Education Minister Ng Chee Meng urges students to dare to 'chiong'

He oversees a school system that has just been ranked No. 1 in a prestigious international benchmarking test, but Education Minister in charge of schools Ng Chee Meng is filled with "divine discontent".

There have been many attempts to explain the No. 1 ranking in mathematics, science and reading that 15-year-olds here recently achieved in what is dubbed education's World Cup - the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) conducted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Education experts worldwide have put Singapore's success story under scrutiny and concluded that it is down to rigour, coherence in policy implementation and a culture that prioritises academics. But Mr Ng says the "secret sauce" is the 33,000-strong teaching service.

A 2010 report by global management consulting firm McKinsey praises Singapore's pool of great teachers, achieved by making teaching appealing to its top students with competitive salaries, rigorous training and opportunities to grow professionally.

Clearly proud of the "army" under his purview, Mr Ng says: "Education ministers from other countries often ask me what are the key ingredients. I tell them that we have forward-looking policies and good systems in place. But really the key thing is our teachers and the first-rate work they do.

"You can have the best policies, but without the commitment and dedication of teachers, we will not be able to deliver real outcomes."

But he admits that not all is right, hence his "divine discontent", a phrase Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong used in his National Day Rally Speech to urge Singaporeans to never rest on their laurels.

Part of Mr Ng's concern stems from complaints by employers and company chiefs, who say Singapore workers, despite being technically good and hardworking, do not think out of the box and lack the derring-do to push boundaries.

He feels it is fair criticism and agrees there is a need to break away from the shackles of some parts of local culture - the kiasuism (being afraid to lose out) and kiasism (being timid). Especially when the world is changing so rapidly and disruption is happening all around. "What has afforded success for one generation, may not for another," he says.

He stresses that to thrive in the new economy, Singaporean workers need to move up the value chain. "So an engineer, instead of just being able to work complex machinery, should be able to design one."


So, how does Singapore create workers who can create value?

By nurturing the "entrepreneurial dare" in young Singaporeans.

Mr Ng is quick to add that he does not mean all Singaporeans should become entrepreneurs or businessmen. "It's a mindset. An attitude of wanting to do better, find break- throughs, of wanting to innovate. If I were to use a Hokkien word, it would be chiong, not a reckless chiong, but taking into account the risks involved and doing it anyway."

The nurturing has to start from young, in school.

He has looked at the education systems of the United States and Israel, two nations known for innovation and entrepreneurship. What struck him is the informal learning that goes on alongside the formal learning in their schools.

To explain how informal learning can nurture the traits and qualities making up "entrepreneurial dare", he brings up examples from local schools. One is the so-called "makerspaces" cropping up in schools which teach design thinking to all students. "It's an environment for kids to explore, to create. In the process, some may fail, but failing is part of the route to success," he says.


Another example is the 9m climbing wall in Hougang Primary. Pupils from Primary 3 onwards get to try climbing during PE.

Mr Ng says: "It's just a wall, but it presents so many opportunities to learn things like grit and resilience, cooperation, because you depend on your schoolmates, the belayers who secure climbers at the end of the rope. In the process, they learn how to work as a team, cooperate, communicate and rely on each other. These are the qualities caught through sports like this. It's difficult to do this in the classroom."

He urges parents not to constantly smoothen the pathway for their children, but to allow them to fail and try again. "I am a parent with two daughters, so I know how parents feel. But we all need to take a step back and think if we are really helping our children...

"Parents may have the best intentions, but imagine if this is aggregated over 10 years, until the child is 16 or 18. The child may not have had the necessary experiences to know how to bounce back from failure, a tenacious attitude to overcome obstacles and succeed in life."

He urges a paradigm shift, away from the unhealthy focus on exam grades and getting into top schools. "We all have to ask ourselves: Ultimately, what is education's mission? Is it about exam results? Is it about reaching No. 1 on Pisa? The answer must be 'no'. It's really about helping our children discover the joy of learning and preparing them for the future."

He admits being bothered by the "niggling Pisa question" - why is it that Singapore, despite doing so well in these global tests, does not go on to produce prize-winning scientists, innovators and entrepreneurs such as Steve Jobs? Yet, the US, which is placed much lower than Singapore in such tests, produces world leaders in many fields.

Mr Ng goes back to Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam's response to the same question, when it was posed by CNN journalist Fareed Zakaria several years ago. Mr Tharman had said that, unlike the US, Singapore was an exam meritocracy, not a talent meritocracy, and the US had a culture of learning that challenges conventional wisdom. "These are the areas where Singapore must learn from America," he said.

Mr Ng highlights notable Singaporeans, including Ms Olivia Lum who founded the water treatment firm Hyflux, Mr Sim Wong Hoo who invented the Sound Blaster sound card and founded Creative Technology, and Raffles Institution student Deanna See who last month won a US$250,000 (S$360,000) prize funded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg for her homemade video explaining antibiotic resistance. And declares: "Never say never. I am optimistic. In another 10, 20 years we may have a Joseph Schooling equivalent of a scientist from A*Star...

"The thing is, how do we increase the probability of this happening?

"The way to do it is to keep the academic rigour but build in our students the X-factor - that entrepreneurial dare."


Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng rose from fighter pilot to become Chief of Air Force and then Chief of Defence Force before entering politics in 2015.

He went to the former Hua Yi Primary, The Chinese High for four years, and then Hwa Chong Junior College (the latter two are now Hwa Chong Institution).

He received the Singapore Armed Forces Overseas Training Award and studied electrical engineering at the United States Air Force Academy. In 2002, he obtained a Master of Arts in international relations from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

He and wife Michelle have two daughters.

Q What were your co-curricular activities (CCAs)?

A Swimming and table tennis in primary school. In secondary school, the National Police Cadet Corps. I also trained to be a lifeguard. NPCC was my highlight. It was during that time that I met my wife Michelle, who was in NPCC - and who attended Cedar Girls' - but we didn't date then.

In junior college, I joined the Science Club, won a national schools medal in taekwondo and received my private pilot licence through the Junior Flying Club.

Q How did you cope with so many CCAs and your A levels?

A It was a major juggling act. Thankfully, I had four months to study.

Q And your favourite teacher?

A Madam Salome Chua, my science teacher in Chinese High. She was also my CCA teacher.

She provided a loving environment for a boisterous bunch of boys, and took time to share her life journey and values.

I still keep in touch with her. Her dedication and commitment to ensure we had the best outcomes were really heartwarming.

Q What was your favourite subject?

A My favourite in primary school was PE - no need to study. When I grew older, science was my favourite. Languages were never my forte.



"With the wider scoring bands, students should typically have six to eight good schools with different strengths to choose from. And we are hoping that parents will look at the interests and budding talents of their children and choose schools that will nurture them in these other areas as well. We hope to shift parents' mindsets where parents recognise that, yes, building a strong academic core is still important, but there are other aspects ... that would make a big difference."


"It was started to find different pathways for kids to express their talents in other areas. It is not for those with general academic abilities, because you have the PSLE for that. So the rationale is anchored on creating multiple pathways. And we must go back to this original rationale."


"I'm always saddened whenever I read of such a case. I am a father, it really saddens me.

"When we work with the Institute of Mental Health to understand the factors, psychiatrists tell us that suicide is a very complex issue and many a time it's multi-causal.

"Academic stresses play a part, but issues like family relations and boy-girl relationships can have great impact on a young mind. So we have put in counsellors across all schools. We have trained our teachers to recognise early symptoms and do the necessary referrals. Through sports and activities, we hope to build students' coping ability and resilience."

This article was first published on Jan 08, 2017.
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