Schools must be conducive environments for students to learn to be inventors, beyond just solving problems, said Acting Minister for Education (Schools) Ng Chee Meng yesterday.
They are also places where young hearts are nurtured, so they feel connected to the country.
This must be done for Singapore to continue doing well in the future, he told about 500 principals at an annual appointment and appreciation ceremony at Shangri-La Hotel. A total of 63 principals were appointed, with 22 of them new to the job.
Raising thought-provoking questions - for which, he said, there were no easy solutions - Mr Ng urged school leaders to think deeply about their roles as educators, and challenged them to give students the space to innovate and take risks.
He said Singapore had built a strong education system, but it must stay relevant and not rest on its laurels. He said the country needed more home-grown entrepreneurs who have gone on to the world stage, such as water services company Hyflux's founder Olivia Lum, and Mr Tan Min-Liang, co-founder and chief executive of gaming company Razer.
"Very few education systems worldwide have achieved this capability of developing innovators," he said, adding that people tend to think of school leaders and teachers as "traditionally conservative and risk-averse".
But Mr Ng, who oversees pre-schools, primary and secondary schools, and the junior college level, said the leadership must allow students to push boundaries, and provide them with an environment that motivates them to contribute to society.
Schools should equip students with curiosity and the ability to spot the needs and gaps not everyone will see, he said. Schools must also go beyond imparting "head knowledge" through history and social studies lessons and help students feel a sense of commitment and belonging to Singapore.
Also honoured yesterday were 15 senior education officials retiring at the end of the year. One of them, Madam Teo Chwee Kee, 62, had been principal of Woodlands Ring Secondary School for nine years.
"I made up my mind in primary school to be a teacher because I had a very caring form teacher who inspired me," said Madam Teo, who spent 40 years across six schools.
"I liked relating to secondary school students most as I could see them grow physically and emotionally in the four or five years, and when they graduate, you know you have added value to their lives."
Mrs Celine Ng, 56, who was Rosyth School's principal for a decade, will now head Bedok Green Primary School. "It's not about bringing everything over wholesale but analysing the school's current practices and identifying opportunities to strengthen them," she said.
She hopes to encourage pupils and teachers to have the confidence to take risks and try new ways of teaching and learning, for instance, helping subject departments to work together and tap each other's resources.
Mr Shane Kwok, 39, the newly appointed principal of Tampines Secondary School, said he wants students to be ready for the future.
"It's not just preparing them academically, but helping them gain competencies such as being good communicators, creative thinkers and having a global mindset," said the former vice-principal of Innova Junior College.