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Opening Address by Minister Chan Chun Sing at the Straits Times Education Forum

Published Date: 11 March 2023 06:00 PM

News Speeches


A very good morning to all of you.


1. Thank you to the Straits Times and Singapore Management University (SMU) for providing this opportunity to join you to discuss

  1. how our institutes of higher learning could help build a sustainable Singapore to defy the odds of history,
  2. and be a beacon of hope for the world.

2. From a material perspective, Singapore has been more than successful in recent years. But this does not mean that our success is eternal, immutable, or unchallenged.

3. History has never been kind to the fate of small city-states without a conventional hinterland.

  1. They easily lost access to essential resources – because of strangulation by bigger powers, or an inability to produce sufficient relevant goods for exchange.
  2. Once they lost relevance, they were usually relegated to be sacrificial pawns in contests between bigger powers.
  3. On the other hand, if they achieved affluence and success, this often bred complacency and internal conflict; their focus moved away from creating opportunities for more people, towards fighting over the distribution of a stagnant or shrinking pie.

4. Today, it has not become any easier for a small city-state to survive.

5. The world has become more connected, but it is also becoming more fractious and fragmented.

  1. The rules-based security and economic order which underpinned our peace and growth for the last 50 years may no longer hold true for the next 50 years.

6. Domestic inequalities and external insecurities mutually reinforce. We can expect greater protectionist and populist tendencies, and more beggar-thy-neighbour policies.

  1. Without domestic unity and coherence, few countries have the confidence to uphold international norms in trade and security.
  2. These trends are detrimental to everyone but are especially grave threats to Singapore. We rely on connectivity to the global market, and on the observance of an international rules-based order.

7. To complicate things further, these challenges are playing out against the backdrop of climate change, which has introduced more threats to our survival – from rising sea levels, to food and energy insecurity.

8. Meanwhile, rapid technological changes and the forces of creative destruction, will accelerate disruptions to societies and the speed of skills obsolescence

  1. Adding pressure to the cohesion of countries, and their ability to take considered long-term actions.

Our Three BHAGs

9. This is all very sobering on a Saturday morning.

  1. I have never worked on the assumption that we will get to SG100, effortlessly.

10. Yet, I am also optimistic that there is no better time than today, for small city-states like Singapore to secure our future.

  1. We have more than a fair chance now to defy the odds, compared to any other point in history;
  2. Provided we stay focused on turning our challenges into opportunities,
  3. And fully realise the potential of our IHLs, as the brain trusts of our society.

11. Today, I will lay out three of our biggest challenges, and invite our IHLs to lead us to overcome them and secure a better future for us all.

12. The three big challenges are –

  1. First, sustainable relevance for a fragmenting world;
  2. Second, sustainable lives and livelihoods for the global carbon transition; and
  3. Third, sustainable social compact and governance amidst fractious domestic politics in an increasingly unequal world.

A Trusted Connector in a Fragmenting World

13. How can Singapore sustain our relevance to the world? Singapore can and must be a principled and trusted connector in a fragmenting world.

  1. And this goes beyond geopolitics.

14. Today, frontier science and technology may fall prey to fracturing geopolitics and the winds of economic balkanisation.

  1. We must lean against these winds, to secure our connectivity in supply chains and distribution networks, and preserve our access to trade, talent, and data flows.

15. Singapore can distinguish itself by its ability to manage diversity, connect and collaborate in these areas.

  1. Our ability to bridge divides, and operate seamlessly across borders, cultures, and political systems, will distinguish our competitiveness.

16. To start with, we will need to deeply understand our global partners, starting with our regional neighbours.

  1. Our students must develop a curiosity for, and an understanding of the world beyond Singapore.
    1. This is why we have set an aspirational target for 70 per cent of every IHL cohort to undergo an overseas exposure programme, and 70 per cent of which should be in ASEAN, China or India.
  2. Our industries and people must connect with and harness the global talent pool, starting with ASEAN.

17. Building on this, Singapore can become a reference point for integrated and inclusive systems and standards.

  1. For example, we have positioned ourselves as a hub for intellectual property rights, to develop inter-operable scaffolding to protect ideas and incentivise innovation.
  2. We have also co-developed international trade rules for the digital economy, and deepened and diversified our trade links.
    1. We have signed several digital economy agreements, with New Zealand, Australia, the United Kingdom, and Korea, to support cross border data flows and encourage cooperation across countries.

18. The advancement of frontier science and technology will also demand frontier rules and governance frameworks.

  1. Greenfield areas such as Artificial Intelligence and Biopharmaceuticals surface new questions about ethics, accountability, and responsibility.
  2. We can challenge ourselves to position Singapore as a forerunner in defining and setting good governance practices in these emerging areas.

19. Such frameworks must be underpinned by sound ethical foundations and principles.

  1. Which cannot be formulated by policymakers, scientists, economists, or philosophers alone.
  2. Our IHLs must pave the way for this effort, as connectors, integrators and creators of new ideas across disciplines, boundaries, and political persuasions.
    1. I am heartened to see that all our IHLs are embracing interdisciplinary learning, and sending our people overseas to learn and grow our networks.
    2. IHLs must continue to connect across different disciplines, political blocs and diverse cultures.

Beyond a Little Red Dot to a Bright Green Spark

20. Our second challenge lies in creating sustainable livelihoods and lifestyles within our carbon constraints –

  1. This is an opportunity for us to transform the way we live and make a living for ourselves sustainably.
  2. This is both a moral imperative, and an economic necessity.

21. For water, we have largely overcome our constraints with tremendous efforts in the last 50 years. We must aspire to do it again for energy in the next 50 years.

  1. We pioneered and became a world leader in water reclamation and management technologies.
  2. We must similarly challenge ourselves to turn our energy and carbon limitations into the next big opportunity.

22. IHLs are our Living Labs for this mission. They must be thought leaders in how we envision future cities and future societies.

  1. And it is not just about energy generation, distribution, management and consumption.
  2. It is also about the way we design our cities, transport system, healthcare system and waste management system and so forth.
  3. It is also about how we manufacture and generate economic capacities.

23. If a city-state without a conventional hinterland can be carbon-lite – if not carbon-neutral – then it can be an inspiration for our world.

  1. We must dare to overcome our carbon constraints, while creating new opportunities to improve our quality of life.

A Beacon for Inclusive, Compassionate and Contributory Meritocracy

24. That brings me to the third challenge and opportunity, where I would like our IHLs to break new ground.

25. When we contemplate how to improve the quality of life, it must be for the many, and not just the few.

  1. In developed countries, we see a tendency for matured societies to stratify, and for social mobility to ossify.
  2. We also see widening inequality, which divides societies and saps the ability of people to collaborate and perform as a team.

26. How do we organise our society to create a sustainable social compact – from education to the distribution of resources – to prevent this?

27. How can we be an exemplar to the world, as a nation that celebrates diverse pathways of success, and combines meritocracy with compassion, inclusion, and responsibility?

  1. We do not want to be merely a country which is known for excellent PISA scores.
  2. We want to be a nation where everyone's potential is maximised, regardless of their starting station in life.

28. We must do so by broadening the definition and pathways of success, and move away from a meritocracy of grades, towards a meritocracy of skills.

29. IHLs play a critical role in this meritocratic skills ecosystem.

  1. By having a more diverse profile of students through aptitude-based admissions, which allow for a more holistic assessment of applicants; and
  2. By providing variegated entry points and pathways for lifelong learning, for Singaporeans of any age and any background.
    1. SIT and SUSS are examples of such institutions which have opened up more pathways for polytechnic graduates and adult learners to upskill and reskill.

30. Beyond mass access, the next peak of excellence for IHLs is mass customisation.

  1. Each learner has different strengths, which can be optimised and maximised if we are able to tailor curricula to meet their needs.
  2. IHLs are already moving in this direction, by offering options to customise degree programmes, and expanding the range of modular courses for adult learners to customise their learning based on their needs.
  3. These build on the efforts in MOE schools, such as the introduction of full subject-based banding.

31. Our IHLs must also organise themselves well, to poise themselves to rise to these opportunities.

  1. They already have variegated tracks to groom individuals within their institutions for leadership positions.
  2. They must go further to source for talent beyond traditional academic profiles – including professionals in other fields who are well-versed in stakeholder management, and can be connectors with industries both local and international.
  3. Diverse talent is also needed to cultivate diverse ideas, and to form well-rounded teams which can lead these complex organisations to greater heights.

32. We must continue stretching the top, while uplifting the disadvantaged. Above all, we must cultivate Singaporeans to think beyond ourselves.

  1. Every Singaporean is a steward of the world he or she inherits, and must pay it forward to provide more opportunities, access, and networks to those who may be less privileged than us.
  2. Success should not be defined by how much we achieve for ourselves, but how much we contribute to the betterment of society, as well as to the wellbeing of others around the world.


33. If we can overcome these three biggest challenges that I have laid out today, Singapore can become a truly sustainable beacon of hope – and not just in the environmental sense but also in our relevance to the world, in the way we live our lives and earn our livelihoods and how we organise ourselves in a new social compact that will inspire the best and take care of the rest.

34. We had always had to fight for our survival and create our relevance.

  1. But we have a powerful resource, in our people.
  2. Our IHLs have the responsibility to amplify the capabilities and capacities of our people, and to create the solutions and opportunities for mankind to secure a sustainable future.
  3. We have to first undergo a paradigm shift and commit to a new mission: to cultivate future generations of Singaporeans who think beyond their self; beyond the institution; and beyond the here and now.

35. Only then, can we ensure Singapore's value-add and relevance to the rest of the world, and secure our continued survival in the next 50 or 100 years or beyond.

36. May our IHLs rise to the challenge and help Singapore defy the odds of history.

37. Thank you.