Ong Ye Kung to helm Ministry of Education, which will revert to having one minister

Minister Ong Ye Kung will take over the schools portfolio from Mr Ng Chee Meng on May 1.
Minister Ong Ye Kung will take over the schools portfolio from Mr Ng Chee Meng on May 1.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - He called for a national conversation on the issue of inequality at a youth dialogue earlier this month. Now, he is poised to do more to address the problem when he takes full charge of the Ministry of Education (MOE) next month.

Mr Ong Ye Kung, 48, who oversees higher education and skills at MOE, will take over the schools portfolio from Mr Ng Chee Meng on May 1, when the ministry reverts to having only one minister.

Mr Ng was appointed deputy secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress on Monday (April 23), and is expected to take over as labour chief from Mr Chan Chun Sing who is returning to Government.

As part of the Cabinet reshuffle announced on Tuesday, Mr Ong will relinquish his appointment as Second Minister for Defence.

He will also give up his position as minister-in-charge of public service innovation.

The job will be given to Mr Chan when he becomes the minister-in-charge of the public service along with being the Minister for Trade and Industry.

In a Facebook post on Tuesday (April 24), Mr Ong said Mr Ng has made "bold, significant moves" in education such as revamping the Primary School Leaving Examination scoring system and doing away with general academic ability tests in the Direct School Admissions Scheme.

"I will build upon the strong foundation laid by my predecessors, and continue to improve our education system. Education has been, and will continue to be, an uplifting and integrating force in society."

He added: "I look forward to working with our dedicated teachers and staff to achieve this."

Widely seen as one of three front runners to be the next Prime Minister, Mr Ong has been tasked with reshaping how people approach learning since he joined the Cabinet soon after being elected as Sembawang GRC MP in the 2015 general election.

The former chief executive of Singapore Workforce Development Agency, the predecessor of Workforce Singapore, Mr Ong has expanded aptitude-based admissions and lifelong opportunities in an increasingly diverse higher education landscape during his time as Education Minister (Higher Education and Skills).

He has also been a strong proponent of shifting the focus of the education system away from academic qualifications to skills and aptitude.

 
 
 
 

This philosophy could now be applied further upstream, in pre-tertiary schools.

Some recently-announced policy moves that he will implement include the scrapping of general academic tests in the direct school admissions scheme, which will start in March next year, as well as an increase in the number of MOE Kindergartens, set to hit 50 by 2023.

In his role driving innovation in the public service, Mr Ong has called on civil servants to "think big, start small, act fast". Some observers are hoping to see this slogan applied to the education system in an age of disruption.

Although Singapore's students topped global charts in mathematics, science and reading in a 2015 study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, it also suggested they score high on test anxiety.

Mr Ong, who is in Hong Kong on an official visit at the invitation of the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office, has been stepping up engagement with schools lately.

Last week, he attended a dialogue with students from Raffles Institution, at which he addressed such issues as the relevance of the arts and humanities, soft skills and bridging socio-economic inequality.

Singapore Management University provost Lily Kong cheered that the MOE will have continuity with Mr Ong at the helm.

"Even while there was clearly close coordination (between Mr Ng and Mr Ong)... to have Mr Ong now overseeing the entire ministry will ensure the whole educational journey can be addressed still more holistically and seamlessly."

Mr Bruce Poh, former chief executive of the Institute of Technical Education (ITE), said Mr Ong is decisive and those who work with him enjoy doing so.

"He always had a soft spot for ITE students and communicates well with them. When he visited the ITE colleges, for example, he took up a challenge from design students to sketch a Darth Vader cartoon to drive home the importance of skills.

"He knows his audience and there is no doubt that he can do this with pre-schoolers, primary and secondary school students as well."

National Institute of Education don Jason Tan added that he hopes to see Mr Ong make bold moves in revamping examination and admission processes to reduce the over-emphasis on academic achievement.

"When he was in higher education, he pushed universities to offer vocational training for working adults, which was not easy to pull off as it is disruptive to their operations. I don't think he will shy away from implementing potentially controversial moves in education, if it is necessary."