Speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies Heng Swee Keat at the MENDAKI Education Symposium 2021 on 30 June 2021.
I am happy to join you at the 5th MENDAKI Education Symposium. It is commendable that MENDAKI is bringing your diverse community partners, ranging from educators, to youth leaders, working professionals, and beneficiaries, to come together to exchange views and explore new ideas.
For the second year running, this Symposium is held in the midst of COVID-19. By now, most of us have adapted to living with the virus, including meeting virtually like today. But the world is still reeling from the pandemic, which has disrupted lives and livelihoods globally. Over 168 million children have not gone back to school for over a year; and the equivalent of 250 million jobs have been lost. In Singapore, the virus has highlighted some of our vulnerabilities. Lower-income households may not have a conducive environment for home-based learning. Many jobs were also disrupted, including previously stable occupations like air crew, taxi drivers and tour guides. But with everyone playing their part, we have averted the worst of the crisis. The government rolled out an unprecedented $100 billion in support measures last year. MENDAKI and other community groups have reached out to provide support to their communities, such as in providing laptops to needy families to enable home-based learning.
Beyond the immediate crisis, COVID-19 has accelerated structural shifts. One key shift is in how businesses and people are moving online. Working-from-home has become prevalent.
But this is only one step away from working-from-anywhere, which will expose our workers to even greater competition. But while the pandemic has closed off some doors, it is also opening new ones. The digital revolution will raise demand for digital skills, creating more jobs in the ICT and computer science fields. The focus on sustainability and resilience will open new frontiers and create exciting jobs in the “green economy”.
So how do we prepare our youths and workforce for the future? As our educators love to say, it takes a village to raise a child. To prepare our youths for the future, we need a whole-of-society effort.
Let me offer three suggestions on how we can prepare our youths: First, by giving them a good foundation; Second, by nurturing a habit of lifelong learning; and third, by enabling them to pursue their aspirations.
A Good Foundation
First, giving a good foundation.
Bringing the best out of each one of us starts from birth. We are investing significantly in educating our children, starting from preschool, with additional support for those who need it. In this regard, MENDAKI has been creative in coming up with good programmes. Your KMM@CC or KelasMateMatika@CC programme is helping young children develop strong foundations in numeracy skills. I am glad that during this COVID-19 period, the programme remains accessible by shifting online.
As they progress through the years, our students have fared well, compared to their international peers. They perform well in international benchmarks like PISA. Even our academically weaker students fared better than the average international students. Apart from academics, our students have also done well in PISA’s measures of other life-skills, such as collaborative problem solving. Our students also fare well in “global competence” – the ability to examine global and intercultural issues, appreciate different perspectives, and act responsibly for collective well-being. This is testament to our collective efforts, including the excellent work by our educators, in developing each child holistically – by building on the talents and interests of each child, giving them a strong foundation of academic and soft skills, and nurturing their social and emotional well-being.
But we also recognise that each child has a unique set of aptitudes and talents, and we must do more to broaden their pathways to success. The reforms to the PSLE scoring system is an important shift away from an over-emphasis on academic results. In our secondary schools, through full subject-based banding, students of different academic abilities are placed in mixed form classes and can take subjects at a level suitable for their strengths. Our post-secondary pathways are also becoming more flexible, so that students can find and develop their strengths and interests. For instance, through Common Entry Programmes, polytechnic students can gain exposure to different options before deciding on a specific diploma course. In ITE, we are also enhancing the curriculum structure, so that more students can achieve a Higher Nitec qualification more quickly. We are also expanding the work-study programmes in our institutes of higher learning, especially in our polytechnics and ITE, which provide an applied learning pathway for our graduates to continue developing their skillsets in their chosen industry.
However, bringing the best out in every child goes well beyond the school system. It is crucial that the community plays its part. One example is the suite of initiatives under UPLIFT, an inter-agency taskforce which was set up in 2018. Every school has strengthened its after-school care and support, especially for those who do not have conducive home environments. Beyond schools, UPLIFT has brought together community partners to support disadvantaged students and their families. MENDAKI is a key community partner for UPLIFT – with mentoring programmes to provide good role models that students can aspire to; academic support programmes to help level-up those who have fallen behind, and bursaries and scholarships to encourage students to do well. I am also glad that we are further deepening the partnership between schools and the community. This latest initiative to set up a MENDAKI-NIE Office of Education Research workgroup is one good example. The workgroup will facilitate sharing of research findings and best practices, and help improve the design of programmes to better cater to the students.
Giving a good head-start to every child is important. But on its own, this is not enough.
This brings me to my second point – nurturing a habit of lifelong learning.
As knowledge and technology advances even more quickly, what we learn in school will not be enough. We need to learn new skills, to access new jobs. One good example – 15 years ago, the smart phone did not exist. Few would have understood what an app is, much less think that you can have a career developing apps. Today the Apple App Store alone has more than 2 million apps, and an app developer is a promising career.
The days of “lifelong employment” is largely over – what matters more is “lifelong employability”.
We are therefore redoubling efforts to prepare our workers and businesses for the future. We had a head-start with the Industry Transformation Maps, which was started 5 years ago. We are currently in the process of refreshing our plans for the next 5 years, with a greater focus on jobs and skills. At the same time, we will push ahead with the Next Bound of SkillsFuture, to support our people in this journey of lifelong learning. The community also has a part to play. For instance, MENDAKI SENSE provides customised career advisory services for professionals and executives who are looking for new opportunities, and provides training courses in areas such as data analytics.
But to achieve lifelong employability, attending just a few training programmes is not enough. To achieve lifelong employability, we must think long-term and develop a habit of lifelong learning. I encourage everyone, especially those who are just entering the workforce, to have the patience and perseverance to build up skills for the long-term. Start by exploring the full potential that a career has to offer, and not just the starting salaries. Some sectors may not pay as well at the start, but offer many upgrading and learning opportunities. If you put in the hard work to develop deep skills and gain experience, you can have a promising career and good wages, even if the rewards are not immediate. So I encourage all of us to develop a habit of learning and growing throughout life. The MENDAKI Raikan Ilmu campaign, which seeks to create a movement to embrace lifelong learning as a way of life, is a very good initiative which I fully support. To all our employers and managers, I encourage you to invest in your workers and to pay for skills. Raising the skills of your workers will enable the company to be more productive and competitive. This will be critical to the success of your company, as the global competition intensifies.
Enabling our Youths to Pursue their Aspirations
We are all more motivated to learn and relearn, when we are pursuing our aspirations. So my third point is – let us enable our youths to pursue their aspirations.
I had, in a speech a few weeks back, noted that each generation has its own aspirations. Based on what youths have shared with me, I summarised their aspirations as 3 Cs – Create more value for society in every area of life, Care for the people and environment around us; and Chart the way forward for our society. It is an inspiring set of aspirations, to make a difference in the world.
It is important that as a society, we encourage and nurture these aspirations. Community groups can provide support for change. I am glad that MENDAKI has good initiatives to help our youths dream big, such as your Community Leaders Forum Labs, which provides funding to aspiring youths who need a platform to test out their fresh and innovative ideas. The MENDAKI Club also brings together young professionals and students, through your mentorship programmes, leadership incubators, and career workshops. Let me take this opportunity to commend Faridah and your team for the excellent work and encourage you to create even more opportunities for our youths to make a difference. I am also glad that MENDAKI, together with your M-cube partners MUIS and MESRA, have provided a platform for our youths to step up as mentors, with the Youth Mentoring Office under M-cube training youths to serve as mentors in the community.
This is the spirit of Singapore Together – where we work together to empower our youths to achieve their dreams and build a better future, and to collectively build a vibrant and cohesive Singapore with opportunities for all.
Our community groups, including self-help groups like MENDAKI, will continue to be critical in this next phase of our nation’s journey. Since your founding almost four decades ago, MENDAKI has played a pioneering role, and you can take pride that you have achieved your vision of a “Community of Success”, or Masyarakat Gemilang. There are numerous role models within the Malay-Muslim community who are now also paying it forward, and bringing the next generation to even greater heights. The recent Census 2020 findings also show significant improvements in the educational achievements of the community. Among Malay youths aged 25 to 34, 8 in 10 have post-secondary or higher qualifications in 2020, up from 6 in 10 in 2010. In particular, 53% of Malay youths obtained tertiary qualifications – university degrees or diplomas, compared to 35% a decade ago.
The work is never done, but the remarkable progress we have achieved will spur us on to achieve greater excellence.
Let me now say a few words in Malay.
Sepanjang beberapa tahun ini, masyarakat Melayu/Islam telah menunjukkan kemajuan yang sangat baik. MENDAKI telah memainkan peranan penting dalam usaha menghasilkan Masyarakat Gemilang ini. Terdapat ramai suri teladan di dalam masyarakat Melayu/Islam, dan saya ingin menggalakkan anda untuk tampil membimbing generasi seterusnya. Kepada belia kita, kami akan bekerja bersama anda agar anda dapat mencapai impian anda dan membina masa depan yang lebih baik untuk kita semua.
So to conclude, I have given three broad suggestions today that I would love to discuss with all of you – let’s do more in giving everyone a good foundation, nurturing a habit of lifelong learning, and enabling our youths to pursue their aspirations. We can do this by working together in partnership – MENDAKI and other community groups, together with your partners and volunteers, can drive this effort. And most importantly, to the parents amongst us – ultimately, it is you who have the greatest influence over the next generation.
I look forward to our dialogue.
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