Speech by Mr Lawrence Wong, Minister for Education, at the Middle East Institute Annual Conference 2021

Published Date: 25 February 2021 06:00 PM

News Speeches

Mr Bilahari Kausikan, Chairman of the Middle East Institute

Distinguished Guests

Ladies and Gentlemen

1. I am very happy to join you for this virtual MEI conference.

2. COVID-19 has upended our way of life, including the way we interact and socialise with one another. It has also intensified and accelerated many large-scale economic and societal trends. The pandemic has brought much of industry and commerce to a standstill and it has changed the way we live, work and play.

3. Beyond the immediate disruptions to our economy and society, the pandemic has also underscored the importance of education in preparing our students to face a rapidly changing future. The fact is that knowledge is increasing at an exponential rate. For example, in 1950, it took about 50 years for knowledge in medicine to double. By 1980 medical knowledge was doubling every 7 years. By 2010 it was doubling in half that time and that is one of the reasons why we have been able to roll out vaccines so quickly to fight the virus.

4. With this rapid increase in knowledge, today's young are likely to have multiple job changes through their lifetimes. Look at the top jobs on LinkedIn today, jobs like being an iOS/Android developer, UX designer, cloud manager, big data architect – these jobs didn't exist 10 years ago. So our youths are likely to doing jobs in the future that don't exist now, and we must prepare them well for such a future.

5. It is therefore fitting that the theme of this session is on Human Capital Development and how we can build resilience through education and training. So let me share some of our thoughts.

6. First, we must prepare our people to continually rethink and re-learn. We traditionally think of cognitive strength as the ability to think and learn. But in a turbulent world, there is another set of cognitive skills that matter and that is the ability to rethink, un-learn things that we may already know because the knowledge is outdated, and to re-learn.

7. This requires agility and nimbleness of mind, as well as the humility to listen to others, and stay open to new ideas, and then continually update our thinking as circumstances change. Now I know that this may seem like a straightforward matter but rethinking and retooling is a skillset that needs to be constantly practiced. And the irony is that sometimes the more successful we are, the more difficult it is to change.

8. Take an example that we are all familiar with, the handphone Blackberry. It was very popular and at its peak, it accounted for about half of the US smartphone market. It was a major innovation for its time with its keyboard and very usable interface. Blackberry developed something that was convenient and met user needs at that time. Then the first iPhone entered the market in 2007. But the founder of Blackberry didn't want to change and stuck to its original model and it failed to adapt. And we all know what has happened to Blackberry today.

9. In Singapore, over the past year of fighting this pandemic, we also had to continually update our way of thinking. We've had experience dealing with a coronavirus, SARS, some years back. But SARS-CoV-2 is a completely new virus. So what worked well for us previously in the SARS outbreak was not so effective for this new virus. For example, with SARS, the person became infectious only after symptoms like fever set in, so it was easier to detect such an infectious person. This time, the virus spreads much faster, well before the onset of symptoms, and there are also asymptomatic transmissions. So we had to completely overhaul our contact tracing system with the help of technology. And through that process, we are today able to move faster to identify close contacts of an infected person, and put them on quarantine, so as to prevent the virus from spreading into large clusters. So these examples illustrate the importance of nimbleness and flexibility to keep on updating our way of thinking with new knowledge with the development of new information.

10. Second, as our students progress in their education journey, it is crucial that they not only develop deep expertise in their chosen fields, but also the ability to think laterally – to make sense of complex information by drawing connections across different domains. Indeed, real-world problems are often ambiguous and complex. The solutions often do not neatly fall within one box. And the best and most creative solutions come from the cross-fertilisation of ideas across different schools of thought, or even from completely different disciplines.

11. And that is why we are encouraging our Institutes of Higher Learning (IHLs) to make inter-disciplinary learning an integral part of their teaching and learning. We recognise that education is not just about filling the student with content and knowledge. It is far more important to train them how to think and learn, and to enjoy doing so. So we are giving students greater flexibility to choose courses they enjoy, and pick up skills across different disciplines, before deciding on the specific domains they wish to dive deeper into. So that's our second priority, to be able to broaden the skills and competencies of every student.

12. Third, we have to do more to help every individual achieve their fullest potential, especially those from more disadvantaged backgrounds. The impact of Covid-19 is felt disproportionately by the poor and vulnerable groups everywhere in the world. We know that the virus has brought about school closures in many countries. And this impacts all children, but those from poor and vulnerable families are often impacted the most. And these are the findings in many countries where they have done many research and surveys and they show that after the lockdown and school closures, the gap in exam scores between normal schools and those in more difficult areas would widen. We have a similar experience in Singapore, although not to the same extent. We have tried our best to avoid school closures, but we had one month of full home-based learning last year. In that process, we found that some children thrived, and they enjoyed the newfound freedom of learning from home. But those who do not have a conducive home environment did find it difficult to cope.

13. That is why we are doing more in schools to support these students. We are providing the schools with more resources, so that they are able to provide additional support for their students. This would include learning support in smaller pull-out classes. And beyond academic support, we are giving them exposure to different activities and programmes, including public speaking, learning journeys, overseas trips. We are also deploying more allied educators, counsellors and welfare officers to support students, especially those with special needs.

14. Beyond school-based support, we are going upstream because we know from research that early interventions can make a big difference in a child's development. And so we are investing significantly in pre-school, to give every child an affordable and quality preschool education. We are also investing in R&D to better understand how children develop; how their brains develop, and how they learn. And we are looking at the earliest years of childhood, even at the pre-natal stage, where the wellbeing of a pregnant mother can have lasting effects on a child's development. And we are setting up a new Science of Learning in Education Centre at the National Institute of Education (NIE), where we bring together multidisciplinary teams to drive research and translational work to better understand how people learn. And we hope all this research and development efforts will allow us to design meaningful and impactful interventions to bring out the best in every child.

15. Finally, we are pushing for a mindset change in society to embrace lifelong learning. We are making fundamental shifts in our model of education. We don't want to frontload learning when young, or treat education as a conveyor belt for the job market. Instead we want a system of education for life. And that is why we have embarked on a national movement, which we call SkillsFuture, where everyone can reskill, upgrade, and continuously improve through life to be the best version of themselves.

16. Employers play an important role in this regard. A lot of the on-the-job training at work is done in an ad-hoc manner. So, we are supporting employers and strengthening their capabilities to deliver better quality training at the workplace. For example, we are setting up National Centres of Excellence (NACE) for workplace learning, where we aim to reduce the barriers to upskilling at the workplace, through in-house training systems as well as better support for workplace trainers.

17. Besides learning in a work context, we also want to encourage individuals' intrinsic motivations to learn for life – to see learning not as a means to enable work, but as a lifelong habit, and an integral way of life. And we have empowered every adult Singaporean with SkillsFuture credits which they can use for a wide range of courses. We want each individual to take ownership and responsibility for their skills journey.

18. We have seen some early success, but we still have a long way to go. And we eventually hope to build a broad culture of lifelong learning in Singapore, a culture where learning is valued for the joy and the sense of fulfilment that it brings, and is deeply entrenched in our social fabric. It becomes an intrinsic part of daily life for Singaporeans of all ages.

19. To conclude, education and training is something that Singapore takes very seriously because people are our only and greatest resource.

20. Ultimately, our ability as a nation to remain resilient and make the best of the future, is dependent on the ability of our people to have the spirit and the means to continually reinvent themselves. It is with this in mind, that we are constantly reviewing and updating our education and training ecosystem, to better prepare every individual to navigate a world of change with confidence.

21. I have shared some thoughts on what we are doing in Singapore. We are happy to share our experiences, and also to hear what others have done, so that we can learn and improve. In this regard, I wish you all a fruitful panel discussion and look forward to your ideas on how both the Middle East and Singapore can continue to do better in this space.

22. Thank you very much.

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