By Daryl Yang | Image provided by REACH
On 6 September 2016, Acting Minister for Education (Schools) and Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Transport, Mr Ng Chee Meng visited Yale-NUS College for a student dialogue, organised by the Yale-NUS International Relations & Political Association (YIRPA) as part of its Coffeehouse Conversations series. The event was supported by REACH (reaching everyone for active citizenry @ home).
According to Rachel Hau (Class of 2018), YIRPA’s Vice President (Political Affairs), the series is designed to host “thought-provoking dialogue sessions where participants get to interact with high-profile speakers in a fairly informal and intimate setting”. Other guests who have spoken at this series include Singaporean poet and playwright Mr Alfian Sa’at, then opposition politician Ms Nicole Seah, then-Minister for Foreign Affairs Minister K Shanmugam and Ambassador-at-Large Bilahari Kausikan.
“The Coffeehouse Conversations series is one of our signature programmes where we try to bridge the gap between students and industry leaders,” Rachel highlighted.
“We always try to approach speakers with varying opinions on current issues and with different professional experiences, so that participants can be exposed to a range of different perspectives and beliefs.”
Rachel added that while many people often associate YIRPA with Model United Nations (UN) conferences, which they regularly organise and participate in, much of the group’s focus is on their Community Outreach and Special Project divisions. These divisions “encourage students to discuss and engage with pertinent issues that Singapore faces”, she said.
During the dialogue with Minister Ng, student moderator Daniel Ng (Class of 2018) posed the first question to the Minister to kick off the discussion: “If you could, what would you change about the education system?” Daniel explained that this was a question he was asked himself during his Yale-NUS admissions interview a few years ago.
Minister Ng shared that one area he has thought extensively about is strengthening the education system by creating “incubating spaces”, which are exploratory and experimental opportunities for students to learn through experiments and applying knowledge learnt from the classroom in novel ways.
“It is important for the younger generation to have the entrepreneurial spirit to try, fail and fail again but to keep trying until you succeed. You are all capable and smart, but do we need a more innovative, creative stance for Singaporeans at large? Do you dare to try new things? My humble submission to you is that we do,” he said.
The Minister then fielded questions from the audience, ranging from the quality teachers in the Singapore landscape to resource equity. Some also asked questions beyond the Minister’s current portfolio, on ASEAN cooperation and the necessity of conscription. Minister Ng was previously Chief of Defence Force of the Singapore Armed Forces before he was elected to public office.
Joshua Tan (Class of 2019) was interested in the Minister’s views on how to improve education in our society.
“I agree wholeheartedly with one sentiment he raised and that he kept repeating: about how it is important to have conversations and be challenged by people we disagree with, about how this process of debate and respectful discussion can lead to a better, more just society,” Joshua said.
As moderator, Daniel particularly enjoyed the diverse range of questions asked. “There were almost no pauses throughout the whole dialogue and many came with interesting issues and opinions to raise. In the short span of time, we covered issues from the education system, sexuality, race, National Service, ASEAN and even the presidential election system. Minister Ng engaged well with the range of topics and often wanted to hear what students thought,” he shared.
Dialogues like this are an important part of students’ learning at Yale-NUS.
“Coffeehouse Conversations, such as the one set up this week with Minister Ng Chee Meng, is an excellent student initiative that provides an important platform for both leaders and students to test assumptions, communicate ideas and spur new ways of thinking,” said Executive Vice-President (Institutional Affairs), Mrs Doris Sohmen-Pao, who attended the talk. “This creates a much-appreciated avenue that can help to impact real-time policy making for our students.”
In fact, the learning goes beyond the dialogue itself. “Such dialogues also open more conversations – since then, I’ve had a number of conversations about the topics raised during the dialogue and most, if not all, of those I’ve spoken to mentioned that they learnt something during the dialogue, even if they disagreed with Minister Ng,” Daniel noted.
As the organiser, Rachel was heartened by the enthusiastic student response for the event.
“There is nothing more encouraging for us as organisers than seeing people bravely asking difficult questions and openly sharing a variety of perspectives,” she said. “Our dialogue eventually overran by more than half an hour, and I think this speaks to the quality of the exchange between Minister Ng and the audience, as well as participants’ wide-ranging interests towards social issues in Singapore.”
In the coming months, the student group will be hosting another Coffeehouse Conversations dialogue with a senior staff member from Facebook, as well as a +SixtyFive forum titled ‘Envisioning SG100: Towards an Age-Friendly Community’. The forum will critically discuss how Singapore is currently managing its ageing population and how our society can better work towards an age-friendly community.