Speeches/Interviews

December 03, 2019

Speech by Mr Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Education, at the Singapore Polytechnic (SP) 65th Anniversary Gala Dinner, at the SP Graduates Guild

A Future of Hope

Mr Bill Chang, Chairman, SP Board of Governors

Mr Soh Wai Wah, Principal and CEO

Ladies and Gentlemen

1. Congratulations Singapore Polytechnic (SP) on your 65th birthday. For six and a half decades, you have dedicated yourself to training and grooming our young to be independent, contributing members of our nation.

How Important Is GDP?

2. At a recent dialogue, one student asked me, 'Why does the Government only look at the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a measure of success for our country?' So my answer to him was 'We don't and we shouldn't.'

3. If we can only have one KPI for our country, I think it would be the well-being of Singaporeans. But well-being itself comprises many aspects - safety, security, health, air quality, education, recreation, housing, employment, the cost of living and social security; the list goes on. Some say we should combine all of them into one happiness index. But if we have such an index, it is not meaningful - it tells you nothing, it is just a number. We simply have to dive deep into every area, assess our progress and how else to improve.

4. A major part of people's well-being is the concept of economic well-being. It is not a macro-concept; in fact, it is very personal. If you speak to any worker to ask him what he wants, he will tell you that he hopes to progress in his career. If you speak to any student in ITE, polytechnic or university, she will likely tell you she hopes that when she graduates she can get a good job and a good career. If you speak to any entrepreneur, he will tell you that he wishes to grow his company to be profitable.

5. If they all achieve what they wish for, their salaries, bonuses, and profits will all add to GDP. That is why all countries track it, because it is a dipstick of the state of economic well-being of its people. But it is only a dipstick, because economic well-being really is not just jobs, salaries, bonuses and profits. There are other aspects. Let me explain.

Economic Well-Being: Lessons from Abroad

6. Two years ago, I was on an official visit to Hong Kong and toured Hong Kong University. At a dialogue with a group of faculty and students, they told me that almost all their students would secure jobs upon graduation. So I remarked that in that case, the students must all be very happy. They immediately corrected me. They said they were not happy, because while they would be able to find jobs, other than the students from rich families, most of them would not be able to afford homes as property prices had risen beyond their means. During the tea break, several enquired how they could come to work in Singapore, and apply for HDB flats eventually.

7. I have also visited the Middle East, where a few of the countries are investing heavily in education, including inviting top international universities to set up campuses. But my hosts readily admitted that having top universities is not enough, because the graduates then have to secure jobs in industries that need them. So, it is imperative that their diversification strategy for the economy succeed. Otherwise, they would be producing a pipeline of talent with no destinations.

8. These two anecdotes illustrate one thing: economic well-being is not unidimensional. It is the intersection of at least three areas of public policy - housing, economy and education. Other policies play a part, but I find that these three most synergistic. When combined effectively, they improve well-being and give Singaporeans hope for a brighter future. They engender a shared belief that by working together, we can have a better life tomorrow.

Housing: Anchoring Us to Singapore

9. The starting point is housing. When Singapore became independent, the Government exercised its power to acquire privately owned land, in order to build public housing for the populace. It recognised that as an immigrant society, home ownership would anchor the people to our young nation.

10. So between 1963 and 1985, the Housing Development Board (HDB) built over half a million flats to provide affordable housing. Today, 90% of Singaporeans own our own homes – 79% own HDB flats. The flats give Singaporeans a direct and tangible stake in Singapore's economic growth.

11. One way we have made this possible is through schemes such as the Central Provident Fund (CPF). The vast majority of first time home-buyers today service their HDB loans entirely with their CPF, with no cash involved.

12. Notwithstanding this, MND has further enhanced its subsidies recently – for first time buyers purchasing new flats, there is first a market subsidy plus up to $80,000 in grants on top of that; for those buying resale flats, they can get up to $160,000 in grants.

13. The importance of home ownership is now etched very deeply into the psyche of Singaporeans. I serve in a constituency in Sembawang, which has many new Build-To-Order (BTO) flats. Week in week out, I see first-hand, the enthusiasm of families – young, old and third generation families – all putting in their heart and soul in making their flats their homes. They own a lease that lasts a century, which will easily see through theirs and their children's generation.

14. Beyond the confines of their flats, they are constantly reaching out to others, and devoting their efforts to making a congregation of strangers into a community. Their efforts are helped by the town centres that HDB builds that help forge communal ties. MND is going further, to develop even better home sites in towns with distinctive characteristics and greener features.

15. Homes anchor us to our country and give us something to protect and to fight for. They are our safe haven and refuge. They are the social foundation for individual Singaporeans to unite and collectively build something bigger together.

Economy: Diversity in Opportunities

16. Next, the economy. Mother Nature dealt us a unique hand: a small island, zero natural resources, but we have a deep-water port at the intersection of global trade routes. She is telling Singaporeans: you make a living by connecting yourself with the rest of the world. You make a living with your wits and your hard work. And so we did.

17. It is essential that we succeed in doing so. Because we need to be able to collectively earn a living as people, in order to gain the dignity of self-determination as a nation. It is similar to an individual – you must first be educated and have the skills, and earn a living for yourself and your family before you earn the respect of the community as someone that contributes to society.

18. Reliance on global connections to earn a living has of course tied Singapore's economic fate to international trade. But it is not a bad starting point at all. Because with that, we have built layer upon layer of economic activities. We start with the port, where we have shipping, ship-building, offshore and marine engineering. Then we extend the transport connections further to aviation and logistics. We sharpen our competitiveness with manufacturing. We then add services - tourism, infocomms, finance; and now we go into innovation with research and development, creative industries, start-ups and Fintech.

19. This is also why Singapore continues to push for free trade initiatives – CPTPP, RCEP, Asean Economic Community - even when international trade is faltering in the world, even when US and China are mired in a trade dispute. We just press on because trade is our life.

20. Our diversity of sectors come together like a smart phone with all the functions and apps embedded. You use it to stay in touch with friends, navigate to your destination, make payments, search for information, book movie tickets, order meals, and sometimes, make a phone call. Your life revolves around it and it is not so easy for you to declare the smart phone redundant. Such is the resilience of the Singapore economy today.

21. This diversity of activities presents a wide range of opportunities to Singaporeans, especially our young people. It makes it both a possibility, and an imperative, for our education system to offer various disciplines and pathways, for our young to develop their skills and talents, and fulfil their aspirations.

Education: Preparing Singaporeans to Learn for Life

22. That brings me to the third policy area – education. Our education system is well regarded around the world, and many countries try to emulate it. While the features can be reproduced, it is very difficult to replicate the underlying spirit, philosophies and values. What are these?

23. The first - the education system does not exist in isolation. It works well for our people because we have housing as a social anchor, and a vibrant and diverse economy that engenders motivation and aspirations.

24. Second, the passion and professionalism of all our teachers. They are passionate in nurturing our children, in teaching them and guiding them. The fact that our teachers are highly regarded is an invaluable asset to our education system.

25. Third is the Government's philosophy that financial circumstances should not prevent anyone from fulfilling their educational potential. Hence, although higher education is already very heavily publicly subsidised and funded, we recently enhanced the bursary schemes to make it even more affordable for students from lower income families, so long as they have secured a place in any of our publicly-funded IHLs.

26. Finally, and the hardest to emulate, is the meritocratic order in Singapore. Parents and students know that regardless of your background, hard work and good performance means access to opportunities and a good shot at success. No one will be denied opportunities because of where you came from.

27. Today, we are preserving these underlying strengths and values, while reforming the education system. The reform is necessary because our environment has changed drastically.

28. So in the past, EDB did a good job projecting the pipeline of foreign investments coming in. So, we knew what kind of investments and jobs were coming in. We could then prepare our students to take up those jobs when they graduated. Now, with technological advancement and disruption, it may not be so straight-forward for EDB to predict the jobs of the future.

29. What we do know is that our young need to possess deep skills, especially humanistic skills, which computers and robots cannot easily take over. We also know that to develop skills, we need to tap into the diverse interests and talents of our young and make sure they hone those skills throughout their lives.

30. That is why at the heart of the recent education reforms, is the need to define a broader meritocracy. A recognition that each child possesses different strengths and different talents, each child is unique and no child's fate is fixed. The education system must cultivate in them a confident learning identity with a strong mindset of personal growth. They must have the curiosity and motivation to learn for life.

31. It is in this context that we took steps to reform the system - dial back the over-emphasis on academic grades; reduce the number of examinations; phase out streaming in secondary school; introduce aptitude-based admission to higher education; and open up varied pathways for students, including Work Study pathways.

32. The coming years will be critical for implementing these new initiatives. While they represent the structural changes, they do not tell the full story of the reforms. There are also important changes in curriculum.

33. We need to help anchor students to core moral values from young, let them appreciate cultures outside of Singapore, and enable them to navigate and thrive in a digital world. These are critical competencies for the future. When we are ready, I will explain these curriculum changes.

Hope: Coming Together of the Three Synergies

34. So there you have it – the three synergies – which bring hope for each generation. Housing as a social foundation, economy to present the opportunities, and education as a means for personal growth and to seize the opportunities. Incidentally, while writing this speech, I realised that if you string the first few letters of Home - OPportunity – (and) Education, you get the word HOPE.

35. So, how do we then keep this Singapore hope alive and strong? Let me offer three thoughts.

36. First, we need to recognise that the hopes and aspirations of a nation are never static. My grandparents' generation lived through the Japanese Occupation and racial riots, so for them peace and stability were paramount. My parents got married around the time Singapore became independent, so they looked forward to a better life, and better education for my brother and I. My wife and I – both Generation Xer's - want meaningful careers, to know the world better and to make a difference to people around us.

37. Each generation grows up with different realities and circumstances which shape their pre-occupations. Economic well-being is evergreen, but it is never the only priority of a nation. This is especially when a country, like ours, has reached a fairly high level of economic development. Growth will slow down, and the nation must have alternate, non-economic collective goals.

38. For the young today, they are concerned about climate change as an existential threat. As our livelihood improves, we are more sensitised to those who have yet to benefit, and wish for a fairer and more just society.

39. Youth are also growing up with the Internet and social media, and I think subconsciously they understand its impact on their personal mental well-being and relationships with people around them. They also appreciate a cohesive Singapore with its growing unique identity. Every national leader needs to understand the generation that is coming of age.

40. This leads to my second idea, which is to always engage the people and understand their pre-occupations. That is also why DPM Heng Swee Keat launched the Singapore Together movement in June this year.

41. I do not think the movement is just about Ministers walking the ground more often and holding more dialogues – which we do – but it is a shift in the style of governance – beyond working for Singaporeans, to working with Singaporeans.

42. For municipal improvements, we already involve the community as a matter of practice. Government agencies put out Bills for consultation, and comments and feedback are taken in. For sensitive matters on security, there are constraints to public engagement. But in between these two ends of policy realms, are many policy proposals and programmes where we can benefit from the participation and engagement of the public.

43. Take our education reforms. MOE could not possibly come up with the initiatives we are implementing entirely on our own. Many of the ideas come from parents who share their views with us, academics who give us insights, Members of Parliament who speak passionately in the House, and those who share their opinions with me at coffee shops, and push me to think deeply about the issues.

44. But the views we receive are always varied, even opposing. The job of the Government is to assess the most appropriate thing to do, make a decision, figure out how best to implement it, and then explain the rationale to the public. In the nature of a consultative process, the decision will go against the opinions of some, and there will be a perception amongst them that the Government did not actually listen to them.

45. But I think this problem is unavoidable. As Government, we just have to be sincere about it and do our best to explain how we came to the decision, and get better at doing this task over time. As citizens, we can also play a part. We know that the algorithms of social media today create echo chambers. So we need to make a conscious effort to emerge from behind our keyboards, connect and work with as well as talk to people in the real world, through in person interactions.

46. I believe only then will society become better at managing and accepting differences in opinion, and a more consultative model will work.

47. Finally, to sustain hope for the future, we must continue to strengthen our institutions, whether it is HDB, EDB, schools, institutes of higher learning (IHLs), hospitals, or our uniformed services. Because institutions do not just take care of the old and evergreen issues. Without strong institutions, we do not have the capabilities to chart the future and tackle emerging issues.

48. Institutions must evolve with the times. In the process, there will be failures and mistakes. When that happens, we must avoid taking actions that inadvertently sow distrust and undermine them. Because the only way to absolutely prevent mistakes is inaction, which will be disastrous in a time of change. Our institutions have done well for Singapore. They are capable and public-spirited, and I hope Singaporeans will support them, and help strengthen them over time.

Conclusion - Sp65

49. This applies to our IHLs, and certainly Singapore Polytechnic. SP is our first polytechnic, with a long and rich history that pre-dates Singapore's self-governance.

50. Established in 1954 when Singapore's economy transitioned from entrepot trade towards industrialisation, SP was tasked to address the shortage of skilled workers.

51. Post independence, as our economy matured and diversified, SP expanded its offerings to nurture students across a variety of fields. Last year, you graduated your 200,000th student!

52. Today, SP is a forward-looking and vibrant tertiary institution that stands for rigour, quality, aspiration and hope. Your students come from diverse backgrounds and bond through formal studies and various campus activities. They involve themselves in social causes, immerse themselves in industries as part of their studies, and venture out to experience the world.

53. The fulfilment of hope of a new generation happens right here, and across many other institutions like SP. Congratulations on your 65th Anniversary!