DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam at the NTU Majulah Lecture

SM Tharman Shanmugaratnam | 20 September 2017

DPM and Coordinating Minister for Economic and Social Policies, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, delivered the inaugural NTU Majulah Lecture: "How Education Shifts Will Make Our Future" at Nanyang Technological University on 20 September 2017. (Transcript of extemporaneous lecture delivered on 20 September 2017; slightly abbreviated and edited for publication.)


NTU President Bertil Andersson, Pro-Chancellors, members of the Board of Governors and Faculty, distinguished guests, and most importantly, the students who are here today, thank you for inviting me to deliver this inaugural NTU Majulah Lecture. It is a real privilege.

Education: Why Change?

I’ve chosen to talk about education because it has been our most important national strategy over the last 50 years, and will be the most important for the decades to come. Education has shaped Singapore. It has shaped a society that has seen remarkable social mobility. It has made possible the move from a developing economy to one with vastly higher productivity, and hence too median incomes that put us in the upper league of nations. It has shaped a society with a far stronger sense of identity and unity than we started with.

We have avoided the big problems that some countries have - big gulfs within education and within society. We have done it through a system that involves the guiding hand of the state, but critically too, one that develops and empowers teachers and principals on the ground and has been giving schools and tertiary institutions increasing autonomy.

Above all, we’ve succeeded in education because we’ve kept evolving. The system that we have today is different from what we had 20 years ago, and very different from 50 years ago. It’s been constant evolution.

And that’s really our opportunity for the future. The biggest mistake we could make is to think that because we have done well by many international comparisons, we keep things as they are. The biggest mistake is to think that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, because in education, more than in any other field, we will only know how well we are doing 20 or 30 years from now. We also know it will be a very different world then, and if we don’t change, we will end up on the wrong side of history. So we must keep evolving, and have the conviction that by changing and experimenting, we are securing the future for ourselves.

What are the big challenges of the future?

The big challenges of the future are the same almost everywhere. It will in many respects be a tumultuous future.

First, the future of jobs is a big question in almost every society, certainly in every advanced society. We are still at the early stages of a new wave of disruption, with – robotics, AI and big data redefining jobs in a whole range of sectors.

No one truly knows where we will be 20 years from now. Will there be enough jobs? Will we become societies that are divided, between those who can make the most of new technologies and those who are displaced or disempowered by them? But the answer to the question doesn’t come from looking into the crystal ball. It depends on what we do now - what we do to develop the skills and abilities that will make our future.

The way in which the world of technology and work is evolving is not simply one of intelligent machines and software displacing humans, but one that offers large opportunities to augment human skills and abilities so that we can take advantage of new technologies. We know of many jobs that will be substantially taken over by technology. But it is the opportunity for complementarity between humans and intelligent machines, that we have to exploit. If we develop the skills that complement new technologies and which cannot be easily replicated by them – the ability to work with robotic devices or AI applications, to exercise creativity, critical thinking and judgement, to work well in teams on complicated tasks, or to demonstrate empathy - we will be creating the jobs of the future. It will be a whole range of jobs, not just those requiring exceptional abilities, and they will be better jobs.

For Singapore in particular – small country, small population, there will ultimately be no lack of world demand for our skills. If we develop the skills for the jobs of the future, we will have jobs. Singapore has another advantage. We don’t have the problem that the large countries face, which is that of a growing geographical dispersion of prosperity. Some cities are moving up, while others are devastated. That is what creative destruction is in the marketplace – creation in one place but destruction in another. We don’t have that challenge in Singapore; we are one compact place. That’s an advantage.

But we also know that the challenge of future jobs in Singapore translates into that of becoming a truly innovative society. That has to be the change in our society – to become a truly innovative society. Not just a few bright sparks, not just the firms that are at the frontier, but a pervasive culture of experimentation, celebrating every new idea, and everyone knowing that they benefit from Singapore being an innovative society. That’s our real challenge. And if we meet this challenge, take this opportunity, jobs will not be the issue in Singapore. Our future rests on being an innovative society.

The second challenge, again everywhere, is to maintain a sense of togetherness in society. The post-war social compacts in Western Europe, the US, and a whole range of other societies are unravelling. The wave of social mobility that pulled everyone up in the three decades after the war is now over. The frustration over the lack of mobility, and the lack of real income growth for a large segment of their populations over a long period, shows up in a more divisive politics. It also shows up in identity wars, which are on the rise.

The ethnic dimension of this, or what is often an ethnic overlay on social and economic divides, is most troubling. Contrary to earlier expectations, many among the second and third generations of minority immigrants in the western societies do not feel more at home despite having grown up in those societies. Ethnic tensions have grown in many developing nations too.

Those are two profound challenges of the future. Meeting them both is our third challenge in Singapore: we must both become an innovative society, with strong individuals, and more than ever keep our sense of togetherness as Singaporeans.

An innovative society in the true sense does require a greater sense of individuality, where people have more of their own thinking, their own way of doing things, their wanting to do or produce something that others haven’t. There is a way in which this free play of individual spirits can lead to society being more disparate, with people sharing less in each other’s successes and setbacks. But it need not be the case, because a stronger sense of individuality doesn’t mean we become more individualistic or selfish. Our real challenge is to achieve both these things – an innovative society, with that stronger sense of individuality, and at the same time one where people have respect for one another and hold tightly together.

We have to be a place where we don’t elbow each other out of the way, because we are all together in one city. It is quite different from, say, Silicon Valley. What started in San Jose and Palo Alto, has moved to San Francisco. It is a highly competitive place, and highly innovative. But the social reality is that of ordinary people having to move out. They can’t afford the housing, and after some time, they also know it is not quite their social circuit. That unintended elbowing out is happening.

But we are not like Silicon Valley, where people can move to other towns in the same country. We are one society in one city, and we must keep our sense of togetherness. It is not a contradiction to be an innovative society, with a stronger sense of individuality, and to retain that sense of solidarity with each other. It is a challenge but it is not a contradiction.

In fact in some ways, an innovative society can help us to develop that sense of solidarity. The innovations that are taking place in the workplace, if we develop our skills well, will blur the distinctions between blue-collar and white-collar workers. If you take look at what is happening in healthcare for instance, nurses will increasingly be able to perform referrals, furnish medication based on accepted protocols, and to manage wards, working collaboratively with other healthcare professionals. The job of the nurse is moving up in skills and it is blurring old distinctions. You see it across a range of other workplaces. With the Internet of Things (IoT), the gaps between factory jobs that involved doing and those involving thinking are blurring. What used to be blue-collar or manual jobs become jobs that involve both doing and thinking at the same time. If we invest in people, invest right in the skills needed for the future, technology can be an enabler for that blurring of jobs and workplace hierarchies.

There’s also a way in which social diversity breeds creative thinking. That’s not just wishful thinking, not just because we like the idea of socially mixed teams. It is decades of research by organisational scientists, psychologists, sociologists and economists. They have found, in a range of settings, that socially mixed and diverse teams turn out to be more innovative. Individuals work harder, think through alternatives to a greater extent, and the team as a whole becomes more creative.

Where do we stand today in Singapore? We are well-rated on innovation, but it is largely because of ‘inputs’ rather than ‘outputs’. We are ranked seventh in the Global Innovation Index but it is largely because our inputs are strong - our framework for protecting intellectual property, our business infrastructure, our school system, these are all inputs to innovation. On innovation outputs, we don’t fare so well. We are 17th in the world. If you look at patents, we are 33rd. Likewise for utility patents, which are patents with an application in industry. That is why what they call ‘innovation efficiency’ – the ratio of innovations inputs to outputs – is actually quite weak in Singapore.

Our performance in innovation doesn’t match our performance in schools, where we are at or near the top of PISA charts. In fact, for countries that are at least in the upper half of the PISA tables, there is very little correlation between PISA scores and innovation. I’m not suggesting we go out of our way to lower our PISA scores! But it takes something more and something different to create an innovative society.

Take countries like Sweden, Switzerland, Netherlands – highly rated for innovativeness in a range of fields. Their PISA scores are not great and can be better, but they are innovative societies. Stockholm has the highest number of unicorns per capita outside of Silicon Valley – private companies that reach a billion US dollars, like Skype and Spotify. It’s in their established companies too. I see the Swedish Ambassador here. I visited Tetra Pak with him last week. It is a leader in manufacturing engineering, because of its constant discipline of innovation. There is something to the Swedish mind-set. They want to do better in their school system and they need to. But there’s something in their society and possibly something in their school system too that leads to that spirit of innovation.

Singapore has a few unicorns. Razer was co-founded by a Singaporean, now centred in the US. In Singapore itself, we have Lazada, SEA (formerly Garena) and Grab - founded by individuals who in fact came originally from Germany, China and Malaysia.

We have to do better in the innovation game. We should make shifts in education and evolve a new culture so that we can be an innovative society.

How are we doing on social mobility? We are still a more mobile society than most. There is greater mobility from one generation to the next. If your parents were in the bottom 20 per cent of incomes, the chance of yourself moving into the top 20 per cent of incomes by the time you are in your 30s is still higher in Singapore. Certainly higher than the US and the UK, and higher than even Denmark which is a more mobile society than most in Europe.

But we like any other mature society find that it gets more difficult over time. Social mobility gets more difficult precisely once meritocracy succeeds in bringing people who started from nothing up to their full potential. Their children are no longer children of poor parents. And those who have succeeded through meritocracy, try to give the very best to their children in the same game - through the home environment, the resources they have, the books they read, the conversations – and you can’t stop that. That’s human nature, that people want the best for their children. You can’t stop parents from trying the best for their children. And they are trying harder than they used to 50 or 60 years ago. The new generation of those who have done well through meritocracy, not by inheriting wealth, work hard on their children – it’s like that in the US, in Europe, in Singapore. No government can stop that urge.

But what it does mean is that we have to work even harder as a society to help those who start with a disadvantage, and especially to help reduce the gaps that begin early in life.

We have been concerned about social clustering in our schools. Mr Lee Kuan Yew made some observations in 2010 about the very different proportions of children with graduate parents in the brand name secondary schools, compared to the typical neighbourhood school. That is a fact, although it is not new. In fact, the proportion of students who come from better-off homes in our top schools has been unchanged for at least the last 15 or 20 years. Nothing much has changed since 2000. But it is not the same as what it was in the old days. We remember our top schools in the 70s and 80s having a broader representation of society. That was the result of the first wave of results from meritocracy.

The social clustering that we now see in Singapore takes place in almost all societies. The clustering of students from better-off backgrounds in the top schools is in fact not much different in Singapore when compared to other countries in the PISA league.

What worries us more is those who start off with the least advantage. We have to give them the best chance to catch up early in life and do well through life.

To tackle these challenges - of creating a broader spirit of innovation in our society, keeping social mobility going and maintaining a strong sense of togetherness in Singapore, we have to keep evolving, and must make shifts in our education system especially.

Fortunately, we are starting from a strong foundation, that allows us to experiment without large risk to our society. It also means that if we are succeeding today, we’ve got to have a measure of humility and circumspection in understanding why we have succeeded, and how we must change for the future. Never think that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. If it isn’t broken, we should experiment. Keep evolving. That’s the way we will secure our future and that’s how we will keep our society strong.

I will mention five areas where important shifts are underway, and where we’ve got to keep the momentum of change in education.

First Shift: Intervening Earlier to Create Fair Chances in Life

First, we want to do more, early in a child’s life, to give everyone a fair chance of success. As some economists put it, we’ve got to mitigate the ‘lottery of birth’. People are born with advantages and disadvantages. There’s no doubt about it – in fact the gaps emerge at the pre-natal stage. There is now hard evidence of those gaps. Fortunately, and this is the silver-lining, neurological studies show that neural growth is malleable to intervention, if it takes place early enough. The first year of life is especially critical, because a child’s brain develops during that early stage of life in remarkable ways – in response to conversation, skin-to-skin contact, every stimuli.

We want to do more as early as possible to help those who start off with a disadvantage. KidSTART is a major initiative, as PM Lee spoke about recently in his National Day Rally. We are going to put full effort into this. Our interventions will also have to continue through the pre-school and primary school years. The benefits of quality pre-schooling, evenly-distributed across the system, will be for every child, but are especially significant for those who start at a disadvantage.

For primary schools, we now have major initiatives underway, on top of what we started many years earlier such as the learning support programmes for those who are lagging behind in basic skills in Primary One and Primary Two. Now we have embarked on the ICAN programme, that will provide more sustained help for low progress students in Mathematics in primary school. This year, we brought ICAN into 120 primary schools.

It is not just about resources, but innovation in education. The Director-General of Education, Mr Wong Siew Hoong, issued this challenge at a recent NIE conference - to develop a pedagogy that reaches the last child of every class.

We are going to do more, and we must succeed, because we must avoid at all costs a permanent underclass in Singapore.

Second Shift: Keeping Pathways Flexible

We need flexible pathways as children grow up. We need different pathways to help different students learn as well as they can. It should avoid rigid differentiation, which creates a sense of separateness as children grow up.

This is an important issue in every system, but more complex than meets the eye. If we avoid differentiating students – put everyone on the same curriculum, in the same schools - that appears egalitarian on the surface but unfortunately turns out to have very unfair outcomes. For example, in France, which believes strongly in ‘égalité’. every student goes through the same curriculum in school. However, in practice, a third of French students going through this homogenous system repeat a year in either primary of secondary school, or sometimes both. And a large number end up leaving high school with no real qualification. It is not about paper qualifications, but the lack of confidence to get on with life and face the marketplace. France produces some of the most innovative minds internationally. But an overly egalitarian form of education also produces inegalitarian outcomes.

We should avoid the extremes of either uniformity or rigid differentiation. We should also avoid thinking we can pre-set the path for a student early in life, based on his observed abilities at that stage. Every path must be porous, allowing you to move from one path to another. And even if you are on a particular path, you are able to be on another path at the same time. That is in fact what we have embarked on.

We did away with streaming in primary schools a decade ago, starting with merging EM1 and EM2, and then doing away with EM3 when we moved to subject-based banding (SBB). We are also moving towards greater fluidity in the secondary school streaming system. Minister Ng Chee Meng announced this year a significant initiative, enabling SBB from the start of Sec 1 in all schools by next year. Those in the Normal (Academic) or Normal (Technical) streams can take subjects at a higher level, starting from Sec One, as long as they have done well in those subjects. Don’t just go by their aggregate scores at the PSLE, but by individual, subject-based abilities. We have started SBB in a range of schools, and I’m glad that more than 80% of the students who were eligible actually took up SBB. As a result, four in ten Normal (Academic) students in those pilot schools are now taking an Express subject from Sec One. Seven in ten Normal (Technical) students are taking a subject at a higher level.

We are doing this because it matches people’s varied abilities - few people are strong in everything and few are weak in everything. So we need to move towards a more modular system rather than one where you are in a separate track for everything you do, weaker or stronger. Move towards a more modular and flexible system - not just flexibility in our schemes, but also the flexibility in our minds, as parents, as teachers and as students, knowing that no one is weak in everything, and that our abilities evolve over time.

Third Shift: Reduce the Academic Load

We have to reduce the academic load in our schools.

We must develop a culture of innovation and creative abilities, and it starts young. But it will only happen if we give more space and time for young minds to develop these traits.

The science of the brain tells us something. The creative mind engages a different part of the brain from that which works on demanding, specific tasks. They are different parts of the brain, exercised at different times. And the science tells us that having the time and space for your mind to wander when you are young is critical in developing creative abilities. It doesn’t happen when you are working on specific, demanding tasks. If we spend a large amount of time working on high-stakes exams, we don’t develop the creative mind well. So we need a mix of activities as we grow up - defined and challenging tasks, as well as space and time for your mind to wander.

The second reason why we need to take out some of the academic load, is that we must provide a diversity of experiences for children as they grow up. These diverse experiences develop the creative mind, but they are also critical in developing the soft skills that come from social mixing. We are giving more emphasis to CCAs. Minister Ng Chee Meng has also announced all schools will have Applied Learning Programs, again different from the regular academic curriculum.

These are important shifts if we are to be a society that is continuously innovating, thinking in original ways, making a mark in new ideas, new products, new processes, new brands.

How do we do it? How do we reduce the academic load? You can’t just abolish subjects - certainly can’t abolish Literature. It is a complex matter, involving not just reductions in curriculum but changes in teaching methods, homework, tests, and admission criteria for the next level. The changes have to go together.

We are changing admission systems – including changes to the PSLE scoring and S1 posting system. We are broadening the DSA system - it will be in all secondary schools - and refining DSA so that schools move away from recognising strong general academic abilities. We are changing admissions in universities, polytechnics and ITEs – these are all important work in progress. Important, because if we don’t change the admission system, parents don’t buy the talk. Otherwise, if we take out academic load from what is taught in schools but the admission systems are unchanged – admissions based on high stakes exams – the private tuition industry goes into overdrive. That’s in the nature of a competitive society. We have to evolve our admission systems, and move towards admitting students on a broader set of merits.

It would still be an intense growing up experience. But the changes we want to make will encourage students to develop themselves in diverse areas, discover a love for different things, and allow their minds to wander.

It will create a broader meritocracy, and in fact a more robust one if we think about what leads to success in future. We must have the conviction that this is the right direction to go, because it will pay off in the years to come - it will better develop the traits that shape an innovative society, and shape contributions in life.

Fourth Shift: Developing our abilities throughout life

We are moving away from front loading when we acquire knowledge, within the first 20 or 25 years of life, towards developing everyone’s abilities and potential through life. We need that if we want an innovative society.

Innovation requires deep mastery of skills, not just intellectual abilities. We need more of that mastery, whichever sector you look at. And mastery comes from experience, from thinking and doing things at the same time, over a long period of time. So we have to develop that mastery, in one field or another, through our lives.

Fortunately, research on the brain tells us that if you stay active, if you keep doing new things, your brain keeps learning and adapting. To use the technical term, the brain retains its plasticity till much later in life than was once thought. It doesn’t stop learning.

What this also allows for is innovative teams comprising with young and old together. Lifelong learning is also an inherently inclusive process. Upskilling everyone, blurring of blue collar and white collar workers over time, and everyone moving up together. It’s unlike the schooling years, where you are often graded on a curve, which means it is your performance relative to others that counts – that’s inevitable in a competitive system. But in the real world of work and global competition, the key challenge is to move up as a team, everyone trying to do better and grow, and the whole curve moves up. That too is a big plus in lifelong learning.

We are still in the early stages of this journey of lifelong learning. We do not yet have a culture amongst employers, of investing in employees for the long term. Everyone says the same thing: ‘employees are the company’s most important assets’. But very few firms actually match this by investing in people for the long term. As a society we need this culture. If you hire people, you have to train them, not just for today’s job but for tomorrow’s jobs. Work with our educational and training institutions. And the government will support you.

Fifth Shift: Deepening multiculturalism

The final shift we have to make is to deepen multiculturalism. This is not just a challenge but real opportunity.

We are a socially harmonious place; we have avoided the major problems seen in so many places in the world. And the world is changing. Even in societies where things were holding very well, things are gradually breaking apart. In our own region, anyone watching the developments knows it is a very different place from 50 years ago.

But we have to deepen multiculturalism, not just for defensive reasons, but for positive reasons. It’s an opportunity. Deepening multiculturalism will deepen our Singaporean identity, and deepen our individual identities.

It’s not about credo, it’s not about pledges, it is not about what we say. It is experiences in life that will deepen multiculturalism. It has to start from young. The beautiful thing about this is that kids love to play, they love dance, and they love sports. We can shape multicultural instincts, if we mix them up early in life.

I think our CCAs are too ethnically-defined in practice, in ways that sometimes puzzles. Football today is different from what it was in 70s and 80s - our national teams used to be more multiracial in those days. Volleyball, basketball, table tennis – the first thing that strikes people – “Chinese” games. But look at the rest of the world. You have all sorts of countries playing basketball, volleyball and table tennis. In our region itself, the Indonesians, the Filipinos, are top in basketball and volleyball. We are trapping ourselves too easily. But it is not difficult to change.

Dunman Secondary is deliberate about this, making basketball and volleyball multi-racial. Jurong Secondary, I remember their girls’ basketball team a few years ago, teammates from four ethnic groups, winning the gold medal in the national championships.

It’s all in the mind. And having a coach that speaks another language – say a Chinese-speaking basketball coach – that’s an advantage, not a disadvantage, because you pick up a conversational language at the same time. These are opportunities, and they are not difficult to take advantage of.

Likewise, the dances – practising three times a week, going through intense training for competitions together, performing in front of the community. It’s always lovely to watch the school dances. You see a Malay dance, with the full grace of a Malay dance, but when you look closely and see there are a couple of Indian or Chinese kids, that’s when you get ‘Getaran Jiwa’, the stirring of the soul. The parents notice it, the children know it, and slowly we realise we are a lot more the same than we thought.

We must do this, not just defensively, not just to guard against what is happening in the rest of the world, but because it is an opportunity to develop and deepen our Singaporean identity. Start young, and shape this with conviction in our schools.

‘‘Mari kita bersatu, dengan semangat yang baru’’

We must make these shifts in education, keep up the momentum of change, and never stay content with past success.

Giving fair chances for every child, early in life, so it matters less who their mothers and fathers are.

Creating flexible pathways for everyone, not just in the design of our schemes but in our minds, never pre-setting the path for any child for all time.

Reducing the academic load to provide more space for that free play of the mind that will develop originality and help make ours an innovative society.

Developing our potential in life, throughout life.

And deepening our multicultural Singaporean identity, and sense of sameness with each other.

It means a new spirit in education. When you think of our anthem, Majulah Singapura, remember “Mari kita bersatu, dengan semangat yang baru” (let us come together with a new spirit). That new spirit was not intended just for the day we became a nation 52 years ago. Every so often we need a new spirit in our society. It’s how we create our future, and how we go forward together.