Speeches/Interviews

December 29, 2016

Speech by Mr Ng Chee Meng, Minister for Education (Schools), at the 19th Appointment and Appreciation Ceremony for Principals

1. I am delighted to join you at the Appointment and Appreciation Ceremony for Principals. My heartiest congratulations to all our 61 Principals receiving appointment letters.

2. For 13 of you, this occasion is especially significant. Your first appointment as Principal marks a major milestone in your leadership journey. You will now be taking over the responsibility of a school, to lead, to guide and steer staff, and most importantly, to nurture students towards greater heights.

3. For our incumbent principals taking over at your new schools, do continue to make a difference to the young lives under your charge. I am confident you will do so and trust in your ability to lead a school well.

4. Today, we will also be honouring 17 Senior Education Officers who will be retiring. You have touched lives, inspired many, and made a difference. Thank you all for your exemplary service.

Strong Education System

5. I remember last year’s AACP event fondly. It was one of my first events as Acting Minister. I enjoyed the chats with the Principals about our education landscape, and carried through many more conversations with our school leaders and educators through the year.

6. I have benefitted much from your collective insights and perspectives, and also reflected on our education needs. I hope to share with you some of my thoughts today.

7. We have a strong education system. Education has continued to benefit Singapore and Singaporeans. Our schools continue to provide high quality education for our students, helping them develop their interests and abilities. Our students also learn the softer skills which are no less important than academics, such as teamwork, leadership, and communication. Schools are also spaces for interaction between students from different backgrounds.

8. When I speak to my counterparts in other systems, they invariably say they look to us for good practices and ideas to improve their education systems. They are impressed with our TIMSS and PISA results, which reflect not only good learning by our students, but also the excellent work of our teachers.

Nurturing the Next Generation

9. But many things are changing around us rapidly. In the years ahead, we will need to keep building up our education system to meet new challenges.

10. In the process, we must remember the fundamentals of our mission. To mould the future of the nation, by moulding the people who will determine the future of our nation. In so doing, we will provide our children with a balanced and well-rounded education, develop them to their full potential, and nurture them into good citizens, conscious of their responsibilities to family, community and country.

11. The purpose of education must therefore be beyond just academics. It must be to prepare our students for life, for work and for citizenship. But life, work and citizenship are evolving rapidly. Hence, our approaches, programmes, and areas of emphasis must keep pace to be relevant for the future. I will talk about each of these aspects – life, work, citizenship, in turn.

Preparing Students for Life

12. First, preparing our students for life. Life as we know it has changed in many ways. The life of a millennial – someone who has grown up in an Internet world since his childhood days, is vastly different from the time we were growing up.

13. The fast pace of technological advancements in all aspects of our lives today means that lifestyles, habits and trends change at an ever increasing rate. It is almost impossible to keep updated with all the apps and trends out there.

14. I often rely heavily on my children, nieces and nephews to keep up. For instance, I wonder how many of us are familiar with the latest in social media networks like Snapchat, Slack, Tumblr, Pinterest? If you are not, like most of us are, we all have to play catch-up with our young.

15. Beyond apps, in the field of science and technology, great advances are happening. In the area of medicine, genetically engineered immune cells are now being used to treat cancer patients. In farming, there is now a precise way to edit plant genes to modify crops so that they can resist drought and disease more effectively and yield more food.

16. Rockets in the near future will be reusable. In the past, they would be destroyed on their maiden voyage. But now, they can potentially land upright and refuel for another trip.

17. Solar panels, once seen as extremely costly and inefficient are now far more attractive to industries and homeowners. Closer to home, Singapore is already doing pilot trials of driverless cars.

18. We face a future with many more of such advancements, and exciting opportunities. So, how do we keep pace in education? Beyond the current strengths in our education system, we must engender an attitude of lifelong learning and this is only possible when our students have a joy of learning.

19. To drive lifelong learning, it must be about fostering in our children an innate curiosity to learn. One should always be asking questions about the world, and about how things work, to fuel a thirst to learn more throughout life.

20. I recently visited Israel on a study trip. One particular aspect that impressed me was their attitude towards learning. “Questioning is learning and no questions is considered silly”. Students are encouraged to ask questions in class and outside of class. Concepts were debated and not taken as cast in stone.

21. A level of messiness was tolerated. We were told that when the students returned home, their parents do not ask them about homework, test scores, or even about what they had learnt. Instead, they asked their children, “What questions did you ask in school today?” Learning was not only about results, but having the sense of joy to explore, ask questions, discover and find out answers.

22. For me, this is essential to learning, whether in school or life-long learning. Being curious will drive us and our children to want to explore, and discover or create things. In the process, they will foster a joy of learning. We should nurture this joy of learning, and not let an over-emphasis on results crowd it out. Having a joy of learning and being curious all the time, built upon a strong academic foundation, will stand our students in good stead for life.

Building Resilience

23. To prepare our students for life in an uncertain world, being self-reliant and having the resilience to bounce back after setbacks will be increasingly important.

24. But nurturing this resilience is not easy. Why? Because it often requires us, whether it be parents or teachers, to take a step back and let our students learn to deal with challenges and setbacks on their own and not be too quick to intervene, no matter how good our intentions may be.

25. Let me illustrate with a story. A man was watching a butterfly struggling to emerge from its cocoon. The butterfly managed to make a small hole, but its body was still too large to get through. It appeared exhausted. Seeing this, the man decided to help. Out of the best intentions, he gently cut open the cocoon with a pair of scissors to release the butterfly. But to his dismay, he saw that the butterfly’s body was very small and wrinkled. The wings were all crumpled and incapable of flight. The butterfly didn’t live long.

26. The man, out of kindness and eagerness to help, had not understood the hard work the butterfly had to go through to strengthen itself. But by intervening to help, he actually prevented Nature’s way of strengthening the butterfly and its wings.

27. In a similar way, are we, out of the best intentions, preventing our students from going through setbacks and failures and in the process, learn and build resilience?

28. What role do we as educators have to play? Yes, our schools should be a safe and encouraging environment. But perhaps we need to let our students learn from their own mistakes, find their own solutions, and put in the necessary hard work or corrective action to eventually succeed. School leaders, teachers and parents alike, may need to learn how to selectively stand back and be an observer rather than intervene too early, so that our students can learn over time to be resilient learners.

29. I know how difficult this is. As a father, I know it is easier said than done. How many times have I rushed over to pre-empt and prevent my daughters from falling when they were learning to walk? They should learn that it is alright to fall. Learn that they can push themselves up with strong arms and stand on their own two feet. Learn that a cut will heal. While they may cry, it is alright. These experiences help build emotional resilience.

30. What kinds of experiences happen in our schools that we can use to build resilience in our students? We should find those moments, provide an ample safety net, and let our students forge their strength of character and resilience.

Preparing Students for Work

31. I will now talk about the second aspect – preparing our students for work. The future of work for our students will be vastly different from what we know it to be today. The workplace will make use of robots, the Internet of Things, and artificial intelligence. Workers will probably need to be comfortable to interact and collaborate with robots. This means using data analytics and algorithms to connect with machines. Critical thinking, problem solving and deep knowledge of the work in each field will be important.

32. Workplaces as a whole will become more diverse and connected through social networks. One must also be able to work well in teams that are inter-disciplinary and cross-functional. People skills, an ability to communicate well with others from different cultures and backgrounds will become increasingly important.

33. Overall, employers will look for T-shaped employees, those with deep mastery and who also possess broad social and people skills, with the ability to collaborate with those from different disciplines.

34. Thus, MOE’s focus on sound teaching pedagogies to ensure our students attain deep mastery and understanding of subjects is the right one. We need to continue building on our strengths and place strong emphasis on the 21st century competencies: Critical and inventive thinking, Communication, collaboration and information skills and the list goes on.

35. Our schools should continue the good work to instil core values and social-emotional competencies in all our students. I know our schools are working hard in these areas. I encourage you to persevere in your efforts, keep doing the good work you are doing to prepare our future generations for their future of work.

36. This good work can and needs to be further reinforced. The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs study puts it very starkly. Through a popular estimate: “65 per cent of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist.”

37. As our economy undergoes structural change, our workers must continue to re-skill themselves, be flexible and adaptable to the changes ahead to remain relevant. There is always the danger of a growing skills gap between graduates and the jobs they are applying for.

38. To reduce any mismatch, SkillsFuture and the initiatives to help workers deepen skills mastery throughout their lives are important steps in the right direction. We must continue to support the work in these areas, by instilling a joy of learning to drive life-long learning early in our students’ lives and building resilience to meet challenges head on.

39. Another way we can support is our schools’ Applied Learning Programmes. These Applied Learning Programmes can help prepare our students for the future workplace as they can learn innovation, and nurture an entrepreneurial attitude in their learning.

40. Several creative and applied projects of our students can be translated into solutions for real-world problems. I have seen the creativity of ITE students in saving water and polytechnic students in projects involving businesses. How can we expand applied learning to drive entrepreneurial attitudes, innovation and creativity to bring what students learn in the classrooms into the real world so that they can see the fruit of their learning?

41. I am happy to learn about Hai Sing Catholic School’s ALP on robotics and engineering. The programme is designed and conducted in-house by a team of inter-disciplinary teachers. It is taught to the lower secondary students during curriculum time. The programme has helped students appreciate the relevance of academic knowledge and skills to the real world. Students learn about graphical user interfacing programming, coding, design and construction. They learn how to programme a robot to travel through a maze. Students can also design a smart home consisting of a smart toilet roll dispenser and solar array optimizer. Not too far away from Mark Zuckerberg’s recent display of Artificial Intelligence in his own home.

42. Let’s consider how can these programmes be bolder, more innovative, more impactful. How should schools encourage these to flourish?

43. We have done especially well in the formal curriculum, and we should continue to explore and study how to better prepare our students through their informal educational experiences in school. Instead of students following a script designed by MOE and schools, we should also consider giving students the autonomy to initiate, take charge and act. This way, we raise a more self-reliant and rugged generation.

Preparing Students for Citizenship

44. I will now talk about the third aspect of the purpose of education. It is no less important than the first two that I have mentioned – preparing our students for citizenship.

45. Disruption is not confined to our economy. It also applies to society, and relationships between people.

46. Many unfortunate events have unfolded in other countries as a result of racial or religious tensions, or groups of people creating or exploiting these fault-lines for their own agendas. Often, these are worsened by insensitive remarks or untruths on social media.

47. We are thankful that Singapore has continued to maintain harmony, goodwill and understanding among our multi-cultural, multi-racial, and multi-religious citizens. But what is our role in education in strengthening this cohesiveness in our society?

48. A Pew Research Centre report done in 2014 studied the level of religious diversity in countries around the world. Of the 232 countries in the study, Singapore has the highest score on the Religious Diversity Index. Indeed, we are a unique nation. We can be proud of our diverse society, where every Singaporean counts, where every Singaporean matters. We must be mindful to nurture the values we hold dear to keep it this way.

49. In education, it is critical for us to instill in our students a sense of responsibility to contribute back to Singapore, and play a part in making this homeland safe and peaceful.

50. Preparing our students for citizenship should go beyond head knowledge about Singapore’s history and development. It should also be from the heart – the heartfelt wish to improve the lives of fellow Singaporeans and to contribute to the communities that they are members of. A heart that beats not only for oneself, but also for fellow Singaporeans. A Singapore Heartbeat.

51. I am glad to know of the opportunities that schools provide their students to develop this Singapore Heartbeat. Many students give to the community through our Values-In-Action programmes. Some are acts of charity to aid the needy or less-privileged. Others are more targeted needs-based solutions to solve community challenges. These experiences open our students’ eyes and hearts to the needs around them, and help them think more about others, or a collective ‘we’, rather than only about the self. Giving is important. Those who give become role models to inspire others to do the same. In time, we will build a more inclusive society.

52. Schools must continue to play this important role well, in building a more caring, inclusive, more cohesive and stronger society for future generations.

Important Role of School Leaders

53. All these that we do, and strive to improve on, will not be possible without the dedication and conviction of our school leaders. I applaud your commitment, your steadfastness, and affirm the important role that you play.

54. It is not an easy role. You are sometimes stretched in multiple directions, with expectations from different stakeholders – students, staff, parents, the community, MOE included. But I commend you for your level-headedness, and most of all, for your purpose in serving.

55. Effective leaders will always focus on building a strong sense of school community and positive culture. This includes showing respect for every member of the school community, cultivating a no-blame, solution-oriented, welcoming and affirming professional environment. In so doing, Principals - you are able to motivate and develop a close-knit community of teachers, who guide one another in improving instruction, teaching and learning of the students.

56. I am glad to see the school leaders in the video growing the future generation of leaders. Being a strong role model, and sowing the seeds for the next generation – these are important elements of school leadership. It is not how you begin, but how you end. As the Chinese saying goes, 前人种树,後人乘凉. Each generation will reap what the former generation has sown. Knowing that you have groomed many future leaders, and helped to uplift the quality of the fraternity, I think, is an excellent way to retire from service.

57. School leaders are also like architects – you redesign and transform the school, focusing on long-term impact. As you lead and manage change, continue to work hand-in-hand with the parents and the community. Search for win-win solutions, galvanise support for the school’s direction. May you continue to lead with joy, with passion and energy, even in the face of heavy responsibilities.

58. MOE will continue to closely support school leaders in their development. We are working with the Academy of Principals, to ensure that all new school leaders are mentored and coached by experienced Principals. It is not a journey that you undertake alone. MOE also organizes workshops led by Principals, for other Principals in the fraternity, to collaborate, share stories, experiences and lessons learned in leadership.

Tribute to Retiring Principals

59. Our education system today is strong and effective because of the dedication of our school leaders who are able to adapt to the changing demands of the time. Among the 17 Senior Education Officers who will be leaving us this year is Mdm Tan Bin Eng.

60. During Mdm Tan’s 33 years of dedicated service in the teaching profession, she has touched the lives of countless people. A strong people developer, she has mentored Principals, groomed many Key Personnel, and developed teachers through a structured and developmental approach.

61. As Principal of Tampines Primary and subsequently, St Andrew’s Junior School, Mdm Tan worked tirelessly to get buy-in on her leadership directions and strategies to move the schools forward. She had the moral courage to make difficult decisions, always in the best interests of the students.

62. Mdm Tan remains humble and open to ideas and views from her staff. She is compassionate, patient and sincere. She is known for building a strong staff learning culture using the Lesson Study approach. She enables teachers to engage in professional discussions through Professional Learning Teams. Teachers improved in their teaching pedagogies, and achieved more effective learning for their students.

63. Mr Kwek Hiok Chuang will be retiring after 37 years of excellent service. He was Principal of 4 schools – North View Secondary, Anderson Secondary, Pioneer Junior College and Nanyang Junior College. It is noteworthy that Mr Kwek was the founding Principal of two new schools then – North View Secondary and Pioneer Junior College.

64. Mr Kwek is an entrepreneurial and bold school leader, an innovative and visionary thinker. The new schools flourished under his energetic leadership. Believing firmly that every child can learn and achieve, he led his staff to provide a well-balanced and holistic education for students. There is a story of Mr Kwek personally knocking on the doors of students who woke up late for school!

65. Under his leadership, Nanyang Junior College was transformed into a vibrant and homely school compound, welcoming students from all over Singapore. Well-known for his care for students, he implemented a later start time, and made sure students were well-fed, and could study in comfort, even if they stayed back after school hours. The school environment was warm and hospitable. Everyone in the school community knew they could approach him directly in all matters to provide feedback or consult on issues. No matter was too small for Mr Kwek to help with. He is loved and respected by many of his former staff and students.

66. While time does not permit me to share the contributions of all retiring officers, I believe each one will fondly remember the impact and friendships of the lives they have touched and enriched over the years. I would like to once again thank all the retiring officers who have served as school leaders or as HQ officers, for your hard work and resilience, with an average of no less than 30 years! You have inspired and influenced the lives of many in your roles as teachers, leaders and friends.

67. I would also like to take this opportunity to say thank you to Khah Gek, who has shown the utmost commitment and conviction in her role as Deputy DGE and Director of Schools. She has contributed to the education landscape in Singapore significantly in her many appointments over 32 years of excellent service in MOE. Several MOE initiatives, such as Applied Learning Programmes and Learning for Life Programmes, Subject-Based Banding, and Industry and Community Partners supporting schools, have gained traction with schools, thanks to her energetic and influential leadership. The entire school system has benefitted from her stewardship. She has done all of us proud as a master educator, school leader, curriculum developer, and most importantly, as a cherished colleague and friend. We wish her all the best in her new appointment as CEO/ITE.

68. Finally, let me congratulate again all Principals appointed today. I believe that you, together with MOE, our schools and our teachers, can bring about higher quality education for all our children, and a better Singapore for all. Let us not forget this - for indeed, through the hands of the Principal, passes the future of our nation.

69. Thank you.