Lead, Minister Heng, Lead

Heng Swee Keat’s speech at the Education COS yesterday signaled change. Nonetheless, I was somewhat disappointed. Not at the direction he was taking, since I am a supporter of education for the student, education for learning, and education for values.

I was disappointed at the apparent lack of leadership. Heng sounded like he lacked the necessary confidence. He outlined what he thought were the objectives of education in para. 97 of his speech, but when it came time to talk about implementation, he pulled back and cautioned against moving too fast or too far. At a time when he needed to be courageous, he appeared timid.

Education alone cannot give us a good life, and we need to be clear what a good life is. If a good life is simply about getting ahead of others, and achieving the 5Cs, the competitive pressure in the workplace will define how we as parents and teachers view education. Then no amount of changes in the education system can alter the reality of each of us chasing after material and positional goods. We cannot have broader definitions of success in education without our society accepting broader definitions of success in life. In many respects, the education system reflects societal norms and expectations.

It sounds like the Mr Heng is more willing to let society shape his ministry than he is to use his ministry to shape our society. If he truly believes that education affects outcomes, then he has to lead our society by imparting those values to our students.

Perhaps, if I were to be generous, I could think that he is hoping to squeeze more buy-in from those entrenched in the “old ways”, but he need not try to be that popular. We know the system has flaws. Education is one of the most griped-about issues in our country. Education is often the reason why our citizens migrate. Whichever way he moves, there will be dissent and displeasure. If he would try to fix it, now is not the time for wavering – courage, vision and leadership are what he really needs.

Yes – Heng has pointed us in a better direction, but a minister’s value is in his leadership. Now lead, Minister Heng, lead.



  1. I think the problem isn’t just that he can’t lead. There are 2 pressure points on him. One from the top (party leadership) and one from the bottom (parents) – If you can’t get the results we want, you are out!
    It’s not easy to revamp a system that has become so complex with so many different steams and roadmaps.
    It’s important to get support from parents. Do they want more of the same or a complete revolution? The latter involves great risks, sacrifices and commitment.
    I think the minister can be forgiven for being timid. Courage to lead stems from trust from followers. I guess the prevalent deficit of trust is the core problem right now. Solving that might be the first priority for the government at large.


    1. Hi Observer,

      Thanks for your comment. It is no easy thing to be a minister, but I would disagree that courage to lead stems from trust from followers. I believe it is an ecosystem where trust empowers good leadership and good leadership engenders trust.

      While it may still fall in part to parents like myself to line up behind Heng to help push the vision forward (and indeed I am behind him), it is also the role of the government to take bold steps at the vanguard of vision.

      I hope that my blog post will be seen as more of an encouragement than an indictment, that is what I had hoped for it to achieve – to spur our leaders on to make changes more courageously, for I am afraid that we may be running out of time.


      1. I certainly didn’t see your post as an indictment. You are spot on in your reply of the ecosystem. It takes all hands onboard to make our system shipshape. I think you are one brave parent who is ready for bold vision, but the real question I think I was trying to ask was are there enough brave parents like you willing to take the plunge. It’s quite alright for us to demand bold vision, but when the bold vision demands the same of us, are we there to embrace it? i think that is the doubt I have.

  2. 🙂 Just curious why Minister Heng didn’t have the “courage” to rally for support from parents to implement bold visionary moves… certainly, he enjoys fairly strong support from the ground.


    1. Exactly why I expected him to push it harder. If the Singapore Conversations are anything to go by, a major shift in education is sorely needed and strongly supported by most Singaporeans. One guess I have is that there is resistance from “incumbents” in the ministry, but if that is the case, I think Heng is being too soft with them.


  3. No discrepancy from the man. He reads society perfectly. Most voters believe a good educational certificate will give them a good life. Sinkies all want to have 5-day workweeks, minimum $3K starting pay, 5% normal annual increments just for showing face at office, minimum 3 months bonus, etc. And Sinkies think a Uni degree is the ticket. 99% of parents want their kids to have Uni degrees. What parents want is assurance that their kids will be able to attend Unis. Parents don’t give a shit about high-falutin new age definitions of success. To them they just want to see their kids earn good salaries, preferably at least $5K by the time their kids hit 28 yrs old, able to buy flats comfortably, etc. Simple as that. If he can’t convince voters that he is the man to provide, he will lose votes. Also simple as that.


  4. What s leadership then? It could start with having a vision he/she truly believes in. After vision are the strategies to achieve this vision. Then the hardwork start …. with good two-way communications, with like minded folks, with folks with different ideas, with folks that are against the vision, with folks that are bo-chaped, with many other type of folks.

    These two-way communications, above, are critical for your vision and strategies, to get buy-in, to get early feedback, to get better 20/20 foresights, to rally “the troops” and etc. These steps together, would be the critical success factors to good execution and implementation.

    So the pertinent questions are … does Mr. Heng has the vision he believe in? does he have the strategies? does he have the right platform, the right audience, the right medium, to have these two-way communications? Of course, one always need to have the courage, the right mindset, the right approach to have these two-way communications.


    1. I think he has a vision. His strategies and tactics are obviously incomplete, and tentative. Perhaps this is why he too is so tentative in his advance. This is a point that worries me.

      The different ways forward are easy to lay out on the table and should already have been, given that 1) education issues have been talked about for ages, and 2) we have many apparently capable and well paid policy experts in government. Aren’t there always plan Bs and Cs? Aren’t our policy thinkers always aware of the options and the issues? If the options are known, then it is a matter of execution, which requires leadership.

      If we have no clear policy options, then I am happy to offer some, and question what our policymakers are doing.

      Every day that the weaknesses in education are not addresses is one day where our people and resources are being wasted. One more day that our citizens will think of going abroad for alternatives. Time is not on our side.


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