Singapore’s winning strategy has always been to develop our one, best natural resource – our people – through education, training and opportunities for continual learning.

When Mr Soon Boon Eng started teaching in the 1960s, 1 his school was a modest cluster of dusty classrooms set in the middle of low-rise flats. Nearby Toa Payoh was still a swamp. After teaching in the mornings, he attended lessons in the afternoon at the Teachers’ Training College. 2 At night, he took classes to prepare for his own ‘A’ level exams. He was 18 years old.

Today, Singapore’s education system is regarded as one of our most important institutions and among our signature achievements. Education provides every child, regardless of family background, with the means to learn, grow, thrive, better themselves and contribute to society. It is a critical investment in the well-being and future of our nation, nurturing the one natural resource we have: our people.

But the early years were gruelling ones for schools, students and educators. Under the British colonial administration, education in Singapore had been a patchy, uneven affair. The few schools we had were mostly provided for through the largesse of community groups or philanthropists. As former Minister for Education Dr Goh Keng Swee put it, “the colonial government did not feel any responsibility to provide universal education. Hence education was the privilege of a minority of families who could afford to send their children to school”. 3

When Singapore attained self-governance in 1959, there was thus no comprehensive national school system to speak of. There were not enough schools. Most of the population were unskilled and illiterate.

A mammoth undertaking lay ahead.


The first step was to build many more schools so that more children could have a chance at being educated. Between 1959 and 1965, the Ministry of Education (MOE) built 83 new schools; an average of one every month for seven years. 4 The number of primary and secondary school students increased from 315,000 in 1959 to more than 520,000 in 1968. 5

But new school buildings were just the start. There were now thousands of new students, but not enough teachers to teach them. A massive recruitment drive was mounted. “In a great hurry,” went one account, “one teacher after another was recruited, often right in the examination hall where a 16-year-old just sat for his or her last ‘O’ level examination paper”. 6 The number of teachers increased from 10,590 in 1959 to 19,216 in 1968. 7

By the 1970s, the pressure to swell the ranks of the teaching force had eased, and more attention could be paid to ensuring teachers were better equipped to carry out their duties. A new statutory board, the Institute of Education, was set up in 1973 to take over the functions of the Teachers’ Training College. Reconstituted as the National Institute of Education (NIE) in 1991, it set out to offer rigorous professional training and development for both graduate and non-graduate teachers and school leaders and continues to play this role today, evolving as the demands on Singapore’s educators become increasingly sophisticated over time. 8 , 9

Learning and professional development came to be regarded as lifelong processes. Today, our teachers continue to better themselves as educators long after they graduate from NIE. In school-based learning communities, they hone their professional practice through lesson studies and action research. In 2010, an Academy of Singapore Teachers was founded to support peer learning among teachers: our educators regularly share their insights, experience and resources with one another, through teacher-led programmes and rich networks of learning.

Tracing its roots to 1973, the National Institute of Education (NIE) offers professional training and development to teachers and school leaders.

In the early years, language was a challenge – different schools each used a different language of instruction (often the vernacular tongue of the communities that had set up the school). The newly independent Singapore had to establish a common language that everyone could learn and use to communicate with one another.

For pragmatic reasons, English was set as the medium of instruction, the language everyone had to learn. Mr Lee Kuan Yew, then Prime Minister of Singapore, recounted:

[T]o attract investors here to set up their manufacturing plants, our people had to speak a language they could understand. That language had to be English – since World War II ended, the English language had spread. It was the language of international diplomacy, the language of science and technology, and the language of international finance and commerce. Singaporeans would have increased opportunities if they had a strong mastery of English. 10

There was some political resentment at having to learn the colonial language. Singapore’s diverse communities wanted to preserve their own cultures and languages, which they feared might be lost if everyone was forced to learn English. The solution was to make bilingualism a cornerstone of the education system. From 1960, all primary school children had to learn two languages: English and another language, usually Chinese, Malay or Tamil. Secondary school students had to do likewise from 1966.

As Singapore industrialised over time, English came to be the primary language used in the workplace. Parents came to prefer English-medium schools, regarding them as giving their children better chances at success. With time, demand for vernacular language schools declined, and most eventually shut down or switched to using English as the main medium of instruction. By 1987, all schools in Singapore were using English. Bilingualism, however, has continued as a defining characteristic of Singapore’s education system – grounding all students in a common, globally important language, as well as in our respective mother tongues, connecting us to our cultural roots in Asia.

Singapore’s curriculum emphasises a holistic education that includes the humanities and sciences as well as physical education, the arts, character and citizenship education, and co-curricular activities.

There were many other needs to be met in the early years. Under the colonial administration, different schools offered their own curricula, each with their own sets of textbooks and educational priorities. An independent Singapore needed a common, standardised curriculum and teaching materials to equip students with knowledge and skills relevant for the future workforce, and to build a cohesive nation.

MOE developed a national curriculum that was both pragmatic and values-based. A strong foundation in both literacy and numeracy was established in the primary school years, so students could access learning in other subjects and at higher levels. The curriculum also emphasised a holistic education, providing students with a grounding not just in the humanities and sciences, but also physical education, the arts, character and citizenship education, and co-curricular activities to build social skills and broaden interests.

Singapore’s education system has always sought to evolve with the times. Our educational institutions and approaches stay responsive, pragmatic and adaptable, ensuring that our people have the right skills and knowledge to thrive in a changing world.

The priority in the early years was to give as many children as possible the opportunity to go to school. The rapid buildup of new schools and student places was aided by a single, standardised curriculum which could be quickly replicated across all schools.

In 1979, however, an Education Study Team led by then Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Dr Goh Keng Swee shared its findings with the public that “the ‘single curriculum’ education system does not take into consideration differences in… rates of learning of the pupils… This rigidity in the system tends to favour the above-average pupils, penalising the below-average pupils and the slow learners.” 11

Many were dropping out of school early, without qualifications that could help them make a living. To address this, the team recommended that different streams of study be made available so that each pupil could learn at a pace that best served their learning needs.

Endorsed by Parliament, this “New Education System”, as it was called, was implemented in Singapore’s primary schools from 1979. Students who struggled to keep up with the standard curriculum were given either an additional two years to complete the curriculum, or a monolingual curriculum instead of the bilingual standard. Streaming was extended to secondary schools in 1980. A four-year “Express” stream and a five-year “Normal” stream were created.

Students in the latter would take the ‘N’ level examinations, after which they would either spend an additional year of study and go on to take the ‘O’ level examinations, or move on directly to vocational and technical training.

The new system enabled many more students to stay longer in the school system, succeed in their studies, and graduate with better qualifications and prospects. In 1971 to 1974, 71% of the cohort passed the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), with 14% progressing to post-secondary education. 12 By the 2000s, more than 97% of the cohort passed the PSLE. The proportion that progressed to post-secondary education also increased to 88% in 2003 and 95% in 2013. 13

As the 21st century approached, it became clear that in the new globalised economy, more than basic technical skills and textbook knowledge would be needed. Could Singapore’s finely-tuned education system keep up with a world of rapid change, in which creativity and the capacity to continually learn were the keys to success? Could Singaporeans be equipped for a future that could not be predicted?

With Singapore developing into a knowledge-based economy, our educators conceived a broad vision for teaching and learning, more suited to the new age and its demands. This vision – “Thinking Schools, Learning Nation” 14 – prompted curricular reforms to better cultivate inquiry, creativity, innovation and other higher order competencies that would be needed in the future. Important new literacies and resources such as information and communications technology (ICT) were quickly incorporated. However, some of these competencies could not be taught in the same way as how academic knowledge or technical skills had been taught in the past.

A much more flexible, diverse educational landscape was called for, with multiple pathways – going beyond streaming – to cater to different abilities and interests, in order to nurture “a pool of diverse talents with different educational experiences and outlook, who are able to offer different ideas for Singapore to be a truly vibrant country, adaptable and responsive to the varied challenges of the future”. 15

In 1997, MOE began to group schools into regional clusters, each headed by a cluster superintendent. Learning from the successes of independent and autonomous schools since the 1990s, each cluster of 11 to 14 schools now makes its own school management decisions.16 The schools share resources among themselves, and can adopt innovative practices and programmes better suited to their students’ needs.

In 1997, MOE began to group schools into regional clusters, each headed by a cluster superintendent. Learning from the successes of independent and autonomous schools since the 1990s, each cluster of 11 to 14 schools now makes its own school management decisions. 16 The schools share resources among themselves, and can adopt innovative practices and programmes better suited to their students’ needs.

Since the mid-2000s, educational options in Singapore have blossomed at every level. A wide array of new ‘O’ level subjects were introduced in some schools from 2006, including media studies, drama, creative 3D animation, introduction to enterprise development and physical education. 17 Streaming was replaced with subject-based banding in primary schools in 2008, allowing children to study subjects according to their different strengths in each. Eighteen schools began to offer a more flexible Integrated Programme: 14 of them leading to the traditional ‘A’ level qualifications, three to the International Baccalaureate Diploma, and one to the NUS High School Diploma. New specialised independent schools were also set up to nurture excellence in particular fields: the Singapore Sports School in 2004, the NUS High School of Mathematics and Science in 2005, the School of the Arts in 2008, and the School of Science and Technology in 2010.

Schools have been encouraged to create niches for themselves, with more dedicated resources to help their students excel in specific interest areas. More resources have also gone into helping those who have not done as well academically. One such school, NorthLight, was set up in 2007 to help students who failed the PSLE. Catering to the unique needs of the pupils, the school now offers an engaging, supportive, 18 career-oriented and values-focused education to prepare them for life and work. 19

Our university system has experienced similar shifts. With the transition to a knowledge-based economy, research and development (R&D) and innovation would play an increasingly important role in Singapore’s economic development. 21 The university system has become a key pillar in the national effort to “attract and train superior research manpower and produce research outcomes that translate into economic or strategic gain”. 22 Responding to rapid global changes in knowledge, learning and the economy, the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) were corporatised in 2006, 23 joining Singapore Management University (SMU) which was set up in 2000 as a not-for-profit company. This institutional autonomy would afford them more flexibility to build on their different strengths, create peaks of excellence in teaching and research, grow as internationally-recognised universities, and enrich students’ learning experience. 24 In addition, new institutions have been established, each with its own niche: the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School in 2005, the Singapore University of Technology and Design in 2009, Singapore Institute of Technology in 2009 (which became an autonomous university in 2014), Yale-NUS College (offering a liberal arts education) in 2011, and the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine in 2013.

Mr Jimmy Yap recalled that when his daughter, Helen, first attended school, she “struggled to understand her lessons, she failed her tests and examinations, and she was constantly miserable”.

Mr Yap and his wife decided to send Helen to the NorthLight School instead. He noted:

Within a few months, we could see the change in her. She would come home tired, but happy. She was getting higher grades than she ever did in primary school. She was made a school councillor and she was given responsibilities, which she undertook with great enthusiasm.

Under the school’s care, Helen also uncovered a gift for art and painting, which she had never displayed before. “My life has changed,” Helen told her father one day.

Mr Yap believes that as Singapore’s education moves away from a one-size-fits-all approach, there is a greater utility in helping those at the other end of the spectrum. He has seen first-hand how dedicated and passionate teachers can make a real difference to the lives of their students.


In its early years, Singapore’s lack of an educated and skilled workforce was keenly felt. Jobs were scarce in the 1960s; with unemployment of about 10%. 25 Singapore’s economy at the time depended heavily on entrepôt trade, which was not growing fast enough to create jobs for the growing population. Singapore had to industrialise, so that our people could earn a living, but this required technical skills that most of the population did not have at the time.

Vocational and technical education was therefore a priority from the start, to support Singapore’s push towards industrialisation and job creation. Subjects such as Math and Science were emphasised, particularly in the secondary school curriculum. Following a 1961 report, four types of secondary schools were created – vocational, technical and commercial schools, as well as vocational institutes. 26 The latter focused solely on vocational courses such as electrical installation, radio service, motor vehicle mechanics, plumbing, shipbuilding, product design, applied arts and so on. 27 , 28

In 1968, the Technical Education Department was set up at MOE to improve the quality of technical education in secondary schools, as well as in industrial training. A technical curriculum was made compulsory for all Secondary One and Two students, so every Singaporean pupil would learn some practical skills in the course of schooling. 29

Mr Wee Heng Tin, a former Director of Education who was the Principal of Dunearn Secondary School in the late 1960s and early 1970s, recalls:

In those days, a rapidly industrialising Singapore was in need of people with skills in the technical areas; so the Technical Education department in schools offered four subjects: Woodwork, Metalwork, Basic Electricity and Electronics, and Technical Drawing.

Every boy in lower secondary had to do this technical curriculum, but not all schools had the necessary infrastructure; so students would move to these receiving schools like Dunearn Secondary for technical instruction. Some very bright students were even taken out of Raffles Institution (RI) and Anglo-Chinese School and encouraged to transfer to the technical stream. The most illustrious is probably Lee Yock Suan, who became Minister for Education (1992–1997). He studied in the technical stream in Queenstown, went to RI for his ‘A’ levels and was awarded the President’s Scholarship thereafter. But not many bright students found it attractive to be uprooted and transferred to another school; so the policy was changed: students could stay in their school of choice and do the technical curriculum in another school. 30

In 1973, the Industrial Training Board (ITB) consolidated most of the functions of the Technical Education Department, and stepped up industrial training in Singapore. Working with industry players, it set up a national skills certification system and an industry-oriented curriculum for its institutes, so that the skills taught would be relevant to the economy. This led to industry-based training schemes, apprenticeships and on-the-job training in partnership with specific companies. 31

Indeed, vocational and technical education in Singapore has always aimed to address the evolving needs of industry. Singapore’s first polytechnic – Singapore Polytechnic – was established in 1954 after a group of businessmen realised that there was a major shortage of skilled labour in many sectors of the economy. 32 By 1959, it was focused exclusively on technical education, shedding non-technical courses offered by other institutions. Internal examinations, more relevant to the prevailing needs of the Singapore economy, replaced overseas papers. These and other reforms meant that by the 1970s, the Singapore Polytechnic had established itself as one of two main institutions 33 that trained technicians with skills much needed by manufacturing companies in newly industrialising Singapore. Today, the polytechnics, offering courses at the post-secondary level and beyond, continue to produce highly-skilled manpower to support Singapore’s current and new industries. 34 The polytechnics also maintain important ties with employers in industry to keep abreast of what their graduates will need to stay relevant in the working world.

With the formation of the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) in 1992, vocational and technical education became firmly integrated into the Singapore education system as one of its core pathways for post-secondary education, alongside polytechnics and junior colleges.

But there were still hurdles to overcome. In its early days, ITE students often "had low self-esteem and morale, accepting the perception that they were ‘under-achievers’" 35 who had been channelled into technical education only because of poor academic performance. ITE had to redefine itself so that the graduates it produced would be motivated to put in their best in their vocational and technical studies, knowing that good opportunities awaited them after graduation.

Much has been done to improve the image and substance of ITE Colleges over the years. State-of-the-art facilities and equipment were installed, so that students would train in realistic, well-equipped environments similar to those in actual workplaces. ITE educators were sent for training to upgrade the quality of teaching and the curriculum, 36 and encouraged to keep up with current knowledge through industry projects and consultancy work. 37 ITE now offers a full-fledged post-secondary education, including advanced-level courses matching the nature of jobs available on the market. Beyond work skills, students receive an all-rounded education that also nurtures strength of character, social responsibility, physical fitness and other important life skills. 38 Today, ITE is a respected institution that serves both the needs of industries and the prospects of its graduates, with 90% of its students finding jobs within six months of graduating. 39

Singapore’s formal education system has been powerfully transformative. It has been pivotal in equipping our people with the means necessary to make a good living and lift themselves out of poverty.

But investing in our people’s future also involves generating more jobs and opportunities for them to take up. In the 1960s, Singapore had a sizeable, mostly unskilled, illiterate workforce, who were already out of school and faced grim prospects. In 1968, the Economic Development Board (EDB) set up an Engineering Industries Development Agency (EIDA), with foreign aid and assistance from technical experts from several developed nations. EIDA provided training for these unskilled workers, so they would acquire the skills needed in industries EDB hoped to grow in Singapore. The EIDA training centres, and other similar centres that soon followed, demonstrated Singapore’s commitment to equipping its workforce with skills that match up to international standards. This persuaded many multinational companies to set up shop and build factories in Singapore, creating jobs for thousands. 40

As an institution, EDB’s mission has been to identify and promote new growth sectors for Singapore. Where the workforce lacked certain capabilities to meet the needs of these new growth areas, EDB has worked with companies, educational institutions and other government agencies to fill the gaps. As changes to the economy called for a much more specialised workforce with higher order skills in science and technology, EDB sought partnerships with foreign governments that had experience in training for advanced industries, such as advanced manufacturing (Germany and Japan), mechatronics (Japan), electronics and telecommunications (France) and software engineering (Japan). This led to the setting up of several bilateral training institutes to help develop advanced skills. 41

It was important that these institutes kept up as technology rapidly advanced. To ensure this, EDB partnered these institutes with companies that were leaders in the respective industries. This meant that the workers were not only trained in the latest technologies, but could develop new and useful applications around them. 42 The workforce was plugged straight into the cutting edge of their fields. Some of the institutes were later merged to form Nanyang Polytechnic in 1993, where industry-based training and upgrading of workers continued. 43 Later, as the rapidly expanding biologics manufacturing sector boomed, EDB partnered with the Singapore Workforce Development Agency (WDA) and Temasek Polytechnic to provide both skills training and apprenticeships with top biologics companies overseas through a joint Biologics Overseas Skills Training (BOOST) programme.

Today, these training programmes and broad partnerships are well recognised as benefiting both industry and the resident workforce. But this was not the case in earlier years. Some employers were reluctant to send their workers for training, which costs time, money and resources that could be spent on other business needs in the short term.

To offset costs and underline the importance of investing in our people for the long term, a Skills Development Fund was set up in 1979 to help employers offset the costs of training. All employers were required to contribute 2% of their payroll budget to the Skills Development Fund. 44

Opening the National Productivity Board building in 1987, then Minister for Trade and Industry and Second Minister for Defence (Services) Mr Lee Hsien Loong argued that training and reskilling workers was an important long term goal that called for tripartite cooperation among the Government, employers and unions:

For their part, workers must put in the necessary effort, and even make personal sacrifices, to upgrade themselves. Unions should encourage their members to take up training courses, even if this means classes in the evenings after work. They must explain to the workers that although the gains from training may not be immediate, such training is nonetheless vital to their livelihood. If Singaporeans do not possess the skills to fit into new jobs, or are unable to adapt to new ways of working, new industries will bypass Singapore in their search for places to invest. 45

This approach of working with employers to send workers for training continues today. Singapore’s ability and willingness to invest in the skills and knowledge of our people has since become an impressive draw for international industries and businesses, and an important means to help our people stay equipped to thrive in a fast-paced global economy.

In Singapore, the commitment to invest in our people is expressed not only through formal education, but also through continual training and skills upgrading across the span of a working lifetime.

This notion of continuing to learn after leaving school is not new to Singapore. Even as the education system was being established in the 1960s, there were efforts to give working adults, who often had had little education opportunities when they were young, a second chance at basic education. The Adult Education Board (AEB), set up in 1960, offered night classes and other courses that led to higher qualifications such as the ‘O’ levels, which could then lead to better job prospects. 46 In the 1970s, the polytechnics started offering evening part-time diploma courses for working persons. 47 The Vocational and Industrial Training Board (VITB), formed in 1979 from a merger of ITB and AEB, provided a comprehensive system of fulltime and part-time training and certification for vocational careers.

With the establishment of the Skills Development Fund in 1979, Continuing Education and Training (CET) programmes in the 1980s – including the Basic Education for Skills Training (BEST), Worker Improvement through Secondary Education (WISE) and Modular Skills Training (MOST) programmes – gave many cohorts of workers who had missed out on formal school education a chance to upgrade their qualifications through night and weekend classes. In 2000, the Government endowed a new Lifelong Learning Endowment Fund (LLEF) – with a target fund size of $5 billion – to support various workforce development initiatives and promote lifelong learning. As an endowment fund, LLEF provides a steady stream of income to help workers get jobs, upgrade and retrain.

A series of severe economic shocks in the early 2000s prompted the Government to do more. Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001, as well as the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) crisis in 2003, Singapore’s gross domestic product (GDP) growth fell from 8.9% in 2000 to 4.4% in 2003.48 Unemployment rate rose from 2.7% to 4% in the same period.49 While employers were still sending their workers for training, those who were self-employed or in-between jobs (such as those recently retrenched due to the downturn) found it difficult to get appropriate training. 50

A concerted effort had to be made to help all Singaporeans upgrade their skills and find work both during this difficult period and in the long term as the economy restructured. In 2003, the Economic Review Committee called for “a national CET body to enrich the habit of lifelong learning”, 51 and to take a more holistic view of workforce training in all the different economic sectors in Singapore. That same year, WDA was established under the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). The new agency would consolidate and build upon all past workforce development programmes. It would also help displaced workers find jobs, improve training quality and better relate training outcomes to job prospects. 52 WDA’s many initiatives include: a national Workforce Skills Qualifications (WSQ) system to accredit courses based on industry-recognised competencies to give workers transferable skills certifications; a network of dedicated job and career centres to provide career counselling for job seekers; a Jobs Bank where employers post job vacancies; and an Institute for Adult Learning to upgrade the quality of adult educators and facilitate research in adult pedagogy. WDA also partners ITE, polytechnics, universities and other training providers to deliver WSQ courses and other CET programmes.

Singapore’s approach has always been to create opportunities for our people to thrive and better ourselves. The Government has pursued this through investment in important institutions such as the education system, the economic agencies and their partnerships across different sectors of society. Today, Singapore can look to a new phase of development, towards becoming an advanced economy and society, where every citizen has the opportunity to develop ourselves to our fullest. Our people’s aspirations cannot be achieved with basic qualifications alone – instead, we must become masters of skills.

This is the spirit behind the SkillsFuture movement, launched in November 2014. SkillsFuture seeks to build up an integrated system of education, training and career progression for Singaporeans, allowing each of us to take our skills and interests further in the spirit of lifelong learning. To do so, everyone – from individuals and students to education and training providers, businesses and industry associations, unions and public agencies – must rethink the concept of learning. Supported by educators and training professionals, each of us must take ownership and realise our potential by continually improving our skills and knowledge, throughout our lives. Businesses, unions and the Government will come together to collaborate in a deeper and more integrated manner, identifying and designing appropriate training so that any Singaporean of any age and background can invest in our own learning and be duly recognised for what we know and do well.


Singapore started out with no formal national education system. We have come a long way from those desperate early years, when many of our people were uneducated, jobless and lacked the means to better themselves. Today, Singapore’s education system is highly regarded as one which not only produces top quality academic outcomes, 53 but also equips our students with strength of character as well as relevant skills to contribute to the economy. It has evolved over time to provide multiple pathways to success, with a rich array of education options to help every student make the most of their individual interests, inclinations and potential.

Newly independent Singapore inherited a workforce that was largely unskilled and illiterate. Today, our people are a globally respected, highly skilled workforce. Every adult in the workforce continues to enjoy many opportunities, tirelessly cultivated by EDB, WDA, MOE and other public agencies, to improve their knowledge and upgrade their skills throughout their lives, and to better adapt to an ever changing world.

At the opening of the Lifelong Learning Institute in September 2014, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Tharman Shanmugaratnam said:

We cannot change the world, but we can respond to and take advantage of the way the world is changing. We have to take advantage of new technologies and new global consumer demands to ensure we remain a vibrant economy, and give every Singaporean a chance to have quality jobs and fulfilling lives… We must aspire to move beyond competence and doing a regular job, towards mastering skills… We must be a place where everyone has the opportunity to build on their strengths, developing the skills that enable them to maximise their potential, earn their own success and contribute to society. It’s about respecting the innate dignity of every citizen – the sense of fulfilment that comes from playing their full role and being valued for their contributions to society. 54

Investing in our people over the long term has proven to be a winning strategy for Singapore; the Government continues to fine-tune its approaches in response to our shifting environment. In the national Budget for Financial Year 2015, almost one-fifth was allocated to the education and manpower development sectors 55 – an indication of its commitment to continue with the effort to enable our people to learn throughout all life stages. This capacity to learn for life will be a critical institution for ensuring Singapore’s future. It will allow our people to adapt to changing circumstances, improve their prospects and lead more meaningful and fulfilling lives, whatever the future may bring. We have achieved much in the past decades, but there is still much more to learn and to do.