Speech by Second Minister for Education Dr Maliki Osman at Pre-University Seminar 2021 Opening Ceremony

Published Date: 01 June 2021 06:00 PM

News Speeches

Ladies and Gentlemen

Good afternoon

1. Thank you for inviting me to join you in marking the start of Pre-University Seminar 2021. Pre-U Seminar 2021 is a significant one. For the first time in its 51-year history, the event has gone fully virtual. I am heartened to know that we have 525 young people tuning in right now from 24 different virtual rooms at home, even though I cannot see all of you. It speaks volumes of your willingness to remain adaptable to changing circumstances and making the best of it!

2. Since its inception in 1970, the Seminar has provided a common ground for our nation’s young people to come together, discuss issues, imagine possibilities, and envision a shared future for Singapore. I was a participant of the Pre-U Seminar in 1982 – yes, almost 40 years ago. You don’t have to start calculating my age. I fondly remember the theme of the seminar then was “Voluntary Social Services in Singapore”. We explored the social services sector and how society addresses the plight of the less fortunate and disenfranchised. Much like what many of you are concerned with today, 40 years later. The seminar left such a deep impact on me, such that when I started my university education at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences in NUS, I was attracted to the Social Work course. Social work has been in my blood since then. And as they say, the rest is history!

3. It has been a challenging year for all of us and we are still in the midst of a pandemic. It does not escape me that this event, which deepens understanding and engenders conversations amongst our youth about our nation’s future, is ever more relevant in a time like this.

4. There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic is the most serious crisis that the world has faced in a long time. Prime Minister Lee has called it a ‘crisis of a generation’. It is an invisible and devious enemy that wages its war globally, with no regard for border, country, race, or creed. A year and a half on, the pandemic is still raging in many parts of the world, and recent developments show that we cannot let our guard down. Globally, the impact has been significant and devastating. To date, it has infected more than 160 million people all over the world, and claimed more than 3.4 million lives. People in many parts of the world have yet to be vaccinated. Not only does it pose an unprecedented challenge to public health, the knock-on effects of the pandemic have also been far-reaching.

5. Many economies have taken a significant hit. At the height of the pandemic last year, countries all over the world went into some form of lockdown, and closed their borders to manage the rising number of cases. Even today, international travel and the cross-border flow of goods continue to be affected.

6. COVID-19 has aggravated geopolitical tensions, growing nationalism and protectionistic behaviour amongst countries. Countries will strive to become less dependent on others, and compete for essential goods and services like food and critical medical supplies. This will have strategic implications, as each will fight for the pie, rather than work together to enlarge it. Such behaviour will lead to a more troubled world where each one looks out for itself only.

7. The collateral damage in the form of social disruption is all too real. At one level, our once familiar ways of living and working have been upended. Mass gatherings seem to be a thing of the past, while mask-wearing and safe distancing have been routinised. At another level, we see rising poverty and interrupted education for children. Globally, the poorer segments of society are paying a heavier price during this pandemic.

8. While Singapore has enjoyed five decades of good progress by capitalising on our strategic location and maintaining an open economy, this global crisis is also a stark reminder of our country’s vulnerabilities.

9. We must not forget that we are a small country. A further souring of relations between the two global powers of USA and China aggravated by COVID-19 presents a very challenging geopolitical landscape. For small countries like Singapore, we will be caught in between this intensifying global rivalry.

10. As a connecting hub heavily reliant on trade, Singapore thrives on our linkages and partnerships with nations in the region and the world at large. Large parts of our economy serve regional and world markets in areas such as manufacturing, biotech, financial services and logistics. Domestic sectors like retail, food and beverage, and entertainment also rely heavily on tourism. When these are disrupted, the impact on our economy and especially our people is keenly felt. Singapore’s economy endured a record 5.8% contraction in 2020 – its worst recession since independence. In particular, our aviation and tourism sectors have been worst hit, with Changi Airport’s total passenger movements falling to 2 per cent of pre-pandemic levels. Singapore Airlines also reported a staggering $4.3 billion loss at the end of the recent financial year. It carried only 78,000 passengers in January this year, compared to the 3.4 million passengers in January last year. Similarly, 2020 saw our tourist arrivals plummeting 85% to 2.7 million – the lowest in four decades.

11. The loss of livelihoods due to the pandemic has also posed significant socio-economic challenges for individuals and families, some more than others. Inequality gaps can widen. Fear has also resulted in unkind and discriminatory behaviour towards people of other countries, races, and even our frontline workers who have sacrificed much in our fight against COVID-19. Fault lines have begun to appear. Social media has added another dimension of complexity. The virality of social media posts is a double-edged sword and we have seen how misinformation can easily affect our social cohesion. We must be conscious of this and be active and responsible citizens, even when we are online. We must not allow misinformation to weaken and divide us. Essentially, our social fabric – preciously woven together through the years – can be torn apart in unfamiliar and uncertain situations.

12. To tackle these changes heads-on, we rolled out a significant suite of emergency measures last year funded by our reserves to help Singaporeans and businesses. But these can only be temporary, and it is imperative for our economy to recover and improve as soon as it can.

13. The challenge for Singapore moving forward is therefore working to manage these vulnerabilities while adapting swiftly to a changing global landscape.

14. The theme of this year’s Seminar, ‘STRONGER’, does not shy away from getting us to understand the challenges ahead of us as a nation. Yet it is a powerfully hopeful call for us to contemplate how we can emerge stronger together as we brave these challenges and seize the opportunities presented by a post-COVID world. In many ways, the pandemic presents an opportunity for Singapore to reflect, reinvent ourselves, and reimagine our future as a nation.

15. I have broadly shared with you the threats and disruptions brought about by COVID-19 globally and nationally. Let me highlight some of the opportunities that will enable us to emerge STRONGER.

‘TOUGHER’: Resilience and Agility

16. First, we can become Tougher through greater resilience and agility.

17. It may sound like a trite adage but the pandemic has shown that in a globalised and interconnected world, truly, no country is an island. Even as we fortify our borders against the virus, Singapore must continue to maintain strategic partnerships and diplomatic relations with other countries. For example, acknowledging the importance of vaccines for the world to recover from COVID-19, PM Lee was the first to introduce the concept of vaccine multilateralism – to ensure that countries see access to vaccine as a global priority and avoid vaccine protectionism. We were early supporters of the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access (COVAX) Facility, which seeks to facilitate equitable access to vaccines by all nations. Singapore contributed US$5 million to the COVAX Advance Market Commitment (AMC), which will help support 92 low- and lower-middle-income countries’ access to COVID-19 vaccines through the COVAX Facility.

18. Unlike other resource-rich countries, Singapore cannot afford to remain isolated for a long time. We must strike a delicate balance between keeping our trade lines open and managing the challenges posed by the pandemic. This ensures that Singapore remains a trusted and reliable trading hub in a time of uncertainty, and that our economic pulse continues to beat strong.

19.In addition, building strong economic resilience will enable Singapore to cope effectively and confidently with uncertainty and change. Diversification is not new to us, and has continued to help us to manage vulnerabilities in our supply chains. An example is in the area of food security. We import over 90 per cent of our food. Seeking out multiple product sources can reduce an overdependence on a small group of producers and suppliers. We import from all over the world. We know we cannot be entirely self-sufficient. However, the global food supply disruptions have also underscored the importance of local production, as part of Singapore’s “3 food baskets” strategy to ensure food security. So we have the “30 by 30” goal – producing 30 per cent of our nutritional needs locally by 2030. This effort has been given a boost with the recently announced S$60 million Agri-Food Cluster Transformation (ACT) Fund by the Singapore Food Agency.

20.We must also shore up our social resilience by strengthening the fabric of our community. This ensures that our people are prepared to cope with change and continue to maintain a strong sense of collective identity. We must inoculate ourselves against the viruses of fear, selfishness, envy, xenophobia, and racism, which can be even more devastating to the human spirit and human society than the pandemic. The ongoing “Singapore Together Emerging Stronger Conversations” is one platform to help Singaporeans foster a sense of ownership in the road ahead, and understand the role that each of us can play in achieving that common vision. With a community united in purpose, Singapore will be better prepared to thrive in a world that is becoming increasingly complex.

‘BOLDER’: Innovation and Adaptation

21.Second, we must be Bolder and push ahead with innovation.

22.The sudden switch to a ‘new normal’ has seen many of us coping with disruption by adapting to new ways of living, working, and learning. Humans tend to be creatures of habit, so it is not easy, and things are not always smooth-sailing. We also need some time to pick up new skills. But if we embrace innovation, keep agile, and build up capabilities, we break out of our own comfort zones.

23. Environmental sustainability is an area of innovation which will take on stronger importance in the post-COVID world. As it is, climate change is the existential issue of many countries, including Singapore. When human activity came to a standstill last year due to the pandemic, carbon emissions around the world dropped significantly. We saw pictures of dramatically clear blue skies in cities well-known for pollution, and animals appearing where we don’t usually see them. As the world kicks up economic activity again, this is the opportunity for us to do things differently. We must build a greener economy and a society that is more environmentally sustainable.

24.For example, as part of the Singapore Green Plan 2030, the Enterprise Sustainability Programme was launched by the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) to encourage businesses to capitalise on opportunities presented by the green economy. This includes supporting them in implementing more sustainable practices and offering sustainable products and services.

25. Another area that has been given a super booster charge by the pandemic, is digital transformation. While Singapore has been developing herself as a Smart Nation, COVID-19 has accelerated this digital transformation and innovation. According to the Global AI Adoption Index 2021, almost half of IT professionals surveyed in Singapore indicated that their companies had accelerated the roll-out of AI or Artificial Intelligence during the pandemic. Now more than ever, businesses are recognising the need to harness technology in order to adapt effectively to the rapidly evolving landscape. This is especially so for retail services, as e-commerce becomes increasingly popular among consumers.

26.The opportunities which digitalisation brings are not just for businesses. An example is in the arts and culture. When museums and art galleries had to shut their doors during the circuit breaker last year, many leveraged technology to create innovative ways of experiencing art. The National Gallery developed #GalleryAnywhere, a one-stop gateway that offers a vast selection of digitised artworks and virtual exhibitions to people. In the longer-term, this can help institutions to widen their catchment of audiences, not just locally but indeed globally.

27.In fact, creating virtual frontiers and a green economy are the major thrusts of the recommendations made recently by the Emerging Stronger Taskforce to chart Singapore’s post-COVID economy.

‘KINDER’: Care and Inclusivity

28. Third, we can emerge Kinder and more caring as a society.

29.The pandemic does not discriminate who it infects, but its impact is certainly not felt equally. Strengthening the social compact between people and the government is vital to emerge from the pandemic a fairer and more equal society. This involves strengthening social safety nets, as well as building a community of care.

30. We will continue to strengthen our social safety nets, to look after those who are more disadvantaged and vulnerable. We start from young. We recognise that children from more vulnerable families will face significant challenges and disadvantages. The government has made significant investments in pre-school education, including providing increased subsidies to ensure the affordability of childcare for even the lowest income groups. At MOE, we have initiatives such as UPLIFT, or the Uplifting Pupils in Life and Inspiring Families Taskforce, as well as subsidies for student care services, which offer enhanced support for students from disadvantaged families. Even as we battle the pandemic, Singapore must continue to ensure that our students are provided with the opportunities and resources to realise their potential, regardless of their background. No child will be left behind.

31.As we further strengthen our social safety nets to protect the disadvantaged and vulnerable, we have to ensure that they are sustainable over the longer-term. As we provide support and buffers for every citizen to help them bounce back from setbacks, these must not be at the expense of their personal dignity to be able to make good on their own. We must continue to invest in the human potential – providing training and retraining opportunities for our people to gain the skills necessary to do well in the future economy. Our people must also be equipped with the ability to excel in an uncertain environment of global competition and technological change.

32.Beyond strengthening safety nets, a community of care can only be realised if Singaporeans are empowered to work together to make a positive difference to the larger community. One way is to connect them to opportunities to volunteer for good causes. An example is the SG Cares volunteer centres, which help to mobilise resources on the ground and establish partnerships between agencies and volunteers. Besides that, there are ground-up efforts initiated by community stakeholders to encourage inclusivity and compassion amidst the pandemic. Recently, healthcare workers from Tan Tock Seng Hospital saw an outpouring of support from grassroots organisations and private firms as they fought a second wave of COVID-19 cases. Small gestures such as the distribution of care packs helped to lift the spirits of these frontliners. Along with efforts by public and private sectors, we can go a long way in fostering a culture of collective responsibility for one another, which allows us to weather any challenges – not just those brought about by the pandemic – as one people.

33. More importantly, we must provide Singaporeans with the opportunity to feel that they can make a difference in the lives of fellow Singaporeans. Take ownership of these issues that matter to you. But bear in mind that there will always be trade-offs, and we need to be prepared to make them. At MOE, we have reviewed and enhanced our Character and Citizenship Education (CCE) curriculum to provide more opportunities for our students to explore these issues. The challenge is to ensure that we can marry having both a good understanding of issues and developing authentic empathy – hence enabling values to be reflected and internalized by our students. My years in social work have always been guided by my strong emotional connection to the experiences of the people whom I work with – whether they be substance abusers, victims or perpetrators of domestic violence or vulnerable seniors at risk of social isolation. It was when I could immerse myself in their experiences that I was able to make an effective contribution to better their lives.

Moving Forward: Navigating the Future

34.This year’s Seminar is a clarion call to you, our nation’s youth, to reflect on the role you can play in co-creating a vision of a ‘stronger Singapore’. As you prepare yourselves to take up the mantle of stewardship of this country one day, I would like to share some words of encouragement with you.

35.First, discern wisely and contribute constructively to the diversity of voices. Many things will jostle for your mindshare and your attention, some more loudly articulated than others. Apply yourself to discern what is being said and unsaid, and practise the principle of charity when approaching different points of view even when they differ from yours. We mustn’t come to a point where we take offence over everything, without showing grace to others. We need to constantly work hard to maintain a common space for Singaporeans to feel safe to have different views, without being trolled or cancelled. Any contestation of ideas should strengthen us, not weaken us. More importantly, that common space reminds us that we are one Singapore – with our unique history, context and culture – and the things that unite us must be more than those that divide us.

36. Second, embrace that the road of life is not a single highway, but an adventure of different journeys. In life, we will experience flat plains, mountaintop highs and valley lows. As you deal with life’s complexities, never lose that spirit of adventure – be bold in stepping out of your comfort zone to tread new ground. And never lose that spirit of hope – you do not walk alone. Journey alongside your family and friends, forge strong support networks in your community, and look out for one another.

37.Finally, dare to dream big, for yourself and for Singapore. We live in extraordinary times that call for extraordinary courage and optimism. While we cannot choose our current circumstances, our future is made by the sum of our subsequent choices. Even as you dream, aspire also to make a difference to the community, especially those among us who require a helping hand. In order to truly emerge stronger together as one people, we cannot each act alone; the future belongs to us all.

38. Although we gather this week in virtual rooms and virtual auditoriums, I am sure the experience will be no less meaningful as it had been for your seniors, for the past 50 years. In the following four days, I hope you will also continue to deepen your understanding of issues, have rich conversations, and imagine the possibilities to make Singapore stronger. Fundamentally, these conversations will also help us to discover who we are as a people, and what each of us can do to make that next leap for our country.

39. I wish all of you an inspiring and meaningful Seminar! Thank you.

Share this article: