• The Convergence

Skills as important as knowledge to prepare the younger generation for the future, says Minister Ong

Conversations | By Seah Rui Shan, Associate Editor

Additional Reporting | Rebecca Metteo, Sharmili Pillai, Nicole Foo

Learn technology but at the same time learn the social sciences. It is the combination of that which makes us human and makes us continue to be relevant and valuable, says Mr Ong Ye Kung.

As the wave of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) hits the shores of Singapore, how do we prepare the younger generation for a very different future?


In an interview with The Convergence, Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung shared his views on getting students ready for a changing world.


Skills are key to remaining relevant


Mr Ong believes that skills are increasingly important for Singapore’s economy to remain relevant in the global environment. These skills refer to hard skills such as technical know-hows as well as critical soft skills.


The importance of skills emerges at a critical juncture with the rise of big data, marked by the culmination of easy access to massive information in the internet age. Academic qualifications are no longer the key yardstick to measure one’s worth in the workforce.


This means that it is no longer about the total amount of academic knowledge one knows, but how one translates that knowledge into skills.


These profound transformations accompanied by the digital revolution are reflective of how skills are no longer about one’s academic knowledge. It is rather the extent to which individuals are able to move beyond the acquired knowledge and complement it with useful skills to remain competent in the digital age.


While people are more susceptible to new and emerging technologies, it can also be a constructive platform where individuals are capable of adapting to the demands of 4IR which simultaneously benefits economic growth.


In light of the uncertainties, Mr Ong warns how the value of knowledge as a social leveller has “eroded tremendously” in today’s digital and technological age.


More importantly in today’s economy, knowledge mastery, which hones the development of analytical and critical thinking skills must be complemented with specialised technical and industrial skills.

In other words, staying relevant in an ever-changing global economy is contingent on the knowledge-based economy’s ability to place equal emphasis on both knowledge and skills. This warrants greater adaptability by the workforce by embracing changes accompanying the 21st century digital revolution.


But more than remaining competitive and relevant, Mr Ong raises the importance of creating a conducive and inclusive environment for development, learning and upscaling of each individuals’ skills.


Singapore’s economic growth must be inclusive where “everyone must benefit, everyone must have a good career, everyone must see hope for a better future”.


However, embracing these skills is not easy, considering how skills should be grounded on one’s passion and interest. Such passion and interests must be cultivated not merely for the spirit of lifelong learning but to propel individuals to embrace continuous skills upgrading.


How is the government preparing its workforce and citizens for the 21st century economy? Recognising the importance of nurturing passions and interests from a young age, Mr Ong points to one of the key transformations within the education system, which is to cut back on mid-year examinations in schools to ‘free up’ curriculum time. This is geared towards providing more time and space for better teaching and learning, to spur students’ interest.


Beyond knowledge, skills as the enabler of success


Despite greater emphasis on skills development, there remains an emphasis on academic excellence. Nevertheless, the Education Minister has pointed out how the structural changes in the education system are aimed at facilitating a growth mindset in students, and more significantly to cultivate a system that supports the discovery and development of talents and strengths, even beyond formal education.


A key component in striving towards a skills-based economy has been to encourage students to discover their talents at an early age. This would then be nurtured and deepened further throughout life.


Importance of both technical and humanistic skills

Group photo of Mr Ong Ye Kung and The Convergence crew. From left: Ms Soon Poh Suan, Media Director; Mr Michael Zhou, Editor-in-Chief; Mr Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Education; Mr Gautam Rajulu, Media Director; Mr Muhammad Quraishi Bin Abdol Wahab, President of NUS Students' Political Association; Ms Seah Rui Shan, Associate Editor. Photo: Ministry of Education.

When The Convergence asked about the relevance of the humanities to technical subjects, Mr Ong says “humanistic skills” remains an essential part.


Humanistic subjects refer to the arts, social sciences and humanities, which continue to play an essential role in developing individuals’ soft skills. They help nurture interpersonal skills and collaboration to enhance one’s holistic capability so that the workforce remains resilient during volatile economic conditions.


“Learn about technology but at the same time learn the social sciences. It is the combination of that (which) makes us human and continue to be relevant and valuable,” says Mr Ong. He goes further to explain that this is pertinent because Singapore’s workforce requires both technical and humanistic skills to remain “relevant and valuable” in the global economy.


This points to the winning formula for Singapore’s economy to stay competitive and relevant – the embodiment of a dynamic skilled workforce professionally equipped with both technically sophisticated and humanistic skills.


Greater sophistication in employment practices


While top-down education reforms and skills-upgrading initiatives enhance the development of skills, the current work environment has not been conducive for such growth. This is particularly so with humanistic skills being undervalued or being accorded with lower significance than technical skills.

Academic excellence in technically-skilled subjects is still in demand and it remains the primary shortlisting criteria of many employers.


Unless employers broaden key hiring practices to look out for a balance of both technical and humanistic skills, this will not change the deeply entrenched and narrow association of technical competency as an enabler of success.


In response to this, Mr Ong thinks employers’ hiring practices need to evolve further. Specific shortlisting methods should be developed with inclusivity and sophistication such that they move away from merely “look(ing) at your class of honours”.


Nonetheless, the minister is optimistic that progressive change is taking place.

“(There are) various policies that we have implemented (and) hiring practices are changing on the ground. Not en mass but various companies have stepped forth including certain civil service organisations. They have started to change things,” Mr Ong said.


All these will take time, but Mr Ong believes that both the economy and the education system will evolve to recognise the importance of skills development beyond academic excellence.

Ultimately, preparing our youths for the future is far more than just the acquisition of academic knowledge. The resilience and relevance of Singapore’s economy amidst the volatile global climate calls for the development and mastery of skills.


Please check out the video below for more!


About the interviewee: Mr Ong Ye Kung currently serves as the Minister for Education. He was elected Member of Parliament for Sembawang GRC in Sep 2015, and appointed to the Cabinet of Singapore on 1 Oct 2015. He had held the positions of Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) and Second Minister for Defence. He is concurrently a board member of the Monetary Authority of Singapore and Chairman of the Chinese Development Assistance Council. 

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