I would like to thank the members for giving their strong support and endorsement to the recommendations in the Applied Study in Polytechnics and ITE (ASPIRE) report, as well as the direction and policy of this government. I would like to acknowledge that this support has come from all members of the house – PAP MPs, the NMPs, and the Workers’ Party. Members have spoken passionately, drawing from personal experience and giving examples. It is clear that this is a topic that is close to the hearts of all.

Major Themes of the Debate

In listening to the debate over the past couple of days, there are a few major themes which emerged.

  • First, the request for a holistic approach to the post-secondary education landscape;
  • Second the issue of degree versus non-degree;
  • Third, public sector taking the lead;
  • Fourth, the need for employers and industry to be on board, and how one is to help industry with this; and
  • Mindset change

ASPIRE Part of a Bigger Holistic Strategic Plan

Ms Denise Phua, Ms Jessica Tan and Ms Kuik Shiao-Yin expressed concern that ASPIRE may be too narrow in scope, and felt that it really should be part of a holistic plan. In fact, ASPIRE is part of a bigger, holistic, strategic move by this Government.

We actually started at the primary and secondary levels, by introducing the Applied Learning Programme (ALP), and the Learning for Life Programme (LLP) in 2013. ALP focuses on the application of skills in the real world, and is taught through problem solving, supporting tie-ups with industry partners. The LLP focuses on real-world experiential learning to develop character and values, through community outreach programmes, or service learning projects.

Two years ago, the then Senior Minister of State for Education, Mr Lawrence Wong, led a committee for pathways in university education, known as the CUEP report. The CUEP report recommended an applied degree pathway which emphasises a practice-orientation, learning through work, industry focus, to be offered by the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) and SIM University (UniSIM). It also recommended creating more opportunities at the degree-level that would build industry-relevant skills in graduates.

The missing piece was how to further strengthen applied education at our polytechnics and ITE. That is why the ASPIRE committee came in at this stage.

What you can see, therefore, is that we have introduced the idea of applied learning at primary and secondary. We have then put it in place for university. Now, we have slotted in deeper applied learning for polytechnics and ITE, and so that there is a whole spectrum.

If you look at it in terms of the big picture, we build a strong academic foundation at the primary and secondary levels because you need these fundamentals – whether you go on a more academic route or a more applied route, you cannot do it without the strong fundamentals. But we have introduced the applied learning at the primary and secondary stage.

Post-secondary, they will tend to choose their paths. Some will choose a more academic path; some will choose a more applied path. Even then, they are not mutually exclusive. That is the important thing to remember. Even if you are going on the academic route, there will be applied elements. In fact, the National University of Singapore (NUS) and the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) have partnerships with industry, and they are now also looking into strengthening internships. SIT and UniSIM are forging the new applied degree pathway, which integrate learning in classroom and the work context. As such, it is actually not mutually exclusive, but it – if I may say so – is a matter of degree – for the academic route, you will have some applied learning; for the applied learning route, you will have to have academic content to build on.

You can see that we have the education components in alignment. What we are doing now is that we are bringing the whole education part into alignment with industry as well. That is the direction in which the Government is steering us.

ASPIRE Has Impact Beyond Polytechnic and ITE Education

ASPIRE has impact beyond the polytechnics and ITEs. We have mentioned Education and Career Guidance (ECG). This is not just for the polytechnics and ITE students. It will adopt a lifespan approach – it starts at primary through secondary, but it will go through the polytechnics and ITE, and for university students as well, to working adults.

The sector-specific skills frameworks will define skills and competencies which are needed to progress in careers, no matter the starting point. The Business Times article highlighted by Mr Zaqy Mohamad had it right when it said: “The ASPIRE proposals are not just another tweak in the education system but possibly the missing piece in the restructuring jigsaw puzzle the government has set out to complete”.

Degree vs Non-Degree

On the question of degree versus non-degree and whether conflicting signals are being sent – that was addressed by Minister Heng earlier.

Public Sector to Take the Lead

Many MPs have called for the public sector to take the lead. We should look at this in perspective. The Government and public sector agencies employ 4 per cent of the total workforce. Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) employ 70 per cent. Multinational corporations (MNCs), both home-grown and foreign, and the social services employ the rest. In terms of the overall numbers of people employed, or the total workforce, the percentage employed by the Government is very small. However, I think what the MPs are really saying or asking about is the signalling effect.

DPM Teo had, in a written reply to a parliamentary question raised by Mr Lim Biow Chuan, responded on what the Government is doing on this, but let me summarise.

For the civil service, it adheres to the policy of hiring on merit, so the most suitable candidate is selected for the job.

For new job seekers at entry level jobs, educational qualifications would have to serve as a proxy because if you do not know the person, you do not know their capabilities yet.

Some jobs require a degree; some do not. When recruiting, the civil service will indicate what kind of qualification is required according to job type.

There will be certain professional fields where professional accreditation is required, for example medical or engineering. In such cases, the applicants will have to meet the requirements.

The next question is how do you progress once within the system. As announced by the Public Service Division (PSD) after the National Day Rally (NDR).There will be faster career progression for Management Support Officers (MSOs) from Oct 2014. Most non-graduates join under the MSO scheme. The MSOs can already progress to take on similar jobs as graduates and be paid comparable salaries. From Oct 2014, they may be progressed faster where they demonstrate the required performance and capability.

The civil service has announced that it intends to merge more of what used to be separate graduate schemes of service into integrated schemes. Most non-graduates join under the Management Support (MSO) scheme, while graduates join under the Management Executive Scheme (MXS). PSD is studying the merger of the two schemes. In the integrated schemes officers may have different entry points but will progress according to performance and ability to handle larger responsibilities, regardless of the starting point. They will get training. There are agencies already with existing integrated schemes such as People’s Association (PA), Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore (IRAS) and the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). The Public Utilities Board (PUB) is also developing a single engineering career path where diploma holders and ITE graduates can progress up the ranks to take on wider engineering or managerial responsibilities. And MOE, of course, Minister Heng has already spoken about. So you can see the public sector is doing its part.

Need For Industry and Employers to Be on Board

A number of members – Ms Denise Phua, Mr K Karthikeyan, Mr Zaqy Mohamad, Mr Mohd Ismail Hussein, Ms Jessica Tan and Ms Lee Li Lian – have pointed out that in order for the ASPIRE objectives to be achieved, industry and employers have to be on board. They have also highlighted that it is a challenge for businesses, because of business cost and manpower challenges.

Mr Thomas Chua made an earnest plea for SMEs. I can assure him that SMEs have not been forgotten, including in the composition of the ASPIRE committee. There are a large number of SMEs – while it was not possible to include a lot of them or all of them in the committee, we included the CEO/SPRING because SPRING has a lot of dealings with SMEs, and has an understanding of their difficulties and challenges. As such, the SME issues were well-represented on the ASPIRE Committee.

SMEs can also particularly benefit from building up progressive pathways, providing training programmes, and providing good human resources that will build up their manpower development capabilities. There are existing government schemes to help them.

  • SPRING Capability Development Grant: SMEs can tap on SPRING’s Capability Development Grant to defray costs of projects to enhance their business capabilities. These can include projects to strengthen leadership capabilities, those that adopt effective HR practices, cultivate a strong corporate culture, and retain talent.
  • SPRING’s SME Talent Programme: It encourages SMEs to recruit local ITE and polytechnic students. It incentivises SME employers to develop their employees and invest in human capital development.
  • Aside from SPRING’s funding and incentives, SPRING has also set up many SME centres which provide assistance and training to SMEs. In 2013, the SME centres trained some 1,000 SMEs on business capability development areas and assisted over 20,000 SMEs.
  • Then there is WDA’s Enterprise Training Support (ETS). Businesses can tap on the ETS scheme to fund projects that will build their in-house capabilities for human capital development and training. In total, $20Million was committed under the ETS to support companies.

Going forward, companies can, and should leverage these existing schemes and support in co-implementing the ASPIRE recommendations. The Government will continue to look into whether specific sectors will also require other forms of sector-specific support, and develop supporting schemes as part of a concerted sectoral strategy to develop manpower and talent for these sectors.

As part of the ASPIRE recommendations, lead institutions will also be established for each key sector, to coordinate efforts in working with different stakeholders. We hope this will strengthen the linkages between institutions and industry.

In the meantime, I am happy to say that a number of companies have already pledged support. We have MNCs on board, examples of which include Rolls-Royce and GlaxoSmithKline Biologicals. For local companies, we have examples such as YCH Group and Sakae Holdings. These employers are forward-looking and can see the long-term benefits in terms of talent pipeline, employee retention, and increased productivity.

Mindset Change

Members have raised this quite rightly and said that current mindsets are deeply entrenched. It will be a significant challenge to overcome them.

Ms Denise Phua highlighted that the ability to transform mindsets of key stakeholders is a critical success factor for ASPIRE. Mr Karthikeyan, Mr Zainudin Nordin and Ms Sylvia Lim spoke about the challenge of changing these mindsets on the ground. Ms Kuik pointed out that ASPIRE’s ability to succeed depended greatly on today’s culture. Mr Lim Biow Chuan and Mr Faisal Manap spoke of the importance of reaching out to students and parents.

The key question asked by members, is how we are going to change these mindsets. One noteworthy thing is that everybody in this house who has spoken on this has not just pointed out the need for the mindset change, but agrees that it should be changed. So, you can see that there is strong support, even in this chamber. When we speak to others, many agree that there is a need for it. That is a good starting point because if people recognise that this is something which needs to be changed – and they think it is a good thing to be changed – then it really is a question of everybody doing his or her own part and taking it on board.

  • For individuals – to recognise our strengths, to build on the right foundations, choose the right paths, and adopt the right attitude to lifelong learning;
  • For parents – realise your child’s unique strengths and encourage him or her on the path that will best develop his or her talent;
  • For employers – value every employee, hire and reward based on actual skills;
  • Government will do its part.

We should also celebrate broad definitions of success. It is true – we should celebrate individuals who have not trod the traditional paths but have achieved success in their own ways. But also celebrate those who have achieved success along the degree route. Singapore is a sum of the parts. We should celebrate the success of each individual, because each and every Singaporean makes up Singapore. You want them to be able to progress and advance. When somebody does well, you should be happy for them. So take a broad definition of success and support each other in this endeavour.

We should also highlight examples of model companies who espouse the right mindsets. These are the ones who

  • Invest in their people, education and training
  • Hire, remunerate and promote based on actual skills and performance
  • Take on sector-specific skills frameworks and progression pathways
  • Those who continually improve jobs and progression opportunities for their employees.

Other Suggestions

Ms Sylvia Lim asked whether the industry sector leads in polytechnics would have a priority, or whether they would play a coordinating role. The answer is that they would play a coordinating role. The lead institutions should also think about the polytechnic and ITE sector as a whole, and source for opportunities to grow and develop it. It is not intended that it should be a priority for a particular polytechnic.

A number of MPs have spoken in Malay. Madam Speaker, in Malay please.

Saya ingin mengucapkan terima kasih kepada Anggota-anggota Parlimen kerana menyokong kuat saranan ASPIRE. ASPIRE adalah untuk membantu individu mencapai aspirasi mereka masing-masing dan mewujudkan pelbagai laluan yang berbeza menuju kejayaan. Kami berharap bahawa semua anak-anak muda kami akan memanfaatkan saranan ASPIRE ini, seperti program belajar sambil bekerja, dan program Penempatan dan Latihan. Selepas mereka selesai pengajian mereka di politeknik atau ITE, akan terdapat pelbagai pilihan untuk mereka maju ke hadapan dan berjaya – mereka boleh melanjutkan pelajaran mereka; bekerja dahulu; atau memperolehi pensijilan industri. Kami juga berharap mereka akan terus belajar sepanjang hayat. Pada dasarnya, ASPIRE adalah tentang menghargai setiap individu dan menghormati setiap kerjaya, serta memberi peluang yang lebih baik bagi semua.

Conclusion – ASPIRE a Game Changer

Madam Speaker, I would like everyone to understand what we are seeking to do. ASPIRE seeks to be a game changer. We are trying to realign education with industry to cope with a new environment. We are making a strategic course adjustment. The previous course was right for that time, but we are setting a new course because once again, the winds of change are upon us. We must tack to a new wind. If we do not make the change, it will be forced upon us and not on our terms.

We are making a societal change, as Minister Heng pointed out – to go beyond qualifications, to go beyond the classroom, to go beyond narrow definitions of success. Some may say that these are lofty goals, high ideals. But how will we actually implement it?

The MPs have been correct to highlight the challenges. It is not an easy task. It will not happen overnight. It will take many years, but the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. ASPIRE is that step.

We look at the ten recommendations of ASPIRE – ECG; Enhanced Internships; Place and Train; Increase NITEC to Higher NITEC progression opportunities; Vocation Deployments during NS; Sector-Specific frameworks. These are concrete recommendations. This is the beginning, but it is just that – only the beginning.

We need everyone else to start making the necessary concrete changes in their own areas. For teachers, when giving advice to students; for parents, when helping children choose options. The Government has already started to move. Employers in adopting place-and-train, and in supporting their employees.

The only way in which the ASPIRE objectives will be able to succeed is if they permeate society and the economy and flow through to all segments and reach everyone.

It is like turning a ship. You turn the ship’s wheel, the gears engage. You are fighting against the water resistance. The ship slowly starts to move, and the initial move takes a lot of effort. Then it gains momentum and you start to pick up speed, and then you are full steam ahead. This is what the ASPIRE effort is like.

We are doing something uniquely Singaporean. The Committee visited many countries – Switzerland, Germany, Australia, New Zealand. We also had insights from Netherlands and Austria. I would like to acknowledge these countries and their agencies and institutions who generously shared information with us.

The end product however – the recommendations of the ASPIRE committee and the thinking behind it – is something uniquely our own. We have drawn from what we have seen, for example apprenticeships and career guidance, but have woven it into our own context, our economic structure and our system.

We are building on the strength of our polytechnic and ITE system which we have strengthened over the years and which now have a brand of their own.

We are proud of our polytechnics and ITE, and of their students and graduates. International visitors from other education ministries and agencies are always very impressed by them

We are also building on the strength of our tripartite system, and most of all, we are building on the strength of our people. This approach is also very much our own. We are contemplating the horizon, trying to figure out what is to come, anticipating as best we can, coming up with solutions and strategies , and doing it in a concerted effort. That is a very Singaporean thing, and it is a very Singaporean approach.

We are doing this for one reason – and one reason only – to secure a better future for Singaporeans and Singapore.

With this, Madam Speaker, I wish to thank the members for their support.