Ng Chee Meng: Joyful mission
Education, transport and politics may be relatively new to Ng Chee Meng, but the Minister for Education (Schools) tells Wong Sher Maine that he has been taking it in his stride
Ng Chee Meng
Minister for Education (Schools) & Second Minister for Transport; MP for Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC
Family: Wife Michelle and two daughters
Hobby: Reading, most sports, including football, golf and cycling
Former Chief of Defence Force and fighter pilot Ng Chee Meng gets into a philosophical discussion about joy, in an interview that had set out to talk about his portfolios.
"Joy is not temporal. It's not necessarily captured by daily experiences, but it is a state of being, an attitude," said the Minister for Education (Schools) and Second Minister for Transport, during the interview at his Ministry of Education office at Buona Vista.
His musings build on his revelation that his outlook in life is "to find joy in everything I do." It is an attitude which has allowed him to enjoy the changes and responsibilities in his work over the past year, when he left a 30-year career in the SAF to enter politics.
No time with family? He enjoys breakfast with his wife most mornings, and she never goes to bed without him at night. "We cannot quite control what happens the rest of the time, but the start and end of day are ours to treasure," he pointed out.
Not-so-pleasant encounters with residents on the ground? These are mitigated by other instances, like when an elderly man whom he had helped during the meet-the-people session waited two hours patiently to hand him a box of kueh lapis cake. "How not to be joyous when you meet people who appreciate what our team does?"
As a minister, there are portable leadership skills from his time at the SAF which stand him in good stead - "synthesising opportunities to create a direction to lead the organisation forward, creating organisation motivation and energy toward a purposeful mission, emphathising with the ground."
Library of Instincts
Still, Mr Ng has had to build up what he calls a "personal library of instincts", culled from book knowledge and experience from others, so that he can make good decisions in his new fields of work.
He has been reading up on Singapore's education history, even pre-1965, to understand how systems have evolved to meet changing needs. He is also surveying literature about education. Among the six books which are currently by his bedside, one is "The Global Fourth Way: The Quest for Educational Excellence".
Beyond books, he has spoken to the Education ministers before him, the permanent secretaries of the ministry, principals, teachers, parents, students and even industry professionals who have opinions on the sort of workers they would want to hire in future.
"I try to understand as much as possible, not just to make a decision at some point in time, but also to be able to look at disparate view points and data sets, understand issues in our education system, our strengths, and especially areas we can build further," he pointed out.
While he does not have a designated mentor, he quipped that he has the best of three worlds in that there are three senior Ministers he works with, in different facets of the job. "DPM Teo Chee Hean for GRC grassroots work, DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam in the Social sector, and Minister Khaw Boon Wan for Transport. I am the beneficiary of three excellent mentors who have given me different perspectives, who have different styles of leadership and experiences. All these have helped a lot," he said.
Collaboration, values and resilience
Mr Ng has come away convinced that when it comes to education, Singapore needs to nurture our students towards more "collaborative success".
"Our school and education system has always benchmarked positively against other advanced countries. But there is an overemphasis on academics and we are adjusting the system. The first has been to change the PSLE scoring system," he said, on his announcement in May that PSLE T-scores will be replaced by wider scoring bands.
"This will lead to less individual competition between students. I do not have to succeed at the expense of my friends, but rather, I can succeed together with them."
He is quick to add: "Competition in itself is not bad, it is excessive competition that is bad. Collaborative success does not mean we don't compete, but that we come together as teams and compete against other people."
Teams here refer to class-based, school-based or even national teams against the rest of the
And while the qualities of the adult who would emerge from the Singapore education system are well-known to educators - confident, self-directed learners who are concerned citizens and contribute actively - Mr Ng dwells on values and resilience.
Emphasising a more holistic approach for an all-round development in five domains (values, intellect, physique, social skills and aesthetics, 五育：德、智、体、群、美) Mr Ng, who liberally peppers his answers with Chinese idioms, said that the right values entail a sense of wanting to give back to society.
Boosting resilience is also a large part of his agenda.
"When I was a kid, we believed "失败乃成功之母", he said, citing a Chinese proverb which means failure is the mother of success.
"Today I don't know if we have that same level of proclivity to just try and fail until we succeed."
"I think we can afford to give our children a little more play time, let them head outdoors to explore or experiment with things they enjoy. They may fall down, scrape their knees, but they will learn the skills to pick themselves up, grow in character and tenacity and resiliency. These are what I call tacit learning, what makes a complete person."
When you point out that Singapore has been talking about such holistic approaches to education for years, he mused: "In such human activities, you will never have an once-off permanent solution because the world changes, we change, and generations change. Education is an on-going endeavour."
But what Singapore has going for it is its ability to follow through policies and implement with conviction. "When we say it, we mean it and we do it to the best of our abilities. Singapore does better than most other countries in closing the gap between ideation and implementation," he said.
Lesson from the A Levels
The Petir interview was conducted a day before the release of the PSLE results. As the writer confesses that her son is receiving his results, Mr Ng then reveals that his academic nadir was when he received his A Level results. It was the lowest point during his chequered school years.
Said Mr Ng, the fourth child sandwiched between two President's Scholars in a family of five sons: "I was not the really studious type. If my mother were still alive, she would tell you I never studied for my PSLE, probably played too much, even though I did well enough."
When he dropped to the last one-third in his Secondary 3 class, he bucked up for his O Levels and made it to Hwa Chong Institution where he kept up a busy CCA calendar.
During his A Level years, he lets on that he was in the Junior Flying Club, the Science Club and also won a national schools Gold medal for taekwondo. These, in addition to his secondary school CCA National Police Cadet Corps, Mr Ng credits for inculcating soft skills in a rounded education.
"Due to different reasons, I didn't do as expected in my A Levels," he said candidly. "My teachers were surprised, I was surprised, friends whom I helped in their work scored better than I did."
"But it was one of the best learning moments in my life. I learnt about setbacks, humility, and most importantly, that when you encounter a setback, you get on
with life and continue to do your best."
Nurturing Young Activists
Even when it comes to work at his Punggol branch, Mr Ng Chee Meng thinks about education.
He thoroughly enjoys working with younger activists, mentoring and giving them opportunities to rise to the occasion.
"We give them exposure to service in the neighbourhood, give them responsibilities at a young age and throw them into the deep end with guidance," he said, of these youths who range in age from their late teens to early 20s.
"They do everything from organising grassroots events to managing the budget, with oversight from more experienced activists. It's very meaningful work, transferring learning to the ground and building capacity in the community."
Some ask, "Mr Ng, what if I make a mistake?" The Minister, with building resilience at the top of his mind, replies: "It's OK, enjoy the learning process, we have more events for you to practice on next time."
He has been well-supported by what he calls a "very good team of like-minded dedicated folks", so much so that his answer to a question on the challenges of branch work was: "Actually, I find it very fun. We work hard together, we find purpose and we have fun."
By building up the grassroots network, to strengthen community bonds, he aims to "make Punggol the best kampong possible for residents."
This article was first published in December 2016 issue of Petir.