3 ways Southeast Asia can evolve education systems for a better future: DPM Heng


Taking a broader view, responding collectively to developing trends and working together — these are the three ways countries in Southeast Asia can evolve education systems and create a better future for all in the region, said Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat.

“While Southeast Asia has the right ingredients for growth, education will be critical in harnessing this potential,” said the DPM, who said the region is “brimming with promise” — Southeast Asia is the third largest population behind China and India and is bolstered by robust economic growth.

He was speaking at The Times Higher Education Campus Live Southeast Asia 2022 on Dec 7 with leaders from universities in Southeast Asia and from around the world in attendance. 

Taking a broader view of education and higher education

While universities play a key role in higher education, there are other important pathways for individuals to develop their potential amid a more diversified and complex global economy, said DPM Heng.

“An overly narrow focus on universities alone can lead to an unhealthy and expensive paper chase, which may not always result in good outcomes for individuals or society.”

The understanding that a university education may not be the best way for people to learn is key for Singapore, where higher education includes universities, polytechnics and the Institute of Technical Education. These provide options for students to meet their different aspirations and learning interests, said DPM Heng.

“The basic mission of enabling everyone to reach his or her potential applies everywhere and in every country. But how we go about doing so differs by the economic, social and other circumstances that individuals face,” he added.

Responding to developing trends in education

DPM Heng then pointed out that 10 years ago, the New York Times termed 2012 as the year of massive open online courses.

The pandemic has certainly accelerated online courses, with millions of students going online for their education.

While full online learning will not fully replace in-person learning, one can expect a blend of both to be the norm.

“As the digital wave continues to grow, education institutions in our region can ride on this wave to experiment with different models of online teaching and blended learning. This will create new ways of learning, across different settings, including the workplace,” he said.

Another trend is, of course, the shift to lifelong learning.

With technological advancement developing at a faster rate than students can learn, a rethink of educational institutions is a must.

“Instead of being a one-time launchpad, education institutions can become more like pit stops where workers can periodically return to refuel throughout their working life. For instance, our tertiary institutions in Singapore, including NUS, now provide modular, bite-sized courses for adult learners in various emerging areas such as advanced manufacturing and AI.”

Working together to push new frontiers in knowledge and innovation

Learning from one another is a good first step but collaborations will push new frontiers in knowledge and innovation, he said.

DPM Heng cited research as one key area of collaboration; institutions can come together and tackle many real-world challenges in Southeast Asia.

“One example is climate change, which is an existential challenge that we all face. The potential for nature-based solutions in Southeast Asia is tremendous, as our region is home to the largest blue carbon stock in the world. These blue-carbon ecosystems – such as mangrove swamps and seagrass meadows – can sequester large amounts of carbon.”

He then cited a deep-sea expedition project run by a combined team from Singapore and Indonesia as one such instance.

Strengthening collaborations goes beyond institutions: at the heart of it is the people-to-people ties and interactions.

He urged Singaporean students to explore the region and understand its vibrant cultures and history, through study trips or internships, and also invited students, professionals, or researchers from the region to explore opportunities here in Singapore.

Cover photo credit: PMO