Speech by Mr Wong Siew Hoong, Director-General of Education at the Raffles Institution’s 194th Founder’s Day 2017

News | 28 July 2017 Views: 658

 Mr Choo Chiau Beng, Chairman of the Board of Governors and Members of the Board,

 Mr Chan Poh Meng, Principal of RI,

 Mrs Poh Mun See, Principal of RGS

 Mr Fabian Yeo, Chairman of the RPA

 Distinguished Guests, Parents, Colleagues-in-education and fellow Rafflesians

 “Go Fly Kite”!  In Singlish, it is an admonition, perhaps even a profanity, asking someone to get lost.  But today, I am going to adopt flying a kite as a metaphor.  I am going to lend a positive spin to this phrase.  How?  You will know soon. 

It is truly a delight to be back in RI this morning with all of you. RI has been a very large part of my life and large part of who I am as a person I first stepped into its gates at Bras Basah back in 1972 as a young boy, wide-eyed with wonder.  I spent my formative years here and grew up.  I returned to it as a teacher in 1983 for a short period and then again in 1999, eager to play my part in educating cohorts of RI Boys and in the unfolding and shaping of the schools history.

RI is a storied institution whose history is bound up with not just that of an independent Singapore, but with colonial Singapore as well. This morning, as someone who is very much a believer of History as an important discipline in life, I want to share some thoughts with you about history, and what it might have to say to us about the paradox of tradition and change.

1.          The Context of an Uncertain World

The wider context, of course, is a world that is today very much focused on the issue of volatility and disruption, particularly disruption that is driven by geo-political challenges around the world, technological advancements and globalisation.  We read all the time about the oncoming tsunami of social media, automation, and the media of course generates no small amount of interests around such topicsIndeed, we are led to frequently wonder about how we will cope socially, politically, economically; how workers in many sectors are likely to be displaced by robots, and what companies and schools should do to prepare ourselves for these.  As parents, teachers and students, we worry about the relevance of our education whether it will sufficiently ‘future-proof us for a future where we are told, change is the only constant.

Faced with this much uncertainty, it becomes easy to despair and to lose sight of what is precious and true. We are attracted to anything that brands itself as new to ‘revolutionary start-ups’ and game-changing technologies’.  The word of the moment, ‘disruption’, emphasises radical alteration.  Put another way, we are told we are in a time of change and there is no place for tradition.  Indeed, innovation seems to be measured by the degree to which it breaks from the past practice.  So tradition and change appear to be mutually exclusive.

2.            Unravelling the Paradox between Tradition and Change

In unravelling the paradox of tradition and change, there is a wonderful quote from the fifth-century Greek historian-cum-philosopher, Herodotus, who is often referred to as the Father of History’.  In his seminal text, The Histories, he recorded his intention to: ‘…tell the story …of small cities no less than of great.  Most of those that were great once are small today; and those that in my own lifetime have grown to greatness, were small enough in the old days’.

Herodotus’ quote is an important reminder for us in two ways. Firstly, it signals that change over time is inevitable that nothing is truly permanent or unchanging.  It is, of course, a warning for us to guard against complacency.

Secondly, implicit in what he says is also the idea that there is a cycle; the past repeats itself in the present, and there is a pattern to the challenges that we face – that what seems so frightening and unusual today becomes less so when refracted through the lens of history.  In this sense, change must co-exist alongside continuity.  It turns out that innovation and tradition are quite compatible and indeed complementary.  Tradition must be preserved, going into the future, because it reminds us of “who we were” to derive “who we are now”; to remind us that what is seemingly new and strange, may not be that new or that strange, when looked at more closely today.   What is seemingly traditional can co-exist with the modern (and perhaps even the future).

This is something we realise when we contrast todays turbulence with the situation of the previous decades.  Globally, the conflicts around the world in the past cast a shroud of immense uncertainty on lives in those times.  We are experiencing such uncertainties today too.  Similarly, the economic uncertainties today seem to come from repeated cycles of global recession of the 1970s,80s, 90s and 2000s which also produced tremendous anxiety during those times. Singapore, too has indeed undergone its own periods of uncertainty cyclically, for example, when we gained self- government, and then seceding from Malaysia and even the economic crises in 1985 and 2008.  Singapore responded positively each time and succeeded.  Can Singapore continue to weather each stint of uncertainty that will come our way?

At the risk of belabouring the point, RI too, has not stayed the same school over the years. The schools various changes of location, the formation of RJC in 1982, the schools decision to go independent in 1991, the start of the integrated programme in 2001 in spite of different opinions within the Rafflesian community on almost of all of those issues, the school had to keep pace with the tide of educational reforms. When we look at the history of the school, we realise that even as we celebrate the long tradition of RI, we have always changed with, and in response to the environment.

I contend, therefore, that it is inherently part of the schools tradition to change, to adapt, and to thrive.  Can we respect, grasp and leverage this point such that we learn to embrace change gracefully, rather than fear it or have change imposed on us? The metaphor that comes to mind is that of a kite that while the prevailing wind may shift and change, the skilful kite-flyer stands steady, rooted on the ground, takes advantage of these changes and harnesses them to keep the kite aloft, afloat and flying high. 

As our school nears her second centenary, there is no better time to take stock of our sense of the Rafflesian identity and by that I mean the ethos and values which underpin who we are, what we do and how we respond to changing circumstances. By holding firm to our sense of identity, our values, our Rafflesian spirit and remaining conscious of its sources and its strengths, we can better weather the storms of uncertainties and chaos with which we may be confronted.  From this vantage, the crisis becomes an opportunity to be exploited.

3.            Stories that Shape Us

We all have our own Rafflesian stories to tell stories of how RI and RJC have shaped us and are dear to us. I want to take a few moments just to share with you three aspects of my own time in Raffles that have stayed with me and defined me over the course of my life.

All three aspects were, now that I look back, truly reflective of a holistic, well-rounded education that Raffles was and is famous for, at a time when the word was still decades away from being a buzzword. These recollections are not offered self-indulgently.  Rather, I believe that when we look long and hard at our collective experiences of being shaped by the school, we will discover therein the cultural and intellectual resources we have developed to navigate the present and to create a new future.

Probably my most iconic Raffles experience was grappling with Mathematics. I went from failing it to bouncing back, to experiencing some success, to really enjoying it as a subject its intricacies, and the joy that came with finding the solutions to complex problems. All this made possible because of the support of a few great teachers and many friends.

One of the turning points for me was deciding that I wanted to do well for Mathematics: the thought came to me that I really wanted this and that I would be able to do it. That made a world of difference, in terms of helping me to persevere in my efforts to master the subject. Math and problem-solving taught me both intellectual rigour and intricacy – the need to think logically, look carefully at details and work them through, as well as to persevere. These have been fundamental for me in approaching the challenges which life would subsequently throw my way.

In something completely different from Math, I spent many hours in school with the National Police Cadet Corps, and it is to the NPCC that I owe some of my most vivid school memories. I was the Parade Commander at the school’s 154th Founder’s Day Ceremony back in 1977.  I will tell you that at one point leading to the Parade, how nervous I was and how close I came to making a huge mess of the parade. Being entrusted with the responsibility, I could not fail.   I practised hard on the parade commands.  It taught me much and gave me a big push in terms of confidence-building. That experience in particular, and NPCC more generally, taught me how important it was for a school to provide its students with safe platforms from which to try and to grow confident from taking on responsibilities.

I was also a part of RI’s Lifeguard Corps.  It was a huge responsibility bestowed upon us to serve as lifeguards at the pool in Grange Road when it was first built.  We had to ensure the safety of fellow Rafflesians who were using the pool. We rostered ourselves and served as lifeguards after lessons. Through the Lifeguard Corps, I learnt lifesaving skills and acquired a sense of responsibility for the safety of my fellow students. Of course the situation today in schools is very different we would expect professional lifeguards today!

But this experience crucially showed me the importance of initiative and mutual support among students. Schools can empower students to help one another and to make sacrifices for one another when students are given important responsibility, they rise to the occasion, and it helps them to grow and mature. I would like to think that students then and students today are similar in many ways we know when we are being entrusted with real responsibilities, and we step up and respond accordingly. Personal initiative and drive - these attributes are more crucial today given the changing world and unknown challenges which students will have to face.

4.          Bringing It All Home

In bringing all these ideas home, we have to ask: what implications might our shaping stories yours and mine - have for RI? That having clarified and established for ourselves what is fundamental about RI’s tradition that must be kept and preserved, what do we do with that knowledge?

Firstly, what we’re clear about is that RI’s education needs to be reframed in such a way that it emphasises the skills which Rafflesians need to navigate a changing world.  Among these skills, academic rigour continues to be important, because what academic rigour ultimately imparts is the ability to think deeply, circumspectly and critically about issues. The curriculum can be tweaked, but that need for creative and critical problem-solving skills remains very much the same.

Where our focus may need to shift is to move away from our obsession with perfect, stellar set of results at a first go. Now, more than ever, we need education to be truly holistic, in the sense of having our students equipped with the full complement of softer skills and attributes such as passion, perseverance, initiative, team work and that ability to empathise with others and offer each other mutual support. If our focus on results has produced too much individuality, then this is something that we would want to adjust and recalibrate to produce strong individual Rafflesians who are consummate team players.

To RI’s teachers, I would urge you to design experiences that help students own their own development.  Please give Rafflesians more opportunities to initiate and plan activities, even if they do not work out perfectly.  Many of the opportunities for student initiative are not fully placed in their hands, because we want things to run like clockwork.  We need to expand our threshold and tolerance for imperfection, if we want to create genuine opportunities for ownership and responsibility in our students.  Rafflesians will be able to grow holistically, as whole persons, when they have real chances to try, to experience, to sometimes fail and many times succeed.

Equally importantly, the learning experiences that I see as crucial for future Rafflesians will be ones that reframe learning in non-transactional, non-utilitarian terms. Put another way, we need to present learning as enjoyable for its own sake, as being its own higher end and goal.  I know that many Rafflesians see education that way.  For the few that are still perceiving education and their time in school in purely transactional terms that this is a place that help me get to my set of perfect results, and thence to my dream college or university or career - I like to persuade you to re-think.  Hopefully, everyone will come to the conclusion that the end-game of education cannot be about credentialing of the self, but about the genuine self-cultivation.

Finally, to students, I would pose the question and the challenge, When was the last time you did something new for the first time?’ I am concerned that the desire for a perfect GPA may all too often translate into an unwillingness to take any sort of risk, whether academic or non-academic. Because life today offers many possibilities, we may fear making a wrong choice.

Everyone stumbles now and then. In the ordinary rhythm of life, we may falter occasionally and then learn from our suffering.  We can enjoy even the mistakes; they are part of the game. Take on opportunities when they come your way. Keep trying in school experience the excitement of doing something different, something new for the first time, for example, go fly a kite, bake a cake, take up life-saving, learn CPR, study Russian, etc.  School is a place to enjoy experiences, taste success but should be a safe environment for you to try and to learn.  And in every experience we grow.

To sum up, in these uncertain times, change and tradition can and must coexist.  And we must embrace both, each serving us in different but important ways.  We all need, as we adapt to our constantly evolving environment to come back toa centre”, a place that grounds us. When we are pulled into the world, with its many demands and voices telling us what to believe, how to behave, what we do, we become lost to ourselves and lose our point of reference for our being in the world.

There are many such centres in our lives: our families, our circle of close friends, our Singapore.  And I put it to us that one of these centres, one of those grounding points for us as Rafflesians lies right here - RI, in its traditions of a well-rounded, rigorous education that teaches us how to think and how to care for each other. Let us come back to this centre, to this ground, and in finding our bearings, step forward boldly, “fly a kite” and move bravely forward into the future.

Auspicium Melioris Aevi


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