Speeches/Interviews

August 02, 2012

Speech by Mr Heng Swee Keat, Minister for Education, at the Inaugural Singapore-Industry Scholarship (SgIS) Award Ceremony on Thursday, 2 August 2012, at 3.40pm at the Hotel Intercontinental

Chief Executive Officers and senior management from sponsoring organisations,

Representatives from government ministries and statutory boards,

Parents and family members, scholars,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Introduction

I am delighted to join you this afternoon. Let me first congratulate all recipients of the inaugural Singapore-Industry Scholarship (or SgIS). I am happy to see that your parents and loved ones are here to witness this memorable occasion, and to celebrate the start of your journey on an exciting career in one of Singapore’s key industries.

Building a Strong Singapore Core

We are launching this scholarship at a time when the global economy is facing serious challenges. 3 of the largest economies in the world—the US, Europe and Japan—are confronted with severe problems, including high and rising graduate unemployment. The overall unemployment rate for graduates in the Eurozone is 11.7%, with Greece’s at 37%, Spain at 23%, Italy and Portugal at 19%. With the economies of China and India slowing, their graduates are expressing concerns about job prospects. China alone will be producing a record 6.8 million new graduates in 2012.

In Singapore, the situation is quite different. Although the economy is slowing, our graduates are still getting good jobs, with the latest surveys showing that their starting salaries are continuing to rise. The difficult restructuring efforts in earlier years are now bearing fruit, allowing us to ride on the growth of Asia. The key lesson is that to stay successful, we must always look ahead and take decisive action to create our desired future. With a successful and growing economy, Singaporeans can enjoy a high quality of life and our children can have good opportunities to fulfil their aspirations.

Looking ahead, we must use this opportunity to deepen our capabilities. Despite the current uncertainty in the global economy, many economies around the world have inherent competitive strengths. They have the advantages of big markets, abundant labour and vast talent pools; Singapore has none of these. The Global Financial Crisis is also forcing many developed economies to undergo significant restructuring. Many emerging economies are also building their manufacturing capabilities and investing significantly in R&D. When global growth returns, they will emerge fitter and stronger. It will be a different landscape.

Against this backdrop, to continue to provide opportunities for our people, we must adapt to stay special. We must be different, exceptional, in order to be of use. We have to be astute in maximising every advantage we have, such as our strategic location and our time zone, even our weather. I know of at least one MNC which expanded its IT centre in Singapore after all its workers in the main centre could not reach the head office after a heavy snowstorm. Our airports are thankfully free from snowstorms or fogs.

Economic students learn the standard Ricardian trade theory that comparative advantages are based on factor endowment. While this is an important insight, some countries that enjoyed oil bonanzas later suffered from the ‘Dutch disease’ or the resource curse, as currencies become over-valued and other export industries are hollowed out and the skills of their workers are degraded.

Indeed, many policy makers are realising that the competitiveness of an economy is based not just on factor endowment, but on competitive advantages created by society as a whole. For instance, in Singapore, we have painstakingly built up, over the years, our reputation as a safe, trusted, reliable and connected hub. Our networks of free trade agreements connect us to all key economies. We enjoy political stability and the government adopts rational and consistent principles in formulating policies. We are open to ideas, talent and capital. Investors are prepared to sink in billions of dollars of investment, with the confidence that the rule of law prevails. All these make Singapore special and attractive to investors, and enable good jobs to be created.

The other major source of competitive advantage is, of course, our people. Again, we have been able to take advantage of an apparent paradox. In most markets, supply responds to demand. When there is a strong demand for particular goods, suppliers crank up production lines to produce more. But when it comes to human talent, it is often the other way round—supply creates its own demand. Why is that so? A strong supply of talent in a location attracts investors to invest there, thereby creating the demand for these talents and skills. Hence, a strong supply of talent creates the demand for it. This then sets off a multiplier effect—the growth in this sector, in turn, creates job opportunities for many other Singaporeans even if they are not directly employed in that industry in the first instance. For instance, a new factory creates jobs not just in the factory, but also jobs in SMEs supplying materials to it, and even for taxi drivers and hawkers serving the workers.

The stronger the core of Singaporean talent, the better we are in anchoring a range of key industries. But developing talent takes years. Fortunately, we have a strong foundation. Many companies, global or home-grown, value the integrity and reliability, as well as the skills and adaptability of Singaporeans. We must build on this and give every Singaporean an education that enables each to achieve his or her best. It is important that our investment in education keeps pace with technological change and the needs of industry so that all our students can benefit from the opportunities in the future.

But we have to go beyond the individual. Even as we seek to develop every Singaporean to the fullest, countries with vastly larger populations than ours will produce many more outstanding individual talents. But getting talented people to work together is often difficult, as any team leader or CEO will tell you.

Getting a society to achieve maximum results, and to allow all to enjoy the fruits of their collective efforts, is even harder. Several CEOs I met recently lamented how in their countries, endless bickering among different factions are sapping their society. You can see that in the media reports on riots, strikes and protests. The morass that many economies are in today is testament to this difficulty. History is also full of stories of how societies fail after enjoying initial successes. We cannot take success for granted.

Hence, how we organise ourselves as a society is critical to our success. Certainly, having fully functioning teams and organisations is a basic building block. The CEOs in this room all understand how important this is to your company. One senior official in a large emerging economy recently told me that he admired how Singapore has been able to blend the best of the East and West to enable us to achieve more as a society. We have been able to develop and enable individual talents to flourish, while encouraging individuals to contribute to our collective success.

Indeed, at the national level, we must build on the advantages—of trust, reliability, connectedness, stability and good governance—to create new sources of competitive advantages, such as intellectual depth, creativity and innovative capacity. And we must have a smart strategy of overcoming the limitations of our small size. Small can be beautiful, if we are nimble and open.

One aspect of this strategy is a Singapore++ strategy, which starts with nurturing a strong Singaporean core. Building on this, the first plus is to complement our core with a right mix of global talent, to enable us to build the best multi-disciplinary team. The second plus is to ensure that Singaporeans have global cultural literacies to interact with people across cultures. Singaporeans can play a special role in connecting people around the world, and make Singapore a shining Global-Asia node. We have a multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-lingual heritage that we must cherish as this enriches our life. And if we can harness these well, we also create opportunities for our people as they will be sought after by companies, local and foreign, that use Singapore as a base to command their operations. Global cities with large numbers of inter-connected, highly educated workers will become the new factories where ideas and knowledge are produced.

In short, we must always seek to turn constraints into opportunities. By taking a 3-pronged approach of developing individual talent, creating new sources of competitive advantages at the national level, and deepening and broadening the way we view talent, we can enable all Singaporeans to earn a “Team Singapore premium”. It is a premium that is derived from excellence at a systems level. I am convinced that with the right mindset, we can do it.

SgIS as a premier scholarship for Singaporeans

It is with this backdrop that we developed and launched the Singapore-Industry Scholarship or SgIS earlier this year.

The SgIS is a government-supported, multi-industry initiative to identify and develop local talent across key economic and people sectors. An important feature is that the SgIS partners are organisations with strong HR practices and are committed to providing a range of development opportunities during their studies and when they start work. This includes internship, mentorship and other professional development opportunities. I firmly believe that talent development goes beyond paper chase. It is more akin to running a marathon on an undulating and unpredictable terrain. By providing our students with diverse exposures to real world experiences and good coaches, we help them stretch and grow. We help them develop deep, life-long skills.

I am pleased that twenty-eight (28) organisations are participating in this inaugural award of the SgIS. These organisations span a wide range of industry, from high-tech, innovation-driven manufacturing to high value-added services. The health care cluster also features prominently.

May I commend these 28 organisations for taking a long-term, strategic view of talent development, and to building a strong Singaporean core. 90 Singaporeans awarded the SgIS will be pursuing full-time undergraduate studies at NTU, NUS, SIT, SMU, SUTD. This first batch of SgIS scholars was chosen from 1,200 applicants, after rigorous rounds of interviews and assessments. The sponsoring organisations have found the quality of the applicants to be very high. This is a good start for the first batch, and I am optimistic that the numbers will grow.

Diverse background of scholars

The SgIS has attracted scholars from diverse backgrounds, who have come through our education system by different pathways and have excelled, not just academically, but in their leadership and community service.

For instance, Monil s/o Jitendrakumar is a two-time recipient of the Student of the Year Award, and was President of the Yishun Junior College Students’ Council. He was also Vice-President of the Prefectorial Board and a volunteer peer tutor in Evergreen Secondary School. These leadership roles have honed Monil’s skills in event planning, people management and communications.

Another SgIS scholar is Ting Yun Jin from National Junior College. Yun Jin was active in the Student Council and the Interact Club. After leaving college, she volunteered at the Institute of Mental Health. She has chosen the SgIS to build a healthcare administration career with the National Healthcare Group so that she may work alongside medical professionals to serve our people.

Another SgIS scholar is Johnson Seow Yong Sheng. Inspired by his Temasek Polytechnic lecturers, Johnson developed a keen interest in waste water treatment and oil spill contamination. He had also participated actively in environmental-related projects, and achieved 2nd runner-up in the 2010 Singapore Junior Water Prize. Johnson was awarded the Mitsui Phenol Singapore Prize for being the best student in Chemical Reaction Engineering.

Johnson’s achievement is remarkable. Since his father suffered a stroke, he has been the sole bread-winner in his family of 5. Johnson successfully balanced his studies, his commitments to the Wushu national team and 3 part-time jobs to support the daily needs of his family. Johnson’s tenacity and resilience in the face of many life challenges is inspiring.

Launch of Singapore-Industry Scholarship (SgIS) Mid-Term

To provide more opportunities to develop Singaporeans, I am pleased to announce the launch of the Singapore-Industry Scholarship Mid-Term for students who are currently in the midst of their undergraduate studies in our local universities as well as in overseas universities. With this launch today, SgIS will offer three types of scholarships—full term and mid-term scholarships for study in our local universities, as well as mid-term scholarships for those studying abroad.

This mid-term scholarship will provide a platform for Singaporeans studying overseas to have access to the exciting opportunities that the Singapore economy presents. Similarly, Singaporeans who are currently studying in our local universities will have an opportunity to develop themselves more fully if they have set their sights on careers in Singapore’s key industries.

Skill sets for the 21st Century

All of you, in your own way, have overcome challenges, big or small, to be here today. The diverse backgrounds that you come from show that the sponsoring organisations value not only your academic achievements, but also the character traits, skills and competencies that you have developed and demonstrated so far.

Your university education will give you the professional knowledge. Beyond that, it is a great opportunity to discover more about yourself, and to develop yourself fully as an individual. It is also useful to learn competencies like working in cross-cultural teams, adapting to and thriving in rapidly changing environment, and developing the grit and determination to go for the long haul. It is such life skills that will set you apart.

Conclusion

In closing, let me once again thank the 28 organisations for your confidence in this scholarship, and your commitment to invest and build up this pool of Singaporean talents. I also appreciate the good work of the various government agencies in making this initiative possible.

To our first batch of SgIS scholars, let me wish you every success in your development journey. I encourage you to take on leadership positions in the various fields that you have chosen. Do not forget to continue to find ways to contribute to and make a difference to society. You will not only enrich yourself but also the people around you.

Thank you.