Speech by Mr Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Education, at the Singapore-UK Partnership For The Future: Singapore Bicentennial 1819-2019, Guildhall, London

Published Date: 13 June 2019 12:00 AM

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1. Let me first extend my gratitude and appreciation to the Lord Mayor and the City of London Corporation, for their enthusiasm and commitment to the Singapore-London partnership, and for hosting this event.

2. Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam has spoken about Britain’s legacy in Singapore, and how it has shaped policies such as free trade and support for retirement, and defined our legal, civil service and education institutions. My speech will begin from where he left off.


3. In Singapore we describe the generation of Singaporeans born before 1950 - before WWII and shortly after - as the Pioneer Generation. They are at least in their 70’s now. The generation after that, that is, those born in the 1950’s and who are now in their 60’s, are called the Merdeka Generation. Merdeka in English means independence.

4. For these early generation Singaporeans, they were already young adults when Singapore became independent, and they are very conscious of British legacies. My generation - born in the 1960’s - was born into the current system and is less conscious of those legacies.

5. Notwithstanding this, British influence was palpable throughout our growing up years. Around the time we were in primary school, the medium of instruction switched completely to English, except for the Mother Tongue language lessons. We learned to spell colour with ‘our’ and programme with ‘mme’, and measure in metres and Celsius. And most of us graduated with Cambridge GCE ‘O’ or ‘A’ Level certificates.

6. In sports, we are crazy about football. Singaporeans have been sharply divided between supporting Liverpool and Manchester United, with a very small sentimental minority still into Derby County and Norwich City.

7. A very significant mechanism that ensured the passing down of the governance and institutional legacies were government scholarships. Studying in the UK under the Public Service Commission Scholarship remains very prestigious, and over the last 20 years, over 800 scholars headed to the UK, and they are leading various institutions today.

8. I got my scholarship to study at the LSE in 1988. That first time leaving Singapore for studies at the LSE was my first trip to the Western World, and my first time living overseas. It was the case for many of my contemporaries and colleagues born in the 1960’s too.

9. Our undergraduate years in the UK opened up our horizons, and those were formative experiences that influenced our outlook in life. The bonds we developed are cherished till today, and add to the strength of the linkage between Singapore and the UK.

10. Today’s speech is about strengthening our co-operation in the digital world, which I will talk about later. But I have to caveat: I am unable to go overboard talking about digital co-operation, because my personal bond with London and the UK, is mostly, and perhaps entirely, analogue.

11. When I was studying here, we did not have the Internet. There was no email; and we wrote to our families, our boyfriends and girlfriends via aerogrammes – they cost 35 pence each if I remember correctly.

12. I see that students today can skip lectures and just watch the video at home. I stayed across the Tower Bridge on the South side of Thames. During the rare days when the Bridge was lifted, it was an excuse for me to stay home and miss my lectures. And for better or for worse, there was no online make up lessons.

13. During my first year, London erupted, when Michael Thomas scored a last minute goal against Liverpool, and Arsenal won the League. No one watched that match on devices. We were all gathered in pubs. Thankfully that analogue culture remained. A few of us were so inspired that the next year we actually moved to Highbury and lived there for a year.

14. It was also during that time that I started collecting LPs. As a poor student I could only afford the 7” singles, sold at 99p, and I bought them mainly from Virgin Megastore at Oxford Street and Tower Records at Piccadilly Circus. Unfortunately, both stores fell victim to the MP3 – and that explains some of my hidden feelings about digital technology. I continue to collect LPs today, and remain a listener of mostly analogue music, unless I am in the gym or in the car.

15. I started dating my wife during my undergraduate days too. That relationship, I assure everyone, has been analogue.

16. Digital technologies have made many things possible, but I think it will serve us well to remember the hierarchy of importance of things in life. Digital technology can enhance and complement analogue relationships and experiences, but not supplant them.

17. It is in this spirit and with this understanding, that we can usher a new wave of cooperation between Singapore, London and the UK. There are a few impetuses for us to invest further in this relationship, and to do so with some urgency.


18. First, cities are on the rise. All over the world, urbanisation continues apace, and cities are gaining importance as centres of human activity. It must follow that partnership between cities is a dimension of co-operation that is rising in importance, to complement that between countries and regions. Singapore and London, two major cities of our respective regions and time zones and with many commonalities, can be at the forefront of city to city co-operation, and pave the way for others.

19. Second, the world is at a crossroad. Challenges to established consensus on globalisation abound. US-Sino relations are evolving and unfolding, as it has over the last 70 years, and will be the story of our century. Around the world, far right nationalism and protectionism are on the rise again. For the UK, Brexit poses significant uncertainties. In such times, we need like-minded countries to stand on the side of co-operation and a more connected world, working together. UK and Singapore, London and Singapore are natural partners, and we can do our part.

20. Third, I believe young Britons and Singaporeans share something in common. They want a world where countries compete but yet are at peace, and work collectively to protect our global commons. Many are idealistic, impatient, perhaps even quixotic, but not apathetic. If leaders of today can show the way and commit to working together, we can harness the energy and dynamism of the young, to make a difference to the world.


21. Given the impetus to co-operate, the questions are: What are the areas of collaboration that are most needed and pertinent given the state of the world today? What can we do to leverage the powers of the virtual and digital world, to strengthen partnership in the physical, human, people-to-people world?

22. Since the launch of the Singapore-UK Partnership for the Future in January this year, officials from both sides have been finding answers to these questions, working very hard, and have made good progress. This Bicentennial Event has brought both sides together to concretise some of these efforts into deliverables. Today, let me give an update on four key areas of co-operation that both sides have agreed to work on.

First, Financial Cooperation

23. This is a natural area of partnership given that Singapore and London are financial hubs. In 2016, we established a FinTech Bridge, to facilitate FinTech entrepreneurs crossing between our markets. This enables the financial regulators to refer FinTech firms to their counterparts across the globe. Today, the steady trickle of entrepreneurs crossing this bridge is growing into a stream, and we hope soon it becomes a flow.

24. Here are some notable examples: B2C companies from the UK, such as Transferwise and WorldRemit have made Singapore a base for their ASEAN expansion. Onfido and ComplyAdvantage – which are B2B companies - are making inroads to serve SMEs and institutional markets in Singapore and ASEAN.

25. In the opposite direction, analytics companies in Singapore, such as Smart Karma and BlueFire, have established a physical presence in London, and are growing their presence in the UK. Investment support has flowed from Singapore’s GIC, Temasek Holdings and Economic Development Board Investment, to companies such as OakNorth and TrueLayer, to help them scale up.

26. We are also strengthening our co-operation in the areas of data flows, KYC processes, skills and training, and green finance. The City of London Corporation and Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) have signed an MOU to deepen our exchanges and collaboration in these areas.

27. The MAS and the Bank of England, Her Majesty’s Treasury and the Financial Conduct Authority, will also be co-operating to enhance the cyber resilience of our financial sectors, through the sharing of cybersecurity information and will facilitate staff exchanges between our authorities.

28. The MAS and the Bank of England have conducted a joint study on cross-border payments. Based on the work done and as payment system operators, we will identify causes of friction in cross-border payments, with a view to smoothen them over time.

29. London and Singapore are both large asset management hubs. We are working towards the possibility of mutual recognition of selected collective investment schemes to strengthen the linkages of our markets and enhance mutual market access.

30. The UK and Singapore recognise that climate change is a global challenge. Tackling this requires the collective effort of all countries, as well as the public and private sectors. We can work together to promote green financing.

31. Through a Partnership Agreement, the MAS and City of London Corporation will work together to harmonise standards on sustainable finance to mobilise investments in green projects, strengthen environmental and climate-related disclosures, and facilitate capacity building efforts to support the growth of the market for green finance. Green finance should become an integral part of our financial sectors.

Second, innovation.

32. Singapore and the UK are both committed to fostering stronger economic growth through strategically improving our innovative capacities. Enterprise Singapore (ESG) is partnering EUREKA GlobalStars to strengthen collaboration in innovation between enterprises of Singapore and EUREKA participating countries.

33. As a start, Singapore, UK and the Netherlands, will open a joint call for projects in medical technology, smart mobility and advanced manufacturing, and will provide funding support for the selected projects.

34. Innovation will need to be protected by strong intellectual property (IP) rights. Our two countries, with our belief in the rule of law, are strong proponents of this and have built ourselves up to be reputable IP hubs.

35. Today, the world’s most valuable companies are rich in IP. More than half of the global economy is held in intangible assets. For UK and Singapore, investments into intangibles already exceed that for tangible assets. Yet, a recent international study found that enterprises’ intangible assets continue to be significantly under-insured. Only 16% of information assets have insurance coverage compared to 60% for property, plant and equipment.

36. The Intellectual Property Office of Singapore has therefore partnered with Lloyd’s Asia, a subsidiary of Lloyd’s London, to introduce specialised IP insurance products, and will launch the “IP Insurance Initiative for Innovators” later today.

37. The initiative will provide greater ease for innovators to secure insurance against IP legal expenses, a specialty insurance product. We hope this and more of such products will give innovators greater assurance when they leverage their core IP to expand into overseas markets.

38. Innovation is also about relooking business models, and ways to attract and serve customers better. The digital economy has fundamentally changed the landscape. Governments should similarly embrace this change and see how we can serve our publics better. Singapore’s Government Technology Agency and the UK Government Digital Service intend to strengthen collaboration in the design and delivery of digital government public services, and will later today sign an MOU to formalise this.

39. As part of the MOU, both sides will assist each other in improving the delivery of digital public services, building digital skills and capabilities for government officials, and have committed to open standards for government information, data and software.

Third, Data

40. Data has become an essential factor of production. Cross border transfer of data makes e-Commerce and e-Payment possible. Cross border data sharing enables an enterprise to have a full understanding of the needs of a client with presence in multiple countries. In crime fighting, this flow of data enables more effective investigation and enforcement. Data is also an important ingredient powering emerging fields like Artificial Intelligence, increasing the use of cloud services as we build digital economies.

41. Despite these benefits, fragmentation and barriers to data flows remain significant. This is partly due to data localisation laws in some countries, often enacted due to concerns about cyber security or data privacy.

42. But like trade, the costs of data protectionism always grossly outweigh the perceived benefits. Like Free Trade Agreements which promote the free movement of goods and services, we also need international agreements to facilitate data flows.

43. Singapore and the UK have both publicly underscored the importance of this, and the need to guard against data protectionism. However, data flows must be coupled with the assurance that safeguards are in place to protect and secure the information. Hence, what is needed in international data agreements are common standards for the custody, processing, protection and transmission of data.

44. As a start, Singapore's Personal Data Protection Commission and the UK's Information Commissioner's Office have entered into an agreement to foster closer collaboration in personal data protection. Under the MOU, we will share experiences and information, collaborate on the development and implementation of AI governance framework and ethics, co-operate on guidance in regulatory sandboxes, and data innovation and governance of joint research projects. It is a good start to deeper partnerships, and potential future initiatives that enable innovation in data sharing and data flows.

Finally, People and Skills

45. We have a long history of people-to-people exchanges, and should continue to ride on that to enhance the flow of global talent.

46. Last month, the UK extended the use of its ePassport gates to visitors from Singapore. Singaporeans now have over 250 e-gates to use at 15 air and rail ports when they visit the UK. Singaporeans have received the announcement with great delight, given that one in 1,000 Singaporeans are in UK at any point in time.

47. Singapore will also be extending our Frequent Traveller Programme to UK Citizens. The Programme allows UK citizens who travel frequently to Singapore to enjoy automated immigration clearance facilities in Singapore.

48. In education, my area of passion, our co-operation has been broad and deep. Our Universities have come together to offer many joint programmes. These include the Singapore Management University partnering Queen Mary University of London to offer a Dual LLM, and University College London to offer a Master of Science in Quantitative Finance.

49. The most notable collaboration between our universities was that between the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and Imperial College London, which jointly established the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine in 2010. The school places a special emphasis on technology, data science and the humanities, together with medical education. Its enrolment is expanding, and its first batch of doctors graduated last year.

50. In research, collaboration has also been varied and numerous. Rolls Royce has set up a Corporate Lab at NTU; while the National University of Singapore’s Centre for Quantum Technologies and the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council’s RAL Space are jointly collaborating in quantum technology. They are building a quantum key distribution testbed.

51. This is a great example of partnership in the digital economy. The project will see the UK and Singapore teams working together to build and deploy a satellite quantum key distribution test bed that can establish and send secure cryptographic signals from an orbiting satellite to a receiver on the ground that cannot be accessed by third parties.

52. Essentially, this means that long-range communications can be sent securely. This is a particularly important endeavour in today’s digital age, and will go some way towards mitigating attendant cybersecurity risks.

53. Singapore is in the process of phasing out secondary school streaming. When that is completed in 2024, students will no longer leave Singapore’s secondary schools with different certificates for different streams, but a common certificate.

54. In preparation for this transition, we are working with Cambridge Assessment to develop the “Singapore-Cambridge Secondary Education Certificate”, or SEC. The new Certificate will leverage Singapore’s and Cambridge’s strong reputation in education.

55. As industries and companies adapt to new technologies and business models, workers need to adjust quickly too. In the face of rapid change and innovation, we need to focus our efforts on protecting workers, instead of protecting jobs. Re-skilling and lifelong learning has become a top priority in many countries.

56. In Singapore, SkillsFuture is a broad based movement to encourage the mastery of skills throughout life, and across the working population. It involves re-thinking many aspects of the current education system and policies in schools and institutes of higher learning, expanding the training delivery infrastructure for adults, implementing active labour market policies to help workers adapt to disruptions, and over time, broadening traditional notions of success and bringing about greater social mobility.

57. The UK is also pre-occupied with these challenges. Similar themes were addressed in the recent report to review post-18 education and training.

58. The financial services sector in Singapore is actively driving SkillsFuture, with the Institute of Banking and Finance (IBF) at the forefront of implementation. The IBF and the Chartered Body Alliance have signed a Declaration of Intent, to enhance cooperation in improving skills and competencies, promote the mutual sharing of best practices in training, and facilitate the mutual recognition of professional standards of the financial sector. This will enhance and sustain the professional skills and employability of financial talent in both countries.


59. Singapore and the UK have had 200 years of relationship. We have had our ups and downs in this long relationship, but every experience has served to define and strengthen modern Singapore. Today, what we have is a strong friendship between our countries and cities. And we did all this without emails and the Internet.

60. Going back to what I said earlier in my speech, the truth is – and I think I speak for all – our best memories, deepest influences, most lasting relationships and strongest bonds, come out of analogue experiences. The physical handshakes, face to face interactions, time spent in physical company and shared experiences, are what human relationships are made of. And in turn, the relations between two geographies is really the collection of people-to-people relationships.

61. This relationship will live on in the generations to come. It will simply be made more efficient and effective by the digital technologies that have made many things possible. Together, we will forge ahead in our cooperation for the new era.

62. Thank you and I wish you a meaningful discussion.

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