Opening Address by Mr Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Education, at the Education and Career Guidance Symposium, Ngee Ann Polytechnic

Published Date: 03 April 2019 12:00 AM

News Speeches

1. I am happy to join you for this year’s Education and Career Guidance (ECG) Symposium.

Discovering One’s Passion

2. Why is ECG important? Because in life, we all need a compass which points us in the right direction that means most to us and best fulfils our aspirations and dreams. Fortunately for me, I am quite clear about my passion and career direction. Public service appeals to me most, because I want to feel that I am making a difference to many people. And while in public service, what I enjoy doing most is reforming policies and executing change management. They make me want to wake up and go to work every day.

3. It gives me a kick that no other kind of assignments can. But to do change management well, I realised I need a range of skills. First of all, policy making skills – understand data, analyse trends, conclude how things need to evolve, weigh the trade-offs, and then decide on a concrete course of action. It is a tough discipline that takes years to hone. But being a Minister now, I realise those are just the basics, because change management does not stop at just decision making – I need a much wider repertoire of skills.

4. For example, I need to communicate the change clearly to the public; I need to privately persuade partners and colleagues to support the course of action; I need to further sharpen my policy analysis skills by raising my proficiency in data literacy, and using new technology to understand data; reading history helps me acquire a deeper understanding of issues and gain some wisdom; for more effective public communications it also helps greatly if I know another official language. I also need to be better at campaigning during an election; I need to win in order to continue doing what I like to do.

5. Once we know what we love to do, the career we pursue and the skills we need to acquire or deepen, naturally sort themselves out. But a fact that is perhaps surprising to many, is that I discovered my passion only in my early 40’s or late 30’s. I don’t think it is late – Confucius’ prescription is that one knows your purpose in life only at 50 (“五十知天命”).

6. All those years where as a teenager I told myself I am passionate about mathematics because it was my strongest subject – that was not real passion. It was what it was – my strongest academic subject. In hindsight, as a student and young working adult, I was actually quite lost. It was only when I had enough career experience, having worked in Ministries, statutory board, as a trade negotiator, as a union leader, and in the private sector, that I concluded that the kind of work that appeals to me most is what I have just described.

7. I am not alone. Most of our students, and even most of us, have not found our career compass yet, especially when the education system and modern economy present us with so many options. Students often resort to choosing courses which their friends are enrolling in, because the institutions look very cool or their parents told them to, or the entry cut-off points match their aggregate scores.

Passion is at the Centre of SkillsFuture

8. That is why we need ECG. It is difficult for a student to discover their passion and career purpose at a young age, but hopefully ECG can get them to start thinking about it. It is probably unrealistic to expect ECG to help every student, or even the majority of students to discover their passion during their formative education years. But it is possible to raise their level of self-awareness, help them recognise their strengths, give them some a broad idea of what kind of work brings them the most joy. Not quite a compass yet, but we would have at least magnetised the needle.

9. For many years, straight A’s is the holy grail of many parents and students. But I think in this new era of SkillsFuture and lifelong learning, knowing one’s passion may in time be the new straight A’s, because it is our passion and inner motivations that guides us through a lifelong journey of learning, skills mastery and contributing to society. Today, we see more employers trying to suss out the inner motivations of a candidate, as opposed to just looking at their academic results.

10. While preparing for this speech, I went back to the first speech I delivered as the Acting Minister of Higher Education and Skills. I was speaking at an OECD Conference held in Singapore, and that was when I spoke about the topic of passion and lifelong learning. I thought it may be worthwhile reiterating some of the points made then, for those beliefs continue to guide me in my work at MOE today.

11. Our education system in Singapore started off with the aim of helping our country survive and our people to earn our own living. So the system focused on imbibing common values, teaching languages, literacy and foundational skills. These national imperatives guided us in our education system, resulting in it being top-down, functional, preserving and integrating.

12. But to a young person today, he or she may be much less attracted by the national imperatives of education. For them, education is often about choices – where and how to channel their energies and passions. They want to grow into interesting vocations and professions, where they can bring joy to people, save the environment, protect the lives of their loved ones or their fellow countrymen, cure the sick, uphold justice, or change life as we know it. So we cannot just offer them career counselling and introduce to them the variety of job possibilities when what they really want to know is the meaning behind those jobs.

13. So more and more, the objective of education is to recognise that each of us has innate talents, abilities, and interests, and our education system must help our young uncover and pursue their passions, and find out where their inner compass is pointing. Such a system is bottom-up, aspirational, changing and diversifying.

14. But it does not mean the national imperative of education has to take a back seat and give way to personal aspirations. That is a false dilemma. Because now, the collective good of a competitive economy and resilient Singapore is attained only if individual Singaporeans can pursue their own talents and passions, feel that every one of us count, and our diversity of talents is complementary and nourishes our society.

Strengthening of the ECG System

15. This may put into perspective why we have the SkillsFuture movement and develop multiple pathways in the education system; why we are opening up more opportunities for lifelong learning; why we are making an effort to dial back the over-emphasis of examinations and academic grades; and phasing out the streaming system and replacing it with subject-based banding to unlock the growth mindsets of our students.

16. While these structural changes are important, equally important are the interventions in classrooms and the lessons we are imparting to students. That is why we invested in the development of an ECG system as an integral part of our education curriculum, from secondary schools to ITE and polytechnics. Today, we have a functioning machinery that is starting to deliver results.

17. First, in terms of physical infrastructure, we have set up dedicated ECG Centres at MOE, and at each of the polytechnics and ITE colleges. The staff of these centres organise career talks, sharing sessions and visits, and provide information resources for students and parents. ECG Counsellors at the centres provide direct consultations for students. In 2018, the Counsellors saw more than 14,000 students, which is a 40% increase from 2017.

18. Second, in terms of personnel, we have recruited about 100 ECG Counsellors. We look for professionals who believe in the importance of ECG and giving guidance to our young. We also ensure that ECG Counsellors come from diverse backgrounds and experiences. Today, in the polytechnics and ITE, one third of the counsellors are from the education and training profession, and two-thirds have at least five years of working experience in industries such as info-communications, banking and finance, engineering and healthcare. They are able to synthesise their experiences in the real world of work with classroom learning, and offer a healthy breadth of perspectives to enable students to make the best of their options and opportunities.

19. The ECG Counsellors are constantly developing their competencies. They go through regular professional training to develop their counselling and facilitation skills. They also keep their understanding of industries current through formal courses and informal channels. Over the past three years, they attended close to 60 organised industry networking sessions and learning journeys, across more than 20 sectors.

20. Third, the curriculum. We have developed a structured curriculum with defined learning outcomes. Today, in secondary schools, the ECG curriculum is about 16-20 hours. The emphasis is on career exploration, and not to make the students immediately pin-point a career to pursue. We want students to deepen their understanding of themselves through various psychological assessment tools and discussion with the Counsellors, and get a glimpse into the world of work.

21. In polytechnics and ITE, the ECG curriculum is about 40-60 hours, where the emphasis shifts towards career planning. Students develop information-gathering and decision-making skills to evaluate options and make informed career decisions. Internships in their final year is an important cap stone to further clarify their interests. And before their transition to work, students are also taught good work ethics and job search skills such as resume writing and handling an employment interview.

22. Finally, institutions are also creating more opportunities for students to be exposed to industry, meet with potential role models, and spark their passions. So there are various industry project teams, mentorship programmes, and entrepreneurship opportunities.

23. A latest initiative by the polytechnics is the Future City Programme. It brings together students from different polys and disciplines, academia, industry, and government representatives to work on various urban solutions for a city of the future. This is interesting, because it enables students to understand how different skillsets in engineering, data analytics, IT, and design can be applied in a multi-disciplinary project. It brings home the point that in ECG, we should be more focused on the purpose of our work, what we seek to achieve and the difference we want to make, as opposed to just answering the question of what I enjoy studying most. You can study anything and still achieve the purpose you had set out.


24. Let me end my speech with a story, which is a bit unconventional but interesting. This is about Mr Muhamed Faizal Bin Abdul Kadir, currently an ECG Counsellor looking after secondary schools in the West.

25. His journey of self-discovery is not short of twist and turns. He graduated with a Diploma in Business Administration, and during an internship, realised he was more interested in graphic design. Sounds familiar? So after he graduated from polytechnic and enlisted into National Service, he started to learn graphic design seriously during his free time. Thereafter, he set up his own graphic design house and then became a polytechnic lecturer in digital animation.

26. He might have taken a wrong turn when he was young, but felt that it was normal for someone's interests and aspirations to change as they grow, and whatever he has learnt is never wasted. Today, he relishes his work as an ECG Counsellor, because he can guide others who face the same situation as him.

27. Faizal also recalled a memorable case. A student who was on the verge of dropping out was referred to him. She had failed her modules, repeated them and failed again. Anxious and aimless, she was unsure what her next steps were. He found out that she had previously graduated from ITE with a 4.0 GPA, but did not excel in polytechnic.

28. He made the brave but professional conclusion that the student was not ready for a polytechnic education yet. So rather than ‘scraping through poly’, which was her plan, he helped her realise the value of starting work first. Faizal pointed her to a few job openings. Soon after, the student informed him that she received two job offers, including one as an administrative staff in the civil service. Now, she is happy to be working and learning new skills on the job. At some point, when she is ready and wants to complete her polytechnic education, I am sure her employer will be supportive, and the polytechnic will welcome her back.

29. This is just one example, but I am sure we have helped hundreds like this student. This is your collective mission, to strive to find the best education and career fit for students – even if it may not seem obvious, or does not conform to conventional wisdom. I wish you a fruitful symposium. Thank you.

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