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Speech by Minister for Education Mr Chan Chun Sing at Teachers’ Conference and Excel Fest 2021

Published Date: 02 June 2021 10:00 AM

News Speeches


Distinguished guests and delegates

Ladies and Gentlemen,


1. A warm welcome. This is the 10th edition of the Teachers' Conference, and the first held online.

2. Every day in our profession, we challenge ourselves to do better for our people and country. Not just in the way we apply pedagogy and technology, but more importantly, in the way we inspire and nurture.

3. Today, I will focus our sharing on two sets of issues -- the immediate and urgent that deals with COVID-19; and the important and existential which develops the potential of our people and country.

Immediate and Urgent – COVID-19

4. Let me start with COVID-19, which has thrown the world a curveball.

5. Many places in the world saw school closures and the education of their people disrupted.

6. Singapore has been fortunate, thus far. We have managed to keep our schools open most of the time. Together with home-based learning and remote classes, our children have been able to continue learning.

7. All of these did not just happen because we had the financial resources or the technical capabilities.

8. It is because we had all of you – capable and dedicated educators.

9. You were the ones who pulled together the resources, developed the new curriculums and schedules, and worked with the students and parents to transit to the new arrangements. You made sure that no child would be left behind, because of lack of access to the internet and devices, or a conducive environment at home.

10. Without all of you, we would not have gotten this far.

11. In fact, when we had to swing into full home-based learning again at very short notice a few weeks ago, many of you shared with me that you hardly missed a beat in the transition.

12. I know it is hard work. But you kept our system ready. Well done, and thank you all.

13. Ultimately, this is not about technology alone. It is about dedication and commitment.

14. However, COVID-19 has not yet blown over. We do not know when the pandemic will end. We may never be able to go back to a pre-COVID world.

15. We must be prepared for unexpected developments, such as new and more virulent viral mutations, bringing with them new transmission characteristics, demanding us to update our disease control methods, and challenging us to update our methods to keep our schools as safe and open spaces for learning.

16. Rising to these challenges has offered us new perspectives to educate and develop the next generation to be even more adaptable and resilient.

17. In a more complicated environment, we must be able to continue operating our education system sustainably, through targeted ways.

18. This may require us to have more rapid and pervasive testing capabilities, and more rapid isolation capabilities to ringfence the affected parts of our system, while allowing the rest of the system to continue operating as normally as possible.

19. Combined with the latest vaccination programmes, it may give us some semblance of normalcy in a new way.

20. It will also likely require us to be able to toggle between different modes of teaching and learning as circumstances dictate.

21. Blended learning is not an optional, "good-to-have". Blended learning is an opportunity we need to seize to teach our people to adapt flexibly amidst uncertainties.

Important and Existential – Potential of Our People and Country

22. COVID-19 will one day pass us by. The pandemic will not define us -- our responses to it will.

23. Let me move onto the second part of our sharing today. The important and existential part of our work is bringing out the best in our people – individually and collectively as a nation.

24. Why is this part of our work important and existential?

25. History has never been kind to small city-states with no natural hinterland.

26. We must keep ourselves safe and secure, and we must earn our keep. We only have our people – their talents and gumption.

27. Compounding our challenge is the tremendous task of forging a nation from diverse roots and diverse aspirations, while constantly buffeted by the centrifugal forces of competing ideas and identities from countries and societies which are larger, more powerful and with longer historical lineage.

28. For our Little Red Dot to keep shining, we need to enable our people to be competent to earn our keep with the world as our hinterland and markets. We need to engender the confidence in our people of our place in the world, and to chart our own destiny, and we need to distinguish ourselves as a people with our principles and values.

29. Economic success alone will not make us a nation and a people.

30. Economic success buys us time to build our confidence to chart our way forward and bond us as a people through thick and thin, regardless of race, language, religion, ancestry or starting point in life. Therein lies our challenges in the education service to build a distinguished people and nation that we can all be proud of.

Competencies for the Future

31. Our predecessors have done good work in developing the 21st Century Competencies, or 21CC as we fondly call it.

32. When I read up on the 21CC, I could not help but admire the efforts and quality of thinking that have gone into developing it.

33. It is comprehensive and thorough. It is something we should and will need to apply consistently and diligently, over many years, to see results.

34. As with many things that we do, we cannot measure success by the here and now. But we know deep in our hearts that success will only be manifested when the next generation grows up better than us, exhibiting the qualities and values that we have planted with the seeds that we sow today.

35. Let me share a story of a little boy who grew up in a non-English speaking home, with limited resources to buy books, and without confidence to read anything beyond "picture books" for kids.

36. One day, his form teacher brought him to the school library, told him to choose a thick book, and asked him to bring it home to read!

37. The little boy was overwhelmed. He had never read such a book before – one without pictures and more than 100 pages long.

38. The teacher encouraged the boy to read one page at a time, and to imagine that he could finish each page like the picture books that he used to read.

39. It took the little boy time and courage. After he had finished reading the book, the teacher asked him to help by becoming a school librarian. The boy's curiosity was piqued. His confidence grew. Since then, the boy has kept on reading, and learning.

40. The teacher was Miss Low of MacPherson Primary School.

41. The little boy was me.

42. Thank you, Miss Low! For igniting the curiosity in me; for giving me the confidence.

43. All of us will have one or more such inspiring teachers in our lives. You may also have been a Miss Low in someone's life. Thank you to all, for being the Miss Low of our children's lives.

44. I share this story because I believe the foundation of all competencies is the combination of curiosity and discipline.

45. Curiosity once ignited will propel a child to learn. Discipline once ingrained will enable a child to pursue, master and perfect whatever he or she desires to learn.

46. Before I continue, perhaps we can pause for a moment, to reflect and give thanks to that special teacher in our lives.

Confidence for a New World

47. It is said that when a child is confident, there is no challenge too big to overcome.

48. On the other hand, when a child loses confidence, there is no challenge too small that the child will not fear and succumb to.

49. There are three dimensions of confidence that we should be aware of: confidence to compete in a more globalised world; confidence to accept ourselves; and confidence to chart our path as a people.

Confidence to Compete in a Globalised World

50. I once met a young Singaporean lady. She was the Station Manager for SilkAir in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

51. She was then a recent graduate. She was responsible for the airport operations and the local sales office. She knew not a single word of Thai prior to her posting. She was never taught airport operations or sales in school. What gave her the confidence to take up such a job overseas?

52. I was intrigued. I reflected. It was certainly not just the hard competencies that our system had equipped her with. It was something more.

53. It was the confidence that her teachers and parents had nurtured in her. It was her confidence to learn, and learn fast, that got her the job.

54. This may sound strange. But many of the things our children learn may be outdated by the time they enter the job market.

55. The average lifespan of Fortune 500 companies has shrunk from 50 years to 15 years, in recent decades.

56. Even for those companies that are around longer, their products have changed beyond recognition, every five to ten years.

57. The cutting edge of business models and technology application is now more often than not found in start-ups and the skunk works of global companies.

58. It will be hard to imagine that we can learn everything in school in the first 20 years of our lives; and be able to survive a 40- to 50- year career lifespan without any upskilling.

59. The ability and speed to learn has become more important than ever, as business and technological cycles become more compressed; hence our need for continuing education or lifelong learning, beyond compulsory education.

60. However, confidence must be balanced with vigilance against complacency.

Confidence to Accept Ourselves

61. The second dimension of confidence that we aspire to develop is the confidence to accept ourselves, and understanding our strengths and weaknesses, while not always measuring ourselves against other people's yardsticks.

62. It is not easy being a child or teenager nowadays.

63. In the past, perhaps we compare ourselves with our neighbours and classmates. But in today's internet age, our children compare themselves with the world.

64. Sometimes, things can look too perfect in the online world. But this incessant need to compare, and keep up with the Joneses, can have a most negative psychological impact on the self-esteem and confidence of our children and teenagers.

65. How we equip our children and teenagers with the confidence to accept themselves, know their strengths and build on those strengths, will be more important than ever before.

Confidence to Chart our Path

66. The third dimension of confidence is our ability as a people to chart our paths in an increasingly borderless world where ideas and information flow unrestricted, and where our people are buffeted by ideas and ideologies from all over the world.

67. As a young nation, we have never been afraid to learn from others.

68. Neither should we be afraid to chart our own paths after studying other people's choices and applying it to our context.

69. Be it the way that we have built our Housing Development Board flats and made them affordable to all, our Central Provident Fund system for retirement adequacy, our Ethnic Integration Policy to bring about social mixing in our housing estates, our National Service system for our security, our economic strategies to develop niche areas to compete in a more globalised world, or pioneering free trade agreements or digital trade agreements.

70. We did not arrive here by just copying others. Our forefathers built Singapore by studying others – both what to do and what not to do. We should similarly imbue in our young the confidence to do the same for our future generations.

71. This is of course easier said than done. There is no way we can shield our people from all the competing ideas and ideologies in the world.

72. Indeed, we want our people to be exposed to competing ideas, evaluate them critically and apply them to our local context, or break new ground by coming up with alternatives for ourselves.

73. Therefore, I am all for our people to travel, see the world, experience living and working in a different context and come home with better ideas to take our country forward.

Principles and Values

74. Ultimately, in a fast-changing world with growing uncertainties, it is our values that will anchor our future generations, as they navigate the complexities of the new world.

75. To this end, I will suggest three sets of values that will distinguish us as a people and as a nation – openness & inclusiveness, meritocracy, integrity and being principled.

Openness / Inclusiveness

76. Firstly, openness and inclusiveness. As a small nation-state of barely four million citizens, it will be hard for us to always have the best ideas.

77. However, if we remain open and connected with the world, humble and willing to learn from others, trusted as a friend for others to share with us, and thoughtful and wise in our choices, then we will always have a chance to be at the cutting edge of ideas.

78. Being connected to the world is not an option, but a strategy for our survival.

79. Therefore, we must always keep thinking of ideas to enable our students to better connect with the world; and understand the world as it is, and not as we wish it to be. This is even more important in a COVID world where travel has been disrupted.


80. Secondly, meritocracy is a system that gives everyone hope that they can realise their potential, regardless of their race, language, religion, ancestry or background.

81. It is what defines and binds us together as a nation from diverse roots. It attracts the best from beyond our shores to want to join Team Singapore, just like our ancestors who came from far and wide.

82. However, meritocracy, like any other system, can have its downsides if we are not careful. Meritocracy is always a work in progress for us to refine and improve.

83. There are three specific aspects that we must keep working on.

84. First, keep the definition of meritocracy broad and avoid being one-dimensional in the way that we appreciate talent. But within each dimension of talent, let merit and hard work determine the outcome.

85. Second, ensure that meritocracy is continuous. There is no such thing as one high-stake exam that will define anyone for life. People develop different strengths at different stages of life. We must keep enabling porosity and look out for opportunities to allow different talents to develop at different paces. Even the successful must never become complacent.

86. Third, appreciate that we are unequally endowed. As such, for a more inclusive society, we must do more for those with less. On the other hand, to those who are more privileged, it is our responsibility to reach out and pay it forward to others who are less privileged.

87. Only so will we have the confidence that regardless of our station in life, Singapore will be the best place to grow up in – full of opportunities, enabled by our collective responsibilities.

Trusted and Principled

88. Finally, today, Singaporeans stand tall and proud that many countries are willing to engage us, many multinational corporations (or MNCs) are willing to invest here to create good jobs for our people, and many more global companies seek out Singaporeans to perform critical roles for their global operations.

89. International meetings of significance – from Xi-Ma Meeting, Trump-Kim Summit, Bloomberg New Economy Forum, Shangri-La Dialogues and many more – have been held in Singapore because we are a trusted and principled partner.

90. Global MNCs like BioNTech, Illumina, Exxon; Start-Ups unicorns like SEA, Grab, Patsnap have placed their investments and intellectual properties here because we are a safe harbour for their capital, talent and intellectual property.

91. What is the common reason?

92. It is about us being incorruptible, principled and honest.

93. This is a hard-earned reputation. But it is also a reputation that can be easily lost. It takes all of us to build and sustain this reputation.

94. It is these traits that distinguish Singaporeans in the league of nations. It will also be these traits that will help us earn a living, and buy time for us to build a sense of nationhood to defy the odds of history together.


95. Fellow Educators, I hope our sharing today will reconnect us with the higher purposes that unite us in our profession and mission – to develop competent and confident individuals; and to build a confident and distinguished nation of values.

96. I look forward to our partnership to accomplish this mission of ours for our children and our nation.

97. Thank you for your service to our people and nation.