The TNP Interview: Heng Swee Keat
Education Minister Heng Swee Keat gave a wide-ranging interview to The New Paper. Here are some more of his answers.
Q: At this year’s National Day Rally, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke about the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) and how it’s helping poly students get higher level degrees.
During the Parliamentary debate on Aspire, you said it doesn’t matter for a poly student whether or not you get a degree as long as there’s education along the way, and some jobs need degrees, some jobs don’t. So in a way, is there a disconnect? Doesn’t this go against what MOE is trying to push? That having a degree may not be the most important thing, but at the same time, you’re offering a range of options.
A: Let me say that at the end of it all, we learn something for one of two reasons.
One, you learn something for the joy of learning, it should drive all of our learning.
The other is we learn to be, so we can be better in what we do. If we want to be better in whatever we do, what matters most is learning. And learning takes place in a variety of contexts.
This conversation that we have can be made into great learning experience for you, for me.
So what matters at the end of the day is learning — learning of knowledge, learning of skills, learning of values, and if we can do that in any context then there’s no reason to think of learning only in an institutional context, and only in the context of achieving qualifications.
I think it would be a mistake to think of learning as just a matter of attaining qualifications. It is a lot of learning, and a lot of great performances, say a great performance on the job, and what we choose to do, depends on a whole variety of factors.
Take an obvious example, coming out of a film institute doesn’t make one a great actor or great director. Conversely, there are many actors and directors who came out because they have that touch and feel, and they learn all the while.
What this says is first of all, qualifications don’t measure everything.
Qualifications per se does not equate to a great performance. And a great performance relies critically on a whole variety of factors. Some of which cannot be measured by exams, by grades and by specific qualifications.
Some of it can... in some basic standards. For example, you want to be a doctor, we want to be assured that the doctor has passed, has some basic knowledge. But that does not make you a great doctor. Out of medical school, you have so many doctors. Some are better than others. And my own observation is that those who become better and better are those who keep learning. With or without qualifications.
Q: So what you’re saying now is that having SIT and all these other institutions is to provide an additional place for deeper learning, but they shouldn’t be considered an end point?
A: Absolutely, I would say that what we want to do in our education system is to create many, many more opportunities for all forms of learning.
To expand the pathways, to expand the opportunities for learning across all levels, across all domains. So across all levels, meaning that whether it’s ITE, polytechnic or university, we create many more learning opportunities. And at the end of the day they’re all interconnected. So someone can take a modular programme in say ITE, accumulate enough modules, learning enough skills and go on to the poly and beyond, and keep on learning. That’s one mode.
And across all different domains so learning is not just about one subject, but learning different things in different areas.
One very good illustration of this is the story of Zhangkai, who was mentioned during the National Day Rally. His learning journey is fascinating — went to EM3, almost failed. I asked why he took up digital animation in SIT, he said he wasn’t very good at learning. Went to Digipen, he said the biggest challenge for him on the job now is to maintain an open attitude towards learning. He said it’s very difficult when you spend 15 to 20 hours to create that short animation, you send it to your bosses and they send it back with all sorts of comments.
He said, never give up, and keep pressing on.
Those are things you can’t simply measure, you don’t score people on that. But really, that character trait allowed him to succeed and therefore i think, if we’re thinking about how do we want to help everyone succeed, it is not to look too narrowly at one part of a person, too narrowly at grades, but to go beyond that to look at the whole person, and then to go beyond that. And because of that, we create many more opportunities for people to try, to learn to excel.
Q: You mentioned Zhangkai, he’s 27 now. Not many people can afford that luxury of being in school for so long without supporting the family, given how we’re also an ageing population. Would MOE be looking at more plans to give awards, bursaries, scholarships to help keep people in school while also being able to support the family?
A: In fact we have just enhanced bursaries quite significantly for students in our Institutes of Higher Learning. And now with the Earn and Learn programme, students hold full-time jobs and earn full salaries, while learning to build skills that are relevant to areas that they’re highly interested in.
Q: On to something a bit lighter now. Last Sunday, PM Lee said that the nucleus of the fourth-generation leadership is now in place. And you have been have been identified as one of the leaders who will take us into the next decade. The education portfolio has always been something of a stepping stone into something much bigger. We have DPM Tharman, we have Mr Ng Eng Hen, both former education ministers. So, where do you see yourself in the next Cabinet?
A: First and foremost, I enjoy my education portfolio tremendously. You walk into a building where everybody is really very energised to do the best for our children. You walk into a school and you’re energised by all these young children who are having great fun and young, earnest learners, full of promise. And lots and lots of very dedicated teachers, committed to what they’re doing. I find it a very energising Ministry.
I never think in terms of what next, because at the end of the day... I mentioned to you earlier on that I’ve always protested, I enjoy what I’m doing so much that I don’t want to move, in the same way, and the reason is this: In everything that I do, I believe that one should just focus on the mission at hand and really give your very best.
You give your very best so that you can take that particular unit, that particular organisation forward and build on what your predecessors have done, and hopefully leave an even better foundation for your successor and find a better successor than yourself. Because that’s how we make progress, and that’s how we want our children to be better than us. So that’s my very simple approach to life.
Q: What is your proudest moment in MOE?
A: I won’t say there’s one moment. It has been an immensely meaningful and fulfilling time so far. You are in touch with people who care so much about other people, care so much about children, care so much about doing what is right and what is good. Many teachers and many principals don’t just focus on exams and grades.
Many of them go the extra mile to look at how they can help the child. So many stories of teachers that say they wish they can have be with the kid full-time, and make an even greater success of him or her. Especially children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Q: The message thus far in the upcoming election has been that we’re electing the next generation of leaders, we’re electing people who can take Singapore forward. We’re asked to think at a very national level about who we want to form the next Government. But others say that the issues during this election are far more local, municipal things, bread and butter. Would you agree, that it’s more local or national?
A; First of all, the local and the national are not distinct parts. Whatever happens nationally will affect us as individuals wherever you live.
For example, look at education, you can say it’s a national thing but at the end of the day, even if you have the best education in the world, every child has the best possible education, they can only all succeed if Singapore succeeds.
So everything has to be seen in a much broader context of Singapore and indeed, of the world. It’s not whether it’s a national issue, a national education issue, it’s an issue of national success.
Just look at Greece. Lots of graduates, lots of students, but half can’t even get a job. It has to be seen in a broader context. So first and foremost, we’ve got to think long term about Singapore, we’ve got to think how to make Singapore succeed so we can create the environment to create a variety of jobs, to create the quality of jobs for our young people and indeed for everyone.
And second, when we’re able to do that, we’ll have a lot more resources to do things, both nationally and locally. So nationally to improve our transport system, to build more schools, more hospitals, so on and so forth to continue to raise the quality of healthcare, education, infrastructure, housing and so on. That’s at the national level.
There is an important role at a local level. If we think of Singapore as a caring society, as a local society. That sense of caring and kindness has to happen somewhere, it can’t just be a magical place somewhere else. It has to happen in our schools, in our workplace, in our neighbourhood. One very special characteristic of Singapore is that 82 per cent of us live in HDB flats.
How do we create that sense of home in the neighbourhood? If we’re able to do that, and you see that right across Singapore, I think we’ll then see a much kinder, more caring society.
Q: How do you de-stress?
I try to spend time with my wife and two children.
I love the Botanic Gardens so I go there from time to time, I do my runs, which is always very therapeutic.
I do a mix of very intensive runs and shorter runs, within the same session.
Q: So I hear you like fish soup?
A: Yes! Quite a few favourite stalls, there’s one at Maxwell Food Centre that’s very good, another one at the old Ellenborough Market, And of course, there’s one in the coffee shop in my contituency. Run by an elderly couple, they get huge batang fish every day, and sell four or five — tells you about the quality.