Giving people confidence and encouragement important

DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam shares his thoughts on SINDA’s programmes, integration and coping with change.
PHOTO: Tamil Murasu

Q: Do you think SINDA's core mission in education should change or evolve?

A: I would say that SINDA's core mission should remain very firmly centred on education. And there is still more that we can do there. I think we've got quite a good foundation of programmes, but we are still evolving.

Moving increasingly towards school-based programmes, working closely with the school to have our coaches and mentors as well as tutorials within the school itself, apart from our STEP centres.

That rebalancing is gradually taking place. It cannot be all school based because you cannot be in every single school. We also need centralised centres. But we are growing our school-based programmes, focusing on certain schools where we think they are especially useful.

In education, it's not just the technical side of mathematics, or of any subject, that matters. Motivation is important, and motivation intrinsically is a psychological and social issue.

Giving people the confidence to know that they can achieve something, the encouragement to stay on the path is extremely important. Helping the family, and parents especially, to encourage their children, to motivate their children, to keep a check on their children is also extremely important. The motivational side of learning, not just the technical side, is important. These two should go hand in hand.

This means that we take quite seriously issues to do with the family and helping the family through difficult times. And give motivational talks both to students and parents.

I believe we have to do more to help parents, particularly those whose kids are not faring as well. Their parents are often quite stretched for time themselves and just don't feel equipped to help their children.

We have to find ways of helping them either by volunteers stepping in and providing additional support, or by advising the parents also on what they can do to provide a conducive environment at home for their children to do what is required in their studies.

We must also encourage our kids to be more involved in co-curricular activities (CCAs). Indian kids, historically, were active in CCA. I think there's a lot more scope for them to take CCA seriously today, in all our schools. Not just to have their own informal activities with their friends, but to get involved in competitive CCAs. It is, I think, something that should be taken seriously. Parents should push their kids into CCAs, besides taking their studies seriously.

Research shows that being active in CCAs does give the motivation to go to school and take your studies seriously. So there is no trade-off between studies and CCA - it is not one versus the other.

Q: What more can be done for better integration within the Indian community?

A: It's a process. Both the locals and expats have to put in effort, in their own way. Working in a company, especially in a private firm, it's very important for management to set the right tone. Sometimes management looks at purely commercial operations and doesn't pay attention to the social dynamics within a company and its teams. I would say that is short-sighted management.

If you are in Singapore, an important task of management is also to foster integration of your employees so they really work as one team. Management is in a very influential position, typically providing opportunities for staff to interact and treat each other as equals. To treat each other with respect is extremely important.

Second, we can do more in the community, using our grassroots activities as well as other culturally-based groups and activities. I think it's a very natural setting for integration because the people live in the same community. I have seen many examples of how it works quite well.

People have to treat each other with respect, not with suspicion. There is rather too much typecasting of each other - of expats and locals, north and south. At the end of the day, this is not something that should be solved by guidelines and a set of rules. It involves personal initiative, the leaders doing the right thing - those who run an IAEC or community body. They have to set the right tone and direction. It can be done.

Our temples too play a very important role in that regard, setting the right tone, having the right mix of people involved in leading positions, and not typecasting each other.

Q: Are Singaporeans falling behind due to the competitive nature of new immigrants?

A: There is something that is true in general about migrants all over the world. When they travel to a new environment, in particular when their families aren't with them, they work extremely hard. Migrants just put in extra effort all over the world. It's a plus for the society that they're in and yes, it does mean that the locals need to work harder and prove themselves, because new benchmarks are being set.

My own feeling is that in Singapore, the majority of people are able to adapt to that and perform at a higher level. There is a segment of society that feels resentful. That too is natural. We should help that segment of people to adapt to the changes that are taking place in the economy and the job market, not just here but internationally.

So we need to help people cope with the new job requirements, people who are not able to advance in their careers because they feel a bit intimidated by new technologies or new methods.

If we address that issue, we can at least partially address the suspicion that may exist between locals and migrants who come in with skills. So go to the core of the issue, which is about giving people confidence in meeting the new requirements of a global job market.

Q: In recent years, we have placed a lot of emphasis on productivity. In terms of education, do you think we are on the right track?

A: The next phase is a very exciting one because we are nurturing a younger generation for a world which requires two things on the part of citizens.

First, there must be a genuinely inclusive tone in our society. It is not just about progressivity in fiscal policy. It is about a culture of inclusiveness - how we interact with each other across ethnic groups, as well as across different walks of life. And that has to start young.

Having kids interact with each other in preschool, in primary and secondary schools, through their CCAs, as well as through other activities. It is extremely important for that to be the norm as they grow up.

We have to be very mindful of that in education. You can't learn social skills through classroom exercises or from textbooks. It's through experience. That is one very important social trait that must be reinforced, for our future. In a troubled world, Singapore must still be an island that's stable, where people are appreciative of each other and for being Singaporeans together.

The second very important trait is to have a culture of innovation in our society. That too is going to be required much more in abundance in the future. Whether it is in a factory, a bank or a logistics firm, it's a whole team that's required for innovation to succeed.

People have to be comfortable with technology, be able to keep adapting to change, and to be willing to come up with their own ideas on how processes can be improved. Particularly in a society where we are going to be short of manpower, the only way to grow is by delivering value without just adding more manpower. Creating value - it requires innovation that involves a whole team, not just a few individuals.

That too has to start from young - having children do a lot more thinking for themselves, speaking to the rest of the class or their friends about their ideas, and interacting with people who are different from them. It requires a certain free-spiritedness as children grow up.

But it extends well beyond the school years. As we go through adult life, everyone is going to require some re-investment in skills, some personal renewal from time to time. That's what SkillsFuture is about. Some people will take some time off from work to study again, some others will continue working but learn while at work, as well as outside work. Whichever way, it should be made as convenient as possible for everyone to keep learning. That is a very exciting possibility: to maximise the potential of every citizen through life. You can't just achieve it through education in the early years. People's interests may change, and developing new interests midway through life is natural. We must make it easy for people to develop interests and new strengths at any stage of life.

Q: What is your vision for Singapore in the next 10-20 years?

A: My vision rests on the type of people we should be, rather than a vision of an economy that then requires people to function in a certain way to achieve that economic objective.

We have to start with the type of people we want to be. Let me highlight three facets of the culture I believe we should aspire to have. First, we must be people who have a high degree of respect for each other, in different walks of life. Including respect for the blue collar worker, respect for skills in every vocation.

That culture is something which we still need to develop. A natural respect for skills in every vocation.

Second, I think we also need to deepen our multi-racialism. It's an achievement having got so far in Singapore, in a peaceful and harmonious way. But it needs to be deepened, so that it's not just a very peaceful co-existence, but about deeper interaction, friendships and growing up together. We need a closer social compact in the future.

And thirdly, there has to be an innovative spirit in Singapore that involves everyone. Where people are always trying to do something better, and in their own way. Thinking about what they could add, not just by following tried and tested methods, but by bringing something new to the table. There has to be more of that innovative culture.

If you can achieve this, there's always enough opportunity in a regional and global economy, quite apart from the Singapore economy, for people with those characteristics.

So I would say it's really about focusing on the type of people we can be, and especially on how we can maximise the potential of every individual through life, no matter where you start from. If we can do that well in Singapore, the other issues are much easier to sort out.


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