Speech by Mr Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Education & Adviser to Gambas Gros, at Sembawang Primary School 20th Anniversary

Published Date: 20 July 2019 12:00 AM

News Speeches

Community leaders,




Ladies and gentlemen,

Boys and girls,

1. It’s a weekend and everyone found the time to come back and celebrate Sembawang Primary School’s 20th anniversary! Give everyone a round of applause!

2. I just came from the Heritage Gallery– if you have time, please go and visit it. The student docents are most eloquent and explained the history of Singapore and Sembawang to me, which was wonderful. The diversity of the students is also a heart-warming fact to note.

3. This visit left me with three impressions – Firstly, the history of this place. Sembawang Primary might be 20 years old but we are in a town that is full of history. Secondly, the greenery of this place and thirdly, education. Let me just briefly talk about each.

4. Firstly, the history of Sembawang Town. I think you have a wonderful setting within this town. Many of the big events that happened in Singapore, happened in Sembawang.

5. For instance, the largest naval base east of the Suez was in Sembawang. I just learned from a Primary 5 student that we are called the Gibraltar of the East, which I never knew before. And when the British decided to pull out of Singapore, they were contributing 25% of our GDP at that time. So from 1968 all the way to the early 1970s, they were really pulling out of Sembawang. That was the significance of Sembawang.

6. Today, the house of the Admiral of the British forces who oversaw the shipyard, is still standing, on what we call Bukit Canberra, as Canberra House. We are redeveloping the whole area. When the developers first came, they wanted to build a community hub. This is the second community hub in Singapore; the first is in Tampines called Our Tampines Hub. Those of you who have seen it would know it’s a big complex. So they wanted to develop something like that on Bukit Canberra.

7. But we told them Sembawang is different from Tampines, there is history. You can’t flatten that hill to build a complex. Keep the hill, keep the forest, keep the house and we’ll build a community hub inside the forest, at the foot of the hill. That’s what we are doing now and you can see the work that is going on.

8. We have taken the trouble to count the number of trees on the hill. We counted about 800 trees and then bargained with the developer that they would only chop down about 200, after which we would plant back 1,000 to 2,000 trees. So you continue to have the forest and we’ll have a lot of Sembawang trees. We want to plant back the pineapples, rubber trees, rambutan trees, and I heard there are indigenous durian trees we will try to plant. The monkeys will come but we will have to learn to live with that. The Heritage Gallery also talked about the Hotspring Park, which is part of the history of Sembawang. It’s full of history and it’s up to us to explore.

9. I’ll also tell you about an aspiration which we are trying to achieve. A famous speech made by Mr Lee Kuan Yew shortly after we gained independence was made in Sembawang. He said, “Over 100 years ago, this was a mud-flat, swamp. Today, this is a modern city. Ten years from now, this will be a metropolis. Never fear.” When he passed away, this was played repeatedly at numerous commemorative sites. And when you ask where this speech was made, it was made at the Sree Narayana Mission, which is currently in Yishun, but this is its new site. The old site was in Sembawang.

10. I asked old residents where exactly it was in Sembawang, but they pointed me in different directions. So I thought I’d better do the scientific thing and got URA to check and pinpoint exactly where it was, mapped onto today’s map, that Mr Lee Kuan Yew made that historic speech. Guess where his speech was made? It was made almost next to Sembawang Primary, at Block 312. It is now a HDB block, coffeeshop and a children’s playground.

11. We are going to plant a marker near Block 312 to commemorate the site where Mr Lee made that speech. We held a competition for the design of the marker and a group of Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Singapore Polytechnic (SP) students won. We are going to plant the marker in the next few months and invite everybody to commemorate its unveiling. So that’s the history, environment and greenery of Sembawang that we must always cherish.

12. Most importantly now, we have Sembawang Primary School, which is the future. It is an integral part of this community. It also represents the education system and how it is evolving. The Heritage Gallery shows a lot of the developments of Singapore’s education system.

13. One of the big things that is changing now, which parents can feel, is the reduction of exams. Sembawang Primary has removed P1 and P2 exams, and will be removing mid-year exams for P3 next year, and the year after that, it will be removing mid-year exams for P5. That is really the MOE schedule.

14. I know some parents and students are getting worried about this. I spoke to students yesterday at Choa Chu Kang Secondary about the removal of exams. They like the removal of exams but some students actually told me they prefer having exams as they help them practise taking exams, which makes them more confident when it comes to the big exams such as the O Levels.

15. I think we have to strike a balance. We have so many tests and exams, and we are merely removing one quarter of them. We still believe strongly in exams. Exams give students a structure to learn, and make sure they have internalised what the school has taught. Exams are still a big feature of our system. What we are doing is taking away 25%, to free up time so that teachers can teach better and students can learn better. Remember that with every mid-year exam we remove, the school has three more weeks of teaching time. In the three weeks, they can teach in a much more lively way that will help the students.

16. I recently went to a school and saw students in the stationery shop. They had a list of shopping items and were looking for items, adding up the prices, and then finding out how much they had to spend. They then were checking how much they had left and calculating whether they had the budget to buy what they wanted. So rather than teaching just addition and subtraction, it really comes to life and the students will remember the lesson. If you teach just the formula, it takes half an hour, while if you enact it visually, it takes you one hour or one and a half hours, but the lesson will be etched in the children’s memory and will help them. This is the direction our education system is moving in, and I’m glad Sembawang Primary is embracing it.

17. One more thing that you are doing is Applied Learning, which without freeing up curriculum time, I think is very hard. You have started an applied learning programme in Environmental Studies. There is a rooftop garden in the school and students get to plant things themselves and see how plants react to the sun and rain. These are lessons that come to life that we need to free up time for so that students can learn.

18. I think it is suitable to share all these for the occasion, for a historical place in a special environment and in the midst of an educational reform that is happening within the school.

19. Sembawang Primary School has come this far in its 20 years largely because of the dedicated principals, teachers, parents as well as students supporting the schools. I would like to specifically mention the Principals who have led the school the last 20 years– Mr Han Mok Puek, Mr Albert Alcantara, Mr Kiran Kumar Gosian, and Mrs Grace Chua – for your dedication and role in creating and shaping the school’s history. Besides the school leaders, we also have many staff over the years, who have contributed to the school and they also deserve a big round of applause.

20. You saw on the live feed just now that we have planted a Sembawang Tree. I think there is only one Sembawang Tree in the whole of Sembawang Town, which is in the car park of Sembawang Park. Now, we will have one at Sembawang Primary School. In time, at the community hub when Bukit Canberra is up, you will see many more Sembawang Trees.

21. I hope the growth of Sembawang Trees will represent the growth of Sembawang Primary. Continue to be stronger, as students continue to proliferate in Singapore’s various sectors doing well, doing your families proud and doing Singapore proud. Thank you very much, and happy birthday!

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