by Ng Jing Yng
SINGAPORE – With countries producing more graduates than before, it will inevitably take more than only paper qualifications for Singaporeans to hold their own, let alone stand out, in the global marketplace.
And Education Minister Heng Swee Keat (picture) hopes that Singaporeans’ character and non-academic traits will become their competitive advantage.
In an interview with this newspaper last Friday, Mr Heng said: “You’ll find that skills become a lot more globalised … The question we have to ask ourselves is what will differentiate Singaporeans (and) convince somebody that the average Singaporean can do a better job than the average worker elsewhere?”
He added: “A lot of that is how well do we work as a team: Do we spend our time quarrelling with one another or do we spend our energies productively? Are we just being critical and say so-and-so does a lousy job? Do we come together and brainstorm … find a more creative, innovative solution in order to do better?”
At the Ministry of Education (MOE) workplan seminar last month, Mr Heng called on schools to refocus on developing character and instilling values in students.
To that end, Mr Heng unveiled several initiatives including a new Character and Citizenship Education (CCE) curriculum and a dedicated CCE branch.
Mr Heng reiterated that the moves serve as a reminder: “It is not as if over the years, MOE has forgotten about moral education, character development.
“It’s just that as our society changes … children today are more exposed to a wide variety of influences and they spend a lot of time on computers with their peers unlike in our old kampung days where we spend a lot of time with grandparents.”
Mr Heng also pointed out that the emphasis on character and values is “mutually reinforcing” with academic work.
“If you teach a certain set of values about hard work, determination, caring for other people, there is a certain ethos,” said Mr Heng.
Away from the individual, the focus on values and character is also “central to us as a society because it not just about doing well economically, its how we want to see ourselves as a society”.
The former Monetary Authority of Singapore managing director, who became a Member of Parliament after May’s General Election and was subsequently appointed Cabinet minister, stressed that the existing education system is sound and “quick fixes” are not needed.
Said Mr Heng: “We have a very good education system, admired around the world (by) employers, parents, even students themselves.”
Reiterating the need to stick to fundamentals, Mr Heng noted: “We should not be faddish and just copy whatever there is in other systems.”
And Mr Heng rejected suggestions that the new initiatives were in response to an increasingly vocal electorate.
Asked if he felt any pressure to introduce changes to the education system – in the current political climate – Mr Heng reiterated: “I stick to a very simple principle: Whatever that we do must be for the long-term interests of Singaporeans … so it is not a matter of, well, there are a group of people who want change and we will make changes just to be popular.”
“Education is a very serious, long-term endeavour … I am very open to getting new ideas from new sources. But at the end of the day, we have to be very clear, this is not a popularity contest, it is about doing the right thing for Singaporeans.”