Speech by Mr Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) at the SkillsFuture Fellowships and SkillsFuture Employer Awards Presentation Ceremony, at the Intercontinental Hotel

President Tony Tan Keng Yam

Recipients of the SkillsFuture Fellowships and SkillsFuture Employer Awards

Ladies and Gentlemen

1. Good evening. First of all, congratulations to our 27 SkillsFuture Fellows and 14 SkillsFuture Employer Award recipients. I thank our tripartite partners who have devoted your time, your energy and most importantly, your unwavering support, to make these important awards possible. Thank you very much.

2. I will start my speech today with a rather tangential but I hope illustrative story � making rice dumplings. My mother-in-law, a traditional Hokkien lady, makes very good rice dumplings. Some years ago, my wife decided on the courageous course of learning her mother’s cooking, starting with rice dumplings. And so my mother-in-law showed her how rice dumplings were made. The marinate for the meat is concocted with various sauces and spices – a pinch here, a handful here, a bit there, or ‘pour until you think it’s just enough’. These amorphous instructions were given the ISO treatment by my wife, who diligently converted them into a recipe, with teaspoons, tablespoons, and cups as measurements.

3. As it turned out, the ISO protocol was not needed in her first year as a rice dumpling apprentice. All she was qualified to do was to wrap the dumplings � they have to be firm and tight, no single grain of rice should escape during the boiling process. And it needed a lot of practice. The next year, during the dumpling festival, my wife tried making it again, this time finally using the recipe � but the taste and texture was off the mark. The third year came, and she adjusted the recipe and tried again, this time I thought it came quite close – though she said it wasn’t good enough yet.

4. Three years later, during dumpling festivals, my wife will make dumplings without much reference to the recipe, and she has improvised upon what her mother taught her. When I asked her what changes she made, she would tell me ‘well, a pinch here, a handful there, a bit here, and this one pour until you think it’s just nice’. So the skills have been passed down.

5. My mother-in-law is a terrific cook. Like many mothers and grandmothers, she prepares our food with pride and love. There are many older Singaporeans with special skills who do not practise their craft as a profession or to earn a living. Neither do they seek recognition for the skills that they have acquired painstakingly through many years of practice.

6. I have encountered many other similar examples in various industries and professions. At the National Parks Board nursery at Bukit Panjang, I met a few orchid breeders. They are responsible for creating the new orchid varietals, which will be named after visiting foreign dignitaries � a very rare honour that Singapore can bestow. This is not something they learn from a polytechnic or university. When I asked them if they were training young people to do what they can do, they tentatively said ‘yes, yes, got, got.’ I really hope they are doing so.

7. I have also come across a furniture maker who used to work in a furniture boutique and over time figured out how to design and make good furniture. He went on to do up showrooms for big developers.

8. One of my best friends is an endodontist. He has practised root canal surgeries for probably 20 years or more, gone through thousands of procedures, and there are very few complications he’s not seen. When I had to do mine some years ago, he put me totally at ease for I knew I was in literally very good hands. Fortunately, we have good dental schools and my friend teaches in one of them, so I am confident the skills and experience will be passed on.

9. People with incredible skills at specialised crafts are all around us. We don’t realise it, nor appreciate them enough, perhaps because of our pre-occupation with formal academic qualifications. For crafts in recognised profession like surgeons, IT and increasingly the arts, the transmission has been quite successfully institutionalised in our tertiary institutions. But for many others, including the often lamented lost art of hawker food preparation, if we are not careful we lose the skills and tradition.

10. The Asian concept of acquiring such crafts often involves the apprentice seeking out some grandmaster, who then frustrates you with repetitive and seemingly pointless tasks, and then finally teaches you the skill, but will inevitably hold back one master stroke so you are never as good as him. Passing down skills is really an act of generosity and pride. It allows us to build upon, and surpass the previous generation if we have the talent, passion and patience.

11. The Europeans have successfully institutionalised a wide range of craft training which leads to formal qualifications – they get better with each generation and this has in fact become the engine of their productivity growth. It starts with codifying the skills, then it works through mentorship and patient teaching. It is perfected through practice by the trainee.

12. This is really the key essence of SkillsFuture. It is not about using your $500 Credit to attend some programme. It is about finding one’s special spark, focusing on it and fanning it into a flame, through training, mentorship, hard work and practice, and for society to recognise these outstanding accomplishments across many fields.

13. Today we celebrate individuals who have gone through the process to acquire their crafts, and organisations which develop the systems to support the movement. SkillsFuture Singapore received a very strong response when it invited nominations, and we have a crop of very deserving winners. Let me tell you a few of their stories.

14. Mr Edwin Neo – He started out by repairing shoes for a living after his National Service, to help his brother-in-law while deciding on a career path. But news of the quality of his work spread. The business grew and he now has his own brand. Speaking to him just now, he said he learned how to make shoes in Budapest in Hungary. Mr Neo could have chosen to focus on his business. Instead, today, he spends much of his time developing others and passing on his knowledge and skills, and not holding back the last master stroke. For example, one of his staff successfully obtained certification as a Qualified Shoe Fitter from the Society of Shoe Fitters in the United Kingdom. Mr Neo plans to set up a workshop to train even more individuals in the art of shoemaking.

15. Ms Pushpavalli started out as a trainee teacher after a mid-career switch, and spent over 20 years in early childhood education. Today, she is a kindergarten principal. On top of mentoring her teachers, she also lectures at institutions such as Ngee Ann Polytechnic and SEED Institute. She shares her knowledge and experience at research conferences. This is important, because the knowledge of teaching and guiding children of different personalities, strengths and weaknesses, is something difficult to glean from a book.

16. Ms Fatimah Mohsin runs her own bridal studio. After graduating from LASALLE International Fashion School with a Diploma in Fashion Merchandising, she spent over 18 years in the fashion and bridal industry, learned on the job, and continues to attend courses in professional and bridal make-up. She is an accredited People’s Association trainer, and is planning to take up the Advanced Certificate in Training Assessment at the Institute for Adult Learning. She also plans to set up a social enterprise to train vulnerable individuals such as single mothers in make-up skills, so that they can earn a living and be financially independent.

17. If an individual can make such a great impact, an organisation can do even more. Today we are also honouring organisations that have made a big impact in supporting SkillsFuture, and the deepening of skills.

18. One such company receiving an award tonight is DBS. DBS supports the skills development of its staff through the DBS Academy. Set up in 2015, it allows staff to pick up new skills throughout their career in a wide variety of areas such as search engine optimisation, marketing and entrepreneurial skills.

19. But what’s more important is the company’s approach of centring its human resource practices on skills and competencies, and not over rely on formal paper qualifications. I am not saying academic qualifications are not relevant in HR � they are a good and relevant proxy in making hiring decisions, but it cannot be the only yardstick. If we had placed attainment of ‘A’ levels, Polytechnic Diplomas or University degrees as entry criteria for various trades, our orchid breeder, furniture maker or Mr Neo, would not be doing what they are doing today. Instead we must recognise their rare and inestimable talent, and find ways to recognise them.

20. So DBS uses competency-based assessments during its recruitment process. DBS wants to know: Can this individual work under pressure? Does he fit in well with the team? Earlier this year, DBS organised a hackathon called the DBS Hack2Hire, to identify close to 100 developers for its technical team. Candidates had to pass an online programming assessment, before being shortlisted for a two-day hackathon where their problem-solving abilities were put to the test.

21. These are good practices to consider and emulate. I think all our organisations, including civil service organisations, have room to improve in this regard. It is not just the big organisations that can do this. SMEs can do this too. Tonight we have three SME recipients of the SkillsFuture Employer Awards � Enviably Me Pte Ltd, MTQ Engineering Pte Ltd and On Cheong Company Pte Ltd. They have also, despite their size as an SME, put in tremendous effort in nurturing their staff and training them to be multi-skilled and competent in what they are doing.

22. I would like to end by sharing my own experience with my SkillsFuture journey. It is not a story of how I use my $500 (which I have not), or what courses I am currently taking. It is about how I learn the skills I use today � analysing policies, evaluating options, taking in feedback, getting different agencies to work together, preparing and delivering public messages.

23. The schools and university I went to did not teach me all that � not explicitly at least. But the formal education lay a strong foundation of basic skills, which enabled me to pick up what I needed on the job. I had many mentors over the years, who showed me the ropes, and how everything hangs together. I served as the secretary to meetings for many years. Note taking taught me how to crystalise an issue. Sitting in a meeting enabled me to observe how decisions were made. I saw, first hand, how the Prime Minister and other Ministers work with their foreign counterparts. I read the old speeches, letters, even memoirs, written by leaders, and from there I had a good peep into their minds and their patterns of thinking.

24. The civil service is not awarded tonight, but it has been for me an excellent SkillsFuture employer. It has a system that enables institutional memories, our efforts to realise our national interests, to be passed down generation after generation. And most important ingredient for this accomplishment are the leaders � political leaders, senior civil servants – who devoted their entire careers to public service and developing this craft. They passed down the capability generously. For that, I am truly grateful.

25. To President Tony Tan, I thank you for your support as the patron for both awards, for being an erstwhile supporter of education and lifelong learning, and for devoting your working life to public service. You may not be aware of it, but many of us here, have consciously or unconsciously, learned from you.

26. Let us all continue to learn, to teach and develop that culture of deep respect for skills in Singapore. We can only be a great nation if each one of us on this small island offers up the best of ourselves. Thank you.

Source: Ministry of Education, Singapore

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