Speech by Mr Heng Swee Keat at the Singapore Human Resource (HR) Awards 2014 Presentation Gala


Thank you for inviting me to join you this evening. My heartiest congratulations to all award recipients for being first-in-class in human resource management. I am happy to celebrate your achievements with you. I feel a strong connection in a room full of HR people, because we are basically in the same line of work – we are both in the business of bringing out the best in our people.

My MOE colleagues and I bring out the best in our students in schools; all of you do so with the teams in your companies at the workplace. When our students go from being our students, to becoming your team members, that step for them should be smooth, natural and upwards – it is all part of one lifelong journey of aspiring, learning and achieving. So actually tonight I see a room full of not only captains of industry and Singapore’s best in the field of HR, but a room full of people developers, of teachers at the workplace.

Success Lies in Lifelong Learning

You may know that I am on the SG50 Steering Committee. I have been thinking a lot about not just our last 50 years, but much more about our next 50 years. I am especially interested in what allows some societies or nations to last and to succeed. I am sure all of you spend a lot of time too investigating the secret of success of the world’s best companies and organisations.

The answer often lies in the fact that they do many things right. What undergirds this ability is that, as individuals and teams, they never stop learning. Every day, in real time, in real life, they learn, unlearn, relearn, and they put that learning into practice.

I have been meeting many of our pioneer generation of educators. Every one of you knows them, you were taught by them. They are a really impressive generation, given the duty of shaping a nation in our earliest days when we had very little by way of resources or curriculum. Many of our pioneer educators had to make things up as they went, some of them in makeshift classrooms, some of them doing everything from teaching multiple subjects to helping villagers write letters to chasing chickens out of the classroom, some of them going deep into the kampungs to reach their students.

I know, in your industries, you face today’s version of these challenges. You all need to innovate as you go in an ever-shifting world. When I ask our pioneer educators, what did it take to make it through those days, I always hear, in their modest way, “We were learning all the way. We just learn and we try along the way.” Yet what an impact they have had, simply by being ever-ready to learn and practise. This is the common refrain from educators, business leaders, people who are the best in their field is this: they struggle with real-life, real-time challenges where there are no textbook answers, they experiment with solutions, they learn something new and they practise what they learn. They are streetsmart, because they learn literally on the street. They are fully absorbed, fully involved lifelong learners.

We Need a Breakthrough in Lifelong Learning

So, how do we live this same pioneering, learning spirit today?

One way is to go back to school. In Singapore, we have quite a strong tendency to turn to schools and learning institutions when we want to learn more, because, as a people, we associate learning so closely with what happens in the classroom, and with acquiring credentials. These are important. It is why we have many excellent formalised programmes, and why people take further studies seriously. Today, business schools, trade schools, commercial trainers, online institutes have codified large swathes of knowledge. This theory is packaged in compact, compressed forms to help people learn quickly. Technology also allows people to learn more efficiently. Many of the institutionalised learning opportunities available to us today, our pioneers did not have. It makes sense to make the most of these resources.

But in-class courses have some limitations. The first is that we may not be able to truly and fully apply what we learn in class, to life and to work outside of class. Educators call this transfer of learning. A telling example of this is the OECD’s recent Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), where they analyse the level, distribution, and utilisation of skills among adults around the world. They found that some countries like Japan are strong in fundamentals like reading and mathematics, compared to other countries like the US where their literacy and numeracy skills are weaker. However, when it comes to how well the skills learnt in school are used, the US beat many other countries.

What this says to me is that ultimately, what matters is not just what we know, but how we use what we know. This is the shortcoming of book learning alone. Learning needs to be put to practice, and practice needs to inform learning. What we want is a total environment – comprising the classroom, the workplace, the whole society’s culture – that encourages, enables, and rewards learning throughout one’s
Lifetime. This is a critical success factor of lifelong learning.

Another limitation of in-class learning alone is it can seldom truly replicate the dynamics of the workplace. If you think about it, business schools come up with case studies, medical schools have simulations, military schools have exercises, many vocational and professional institutes have practicums of some sort. All of these are really ways to mimic the complexities of the real workplace. All these are important and useful. But none of them can ever fully replicate the conditions of the workplace. Furthermore, if you are the only person to go for studies, what you learn remains alien to your other team members. It’s harder for you to practise what you have learnt, and for learning to be transferred. Practice makes perfect. And practice needs a context, and people to practise with.

So, besides trying hard to replicate the workplace in the classroom, we must make better use of what we already have, and what better place to learn than at the workplace itself? Indeed, in most contexts, the best place to do practical, applicable learning is really the workplace. Each day at work offers an opportunity unlike any other to learn on-the-job. I think we need to make a skills and learning breakthrough in Singapore – we must place just as much, if not more, emphasis on learning outside the classroom, in other words, learning on-the-job. The breakthrough must be to make this opportunity concrete and meaningful for every worker – every person coming to work must have the opportunity to learn, substantially and continually, on the job. We must be bold about experimenting new ways to make the workplace a learning place. We should blur the boundary between learning in school and learning in life.

Let me share with you what we are trying in our schools. Here, I am talking about our schools as workplaces, and our teachers as people who themselves engage in lifelong learning. In our schools, we have the Professional Learning Community, action research, peer observation, teacher mentors – these are all ways in which we help our teachers to continually learn on the job. The best teachers are the ones who are continually learning. It was true of our pioneer educators, and true of our teachers today too. We hence have many initiatives to develop reflective practitioners in our schools. They translate theoretical lessons into practices and results. And for our students, we will be introducing the Applied Learning and Learning for Life Programmes in all our secondary schools by 2017. I believe this total approach supports our teachers to be reflective leaner-do-ers, and contributes towards Singapore students being very strong in real world skills like problem-solving. There is more that we can do and learn.

I’m sure our schools have a lot to learn from all of you too. I would love to hear your stories and experiences. If we want to make significant change, I hope we can learn together, to make learning in the workplace much more extensive. As employees, we need to become reflective practitioners, not just do-ers, but learner do-ers. As supervisors, we need to be nurturing mentors. On-the-job learning lets you match what your employees are doing and learning directly with your strategy and operations. The mentoring process builds bonds and esprit de corps in your teams. It helps your staff to progress in their skills and do a better job. In turn, you can better reward and retain your teams, creating a virtuous cycle. Companies that do not promote on-the-job learning are losing an opportunity.

I understand, this can be challenging for our SMEs. I’m glad that SHRI is working with ASME, and I applaud our SMEs who have the vision to make on-the-job learning a priority.

I have been visiting some other countries where on-the-job learning is a part of the culture. When I was in the Netherlands, I was really struck to see that over half their companies are approved training centres. They take on-the-job training very seriously, and these companies are approved by their Education Ministry to be training centres. These centres have dedicated mentors from the companies. They also get a direct advantage because they can focus on deepening the skills of their teams. Some of our companies are doing such work. What we need to do is to make this much more extensive.

This is one of the things we are looking at in the Applied Study in the Polytechnics and ITE Review, or ASPIRE, Committee. You may know that, since the beginning of this year, together with our students and their families, our Institutes of Higher Learning, and many industry representatives, we have been doing extensive consultation and deep thinking on how to make a skills and learning breakthrough in Singapore. We have been hearing repeatedly from students and employers that this is indeed important to you, that on-the-job learning is an integral part of lifelong learning. I will be happy to hear from you too about your experiences and ideas about how we can work together to make this breakthrough.

To summarise, I believe we need a skills and learning breakthrough in Singapore. Learning must be lifelong, and learning must be lifesmart. To be lifelong is to spread learning throughout one’s life. Learning ought to happen not just in our early years, just in school, but at work, throughout life, every chance we get. To be lifesmart is to go beyond booksmarts, and even beyond streetsmarts – it is to put booksmarts to practical, impactful use, in a streetsmart way, making full use of the complexities of real-life challenges to stimulate continual learning and growth. If we can work together to create a total environment for everyone to be a Lifelong, and Lifesmart, Learner, we can make a skills and learning breakthrough.


Bringing out the best in our people is something all of you in HR instinctively do. It is something the Government, schools and employers must work on together. I want to assure you that the Government is serious about supporting you too, to make this breakthrough in on-the-job learning.

l commend SHRI for raising the level of excellence in the HR profession, and especially for working with our SMEs. The number of awards you give out really speaks to the good work SHRI and all of you have been doing. Of course, I am most interested in the “Leading HR Practices in Learning and Human Capital Award”.

To all the awardees, congratulations again. To all of the hardworking HR practitioners here tonight, your work is very important and I wish you success in bringing out the best in your people.

Thank you.