Singapore in midst of far-reaching revolution in education

Education Minister Ong Ye Kung with moderator Tan Su Shan, managing director and group head of consumer banking and wealth management at DBS Bank, at a dialogue at the Singapore Summit at Shangri-La Hotel yesterday.
Education Minister Ong Ye Kung with moderator Tan Su Shan, managing director and group head of consumer banking and wealth management at DBS Bank, at a dialogue at the Singapore Summit at Shangri-La Hotel yesterday.ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

Ong Ye Kung cites push for lifelong as well as hands-on learning, helping next generation to find, grow strengths

Information can be searched for easily nowadays by going online, but it is "hard to Google skills". And that, explained Education Minister Ong Ye Kung, is why Singapore is undergoing a quiet, but far-reaching, revolution in education.

Addressing about 400 business and thought leaders from around the world at yesterday's opening of the Singapore Summit, Mr Ong highlighted the push for lifelong learning, helping the next generation discover and grow their strengths, and shifting to more applied learning.

But he also admitted that there is still a lot of work to do, including focusing less on academic teaching and examination scores, and more on cultivating creativity and critical thinking.

"Whatever changes we make in schools today, we will not see the effects until maybe 20 years later. These effects can be profound, influencing an entire generation," Mr Ong said.

With rapid advances in technology spurring increasing industry disruptions, learning is no longer a matter of 15 or 20 years in the formative period of a person's life.

And as knowledge becomes more accessible, there is also less need to front-load knowledge in the early years of education.

Instead, human skills, including essential soft skills, carry a premium, he said, adding that to encourage a lifelong pursuit of learning requires inculcating a sense of curiosity and passion.


Our responsibility as younger ministers is to be more in touch with the changes, the hopes and dreams of younger people, that I see in all the undergraduates, polytechnic graduates, ITE graduates. They have different goals, different dreams, different from the past generation. And we have to connect with them, match it to the kind of environment they will grow up in, and be able to come up with a plan for the future, a course of action... It was what previous generations had done, and I think that aspect of governance has not changed.

EDUCATION MINISTER ONG YE KUNG, on how he, as a fourth-generation (4G) leader, can help young people navigate disruption and uncertainty.

"So, we launched a national movement, called SkillsFuture, to promote these ideas," said Mr Ong.

"We instituted a systemic process to help our young, starting from primary school, to progressively discover their strengths, grow their interests and guide them on possible career paths."

This continues at the post-secondary level by providing multiple pathways to cater to students with diverse talent and strengths. When they join the workforce, "we have a comprehensive system to meet their upgrading needs".

He highlighted how the National University of Singapore announced in March that completing a three-to four-year degree course will no longer mark the end of studying.

Instead, enrolment will be for 20 years, with alumni returning periodically to update their knowledge and skills.

But driving this is a love for learning, a point Mr Ong returned to during the question-and-answer session after his speech.

Asked how education may have to change as jobs are transformed by technology, he stressed that certain fundamentals will remain the same, including starting with a foundation of values, literacy and numeracy skills.

"Without these three, it is difficult to learn anything else," he said, adding that he is not "a big fan of teaching students coding when they are very young" because by the time they grow up, the language will become obsolete.


Nurturing a greater joy of learning is also important, and this includes inquiry-based teaching, which helps students absorb lessons better. "And we need to somehow reduce the overemphasis on academic grades. We will figure out a way," Mr Ong said.

When it was pointed out to him that "you can't move a taxi driver into a high-tech job overnight", he brought up the example of Changi Airport's Terminal 4, which began operations last year.

It allows passengers a start-to-end automated process, from checking in to baggage tagging and aircraft boarding.

So, instead of having many customer service officers behind counters, they are out interacting and serving customers. "Therefore, you still need people," Mr Ong said.

"Someone said this... you don't teach someone to be a second-grade robot; teach them to be a first-grade human," he added.

Asked about inclusiveness to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in Singapore, Mr Ong said they go about their lives just like anyone else, without discrimination. People here, however, are split when it comes to legislative changes.

He added: "Some things, we leave it to society to decide over time."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 15, 2018, with the headline 'S'pore in midst of far-reaching revolution in education'. Print Edition | Subscribe