Technical and vocational education

For much of the early 19th to mid-20th century, technical and vocational education in Singapore was underdeveloped due to the nature of the economy and the colonial government’s noninterference in education.

Technical and vocational education gained importance following the end of the Second World War when industrialisation created a demand for skilled workers. After attaining independence, it became a matter of national survival for Singapore to rapidly develop export-oriented manufacturing as a means to generate employment and economic growth.

Education policy thus emphasised the teaching and learning of technical and vocational subjects in line with the needs of industrialisation. As the economy evolved over the subsequent decades towards higher-value-added, knowledge-based industries, technical and vocational education was likewise upgraded to ensure the quality and competitiveness of the Singapore workforce.

Colonial period

In the absence of government supervision, the education system during the colonial era developed in a fragmented manner with the proliferation of English and vernacular schools started by various missionary bodies, private individuals and community organisations. Government involvement was largely limited to expanding Malay vernacular education, and the disbursement of grants for English schools.1

Education was tied to the needs of the colonial entrepôt economy. English-medium education was vocational in nature, as its main outcome was to produce manpower to fill clerical positions in government and commercial offices.2 However, a persistent issue was that most pupils would withdraw after acquiring some rudimentary skills due to the ease of obtaining employment even without completing their education.3

The Woolley Report
In 1870, the Report of the Select Committee of the Legislative Council to enquire into the state of Education in the Colony, or the Woolley Report, noted the unsatisfactory situation wherein English-medium schools produced clerks who could do basic sums and make legible copies, but lacked ideas and could not express themselves grammatically or logically in writing.4 Recommendations of the Woolley Report led to the appointment of an inspector of schools in 1872 to supervise and report on schools. Subsequently, in 1874, the grants-in-aid system was reformed in such a way that the amount of subsidies a school received came to be pegged to its results.5

While an agreement with the idea of industrial schools was reflected in the report, it was also noted that the time had not yet come for these schools to be established in the colony.6 As an alternative, industrial scholarships, which offered recipients the chance to be apprenticed to local firms such as the Tanjong Pagar Dock Company, were started by the government in 1882. However, these were discontinued in 1917 due to insufficient demand, and it was also found that recipients took on jobs that were unrelated to the training they had received.7

By the turn of the century, the government had begun to exercise greater control over education with the aim of improving the quality of English education in order to meet the demand for better-trained clerks.

The Kynnersley Report
In 1902, the Report of the Commission of Enquiry into the system of English Education in the Colony, or the Kynnersley Report, paved the way for the introduction of classes in commercial subjects, such as bookkeeping, shorthand and typewriting, in English-medium schools.8

In the report, it was stated that there did not appear to be sufficient demand to justify the setting up of a separate commercial and technical institution, and that such training could be carried out through English-medium schools instead.9 Evening classes providing technical and vocational training were conducted at Raffles Institution, but these ran into problems of poor attendance due in part to the lack of employers’ support.10

The interwar years saw the development of manufacturing industries in Singapore driven by the private sector. The onset of the Great Depression prompted the colonial government to promote manufacturing to create jobs, and to look into technical and vocational education as means of preparing the population for opportunities in this new sector.11

The Winstedt Report
In 1925, it was highlighted in the Report of the Technical Education Committee, or the Winstedt Report, that technical education might not solve unemployment. This was because of the low demand for skilled labour in an economy that remained centred on entrepôt trade, as well as the continued preference among youths for clerical work and a disdain for manual labour.12

As such, the report only recommended that a trade school be set up in Singapore, provided there was sufficient demand.13 The subsequent success of the trade school in Kuala Lumpur led the government to open Singapore’s first trade school in September 1930.14 

The Cheeseman Report
In 1938, the government commissioned a study to bring education into closer alignment with the needs of the economy. An increase in the number of trade schools and greater integration of technical and vocational instruction into the English school curricula were recommended in the Report on Vocational Education in Malaya, or the Cheeseman Report. This included the introduction of workshop crafts for boys and domestic science for girls, as well as the teaching of science in all secondary schools.15 One outcome of the Cheeseman Report was the appointment of an “Organiser of Vocational Schools and Handicrafts” in 1939.16

Technical and vocational education was a subject of recurrent debate during the colonial era. However, government support for such training in Singapore was by and large restricted to the introduction of commercial classes in English schools, and the setting up of a government trade school. On the whole, there was little incentive to promote technical and vocational education as the government did not intend to create a manufacturing base in the colony then. In any case, the limited provision of English-medium education would have meant that the majority of the local population lacked the foundation for acquiring more complex knowledge of Western science and technology.17

Key developments: 1950s–1960s
Technical education became important from the 1950s onwards when the economy diversified from entrepôt trade to export-oriented industries. The shortage of skilled workers was a major concern, prompting calls for the expansion of technical education. In 1954, Singapore Polytechnic, the first institution to provide post-secondary technical training in Singapore, was established. Then, in 1956, the first two secondary technical schools in Singapore, Tanjong Katong Secondary Technical School and Queenstown Secondary Technical School, were opened.18

Singapore attained full internal self-government in 1959 and had autonomy over education policies. The objective of education was to build national unity and develop each child to his or her full potential. One aspect of this was to ensure that students would have the knowledge and skills to participate in economic development.19 A key feature of the first Five-Year Plan (1961–1965) in education was its emphasis on the study of mathematics, science and technical subjects to meet the needs of an industrialised society.20

Growth of vocational schools
In 1961, the landmark Report of the Commission of Inquiry into Vocational and Technical Education drew up a scheme for coordinating and systematising vocational and technical education in line with the industrialisation policy. One outcome was the conversion of the government trade school at Balestier Road into the Singapore Vocational Institute (SVI) in 1963. The SVI was the first vocational institute to specialise in craft subjects.21 It provided training in skills that were directly relevant to industry, such as carpentry, plumbing, electrical fitting and installation, welding, mechanical drawing and motor vehicle repairs.22 Another proposal in the report recommended that other vocational and trade schools be developed as vocational secondary schools providing two-year courses that would lead to more advanced training at the SVI.23 Subsequently, 12 vocational secondary schools and seven technical secondary schools were built between 1962 and 1966.24

Promoting technical education
In the late 1960s, the threat of large-scale unemployment as a result of the British withdrawal from Singapore strengthened the drive towards industrialisation as a means of creating jobs.25 However, the continued preference for academic education and the reluctance to take up blue-collar jobs resulted in a shortage of industrial workers. The secondary school system was also heavily skewed towards academic education.26 In 1968, 73 percent of primary school leavers went to the academic stream, while just 12 percent went to the technical stream and 15 percent to the vocational stream. Likewise, in secondary schools, 92 percent of graduating students took the academic route, while only 2 percent went to the commercial stream and 6 percent to the technical stream.27 To address this imbalance, the government introduced measures to reorganise and promote technical education and training.

The National Industrial Training Council (NITC) was formed in April 1968 to establish policies regarding technical education and industrial training in Singapore. This was followed by the consolidation of all vocational and technical training initiatives at the Ministry of Education (MOE) under a newly created Technical Education Department (TED) in June 1968.28 The TED oversaw secondary technical training, industrial training, the training of technical teachers, and also took over various apprenticeship schemes from the Ministry of Labour.29 

TED’s reforms
One of the first reforms introduced by the TED was to discontinue the vocational stream at the secondary level. Vocational schools were converted into vocational institutes or merged with academic stream schools to become bilateral schools. In 1969, technical training was extended at the secondary level: workshop-based subjects such as technical drawing, metalwork, woodwork, and basic electricity were made compulsory for all male students and half of the female cohort (the other half studied home economics) in their first two years. This revised common lower-secondary curriculum aimed to introduce students to manual skills and to cultivate interest in an industrial career.30 As a result of these efforts, 20 percent of Secondary 3 and 4 students in 1972 continued with the study of technical subjects; this was a significant increase compared to the 7 percent in 1969.31

Key developments: 1970s–1980s
With a place for technical training in the education system, the next phase of development focused on skills upgrading with the involvement of industry, and developing a rigorous system of certification.

Formation of ITB
To better respond to evolving technical manpower needs, the Industrial Training Board (ITB) was set up as a statutory board in 1973 to centralise, coordinate and intensify industrial training. It took over the TED’s responsibilities. The ITB had tripartite representation with members from the government, labour and employers. To ensure that training was attuned to the needs of industries, the ITB appointed trade advisory committees comprising persons with expertise in various technical fields to advise on the types of courses and skills required, including curricula, facilities and equipment.32

One of the ITB’s major achievements was the National Trade Certificate (NTC), which provided a uniform system of skill recognition at three levels: craftsman (Grade 3), technician (Grade 2) and master craftsman (Grade 1).33 The ITB also introduced an apprentice scheme in which a worker would undergo fulltime training at a vocational institute for a year (leading to the NTC-3), followed by two years of on-the-job training (leading to NTC-2) complemented by day-release courses. The worker received a monthly allowance from the employer or sponsor and from the ITB. This arrangement helped to balance the individual’s need to earn a living and industry demand for skilled workers.34

A wide range of courses, including electrical and electronics, metal and mechanical engineering, wood and building construction, motor vehicle mechanics, as well as manual and applied arts, were conducted at the vocational institutes run by the ITB.35 Joint-training centres were also set up with multinational companies such as Tata and Rollei to provide industry-specific training.36

By the late 1970s, a tight labour market and rising wages had led to a shift from low-skilled, labour-intensive manufacturing towards more capital-intensive, higher-technology industries. Companies were encouraged to send their employees for training to upgrade their skills and improve productivity, fuelling the demand for relevant programmes and schemes.37 At the same time, the Adult Education Board (AEB), which had been set up in 1960 to meet the educational needs of working adults, also provided basic vocational training.

Formation of VITB
The increasing convergence of continuing education, vocational and technical training, led to the amalgamation of the ITB and AEB to form the Vocational and Industrial Training Board (VITB) in 1979.38 The VITB aimed to prepare and train school-leavers for employment and to provide working adults with opportunities for continuing education and skills upgrading. It sought to make vocational training more systematic and professional by setting national standards, as well as conducting tests, examinations and certification.39 Between 1983 and 1991, the VITB introduced and ran a series of broad-based training programmes aimed at improving literacy and numeracy among older workers to prepare them for further skills training or to continue their education.40

Promoting technical education
Technical education was given a boost in 1979 with the introduction of the Skills Development Levy, which required every employer to contribute 2 percent of the salaries of low-wage workers to the Skills Development Fund. Companies which sent their workers for upgrading or retraining courses locally or overseas could claim reimbursement for a large part of the course fees from the fund. If suitable courses were not available, a company could also apply for grants to support its own in-house training programmes.41

Singapore Polytechnic had been the only post-secondary institution to offer diploma-level technical training until 1968 when Ngee Ann College was reorganised with a technical focus and renamed Ngee Ann Technical College. It became Ngee Ann Polytechnic in 1982.42 The 1970s and 80s marked a period of expansion for both institutions in terms of buildings, facilities, equipment, as well as the student enrolment and diplomas offered, which had broadened beyond hard engineering courses to include business administration, accountancy, computer studies, and software technology.43

At the tertiary level, both Nanyang Technological Institute (which opened in 1981 and later became Nanyang Technological University in 1991) and the National University of Singapore admitted top polytechnic graduates into their engineering courses. This was in line with the government’s push in the mid-1980s to produce more engineers to sustain industrial and economic growth.44

Key developments: 1990s–2000s

Having achieved the status of a newly industrialised economy, the next phase focused on developing Singapore as a hub of higher-value-added industries and services. A more educated and skilled workforce was thus necessary to drive economic growth.

Growth of schools
A review of the education system in 1990 led to two key changes that affected vocational and technical education. Firstly, all students would undergo 10 years of general education, including four years of secondary education, to equip them with a stronger foundation for further studies and training. This stemmed in part from employers’ preference for workers to have at least received secondary-level education, so that they could then be more easily retrained in response to technological advances. Secondly, a new level, the Normal (Technical) stream, was introduced in secondary schools to prepare students who were more technically inclined for vocational training.45

As a result, in 1992, the VITB was restructured and elevated into a post-secondary institution, the Institute of Technical Education (ITE), to provide higher-level vocational and technical courses.46 However, the biggest obstacle for the new institution was the poor public image vocational and technical education had – it was perceived as the “last resort” associated with “losers, low achievers, and school dropouts”. In response, the ITE embarked on a journey of transformation starting with the first five-year strategic plan, ITE 2000 (1995–1999), which included raising pedagogic and professional competencies, a rebranding campaign, and infrastructural upgrading and expansion to create a network of 10 modern campuses across Singapore (now reorganised into three regional colleges).47

Another two new full-sized polytechnics, Temasek Polytechnic and Nanyang Polytechnic, were respectively founded in 1992 and 1994 to meet the demand for middle-level professionals, particularly in the rapidly expanding service sector.48 Additionally, Singapore’s fifth polytechnic, Republic Polytechnic, was established in 2002. By this time, post-secondary technical and vocation education had diversified further to include a variety of training options in service-related areas such as retail and hospitality, sports and recreation, and in creative fields like design, media and filmmaking.49

Key developments: 2010s and beyond

In line with the broader educational mission of developing the full potential of each individual, efforts have been made to ensure that technical and vocational education offered opportunities for further studies and career upgrading.

Growth of schools
To better align university education with the needs and aspirations of polytechnic graduates, working professionals and adult learners, the Singapore Institute of Technology and the Singapore University of Social Sciences were respectively established in 2009 and 2017 to forge an applied degree pathway with a strong industry focus.50

At the secondary level, two specialised schools for the Normal (Technical) stream – Crest Secondary School and Spectra Secondary School – were opened in 2013 and 2014 respectively to provide a customised and hands-on curriculum that prepared students for post-secondary skills training at the ITE and for employment.51

Emphasis on lifelong employability
As Singapore matures as a knowledge-based economy, more attention has been paid to promoting continual learning and skills upgrading for lifelong employability. There is a renewed emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) skills and disciplines which are considered crucial to innovation and problem-solving capabilities.52

In January 2014, the Applied Study in Polytechnics and ITE Review (ASPIRE) committee was formed to study and propose how applied education in the polytechnics and ITEs could be enhanced to help students build a strong foundation in skills that would enhance their career and academic prospects.53 The committee recommended strengthening education and career guidance to help students make informed choices; deepening ties between schools and industries to ensure that curricula reflect real-world needs; and offering more avenues for polytechnic and ITE graduates to deepen existing skills or acquire new skills, with clearly articulated progression pathways and industry-relevant skill frameworks in place.54

In that same year, the Continuing Education and Training Masterplan (CET 2020), which was first launched in 2008, was refreshed. Mirroring the ASPIRE report, the updated CET Masterplan stated three focus areas: (1) building deep expertise in the Singapore workforce with the involvement of employers, and with employers and employees placing more emphasis on developing skills so that the latter remain employable; (2) enabling individuals to make informed learning and career choices through the improved delivery of education, training and career guidance; (3) developing a vibrant CET ecosystem with a wide range of high-quality learning opportunities.55

As a result, the SkillsFuture national movement was launched to provide opportunities for Singaporeans to acquire greater skills proficiency, knowledge and expertise.56 SkillsFuture programmes include education and career guidance, internships, as well as on-the-job and institution-based training. The learning credits help pay for work-skills-related courses, study awards, as well as mentorship and leadership development initiatives.57

Janice Loo

1. H. E. Wilson, Social Engineering in Singapore: Educational Policies and Social Change 1819–1972 (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1978), 22, 24. (Call no. RSING 379.5957 WIL)
2. David D. Chelliah, A History of the Educational Policy of the Straits Settlements with Recommendations for a New System Based on Vernaculars (Kuala Lumpur: The Government Press, 1948), 105–06 (Call no. RCLOS 370.9595 CHE); Kevin Blackburn, Education, Industrialization and the End of Empire in Singapore (New York: Routledge, 2017), 15–18. (Call no. RSING 370.95957 BLA)
3. Blackburn, Industrialization and the End of Empire, 15–18.
4. Francis H.K. Wong and Gwee Yee Hean, Official Reports on Education: Straits Settlements and the Federated Malay States, 1870–1939 (Singapore: Pan Pacific Book Distributors, 1980), 12. (Call no. RSING 370.95957 WON)
5. Doraisamy, ed., 150 Years of Education, 26–27.
6. Wong and Gwee, Official Reports on Education, 14.
7. Chelliah, History of the Educational Policy, 107; Wong and Gwee, Official Reports on Education, 96.
8. Blackburn, Industrialization and the End of Empire, 22–23, 41; Wong and Gwee, Official Reports on Education, 47; Chelliah, History of the Educational Policy, 111.

9. Francis H.K. Wong and Gwee Yee Hean, Official Reports on Education: Straits Settlements and the Federated Malay States, 1870–1939 (Singapore: Pan Pacific Book Distributors, 1980), 47 (Call no. RSING 370.95957 WON); Chelliah, History of the Educational Policy, 111.
10. Chelliah, History of the Educational Policy, 107–08; Wong and Gwee, Official Reports on Education, 94–95.
11. Wong and Gwee, Official Reports on Education, 98; Blackburn, Industrialization and the End of Empire, 48–49.
12. Wong and Gwee, Official Reports on Education, 97–98.
13. Wong and Gwee, Official Reports on Education, 98.
14. Blackburn, Industrialization and the End of Empire, 48–49; “Education in the Colony,” Malaya Tribune, 19 May 1931, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
15. Wong and Gwee, Official Reports on Education, 130.
16. Chelliah, History of the Educational Policy, 115; “Colonial Office Appointments,” Malaya Tribune, 22 May 1939, 17, (From NewspaperSG)
17. Goh Chor Boon, Technology and Entrepot Colonialism in Singapore, 1819–1940 (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2013), 196–99. (Call no. RSING 338.06409595 GOH)
18. “357 for Tech Schools,” Singapore Standard, 4 January 1956, 2 (From NewspaperSG); N Varaprasad, 50 Years of Technical Education in Singapore: How to Build a World Class TVET System (Singapore: World Scientific Publishing, 2016), 8. (Call no. RSING 373.24609595 FIF)
19. Doraisamy, ed., 150 Years of Education, 59.
20. Doraisamy, ed., 150 Years of Education, 60.
21. Varaprasad, 50 Years of Technical Education, 18.
22. “Institute Offers Trade Courses,” Straits Times, 25 March 1964, 9 (From NewspaperSG); Mickey Chiang, From Economic Debacle to Economic Miracle: The History and Development of Technical Education in Singapore (Singapore: Times Editions, 1998), 28–29. (Call no. RSING 607.5957 CHI)
23. Commission of Inquiry into Vocational and Technical Education in Singapore, Singapore, Report of the Commission of Inquiry into Vocational and Technical Education in Singapore (Singapore: GPO, 1961), 62. (From BookSG)
24. Ministry of Education, Singapore, Progress in Education: A Brief Review of Education in Singapore from 1959 to 1965 (Singapore: Ministry of Education, 1966), 5. (Call no. RCLOS 370.95951 SIN)
25. Doraisamy, ed., 150 Years of Education, 126.
26. Education in Singapore (Singapore: Educational Publications Bureau, 1972), 5. (Call no. RSING 370.95957 SIN)
27. Technical Education Department, Singapore, Technical Education and Industrial Training in Singapore: A Brief Review of the Achievements of the Technical Education Department 1968–1973 (Singapore: Technical Education Department, 1973), 3. (Call no. RSING 373.24670959 SIN)
28. Technical Education Department, Singapore, Technical Education and Industrial Training in Singapore, 4; Varaprasad, 50 Years of Technical Education, 20.
29. Varaprasad, 50 Years of Technical Education, 20; Chiang, Economic Debacle to Economic Miracle, 37.
30. Technical Education Department, Singapore, Technical Education and Industrial Training in Singapore, 4–5.
31. Education in Singapore, 6.
32. Chiang, Economic Debacle to Economic Miracle, 45.
33. Chiang, Economic Debacle to Economic Miracle, 38; Varaprasad, 50 Years of Technical Education, 29.
34. Chiang, Economic Debacle to Economic Miracle, 40.
35. Chiang, Economic Debacle to Economic Miracle, 42.
36. Varaprasad, 50 Years of Technical Education, 30.
37. Law Song Seng, A Breakthrough in Vocational and Technical Education: The Singapore Story (Singapore: World Scientific Publishing, 2015), 61. (Call no. RSING 370.11309595)
38. Vocational and Industrial Training Board, Singapore, Commemorative Magazine: 10 Years of Vocational Training in Singapore (1973–83) (Singapore: Vocational and Industrial Training Board, 1983), 6–7. (Call no. RSING 370.11309595 COM)
39. Vocational and Industrial Training Board, Singapore, Commemorative Magazine, 15.
40. Law, Breakthrough in Vocational and Technical Education, 52–53.
41. “All Can Now Apply for Aid,” Straits Times, 22 December 1979, 1 (From NewspaperSG); Chiang, Economic Debacle to Economic Miracle, 46.
42. Varaprasad, 50 Years of Technical Education, 56; Chiang, Economic Debacle to Economic Miracle, 118; Renaming of Ngee Ann Technical College,” Straits Times, 20 March 1982, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
43. Varaprasad, 50 Years of Technical Education, 56–58.
44. Chiang, Economic Debacle to Economic Miracle, 176–77.
45. Vocational and Industrial Training Board, Singapore, Annual Report 1991–1992 (Singapore: Vocational and Industrial Training Board, 1980–1992), 4 (Call no. RCLOS 331.79407105957 VITBSA); Varaprasad, 50 Years of Technical Education, 85.
46. Vocational and Industrial Training Board, Singapore, Upgrading Vocational Training (Singapore: Vocational and Industrial Training Board, 1991), viii (Call no. RSING 370.113 UPG); Vocational and Industrial Training Board, Singapore, Annual Report 1991–1992, 4.
47. Law, Breakthrough in Vocational and Technical Education, 126–27, 171–72; Varaprasad, 50 Years of Technical Education, 90–93.
48. “4 Polytechnics to Produce 105,000 Grads By Year 2000,” Business Times, 21 March 1992, 2 (From NewspaperSG); Varaprasad, 50 Years of Technical Education, 59–61.
49. Varaprasad, 50 Years of Technical Education, 61–62.
50. “Autonomous Universities,” Ministry of Education, Singapore, accessed 15 January 2019.
51. “About Crest,” Crest Secondary School, accessed 15 January 2019; “School Info,” Spectra Secondary School, accessed 15 January 2019.  
52. Varaprasad, 50 Years of Technical Education, 143.
53. “Applied Study in Polytechnics and ITE Review (ASPIRE) Report,” Ministry of Education, 2014.
54. Ministry of Education, Singapore, “Applied Study in Polytechnics and ITE Review (ASPIRE) Report.”
55. “Refreshed Continuing Education and Training (CET) Masterplan,” Ministry of Manpower, Singapore, accessed 15 January 2019.
56. “Beyond Competence, Towards Mastery of Skills,” Straits Times, 20 September 2014, 52; Kelly Tay, “SkillsFuture Council Lists Ways to Develop Citizens,” Business Times, 6 Novemeber 2014, 2 (From NewspaperSG); Varaprasad, 50 Years of Technical Education, 154.
57. “SkillsFuture,” Ministry of Manpower, Singapore, 15 January 2019.

The information in this article is valid as at May 2019 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Singapore. Vocational and Industrial Training Board
Technical education--Singapore
Vocational education--Singapore--History
Vocational schools
Vocational education--Singapore
Technical education--Singapore--History