Speech by Mr Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Education at the Middle East Institute Conference 2020

Published Date: 16 January 2020 12:00 AM

News Speeches

1. Thank you for inviting me to the conference today, and allowing me to speak on an issue I am passionate about - education. It is not an issue specific to the Middle East, but it concerns every country, every child and young person in the world.

2. I will make six points today. The first three are what I think are perhaps the universal and basic success factors of a good education system. The next three points are what I think are common future challenges of education all around the world. Thereafter, I look forward to hearing from His Excellency Dr Ahmad Belhoul Al Falasi on developments in the education system of the UAE.

3. The first basic success factor of an education system is that it must build foundational literacy and numeracy skills in our children. These are generative skills that enable the child to access other, and higher level, knowledge and skills in many other fields. In this age of big data and rapid technological advancement, such foundational skills are more important than ever.

4. Singapore educators have developed a unique way of teaching mathematics – the 'model method' - that requires students to visualise a problem before solving it. It is an open source syllabus, and has been adopted and adapted in many parts of the world, including the UK, France, Argentina recently and many parts of the US.

5. The importance of these fundamental skills is the reason all educators in the world closely monitor the OECD PISA results, because it benchmarks the skills in reading, mathematics and science of students from different countries. In the latest results, UAE has done well among the Middle Eastern countries, and Jordan and Qatar have registered improvements.

6. Singapore students have done quite well too, coming in second after the four provinces in China. But what encouraged us most was that we have one of the lowest percentages of weak performers, and our students from the lowest socio-economic quartile actually performed above OECD averages in all three assessment areas and that is very encouraging.

7. The second important success factor is the quality of teachers, because they are in the frontline of education, instructing and influencing students in the classroom and they play a role much greater than the quality of the curriculum and infrastructure.

8. To attract good teachers, having competitive salaries and benefits are important hygiene factors. More importantly, there is always a need to ensure the right people with a strong sense of mission and calling for teaching are recruited, and that they are well trained for the job. In Singapore, one of the best design features of our education system is that the Ministry of Education centrally recruits and trains teachers, to ensure consistency and quality in education delivery.

9. Most importantly, society must value and appreciate teachers. In this regard, Asian cultural tradition has helped Singapore greatly, for it accords a teacher a respectable social status. With that, good people are prepared to join the teaching profession. Even though it does not pay the most, they find it meaningful.

10. The third success factor is probably the hardest to achieve, which is that the education system must be designed to bring different groups of young people together. It must create a common space for them to interact and build bonds, inculcate in them a sense of unity and a common destiny.

11. In other words, education builds and moulds the future of nations. This is particularly relevant to nation states established post colonialism, which comprised people from various communities and tribes, and who had yet to forge a common identity. This does not happen on its own, just because students learn in the same classroom and spend time together. It has to be intentional, and involves significant policy decisions.

12. When Singapore became independent in 1965, we were an immigrant society – diverse and yet to be united. We took pains to build up a national school system that used English as a medium of instruction. As a multi-racial, multi-religious country, we ensured that religion was kept out of our compulsory school curriculum, and at the same time, had all students learn their mother tongues, to stay connected to our ethnic cultures and identities.

13. Our schools are a place where students of different backgrounds come together and learn alongside one another, providing a common space that is important for nation- and community-building. We introduced national education, as well as daily rituals such as singing of the national anthem and citing of the Pledge, which have long lasting effects.

14. With these key success factors in place, Governments can build upon this foundation, various programmes, courses, activities, curricula delivered through a variety of engaging pedagogies, to help fulfil the dreams and hopes of the young. But we must never forget that these key foundation stones must be in place first.

15. But rapid changes in technology, industries and job markets are now disrupting our work and our lives. Education needs to adapt in order to prepare our young for a very different future. All round the world, Governments are therefore working hard to reform education systems. In this effort, I believe we face three significant though not exhaustive, challenges.

16. First, the life cycle of going through education to acquire a stock of knowledge and skills, and then using this to embark on a life of work, needs to be fundamentally reconfigured. Because whatever knowledge and skills we acquire during what is commonly known as formal education, will become outdated quickly.

17. Instead, beyond formal education in schools and institutions at a young age, there has to be an educational process that is informal, concurrent, incidental or interspersed with work, and it happens throughout life. Work and education may even be indistinguishable, for it is also through work and experience that we learn the best life lessons. And for some students, it is in school that they establish start-ups and become entrepreneurs.

18. The concept of a knowledge-based economy also does not necessarily translate to an information-heavy education, because information can be easily Googled. Instead, it is skills, and the ability to translate knowledge into outcomes and results that are valued, and help us stay resilient against substitution by computers and robots. In short, we need to change education to a lifelong, skills-based and experiential model.

19. Second, education needs to play a part in addressing the challenge posed by social media. Social media is fundamentally changing the way people receive and consume information, as well as how we interact and give feedback and affirmation to each other.

20. Shortly after I became a senior civil servant with many direct reports, I attended a course teaching us how to communicate with our staff. Giving feedback for improvement is particularly tricky. You need to explain the situation, describe the exact action that the person took, how the action led to a negative outcome, and what the officer can do about it. Today I'm not sure these skills are observed as most people just click thumbs up or down, and key in some comments, almost unthinkingly.

21. Social media also alters the trust relationships between authorities and professionals and the people they serve. It is affecting the socio-emotional well-being of its young users. There is a growing consensus that it has also profoundly altered public discourse, and the functioning of the democratic system.

22. The impact of social media on societies has yet to fully play itself out; neither has society figured a solution to the ills of social media. But education systems need to recognise its growing influence, and equip our young with the values, mindsets and skills to live with social media and in a digital world. Education is not the only solution, but certainly has to be an important part of it.

23. I leave the hardest challenge to the last again. The final challenge to education is to engender a societal mindset change away from a deeply entrenched but increasingly outmoded notion of success - that the academic path and university degrees are the only route to success.

24. There is no doubt that a degree from a good university still opens doors to good careers and professions. This remains true partly due to the knowledge and skills the education imparts, but also because of the market signal a degree sends. A very popular university can be highly selective in admitting students, and being selected and graduating from that university signals talent and quality, and employers recognise that.

25. Both reasons are becoming less relevant over time. With advancing technology, intense competition and rapid changes in industries, employers need talents who possess diverse skills that when combined together, can deliver results. A degree will therefore not be the only proxy to skills. I suspect that over time, real experiences, internships, mentorships and micro-credentials, may become closer proxies. Moreover, as more and more young people attain degrees, it blunts the market signal for talent and quality. That is a key reason societies that produce a large number of graduates often experience high graduate unemployment, because the degree loses its premium and its market signal.

26. Education systems, especially at the higher education level, therefore need to develop multiple pathways for progression and achievement. In turn, society - students, parents, and employers – need to embrace these new pathways. It is a societal mindset shift that is inevitable and an imperative.

27. I look forward to our discussion. Thank you.

Share this article: