President Tony Tan Keng Yam said yesterday that he was saddened by a recent claim that he was not supportive of funding vocational education when he was Education Minister.
"I did not make any such remarks. The claim is very hurtful because when I was a Cabinet minister, the education of children was very close to my heart," he said.
"For that reason, when I was Education Minister, I increased support for the education of all students, with a particular focus on children in polytechnics and ITE, or what was then the VITB," he added, referring to the Vocational and Industrial Training Board.
"It is, therefore, very sad that such a thing should be said about me," Dr Tan told reporters on a visit to Spectra Secondary School in Woodlands.
He made the comments when asked for his response to remarks by architect Tay Kheng Soon. Mr Tay had told a forum organised by the Singapore Democratic Party last month that Dr Tan was not supportive of increased funding for polytechnics and the Institute of Technical Education (ITE).
Mr Tay claimed Dr Tan had made the negative comments to his brother, the late Dr Tay Eng Soon, who was Senior Minister of State for Education from 1988 to 1993 and oversaw vocational education. Dr Tan was Education Minister from 1980 to 1981, and 1985 to 1991.
Mr Tay's remarks were dismissed by former Senior Minister S. Jayakumar yesterday.
Professor Jayakumar told The Straits Times: "It is absurd. I never heard Tony Tan make disparaging remarks about poly and VITB students. On the contrary, whenever we discussed polys and VITB in Cabinet or pre-Cabinet, I recall that as Education Minister he always made a strong plug for government support for these institutions."
Mr Lee Yock Suan, who became Education Minister after Dr Tan, similarly said he saw first-hand Dr Tan's efforts to improve opportunities for poly and ITE students.
"He initiated the move to establish Nanyang Polytechnic and upgrade VITB to ITE," said Mr Lee.
"I knew from my conversations with him that he felt deeply that they should be given every opportunity to succeed in life. This is, therefore, not a man who would have made the remarks that have been attributed to him," he added.
The Ministry of Education (MOE) said yesterday that Dr Tan oversaw major developments in the poly and ITE sector as Education Minister. "In anticipation of increasingly larger cohorts of post-secondary students and growing manpower needs, Temasek Polytechnic and Nanyang Polytechnic were set up in 1990 and 1992 respectively," a spokesman said. VITB was also upgraded and rebranded as ITE, a full- fledged institution focusing on technical and vocational education, in 1992.
The spokesman added that from 1986 to 1992, government spending per student rose 48 per cent in the polys, and 58 per cent in the ITE. At the same time, enrolment shot up by 68 per cent in the polys, and 21 per cent in the ITE.
Yesterday, Dr Tan, when touring Spectra, visited English, maths and science classes. Spectra is one of two schools for students in the Normal (Technical) stream who are less academically inclined.
Dr Tan also visited facilities such as a retail room modelled after a FairPrice supermarket, and a hospitality room that looks like a hotel room. Students learn vocational skills like mechanical servicing on top of English, their mother tongue and maths. He was impressed by the customised and down-to-earth education and added: "The students are all very lively, very happy and learning a great deal."
He said schools like Spectra provide different pathways to success. "It's not just one narrow road where if you fall off, you are finished. There are many alternate ways. MOE and the Government will always be there to help you."