Seeding for the Future

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Seeding the future — That is the call from Mr Ngiam Tong Dow to invest more in our youths by creating an innovative environment for them.

Mr Ngiam, former Permanent Secretary of the Prime Minister’s Office, spoke to a 300-strong audience, including NUS alumni and members of the public, at the Shaw Foundation Alumni Guild House as part of the U@live forum series. The speech, which lasted about 15 minutes, was followed by an hour’s dialogue.

In a wide-ranging speech that touched on topics like the importance of higher education in the contemporary world and the issue of foreign talent, he emphasized that the competition faced by countries now will be more “knowledge intensive” rather than “resource based”.  Mr Ngiam also touched on the importance of higher education in the contemporary world, particularly in Singapore.

Mr Ngiam, now an adjunct Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, had explored these issues during his years in civil service and he had shared with them his insights with regard to the sustenance of economic growth—how we can prepare our future generation in the face of these new challenges to be innovative and possess a wealth creation mind-set.

The former civil servant of about 40 years observed that most of Singapore’s brightest students often end up attending the Raffles family of schools. He pointed out that issues – such as the failure to solve problems out of the norm – may arise as a result of receiving an education from merely “two sets of teachers (from Raffles Institution and Raffles Girls’ School)”.

Mr Viswa Sadasivan, former Nominated Member of Parliament and moderator of the dialogue said that these students were often told, at the age of 13 years old, that they are the cream of the crop, and commented that “Ït’s not a good thing because it will lead to elitism and complacency.”

He also ventured that Singapore’s focus on efficiency and avoidance of failure had possibly led to the decreasing level of resilience amongst the new generation in Singapore.

Mr Ngiam responded that it is possible for the government to take a step backwards and “leave Singaporeans alone”.

“Every time we’ve got a problem, we set up another stat (statutory) board. This means the employment of civil servants. It doesn’t grow the economy you know, ” he said, although conceding that sometimes “civil servants can be creative too (in responding to problems)”.

When asked if Singapore still needs scholars, in light of creating elitism, Mr Ngiam cited the example of the imperial examination system in China.

“Over the years they became (reliant on using) the Confucius analects to solve these problems, they had too much test on Confucianism, so instead of solving practical problems, they became very literary.”

“They’ve got a very good imperial scholar system; where the best young people from all the provinces congregate.”

“But you must ask the young people the right questions.”

Mr Viswa aptly summed it up with a question: How (then) can we transcend the plateau of competence to the peak of brilliance?

Besides talking about the education system in Singapore, a member of the audience, Andrea raised the question on what Singaporeans can do in face of the influx of foreign talents.

Mr Ngiam replied that there is a need to raise our self-confidence levels. “Every time we have a problem, (we tend to) call in a consultant, hire a foreign CEO… Why have we lost our confidence,” he said.

In the final minutes of his speech before the dialogue, Mr Ngiam proposed that the Ministry of Finance (MOF) extend a $100 million grant to EDB to invest in an equity of knowledge-based start-up companies that will be germinated in our universities and polytechnics.

He emphasized on the fact that “universities are the only strategic assets we have in this highly competitive knowledge-based global world economy”.

“If we fail to mobilize our universities, Singapore will quickly revert back to the stagnant trade burdened economy of the 1950s.”