DPM Heng Swee Keat at The Times Higher Education (THE) Campus Live Southeast Asia 2022

DPM Heng Swee Keat | 7 December 2022

Speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies Heng Swee Keat at The Times Higher Education Campus Live Southeast Asia 2022 on 7 December 2022.


Mr Phil Baty, Chief Knowledge Officer, Times Higher Education,

Mr Tan Eng Chye, President, National University of Singapore,

Leaders from our universities in Southeast Asia and from around the world, 

A very warm welcome to Singapore, and I am very delighted to join you this morning to attend this inaugural THE campus live in Southeast Asia. 

Southeast Asia  

As Phil had said earlier, THE has brought this event to Southeast Asia because you see the potential for a greater exchange of ideas within the higher education sector in this region. This is a meaningful objective, for tertiary institutions have a critical role in improving the lives of people everywhere and in our region, as Southeast Asia continues to develop. With THE and NUS organising this conference, it is adding to our intellectual vibrancy, and I hope that we continue to make it even more vibrant in the years ahead. I am told you have a very substantive agenda over the next two days, discussing the role of universities in a 21st century Asia, with the theme of innovation, inclusion and growth. These are all very important topics for us to share ideas. Let me first say a few words about Southeast Asia. As a region, it has grown and developed a great deal since ASEAN was formed. ASEAN brought the countries of Southeast Asia together to tackle common challenges and realise new opportunities.I was personally involved in many of the discussions involving ASEAN economic integration, which has brought benefits to every member nation. At the same time, as Southeast Asia become much more deeply integrated with the rest of the world, this openness has created even more opportunities for our people and companies, and helped us to better tackle many common challenges.

Southeast Asia today is a region brimming with promise. The region today has more than 670 million people, which makes us the market with the third largest population behind China and India. Our region as a whole enjoys youthful demographics – more than half of the region’s population is under the age of 30, although the same cannot be said of Singapore, as we are a fair bit older here! Economic growth has been robust in Southeast Asia, with a rapidly growing middle class that is expected to more than double from around 130 million to 330 million people by 2030.  

While Southeast Asia has the right ingredients for growth, education will be critical in harnessing this potential. To better prepare our people for a fast-changing future, we will need to innovate our education systems, especially higher education. In fact, the education landscape had already been undergoing significant structural changes for some time, which the pandemic has further accelerated. This morning, let me share some thoughts on how we can further evolve our education systems, to create a better future for all in the region.  

Evolving our Education Systems 

First, we should take a broader view of education and higher education.

There is typically a heavy emphasis on the role of universities when we talk about higher education. Indeed, universities play a critical role in preparing our students for the future, and to advance new areas of research and knowledge for humanity. One positive development over the past decades has been the expansion of access to universities. For example, less than 10% of my cohort went to university in Singapore. Today, around 50% go through publicly-funded universities. This has enabled more people to develop their potential and pursue their interests.

But even though universities play a key role, there are other important pathways for individuals to develop their potential, amid a more diversified and complex global economy, and a much wider range of skills needed. An overly narrow focus on universities alone can lead to an unhealthy and expensive paper chase, which may not always result in good outcomes for individuals or society.  A university education may also not be the best way to learn for everyone. While some are interested in more academic pursuits, others have a greater interest in applied learning. Yet others thrive in a more hands-on environment, preferring a dual system of combining classroom study with workplace apprenticeship. 

To help each student fulfil their potential, we therefore need to develop different educational pathways – different paths to success. In Singapore, our higher education landscape comprises universities, polytechnics, and the Institute of Technical Education. This provides various options for students, to meet their different aspirations and learning interests. We have also introduced greater porosity across these pathways. There are students who went through ITE and Polytechnic, before eventually pursuing a degree program. And our landscape continues to evolve. Recently, we set up a new university – the University of the Arts Singapore to nurture a new generation in the arts and creative industry.  

These include soft skills like leadership and the ability to work in teams, and developing cross-cutting perspectives critical for problem solving. Doing so will require us to take a more holistic and multidisciplinary approach, that starts in their early years, but remain equally if not more important in their higher education years. 

This is a point that President Tan also mentioned earlier. So, my first point is that we need to look at higher education more broadly. The basic mission of enabling everyone to reach his or her potential applies everywhere and in every country. But how we go about doing so differs by the economic, social and other circumstances that individuals face.  

Second, we must collectively respond to developing trends in education, in particular, digitalisation and continuing education.  

The digitalisation of education took root some time back. A decade ago, New York Times termed 2012 as the “Year of the MOOC”, or massive open online courses. It was the year that MOOCs started to gain serious momentum, with top universities, including those in the Ivy League in America, putting their courses online.   

The pandemic has accelerated these trends. The world went through a grand experiment, with millions of students pivoting to online learning. This was by no means easy. It was a different approach to learning and classroom preparation. For some students, it was additionally challenging as they may not have reliable internet access. Our experience from the pandemic shows that online learning can be done at scale and provides greater flexibility and scope for self-directed learning. Post-COVID, it is unlikely that online learning will fully replace the in-person classroom. There are good reasons for face-to-face interactions, not least the social-emotional elements. So some form of blended learning – a combination of in-person and online learning – is probably here to stay. As the digital wave continues to grow, education institutions in our region can ride on this wave to experiment with different models of online teaching and blended learning. This will create new ways of learning, across different settings, including the workplace.  

Beyond digitalisation, the other major developing trend is the shift to lifelong learning. It remains important to prepare our students well before they enter the workforce, and to give them a strong foundation to take on the opportunities that the world has to offer. But emerging technologies like AI, automation, and Industry 4.0 are also fundamentally reshaping the future of work. The pace of change is accelerating. Even before the student receives his graduation certificate, the currency of his knowledge and skills is already starting to erode. Many workers know they must prepare themselves for these disruptive outcomes – or “career cushioning”, as some have recently termed it. 

To respond to these trends, we will need to continuously develop each individual across different stages of life. We need a stronger emphasis on lifelong learning. Instead of being a one-time launchpad, education institutions can become more like pit stops where workers can periodically return to refuel throughout their working life. For instance, our tertiary institutions in Singapore, including NUS, now provide modular, bite-sized courses for adult learners in various emerging areas such as advanced manufacturing and AI. But lifelong learning is not easy to do, and we will need to continue to experiment with different modalities, leveraging on technology to help adult learners balance their various priorities. It will also require a broader societal mindset shift, not just by workers, but also by companies.    

This brings me to my third point. In the face of disruptions, we can go beyond learning from one another to working together to push new frontiers in knowledge and innovation. This conference is a good example of how we can learn from one another, and I am sure you will have very good discussions over the next two days on our common challenges and opportunities. But beyond discussions, I also hope this serves as a platform for new collaborations, and there are many areas that we can work together on. 

One key area is research, which I have a keen interest here as I chair Singapore’s National Research Foundation. There are many real-world challenges in our region that can benefit from the research that is being done in all our universities. One example is climate change, which is an existential challenge that we all face. The potential for nature-based solutions in Southeast Asia is tremendous, as our region is home to the largest blue carbon stock in the world. These blue-carbon ecosystems – such as mangrove swamps and seagrass meadows – can sequester large amounts of carbon. I am glad to see the Centre for Nature-based Climate Solutions in NUS, led by Professor Koh Lian Pin, working with partners in the region to strengthen the knowledge database and toolkits for growing the blue carbon stocks in the region. Climate change is also having a profound impact on our marine environment in our regional waters. I recently visited the Saint John’s Island National Marine Lab, where I was glad to learn of a deep-sea expedition project run by a combined team from Singapore and Indonesia to better understand the biodiversity in the Sunda Strait and Southwest Java. In fact, they discovered many new species in the sea. So I hope to see more of such collaborations in the years ahead, tackling our most important common challenges. 

Strengthening collaborations goes beyond institutions and faculties. At the heart of collaborations is our people-to-people ties and interactions. The multi-cultural diversity of Southeast Asia is a key strength of our region. When I was Education Minister, I strongly encouraged our students to explore the region and understand its vibrant cultures and history, including through study trips or internships. In Singapore, we have also enhanced our school curriculum to help students learn more about the region. Prior to COVID-19, we set out to enable 70% of all students to have an overseas experience, of which 70% will be in Southeast Asia, China, or India. With the pandemic receding, our institutes of higher learning will continue to work towards this goal. For our friends from the region, whether you are a student, professional, or a researcher – I also welcome you to explore opportunities here in Singapore. I am glad that many have done so. For example, within NUS, there are close to 2,000 students from Southeast Asia. In addition, we are encouraging greater exchange of researchers. The Singapore Academies Southeast Asia Fellowship programme was introduced recently to provide postgraduate researchers from Southeast Asia the opportunity to spend time in research institutions here on a 2-year fellowship. With the pandemic receding, we welcome more researchers to explore this programme and others. The friendships that are formed, especially amongst young people, can often spark lifelong collaborations. I came across some examples of this a few months ago, when I visited a start-up incubator in Ho Chi Minh City. I met several Vietnamese youths who had either studied or spent time in Singapore. Some have since started companies with their Singapore classmates, and it was wonderful to see how they are contributing to Vietnam’s tech start-up scene, from robotics to finance.So I hope to see more of such friendships and partnerships flourishing in the years to come!


Let me conclude.

Education is ultimately about bringing out the best in our people, thereby enabling them to build better lives for themselves and for others, and to take better care of our planet. As Southeast Asia continues to develop, our education systems, including higher education, will be critical in realising the potential of our people, and helping them to lead purposeful lives. I wish all of you a fruitful conference ahead. Thank you.