SINGAPORE - While changes to the system have to be bold, they must also be wise, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said in Parliament on Tuesday (May 15).
He said any changes have to take into consideration the diverse views of all segments of society which are conflicting and complex.
"We must be bold and we must also be wise," he said in a speech which focused on inequality, on the second day of debates on the President's Address.
"The phrase 'bold changes' in the President's Address received a lot of attention. While we should be bold, we should not be reckless, for this would undo what had worked and undermine the fundamentals in our system. All these have served our students well over the years," he said.
He cited the example of streaming - the sorting of students into different courses according to academic performance.
While some have argued that streaming should be abolished to remove the stigma of the Normal stream, Mr Ong said that it should not be assumed that all students want to be in the Express stream.
"They (the students) will tell you they prefer to be a big fish in a smaller pond, rather than a small fish in a bigger pond," he said.
Some prefer the pace of learning in the Normal streams, and their views should not be ignored. For example, he said many students in the Normal (Technical) course feel that the applied and hands-on curriculum plays to their strength.
Mr Ong said: "Remember, stigma is not an education policy, but the result of our own attitudes and biases."
He also acknowledged the call for the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) to be abolished as it brings stress and unfairness, as those from better family backgrounds can afford more help and prepare their children better for the exam.
But Mr Ong said that many parents actually support the PSLE as it teaches their children the value of hard work, and lets them showcase all that they have learned.
It is also seen as an objective and transparent way to decide the secondary schools children go to, while children from humble backgrounds can make it to a school of their choice. The alternative of using residential locations is even more unfair, said Mr Ong.
He added that when the PSLE T-score system is replaced with Achievement Levels from 2021, students will not be differentiated so finely during the Secondary 1 posting. For students with similar scores, citizenship, choice and ballot will be used to break the tie.
Said Mr Ong: "I am confident that this will reduce the stress of students and help them enjoy learning more."
In his speech, Mr Ong also addressed calls for universal welfare to be introduced to ease inequality. Proponents argue that providing assistance to not just the low-income, but also the middle-income will remove the stigma linked to social assistance, and preserve the dignity of the low-income.
However, Mr Ong warned that implementing universal welfare would mean that tax rates would have to be raised.
He noted that half of Singapore's population do not pay personal income taxes, and the Goods and Services Tax "is still a single-digit".
"If we want universal welfare, taxes on ordinary folks, including the middle-income, will have to be much higher," he said.