Speeches/Interviews

June 07, 2019

Speech by Mr Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Education at the Growth Net Summit 2019, New Delhi, India

1. Good morning. It is my pleasure to join everyone today for the Growth Net Summit in New Delhi. It is a summit that Singapore ministers try not to miss. We have a forward looking theme for this morning’s plenary session – ‘Talent and skills for a digital economy’.

INTRODUCTION – DREAMS OF THE YOUNG

2. I will start by talking about a movie. My favourite film in 2016 was actually a Hindi film – Dangal. I watched it on a plane because my friends recommended it, and it clicked with me immediately, because I also have two daughters. I really enjoyed it. I urged my wife, who was seated next to me, to watch it too. She did, and in the last quarter of the movie, I leaned over and watched it with her. She had the headphones, so I watched it as a silent movie – but it was equally captivating.

3. It was a great film because it depicted resilience, courage, fighting against the odds, but above all, fatherly love. A father who took his two daughters on a very unconventional path against social expectation, against societal ridicule, to become professional wrestlers.

4. The movie made me reflect on the burden of expectations that society and family put on our young - get a degree, get married, buy your home, have children, etc. These are widely-held views in the societies of India, Singapore, and many countries in Asia. Such views are virtuous, but also traditional.

5. The younger generation often have different ideas though. They grow up with the Internet, which offers a powerful window to the world, right in the palm of their hands. Many have dreams different from the tried and tested paths of earlier generations.

6. Their hopes and aspirations are different because they are made possible by the digital economy. Because industries are organised differently. Work is carried out differently. The whole world can be their market.

7. Fulfilling the dreams of our young – that is the first of two themes of my speech today.

THEME 1: SKILLS FOR THE FUTURE ECONOMY

8. How the world has changed and continues to change, has profound implications on how we educate our young. We need to do two things. First, ground them in skills. Second, start young. Why do I say that?

9. Knowledge and skills go hand in hand. One must go with the other. But the Internet has made knowledge so readily available, therefore skills have become much more valued in the digital economy. This is why companies such as Google and Apple are hiring based on skills, and not just whether you have a college degree. And many companies are moving in that direction. Furthermore, computers and robots can easily take over routine, mundane and repetitive tasks that humans are now doing. So the way a worker avoids being replaced by computers and robots, is to attain the skills at the level of a craftsman or an artisan, where machines cannot yet replicate.

10. Grounding young people in skills is critical. They must start early because skills mastery is a lifetime commitment, and requires passion to drive you to learn your whole life. To have passion, that must be cultivated through a period of exploration and self-discovery, preferably when a person is young. And for you to explore and to discover yourself, we must start even younger, to make learning fun, to make learning joyous.

Singapore’s Experience

11. Hence, our education reforms must start with the very young. Pre-natal care matters, but it is by and large not a problem in Singapore. What we are doing is building up infant care and early childhood education.

12. In particular, we have been investing heavily in pre-school, at age 5 and 6. Government spending in the pre-school sector has increased 2.5 times from 2012 to 2107, and is set to increase further. We are not seeking to cram calculus and science into the pre-school curriculum. In fact, our emphasis is quite the opposite. Let the children learn through play, develop socio-emotional skills, and to be exposed to languages, especially English and their Mother Tongues. This is to lay a good foundation for them to learn through the joy of exploration.

13. For primary and secondary school students, we seek to bring about greater joy of learning. Our problem is we have a very heavy emphasis on examinations and academic grades, like many Asian societies. To the extent that I think it has become somewhat counter-productive. And so we need to dial back that over-emphasis on examinations and academic grades. We are doing this in a few ways.

14. The first is to reduce the assessment and examination load in primary and secondary schools by at least by 25%, nation-wide. We announced it earlier this year. For young students in Primary One and Two, we have totally removed examinations, to help them focus on learning, rather than focus on taking examinations.

15. We have a standardised national examination at Primary Six, called the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE). Ask any Singaporean parent or student, they will remember it. Some have nightmares about it because how a child performs in PSLE determines which secondary school they go to. Therefore, there is a perception that this is a very high stakes examination.

16. So we decided, we can’t do away with PSLE, but we’re changing the scoring system. Currently the scoring system finely differentiates the performance of students, and we are revamping it into one where students are banded by achievement levels. Hopefully, this will reduce the stress levels of both students and parents, and not make the PSLE too much of a ‘do-or-die’ experience, because it is not.

17. Reducing examination load frees up curriculum time, which is really what we are going after. This provides space and time for schools to develop students holistically. They can go for more outdoor adventure learning, they can conduct classes in more fun, interactive, and inquiry-based ways. Through applied learning where students get to build solar-powered cars, windmills, programme robots etc., make lessons come to life, and students are encouraged to work together - to try, fail, and try again, which is an essential life skill they need to have.

18. We have developed the Student Learning Space, an online resource covering the entire school curriculum, to facilitate self-directed learning by students. This is quite similar in concept to the Atal Tinkering Labs, which have been established by Niti Aayog in schools across India to foster curiosity and innovation through hands-on activities.

19. Another big change - for 40 years, we have been streaming students into three separate courses in secondary schools, to cater to different learning abilities. Differentiated learning has helped reduce attrition rates dramatically over the years. It used to be over 30% in the 1970s and 1980s. Now it is practically eradicated. We are now going a step further, to customise the curriculum to students’ needs, not at the course level, but at the subject level. This means instead of three mass customised courses, each child can have a unique combination of subjects and difficulty levels. That’s really part and parcel of the digital economy, where every single one of us can have customised products and services through the internet.

20. It makes running a school much more complex, so we are taking a few years to implement this. But we believe this will help every child better discover their strengths and abilities. You get the drift – more customisation in teaching, less differentiation in examination scores.

21. The same spirit is extended to higher education through a widening of admission pathways. Polytechnics and universities used to rely very heavily on academic grades for admission. Now, in that spirit, they have made a significant shift, to also look at specific strengths of an applicant, by evaluating their portfolios, projects and activities done in and outside of school.

22. Our higher education system comprises multiple pathways for progression, to develop the diverse talents of our people. So today, in the landscape, we have Institute of Technical Education (ITE) and its three campuses, we have five Polytechnics and six Autonomous Universities, three of which were established only in the last decade. Their offerings range from academic courses, applied courses, technical, hands-on courses, to apprenticeships and work study courses. So a range of courses, depending on the learning needs of the student.

23. In the last few years, higher education has also evolved to be a lot more experiential. It is no longer just an education, but it is also an experience. So a student in the higher education space today, they find that there are a lot fewer lectures, but a lot more team projects, internships, overseas exchanges, community immersion, and entrepreneurship opportunities. Almost every student in higher education now, including those in the humanities, has to undergo modules in digital literacy. If you’re a history student, you cannot escape quantitative reasoning and computational thinking. It has become an essential life and employment skill.

24. After a student completes formative education, the real learning starts. He enters the job market, he learns on the job, and embarks on lifelong learning. They learn through company-based training, or attend courses in training centres which are typically privately-run but publicly supported.

25. Three years ago, to make formative education and adult learning one seamless lifelong journey, we restructured the responsibilities of our Ministries so that pre-employment education for students and continuing education and training for adult workers are restructured and put under one single ministry – the Ministry of Education. In India you still have two separate ministries. I’m not suggesting that you should merge them because you are a much larger country, but we find it necessary to do that merger.

26. With that change, our polytechnics and universities have expanded their mandate and now play a critical role in lifelong learning. They are reaching out to adult workers and members of their alumni, to offer modular programmes – short, relevant programmes - in data analytics, FinTech, cyber security, advanced manufacturing, robotics and entrepreneurship. The National University of Singapore, for example, has declared that enrolment to NUS is now for 20 years. You get your degree in four years, but you spend the other 16 years, continuing to learn. Together with private training providers and companies providing in-house training, they form a robust adult training delivery system.

Going Against Societal Mindset

27. In Singapore, we call this entire effort the SkillsFuture movement. It is a decisive shift in the way we educate and develop our people, which will take many more years of painstaking effort. There are many obstacles to overcome. I think the biggest one, which I think India and Singapore share is the societal mindset.

28. This is because the focus on skills runs counter to how societies have traditionally defined success, what parents expect of their children, and what individuals expect of ourselves. The desire for academic pursuit is very strong in most societies, even in Western societies.

29. In Germany, for example, they have a long history of apprenticeship training. It is described as the ‘Golden Floor’ because even during a downturn, craftsmen are still in demand and able to command a good salary. Yet young Germans increasingly prefer to attend Gymnasiums, or academic high schools, which prepare them for an academic education in university. The young are not looking for the security of a ‘Golden Floor’, but chasing the hope of doing something big and great.

30. In their minds, that can only be achieved through a university degree. You can’t quite blame them. After all, MNCs, global banks, top consultancy firms are more likely to hire someone with a university degree. You also need a professional degree to be a doctor, lawyer or accountant.

31. In Asia, that mindset is even more entrenched. Many Asian societies have very high graduate unemployment or underemployment rates, because they simply have too many universities, too many graduates coming into the labour market. Even so, that has not shifted the traditional mindset nor social behaviour. It’s just very ingrained in our social culture.

32. I think it will be futile to try to change a mindset that is so deeply ingrained in our societies. Instead, we should recognise this is a false dichotomy – the pursuit of degrees and skills are not mutually exclusive. We now have our whole lifetime to improve both our knowledge and skills. We do not have just one traditional academic path, but can choose from many diverse paths. On every one of these paths, knowledge and skills are concurrently attained; study and work are also not discrete phases of one’s lifelong journey, but they are interspersed and overlap with each other.

33. And when we have developed deep expertise, regardless of formal credentials, we can accomplish big and great things. We have to let the results and new realities speak for themselves. Education used to be front-loaded, formative, discrete, academic and qualifications-driven. Today, learning is lifelong, fluid, varied, dynamic, constant, skills-based and passion-driven.

THEME 2: TRAINING OF BASIC SKILLS

34. I have been talking about reforming education and training to fulfil the dreams of the young in a digital world. But the reality is that in every country, for every young person dreaming of changing the world in this digital era, many more have much more basic needs – which is to find a job and feed my family.

35. Growth is never even, and this duality can be very stark in many societies. Further, despite the rise of the digital economy, the reality is that most workers do not need to be IT specialists. Everyone needs to know how to work with, and be assisted by technology, but most of us simply need to focus on improving our skills to do our current work well – be it serving customers, creating dishes in a restaurant, repairing or operating a machine, teaching young ones, caring for patients, etc.

36. This is the second theme of my speech today, which is the imparting of basic skills to the masses. This is arguably an even bigger pre-occupation in the human development agenda.

Skills Make Us Stakeholders

37. Let me again share Singapore’s experience. In the course of Singapore’s nation-building, two particular national policies were decisive in transforming Singapore from Third World to First.

38. The first is our public housing policy, which was started soon after Singapore attained self-governance in 1959. In fact, just yesterday was the anniversary of our self-governance. Home ownership gave families a direct stake in our economic growth. Generations of Singaporeans put their nest eggs in their homes, raised their families in them, lived in them their whole lives, and passed them on to their children. Today, over 90% of Singaporean families own our homes. This policy has helped citizens become self-reliant, and continues to anchor and unite Singapore society.

39. The other national policy that stood out is education and skills training. We made English our common working language and the medium of instruction in schools. Generations of Singaporeans benefitted from a good foundation in education. Every year, two-thirds of our cohort move on to technical training in the Institute of Technical Education or the Polytechnics. We made sure that all courses are designed to meet the needs of industry. And they find work when they graduate.

40. These two policies stood out because they strengthened Singaporeans’ sense of being stakeholders in the growth of the Singapore economy and the building of our nation. They are both generative and distributive. Home ownership and education improve the ability of Singaporeans to contribute to the economy and the nation. At the same time, they ensure that every family has a share in and benefits from the growth of the overall economic pie.

41. These policies strengthen the belief that as a people, we can work together and make Singapore succeed.

42. Today, economic uncertainty looms large amongst the working population in many countries. It’s a worry shared by both developed and emerging economies. Amongst developed economies, many have experienced stagnating real wages since the Global Financial Crisis, and they continue to face the looming threat of disappearing jobs because of competition, industry disruption, or companies relocating to more cost competitive destinations.

43. For these economies, the challenge is to restructure industries, for their companies to innovate and adopt productive practices to stay competitive, and for their workers to operate at a higher level of competency and productivity.

44. As for emerging economies, many need to train the working population in essential industrial and service skills. Despite the uncertainties about the future of global trade, we are living in a world that is more inter-connected than ever, with Asia being the fastest growing region in the world. India, in particular, is the fastest growing large emerging economy in the world, and has tremendous potential for further growth.

45. Skills training in this context is a no regrets move. To the investor, the availability of a skilled workforce provides assurance that their hotel or factory will be able to operate smoothly. To the worker, skills enable them to land a good stable job and be self-reliant.

A Platform for Co-operation

46. India is seized by the need to impart essential employability skills to the masses. Skill India has the ambitious goal of upskilling 40 crore people – young and old, men and women - by 2022. The National Skills Development Corporation has built up an extensive network of training partners and centres across the country. The percentage of employable population has gone up steadily and progressively. But I have no doubt this is a challenging and arduous task. The new Indian Government has recently set up a new Cabinet Committee on Employment and Skill Development, chaired by the Prime Minister himself, and that I believe will further invigorate India’s efforts in this area.

47. I believe there is significant scope for India and Singapore to work closely together in the area of skills development. Singapore is small and has limited resources, but notwithstanding this, I believe we can make a meaningful impact in this area.

48. In 2003, Singapore incorporated ITE Education Services (ITEES), a company under ITE, to undertake co-operation projects with other countries on human development. It gives us the discipline to undertake these projects in a financially sustainable way. At the same time, ITEES is given the autonomy and operates independently to fulfil its mission.

49. ITEES’ first project in India was the World Class Skill Centre in New Delhi. I visited it just yesterday. It was set up in Sep 2013. This was followed by the Centre of Excellence for Tourism Training in Udaipur, Rajasthan, I visited that two years ago, and the North-East Skills Centre in Guwahati, Assam.

50. More recently, ITEES was engaged by the state governments of Madhya Pradesh and Odisha to develop two milestone projects to transform and upgrade their skills development systems. The first is to set up a centre within the new Global Skills Park to be developed in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. The second is to set up a World Skills Centre in Bhubaneswar, the capital city of Odisha.

51. Both projects are funded through loans from the Asian Development Bank, which has also recognised ITEES as their knowledge partner for the skills sector. When fully implemented, these Centres will produce some 8,000 skilled personnel annually to support industries across India. ITEES is now in discussion with several other state governments.

52. ITEES is also in discussion with various large Indian enterprises such as Tata Trusts, Indian Oil, TeamLease Services, Rayat Educational & Research Trust, to establish skills institutions in various cities in India.

53. It is very critical to bring enterprises into the skills development picture, because to transform a workforce, all hands must be on deck and employers are the largest stakeholders. Employers are also best placed to decide what kind of training is most relevant to the job market and benefit both workers and companies most. And we need enterprises that go beyond training for their own needs, to also train workers for the whole industry.

54. I am encouraged by all these developments that ITEES is embarking on in India, and have told ITEES to stretch its ambitions. It should build up its capacity and expand its network of partners, so that skills development and human capital development can be an area of significant bilateral co-operation between India and Singapore, in a financially sustainable way.

55. With the support of national initiatives such as Skill India and the state governments, ITEES, I believe, can help more workers in India develop relevant skills and secure good jobs. In the process, Singapore will be able to tap on our industry professionals to further build expertise in skills and vocational training. It will be a win-win collaboration.

CONCLUSION

56. India and Singapore are vastly different countries. We are a small city state with limited resources, and have no choice but to be open to the world to earn a living. India is a big country and an ancient civilisation, with very complex challenges.

57. Yet we have many similarities. Singapore grew from Third to First world in a generation, and we continue to try to break new grounds in city planning, smart city solutions, education and SkillsFuture.

58. India’s economic transformation is even more remarkable. You are now the fastest growing major emerging economy in the world, millions of Indians are lifted out of poverty every year, and the middle class has quadrupled over the last 25 years. You have implemented significant national initiatives, on such a large scale, such as Aadhar, the GST, revamped bankruptcy laws, and are pushing ahead with the building of smart cities.

59. And amidst all these transformations, we are traditional societies - firm in family values, steadfast in our hopes and dreams for our young, and investing in our children to ensure they have a bright future.

60. Today’s challenges of course go beyond our children. As a society, we need to invest in all our people – deepen their skills, develop their abilities to do their jobs well, and master their craft. By doing so, everyone will have a stake in the collective success of our countries and this will strengthen the cohesiveness of our societies. Thank you.