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Speech by Minister Chan Chun Sing at the Institute of Policy Studies Singapore Perspectives 2023

Published Date: 05 January 2023 01:00 PM

News Speeches

Education – Moving Fast & Staying Firm


1. Good morning.

2. Thank you IPS for the invitation to share my perspective on the future of education.

3. Before I assumed my appointment as the Minister for Education, I sought advice from several of my predecessors.

  1. One of the sagely pieces of advice shared with me, which I took to heart, was this:
    1. Whatever good that happens during my time as Education Minister, I should be quick to give thanks to my predecessors.
    2. Whatever bad that happens after my time as Education Minister, I should be even quicker to take responsibility.

4. Indeed, education is a long-term endeavour.

  1. There is a Chinese saying: 十年树木,百年树人.
    1. 10 years to grow a tree, a lifetime to nurture a person.
  2. Good outcomes are not just the result of good policies, but also consistent application, with conviction.

5. Today, I will outline:

  1. The challenges and opportunities that confront us, and the urgency for action;
  2. Our vision of how the various pieces on education fit together; and
  3. Most importantly, how we intend to realise this vision together, starting now.

6. Any education system, to be relevant to the times, must deeply understand and adapt to the forces that shape our world, our society, and, very importantly, the nature of work.

  1. And we do this not just for the next few years, but also the next generation.

Future World

7. Let me start with the macro-environment.

8. We will face a more connected, yet fragmented, world. Our people must master the skillsets and possess the mindsets to operate in such an environment.

  1. We will be more connected across the digital, physical and production domains.
  2. Yet more fragmented on the geopolitical, trade, technology, and ideological fronts.

9. We must also expect digital connectivity to continue to grow, shaping and reshaping the way we live, produce, transact, and interact.

  1. The combination of increased physical and virtual connectivity will allow people and nations who can master them to have the edge in attracting talent and investments seeking creativity, efficiency, and resilience.

10. Yet, this will also be a more troubled and fragmented world.

  1. A world divided by geopolitics as major powers contest, compete, and hopefully, not end up in physical conflict.
  2. A world lacking the rules-based institutions and order necessary to manage the evolving power relations, and to cooperate to meet emerging global challenges.

11. It will be a world with heightened uncertainties, insecurities, and inequalities.

  1. Heightened uncertainties, not just from the forces reshaping the relationships of the big powers, but also from the actions of these powers in response to the shifts.
  2. Heightened insecurities, as countries try to maintain their absolute and relative power position on the global totem pole.
  3. Heightened insecurities, if not the sense of inadequacies, as people become more aware of what others have, and what they may not have.
  4. Heightened inequalities across nations and within nations, as there will be new winners and losers in the transition of geopolitical power, economic heft, clean energy supply, and digital connectivity.

Our Society

12. In our society, three sets of forces will shape our future.

13. First, our society will become even more diverse in terms of backgrounds and aspirations. We must learn to manage this and seize the opportunities that come with it.

  1. Similar to the challenge of many mature societies and global cities, the more we are unable to reproduce ourselves, the greater our challenge to integrate more non-local born citizens into our social fabric at scale and at speed, in order to sustain our economic vibrance and social cohesion.
  2. On the other hand, the more we are connected and integrated with the global economy as our lifeline, the more we will need to deeply understand others, to be able to operate seamlessly across borders, cultures, and political systems.
  3. For Singapore, managing diversity and being able to connect and collaborate are essentials, not options.

14. Second, the more integrated Singapore is with the world as our hinterland and market, the greater the competitive pressures our people will face.

  1. Our task is to recognise that we cannot shield ourselves from competition.
  2. And enable our people to thrive in this ever more competitive environment.

15. To this end, like everyone else, we will need to counter the tendencies to turn insular, nativist, and retreat into our own echo-chambers.

  1. The skills to discover, distil and discern in an information overloaded world are critical.
  2. The interest and discipline to connect across and beyond our own comfort zones is a competitive advantage.

16. Third, the more successful we are as a country, the greater our risk of us seeing the world as we want it, rather than as it is, or to think that the Government can insulate us from the harsh realities of the world beyond Singapore.

  1. Such perspectives will threaten our ability to remain relevant and make a living through connecting with the world.
  2. Hence, a critical part of our education system will be to help our people understand the world as it is.

Future of Work

17. Turning now to the future of work, let me share a story.

18. In my time with the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) and then the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI), I had the chance to visit many companies. Even prior to COVID,

  1. For greater efficiencies, meetings with local and overseas counterparts were already increasingly conducted virtually
  2. I have seen work done in Singapore handed over at close of our business day to Europe, which was then handed to America before coming back to Singapore in a 24-hour cycle.

19. Work is increasingly defined by the 3Ds – digital, disruption, and what I call "connected-dispersion".

20. I will not need to elaborate on the digital dimension as we are familiar with its power and ubiquity.

  1. The ability to master these digital skills will define our competitiveness as individuals, companies, and countries.

21. The intertwined technological and business cycles will continue to compress in time and space.

  1. The shelf lives of ideas, products, companies, and very importantly, jobs will continue to shrink from decades to years, and potentially less.
  2. More frequent disruptions mean we must remove the artificial boundaries between earning and learning for adults - both must occur concurrently and throughout life.

22. Digital connectivity has accelerated the trend and enhanced the potential of remote work. Hence, "connected-dispersion" is the new norm.

  1. The ability to connect and harness the global talent pool, instead of the domestic talent pool alone, will define our competitiveness.
  2. Therefore, our real focus is not how many locals versus foreigners we have in Singapore.
  3. Instead, it is about how many talented Singaporeans and non-Singaporeans we can harness across the world to compete for Team Singapore.

23. On the other hand, we can also expect more work to be done asynchronously.

  1. The lifestyle and aspirations of the new generations will reinforce this trend.
  2. So long as people can connect anywhere and anytime, work will also increasingly be done anywhere and anytime.
  3. This requires a mindset shift in how we organise working and learning from young - the ability to learn and work in both structured environments and asynchronous-decentralised contexts. It is not one or the other, but both.

Future of Education

24. With what I have laid out as our backdrop, the urgency for our education system to evolve at speed is clear.

25. Let me describe the outcomes we want our education system to deliver for the future, starting now.

  1. At the individual level, we must be curious, collaborative, confident, contributing and continuously learning throughout life.
  2. At the industry level, we must be connected and competitive.
  3. At the societal level, we must be cohesive and compassionate.

26. Curiosity is the substrate of creativity, and in turn value-add.

  1. Knowledge is increasingly commoditised.
  2. Our benchmark for success is not how able we are in applying yesterday's solutions to today's problems.
  3. Instead, it is how able we are in anticipating and framing tomorrow's challenges, developing timely and relevant solutions, and creating new value for a more uncertain world.
  4. While it is said that we cannot teach curiosity or creativity, we must certainly not diminish them through rote learning, distracted by chasing the marginal last mark, and chasing after the same narrow definition of success.

27. Collaboration must be our strength, as we must see beyond our ability to achieve alone.

  1. Singaporeans must distinguish ourselves as a team, rather than as a collection of individuals.
  2. Collaboration must span disciplines, cultures, and geography; the ability to connect and bridge divides must be our defining characteristic, to value-add to a fragmenting and fractious world.

28. Confidence in our respective abilities, and respect for our diverse strengths, will make us a more cohesive and compassionate society.

  1. We must build a culture of celebrating and nurturing diversity, to bring out the best in every child, to strengthen our collective resilience.

29. If we truly believe in nurturing resilience and building confidence in our young people to face an uncertain and untidy world, we must also be careful to not over-structure, over-provide, or over-protect our younger generation, which would deprive them of the opportunities to grow and learn.

  1. Our people must deeply understand the world as it is and learn how to navigate the uncertainties and untidiness from young.

30. At the industry level, our education system also must help our companies connect better and evolve faster to stay competitive.

  1. If our competitiveness comes from our ability to connect across geography, geopolitics, and culture, then our education system must produce individuals and teams that can do this.
  2. This is the reason for us to invest heavily to expose our students to the world beyond Singapore. Notwithstanding the COVID disruptions, we will renew our push to send more of our students overseas for exposure. And more of them to the less trodden paths.
  3. This is also the reason why we want our students to grow up with friends from overseas while they are still in school. Having foreign counterparts in our institutions add to our learning and diversity.

31. Finally, at the societal level, Singaporeans must distinguish ourselves by having the cohesion to move fast and together, against the forces that threaten to fragment us.

32. We can only remain successful if we continue to have generations of Singaporeans who understand that success is a team sport, and everyone has the responsibility to pay it forward.

  1. We are all here not just because of our hard work and intelligence, but also because of the opportunities provided by our system and our predecessors.
  2. As such, it is integral for the more successful, the more talented and the better endowed to take care of those with less.
  3. Our definition of success must go beyond how much we achieve for ourselves, to how much we contribute to others and the larger good.
  4. That will be our mark of true distinction as a society.

33. Redistributive fiscal policies alone will not mitigate the widening inequalities in an uncertain and insecure world.

  1. We must couple that with a societal ethos to lean forward to provide more opportunities and access to those who may be less privileged.
  2. Help them build the networks and ties.
  3. Assure every Singaporean that there will be an outstretched hand to help, regardless of one's starting point.

How SG Will Get It Done

34. For our education system to deliver all these for us, we will focus on five key shifts:

  1. Beyond Mass Access to Mass Customisation.
  2. Beyond defining success for the first 15 years to the next 50 years.
  3. Beyond Academia-Industry Partnership to an Intertwined Relationship.
  4. Beyond the efforts of MOE to the efforts of the whole of society.
  5. And investing in the lifelong learning and innovation of our teaching fraternity.

35. Let me start with the first – from mass access to mass customisation. We have built up a strong basic system that has enabled mass access to quality education, and our efforts to support and equip each Singaporean will continue.

  1. We must not be carried away by success, fail to check our blind-spots and chase perfection at risk of irrelevance.

36. For mass customisation, we will need to do three things better:

  1. First, we need stronger investments in the early years, especially for the less privileged children of families with higher needs.
    1. This is particularly important as there is increasing evidence that we must not allow the learning and developmental gap to widen from young.
    2. Once the developmental gap sets in, the amount of remediation required is inordinately high and it becomes difficult to rectify.
  2. We have done much in the last 15 years and we will do more going forward. Particularly for high-needs families and their children.
    1. We will examine new ways to reach out to these children and families, structure the support for them holistically – both education and social, so that no one is left behind at the start.
    2. We welcome partnerships with a wider range of people and private organisations to pilot new models to do this – both at scale and with the appropriate diversity to meet differing needs.
  3. The second aspect of customisation is that we will embrace more adaptive learning technologies and pedagogies enabled by data to bring out the best in each child.
    1. Mass customisation must allow us the ability to stretch the top, while freeing up resources to uplift the disadvantaged.
    2. Artificial Intelligence and deep analytics technologies enable us to relook our pedagogies to see how we can mass customise even better so that we may tailor curricula to individual students before they step into class.
  4. Third, we will continue to diversify the pathways of success for our students.
    1. Diversity of choices for subjects, greater flexibility in subject levels through Full Subject Based Banding, and even the customising of degree programmes. These are but some examples of how we intend to further mass customise our system to bring out the best in our people.

37. With that, we will also need to broaden, and yet be more targeted, in the way we enable students to select their pathways and subjects of study.

  1. A good selection and posting system cannot rely on a narrow, single-dimension, or single point in time, evaluation of the complex and diverse strengths and skills of an individual
  2. We must continue to have a broad and continuous meritocracy, and not allow our system to degenerate into one of credentialism.
  3. Aptitude based admission and Direct School Admission based on real potential and interest, will be a greater part of our more diverse selection and placement system.
  4. And I think all of us will agree that a more diverse and variegated education system will better serve our needs. But it will also require a mindset and cultural shift away from the incessant desire to compare and benchmark students and institutions.

38. That brings me to the second shift we need – defining success beyond the first 15 years in schools, to also the next 50 years beyond schools.

  1. Given the disruptions expected, no amount of frontloading will ever be sufficient to prepare our people for life.
  2. Instead, the first 15 years must build the foundations upon which learning continues for the next 50 years of life.
  3. The spirit of inquiry, the desire to create new knowledge and value, the ability to discover, discern and distil –these are our new competencies and benchmarks of success.

39. To achieve lifelong learning, besides the shift in individual attitudes, we must also relook the industry practices and institutional capabilities.

  1. Industry cannot and must not wait passively for the "perfect worker" to be developed for them. Instead, industry must be an active partner to shape the students' interest and skillsets even before the student in school becomes a worker in industry.
    1. This is why I encourage corporate leaders and captains of industry to go into the schools, join the school advisory boards, support their Applied Learning Programmes, speak with the students, inspire them, paint them the exciting future that awaits them.
  2. Industry must also work with academia to keep training their workers even after they join the workforce.
    1. I can understand the difficulties in committing to train workers given the uncertainties and disruptions in industries.
    2. But the more we don't do this well and together as a system, the more we will end up poaching from one another in a stagnant talent pool.
  3. Our institutions also need to redesign andragogies to meet the needs of adult learners and enable them to learn anything, anywhere, anytime, amidst the competing familial and financial responsibilities.
    1. Redesigning new andragogies for the larger cohort of existing adult learners will definitely pose a much greater challenge than redesigning pedagogies for a few cohorts of young students.

40. And we will be reviewing the way we fund and support lifelong education. Specifically, how we can structure our system better to give our mid-career individuals a boost to remain relevant and competitive. Elements of this will include:

  1. How we can better guide and inform our people of the challenges and opportunities ahead – not just generally, but specifically to counsel mid-career workers whose careers are at risk – ahead of time.
  2. How we can help our adult learners defray the opportunity cost of continuing to learn, as they juggle their family and financial responsibilities.
  3. How we can collectively help smoothen the more frequent transitions in and out of jobs work, combined with the acquisition of new skills ahead of and in-between the transitions.
  4. We can look forward to these ideas from our Forward Singapore deliberations.

41. Our third shift is the way we need to tighten the nexus between frontier industry and academia.

  1. While we cannot outcompete others on scale, we can certainly be pioneers at the intersections of conventional disciplines to create new value.
  2. Our goal is not to have inter-disciplinarity in every individual. Instead, our goal is to be adept at forming inter-disciplinary teams across students, faculties, and alumni to create new value.
  3. This is hard work required of our institutions and faculties. It requires the skillsets to collaborate with others beyond our comfort zone.

42. In the Research-Innovation-Enterprise cycle, we have done better for Research, and less so for the parts on Innovation and Enterprise.

  1. We certainly need to do better to translate research into enterprises. We will have to review the way we organise ourselves and the incentive structure for our R-I-E institutions to do this better.
  2. Working across boundaries like our interdisciplinary Research Centres of Excellence such as
    1. the Mechanobiology Institute, and
    2. the Singapore Centre for Environmental Life Sciences Engineering
    3. are examples of how we can do this well.

43. Beyond our universities, our industries and Polytechnics/ITE also need to strengthen the partnership to interest, enthuse and inspire the next generation.

  1. When industry and academia co-design, co-develop and co-deliver the pre-employment and continuing education modules for both students and adult learners, we refresh the skills of our people much faster.
  2. Work-Study Degrees and Diplomas will become more common as part of our effort to expand the involvement of industry partners in co-delivering skills training.
  3. We must similarly design our system for greater porosity and synergy between academia and industry, to enhance the flow of frontier research and industrial practices between our industries and learners.
  4. These are the reasons why we are pushing for more and tighter industry-academia tie-up at all levels.

44. The fourth shift we need is to partner and leverage the diverse strengths of our society, and refresh at speed our perspectives on success.

  1. MOE has never believed that we can change society or even develop the next generation alone.
  2. To truly embrace diversity of strengths and broaden our definition of success, we must work with parents, community partners and industries. Otherwise, what MOE preaches and practises will be undone.
  3. This is why we are rallying the Parent Support Groups, community partners, and industry leaders to join us and our schools.
    1. We need to build a culture that truly appreciates the character and gifts of our diverse learners.
    2. Success is everyone doing justice to our blessings, rather than everyone chasing the same yardstick.
  4. We must also work with our industries to close the skills gap and remunerate according to contributions, rather than just credentials.
    1. If we do not collectively narrow the remuneration gap between graduates and non-graduates, diploma holders and non-diploma holders, no amount of preaching the multiple pathways of success will ever work.
  5. The diversity of our education fraternity is but a fraction of the diversity of our world and society. We need to leverage the strengths, skills, and perspectives of our entire society to sharpen the perspectives of our next generation.
  6. Without their partnership and support, our speed of change will occur in generation-time rather than years.

45. Finally, I want to touch on the most important shift that would enable these other shifts. And that is the way we equip and organise our teaching faculty.

  1. Our educators are delivering much more now –
    1. Beyond transmitting knowledge, they are facilitators of discovery and learning.
    2. Beyond academics, they provide social emotional support for our children and families with higher needs.
    3. Beyond engaging mainstream students, they have continued to reach out and nurture students with special educational needs.
    4. Beyond mastering tried and tested pedagogies, they explore and develop new pedagogies to deliver blended learning.
  2. All these require new skillsets which similarly cannot be frontloaded.
    1. As our educators give their all to take care of our learners, we must also continuously upskill, and reskill them.
    2. We will also need to find ways to expose our educators to the world beyond the education system, for them to better understand the changes taking place around us, while bringing back new perspectives to their teaching methods. This is a reason for the Teacher Work Attachment Plus programme.

46. Beyond the school system, another area of focus for me is the pedagogical skills of our faculty in our institutes of higher learning - or what I call our institutes of continuous learning.

  1. We must not leave to chance the teaching abilities and pedagogical practices of our faculties in our institutes of higher or continuous learning.
  2. This is why we will step up the investment, research, and training of our faculties.
    1. This is why I want our Institute of Adult Learning (IAL) to be the third pillar of our teaching fraternity's professional development – in addition to the National Institute of Education (NIE) and the National Institute of Early Childhood Development (NIEC), looking after school and preschool educators, respectively.

47. Running institutes of higher learning today, also requires our leadership teams to have a diversity of skillsets – from research to teaching to administration of complex faculty and financial matters.

  1. Hence, we also need to similarly broaden the definition of success for our faculties in our IHLs.
  2. The research path is but one path to success. There must be complementary teaching and leadership paths.
  3. There should not be any preclusion of those outside the research track from taking on the leadership of our higher education institutions.


48. Let me conclude with a story and an observation.

49. Sometime back, in a discussion on the future of higher education, I met a distinguished academic who reminded the audience that universities are amongst the longest surviving secular institutions in the world. What was unsaid and perhaps left to the imagination was whether there was a need to change at all!

50. While I have no doubt that universities will continue to survive, our bigger challenge and goal, for our universities and education system alike, is delivering to their fullest potential.

51. Neither our universities nor education system has been, is, or should be static across time.

  1. Education 1.0 was selective in access and specialised in scope. It catered to the privileged – the elite aristocracy – and was largely specialised in its functions – to govern, to transmit culture or to perform rituals. This lasted for the greater part of human civilisation.
  2. Education 2.0 came about with the Industrial Revolution, where the need for trained labour broadened the access to education. But that was still largely specialised in scope to fulfil the trades of the day.
  3. Education 3.0, near-universal access to education with broad-based curriculum, is still a work in progress for many parts of the world. This is a more recent 20th century phenomenon where more governments were able to organise the resources to provide mass access.

52. Now, Education 4.0 must equip our people to thrive in a more uncertain, insecure, unequal, fragmented, diverse, and competitive world. Yet a world that is more connected, with more opportunities for those who can bridge divides, keep their cohesion, embrace diversity, and are resilient.

53. To achieve these, we must change.

  1. We must not see education as for only 15 years upfront, but to also be inclusive of the early years and the next 50 years.
  2. We must change and broaden the definition of meritocracy to embrace diverse strengths and skills; and improve the porosity of pathways to success throughout life.
  3. We must change and go beyond the transmission of knowledge to the discovery of new knowledge by all, to create new ideas and products to improve lives for more.
  4. And we in Singapore, must see education as a collective endeavour of MOE's in partnership with families, community, and industries.
  5. Finally, we must continuously evolve the way we train, equip, and organise our education fraternity to deliver – especially for the adult learners.

54. However, what will not and must not change is our commitment build the best system possible to enable future generations of Singaporeans to do even better than this generation.

  1. What will also not change is our goal to distinguish ourselves as a nation that defines success not just by our achievements, but by our contributions.

55. On that note, I look forward to the partnership with you and to hear your ideas and feedback on how we can work together to keep improving our education system, in service of our people and nation.

56. Thank you.