Dare To Make The Tough Decisions, Chua Yen Ching

A letter from Mrs Chua Yen Ching

Director of the Curriculum Planning and Development Division, Ministry of Education (MOE)

Principal, NorthLight School, 2006-2011

Dare To Make The Tough Decisions, Chua Yen Ching


In my first year as a young education officer, I was asked by my principal if I would like to be in the timetable committee. Though I had to sacrifice a part of my vacation to ensure that the timetable would be ready before the term started, it was a great learning experience for a beginning teacher, as I was able to better understand the constraints and demands of the school’s resources. Every challenge can turn out to be a learning opportunity.

I have subsequently taken on various school leadership positions and have come to realise that to be a great leader, one needs to have the courage to take on tough challenges, especially when they will benefit the staff and students. Leaders will often encounter tensions and dilemmas and I have my own guiding principle for decision-making.

I will follow my internal GPS, i.e., to persist in doing the right thing even if it goes against the grain. In 2008, after NorthLight School had taken in students who failed PSLE twice, it had only 80 places for those who failed the PSLE once. But there were 160 applicants. After ranking everyone, we took in the weakest 80. It may not have seemed logical as most schools would have admitted the better students, but the staff fully understood the school’s mission to prioritise those who needed the most help.

Seeing things from different angles

My first experience with policy work was when I was posted to the Sciences branch of the Curriculum Planning and Development Division in 1998. I appreciate the curriculum review process: it is very thorough and the intent is very noble but at the implementation level, the end result could be far from the intended. After five years of policy work, I requested for a posting back to school as I wanted to experience the implementation of some of the policies I had a hand in. On the ground, I heard remarks like “Who is the one who came up with this new stuff? There is a lot of unlearning and relearning to do.”

A possible cause for the grouses could have been that teachers tend to focus on the “what” and the “how” of a policy change. Perhaps the policymakers had not spent sufficient time helping them reflect more deeply on the “why”. At the end of the day, teachers need to answer the question, “Why am I doing what I am doing?”

Education as a social leveller

Recently, a former student from NorthLight wrote to me. When he first came to the school, he shared that he dreamt of becoming a graphic designer but when he didn’t do well for his PSLE, he felt his dream had evaporated. He shared his aspiration with his form teacher at NorthLight and picked up graphic design skills in school. But the teacher also reminded him that he would not go very far without a strong foundation in literacy and mathematics, and a sound character. He did well at NorthLight and went to the ITE; a couple of months ago, he sent me an image of the letter of offer from one of the polytechnics to pursue a diploma in motion graphics and broadcasting. He shared that he could now see his dream becoming a reality. As a way of saying “Thank you”, he went back to NorthLight to volunteer his service by supporting the teachers in helping his juniors.

I will follow my internal GPS, i.e., to persist in doing the right thing even if it goes against the grain.

I truly believe that education is a great social leveller. If we are able to help one child, he will in turn make a big difference to his family and ultimately to society.

The bottom line for any company is profit and loss, but for public service, it is the fulfilment of a mission. Thomas Watson, who was chairman of IBM, once said that we cannot have success in our mission unless we believe that it is the greatest mission in the world. We will put our heart into this mission because the mission is always in our heart.

    Sep 19, 2013
    Mrs Chua Yen Ching
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