We debate an important motion that can set the tone for our society.

I thank SMS Indranee for her leadership and the ASPIRE committee for their tremendous effort.

Members in this House have given thoughtful and constructive ideas. I commend in particular our Nominated MPs who made their maiden speeches – Mr Kathikeyan who spoke of his experience in the industry, and Mr Ismail who spoke from his experience as an employer.

When the report was presented, I was happy to accept, on behalf of the Government, the recommendations in full. I appreciate the report for the highly-consultative approach, in the vein of Our Singapore Conversation, engaging many stakeholders on a significant scale – polytechnic and ITE students, parents, alumni, staff, employers and workers.

I appreciate how faithful ASPIRE strategies are to Singaporeans’ aspiration to build a society of opportunities, regardless of our starting points. The report addresses the needs of polytechnic and ITE students. SMS Indranee and I have interacted with many of them – we applaud their spirit, we are determined to help them succeed. That is why we are strongly supporting the many interesting ideas that came out – structured internships, Place-and-Train programmes, Higher Nitec places, online learning, better development programmes in the campuses and so on.

I also appreciate its deep insights. Although the report focuses on polytechnic and ITE education, its findings can transform our beliefs about education and learning – in all areas, in our schools, in our Institutes of Higher Learning (IHLs), in the universities, at the workplace.

I would also like to thank Mr Zainuddin for giving us a history of the polytechnic and ITE education in Singapore. I am happy to say that we are not fixing a broken system. In fact, the polytechnic and ITE education in Singapore is first-rate. It has allowed many Singaporeans to make good progress. It is widely admired around the world. ASPIRE represents the forward thinking and planning in our policy-making and it represents a way to respond to the aspirations of Singaporeans.

Members would agree that our beliefs can shape our choices; our beliefs can either limit or expand our opportunities. My remarks will address three beliefs about qualifications that limit our potential, how ASPIRE breaks through these limiting beliefs, and the actions that we must take to break through these limits.

3 Limiting Beliefs

The first limiting belief is that qualifications are all that matter – to get a good job, to get a good life. This is limiting because the highest qualifications will do a person no good, if there are no good jobs available in the first place. In many parts of Europe, even nearer home, Taiwan, and other examples, we see highly educated people without a job, because the economy does not create jobs for them – for structural or cyclical reasons. It is very painful.

The belief that qualifications are all that matter is also limiting because there is a variety of jobs out there, requiring us to learn in different ways, and all our life. Some jobs require degrees; some jobs don’t. Some – like heart surgeons, for instance – require deep skills that takes years of post-graduate specialised training; and there are some jobs – like those of a master craftsman or master chef – that also require deep skills but which can be better acquired on the job.

This belief that qualifications are all that matter is also limiting because, as several members have pointed out, we need a whole package of attributes to succeed. Mr Ismail mentioned about Intelligence Quotient (IQ), Emotional Quotient (EQ), and Adversity Quotient (AQ). Ms Jessica Tan yesterday mentioned about soft skills. Qualifications are a proxy measure for some competencies and some attributes, but cannot represent the full package of attributes each of us brings to the table.

The second limiting belief is the opposite extreme – that qualifications don’t matter at all. As several MPs have noted, some members of the public are asking: is the government now saying that qualifications don’t matter? Then why are we urging people to learn and upgrade? Let me be clear – ASPIRE is not about dissuading Singaporeans from upgrading ourselves or pursuing degrees or pursuing any form of qualifications. ASPIRE is about creating opportunities for all, not creating more competition for some. ASPIRE is about keeping pathways open for all, not blocking pathways for some.

Qualifications matter, but they must be the right qualifications, and of the right standard, for what we want to do. For example, we want our doctor, our nurse, our pharmacist, our physiotherapist to each have the right qualification for the job they do. We want the engineer who certifies that our buildings are safe, is ready, well-trained and well-qualified for the job. We want our architects similarly to be well-qualified for the job.

The right qualification signifies that you have the right skills – the right combination of knowledge, application and experience. But not all qualifications matter – not if they do not help us build the right skills for what we want to do. This can happen when we seek qualifications as a paper chase rather than as a quest for skills.

Recently, a young resident came to see me for advice. She shared that after she got her diploma, she went directly to do a private degree programme because she thought that she could get a better job and earn a better pay. But, after spending tens of thousands of dollars on the programme, she got a job that paid her at a fresh diploma-holder level – about $2000 – because her company did not find her degree skills relevant. She lost 3 years of salary had she gone on to work – an opportunity cost of over $70,000, plus the cost of doing this programme. What’s worse, she realised after all these, that this line of work does not suit her strengths and interests. She was so caught up in chasing a piece of paper, she lost the chance to discover what she really cared about. Of course, each person has a different learning and working journey. This story moved me because her family is not well-off. It is such a huge cost to them. It is only now, 3 years and a lot of cost later, that she is getting a good sense of what she really wants to do. Would it not have been so much better for her and her family if she could have realised this earlier.

By sheer co-incidence, last evening at my Meet-the-People Session, I had the chance to play an untrained education and career guidance officer. The father of this young lady had come to see me a few weeks back, asking me for help to get his daughter to university. I asked him to get his daughter to come to see me instead, because I wanted to understand what I could do for her. Last evening, she came and I found out that she had a diploma from one of our polytechnics. She was very interested in communications and design. I asked her why she wanted to do a degree. She said of course, it would allow her to do better. I was really impressed with this young lady. She was so obsessed with learning and wanting to do well. I explored a number of options with her, as to what her career options were, what her passion was, and what she enjoyed learning and doing most. She told me that she was actually very keen to learn how to marry communications with design and with planning. I said that was very good and that there were quite a number of useful courses in the polytechnics for doing that. I told her to send me a longer note on what she was really interested in doing, what her career plans were and I would send someone trained and well-versed in this industry to advise her.

I feel strongly that we must provide better career and education guidance to our young. Our captains of industry must come out and explain what they are looking for.

A third limiting belief is that if others are better qualified, I would lose out. Is it true that if polytechnic and ITE students learn better, the value of degrees would go down? Again, this is very limiting. The opposite is true – when our friends and colleagues can do a better job, we all benefit.

Just think about this. What does it take to make a visitor to Singapore have a great experience? From the pilot to the cabin crew, to the moment he lands at the airport, to the way our counter staff deals with it, to the taxi-driver, to the baggage handler, to the frontline staff at the hotels, in the restaurants, in the places of interest – everyone would have some role to play in making it a great experience. And not to mention, the architects and engineers who design all these attractions, and not to mention the technicians and the cleaners who maintain these facilities. In fact, the more that each of us can do our part, the more that each of us is highly-skilled and can do a great job, the more we create the right conditions for everyone to thrive.

In fact, this is the Singapore Story – we enjoy a better standard of living because we work as a team, and we earn others’ respect and we earn a premium for being team players, for cheering one another on, for helping one another do better. If we do not have enough skilled people, investors would not even come in the first place.

3 Breakthroughs of ASPIRE

The ASPIRE report encourages us to break through these limiting beliefs, to think anew about qualifications, jobs and opportunities:

The first breakthrough is to go beyond qualifications to the pursuit of excellence, by recognising that attitude, deep skills, knowledge and experience matter if we want to perform and excel.

The second breakthrough is to go beyond the classroom to recognise the value of applied learning and lifelong learning – and make the workplace a great learning place.

The third breakthrough is to go beyond narrow definitions of success to recognise that everyone excels at different things, in different ways, and that we can all excel if we apply our minds, hands, and hearts to what we do.

Mr Zaqy and Er Lee Bee Wah asked what ASPIRE’s breakthroughs mean for the value of a degree. Does this mean that degrees no longer matter? None of these breakthroughs devalues some qualifications over others. None of these breakthroughs limits opportunities for one group of people over another. It is not about one kind of qualification versus another; one group versus another. ASPIRE seeks to support each of us on the path that best suits our personal needs and aspirations, so that we can each excel and lead fulfilling, happy lives. It is about breakthroughs, not limits; widening opportunities, not narrowing them; addition, not subtraction; more, not less.

As members pointed out, these indeed add up to a major transformation. Can we put these breakthrough ideas into practice? The answer is yes.

The Public Service Division is doing so. In MOE, we recognise that qualifications matter for teachers. We also recognise that some teachers who did not take the degree route can develop the depth of knowledge which, along with other qualities like care and skill at their craft, allow them to excel as teachers. All teachers should have opportunities to deepen and upgrade their skills. That is why we will be emplacing outstanding non-graduate teachers on the graduate pay scale. These are teachers who have proven themselves to be excellent teachers.

Er Lee and others asked if this means that there has been a change to MOE’s position. Let me assure members that we will not just maintain but seek to raise the level of teaching. We have an important responsibility to all our children. MOE will continue to recruit graduates as we need teachers with strong grasp of the academic subjects, to help our children build the foundation. But we will also hire some non-graduates who have the passion and predisposition for teaching, and help them deepen their skills.

Let me recap: We must not be a society where paper credentials mean everything. We must also not be a society where paper credentials mean nothing. We limit ourselves if we believe that qualifications are all that matter to get a good job, or, the opposite, that qualifications don’t matter at all. We limit ourselves if we think that some people improving their qualifications increases competition for others. If we limit ourselves this way, we block our individual ability to reach our aspirations, and our collective potential to build an inclusive, fair society of opportunities for all. As individuals, we can shed these limitations and see things in these terms: What are our real interests, and what is the right qualification, the right form of learning to help us be the best at that? What are all the changing conditions around us that can affect our ability to succeed at our jobs, and how can we keep learning to be ahead of these changes? And finally, how can we support one another through our unique learning journeys to each reach our best?

3 Action Areas

We create opportunities for all Singaporeans to learn and succeed, through multiple pathways, through multiple modes of learning, in a continual progression, developing a culture of passion, recognition and respect, with every part of society playing a part. It is about learning the right thing, at the right time, at the right place, in the right way, and learning all our life.

This leads to 3 action areas.

First: Learn at Every Stage – We need to have seamless integration from schools to IHLs to the workplace.

Our education system must provide the broad and deep foundation for life, and lifelong learning. I have spoken on this before, in MOE’s Work Plan Seminar last year.

Mr Chris de Souza pointed out yesterday that ASPIRE’s recommendations build on Every School a Good School, Applied Learning Programmes, and he reminded us, the Committee on University Education Pathways Beyond 2015 (CUEP). Indeed, this is so.

The 10 years of basic education in primary and secondary schools enable our students to develop the values and character traits, give them the basic academic foundation, and help them discover their strengths and interests. We recently added Applied Learning Programmes and Learning for Life in our secondary schools, to help students develop the life skills and to learn how to apply knowledge, and to develop a lively interest of the world around them.

ASPIRE takes these forward. By having Education and Career Guidance (ECG), it will help our students develop an even better understanding of the options. By deepening the structured internships and Applied Learning opportunities especially for our polytechnic and ITE students, it helps our students explore these even more deeply.

We will, over time, develop a seamless integration across our schools and IHLs, to help students learn the right thing at the right time, while encouraging them to explore their strengths, and discover the opportunities out there for them to deploy their strengths fully.

I appreciate Ms Denise Phua’s point yesterday that we must have a porosity between the pathways. Indeed, our aim is to create many pathways, to facilitate and encourage the inter-connections among them. There will be multiple pathways, with no dead ends.

Earlier on, Mr Faisal Manap spoke about applied learning as an alternative to university education. As SMS mentioned in her opening address, it is not one or the other. In fact, applied learning will be a key feature of our 5th university – Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT), and the degree programmes at UniSIM. Our existing universities are all developing applied learning in some ways. The learning is two-way. It is not just the polytechnics and ITE are learning from what the universities are doing. The universities are also learning from what the polytechnics and ITE are doing. I think this is a very healthy interchange. I see the integration of theoretical and applied learning running throughout our education system – not just in the polytechnic or ITE. This sets the foundation for future learning.

The second area is to Learn in Every Way, to embrace and encourage Lifelong Learning.

Learning must not stop when we leave school. In fact, the more reflective we are, the more we turn each day into a learning day, and the more we can learn from everyone we meet or work with, the richer our learning experience, the wiser we get. I have been very amazed at how many teachers and many professors in the universities tell me how much they learn every day from their students. And these are the reflective teachers, when they reflect on how they do their lessons, whether they do them well, whether they encourage students to express their views – they too learn from their students. We must have this habit of learning in every way. We must sow the seeds of lifelong learning in our students when they are in school.

Beyond schools, we must make learning real, relevant and meaningful. Many lecturers create simulated situations to help students to learn in a real life manner. These are useful. But nothing is more real than the workplace. Great employers understand this, and have plans to help staff learn the real stuff, the relevant stuff. So we will work with employers to turn workplaces to great learning places, to help every Singaporean build deep skills that matter.

Earlier on, Mr Thomas Chua spoke about Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs) and indeed, we will work with SMEs, whether as individual organisations or as an association. Let me share a very inspiring story.

I recently met a polytechnic student at the National Day Rally. He designed our ASPIRE logo. He has just graduated from a polytechnic, and I asked him what he was doing. He started work doing something similar to what he was taught in the polytechnic. He is a very talented designer. So I asked him what was the biggest difference between studying in a polytechnic and working. He said, “The difference is that in the polytechnic, I do one project for the term. Here, I have many projects any time. So, it is extremely challenging!” But he said it was also an extremely rich learning experience. Because of this variety of work, he learnt such a variety of skills. Every client has a different need, and he gets to understand the needs of a whole spectrum of clients. His learning curve is steep, but so is his learning.

Companies big or small can play a very important role. I find this story of this polytechnic student very inspiring. He wants to apply what he has learnt, and he’s doing really well.

Beyond the workplace, let us have many more ways of learning, including online learning. Earlier this year, I was at Silicon Valley to look at what the Americans were doing on online learning. I see that there are some very important areas that we have to pick up and learn. We will have to make a concerted effort in this area.

At the same time, as Mr Heng Chee How pointed out earlier on, the unions have also been playing a very important role working with companies and creating their own learning institutions, e2i and so on. We will support all these efforts and work together on these.

The third area is to respect everyone – developing a culture of respect and recognition in Singapore.

It is to respect that we all have different talents and every job deserves respect.

Mr Lim Biow Chuan mentioned this earlier today. So did Mr Zaqy Mohamad yesterday and several other members. I am glad to say that we are putting a renewed emphasis in this area. Our Values In Action programmes in our schools seek to do precisely that. I am very happy to see our students showing great respect, be it for cleaners in the schools, and in fact, taking on cleaning duties themselves, in order to understand and appreciate that this is hard work and it is work worth of respect. I agree with Er Lee Bee Wah that we must not frighten our children to say that “If you don’t study hard, you will end up doing certain kinds of jobs”.

Employers are very important. I hope that employers recognise performance, not just paper qualifications. By recognising performance, we expand the space for staff to learn, to innovate, to contribute. And to encourage them to learn the relevant skills and apply these in their daily job.

I agree with Mr Lim Biow Chuan that we need to look for ways to enlarge the jobs, and that this is how we create the virtuous cycle that Mr Heng Chee How spoke about – the higher skills, higher job content, higher salary, higher productivity, higher competitiveness – everyone benefits.

So, Madam, Every Stage, Every Way, Everyone.

Now may I say a few words in Mandarin.

有些人相信,只有考到好文凭,才能找到好工作,才能获得成功。也有人认为,一个人根本不需要任何文凭。这些都是我们必须打破的受限心理。因此,ASPIRE的目的是在我们对文凭、事业和机会这几方面一贯的想法,做出三种突破:

  • 第一、突破文凭至上的想法,肯定积极的工作态度、精深的技能,以及丰富的知识和经验。这些都是让我们表现出众的因素。

  • 第二、突破学习的局限,在走出课堂之后继续学习,肯定应用学习和终身学习的价值。我们要让职场也成为学习的场所。要做到这点,雇主必须扮演着栽培人才的重要角色。

  • 第三、突破成功向来的狭隘定义,肯定大家各有所长,只要我们专心致志,就能在各自的领域各有所成。

这三种突破,不代表我们应该更看重某些文凭。这不是一场文凭的竞赛;这其中的关键是制造更多机会,开创更多道路,让大家能够发挥潜能,创造美好的未来。

我们要从三方面采取行动:

  • 首先,在每个阶段虚心向学 – 让国人从学校,到高等学府,直到职场都能够不断地学习。我们的教育制度必须为国人提供一个更深更广的基础,帮助他们终身学习。ASPIRE委员会建议提供学生教育与职业辅导、强化实习课程和各种应用学习机会。

  • 第二,以任何方式致力学习 – 所谓“学无止境”,我们要鼓励每个人活到老、学到老。职场是最能够提供真实学习机会的场所。我们也会与雇主合作,让每一个工作场所都能够提供学习机会,让每一个人都能够终身学习、终身受用。

  • 第三,让各行各业受到尊重 – 我们要在新加坡建立起彼此尊重和认可的文化。行行出状元,每一个人都各有所长;每一份职业都是值得大家尊敬的。我们重视的是个人的表现,而非一纸文凭。

在每个阶段虚心向学、以任何方式致力学习、让各行各业受到尊重。我们要通过多种途径,让每一个人各尽所能,无论是求学或是工作时期,都对学习抱有热忱,不断地提升技能、不断地提升知识,活学活用、学以致用、终身学习、终身受用,并且在工作岗位上不断地精益求精、敬业乐业。

Madam, to conclude, I addressed three limiting beliefs that hold us back from realising our full potential. I talked about three important breakthroughs that ASPIRE makes. And I shared the three areas of action for us to break through our limiting beliefs – We must “Learn at Every Stage, Learn in Every Way, Respect Everyone”. These are not ideals, Madam, these are imperatives. We must not limit ourselves to some places, some times, some people over others, we must breakthrough into every stage, every way, everyone. The Government will work hard on “Learn at Every Stage” and “Learn in Every Way”, together with employers, schools, and families. To me, the most important part of all is “Respect Everyone”. Because, at the heart of the matter, it is not just about qualifications, not just about jobs, not just about economic growth — all of this is to create the conditions for Singaporeans to pursue lives of meaning, achievement and joy. Every One of us, regardless of our starting points.

I urge members to give your robust support to this motion.