Speech by DPM and Coordinating Minister for National Security, Teo Chee Hean, at Singapore Children’s Society 1000 Enterprises and 1000 Philanthropists for Children-in-Need Appreciation Dinner on 19 March 2019.
The Singapore Children’s Society has done well over the years and serves a very important segment of our society – our children. We want to make sure that we can do the very best for each and every one of our children. The government can do the things which are system-wide and do them reasonably well. But the government is not as good as our voluntary welfare organisations in looking after individuals, particularly when they need a lot of individualised care and attention. Here, our voluntary welfare organisations, when they are run well, do a lot of very good work. It is something which the government supports wholeheartedly but cannot always do as well as our VWOs. Because in these areas, it is really heart that matters. For the recipients, it is important to know that they are not lost souls. There are people, Singaporeans, who care enough to donate, care enough to volunteer, and want them to do well. That gives them a lot of strength and a lot of confidence to rebuild themselves - that society has not abandoned them, our country has not abandoned them, and there are people who are there to help them to do better. That is the key role of voluntary welfare organisations and organisations like the Singapore Children’s Society.
On the system-level, the government has been trying to do as well as it can in order to bring everyone along and to give everyone the best opportunities to succeed. During the Budget session, the Minister for Education talked about changing our streaming system to a subject-based banding system and everybody applauded saying that streaming is over, and that streaming is bad. I am glad we slayed that sacred cow and it is all gone and done with. I support this change from streaming to subject-based banding. But not for the reasons people applaud it for. Because if you look back, why did we have streaming in the first place? Actually it was meant to make sure that we can do our best for every child.
When I was going to school, and some of those around here today will have lived through that period, half the children did not complete secondary school. If you want to talk about harsh streaming, that was really harsh streaming. Because half the kids finished secondary school and half the kids did not - their highest standard passed was Primary Six. At that time, if you served in the Singapore Armed Forces, among your fellow national servicemen, you would see that the highest standard passed was Primary Six for many, many of our soldiers. Even worse for our women. Because for many women, daughters, they gave up the opportunity to study so that their brothers could study. This is true for many of this generation in their sixties. I think you will have members of your family, friends, relatives, even your own brothers and sisters, who are like that.
When Dr Goh Keng Swee came into the Ministry of Education, he said this is terrible. How can you have an education system when half the people are not even completing secondary school? He studied the matter carefully and decided to introduce streaming. We had the Express stream and the Normal stream. People were wondering why you call it Express and why you call it Normal. Because normally, people take five years to finish their ‘O’ levels. If you finish your ‘O’ levels in four years, that is quite fast. If you look at United Kingdom, you look at Malaysia, they finish their ‘O’ levels in five years. We do it in four years – so that is Express. People think that by doing it in five years, somehow or other you will be disadvantaged. But actually that is normal, that is why it was called Normal stream. The four years was called Express stream. As a result of that, something like 75 per cent, 80 per cent of our students were actually able to go to secondary school and complete secondary school, and not just complete secondary school, but have the opportunity to go on to polytechnic and post-secondary education. That was a huge advance. 75 per cent of our students were able to complete secondary school and many of them were able to go beyond. But that was only 70 or 75 per cent. What of the remaining 25 or 30 per cent? They were doing extended monolingual in primary school, some of you remember these terms, Primary Seven, Primary Eight. Then either they drop out or they go to Vocational and Industrial Training Board and learn a very simple skill.
Dr Tay Eng Soon, the late Dr Tay, was a wonderful man. He said we must do something for these kids. He wanted everyone to go to secondary school. As a result of that, he started the Normal (Technical) stream, which is very much maligned today. But actually the alternative was that they did not even go to secondary school - that was an even harsher form of streaming people out and excluding them from the opportunities they might have in school and society. So, we created the Normal (Technical) stream and we started up the Institute of Technical Education (ITE). I was the Minister then and I had this wonderful legacy from Dr Tay. I was a Minister when the first couple of batches of Normal (Technical) students were in Secondary One, Secondary Two, and when they reached Secondary Four, we had the ITE ready for them. The wonderful ITE that you see today. That brought in the remaining 25 per cent students who were not even going to secondary school and included them in our secondary school system. Not only included them in our secondary school system, but provided them the opportunity to go to post-secondary education in the ITEs. This was a wonderful achievement. Because I do not think that there is any other country in the world where you have such high graduation rates, such low dropout rates from secondary school, and the opportunity for such a high percentage to go to post-secondary education. Why is this relevant to the Singapore Children’s Society?
It is relevant because it keeps many of our students in school and out of trouble. While they are in secondary school, they are motivated to study because they know that there is a place for them beyond secondary school, where they can study something which is relevant and will help them to find a good job and a place in society. When I go to my community centre late at night, it is full of kids studying. You will say, “terrible, these guys must be under a lot of pressure, exams coming and all that”. But when you think about it, it is wonderful. The kids are actually studying on their own, voluntarily. For their ITE exams, for their JC exams, for their ‘O’ levels, for their ‘A’ levels, their polytechnic exams, their university exams. They are doing that on their own, when in other countries, they may well be on the streets somewhere, going havoc, painting graffiti, taking drugs, and other things. It is not that we do not have this. But the numbers are relatively low compared to many other countries because we have a system that works quite well.
But there are always people who fall, for one reason or another through the cracks, sometimes because of family situations and the stresses. And even with a good system like ours, they are unable to benefit and need extra help. This is where organisations like the Singapore Children’s Society step forward. Kids who have poor family support, who had been taken advantage of, in one way or another, who need some guidance to get back on the right track, to get back on the rails, so that they can do well in life. Some place to go to after school so that they do not fall into bad company. A big sister, a big brother to give them guidance. This helps us to pick up every student possible on an individual basis to help them to do well.
This is what will help make Singapore a better and a stronger country. Because everyone knows they have opportunity, everyone knows that they are cared for. If they work hard, they do well, they can start their own home, they can have their own family. There is almost no other country in the world with such a high home ownership rate, where you can buy a home when you first get married. Nowhere else. Hong Kong – impossible. Taiwan, Taipei, Japan – cannot be done. But we can do it here in Singapore.
These are the things we are trying to do to strengthen the social fabric of Singapore and to make sure that we can grow together as a country, across all races and religions, across all strata of society, with everyone having a fair opportunity to do as well as they can and to share in and enjoy the progress of Singapore.
I want to thank all of you again this evening for the generosity that you have shown, and also the heart. Your hearts are all there - to help the children who need this extra help on an individual and personal basis, to make the best use of the very good system that we have in place for them. Thank you once again for your generosity.
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