Speech by Minister for Education, Mr Chan Chun Sing, at the Civil Service College's Social-Economic Nexus Speaking Engagement Series

Published Date: 16 August 2021 12:30 PM

News Speeches

A Confident and Cohesive Singapore


1. Fellow public officers, a very good morning to all of you.

2. Across the world, and in Singapore, there is a heightened sense of uncertainty and anxiety about the future.

  1. Many Singaporeans wonder if our lives will be better going forward.
  2. Economically – will we be able to continue the rapid growth of the last few decades? Or will we slow down, or worse stagnate like some other matured economies?
  3. Socially – will we continue to hold together as a society, regardless of race, language, religion, ancestry and background? Or will we be torn apart by the different perspectives, parochialism and regress towards identity politics?
  4. Can we once again overcome our circumstances and constraints to turn adversity into opportunity?

3. These are all fair concerns. The forces of change, amplified by COVID-19, have never been more rapid, relentless and far-reaching.

4. We know that change has impacted different groups of Singaporeans in different ways.

  1. Our youths wonder if their potential and aspirations can be realised in a hyper-connected and hyper-competitive world.
  2. Our older, middle-aged Singaporeans are concerned at being displaced by technology and global competition. They wonder if they will still have a place in our society.
  3. Those from less privileged backgrounds are anxious if they would be left behind. Even if their lives are improving gradually, they worry about falling behind, relatively. And they worry if their children can keep pace with the rest.

5. As the public service, we must have a convincing answer to each of these groups. Every Singaporean should always be able to feel – YES, we can all enjoy a better future together. But only if we understand the challenges that we face, be honest with ourselves about the choices we have, and have the courage and conviction to find solutions for ourselves.

6. Let me speak on them in turn.

Our Challenges

7. First, we face the challenge of geopolitical uncertainty. Even prior to COVID-19, the global world order was becoming increasingly fractured.

8. A large part of this uncertainty was driven by domestic developments in the major powers. That is unsurprising, for "all politics – even international politics – is ultimately local".

  1. The distribution of the fruits of technology and globalisation has become more uneven all over the world, widening the gap between the top – comprising the likes of technology companies and their celebrity founders, financial gurus - and the rest.
  2. Feelings of injustice and loss of confidence in today's rules-based system, when playing by the rules and taking the well-trodden paths don't seem to bring success, has translated into fractious domestic politics in many advanced economies. Issues and solutions have been cast as zero-sum. Societies are unable to arrive at a consensus on a wide variety of issues.
  3. Some political leaders have gone populist, offering simplistic sound bites and short-term solutions, such as keeping out global competition and promoting protectionism. It may be appealing. It may even work in the short term. But it's certainly not sustainable for the long term. We are all losers in a more fragmented world.

9. Meanwhile, the global balance of power is shifting. China's rise and the US' response will redefine the future world order and affect all countries.

  1. Many countries worry about being forced to choose sides – whom to trade with, which technology or standards to adopt, and whom they open their borders to.
  2. Unfortunately, this situation will not be easily resolved. Not least because of the high domestic stakes on both sides.
  3. In the US, we have seen a hardening of views against China across political lines. In China, rising nationalistic sentiments mean that Chinese leaders cannot be seen to be bowing to external pressure.
  4. But ultimately, both face fundamental domestic challenges, and they would be better placed to overcome them if they worked together. If they succeed, they will be more confident dealing with each other as partners. If they fail, they are more likely to succumb to the temptation of seeing the other side as the source of their problems.

10. How relations between the two will pan out remains to be seen. But amidst such uncertainty, Singapore must remain a principled and relevant partner to the US and China, and to the world. We must understand both sides deeply to value-add to our bilateral relationships and contribute on the multilateral front.

11. There is a Chinese saying: 选边站,就靠边站;靠边站,只能选边站;到头可能无处可站. Choosing sides makes us irrelevant. Being irrelevant will also force us to have to choose sides. But our consideration must always start from Singapore's interest.

12. The second challenge is technological disruption and its impact on how we live and work.

  1. Technological changes are increasingly rapid. Unicorns are emerging at a record rate. The average lifespan of global companies has shrunk – some estimate that it has decreased to less than 20 years today for leading companies in the US1. The pace of churn and disruption has increased. Even if companies survive for so many years, their product range will change almost entirely every few years.
  2. This means that the demand for certain skills will be dynamic and short-lived. Workers will need to have strong foundational skills that they can build on to continually learn new skills and pivot to new growth areas.
  3. Technology, particularly digitalisation, has shrunk physical distances. Companies and individuals can now transcend physical boundaries to tap into new, global markets. There are more opportunities; but competition is also more intense and borderless. Our role as a hub can no longer be just a convenient place for businesses and people to gather. We need to have unique value propositions that meet the demands of the markets.

13. The third challenge is that our population has increasingly diverse aspirations. Amidst an aging population that desires stability and a more dynamic and vocal younger generation, our social fabric is evolving and being tugged in different directions. For example, we face generational differences between our young and mid-career workers. Our youth want more opportunities and good jobs in the global economy. Our mid-career workers are concerned about whether they can keep up with changing job demands and intense competition.

14. A poignant reminder of how such tensions can reshape a country is Brexit. Younger, more educated professionals wanted the opportunities provided by globalisation, while many older and lower skilled workers voted for Brexit, with the hope that it would better protect their jobs in their remaining years.

15. We should not neglect such concerns, for they can strain our unity as a nation. In Singapore, we must address the concerns and aspirations of different groups and communities, while rising above differences for our common good.

16. We must not let any community fall behind or feel like they have been excluded from the Singapore story.

17. As we become more connected with the world, some may also be influenced by views and movements in other parts of the world, without a full appreciation of our local context or history. These views will include those from the West to the Islamic world, and even China's ascendency. How we define our own identity amidst these centrifugal forces will be a test of this generation. We will need to refresh our consensus as a society.

18. So, what can we do in the face of these challenges? We have agency, and we must make bold choices in both our economy and education system to secure our future.

Our Economic Choices

Create new dimensions of connectivity

19. Let us look at our economic strategies. First, while the rest of the world may become more protectionist, we must remain open and connected. More than that, we will instead create new dimensions of connectivity. We come alive, survive and thrive on connectivity. Without which, we become pedestrian and unexceptional. Singapore has spent decades building our trade networks through our FTA strategy, as well as air and sea hubs, to connect to the world, in lieu of a hinterland for resources and market.

20. However, the reduction of transport costs and the rise of the digital economy have reshaped connectivity. Digital connectivity will now be critical.

  1. Singapore has been a first mover in signing Digital Economy Agreements with like-minded countries. These agreements establish common standards for digital trade and cooperation, which enable businesses to operate more efficiently and seamlessly.

21. We are also enhancing regulatory connectivity, so that standards established in Singapore are recognised overseas.

22. These efforts, built upon Singapore's trusted brand of stability and reliability, will position us as a safe harbour for long-term investment.

  1. Our global connectedness, as well as our ability to facilitate the aggregation of capital and talent, protection of Intellectual Property (IP) and trusted standards are what differentiate Singapore.
  2. In fact, these are strengths we have been developing over the years, and the benefits are evident. As of 2019, 750 foreign companies have established their regional headquarters (RHQs) in Singapore2.

Seize growth opportunities that are harder to displace

23. Second, we must double-down on strategic growth opportunities that would make us harder to displace from the global supply chain. In an integrated and globalised economy, companies have options to invest in many more places. Countries are also competing aggressively for these investments.

24. At the same time, we have finite resources and cannot chase every investment. We therefore need to target the areas that would serve to entrench us at strategic points in the global supply and value chains.

25. For example, we will target areas where we can develop deep niche expertise, and where our skills would not be easily displaced.

  1. We cannot anchor the full production or supply chain here. The key then is to identify the linchpin, where the greatest economic value is created, or which is essential to the production or supply processes.
  2. These could be R&D-intensive products, like specialty chemicals, COVID-19 diagnostic kits, and the production of new generations of vaccines. Already, Singapore manufactures many key life-saving drugs for global markets, and accounts for around 10% of global semiconductor market share.
  3. It is therefore critical that we continue to invest in R&D to stay ahead and develop new economic opportunities. In areas such as precision medicine, gene and cell therapies, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence. These will be the products of the future.

26. In a world of footloose capital and volatile political settings, our competitive advantage will be in investments that are capital intensive and require a stable environment to gestate.

  1. We will double down on the manufacturing sector. This does not mean business-as-usual. We must position ourselves at the frontiers – such as in advanced manufacturing where technology is deeply embedded into the design and manufacturing process.
  2. Manufacturing investments tend to generate other synergies. Once companies establish a plant here, there is a better chance they will consider Singapore for other parts of their global operations.
  3. These investments can help us counter economic disruptions or short-term fluctuations. Even in 2020, when our economy was rocked by COVID-19, manufacturing remained a bright spot and grew by more than 10%.

27. How do we get these investments here?

  1. Provide continued political stability and reliability, so that countries can trust us with their long-term investments. We must:
    1. Keep ourselves open and connected.
    2. Have a well-educated workforce that constantly seeks to upgrade.
    3. Preserve stable tripartite relations.
  2. The game-changer will be our ability to evolve our products and processes faster than others, driven by talent, data, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and a deep understanding of markets.
  3. We will need a new generation of SMEs and start-ups to venture into new growth areas. They inject dynamism and create new opportunities for Singaporeans.

Build a global talent network

28. Our third strategy is to build a global talent network. Businesses always gravitate to where the talent network is most dense and connected.

29. Any country or city aspiring to be a global hub will have to move past the debate on foreign-local worker balance. It will instead have to focus on the critical task of building a global innovation and knowledge network. Singapore is no different. We need the best ideas and talent to compete on our side. We also need to pay close attention to the composition of our society. This will take careful calibration, but it can be done.

  1. This is particularly so for the technology industry. Before COVID-19 hit, 80 of the world's top 100 tech companies were already operating in Singapore. Despite the pandemic, we managed to attract even more such companies to Singapore due to our sustained leadership in the digital field, strong IP regime, digital connectivity and support for innovation.
  2. For example, Tencent Holdings announced last year that it will be setting up its regional hub for Southeast Asia in Singapore.

30. We need to also adapt to the increasing prevalence of remote working, where talent can work from any place in the world. This presents both new challenges and opportunities. We will need to adopt new approaches that allow us to tap on the global talent out there, even if they are not physically in Singapore.

Sustain and create a wide range of jobs

31. Fourth and most importantly, we will take care of Singaporeans, especially those who face pressure in this fast-moving economy. To do so, we must first sustain and create a wide range of jobs, so that there are many pathways for Singaporeans with different aspirations and skills.

  1. We will help affected or displaced Singaporeans move to other jobs and sectors. This includes career conversion programmes, as well as company-hosted attachments and traineeships.
  2. However, some may choose to remain in jobs or sectors they are more familiar with, like those in the service industry or establishments serving the local community. Others may not be able to transit to the globally competitive external facing sector. This is understandable and perhaps, inevitable.
  3. It is not realistic, and neither do we intend to only create high-end, tech-intensive jobs. We need to retain and create a wide variety of well-paying and dignified jobs, including those in domestic sectors like F&B, retail and essential services like security, cleaning and healthcare.

32. We also must make sure these workers earn a dignified wage and that our growth is inclusive. Our concern is not just their starting pay, but also continued wage growth – to ensure that the income gap does not widen over time, nor make them feel unable to keep pace with the rest of society.

  1. Our externally oriented sector will likely see wage increases in line with global growth should we remain competitive. However, the domestically oriented sector will need more support to transform for workers to receive better wages.
  2. For example, do we rebalance the foreign workforce dependency for the domestically oriented sector to create demand for local workers at higher wages? Bearing in mind that as we support higher wages in these areas, there will be cost pressures on employers, and consumers will see higher prices. Ultimately, it will also depend on Singaporeans' perceptions of the value and status of these jobs, and whether we are willing to accept these jobs. These will take time, but we must keep working at it.
  3. Concurrently, we must be prepared to provide more and targeted assistance for vulnerable workers, help them stay relevant and not lose hope for themselves or their children.
  4. Mitigating this gap between different segments of our population will be a major focus of the Government in the years ahead.
  5. Every generation must feel that they have good opportunities regardless of their starting points. This is what makes Singapore distinctive.

Courage in Education Strategy

33. All that I have said will depend much on our choices and culture in Education.

34. Education must remain a key enabler to counter the social and economic stratification that happens if forces of inequality are left unfettered.

35. Our education policies and structures will need to be refreshed to meet the evolving demands of our times. Beyond formal, foundational schooling in primary, secondary and tertiary institutions, the game-changer of global competition will be in lifelong education and early childhood education.

Build capacity of lifelong education and training

36. Given the compressed cycles of technological and business model disruptions, Singaporeans must be able to keep learning throughout our careers. How fast we close the cycle from frontier industry knowledge to the classroom will be a key competitive advantage for Singapore.

37. More than 20 years ago, we were at the global forefront in introducing information and communications technology to our classrooms. We also gave our students exposure to the life sciences, such as setting up DNA learning labs that let students try out DNA sequencing. Many of these students are now in the workforce, doing cutting edge work in biomedicine and healthcare. Today, we are giving our students early exposure and hands-on learning in robotics and AI.

38. But this must not stop when they graduate from school. We must strengthen the continuum of lifelong learning post-graduation, so that Singaporeans will "never leave school", or more precisely, "never stop learning".

39. Learning requires the right environment, resources, tools and motivation. In a formal education system, schools provide these enablers in a structured and systematic manner. Likewise, we need to build a dynamic and flexible system for Continuing Education and Training (CET) – one that reflects its unique context and demands.

40. Our offerings and teaching methods must be varied and flexible to cater to different profiles of learners. Mid-career workers have familial and financial responsibilities, which makes taking extended time off work difficult. They may prefer workplace, on-the-job and online training.

41. Our CET system must be responsive to wider economic shifts and evolving industry trends. Learners must feel that the training programmes make a real difference to their employment outcomes.

42. Critically, our Institutes of Higher Learning, or IHLs, and their staff must remain current and relevant. Perhaps we should see them more as ICLs - Institutes of Continuous Learning!

43. First, the staff and trainers need to be lifelong learners too. We must have structured programmes to allow them the time and space to keep pace with developments in the market. We are exploring ways to give our staff deeper industry exposure, so that ICLs can stay on top of industry trends and deliver up-to-date curriculum.

44. Second, over the years, we have invested heavily in the National Institute of Education and more recently, the National Institute of Early Childhood Development to train our teachers and pioneer research on pedagogy for the education of our younger learners. Now, we are strengthening the Institute for Adult Learning to play an equivalent role in the CET space.

45. Lastly, our CET system must be supported by a strong tripartite partnership among the Government, labour movement, trainers and educators, as well as the employers and industry players. Collective effort is needed to lower the barriers to adult learning. For example, while the Government can incentivise learning with lifetime learning credits, employers must create time and space for workers to train, and recognise and reward such training. Employers also play an important role in signaling the skills required and working with our trainers and educators on curriculum. But ultimately, individuals must have the desire and drive to keep learning.

A strong start in early childhood

46. The second area of focus for our education system is to continue to extend our education efforts upstream. We know that early childhood education has long-lasting impact on educational, and even life outcomes.

47. That is why the Government is seeing through our promise that all Singaporean child will have access to affordable and quality preschool education and care. By 2025, eight of ten children will have a place in a Government-supported pre-school.

48. Beyond accessibility, our young parents are also worried about the higher costs of pre-school education and care. Our long-term goal is to make pre-school education as affordable as primary school education plus after-school care. Parents now pay between forty to ninety percent less than they did in 2019 for full-day childcare in Anchor Operators, and lower income parents pay as little as three dollars per month.

49. With all these support provisions in place, we are also working with the community to encourage pre-school enrolment, particularly for the lower income families to ensure that every child has a good start in education.

50. We will continue to find ways to reduce the cost pressures of educating and caring for our youngest Singaporeans. We must continue to enhance pre-school education and care by training our educators and investing in early childhood research. We must also improve the handshake between pre-school and schools to make the transition seamless as a continuum.

Strength in diversity

51. Next, we MUST build diversity in our schools. In an uncertain world, diversity is key to our resilience as a country. In a hyper-competitive world, diversity is also key to alleviating the unhealthy stress of pursuing the same definition of success. We will provide our students with a:

  1. Diversity of schools and education pathways
  2. Diversity of skillsets; and
  3. Diversity of perspectives and experiences

52. Let me elaborate.

53. First, a diversity of schools and education pathways for our students.

  1. Today, we have specialised schools that allow students to develop their interests and strengths in domains such as sports, music, arts, or math and science. We will continue to have a diversity of schools, each with their unique propositions, to cater to the diverse learning needs of our students. We should not homogenise all schools beyond a common core in areas such as literacy, numeracy and values.
  2. There are students who prefer or are more suited to an applied education pathway. Around seven out of ten students in a Primary One cohort progress to our Polytechnics and ITE. We must continue to ensure that their education and training provide a good foundation for them to remain competitive in the job market.
  3. Second Minister for Education Maliki Osman is thus leading a review on helping all ITE and Polytechnic graduates acquire deep skills and competencies that are well-matched to the needs of the employers and industry. The review will explore:
    1. More flexible pathways to cater to a range of learners
    2. A stronger focus on Life skills
    3. More structured internships
    4. Providing more support for students with high needs, within the institution and in partnership with community
  4. These directions are being studied further with our stakeholders.

54. Second, our children must be equipped with diverse skillsets that open doors for them in the modern economy. In a world driven by new technologies and science, we will need to strengthen Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) learning in our schools. We will strengthen our STEM curriculum to not only equip our students with the new STEM foundations to be smart users of technology, but also nurture a lifelong interest in STEM and its application, so that more of them join the science and technology sector. This will require close collaboration and ingenuity from all stakeholders, from schools to industry partners.

55. Beyond knowledge, we will nurture "soft skills" that endure. Two qualities– curiosity and confidence – will help them navigate an uncertain world and engage meaningfully on the issues of our time.

  1. We need to spark our students' curiosity from a young age. For example, by exposing them to different cultures and ideas to broaden their horizons. This will enable them to appreciate and embrace diversity, to innovate and experiment, and not shrink away from the unknown.
  2. Our students must have the confidence to chart their own paths. This includes having confidence in themselves – assured of their ability to compete and thrive in a global world and able to bounce back from failure or adversity. This also includes a sense of confidence in Singapore's place in the world. We must be bold to learn from others, yet confident to define our own solutions for our own needs.

56. Above all, our students must be equipped with a sense of purpose for the wider community. To understand that the opportunities we have now are the result of the hard work of those who have come before us. That, we too must pay-it-forward to the next generation. Only then, will we become closer as a society, knowing that everyone has a chance to move up, as everyone has a responsibility to help each other move up.

57. How far we can move away from an over-emphasis on academic grades to truly embrace strength in diversity depends on the full participation and support of educators and parents. Our educators must themselves be critical thinkers and communicators. They must read extensively, learn widely and reflect continuously. We know they have challenges. Our teachers are stretched on many fronts – grading papers, parent-teacher meetings, CCAs, and many other tasks and expectations.

58. We must find ways to give our teachers more "white space" to engage in their own learning. We should also explore giving them more exposure beyond school – by supporting them in taking sabbaticals or short stints in the private, public or people sectors to refresh their perspectives and renew their skillsets. When our teachers are enriched and refreshed, our students will also benefit.

59. In a more complex world, there may be a tendency for us to demand that our schools teach more. Against a more competitive landscape, there can also be demands to make our tests sharper to distinguish one student from another. We should be careful not to go overboard. Teaching and testing more do not equate to learning more. We will need to re-examine the way we teach and test. What matters is not how much our students know, but how fast they learn, how able they are to adapt to an ever-changing environment.

60. Most importantly, we will need a culture that encourages our students to discover and develop their strengths, beyond what is tested in school.

61. The reduction in teaching and testing must not lead to a perverse outcome of bringing more intense academic competition. Instead, we will do well to pursue a diversity of interests and capabilities as a country.

62. Third, our students will need diverse perspectives and experiences so that they can understand the dynamics and realities of the world. Notwithstanding the disruption to travel due to COVID-19, we are finding ways to re-establish and strengthen our students' exposure to the world. Having the opportunity to learn from and together with peers from around the world is a great advantage that our students have today and must not lose.

63. If survival is a contest of evolution, then the best help that we can give them is the widest exposure possible to different experiences, challenges and circumstances.

Levelling up the disadvantaged

64. Finally, a group that is of utmost importance to us are students from disadvantaged and vulnerable backgrounds.

65. The disruptive effects of technological developments and globalisation, accentuated by COVID-19, are often felt most acutely by them and their families. In such times, education must remain an uplifting force and beacon of hope for them.

66. To make a real and sustained difference, we must adopt a life-cycle approach to support them across the various life stages, beyond schools.

67. This starts from even before the child is born! We will strengthen child development support starting from the ante-natal stage to preschool years. We will also mobilise the public and community resources to provide greater support at the family level, as family problems can have outsized impact on a child's attendance and engagement at school.

68. The UPLIFT Community Pilot in four towns, which brings together schools, community partners and Government agencies, has seen an improvement in attendance for eight in ten of the students. We will further strengthen this programme, together with other support.

69. These include the Learning Support for Mathematics programme and the Reading Remediation Programme, which will be enhanced to support more students.

70. Beyond foundational schooling years, we will partner with ICLs and the community to help these students maximise their educational potential and support their transition post-graduation, such as through career guidance and mentoring.

71. We will be announcing what we plan to do more for our least privileged students and families in the coming months.


72. In Singapore, most of us grew up with fast economic growth and experienced vast improvements to our quality of life over our lifetime. Which seems to be in sharp contrast to the situation today – the COVID-19 pandemic, an uncertain global environment, rapid job disruptions, just to name a few.

73. Many Singaporeans have rightly asked: Are we really prepared for the future? Will our lives get better, or is this the "new normal"?

74. These are all valid questions and concerns.

75. However, we must remember that Singapore is not starting from scratch. We are standing on the shoulders of generations of Singaporeans who made enormous sacrifices to build Singapore. It is now our turn to leave behind a stronger foundation for the next generation.

76. The Government will be here to enable Singaporeans to achieve their dreams. We have a vision and a concrete plan. We have the will and resolve to deliver. The creativity and tenacity of the Public Service to lead in tackling these challenges will be key.

77. But most importantly, it is the Singapore Spirit that will guide us forward in an uncertain world.

  1. A spirit of determination that does not allow circumstances to define us – not geography, population or resource base. Instead, we define our future by our anticipation and responses to circumstances. Our destiny is determined by our hard work and wits.
  2. A forward-looking spirit that builds on our shared values of meritocracy, incorruptibility and multi-racialism, from the foundations of our diverse roots.
  3. A spirit of care that looks out for one another and to move forward together, regardless of the challenges.

78. Throughout our fight against COVID-19, Singaporeans have shown that we can come together to distinguish ourselves as a country and people; that we are cohesive and we care for fellow Singaporeans. This is what gives us confidence in Singapore's ability to take on future challenges that may come our way.

79. Can we do it again?

80. Borrowing a line from our NDP theme song this year on our road ahead:

81. We did it before, we will do it again.

82. Thank You.

  1. In a 2016 study by McKinsey, it was found that the average life-span of companies listed in S&P-500 was 61 years in 1958, and in 2016, less than 18 years.

  2. Source: Singapore Department of Statistics

Share this article: