SINGAPORE: My conversation with Education Minister Ong Ye Kung begins with him describing the lowest point of his political career.
Mr Ong has risen swiftly through the ranks since he, as part of a People’s Action Party (PAP) team, won in the Sembawang Group Representation Constituency (GRC) in the 2015 general election.
As we sit down to discuss issues recently brought up in the Prime Minister’s National Day Rally speech and the ups and downs of his own political journey, my first question to him is to describe the highest and lowest points of his career so far.
He chooses to start at the bottom, as if wanting to get it out of the way quickly.
“Let's start with lows since I lost my first election. I don’t brood over it. But it was tough.”
He is referring to being part of the team that lost in 2011 to the opposition Workers’ Party (WP) team in Aljunied GRC. That was the first time an opposition party defeated the PAP in a GRC.
“It opened my eyes to how tough it can be. The national mood wasn’t so good and we faced a very strong WP team led by Low Thia Khiang. His jumping over (to join the GRC team), I think, made a big difference. But we fought the best fight we could.”
To listen to the full interview, click here.
He refers to it as a “baptism by fire” and says that going into the election, he didn’t expect it to be so tough.
I wonder why he failed to sense the national mood.
“I was a rookie and just wasn’t mature enough as a politician. With many things in life, you have to go through it, experience it, and then you grow up. The important thing is with a setback like that, you have to bounce back, learn from it.”
Indeed, he learnt a “tremendous lesson”.
“The reality of politics, how important it is to sense the mood, move the masses, be able to put yourself forward as a credible person who would help residents change their lives. Another key lesson is an internal one - when you face a setback like that, how do you pick yourself up and soldier on?”
After the defeat, he stayed in his job as Deputy Secretary-General of the National Trades Union Congress for about a year before leaving for the private sector to become director of group strategy at Keppel Corporation.
Prior to this, he had been a high-flying civil servant who started off at the Ministry of Communications in 1993, before moving over to the Ministry of Trade and Industry in 2000 where he was the deputy chief negotiator for the Singapore-US Free Trade Agreement. He was also principal private secretary to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong from 2003 to 2005 and has also served as Mr Lee's press secretary.
He has also held the role of chief executive of the Singapore Workforce Development Agency.
“Personally, I feel going through all this does make me a better person. You learn not to take yourself so seriously. You take your work seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously.
"Setbacks do happen, and you just have to deal with it and bounce back ... Other people have much more severe setbacks and yet they bounce back. Those are inspirations.”
THE POSSIBILITY OF ANOTHER POLITICAL SETBACK
As our conversation continues to more recent developments, it becomes apparent that being ready for more political challenges is not far from his mind.
It comes up when I ask him for his views on the long-term healthcare and housing policies announced by the prime minister at the recent National Day Rally.
Mr Lee described the schemes as ambitious endeavours that will stretch over 50 years and more, several generations, and many General Elections.
I ask Mr Ong if this is a way of securing the PAP’s position ahead of the next election.
“It's really not about who is in government, but to have the conviction that in this little red dot, you must have longer-term policies. If you're caught by short-termism and popularism, it's not going to work for Singapore. Already, we are disadvantaged by size, disadvantaged by the lack of natural resources. What we have as an advantage is that as a small place, we can be more united and we can have plans that are long-term in nature, and that way, we are more coherent, our policies are more sound, more sustainable."
He says he doesn’t think in terms of political power.
“Who wins the election and who is the government is for people to decide, but this Government believes in long-term policy. So long as we are in government, this is how we will implement the policies and people know what they will get with us as (the) Government.
"Ultimately, this is about what policies can best serve Singaporeans for the long term."
When I put it to him that in spite of this, it’s possible that the PAP may not be in power for the long term, he acknowledges that could happen.
“It may happen. Never think any ward is safe. We are a small place ... When the mood swings, the entire island will swing. I believe the day the PAP loses an election and cannot govern is when things are very bad and probably policies go awry. People don’t feel that we're serving them anymore.
"When that happens, we will probably deserve to lose. And hopefully then, another party can come in and can carry on the long-term policies, and take the long-term perspective for the benefit of Singapore.”
“PARACHUTED” INTO POLITICAL OFFICE
After the 2015 election, Mr Ong was thrust straight into office when he was appointed Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills).
A year later, he was promoted to full Education Minister (Higher Education and Skills), as well as Second Minister for Defence.
Earlier this year, as the Ministry of Education (MOE) reverted to having only one minister, he was appointed to that role.
The highest point of his career so far, he says, is very much tied to this ministry.
“In my earlier years, in 2015, after I came in, I explained the need for SkillsFuture, multiple pathways and the fact that students have different passions, and we should let them pursue their passions.
"Then I introduced the early admission exercise for polytechnics, which is based not just on academic grades, but on aptitudes. That was very well-received and that was a very high point for me. It made me believe that whatever you do, you have to explain where you're coming from, what are the principles, what are your basic foundational beliefs, and then I think you have a higher chance of people accepting it.”
His rapid rise through the political ranks has not gone unnoticed. In the initial years, some members of the public described him as having been parachuted in and questioned his credibility. This still happens from time-to-time.
“I would say, judge me by what I'm delivering and what I'm doing. The path, to me, is not that easy, having to go through 2011 and the Aljunied GRC, then changing jobs and experiencing different sectors. If other people think it’s easy, and if I'm not doing a good job, I deserve the criticism. But I hope I do a good job.”
He points out that, in fact, his journey in politics began even before 2011, but he postponed his entry because of considerations for his father, who was one of 13 Barisan Sosialis legislative representatives elected in the 1963 General Election. He later had disagreements with the PAP.
“He had no misgivings with the current generation of PAP leaders, not even the 3G, 2G leaders.
"His misgivings and disagreements were with the first generation PAP leaders and over very deep-seated cultural, language issues ... over the merger with Malaysia. Those were the issues. There were still a few first generation leaders around in 2006, so, I could see he was not comfortable. He said, ‘Why not later? Why not later?’
“Although he blessed it, in the end, I counted myself out. It would not have been respectful to him. He had passed away by 2011, but even before he passed away, he was a lot more at ease with the idea. So, I decided I would enter politics in 2011.
“Maybe it was a parachute, but it took me a long time to jump out of the plane,” he adds laughingly.
He counts his father as his most powerful political influence.
“It’s really a subconscious imbibing of values. I watched him when I was young, what he believes in. In politics, I believe you must have conviction, and a view in a certain direction, because if you don’t, then you're just managing the bureaucracy. I might have gotten that from my father. He has a certain conviction. He stood on principles. If you look at it in terms of the political parties we joined, it’s different, but in terms of wanting to make a difference, I think we were on the same side.”
He admits considering other options after his 2011 defeat.
“I didn’t know whether I’ll be welcomed back, having lost once, whether I would be happier in the private sector. But having experienced the private sector, the union and public service, by 2015, I felt public service is probably what I enjoy doing the most, what I find most fulfilling. My test is this: When you are on your deathbed and you think back what you have done, I think I would have regretted if I had not come in, so when the PM invited me again, I felt I should give it another try.
“If you are not in government, then you have no policy levers. I think this is where you have a platform and an opportunity to make a big difference to many people’s lives.”
PSLE AND THE CULTURE OF LABELLING
We move on to discussing hot-button issues in education.
In Parliament earlier this year, he addressed suggestions by some MPs to abolish the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), or removing the practice of segregating students into different classes based on their academic results.
He said then that this may not reflect the preferences of a majority of students and their parents. Bold moves cannot be made recklessly, he cautioned, lest they "undo what had worked and served students well in the past".
I put it to him that this might have served academically inclined students well, but the negative aspects of the exam cannot be denied.
Considering the stress it causes, how it judges students at a very young age, and labels them for so many more years of their lives, are the perceived plus points worth it?
“I accept that," he said. "Sometimes the stakes are seen as very high. It really should not be.
"The key purpose is for the students to feel they have an exam that they can work towards, that allows them to consolidate everything that they've learnt for the last six years in primary school and know what is their level, so that they can go to a school that is more suited to their standard of learning, their pace of learning. That will be a good school to that student and that way he or she has the best chance to go as far he or she can."
He later admits that changing perceptions about the objectives of the PSLE is something that his ministry needs to continue working on.
“You can't have education without tests and exams, because you have to reflect how much I have learnt. So there's nothing wrong with tests and exams. But I accept your point of view, that it can be stressful, it can be very high stakes. So, I think these are issues worth looking at.
"But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. We need PSLE as an important feature of the education system."
The MOE is attempting to mitigate the perceived stakes. As part of a wider shift to move away from an over-emphasis on academic results, the T-score system in the PSLE will be replaced with eight broader "achievement levels" in 2021.
IS EVERY SCHOOL A GOOD SCHOOL?
He reiterates an example he raised in Parliament to make his case for keeping the PSLE intact.
“Switzerland doesn’t have any equivalent of PSLE, so you just send students to the school nearest their home, but as a result, there's no choice for students. Students can't say that I worked towards a certain PSLE result. I can look forward to a school that I want to go to. In Switzerland, there's no such choice.”
I put it to him that if, as the MOE says, every school is a good school, choice shouldn’t really matter.
“Every school being a good school does not mean every school is the same. If every school is the same, every school can't be a good school. So when we talk about this aspiration or this vision, of every school is a good school, it is really to say, it is possible at some point, every kid can go to a school that suits him or her best and help him or her achieve the best that he or she can be ... And that requires every school to be slightly different, to be strong in different areas that play to the strength of the kid. And for that to happen, choice is important.”
NARROWING THE GAP BETWEEN THE RICH AND THE POOR
He also cites other issues that proximity-based school admission raises.
"Just look at other countries where you have rich neighbourhoods with just that one rich school and all rich students go there. Then it will be a cocoon.”
I remark that under the current system, we are seeing this to a certain extent in Singapore too.
“But we can work against it, because we have the levers in place. We have the Direct School Admission (DSA) scheme that we can now make use of once we tweak the mechanisms," he said.
"We can now recognise talent for admission into schools. And if there's a singular talent, we can come up with a programme to develop those singular talents for students from poorer backgrounds as in the case of the Junior Sports Academy. So we take in students, including those from poor backgrounds, and train them professionally in sports.”
The subject of tuition inevitably comes up as the affluent can afford not just academic tuition, but sports tuition which gives them a leg-up even when it comes to DSA.
“The rich will always be able to take advantage of any system. Tuition is not a Government policy,” he says and maintains that the education system is being designed to narrow the differences between the affluent and the masses.
“With the right programmes and mechanisms in place, we can do this.”
He expects the expansion of MOE kindergartens to make a difference as well.
“One-third of the places are set aside for students from poorer backgrounds.”
However, I put it to him that if he is concerned that doing away with PSLE and implementing proximity-based admissions would result in greater social stratification, why not ensure a healthier socio-economic mix in neighbourhoods or situate schools better?
“You can mix the neighbourhood. Because 80 per cent of Singaporeans live in HDB, we can do some of it, but even so, not all neighbourhoods will be that mixed. But fundamentally, why take away the choice for a primary school student to work towards a secondary school that suits him best, that is strong in different areas that play to the strength of the kid?
“Different people have different strengths, and the system must be variegated enough to allow them the choice. First, to guide them to discover their own strength, and where their passion lies, where their interest lies, and then have a multi-path system for everyone to pursue what is best for them.”
I wonder how he decided which school was best for him when he was growing up.
In an interview with another publication, he was quoted as saying he wanted to go to Raffles Institution (RI) “because I wanted to do well".
I ask him what made him think that he had to go to RI to do well.
“I wanted to follow my brother. He went there, so as a younger brother, you tend to follow your elder brother. For a 12-year-old it was really just based on the fact that kor-kor went there. It was really just as simple as that.“
As it turns out, he went to a Special Assistance Plan institution, Maris Stella High School, as his Chinese-educated father wanted him to.
Mr Ong says he is happy with that choice and he “wouldn’t change a thing”.
“I think from there, I learnt how to overcome setbacks, I learn how to deal with people, talk to people, get things done. It’s very hard to articulate.”
To illustrate that today, every school has its strengths, he points out the “wonderful things” different schools are doing in the form of applied learning programmes, enrichment classes and varied pedagogies.
He claims that attitudes on the ground are changing.
“As an MP, I visit a lot of homes. I do feel on the ground PSLE is still a stressful exam, but I think on the ground, more and more parents and students are taking a lighter attitude towards it, that this is not the be-all and end-all. If you want to apply to polytechnic or university, increasingly, they don’t just look at your academic results anyway. They look at your aptitude.
“But more importantly is the job market. I think employers are also shifting and not just purely looking at academics. They are looking at your competencies and what you can do. The environment of moving towards advanced technology, high-tech innovative sectors is also making people feel that academics are not everything. In fact, getting your first qualification is a start of a lifelong journey and the deeper the sense of lifelong learning sinks in, the more we feel that PSLE is just really one small milestone.”
IS THE GOVERNMENT WALKING THE TALK?
While private-sector employers might be progressively hiring based on skills and competence rather than paper qualifications, I ask him about his views on whether the Government’s hiring practices are changing accordingly.
Last year, it was reported that the Public Service Division (PSD) would stop distinguishing between graduates and non-graduates, and grouping employees into divisions according to their paper qualifications.
Similar steps have been taken in the teaching profession to close the gap between graduates and non-graduates when it comes to salaries and promotions.
But is there still an unspoken partiality towards hiring graduates? Can the civil service do more?
“I would think yes, they can do more. It is doing more.
"Academic qualification does matter, but don’t put everything on an academic university education. There are different kinds of qualifications out there now, all of which can signal whether the person has the competency to do the job. So be more open, don’t just insist on one type of academic qualifications.”
He cites the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore as a “model employer”.
“CAAS now takes diploma as well as degree graduates to become air traffic controllers. Whatever your qualification is, you come in as an air traffic controller, you go through their very rigorous training, after that you're on probation. And once your probation is over, you can be a very good, proficient air traffic controller. Everyone is paid based on performance.
“I hope the civil service, or statutory boards, because they do have quite a bit of autonomy fixing their own hiring policy, take a hard look. When a job is skills-based in nature, really, there's no need to insist on different tiers of degrees, second-upper, first-class and so on. Really, hire based on skills and competencies.”
He emphasises that certain professions do still require a degree though and there is value in it.
“For example, don’t go to a doctor if he doesn’t have a degree, a medical degree. Certain professions you still need that degree, and therefore degree continues to be very useful.”
I point out that we don’t have a single non-graduate minister today. Can’t the Government more boldly set the tone?
“We are products of an education system of the past. But today, you look at the education system, we have students who opt for a more applied pathway through the diploma route. So you look at the students now, they’re making their choices very differently from the past. I think when they grow up, if they have interest in politics, what will be the state of ministers in future. It's hard to say. I think you'll get a much more diverse group coming from different pathways. I certainly hope so.”
SAGA OVER PARKING FOR TEACHERS WAS “UNNECESSARY”
As we continue talking about education, Mr Ong acknowledges that teachers play a vital role.
“My sympathies are totally with teachers. They have to face a lot of stress, a lot of demands from students, from parents, from MOE. But they are a very professional lot. I have great respect for teachers in MOE. It’s the backbone of our system. The entire quality of (the) education system really depends on the quality of teachers. They have displayed a tremendous level of professionalism.”
However, I remark that the recent saga over teachers having to pay for parking on school premises might have left many of them feeling under-appreciated.
The Auditor-General's Office (AGO) 2014/2015 Financial Year report noted that some educational institutions did not charge or undercharged for parking on their premises. It had called this a "hidden subsidy" which went against Government guidelines for public servants.
MOE had said that since then, it had been working with the PSD and Ministry of Finance "to determine an appropriate treatment for staff parking in schools".
Many members of the public took to social media to make a case for free parking for teachers in return for the numerous sacrifices teachers make in their jobs every day.
But the policy was implemented anyway.
“It is really unnecessary in my view – the whole saga,” says Mr Ong.
I ask him to clarify what he means since he had said in a Facebook post in May this year that charging parking fees at schools is about “upholding the value of self-discipline”. He had also said that “we have to respect our internal system of checks and balances. We cannot pick and choose which finding to address or comply with – we take them all seriously”.
So is he not on the authorities’ side on this?
“It’s hard to argue against it,” he says to me.
“We argued against it for a couple of years because between it being raised and being implemented was a good few years gap. That was the time we tried to talk to the authorities that feel there has to be parity in terms of every civil servant paying for parking at their workplace. But in the end, I think it's a principle that's hard to argue. So we explained to the teachers. Nobody likes to pay. But I do think the majority accepted it. We have implemented it. Let's just focus on the work from henceforth.”
FOCUSSING ON THE WORK
And the work is indeed what he seems to want to focus on.
While Mr Ong has been widely touted as one of the front-runners to be the next Prime Minister of Singapore, he claims it’s something he doesn’t think about.
“I really don’t want to think about that. If you’re an MP, be a good MP and if you're entrusted with a ministry, be a good minister. And that is where I am now. That should be my focus. I just want to be a good education minister, and there are so many things we need to do. So let's just focus on that.
“Every ministry is a good ministry,” he adds with a grin.
However, he recognises that more still needs to be done in his ministry and when I ask him what keeps him awake at night, he lists the tasks ahead of him.
“Some of the issues you raised - do exams need to be so stressful, can we customise education without the labelling and stigmatisation and making people feel that they're being sorted? How do we make sure that as we progress in life, there are still many options, many paths, so that not everyone is focused on just that one academic path? How can we make sure that there's more joy in learning in schools, while maintaining the rigour, and not having so much rigour that you kill the joy of learning? So these are key issues that we need to resolve.”