S'pore students should develop diverse strengths to navigate more complex world: Chan Chun Sing

Mr Chan Chun Sing noted that seven out of 10 students in a Primary One cohort progress to the polytechnics and ITE. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - To navigate an increasingly complex and competitive world, Singapore students have to pursue more diverse interests and capabilities, beyond what is taught and tested in schools.

How far the Republic can move in this direction and away from an overemphasis on academic grades depends on educators, parents and societal culture at large, said Education Minister Chan Chun Sing on Monday (Aug 16).

Highlighting diversity as key to alleviating the "unhealthy stress" of pursuing the same definition of success, he spoke of the need for diverse schools, education pathways, skills, perspectives and experiences.

Mr Chan also highlighted the need for a diversity of schools with unique propositions to cater to different students.

He noted that seven out of 10 students in a Primary 1 cohort progress to the polytechnics and Institute of Technical Education, and Second Minister for Education Maliki Osman is leading a review to ensure their education and training enable them to remain competitive in the job market.

Mr Chan stressed the important role played by teachers and called on them to be "critical thinkers and communicators" who "read extensively, learn widely and reflect continuously".

"We should also explore giving them more exposure beyond school - by supporting them in taking frequent sabbaticals or short stints in the private, public or people sectors to refresh their perspectives and renew their skillsets," he added.

But he also warned that teaching and testing more do not equate to learning more. "We will need to re-examine the way we teach and test. What ultimately matters is not how much our students know, but how fast they learn, and how able they are to adapt to an ever-changing environment."

Mr Chan, who is also minister-in-charge of the public service, was addressing more than 1,500 public officers at a virtual forum organised by the Public Service Division and Civil Service College.

In a wide-ranging speech on Singapore's strategies to both survive and thrive in the future, the minister noted that beyond formal, foundational schooling, the "game-changer" of global competition would be in lifelong and early childhood education.

"(Adult) learners must feel that the training programmes make a real difference to their employment outcomes," Mr Chan added. "Critically, our institutes of higher learning, or IHLs, and their staff must remain current and relevant. Perhaps we should see them more as institutes of continuous learning!"

He said that while the Government could lower barriers with incentives like lifetime credits, employer support was just as vital - although ultimately, individuals must have the desire and drive to keep learning.

In the realm of pre-school education and care, higher costs can be a worry for young parents, but the Government will continue to find ways to reduce such pressures and enable a seamless transition between pre-schools and schools, said Mr Chan.

He also described students from disadvantaged and vulnerable backgrounds as of utmost importance.

With the disruption brought about by technological changes, globalisation and the Covid-19 pandemic often felt most acutely by them and their families, education must remain an uplifting force and beacon of hope for this group, said Mr Chan.

He spoke of a "life-cycle approach" to strengthening programmes starting from child development support to family-level interventions during schooling years, and extending them to post-graduation career guidance and mentoring.

The Uplift Community Pilot in four towns, which brings together schools, community partners and government agencies, has seen better attendance in eight in 10 students involved, and will be further strengthened, he said. Learning support schemes for reading and mathematics will also be enhanced to support more students.

"Education must remain a key enabler to counter the social and economic stratification that happens if forces of inequality are left unfettered," Mr Chan stressed.

The Government will announce plans to help the least privileged students and families in the coming months, he added.

Bold economic choices needed

The minister had, in his speech, earlier noted Singapore's core challenges of geopolitical uncertainty, technological disruption and a population with increasingly diverse aspirations.

"We must not let any community fall behind or feel like they have been excluded from the Singapore story," Mr Chan stressed.

Singapore has agency over its choices and bold economic decisions must be made to secure its future, he said, pointing to the areas of connectivity, growth opportunities, a global talent network and job creation.

First, while the world may become more protectionist, Singapore must remain open and connected. Digital connectivity will now be critical and regulatory connectivity is being enhanced - efforts that will position Singapore as a safe harbour for long-term investments.

Second, Singapore must double-down on investment areas that entrench the country at strategic points in global supply and value chains.

"We will target areas where we can develop deep niche expertise and where our skills would not be easily displaced," said Mr Chan.

Third, with businesses gravitating to where the talent network is most dense and connected, Singapore will have to focus on building a global innovation and knowledge network.

"Any country or city aspiring to be a global hub will have to move past the debate on foreign-local worker balance... We need the best ideas and talent to compete on our side," said the minister, who also noted the need to adapt to the increasing prevalence of remote work.

Fourth - and most importantly, said Mr Chan - all Singaporeans will be taken care of, by the creation of a wide range of jobs offering several pathways for those with different aspirations and skills.

"We also must make sure workers earn a dignified wage and that our growth is inclusive," he added. "Our concern is not just their starting pay, but also continued wage growth - to ensure that the income gap does not widen over time, nor make them feel unable to keep pace with the rest of society."

"Every generation must feel that they have good opportunities regardless of their starting points," Mr Chan said. "This is what makes Singapore distinctive."

There are fundamental - and valid - concerns on whether Singaporeans are prepared for the future and if lives will get better, he noted.

"The Government will be here to enable Singaporeans to achieve their dreams. We have a vision and a concrete plan. We have the will and resolve to deliver," said Mr Chan, adding that the "Singapore Spirit" would chart a path in an uncertain world.

This, he said, is "a spirit of determination that does not allow circumstances to define us... Our destiny is determined by our hard work and wits.

"A forward-looking spirit that builds on our shared values of meritocracy, incorruptibility and multiracialism... A spirit of care that looks out for one another and to move forward together, regardless of the challenges."

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