DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam at the Hwa Chong Centennial Insights Series and Hwa Chong-Nanyang Education Conference

SM Tharman Shanmugaratnam | 15 February 2019

Keynote speech by DPM and Coordinating Minister for Economic and Social Policies, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, at the Hwa Chong Centennial Insights Series and Hwa Chong-Nanyang Education Conference, titled "Educating for the Future: Charting the Next Century", delivered on 15 February 2019.


Principals Mr Pang Choon How and Mdm Ng Chuen-Yin, 
Chairperson of Hwa Chong Board of Directors, Mr Robson Lee
Chairs of the Board of Governors of Hwa Chong and Nanyang Girls respectively, Dr Lim Wee Kiat and Mdm Ang Fang Fang
Our distinguished speaker, Prof Pasi Sahlberg
Ambassador from Finland, H.E Paula Parviainen
School leaders and teachers

Like Choon How, I want to pay special tribute to the past leaders and teachers of these two institutions. We must never forget what they did. Like the leaders and teachers of many of our other schools, you set a high bar, you took everyone towards your goals, and education is better off for what you have done. 

Education is our most important economic and social strategy for Singapore. It always was, and it remains our most important strategy – economic and social. It is a strategy which is somewhat different because it involves looking well into the future as a way of thinking about what we should be doing in education today. We cannot pretend that we can forecast the future, but we have to try and anticipate changes in the world so that we are not too late to change. It also means recognizing that what we might have done well in the past or even today, may not be what takes us into the future. 

We want to maintain a cohesive society and one where people feel they can fulfill their potential in life. But the traits required to succeed in life do change over time, and they will very likely change in the next 20-30 years. 

We will have to be a more innovative society to succeed in 20 years. That is not just about a few creative individuals, or the scientists and research engineers. It must mean a culture of innovation that spreads through our society. That is going to be an essential ingredient for the future Singapore to succeed, and it requires a set of traits that is different from the past. 

Our PISA scores reflect a strong foundation in our system. However, that itself is not good enough. If you look at the countries in the upper half of the international rankings for PISA, i.e. countries that are not doing badly, you will find that there is not much correlation between PISA scores and innovative capabilities. And it is the innovative capabilities that will distinguish us in the future, not how people perform when they are children, but the innovative capabilities when they are in their late 20s, 30s, or later. 

We are not there yet. We are not yet a truly innovative society. I am not saying we should try to force down our PISA scores, but doing well in PISA alone is not good enough. We need a different mix of traits. 

There is another reason why we have to keep making shifts, and that is to keep Singaporeans together as a society – not just because we are all citizens of the country but because we feel a sense of togetherness with each other. That too will require some changes in education as we move into the future. 

Part of the reason is because economics will challenge what happens in our society. Technology can be a divisive force, in workforces all over the world. We are already seeing it, in the United States where you have islands of prosperity amongst those with high education and those working with the leading firms, amidst a sea of relatively low paid service workers or others whose wages have been stagnant for a long period of time. It is happening elsewhere too, but we have to work against it happening in Singapore. 

Becoming a more innovative society also poses some social challenges. It does require that children as they grow up, and youths as they mature, have minds of their own. It requires a sense of individuality, and we have to achieve that whilst preserving a sense of togetherness in our society, solidarity amongst people in all walks of life. They may have different jobs, different ways they spend their time, but we really need to have that sense of solidarity. This doesn’t come naturally. But it is not a contradiction to have people with minds of their own and a greater sense of individuality, while not being individualistic and trying to elbow each other out. It’s not a contradiction, and we can achieve this. 

Education is critical because it is education more than anything else that has shaped our social identity in Singapore. We are in a far better place today than we were when we started – in having that sense of being Singaporeans together. And the fact that education unleashed waves of social mobility has led to a different social culture too.

It will be education, more than any other strategy or policy, that shapes our future identity and this sense of solidarity of Singaporeans, as we face these new challenges. It will require some shifts in education and some trade-offs. We do require new traits, and we should not shrink from developing them, even if we lose something else in the meantime. 

Never think in education that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, because we don’t know whether it’s broke until 20 or 30 years’ time. If it ain’t broke, experiment. And change not suddenly, but through a set of rolling changes. We cannot just hold on to the status quo, but neither do you want to keep chopping and changing the system, which some countries have unfortunately done. We need to have a set of rolling changes over time, one change building on another but all moving in the same, clear direction: building a more innovative society, keeping social mobility going, and keeping our sense of togetherness.

That’s been our approach in Singapore: don’t chop and change, but move progressively and learn as we go along. In fact, I would say the set of changes we are embarking on now, are really a part of a series of changes that we began 20 years ago. In fact, we still have six Education Ministers in Cabinet now, and the current very capable Education Minister having five previous Education Ministers with him in Cabinet. It’s been a consistent series of changes, dramatic or all at once, but a set of rolling changes where we gain confidence from each change and then we move further. That’s the way we have to keep progressing. But never think in education that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.

I just want to say a few things about the shifts we are making and what more we should do, before listening to my friend Pasi. I’m not trying to be comprehensive here, so I will just highlight a few things which I feel are important. 

Adapting our system of meritocracy

First we have to keep adapting our system of meritocracy. We have to do that, both to develop a more innovative culture, as well as to sustain social mobility and the sense of togetherness that makes us Singaporean. Both reasons are important. 

We still achieve in Singapore a fair bit of mobility in each generation. In fact, you see more of it here than in most of the advanced countries. But what you see in the advanced countries could easily happen here, which is that while you continue to achieve some mobility in the broad middle of society, the top and the bottom ends become encrusted over time. 

It is an inherent challenge that all meritocracies face, as societies mature. The top tends to preserve its ability to succeed and the bottom tends to get stuck at the low ends of the ladder. It is happening in many societies and we are beginning to see it happen here. We have to ensure that through education and our other strategies, including strategies in the community, we work against that trend, because social mobility is at the heart of the Singapore identity. I feel we can do so. 

But the other reason for adapting our meritocracy is also important. To develop a more innovative culture, we do need a less exam-centred system. Otherwise, the space that we have to provide for children, to think for themselves, to let their minds wander, to develop their own interests, will be crowded out. We all know how it works. The space for teachers too, to get their students to do their own thing individually and in groups, can also get crowded out by a heavily exam-centred system. 

But we cannot get rid of our exam system either. We cannot get rid of meritocracy, because we’ll get quite the opposite results of what we intend. Our system of meritocracy, which measures progress of all students fairly and transparently, is the way in which children with abilities, regardless of social background, are able to advance. It is the way bright poorer kids in each generation advance. So don’t junk the system, but keep adapting it. Adapt it so that we can keep social mobility going and so that we breed a more innovative culture, starting from young. 

There are many things we are doing to adapt our system. We are intervening well before kids reach school. That involves not just the MOE, but MSF, and community organisations on the ground. We know the science of the brain and how critical those early years are. Finland did not start off with a strong pre-school system either. They were a bit like us - they emphasised their school system, but did not pay too much attention to their pre-school system. But they are moving in a very bold way now to develop that pre-school system, and addressing issues concerning pre-natal and post-natal health for mothers. It is mandatory in Finland for mothers to go for check-ups at regular intervals from before the kid is born all the way till the kid is six. And if you don’t go for your check-up, you cannot get your benefits if you are a needy family. 

We are making changes in the school system to reduce the emphasis on examinations, particularly in the early years, Primary one and two, and removing mid-year exams in alternate years all the way to Secondary 3, besides other changes. We are blunting the scoring system in the PSLE. 

We must make the best use of the DSA system. It was introduced as an alternative set of doors into secondary schools, together with aptitude-based admission into universities, polytechnics and ITEs.  The new doorways started small, and are now broader, and in every school. Think hard about how to use the DSA system. Schools like Hwa Chong and some others at the top have to think hard about how you use the system, and about the spread of students you should attract from around the island. 

We’ve also got to continue to ensure that our system of differentiating the pace and content of education, depending on a student’s abilities at any one point in time, does not make him or his parents or his teachers assume that his abilities are fixed for all time. A person’s potential at that age is not fully known. Children can surprise themselves, and they surprise their teachers. So keep our pathways fluid, as we are seeking to do. The move towards subject-based banding, progressively in the last 20 years, rather than streams that exist separately on their own, is an important one. 

Make the best use of our broad-based education 

A second set of issues is in how we can make the best use of the broad based education we provide in our Singapore schools, outside of the academic curriculum and the classroom. It is a real strength of our system. In most other countries, you do not find this range of co-curricular education in public school systems. They have private schools that provide that broader education, because they are much better resourced. But it is not the norm around the world for public schools to have this remarkable set of facilities, programmes, funding schemes for children, for them to stretch themselves and develop a whole different set of traits outside the classroom. 

We must make full use of this strength, for both the reasons I mentioned earlier – to help us develop an innovative culture as well as that sense of solidarity. I do think we can make greater use of CCAs and the informal curriculum, in and out of the school. The top schools tend to have very intensive CCA programmes. It should become more of the norm amongst our neighbourhood schools, where every kid takes a CCA, and not just nominally but as a very active and serious part of their week.

It is critical for the future because you develop a different set of traits over time through your CCAs - relational skills, empathy, a sense of not feeling superior to others or inferior, because you are playing as a team, and the tenacity, the courage and dare that you develop through many of the CCAs. These are critical traits for the future. 

We have got to make good use of the CCAs to enable students from different streams and different education pathways to be together in the same team. In Jurong Secondary School, the team captains for basketball, both boys and girls, the choir president, the vice-presidents of floorball, the student council, dance, cross-country boys and girls, are from the Normal stream. It does mean something. 

And we must make the best use of our CCAs and informal curriculum to develop the experience of multiracialism - not just in saying the pledge, but the experience of everyday multiracialism. This too is critical for the future, and I have spoken before about the oddity of some of our CCAs in Singapore being virtually mono-ethnic. We’ve really got to get past that. It is an absurdity, because the same games are played by completely different ethnicities around the world. Even in our own region, basketball, volleyball et cetera, are not Chinese games. Sepak takraw is played in Vietnam and Korea. We’ve got to make the best use of our sports, our dances, including our ethnic dances, to get the kids to mix. If the coach or instructor is speaking another language, so much the better. So the CCA and informal curriculum is a strength in our system, and we’ve got to make even better use of it for the future. 

Evolve our system of parenting

Third issue – as we adapt our meritocracy, as we broaden our education to develop the whole person and the whole community, parenting too will also have to evolve. I don’t want to be preachy about this because it is not something the government controls. I’ve never felt we can blame parents for the way they behave, because they are responding quite rationally to the incentives. The exams, the selection system, the entry requirements. Parents are quite rational, though in Singapore a little risk-averse, so they err on the side of overdoing things. But as we adapt our system, we must give parents the confidence that it is for the good of their children, and encourage them too to adapt.

There are interesting studies in the US. They’ve seen a significant rise in what they call “helicopter parenting” - the parents are constantly hovering over their kids. It may pay off a little in the short term, but studies show that there are long term psychological effects on the kids: a greater sense of anxiety, a loss of their sense of individuality and independence, and less resilience. Even when it comes to academic results, there are interesting findings. One study found that the children of parents who are supportive of them and reason with them to try and influence their behavior, rather than demand obedience, do better in school and university than the children of ‘authoritarian’ parents. (Among parents who are supportive of their children in this way, the study found little difference in children’s performance between parents who set high expectations compared to more ‘permissive’ parents.)

That’s intuitively what you would expect. Young people need a mix of high expectations being set for them, and encouragement to think independently, do things for themselves, and develop their own interests. It’s not a matter of being liberal versus conservative. We really need those traits for the future, and for the way children turn out well beyond the school years. Parents want their kids to succeed not just at age sixteen, but in their late 20s and late 30s and beyond. So we have to evolve now. 

Again, this isn’t a sermon, and we cannot control how parents act. But the changes we are making in education must aim to give confidence to parents too, so that we evolve our styles of parenting to help children deal with the future with confidence. 

Making Lifelong Learning the norm

Finally, lifelong learning, which is going to be fundamental in how we evolve as a society. Let me first say that lifelong learning is not motivated fundamentally by the need to deal with economic disruptions, in other words, that people should learn skills in case they lose your job, so they can find another job. Yes, that’s important. But there is a much deeper reason. Even in the same job, whatever job we are doing, we need much greater mastery in future - much deeper skills, deeper innovative capabilities and a deeper culture of wanting to achieve quality in every job no matter what the job is. We don’t yet have that uncompromising attitude towards quality in Singapore. Not many societies have it. In Japan they call it ‘Kodawari’ (‘こだわり), that incessant desire to achieve quality, even when no one is looking, and in every job no matter how simple. We have to develop that attitude in Singapore, master what we do, and wanting to achieve the best quality in every service that we deliver, in a hotel or restaurant, or in sales and marketing, and in each product we create or each component in a larger product. We must have that uncompromising attitude towards quality, and never go for shortcuts.

Lifelong learning is really about that desire for mastery and quality, and how we develop it throughout life. We are putting in place the infrastructure in Singapore, through our universities, our polytechnics and ITE, and approved private learning providers. We are putting in place the funding. But it is the culture that has to take off - making it the norm for everyone including employers to see education as a lifelong enterprise. Critically, our employers need to step up their game. We do not yet have a broad-based employer culture in Singapore that invests long-term for employees. It is stronger in northern Europe.

We have to develop that long-term thinking about how we develop every individual’s potential, and critically, the potential of the team. It is quite different from learning in school - when you come to examinations, it is mainly how well you did relative to someone else. In work life, it is about stretching the potential of the team, in other words not comparing people on a curve but moving the whole curve up. That collective thinking must be imbued in employers and employees. Employees might not stay with the same employer of course – few stay in the same firm forever. But if most employers invest long-term in their employees, even in employees leave, what goes around comes around. And we become a society with deep skills and innovative capabilities, and a sense that everyone keeps growing through life. 


So those are some of the shifts we are making, to anticipate and do well in a different future.

Keep adapting our meritocracy.

Make fuller use of our broad-based curriculum.

Evolve parenting styles - that’s not under the control of the government. Parents are trying to do their best for their kids, but we’ve got to change the incentives, have the conviction that we are doing the right thing for young people in the long term, and give parents the confidence to evolve too.

Make lifelong learning the norm - and I think we can be one of the leaders in the world in this regard. Become a society where everyone keeps developing their skills and potential through life.