SMU-SPD Conference on “Building a Culture of Inclusion Within Institutes of Higher Learning” – Speech by Ms Chia Yong Yong

Ms Sim Ann, Minister of State, Ministry of Communications and Information & Ministry of Education

SMU President, Professor Arnoud De Meyer

Distinguished speakers and guests

Ladies and gentlemen,

A very good morning.


It was exciting news when I learnt that the Singapore Management University and the Society for the Physically Disabled, or SPD, will be collaborating to explore how best students with disabilities can be supported and included in institutions of higher learning in Singapore.


Since its establishment in the year 2000, SMU has rapidly gained a reputation for its interactive, broad-based, creative and effective education style. I have spoken with former students who shared about growing in an environment that nurtures bold thinking and impactful outcomes. And our collaboration, kicked off by today’s conference, is a good example of just that: a concrete step to translate lofty talk of mainstream inclusivity into impactful action.


It is trite to say that education is the one of the most important components in the making of a person. From an economic perspective, it also enhances an individual’s employability. For persons with disabilities, due to their constraints, education plays an even more crucial role in expanding the career options available to them, and in giving them an opportunity to be economically productive, which is important to their sense of dignity.


Hence, SPD has been, is and will remain committed to supporting students with disabilities in mainstream education. The SPD Education Programme offers a suite of services including bursary awards to students with physical disabilities. SPD also administers the Asia Pacific Breweries Foundation Scholarship for Persons with Disabilities and the Microsoft YouthSpark Scholarship. Through these, we have seen many youths with disabilities making good in life, realising their potential, achieving their aspirations, because they had been given a chance at education.


As a person with disability, I was blessed with the support of family, friends and teachers, which enabled me to complete my university education, without which, I would not be a legal practitioner today. Like other individuals with disabilities, my education journey was paved with support and effort from people around me, providing me with equal access and opportunity to education.


The 10 years I spent studying at Paya Lebar Methodist Girls’ School were significant. The teachers and principal were very supportive. At that time, the classrooms for Secondary Three and Four students were on the third level. When I was in Secondary Three and Four, the principal gave our class a ground floor classroom and that really facilitated my studies. Friends helped me to the laboratory and chapel on the second floor. Yet, I wasn’t given any special privileges, and was treated in all respects like any other student. Well, I am just like anyone else, aren’t I?


In Catholic Junior College, the buildings were challenging. But I made it through the 2 years, again because the teachers and principal were supportive and affirming. Friends also helped me, a lot, to every place.


My first day of school at NUS Kent Ridge was intimidating. The first event of our law school education was the welcome address from our dean. It was to be held at a lecture theatre. I got to the location, and saw a flight of steps leading down to the lecture theatre. The stairs had no handrails. I was using a crutch, then, but I needed handrails. I looked around. I did not see familiar faces. My heart sank. After some minutes, two guys came forward, introduced themselves, chatted with me, and offered help. To this day, they are two of my favourite guys. Along the way, more and more people became my friends. And you know what, they behaved normally with me, no awkwardness, no fanfare. Sure – they helped me a lot, and they accommodated me a lot, but they never made me feel like I was a burden. That bonding between us is strong till today. And, like my growing up years, the dean and lecturers at law school were supportive and affirming.


Thanks to such support, I felt no different, growing up. The acceptance I’d felt from the time I was young was tremendous. I came to realise that while physical access was important, social acceptance was vital in building self-confidence and self-worth. It gave me equal access and opportunity to what my peers had.


An educator working with a student with special needs may sometimes think that it is more effective to group students with disabilities together. While this might hold true in certain specific contexts of imparting knowledge and skills, it is the converse when it comes to developing the character of our students and facilitating inclusion.


While there is a need for Special Schools to cater to children with more complex disabilities, it is my hope that every child with special needs, who can be reasonably accommodated in mainstream education, be given the opportunity to attend mainstream education. Children with disabilities and without disabilities thereby grow together in knowledge and character. Mainstream education gives children with disabilities a sense of belonging in the community. More important, it creates an environment where inclusion is the norm. Children who interact with friends with disabilities grow up to become adults who naturally include and understand how to include persons with disabilities.


For a person with disability to complete tertiary education in Singapore, support from the individuals around them and the education institutions is crucial. It is my hope that the disability and education sectors can work hand-in-hand to develop and implement a seamless system to support students with disabilities in life-long education.


I look forward to a fruitful outcome to today’s conference, and hope that, on the part of those who can do something to improve things, there will be a willingness to listen, and on the part of those who have something to contribute, a willingness to share your experiences.


In conclusion, we thank SMU for partnering with SPD in these efforts. We look forward to developing and promoting best practices with SMU for the inclusion of persons with disabilities in institutions of higher learning in Singapore. We hope other institutions of higher learning will follow SMU’s lead and develop, implement and promote best practices for the inclusion of people with disabilities within its work and learning environment. It is only with our commitment that true inclusion can actualise.


Thank you, and have a wonderful day.