Creating Opportunities – Together

Two weeks ago, the ASPIRE Committee released its report, making 10 recommendations which have been accepted by the Government in full.

But ASPIRE is much more than just the 10 recommendations.

What is ASPIRE about? It is about:

  • Creating multiple opportunities to realise aspirations;
  • Creating multiple pathways to success;
  • Facilitating progression and advancement.

It is also about:

  • Embracing lifelong learning;
  • Valuing every individual and respecting every job;
  • Letting people go forward, not by always and only looking back to their start point, but by how they perform, what they achieve, what they become

Above all, it is about doing this together.

Singaporeans’ Aspirations

In 2012, we had the Our Singapore Conversation (OSC). One very strong theme that emerged was Singaporeans’ desire to progress and do well. Parents have high aspirations for their children. Young people have high aspirations for themselves. The ASPIRE engagement sessions also reflected the same thing. They all want opportunities.

Aspirations and the economy

Career aspirations cannot be achieved in a vacuum. They are linked to jobs, and jobs in turn, are linked to our domestic economy and international economic trends and forces.

This means two things:

  • First, the fulfilment of Singaporeans’ aspirations is closely tied to Singapore having strong economic growth.

  • Second, it means we need to ensure that there is a strong alignment between our people’s knowledge and skills (the supply side) and the jobs and skills that are needed (the demand side)

In the last 50 years, we have achieved phenomenal development and made the leap from Third World to First. This was only possible by having an educational strategy that was closely attuned to the economic situation of the day.

It is important to understand that it is not a matter of educating people to serve the economy. Rather, the overarching objective is to enable Singaporeans to prosper, to do well and achieve their aspirations. It is in service of that objective – making lives better for Singaporeans – that this Government’s consistent strategy has been, and continues to be, to try and identify trends and developments, and equip Singaporeans through education to take advantage of them.

From the 1960s to 1970s, our economy was labour-intensive. Education focused on basic level of skills.

From the 1980s to mid-1990s, our economy became capital-intensive. Education focused on equipping Singaporeans with deeper technical expertise to meet this environment.

The late 1990s to 2000s saw a knowledge-based economy, so education geared for critical thinking, creativity and innovation.

Now, 2014 onwards, we are once again on the cusp. The future is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous – the VUCA environment. We now have to think once again on how to equip Singaporeans to navigate and do well in this VUCA environment.

Demands of the future

It is not possible to predict the future. However, from where we stand now, looking forward, this is what we can see:

  • There is a demand for deep and relevant skills;
  • The nature of jobs will continue to evolve, and the way we do the jobs will change. In some cases, the jobs themselves will change. Some may disappear forever;
  • Technology will continue to drive disruptive change.

This means that our people will have to constantly adapt and learn new skills in order to remain relevant and to get good employment. It also means that learning must be lifelong, more than ever before. The old paradigm where education ends at school is no longer applicable. Education continues throughout life.


What are skills? We must be clear on what we mean when referring to skills. I have heard that since the National Day Rally (NDR) and the ASPIRE report, some children have been telling their parents that since it is now about skills, they do not have to study anymore.

There is a misapprehension that skills means only doing things with your hands, or some manual form of work. “Skills” means much more than that.

So what do we mean by “skills”?

Skills = Knowledge + application + experience

Broadly, skills means knowledge, application, and experience. Knowledge necessarily includes academic content and theory. For example, it is not possible to do construction work, which involves measurement and dimensions, without maths. You cannot do product design without learning about materials and understanding manufacturing processes. Hence, our primary and secondary schools have an academic syllabus to provide a strong foundation for students, whether they later choose an academic route or a more applied route such as polytechnics and ITE.

Knowledge alone is not enough – it is how you apply it. “It’s not what you know. It’s what you can do with what you know”. This is where applied learning comes in. It allows students to learn through practice and application. The workplace is one of the best places for applied learning. Experience is, of course, the fruit of constant practice and application.

Skills – hard skills and soft skills

When we refer to skills, we are also referring to both hard skills and soft skills. Hard skills are technical know-how. It is not limited to skills in technical sectors, such as precision engineering. It also includes skills in service sector, such as hospitality, as well as skills in professions like nursing and accountancy. It covers the entire spectrum of work.

Then there are soft skills, such as attitude, leadership, communication skills, teamwork, the ability to work across cultures, the ability to deal with people, and the ability to solve problems.

Skills – Ability to achieve desired outcomes

The third sense in which we use skills is the ability to achieve desired outcomes. Once we understand that skills encompass all these things, it is easy to understand why skills are so important to an individual’s personal development and growth as well as to his/her career prospects. It is also easy to understand why skills are so much in demand by industry and employers

Progressing Through Skills – What Do We Mean By This?

Raising skills levels across the board

The first thing we mean by progressing through skills is raising skills levels across the board.

Jobs are becoming more complex. For example, in the past if you were a car mechanic doing maintenance and repairs, all you needed was mechanical knowledge. Today, car functions are increasingly computerised. If something goes wrong, it is not just a matter of a mechanical repair – there is also a need to run computer diagnostics on the car to find out what is wrong. In the future, we will have driverless cars. The car mechanic will then have to acquire even more skill sets. In fact, he may be replaced by a maintenance robot. To stay relevant, he will need skills that enable him to direct and control the robot – a higher order of skills. So taking the example of a car mechanic, the skills needed yesterday were mechanics. Today, it is mechanics plus electronics. Tomorrow, it will be mechanics, electronics and robotics.

In order to cope with this, we have to raise our skills levels across the board, in every sector, at every level, to bring Singaporeans to a new skills equilibrium. This is so that as the way we do jobs change, as jobs themselves change, as new ones are created and old ones swept away – Singaporeans will be ready, not only to cope but to thrive because those with the raised skills levels will be the ones who will be able to access better pay, better prospects, better progression and better outcomes.

Building on skills

The second way of progressing through skills is building on skills. We want people to be able to progress by building upon a solid preceding layer of skills at each stage.

Let me give an example which I encountered when I visited the Keppel shipyard. An employee comes in with a Diploma in Marine and Offshore Technology. He works for a few years as an Assistant Engineer installing and commissioning equipment on a rig. Later on, he goes on to do a degree in Naval Architecture. He graduates, and becomes a Naval Architect and can design ships or rigs. Think of how much more someone who has actually worked on building a rig can bring to the design and functionality of a rig when he one day becomes a naval architect.

Broadening of skills

We want people to progress not only by building on skills but by widening their range of skills. For example, a technician or engineer on the shopfloor may show leadership or organisational potential. To help them fulfill potential, we need to broaden their skills. For example, we can send them to a course in project management and human resource management, and so they acquire a different set of skills.

Deepening of skills

There is a need for deep knowledge and expertise. This is the path of specialisation. For example, in the aerospace industry, a trainee Licensed Aircraft Engineer (LAE) starts with becoming familiar with an aircraft’s major systems and powerplants. He deepens his skills such as in performing transit check procedures, and eventually becomes a full LAE, performing detailed system, engine component and functional checks and troubleshooting procedures

Deep Skills – A Tale of Two Men

Also in line with deepening skills are the Master craftsmen. Mdm Speaker, I have 4 slides for my speech. With your permission, may I display them at the appropriate time.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

The first is a documentary film about Mr Jiro Ono, a sushi master and his quest to perfect the art of sushi. He is the owner of Sukiyabashi Jiro, a tiny sushi bar with only 10 seats, in the basement of a Tokyo subway station. Yet, his is the first sushi restaurant to be awarded 3 Michelin stars. Jiro learnt the art of sushi at age 9. He has been learning and perfecting the art of sushi ever since. Next year, he will be 90! He was 85 when the film was made. He is widely hailed as the greatest sushi chef in the world. His sushi is said to be so delicate, exquisite and sublime that his sushi rice was once described as “[a] cloud that explodes in your mouth”.

Yet, despite his age and accolades he is still driven to perfect his technique. In the movie he says: “Even at my age, in my work I haven’t reached perfection. I’ll continue to climb, trying to reach the top, but no one knows where the top is!”

This mindset and dedication to his craft has elevated a skill to an art. In fact, Japan has declared Mr Jiro as a living national treasure for his contributions to Japanese cuisine.

Mr Tham and his Rolina curry puffs

We do not have to look so far to find someone like Mr Jiro. At home, right here in Tanjong Pagar, we have Mr Tham Niap Tiong, who owns the Rolina Traditional Hainanese Curry Puffs at Tanjong Pagar Plaza.

Mr Tham is 75 years old. He learnt the art of making curry puffs at age 19 from a 70 year old Hainanese sailor. The sailor understood that Mr Thiam had problems getting a job and offered to teach him how to make curry puffs to earn a living.

It took Mr Tham one to two months to learn the basic skills of curry puff making. He started selling his curry puffs at the Thomson area, near the Novena Church, in the 1960s. In 1976 when the Government introduced hawker licencing, he opened a stall at Serangoon Garden.

He has been in this trade for 56 years and is still going strong. Till today, each curry puff is prepared by hand – from the spices to ingredients, to the crimps in the crust. He is very strict on his ingredients and quality. He still uses the same recipe he learnt all those years ago, and his artisanal craft has been honed over the years. He takes pride in his business and is constantly seeking to improve the quality of his curry puffs. Even now, he still goes around buying curry puffs made by others to make sure his curry puffs are as good or even better than the rest. He has expanded his business and started operating the stall at Tanjong Pagar Plaza 7 years back. The original stall is still run by his son.

On how his stall came to be called “Rolina” – he used to sell curry puffs near Novena Church. His regular customer, an aunty always shouted “Rolina curry puff” instead of ‘Novena curry puff’ and so he decided to use this name when he set up his first stall in Serangoon Gardens.

I am not advocating that everyone should be a sushi chef or curry puff maker, but the stories of these two men and their success contain the recipe for success that cut across all professions:

  • Both have a strong passion for what they do;
  • Both embody the mind-set of skills and expertise through practice and application;
  • Both espouse the philosophy that they must seek to be the best in their profession;
  • Their success is founded on real and deep skills;
  • They both have great pride in their work;
  • They strive relentlessly for perfection, always seeking to improve, upgrade and better their performance, and as a result they have become masters of their craft;
  • The quality of their work generates its own demand; and
  • They are both virtually recession proof

Lifelong Learning

When we consider the future of jobs and see skills from the perspective that I have outlined, then we can understand why learning and education must now be lifelong.

In the past, graduation from an educational institution marked the point where education stopped and work began. Now, education and work are intertwined. Learning and education must continue even after one has started work.

This is for all occupations – even politicians are not spared. It used to be that you just needed skills to make policy. In the last 4 years alone, we have had to acquire a whole slew of additional skills – blogging, facebooking, tweeting, instagramming, and lately, the art of the selfie.

We too have been disrupted by technology. We too have had to raise, broaden and deepen our skills. We have different progression rates. Some of us are still apprentices, though a couple are fast becoming master craftsmen in this area.

The continuous learning and acquisition of new skills will enable people to upgrade and progress throughout their working lives and achieve better outcomes for themselves and their families. This is the reason why we place such importance on continuous education and training (CET) and invest so heavily in it.

While the ASPIRE recommendations are geared for polytechnic and ITE students, the government’s policy of supporting CET applies to all Singaporeans – from graduates to those with only primary or secondary education. To this end, the Government is working on a CET Masterplan.

Multiple Pathways

ASPIRE is also about multiple pathways. There is a wide diversity of jobs. They require different knowledge, skill sets and experience. Different individuals have different talents, interests and strengths. Some thrive in a more academic approach, others are more hands-on.

We want a system that provides opportunities for all to progress at any stage of their working lives. It is not one size fits all – or one educational path for all. We want to have multiple pathways for people to upgrade and progress, to go as far as they can, according to their abilities.

For some, pursuing further studies immediately after JC, polytechnic or ITE is the right path for them. Others may find that working first and then pursuing further studies is better. Others may find getting specialised industry qualifications or certifications is the correct path for them. And yet others, may find that going on a path of skills deepening through work and becoming a master craftsman or specialist may be a better route.

We want a system that is flexible – where upgrading can be taken either full-time or part-time, or in small modules over a period of time. Online learning will become an important enabler.

It is all about the right career choice, the right qualifications for the right job at the right time.

Concerted Effort Needed

To achieve this, a concerted effort is needed. One of our greatest strengths is our tripartite relationship of cooperation and collaboration between employers, employees and the Government. We must harness this.


I have explained the importance of applied learning. We need employers’ input and involvement for applied learning when

  • Developing the curriculum;
  • Structuring the internships, and
  • We will also need the employers’ collaboration to provide good mentorship to students and employees.

We also need the employers to recognise and reward individuals based on skills and performance. We need them to invest and develop their employees, and to help the employees grow.

We need employers to support their employees in CET and lifelong learning. Scholarships may be one way, and the place-and-train programme, which benefits employers too, is now another way. Providing on-the-job-training as part of CET would also help. At the end of the day, from the employees’ perspective, the most important thing is to have moral support from the employers, and time to study outside of working hours.


For the employees, we need their input and collaboration as well, to:

  • Make the right choices;
  • To seek out the areas of demand where you can grow;
  • Adopting the mindset and qualities exemplified by Mr Jiro and Mr Tham;
  • To have the willingness to retrain, upskill and upgrade; and
  • To support their employers too.

Unions – being employee representations as well as the bridge between employers and employees – also have an important part to pay in achieving the ASPIRE objectives.


On the part of the government, to:

  • Provide quality education and gear for applied learning;
  • Provide resource for our schools and institutions and ensure that they are well-resourced;
  • Ensure IHLs collaborate with industry in an even more close and coordinated fashion;
  • Support CET;
  • Develop frameworks for each industry sector together with industry because this provides the reference frame for progression;
  • The Government will also do its part as an employer in recognizing skills and performance

In fact, we need everyone on board, not just the tripartite partners but also teachers, parents, students and society. Everyone.

Achieving this needs a lot of effort and coordination, and hence the new inter-ministerial committee to be led by DPM Tharman.

Changing Mindsets

In order to do this, we will also have to change mindsets. We will have to change mindsets in many ways – in how we see education, where it is no longer just the academic, but to recognise the importance of skills. We will have to embrace lifelong learning

We will also need a mindset shift in how education is developed. It is no longer the sole preserve of educators. It must now be a collaboration between educational institutions, in particular the Institutes of Higher Learning (IHLs), educators and industry.

We also need to change the way we think about how we recognize and reward people, as well as in how we see jobs.

Olivia Lum of Hyflux, who was on the ASPIRE committee, told us of technician who was very good at his work. With his expertise and years of experience, he was being paid more than some of the graduates. However, he wanted to switch to a white collar job even though it paid less. His reason was because his wife did not like him coming back in dirty overalls, smelling of the factory and the plant. She wanted him to have a white collar job, even if it paid less.

This effort also leads us to valuing every person – not seeing them as just an employee or a worker; but as a person with potential, and giving each one the chance to grow and develop.

There is an advertisement by an employer which encapsulates this best. The employer is focusing on an employee and says “From apprentice to manager of 12,000”. The important lines were below – “There are many paths to the top. All it takes is a company who believes you can”. That supportive relationship between employers and employees makes a big difference.


In conclusion, Mdm Speaker, what we are seeking to do, through ASPIRE and other government efforts, is to ensure that Singapore continues to be a place of opportunities for all Singaporeans, through education and lifelong learning and a concerted effort by all.

I look forward to hearing the Members’ views and urge this House to support the motion.