actually increase the career options for the graduates.

57. Polytechnics will therefore reduce the number of courses by about 20% over the next two to three years, largely by streamlining and merging courses – we are consciously trading depth for more breadth and versatility.

58. Let me emphasise, we are streamlining and reducing the number of courses to give students broader exposure – there is no fall in polytechnic intake due to this change.

Guide Them Right

59. Third, strengthen Education and Career Guidance, or ECG. The two changes I just spoke about need to be supplemented with a stronger and more systemic effort to guide students.

60. This has to start in secondary schools, to help students get a broad sense of where their interests and strengths lie. This is where applied learning will really help. Typically, this falls into one of the following four domains – science and technology, ICT, social sciences and humanities, or the creative arts.

61. In the IHLs, the process will continue, to first expose students to knowledge and skills within their chosen cluster of disciplines, and then to help them identity their specialisation later on.

62. Towards the tail end of their IHL education, they will undergo industry attachment – like a capstone – to reaffirm their interest in their chosen career.

63. This is a systemic, self-discovery approach for students, which we will roll out to all IHLs in the coming year.

Expanding the Polytechnic Foundation Programme

64. Stronger ECG ensures that more students can navigate the multiple education pathways available, and choose the one most suitable for them. One such pathway is the PFP, or the Polytechnic Foundation Programme, which Dr Lim Wee Kiak asked about.

65. To give Members some background – today, polytechnics mostly admit students who graduated with ‘O’ Level certificates. They also take in a small group of students who graduated with N(A), or Normal (Academic), certificates.

66. These are students in the N(A) stream did well for their ‘N’ Levels examinations, and are given a chance to go directly to the polytechnics. We started the PFP in 2013, and the first batch just graduated in 2017.

67. The outcomes have been very encouraging, and may even be surprising to some. Typically, 25% of each cohort score a Grade Point Average (GPA) of 3.5 and above. But for the PFP students, 35% achieved it. The norm is that 55% of each cohort score GPA 3.0 and above, but 70% of PFP students achieved it. Dropout rates for PFP students are also much lower than average.

68. How did they do so well? I asked the Polytechnic principals, and they say that being offered PFP greatly motivated the students from the N(A) stream. I also believe that it has something to do with the students’ strong interest in the polytechnic path that they chose.

69. There is an important lesson in education policy here. Given the right encouragement and a chance to prove themselves, especially in an area that they enjoy doing, the students will do their best, and will have a good chance of doing well. This inner drive outweighs all the tuition and all the close supervision given to the students.

70. Today, PFP is open to students from the ‘N’ Level stream who score an aggregate (ELMAB3) of 11 points and below. Given the success of the programme, we will expand it and extend it to students from the ‘N’ Level stream with an aggregate score of 12 points and below. With this change, the number of students accepted every year will increase from about 1,200 today to 1,500.

Expand Aptitude-based Admissions at ITE

71. Mr Zainal Sapari asked about aptitude-based admissions. Today, our IHLs’ admission processes consider factors beyond academic accomplishments, to recognise students who have already discovered their interests and aptitudes. NUS just announced that it will give bonus points for first choice applications, to encourage students to pursue their interests, and I commend them for that.

72. However, this approach is not without problems. Polytechnic principals told me that since I announced the expansion in aptitude-based admissions and they implemented it, they have been receiving many more appeals from students and parents. This is expected, and I thank the IHLs for looking at every single appeal carefully.

73. What students and parents need to understand is that passion and aptitude need to be demonstrated and is not declared, and that has to come through in the admission application.

74. For example, during my time, if a child likes airplanes, they would know every plane model, they would go to Changi Airport as a pastime to watch airplanes takeoff, and watched Top Gun 20 times. This interest is demonstrated, and you cannot hide it. For example, since young I have loved art, and I spent all my time doodling – I mean really all my time – and I used to have a lot of work to show for it.

75. Last year, we set the aptitude-based admissions target for the IHLs at 15% of their intake cohorts. The institutions have made good strides but they have not fully used the quota, so I will keep the target at 15% for now.

76. However, there is scope for us to do more at ITE. Ideally, admission to vocational training pathways should predominantly be aptitude-based. There are practical constraints, such as course capacity, or the industries’ ability to absorb the graduates – but where possible, we want every student to enter a vocation of his liking.

77. ITE will embark on a review of its admission system, to rely more on assessing students’ aptitude through interviews and review of portfolios. The revised system will be implemented in stages from the 2019 admissions cycle, starting with selected courses in the Business, Hospitality, and ICT sectors.

78. I also note Ms Denise Phua’s two examples of students from the ‘N’ Level stream who are interested in the performing arts, but who were unable to get into NAFA or LaSalle, because the arts institutions require a minimum of ‘O’ Level certificates. We will review this requirement, and I thank you for bringing up these examples.


79. Next, let me talk about deepening what we learn, through lifelong learning. Ms Foo Mee Har asked about the status and future plans of SkillsFuture. It is a long-term movement. I thank DPM Tharman for the optimistic assessment that we are a third there; I think it is more like a quarter.

80. SkillsFuture is not just about the Credit. Neither is it just about getting IHLs to deliver training programmes for adults. It requires a transformation of the education system as we know it; it requires our young to uncover their interests and passions and commit to learning their whole life; it requires employers, private training providers, and IHLs to all do their part for lifelong learning; and it requires society to celebrate and recognise a broad range of success.

SkillsFuture Series

81. The IHLs can play a bigger role in our future plans for SkillsFuture. They have studied the Industry Transformation Maps, gotten feedback from industry partners, and have launched around 800 industry-relevant modular courses since October last year.

82. They are collectively known as the SkillsFuture Series, and cover a wide range of disciplines. ICT is a key focus for the IHLs. It is a rich area, and there is value for each IHL to contribute. There will be some overlap, but it is not a problem so long as demand remains high. Overtime, each IHL will find their niche and the landscape will settle.

83. These courses are funded at up to 70% upfront, so their fees are significantly lower. Many will be structured as Professional Conversion Programmes, where funding will be even more generous.

84. As of February this year, more than 4,900 adult learners have enrolled in SkillsFuture Series courses, so it is not too bad. The IHLs will develop more modular courses in the coming year, and sharpen their focus to meet industry’s evolving needs.

85. By 2020, we expect to have increased the annual funding of IHL lifelong learning programmes by $100 million, up from about $210 million per year today.


86. As the IHLs roll out more modular courses, the AUs will re-package certain courses to create pathways that lead to smaller qualifications – often referred to as ‘micro-credentials’.

87. These micro-credentials comprise only modules targeted at developing expertise for work, and as Dr Lim Wee Kiak said, can be useful in providing a milestone for adult learners to aim towards, and which employers can recognise.

88. However, we should be careful not to let such micro-credentials become a new “arms race” to collect credentials. IHLs should instead focus on imparting skills and knowledge needed by industry, and package them into a nice bundle that represents a meaningful upgrading of skills and knowhow. Learners too, should focus on picking up what is necessary for their work and careers.

89. Our AUs will progressively roll out more of such micro-credentials in the coming years, and subject them to the market test.

Review of Funding for Postgraduate by Coursework Programmes

90. As we step up support for SkillsFuture Series courses, we also reviewed the way we fund Postgraduate by Coursework programmes at our universities, namely Master’s by Coursework and Postgraduate Diplomas. Mr Henry Kwek and Ms Cheng Li Hui asked for an update on the review.

91. Given our limited budget, we need to do some re-allocation of resources. Hence, from 2019, for the majority of MOE-funded Postgraduate by Coursework programmes, the subsidy level for Permanent Residents will be adjusted slightly downwards, while that for international students will be discontinued. However, there will be no change in the subsidy level for Singaporeans.

92. This will free up around $25m in budget each year, which will be rechannelled to support modular courses at our IHLs for our local workforce.

93. Notwithstanding the reduction in subsidy for non-Singaporeans, we must continue to attract selected, deserving postgraduate international students who can make meaningful contributions to Singapore.


94. Besides these discrete changes, what is more important is the shift in the mind-sets of all of our IHLs to embrace lifelong learning as part of their mission. Mr Ang Wei Neng is right that gone are the days where a degree can last someone a lifetime. NUS is blazing the trail in this regard.

95. Last year, NUS announced that all alumni can take up to two modules for free over a three-year period. The response was overwhelming, and alumni started to attend classes side by side with young undergraduates. Encouraged by the good response, NUS is expanding it into a programme called NUS Lifelong Learners, or L3.

96. Under L3, NUS will treat every student enrolment as lasting for 20 years, and not just three or four years. It will help their students build their careers, and learn for life during this period. This gives new meaning to the word alumni. I am sure this change in mind-set will spread to all IHLs.

97. Today, short courses for adults are mostly unpacked from long full-time programmes. In time, they have to be developed independently, with a practical bent – delivered by practitioners on skills in demand by industries; or a futuristic bent – taught by researchers on cutting-edge technology.


98. Mr Chairman, let me conclude.

99. Transformation of education cannot be done by MOE alone. I agree with Ms Foo Mee Har that a key partner in education are the employers.

100. We need employers’ hands on deck too – to provide input on curriculum design, offer their experts as adjunct lecturers, place our students in meaningful internships, and participate actively in the lifelong learning by providing in-house training for their employees.

101. I agree with Dr Intan that we should give greater recognition to employers who support this, such as through the SkillsFuture Employer Award that was started last year. But the best reward for them is the outcome of their investment in their own people.

102. As we shift the IHL system to lay a stronger foundation for students, and be less prescriptive in the occupation we are preparing them for, employers need to step up even more to involve themselves in education and lifelong learning, especially for the young.

103. We also need to work closely with the most important people in our students’ lives – their parents.

104. Our children are often the people we love the most. It is natural for parents to want to bring them up impeccably – from the night feeds when they are babies, helping them with homework when they are in primary school, taking leave when they are taking PSLE, attending Open Houses with them at IHLs, even interviewing their boyfriends or girlfriends. We want the best for them.

105. But the truth is – we are all parents-in-training. Just when you become an expert in taking care of babies, they go to school, and you are suddenly presented with a whole new challenge. And when you thought that you have finally mastered parenting school-going children, they become teenagers – and that presents another area of challenge.

106. Our children often do a better job at keeping up with the fast changing world than we do. By ensuring that they are so well taken care of – does it help them or are we inadvertently blunting their abilities to adapt?

107. Years ago I taught my daughter how to cycle, and I learned that a young girl cannot find balance with an over-protective father holding the back of the bicycle. I had to let go. Eventually, when my running could not keep up with her bike, I did, and off she went. She learned how to cycle, and I learned how to let go.

108. Perhaps one of the best things we as parents can do for our children is to know when to let go, and what to let go of. But this does not mean that they will be left alone – they will have the love of family, as well as the support of the entire school system.

109. That is why parenthood is a roller coaster ride and for the lionhearted. There is no guaranteed success. But children need the time and space to explore, in order to discover their strengths and interests, find their place in the world, and ignite their joy of learning.

110. This is not just a matter of personal freedoms, but a pragmatic response to the fast changes in the world around us. A world where it is hard to identify the landing points that the unfolding stories of the rise of China and technological advancement will lead us. A world where the young are creating their own jobs through start-ups and innovations, and shaping their own future.

111. 40 years ago, we built systems to respond to challenges that we could identify. We must now foster human ingenuity and resilience so that our children can thrive in a future we cannot yet discern. This requires us to give students a say in what, how, and when they want to learn, to help them develop, discover, and deepen their knowledge and skills in the areas that they are passionate about.

112. This is the best gift for our children. But we cannot give it to them; we can only set them on a journey to discover it for themselves.

113. Thank you Mr Chairman.

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