Opening Remarks by 
Minister for Education Mr Ong Ye Kung
 at “The First Step” Event

Published Date: 30 January 2019 12:00 AM

News Speeches

1. Good morning. Let me talk about how the event came about and thank a few people. The students got together to organise this conference and approached me to be their Patron. Being a Patron is not a usual thing for a Minister to do, but I agreed and I think it helped them. They worked very hard to put this together, and they also had very good help, so I have quite a few people to thank.

2. First of all, I need to thank Miss Jennie Chua. As a Patron, I did not want to supervise this too much, but I needed someone to help guide our young people. And Jennie, being the grandmother that she is now, is most nurturing. The university Presidents who are here, and the many CEOs who are here from companies like DBS and Capitaland, they are here because Jennie has pulling power. So, thank you very much.

3. Today’s conference as you can see, is a simple one. The students did not pick a high end place in town, and it was all done on a fairly modest budget. But notwithstanding, we had one university that underwrote the cost today. And that is NTU. So, thank you, NTU.

4. We must also thank today’s moderator, Mr Darryl David. We know that we have a short conference, but we want good discussion, and good discussion comes about with an effective moderator. It is difficult to find a good moderator when you have to moderate very outspoken people. So, thank you, very much, Darryl.

5. So, how did all these come about? Last year around June, a group of six students asked to see me, and they had a very simple point to put forward. They are from different universities and are all elected student union leaders. They said that today’s university experience is not just about studying. They are spending quite a bit of time, first doing internships and second doing community work. Many of them took part in entrepreneurial activities. Some set up start-ups, some go on overseas immersions and exchanges. It is a much more enriched experience today. But their impression, rightly or wrongly, is that when they step into the job market, and there is now a lot of anxiety amongst students about stepping into the job market, is that employers would still look at their GPAs. So, there is a disconnect.

6. The market is looking at their GPA, yet students are feeling that they are having such an enriching experience, and they are learning a lot of things, but it does not seem to count. And the employment market does not understand this has happened. So, the students said, let’s have a conference or a gathering where we can put our position to the student population, to the wider society, and to the labour market.

7. This is really about asking two questions. First, from the point of view of the students, the education experience is different. Does MOE understand? Does the Government understand? Do the universities understand? Of course we do. Education is more than just grades now. It is a holistic experience. Universities have put in so much effort to provide a holistic education. They are also becoming more holistic when deciding who to take in. And when you are in the universities, they also give you a much more holistic experience. So that’s question one, and I hope it is answered even before we start this conference.

8. But the second and more critical question is, do employers understand? This is difficult to answer, and is probably the purpose of this conference. To make life a little difficult for our panellists later, I am sure every employer panellist on stage later will say that they understand. And that they have, in fact, a HR policy that does not just look at academic grades. And they have hiring tools that look beyond your academic grades, into your character and soft skills. But we have a disconnect. Indeed, every CEO, every board member, every chairman that I speak to will say this, but students on the receiving end still feel differently. So I hope that we have answers for this.

9. What could be the reasons? Perhaps the intention and policies did not filter down to the HR departments? Maybe it did not translate to the administrative level. Another possibility is that, it could also be in our heads, that, notwithstanding the change in employers’ hiring practices, as someone applying for the job, we are stuck with the mind-set that maybe academic grades matter. So, you yourself are focused on academic grades. This is a self-fulfilling expectation, and when you apply, you want to show your academic grades. And if you don’t have good academic grades, notwithstanding that you have fantastic soft skills, perhaps you are not as confident, and you end up not getting the job. So I think there are two sides to the story, and this is a much needed conversation.

10. I just have one caveat before we start today’s proceedings. This discussion is not about the relevance of meritocracy. It is not about whether we should lower standards. We always want high standards, and we always believe in meritocracy, and that is a key governance principle of Singapore. What we are saying, is that instead of a narrow definition of meritocracy, which is academic meritocracy, I think today we need to broaden the definition, to look at the holistic aspects of what the students can bring to the table, and what are the new techniques that we can use to gauge students’ strengths in all these areas. So on that note, I wish everyone a good discussion, and hopefully, answers to my questions as well. Thank you very much.

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