Singapore's pragmatic education principles of the past 50 years, focused on bilingualism, engaged learning and lifelong skills, are even more relevant today as the nation prepares the young for a constantly changing future, said Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong.
Speaking at the Global HR Forum 2015 in Seoul yesterday, he also emphasised the importance of education reforms to support the needs of the changing society and economy.
"Our wish is for our young people to remain driven and motivated to seek mastery in all that they do, so they can learn new skills throughout their careers and lives, and remain adaptable and thrive in a rapidly changing world," he said.
Drawing on Singapore's experience, he described how the island transformed its Third World education system in the post-independence era into the present First World system with leading universities and vocational institutions.
While the early years were focused on basic education and the importance of bilingualism, he said a new vision called "Thinking Schools, Learning Nation" was introduced in 1997 to address future trends, including globalisation and a rapidly changing economy. "The education system had to shift from this to more engaged learning, discovery through experiences and the learning of lifelong skills," he added.
Efforts towards lifetime employability have intensified, noted ESM Goh. Just last year, Singapore started a national movement called SkillsFuture to create opportunities for people to develop new skills.
He also gave the example of how pharmaceutical research was deemed a future growth sector and words like genome were introduced as early as in primary school.
However, he noted that a consistent, long-term education policy can be maintained only in a stable political system like Singapore's where the same party has ruled for decades.
There are also traps to be wary of, like rising graduate unemployment due to slowing economic growth - a problem currently plaguing South Korea, where youth unemployment hit a high of 10 per cent earlier this year. Singapore's below-30 unemployment rate was 4.5 per cent in March.
To counter this, ESM Goh said Singapore resisted increasing university places too quickly and encouraged students to pursue "diverse pathways to success" through skills-based learning at polytechnics and vocational institutes.
A wide range of skills, from Web design to aircraft engineering to cooking, is now being taught at these institutions, he added.
Singapore is also trying to inculcate the spirit of inquiry in its youth and getting students to ask more questions instead of merely following instructions, he said, and it helps that information is so readily available on smart devices.
"We may be bringing up a new generation who think with their fingers... What will that generation be like? I don't know. But they can multi-task very well and do many things at one time," he said.
While in Seoul, ESM Goh also met the ruling Saenuri Party's chairman Kim Moo Sung at the National Assembly Building.
They discussed the similarities between Singapore and South Korea and agreed that the two countries can become good partners in growing their respective economies and contributing to the international community, said local reports.