Speech by Mr Wong Siew Hoong, Director-General of Education at the Raffles Institution’s 194th Founder’s Day 2017
News | 28 July 2017
Mr Choo Chiau Beng, Chairman of the Board of Governors and Members of the
Mr Chan Poh Meng, Principal of
Mrs Poh Mun See, Principal of
Mr Fabian Yeo, Chairman of the RPA
“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
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 school’s 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.
The Context of
an Uncertain World
The wider context, of course, is a world that is today very
much focused on the issue
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 topics. Indeed, 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
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
it breaks from the past practice. So tradition and change appear to be mutually
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,
is often referred to as the ‘Father of History’. In his seminal text, The
recorded his intention to: ‘…tell the story …of
small cities no less than of great.
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
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 today’s 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
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 school’s various changes of location, the formation of RJC in 1982, the school’s decision to go independent in 1991, the start of the integrated programme in
– 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 school’s
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
this made possible
because of the support of
a few great teachers and many
One of the turning points for me was deciding that I wanted to do well for Mathematics: the
came to me that I
really wanted this
and that I would be able to do it. That
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
would subsequently throw my
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
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
Lifeguard Corps, I learnt lifesaving skills and acquired a sense of responsibility for
safety of my fellow students. Of course the situation today in schools is very
different – we
would expect professional lifeguards
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
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
ourselves what is fundamental about RI’s tradition that must be kept and preserved,
what do we do with that
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
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
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
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
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 to “a 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
back to this centre,
to this ground, and in finding our bearings, step forward
boldly, “fly a kite” and move
bravely forward into