Keynote Address by SM Tharman Shanmugaratnam at the Mendaki Symposium 2022

SM Tharman Shanmugaratnam | 30 June 2022

Keynote Address by Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for Social Policies Tharman Shanmugaratnam at the Mendaki Symposium on 30 June 2022.


SMS Zaqy Mohamad, CEO of Yayasan MENDAKI Zuraidah Abdullah, and everyone who’s here this morning. Thank you for inviting me to join you at this 6th MENDAKI Symposium, in fact coinciding this year with your 40th anniversary of MENDAKI.

The theme is a broad one, "Rethinking Education".  It's a well-chosen theme not just for the Malay-Muslim community, but for Singapore. Education has been and is our most fundamental social and economic strategy - since the early days, and even now as we look to the future. Education is how we develop the social attributes we need to be a vibrant and cohesive society. It's how we develop the skills that we need to be a competitive economy. But more than just specific social or economic skills and capabilities, education is how we shape the character of our nation. It has been so, and remains fundamental to the character of the future Singapore.

And if you think hard about the issues which DPM Lawrence Wong spoke about on Tuesday, particularly on forging a new social compact, education has to be fundamental. It's not just 'where it starts'. It shapes our lives as we go forward together. Education is key to that future social compact, and I will offer a few thoughts on three areas which we are focusing more on, and need to put a lot more effort into, as part of the effort to build our future social compact. I'll talk about three areas.

First, the importance of reducing early gaps. We have to work a lot harder to even out the playing field in the youngest years. We must do so if we are to diminish that natural tendency in every society for the early disadvantages and advantages to be preserved and even reinforced through life. It’s critical for Singapore that everyone has a fair chance to do well and to move up. And it's critical to us being an optimistic society - no matter what comes, what challenges we face, being an optimistic society. At its core, it is about the intrinsic optimism of our people that comes from feeling they’ve got a fair chance to do better - to survive the odds, to overcome and to do better in life. So that’s the first and critical objective – reduce the early gaps.

Second, we must continue to broaden the range of merits that are recognised and promoted in our meritocracy. And importantly too, we have to reduce a hierarchy of skills that is still too sharp - between  academic and non-academic skills, and between some academic skills and others. We have blur that hierarchy of skills, develop respect for different skills as we grow up, and indeed give everyone a chance to pick up different skills. That too has to start young and continue into the working years, so that we have a workforce and society where every skill is valued, and every job well done is respected. That's the second challenge.

The third challenge is to strengthen our sense of togetherness.  We have to work harder on strengthening our sense of togetherness across different socio-economic groups and different ethnic groups. We have avoided the big problems seen in many other societies. But we have to work harder on this for the Singapore of the future. It means avoiding social distances that develop when children are young and stay through life.  And importantly, to develop that sense of familiarity, friendship and solidarity that we must have with each other as Singaporeans. That comes not from textbooks, it comes from experiences. Experiences of growing up together are critical. And we do need more social mixing amongst children from different backgrounds as they grow up.

So those are three areas where we have to apply more thought to, put more effort into, and design programmes to ensure that we address them effectively. I'll speak briefly about each of the three.  

First on reducing the early gaps. The gaps are evident to all of us who are involved in education and community work. They are evident in the preschool years, , they're evident in Primary One. It requires a concerted effort by the Government, by community groups and by our preschools and primary schools to address these gaps.

For the Malay community, this is a particularly important issue. The community has clearly progressed, at every level of education. In fact, as some of you know, if we compare at our Malay students with  students abroad, the achievement is truly impressive. Our 15-year-old Malay students in the 2018 PISA tests outperformed the average of the OECD countries. They outperformed their OECD peers in Mathematics - in fact, for the first time in 2018, they exceeded the average of the OECD countries - and were on par with them for Reading and Science. And they also did better in collaborative problem solving.

The improvements in the Malay community in attaining post-secondary qualifications and beyond have also been the largest in the last decade compared to our other ethnic groups. Partly because the starting point was lower, but the progress has been sharp and visible. So there's been very significant progress.

But the gaps remain. And some of the gaps are too significant for comfort. The gaps are evident in pre-school, primary school and every level.  The gaps are both socio-economic, irrespective of race, but there are also additional gaps among ethnic groups. In other words, the gaps faced by the Malay community are not just because Malays are over-represented in the lower socio-economic groups. Even within those lower socio-economic groups, there’s a greater proportion of Malays who start off weak in school, and remain weak. That's why we see a larger proportion of Malays in our Learning Support Programme for English (LSP) at Primary One and our Learning Support for Mathematics (LSM). It's not just because of low socio-economic status; there’s an additional complex set of factors that we have to address.

And that's why community effort is critical. The Government is doing more; MENDAKI,  M3, other community groups are doing more. But together we have to work even harder to address these early gaps. Close the early gaps between Malay children and the rest - in particular, the gaps seen amongst Malay children in the bottom 20% of socio-economic status.

MENDAKI has embarked on several initiatives. KelasMateMatika (KMM) and KelasSiapSekolah (KSS) are good initiatives. We need to scale them up and work intensively on them. And recognise that these aren't problems which we solve immediately. You can't achieve results overnight. It requires persistent effort, patience, sensitivity in the way we work together with parents, and a great deal of empathy with both parents and children.

So I commend what MENDAKI, M3 and our various other communities groups are doing to address this problem. But we have to work harder. The Government too has to do more. We need to scale up KidSTART, as we plan to do - not just scale up the numbers but make it more intensive, more intensive engagement of parents and children. We are making significant improvements in preschool quality. It's already very different today compared to 15 or 20 years ago, and we're going further. And we're also working harder in our primary schools with various interventions to address the needs of those who are disadvantaged or who have fallen behind, irrespective of race.

The Government's efforts are race-neutral. Strengthening KidSTART, our preschools, and our primary school interventions like LSP, LSM. In fact, for LSM, as many of you already know, we’re now going beyond Primary One and Two, to Primary Three and Four as well, significantly expanding the scope of Learning Support for Mathematics.

The Government is doing more through these race-neutral interventions, but it requires greater community intervention as well. And the work you do with Malay-Muslim parents and children is really critical.

It has to continue through the growing years. None of us can be satisfied with the incidence of absenteeism,  and late and irregular attendance, in our preschools and in our schooling system. It's not broad-based. Compared to many other countries, we do  better. But for those who face disadvantage, the lower socio-economic groups and those not doing so well, irregular attendance is a problem. You see it from preschool, all the way through to ITE. We have to tackle this effectively. 

We need a stronger wrap-around for every student, not just by the classroom teacher or the school’s programmes. We need the community wrap-around, and we need to work as a team. The professionals in the school, the professionals and volunteers outside the school, have to work as a team and not to be too seized by the division of roles. There's some blurring of responsibilities when you talk about a wrap-around for the child. We have to take joint responsibility. Of course teachers will do what teachers do best, school counsellors too, but we need a wrap-around where we are taking joint responsibility for every kid from a disadvantaged background. 

Every society has this problem, where performance in school is not just a function of individual talents and attributes, but also a function of complex, multifaceted and interlinked social problems. And we have to work harder to address those problems in Singapore. Work harder to make sure that the early disadvantages in life do not replicate themselves and become stubborn disadvantages throughout life.

We are taking lessons from the research that is being done through the GUSTO project. The GUSTO project, many of you know, involves National University Health System, KK Women and Children's Hospital, and A*STAR. What GUSTO showed is that the pre-natal and early childhood years are critical for both maternal health and the child's health, and for the child's development. This has been broadly known internationally through a range of studies, but we find from our own data on Singapore a definitive link. We have to pay attention to the early years, starting from the pre-natal experience of the mother. For example, Gestational diabetes and maternal depression play an important role in the health of both mother and child, and they play an important role in the development of the child. So there are many issues coming out of the GUSTO project that we have to address together, through that compact of government and community action. MENDAKI and M3 are working now on follow-ups in our pre-school system.

Second issue – recognising a broader range of merits in a meritocracy and reducing the hierarchy between different skills. It is not just about reducing gaps between groups. It is also about developing the child, developing every child so they've developed a range of skills in their growing years. We are doing better than some narrow meritocracies particularly in some other parts of Asia. But we need to go further to develop a broader range of skills as children grow.

We are providing more space for this. We can’t keep trying to do more and more things in education, we’ve got to free up space as well. So MOE has done away with mid-year examinations for primary and secondary schools at all levels, starting from next year. They are creating space for development of what MOE calls 21st Century Competencies (21CCs). We have moved to a new PSLE scoring system. We've expanded DSA across all our schools.

But we need to address what is still too sharp a hierarchy between the academic and non-academic skills, that then continues through into working life. There are countries where students who are strong or doing fine academically, also engage in technical and hands-on skills as integral to their school experience. We have some schools here doing likewise, School of Science and Technology or SST for instance. But it shouldn't just be in a specialised school. Our top schools need to give students more hands-on learning experiences. There have been many studies showing that creative and innovative abilities are nurtured early in life by the combination of using your mind and hand together.  But it's important not just in developing each child individually. It's also important in reducing the hierarchy of skills. We shouldn't regard technical and applied work as something to be done by those who are not strong in academic studies. We have too sharp a distinction in Singapore, and we need to address that too.

Thirdly, that sense of togetherness that we must reinforce,  and the capability of mutual respect has to be developed from young.

We don't have the sharp antagonisms that many other societies have. We have some social distances, but they tend to be informal, and not antagonistic. People aren’t deliberately staying away from each other, by and large. But let’s be frank, there are distances between different groups in Singapore, including between our ethnic groups, and we need to close those distances in the interest of all of us and in the interest of Singapore.

We have to address it first by having more social mixing as kids grow up. Experiences matter. You only develop that sense of familiarity, the natural friendships, even the Best Friend Forever, through experience, the regular interaction not just in the classroom but outside the classroom, and during the weekends. The hours you spend together every week in the dance group, on the football or hockey field, or tchoukball – those hours shape instincts naturally, they shape behaviour. We have to do more.

We're doing more to reduce socio-economic distances through some structural changes in the system - changes in Primary One admission rules to increase the number of places reserved for children without prior connection to the school, even changes in Secondary One admission for schools that used to take in a significant proportion of students from affiliated primary schools - we’ve reduced that. And the Subject-Based Sanding scheme is a very important innovation in our secondary schools. We moved away from a streaming system in primary schools to Subject-Based Banding several years ago. We've been moving progressively towards this in secondary schools and we're now going moving fully to it in secondary schools.  That too will help in encouraging social mixing.

But we have to plow the CCA field a lot more intensively to develop social mixing. It's not just more CCA, it is more mixing of students across CCAs. It has to be in the mind of the school principal, the vice principals, the teachers in charge, to look out for those who feel they don't belong to a particular CCA and bring them in. Too many of our CCAs have become close to mono-ethnic. Yet when you think about international competitions, you're competing against people of all sorts of ethnicities, so it makes no sense. We are not taking enough advantage of CCAs to develop that regular several times a week interaction. Basketball, volleyball, even football. Today’s football teams are different from the teams in the 1980s, we all know that, and it shouldn't be the case.

It starts from young. We don't want a quota system, but it has to be part of the thinking of school leadership:  how to encourage the kids from different backgrounds to play together, train together, win and lose together. That is part of our responsibility in education.

But there's another element in developing the sense of togetherness that we need for our future. We have to develop a capability for healthy civic discourse as we grow up. Recognising that we are becoming a society with a pluralism of views and individual preferences. We’re becoming a more pluralistic society, and we must not just live and let live, let alone look askance at each other. We have to understand and respect differences, find compromises where possible, develop consensus. And the ability to develop consensus, to respect each other, is one that we must develop as we grow up. That too has to be what education is about -  building the capability for healthy discourse, thinking through differences, thinking about compromises that are necessary, but very importantly, respecting different views and preferences.

These are all doable improvements. We have a system that's not only not broken, it's actually working much better than in most other countries. But we have to put more effort into these areas - closing the early gaps, which are both socio-economic and ethnic, through community and government action; broadening the range of merits we're recognising and promoting, and reducing a hierarchy of different skills when young and through life; and finally, developing that strong sense of togetherness, and the capacity to respect different views and preferences in a more pluralistic society.

So that we remain together as Singaporeans, and our identity, first and foremost, is I am Singaporean.

* * * * *