Ministers share growing-up stories

Acting Minister for Education (Schools) Ng Chee Meng speaking at the Leaders in Education Programme (LEP) graduation dinner held at The Regent on 16 October 2015.
PHOTO: ST

Physical education (PE) and art - these were the favourite subjects of Acting Ministers forEducation Ng Chee Meng and Ong Ye Kung.

In a recent interview with the Ministry of Education's Contact magazine for teachers, both ministers revealed a lighter side of themselves, as they talked about experiences in school and their growing-up years.

Mr Ng, who oversees pre-schools, primary and secondary schools, and the junior colleges, revealed that he enjoyed PE lessons and recess the most, not being "the most studious type" of student.

He was also active in co-curricular activities such as swimming and table tennis in primary school.

In secondary school, he joined the National Police Cadet Corps and trained to be a lifeguard. He also joined the Science Club, represented his school in taekwon-do and received his Private Pilot Licence through the Junior Flying Club - all in his two years at junior college.

In the newsletter published this month, Mr Ng said he was grateful for the chance to access "good education and career opportunities". He went on to urge educators to let students have the space to make mistakes and think innovatively.

"Sometimes, it is okay to let them scrape their knees, or go on field camps and not shower for three days," he said. These experiences help them to be resilient and reduce students' fear of failure and let them take "calculated risks". This is crucial for Singapore's future success, he added.

Mr Ong, who oversees higher education and skills, said his younger days in school were not easy. He did not know how to read English until he was in Primary 3.

His family spoke only Mandarin at home, and he struggled with English when he was in Nanyang Primary and even later at Maris Stella High. His mother, who was a teacher, tried to teach him the language despite not being fluent herself in English.

"My mum was more hands-on with my studies and she wanted me to do well," said Mr Ong, who added that seeing his father work as a politician "probably had a big part to play" in guiding him towards his current vocation. His father was a former Barisan Sosialis MP.

Like Mr Ng, Mr Ong has fond memories of school, from playing volleyball and basketball, and being a long jumper in junior college. He also enjoyed art, sketching and painting, and won a few school art competitions along the way.

Mr Ong said parents play an important role in sending messages about success.

He and his wife focus more on supporting their two teenage daughters and giving them time to grow, and less on achieving good grades in school.

This is also his hope for education in Singapore, for the idea of meritocracy to be broadened, with "merit" as not just a number or grade.

ateng@sph.com.sg

This article was first published on Jan 26, 2016. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.