Speeches/Interviews

November 18, 2018

Speech by Mr Ong Ye Kung, Minister of Education at the Lembaga Biasiswa Kenangan Maulud (LBKM) Bursary Ceremony

1. A lesson we must all learn - we must all learn to be a good human, not a bad robot. A bad robot can be replaced by a better robot but a good human cannot be replaced by any robots. And that is really the purpose of SkillsFuture. I am delighted to join all of you here this afternoon. First of all, let us all extend our congratulations to all the students here today, and for all their achievements.

LBKM Over the Years

2. SkillsFuture is today a major national movement, to transform our workforce to be ready for the future. Many people may not know this, but this is an idea that took many decades to evolve. Before SkillsFuture, there was Lifelong Learning and Continuing Education and Training (CET). Before Lifelong Learning and CET, there was the Skills Redevelopment Programme (SRP), BEST and WISE. And before all that, we have LBKM – the Lembaga Biasiswa Kenangan Maulud.

3. LBKM was the vision of the late Tuan Syed Ali Redha Alsagoff, a prominent Muslim businessman, dubbed the “Father of Scholarships”. In 1965, he rallied 73 Muslim & Malay organisations from Singapore and Malaysia into LBKM. They believed that no one should be deprived of furthering one’s education because of financial difficulty, and so supported adult learners to advance their studies. LBKM is really where the first seeds of SkillsFuture were planted. Just earlier last week I met with an elderly gentleman in his 70’s, who reminisced fondly how he taught English to adult learners at LBKM when he was still a young man. I could see this is something very meaningful he has done in his life.

4. In 1966, LBKM started with $5,100 in bursaries to 18 students. Today, it is $1.6 million for 1400 needy students from primary to tertiary level. LBKM awards not just bursaries, but also scholarships and research grants. The bursaries go out to both Muslim and non-Muslim students, reflecting a core belief held by many of us, that Singapore must stay socially cohesive and united, and different communities help each other. Many recipients went on to succeed in their respective professions, become role models for others, and then contribute back as volunteers to LBKM.

Progress in School Education

5. The Malay community places great importance on education and training. About 35 years ago, the Government and community leaders saw a worrying trend in education among Malays, and hence worked together to establish Mendaki to bolster the community’s efforts in education. Today, with the concerted effort of the community, the Government, schools and teachers, families, students and organisations such as Mendaki and LBKM, Malay students are performing much better in education across the board. Today, let me share with you some statistics and also some inspiring stories.  

6. I will start with pre-school. A good pre-school education will lay a strong foundation for our young to enter primary school. At this stage, it is not the time to pile on excessive homework and academic teaching, because they are still very young. Quite the contrary, we want to ensure that children are exposed to non-academic aspects - social circles, fun and laughter, and a good language environment.

7. That is why the Government has decided to invest heavily in pre-school. MOE set up 18 MOE Kindergartens over the past five years, and every centre offers all three Mother Tongue Languages – one hour of exposure every day for every child to their Mother Tongue. This year, we enrolled over 2,800 children in MOE Kindergartens, and more than 600, or over 20%, are Malay students. Overall, more Malay children are attending preschools, and cohort enrolment is comparable to the general citizen population in Singapore with over 90% enrolled by age 5-6.

8. Next, primary and secondary school. I have put the two together because this is the first 10 or 11 years of learning the fundamentals, and the student is just beginning to develop broad interests. The story here is a simple and compelling one, which is today, over 99% - in fact practically all students – complete at least secondary school education. This is an across-the-board achievement, by all our Singaporean communities.

Progress in Higher Education

9. As for post-secondary school education, the percentage of Malay students in every cohort that progresses to publicly-funded full time degree or diploma courses has been rising steadily. For admission year 2008, it was 39.3%. In 2017, it was 52.5%. This is a 13 percentage point increase, compared to the national average of a 9 percentage point increase.

10. In our Polytechnics, many Malay students are doing well and excelling in what they are doing. This is partly because the Polytechnics have developed many skills-based courses to develop the strengths and talents of our students, and bring out their passion.

11. One example is Fazliana Bte Mohamad Yusof. She graduated in 2013, from Republic Polytechnic’s pioneering batch of Diploma in Health Management and Promotion. She was inspired by her lecturers to work in this field. Upon graduation, she worked in a children’s gymnasium, teaching children to exercise and putting what she learnt in youth health and health promotion to application. A year later, she was headhunted and offered the opportunity to work as a Health Coach with Khoo Teck Puat Hospital and she readily took it on. Three years later, she took on a sponsorship by the Ministry of Health to be trained as a Physiotherapist. So she went from being a health promoter to a physiotherapist. This was a different job in the same sector but she has the same passion. We wish Fazliana all the best, as she continues to pursue her passion that she first discovered in polytechnic.

12. More Malays are also attending publicly-funded universities. A key reason is that the Government has been expanding university places, especially in the applied subjects where many young people have interests and talents in. This means more opportunities for our young to fully develop their potential. We consciously expand university places in areas where employers require talent, and because of that, employment rates of our graduates have remained high and healthy.

13. Through my work in my constituency, I got to know a volunteer, Muhammad Imran bin Abdul Rahim. He came from a family where his mother is a housewife, and his father works in a factory in Johor and travels across the causeway to work every day. Imran did well in school, went to Raffles Institution, did well and got accepted into law school and NUS, where he became an accomplished debater, winning many awards. Imran is now practising law in a local firm, and devotes a lot of time to volunteering his services in my community. I’m very glad to have a lawyer and debater as one of my volunteers. His latest project is to work with residents to start a ‘belanjar a meal’ project in one of my constituency’s coffee shops, to help lower income residents. This is an idea that was first done by another constituency under Madam Rahayu, which we adapted.

14. Another admirable story is that of Farah Abdul Malik. She is both an LBKM Bursary Award holder and an LBKM Ambassador. After graduating from SMU with a psychology degree, she started Sky High Educators, a social enterprise that provides financially-challenged students with affordable tuition. She is currently pursuing a Master of Philosophy in Psychology at SMU.

The New Pathway of Work-Learn

15. What I have mentioned are the traditional academic routes, public-funded Diploma and Degree programmes, and there are now many more diverse programmes to choose from. The academic route is not the only route because beyond the traditional routes, MOE is also introducing more work-learn pathways. This is because many of us learn best by doing, rather than by studying. Hence, we have 76 SkillsFuture Earn and Learn Programmes today, training over 1,700 Polytechnic and ITE students to further deepen their skills.

16. We also introduced the ITE Work-Learn Technical Diploma, to help Nitec and Higher Nitec graduates build upon the skills they have acquired at ITE, to further progress in their careers. As a result, an ITE education is also becoming more attractive. I attend the ITE graduation ceremony every year. Recently, I met some NTU and NUS graduates who will be graduating from Nitec courses. I asked them “Why are you attending Nitec courses after you had graduated?” They told me that they only studied the academic subject in university but when they go to their workplace, they may not be able to apply their knowledge to what their technicians are doing. Therefore, they thought that their next upgrade is not a Masters or PhD, but actually a Nitec qualification, where they could learn hands-on. It is the route to becoming a better human.

17. Muhammad Yazid Bin Saleh graduated with a Higher Nitec in Security Systems Integration in 2013. After National Service, he made use of his skills learnt in ITE to join TJ System, a security system integrator, as an Assistant Engineer. Earlier this year, he applied and was selected for the ITE Work-Learn Technical Diploma in Security Systems Engineering. Yazid is now an apprentice in Certis Technology, an MNC. On this path, he has a good shot at becoming a project manager after graduation. If he becomes a project manager, he would not have taken the graduate route. He took the Work-Learn pathway, demonstrating the skills and showing that he can do this job. There are different pathways, different ways of learning to reach the same goal.

18. ITE recently launched another ten Work-Learn Technical Diploma programmes. At the launch event, I spoke to the participating employers, and asked them how are the ITE apprentices. They said the kids ‘were wonderful – motivated, articulate, went -the-extra-mile.’ I asked ‘Why are they motivated?’ The employers said ‘Because they know if they complete their course, there is a bigger and better job for them, and there is something to work for. Most importantly, they know they are valued.’

Conclusion

19. One of the most important developments in our education system over the past years has been the development of multiple pathways for our young. So when we talk about meritocracy taking a broader definition - a meritocracy of skills - it is backed up by concrete programs, professional and skills development pathways. Some paths will be academic, others applied, work-learn, or OJT, in a variety of sectors and trades. 

20. They say many roads lead to Rome. We must make sure there are many roads but we must also make sure that we don’t all go to Rome. Some of us want to go to other cities. Some of us don’t want to go to the cities, we want to go to the village, the beach, the forest, the mountains, the lakes. We all have our own destinations, hopes and aspirations. The education system and the community, together with parents and students, will strive to help every child discover their strengths and passions, and the paths that will best suit them. We play to the strengths of every young learner and not try to confine them to one narrow path. 

21. But more importantly, regardless of which path a young person takes, society and the community must support him, and give him the respect and regard he or she deserves. With respect, there will be pride. With pride, there will be excellence. Congratulations to all our recipients today. I hope you will achieve excellence, be a good human and inspire many others. Thank you very much.