Speech by Mr Goh Chok Tong, Senior Minister, at Chung Cheng High School’s 70th Anniversary Dinner , 27 June 2009, 8:00 pm at The Suntec Singapore Ballroom

27 June 2009

“Growing Wings and Roots”

1.        Chung Cheng’s founding precedes the independence of our country. With a 70 year old history, it has nurtured leaders in many fields such as politics, business, arts, culture and community service. I am happy to see so many Chung Cheng Alumni and friends this evening to celebrate the school’s 70th anniversary.

The “New Normal”

2.        Education shapes individual lives, impacts communities and underpins the rise of nations. Countries that better educate their citizens today will out-perform others tomorrow. A constant challenge for educators is therefore to peer far into the future when working out what and how to teach our young.

3.        But this is easier said than done. If there is anything that we have learnt from the events of the past year, it is that predicting the future based on past performance is simply inviting disappointment and disillusionment. For example, few could have foreseen the precipitous collapse of venerable financial institutions in the US and Europe or that some well-connected fund managers could deceive investors through Ponzi schemes on such a grand scale for such a long time.

4.        Looking ahead, after this global financial and economic crisis has passed, the world would have changed in fundamental ways. Consumption in developed economies will decline relative to that in emerging economies. We can also expect some regulatory and policy changes which will have far-reaching impact. Already, the United States is making changes to its tax laws that will disadvantage American MNCs which have invested or are investing overseas. While the contours of the “new normal” are still being formed, tonight, I would like to highlight three features of the post-crisis world that are of relevance to educators in Singapore.

5.        First, in spite of signs of political backlash and creeping protectionism in the US and Europe, when the global economy gets over its current difficulties, globalisation will continue unabated. The advances in transportation and information technologies that have allowed investments, jobs and people to become highly mobile not only cannot be rolled back, but will become even more entrenched. In Thomas Friedman’s words, “The World is Flat” – so flat that our children in Singapore will increasingly be competing against children in Shanghai, Seoul, Stockholm, Sao Paolo, and San Francisco.

6.        Second, China and India will continue to rise. China’s on-going developments are breath-taking. India, fresh from a strong electoral mandate, will press on with reforms. With a combined population of one third of humanity, the rise of these two emerging economies will present new economic opportunities for us.

7.        Third, in the “new normal”, the competition for talent will intensify. Paradoxically, the very forces causing the world to be “flat” are also making the world more “spiky”, a metaphor coined by Richard Florida[1] to describe the cities that claim a disproportionate share of skilled talent, innovative capacity and wealth creation. In a recent study of 40 of these “spikes”, it was found that they cover only a small fraction of the world’s inhabited land and are home to less than one-fifth of the world’s population. Yet, they account for two-thirds of global economic output and about 85% of technological and scientific innovation. More importantly, these thriving cities are magnets for highly driven and talented people.

The role of schools

8.        Given these three features, how should our schools prepare our students? What roles can schools like Chung Cheng play? I see three challenges for MOE and our schools. First, we need to produce students who are world-ready – students who are informed about local and global affairs; students who are able to navigate in an emerging Asia and yet understand Western thought and management systems; and students who are capable of leading overseas businesses whether in the West or Asia.

9.        Second, we want our students to be imbued with entrepreneurial spirit to push boundaries, try new ideas, adapt to change and seize new opportunities. If we are to successfully tap into the growth in emerging economies like China, Vietnam, Russia and the Middle East, our students will need the confidence and sense of adventure to step outside their comfort zone and to operate in environments which are not as structured and orderly as Singapore’s.

10.        But here we face a conundrum. When we prepare our students to be entrepreneurial and world-ready, we are also growing wings on them. Already, some 180,000 Singaporeans are currently working, living or studying overseas. This number will grow.

11.        The trends are even more striking at the top end where we have been tracking the bright students with at least 4As and a B3 in General Paper at the GCE A-level examinations. Of the bright students[2] of the 1996-1999 GCE A-level graduating cohorts, more than one-fifth of them are not working in Singapore a decade later. Of those bright students who studied overseas without a scholarship bond, more than one-third are not working in Singapore today. This is all the more worrying as our continued investments in schools have produced more bright students with each passing year. In 1996, the number of local students with at least 4As and a B3 in General Paper was 541. By 2008, this number has more than doubled to 1,263. If more and more of our bright students do not return, this begs the question whether our success in giving them wings to fly far and high will result in our eventual decline as a nation, especially as we are not even reproducing ourselves. No nation will be able to sustain its growth and prosperity without sufficient talent, much less a small country like Singapore without natural resources.

12.        Clearly, this dilemma cannot be resolved by rolling back our push to equip our young to embrace globalisation. We must accept the reality that this is a new generation and their opportunities are truly global. Rather than shrink back from giving them the best education, we should applaud our youth who wish to live and work abroad to gain new knowledge and experience and to understand other cultures.

13.        Of course, as more and more Singaporeans go overseas for prolonged periods, some may choose to settle in foreign countries because of work or marriage or for other reasons. What we must try to achieve is to retain their emotional bonds to Singapore; so that they think of Singapore as the home which nurtured them, and want to contribute in some ways to the country of their birth. This is best done in schools, while they are young.

14.        Therefore, the third, and I consider this the most important, challenge for our schools is to grow roots in our students just as we are growing their wings. Our young must appreciate that their advancement is made possible by the society they grew up in; the sacrifices of those who came before them; the opportunities which were created for them; and the investments of their parents, their teachers, their community and their government. They should not take the programmes to expose them to academic, sports, aesthetic and cultural pursuits, both in and outside Singapore, for granted. These are opportunities that many children around the world do not have. With roots firmly entrenched in Singapore, they will maintain strong links with their schools and close ties with their friends; they will have a strong sense of responsibility to their families and emotional bonds with Singapore.

15.        The Chinese put it this way: “饮水思源”,or, using my metaphor, remember your roots. Put in another way, it means having the Singapore Heartbeat – that wherever Singaporeans are, they will always be ready to contribute to the future of Singapore in big or small ways; that although their strong wings may take them far away, they will always return to the land of their birth. For that land nurtured them when they were young and laid the foundation for their future success.


16.        To conclude, I hope Chung Cheng and our schools will give two lasting bequests to our children. One is strong wings; the other, deep roots. Like wild geese -“大雁” - that migrate each fall, young Singaporeans should be equipped with the courage, strength and adaptability to venture to distant lands in search of opportunities. But when spring returns, they will come back, as this is their home.

17.        Chung Cheng has nurtured talent and given strong wings to many Singaporeans. To the Chung Cheng community gathered here today, it is good to see the Alumni’s commitment to give back to their old school. This shows that Chung Cheng has given its students deep roots as well. Congratulations on your 70th anniversary, and best wishes for the next lap.

18.        Thank you.
[1]    Richard Florida wrote “The World is Spiky” in the October 2005 edition of the Atlantic Monthly in response to Thomas Friedman’s book “The World is Flat”. Florida, the author of The Flight of the Creative Class, is the Hirst Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University.
[2]    Local students with at least 4 “A”s and B3 in General Paper.