'If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ will not cut it for Singapore’s education system: DPM Tharman

'If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ will not cut it for Singapore’s education system: DPM Tharman

Tharman Majulah Lecture
DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam addressing the 1,500-strong audience at the inaugural NTU Majulah Lecture. (Photo: NTU)

SINGAPORE: To face a tumultuous future with challenges, Singapore’s education system will need to keep evolving as it has done over the last 50 years, said Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam at the first Majulah Lecture organised by the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) on Wednesday (Sep 20).

In his speech entitled How Education Shifts Will Make Our Future to 1,500 students, academics, NTU alumni and members of the public, Mr Tharman set out three key challenges that the education system needs to be prepared for.

He pointed out Singapore’s high ranking in international tests such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The test is taken by 15-year-olds in more than 70 countries. Singapore has consistently come up tops in mathematics and science.

“The biggest mistake we would make is think that because we are doing well in the PISA test, or we get a good rating by the Economist Intelligence Unit or anyone else, that therefore we keep things as they are,” Mr Tharman said.

“The biggest mistake is to think if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Because in education, more than in any other field, we will only know how well we are doing 20 or 30 years from now.

"If it ain’t broken, experiment. That’s the way we will secure our future.”


Mr Tharman said Singapore, as with other societies, is at a very early stage of a “whole new wave of disruption", and the future of jobs remains a question.

The future will be tumultuous, Mr Tharman said. As with other advanced societies, the future of jobs is a big question for Singapore.

“Will there be enough jobs, will we become societies that are divided between those that can make the most of technology or those who are displaced and disempowered by technologies?” he asked.

“And we know in Singapore, that that challenge translates into us becoming a truly innovative society. That has to be the change in our society … not just a few bright sparks, not just firms that are at the frontier but a pervasive culture of experimentation, willingness to take failure, to try again, to bounce up, to celebrate every new idea and everyone feeling that they benefit from us being an innovative society.”

Mr Tharman said jobs will not be an issue if Singapore meets that challenge.

The second challenge, he said, is in maintaining a sense of togetherness in society. And the third, is in becoming an innovative society - with individuals and people with a mind of their own - while retaining a deep sense of community.

Mr Tharman highlighted five areas in the education system in which Singapore needs to keep up a momentum to tackle the challenges.


Mr Tharman said the Government wants to do more earlier on in a child’s life to give them a fair chance of success.

“As some would put it, you have got to mitigate the ‘lottery of birth’,” he said. Mr Tharman said this is especially the case for those who start off with a disadvantage. 

Singapore pre-school
File photo of a pre-school.

KidSTART, he said, is among major initiatives that provides help to primary school students who are progressing slowly in mathematics.

“So we will do more, and we must succeed, because we must avoid at all costs a permanent underclass in Singapore,” he said.

He also highlighted the need for more flexible pathways. Citing France as an example, Mr Tharman pointed out that what appears to be an egalitarian system of education in the country, where students go through a homogeneous education system, resulting in very inegalitarian outcomes.

He said between 30 and 40 per cent of French students end up repeating at the primary, secondary or at both levels. A large number of students, Mr Tharman said, leave high school with not just a lack of paper qualification, but with a lack of confidence when they go out into the real world.

“We should avoid the extremes of either uniformity or rigid differentiation,” he said.

Mr Tharman said this flexibility is something Singapore has embarked on, for example, when it merged the EM1 and EM2 streams, and then did away with the EM3 stream.

It instead introduced subject-based banding in primary schools.

More recently, Mr Tharman said subject-based banding has also been introduced in secondary schools.

“We are moving towards a more modular and flexible system of differentiation that reflects that - few people are strong in everything and few are weak in everything,” he said.

“We should avoid the simple egalitarian option, but differentiate flexibly, keep every path porous, and never pre-set the path for any child for all time.”


Mr Tharman said if the idea is to develop a culture of innovation and creative ability, more space and time needs to be provided for young minds to develop these traits.

“The science tells us that having the time and space for your mind to wander when you are young is critical in developing creative abilities. If we spend a large amount of time working on high-stakes exams, you don’t develop the creative part of your brain.”

He said taking out some of the academic load will also allow students to have a diversity of experience outside of classrooms.

He said doing so requires the need to change admission systems. The Direct School Admission Programme has been broadened in secondary schools, to ensure the weightage of admission based on academic abilities is reduced.

This also needs to happen in universities, polytechnics and at the Institutes of Technical Education (ITEs), he added.

“If we don’t change the admission system, parents don’t buy the talk. Otherwise, if we take out a load from what is taught in schools but the admission systems are unchanged – high-stakes exams and admissions based on them - the private tuition industry goes into overdrive,” Mr Tharman said.

He said the changes would encourage students to develop in diverse ways, discover their interests and allow their minds to wander, all important experiences that will pay off in the years to come.

The fourth shift in education is the need to develop one’s potential throughout life. This, Mr Tharman said, is important because to achieve innovation, a deep mastery of skills is required.

He said this mastery comes from experience, from thinking and doing over time.

“Whatever job you are doing, if you stay active, if you keep learning, your brain stays alive. As a team, young and old together, that allows for highly innovative teams. It is also an inherently democratic process of learning. The blurring of blue collar and white collar – everyone moving up together.“

But Mr Tharman said Singapore still does not have a culture of employers investing in their workers for the long term.


Finally, Mr Tharman touched on the Singaporean identity, saying that experiences in life deepen multiculturalism, and that it has to start at a young age. He brought up the example of co-curricular activities in Singapore sometimes being too “ethnically-defined in practice, in ways that sometimes puzzles”.

“Football today is different from what it was in 70s and 80s, you look at our national team. All very good players. But it used to be a much more multiracial team in those days,” Mr Tharman said.

“Volleyball, basketball, table tennis - the first thing that strikes people – 'Chinese' game. How about the rest of the world? You have all sorts of countries playing basketball, volleyball and table tennis. In our region itself, the Indonesians, the Filipinos, are top in basketball and volleyball. We are trapping ourselves too easily, and it is not difficult to change.”

Mr Tharman said in holding to ideals of multiculturalism, Singapore cannot just guard against global trends but has to deepen and develop an identity. Mr Tharman told the audience to think of the national anthem, which goes, "Marilah kita bersatu, dengan semangat yang baru" (Let us unite with a new spirit). He juxtaposed it with a "new spirit" in education.

“That new spirit was not intended just for the day we became a new nation 52 years ago. Every so often we need that new spirit in our society, and that how we go forward together.” 

Source: CNA/mn