Greater push needed for Student Care sector

The following is an article which I had written for the Workers’ Party Hammer newsletter that was published several months ago. I am reproducing the article online after reading the article, “Demand rises for after-school care services” in the Straits Times today. The Straits Times’ article described the urgent problem facing young working parents vying for the very limited places in School-based Student Care Centres today and across the industry. It is an issue that I have been highlighting in parliament for several years already.

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Student care centres (SCCs) provide before or after school care for primary school pupils. They are an essential service for young working parents who do not have alternative arrangements to look after their primary school- going children during school days.

In recent years, there has been a huge increase in demand for student care services. This has followed a similarly large increase in the demand for childcare services since the last decade. The same young working parents that use childcare services will usually need student care for their children, at least for the first few years of schooling.

For many years, this sector has been left very much to market forces to fulfil the demand. Commercial SCCs are unattractive to run given the high cost of rent and a general lack of government support, compared to childcare. As at June 2014, the Ministry of Social and Family’s (MSF) website listed 214 student care centres, of which a good number are tuition or childcare centres. These centres may take only very few student care students, if at all, as their other operations are generally more profitable.

Good student care services could eliminate the need for tuition. However, the current number of SCC places available are too few to meet parents’ needs. The best place to run SCCs is in the schools, where students need not move out of the school and the operators can best coordinate with the teachers to follow up on homework and learning. Schools’ facilities in single-session schools are not fully utilised after school hours. If facilities are offered at token rents to operators, MOE can negotiate for lower fees and higher quality programmes. It will also reduce the need for tuition, benefiting students from disadvantaged families.

The government made a late start on this, growing school-based SCCs (SSCs) at a faster pace only after 2010. There are now 80 SSCs, with another 40 coming on-stream over the next 2 years. Even though this is fast by historical standards, more than a third of schools will still not have SSCs come 2016. MOE did not provide figures for my parliamentary question on the waitlist in existing SSCs. So, I did a random check on 12 SSCs in March 2014. I found that all had no vacancies, with one having over 50 children on the waitlist! MOE would also not commit to when all primary schools can have SSCs.

I like to see MOE aim for 100% of all primary schools to have SSCs as soon as possible. Existing operators that run community-based centres will likely be interested to move their operations into schools to avoid high rents and can pass the cost savings on to parents or to invest in staff recruitment.

Another overlooked aspect of the student care operations is that of staff training. Unlike in childcare, there is currently no mandatory requirement on training and there are few training providers with programs specific to the industry. Hence, the level of staff training in this sector is very low compared to childcare. One reason is the lack of government funding support that has made it unattractive for operators to be in the student care business or to send their staff for training. A good source for staff recruitment could be from mothers wishing to return to the workforce, as they would have experience looking after their own children of similar ages to that of SSC users and student care work hours are less demanding than that of other full-time jobs.

A plan should be urgently established to make a bigger push to help attract staff into this sector, get them trained and to support operators to keep cost affordable while maintaining a quality framework. Some level of fee subsidy support for Singaporean parents similar to that of childcare could also be established to help drive more operators into the business and to raise overall quality of operations.

Debate on Education Endowment and Savings Schemes (Amendment) Bill

I delivered the following speech in Parliament on 8 October 2014.

Madam Speaker, I wish to declare that I run businesses that offer education services to students.

This bill will ensure that all Singaporean citizens aged seven to 16 who are not enrolled in mainstream schools will now also receive the $200-$240 yearly Edusave contributions by the government. News reports have estimated that 20,000 more children will benefit from this[1].

I believe this is a strong signal to tell Singaporeans that there are many education pathways, and Singapore children who have chosen to be enrolled in Madrasahs and other religious schools, private schools and home schools or are studying overseas are part of Singapore and deserve access to the funds that are meant for use for activities to enrich their minds.

The scheme, popularly known as Edusave was designed to provide yearly funds to students in mainstream schools to allow parents to use the moneys to pay for enrichment activities for their children in programmes that are approved by the schools. Autonomy has been given to the schools to decide what activities are best suited for the students. This is something that is useful as schools can bring in programmes that extend on their niches or programmes that they believe are best for their students.

Over the years, students have used their Edusave moneys for many sorts of programmes such as speech and drama, sports, learning expeditions and camps, and even for overseas trips.

Enrichment programmes offered through mainstream schools are often very competitively priced, as there is economy of scale from having a large number of students. Facilities within the schools are not charged to these service providers, so fees are much lower than that of similar programmes offered in venues outside of the schools that have to pay commercial rents. The enrichment providers sometimes also offer other type of programmes and services to the schools outside of Edusave funding, so there’s incentive for these providers to be as competitive as they can to sell a continuous stream of services to the schools.

While the same amount of funding per child is now available to children in religious and private schools and those that are home-schooled, enrichment providers will not rush to offer services to them as the scale of business is small. Granted that depending on rules that MOE will establish, those that are home schooled can attend enrichment courses by commercial providers individually, the costs are a lot higher per hour of learning. Hence, the yearly $200-$240 Edusave contribution that a student will receive will not go far. More importantly, there will be the missing social emotional learning elements of learning together in a large group.

I’d like to suggest that MOE can look at having schools open up participation of edusave-funded enrichment courses in their schools to those that are home schooled or in the smaller religious and private schools nearby.

I’d like to suggest that this can be a nationwide effort coordinated through MOE. Selected schools spread throughout Singapore can be satellite centres to partner with students that are in the religious schools, smaller private schools and home schools. Enrichment courses offered in the schools, especially those that are Edusave funded can be extended to these external students. This will foster interaction through joint programmes which will help develop the social and emotional learning of those outside of mainstream schools while helping students in the mainstream school better understand their peers learning under a different education system. It will also provide some form of common education experience for both groups of students.

Madam, the idea may sound radical but I believe it is doable. Some schools have on their own initiative, fostered partnerships with communities in their neighbourhood, including with disadvantaged children. I believe we can have a more structured approach on enrichment programmes to have schools partner on regular basis with neighbourhood children outside of mainstream schools. This will give more value to the Edusave contributions that the government is now giving to this new group of beneficiaries. I hope MOE can study the feasibility of this proposal.

Madam Speaker, I support the Bill. Thank you.

[1] http://www.todayonline.com/singapore/more-children-benefit-edusave-enhancements

Remote Gambling Bill – Strong Safeguards Needed

I delivered this speech during the debate on the Remote Gambling Bill on 7 October 2014. The video of speech is here.

The Rise of Remote Gambling

Madam Speaker, online gambling is increasingly becoming a problem, both globally and in Singapore.

In 2013, a news article reported an online survey by the Ministry of Home Affairs which found that 3 in 10 out of 1,000 respondents had gambled online or through the mobile phone. The article estimated that the size of the remote gambling market in Singapore was $376 million[1]. MHA had also estimated that the revenue of the global remote gambling industry was around US$35b in 2012[2].

A survey conducted in 2011 with Singapore residents by the National Council on Problem Gambling found that 10% of the respondents had gambled remotely in the preceding year, and those who did so said they often found themselves spending more time and money than they had intended to[3]. With the wide penetration of the Internet and mobile phone here, and an increasingly technology savvy population, remote gambling will rise rapidly if left unchecked.

Singapore currently already has tough laws on gambling in the real-world physical form, but has lagged behind that of other countries in imposing legislation on remote gambling, at least until now. Hence, I support the government’s move to impose tough legalisations on remote gambling. Remote gamblers will now face fines and even jail terms, while those who facilitate remote gambling will be subjected to even heftier fines and up to 5 years in jail. Industry experts have said that we will have one of the toughest laws in the world against online gambling. While most countries would adopt one or two of the key measures to control online gambling, Singapore will adopt all three measures with the proposed regulation: ban advertisements, block access to such websites and block payments to and from gambling sites.[4]

Exemptions

However, a worrying aspect of the Bill is that under Part 5, it provides for exemptions for Singapore-based not-for-profit operators with a proven track record of distributing moneys to public, social or charitable purposes in Singapore and with good compliance track record with applicable legal and regulatory requirements.

Our state-run operators, Singapore Pools and Singapore Turf Club have already been quoted in the press as saying that they will apply for the exemption certificate once this Bill is passed into law.[5] Last year, it was reported that Singapore Pools is looking to launch the first licensed gambling website that will be based in Singapore.[6] The same report cited sources who said that Singapore Pools had already begun design for a website with online betting functions. In effect, this Bill will create a monopoly for legalised online gambling in Singapore for the existing operators.

Dangers of Gambling and Lessons We Have Learnt

Madam, while it is good to have only compliant not-for-profit organisations with charitable outlook to be considered for exemption, we must not forget that there are very real dangers of people and families that have been and will continue to be destroyed at our existing legalised casinos, turf club and betting outlets.

According to a British gambling consultancy, H2 Gambling Capital, Singaporeans are the second biggest gamblers in the world, and the average adult resident lost $1,189 in 2013.[7] This ranks Singapore only behind Australia in terms of gambling losses per resident. Half of this amount was reportedly lost in casinos, with the other half going to other forms of gambling such as lotteries, non-casino gaming machines, betting, and offshore gaming websites.

While the rates of problem and pathological gambling across the board are still considered relatively low,[8] a local study funded by the Ministry of Social and Family Development has found that there has been an increase in the gambling participation rates among older adults aged 60 and above;[9] this is consistent with other countries such as the UK and the US which have also found similar trends. What is worrying about the prevalence of gambling participation among older adults from the study is that none of those identified within the problem gambling and moderate risk groups in the study, were seeking professional help.[10] As a result, while there are generally more people seeking help for gambling addiction, there still remains a significant group of people who do not do so, for various reasons such as being unaware of the problem, or the fear of being stigmatised, amongst others.

This is a cause for concern not just because this group of people are around retirement age, but also because of the dire consequences that could befall their families if the problem is not addressed in time.

When we legalised casinos in 2006, we enacted the Casino Control Act which had provisions aimed at protecting vulnerable persons and society at large from the potential harm of casino gambling. Yet we still saw individuals and families being destroyed by the scourge of addictive gambling. That resulted in amendments to the Bill 2 years ago to offer further safeguards.

I’d like to know what are the lessons learnt from the operations of our legalised gambling franchises that our authorities intend to incorporate to control the negative aspects of addictive gambling. This is especially so when remote gambling is so much more convenient for the gamblers.

While we are legislating remote gambling for the first time in Singapore, there are already some form of remote gambling by our two state-run gambling operators. Singapore Pools already allows phone betting[11] and Singapore Turf Club’s MobileTote allows betting via mobile devices[12]. Phone betting allows for the placement of lottery bets by following voice prompts and through data entry using the phone’s number pads. It also allows for Sports bets through speaking with a customer service representative. The MobileTote allows Telebet account holders to view raceday information and place their racing wagers on their mobile phones. ​Users of these services must first be registered with the gambling operators.

I trust that our authorities have been monitoring these existing forms of legalised remote gambling services. I’d like to know if we have examined the frequency of usage of these types of remote gambling, such as number of bets and amount of bets versus the traditional forms. Have we studied the betting patterns of those who use these remote gambling services to see if the services had led to an increase in the number and overall values of their betting? What is the size of the existing memberships of these services? The information could be helpful to determine the extent of the danger for legalising online gambling through exempted operators and if these two existing state-owned operators should be granted exempt-status. With the exemption provisions in this Bill, it could open the floodgates for these operators to be more aggressive in offering a wider range of services with greater convenience, which could inevitably result in more people becoming addicted to gambling.

Strong Verification and Controls Needed

With online gambling, one should logically first need to be registered with a login identity and to have financial details linked to the gaming operator to facilitate payment. If we have to go down the path of having exempt gambling operators, we will need a way to impose controls on the legalised gambling sites such as exclusion orders, voluntary self-exclusion and limits to gambling tied to financial abilities. With the current exercise to strengthen Singpass security with 2-level authentication, perhaps Singpass could be used as the means for authentication and financial background checks. At the very least, some form of strict authentication of the identity and background of online gamblers at the initial creation of their account is important. Those on state-funded welfare programmes can be automatically excluded as such information will be readily available about the person. Those already on casino exclusion orders and are bankrupt should also be automatically excluded. Known financial details could perhaps be used to determine gambling limits.

What forms of remote gambling will be allowed for the legalised exempt operators? I am glad to hear from the Minister that there will be no online casinos as casino games are potentially more addictive compared to other forms of gambling. It would have allowed a loophole to let Singapore residents gamble on casino games without the safeguards such as entry levies that physical casinos have.

Another issue that we may need to look at in the implementation of online gaming is live betting. With live betting, one can bet on sporting events as they happen, with odds changing by the minute as the game progresses. Gambling sites internationally have devised all sorts of creative live bets, such as the number of yellow cards in, say the first 20 minutes of the game. This can lead to more bets being placed on each sporting event and it also raises the risk for match fixing. Australia, which has laws regulating online gambling since 2001, moved last year to ban live betting and live odds on all sports event, with the exception of horse racing. [13] Their reasons, amongst others for this move were to control excessive gambling and to prevent the sporting values of games from being distorted by gambling. I hope live betting will also not be allowed in Singapore.

Commit Bill to a Select Committee

Madam Speaker, I understand a reason given for allowing exemptions is to allow enforcement through entities that we can better monitor. However, we need to tread this carefully as the ills of gambling are far reaching, as we have already seen from our experiences with the casinos and other forms of legalised gambling. There need to be constant monitoring of the effects of remote gambling and to restrict participation by vulnerable persons and to also restrict the type of gaming activities allowed.

While I support the broad principles of the Bill to ban remote gambling, I find that there are many unanswered questions regarding the exemption provisions. I fear that once we open the floodgates to have legalised remote gambling, we may end up with very high social costs and other unintended consequences in the future. Hence, I also ask that the Bill be committed to a Select Committee to examine the exemption provisions in detail to convince Singaporeans why exemptions are necessary and if so, how we can tighten our legislation to implement very strong safeguards.

Thank you.

[1] http://m.todayonline.com/singapore/govt-moves-moves-curb-remote-gambling-websites
[2] http://www.mha.gov.sg/news_details.aspx?nid=MzAzOA%3D%3D-YA3Z%2BhZbN8g%3D
[3] http://app.msf.gov.sg/Research-Room/Research-Statistics?tid=26&title=Gambling/Problem%20Gambling
[4] http://www.establishmentpost.com/singapore-pools-plug-online-gambling-remote-gambling-bill/
[5] http://www.straitstimes.com/news/singapore/more-singapore-stories/story/online-gambling-sites-urged-keep-addicts-out-20140927
[6] http://www.straitstimes.com/breaking-news/singapore/story/singapore-pools-looking-start-licensed-gambling-website-20131213
[7] http://www.todayonline.com/singapore/sporeans-remain-second-biggest-gamblers-world
[8] http://app.msf.gov.sg/Press-Room/Preventing-rise-in-Gambling-Addiction
[9] Tsu S, et al., (2013). Estimating the prevalence of problem gambling among older adults in Singapore,. Elsevier., p. 607.
[10] Tsu S, et al., (2013). Estimating the prevalence of problem gambling among older adults in Singapore,. Elsevier., p. 610.
[11] http://www.singaporepools.com.sg/en/pb/Pages/index.aspx
[12] http://www.turfclub.com.sg/Wagering/BettingServices/Pages/MobileTote.aspx

[13] http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/gillard-moves-to-ban-live-odds-restrict-gambling-ads-during-games-20130526-2n4tc.html

Building an Asian Community: Promoting Peaceful Developments and Embracing Political Diversity

The following is my speech delivered on 19 September 2014 at the International Conference of Asian Political Parties, 8th General Assembly at Colombo, Sri Lanka. The theme for the General Assembly was “Building An Asian Community”.

I had attended the ICAPP 8th General Assembly held in Sri Lanka from 18-21 September with 2 colleagues from WP Youth Wing. Also from Singapore were representatives from the Singapore People’s Party. The event provided an interesting exchange of ideas with some 300 politicians from the ruling and opposition parties of around 30 countries. Asia has very diverse cultures, religions, geographies, ideologies, types of governments and state of economic developments.

Delegates from WP and SPP of Singapore at ICAPP 2014

Groupie of delegates from WP and SPP of Singapore at ICAPP 2014

Throughout the proceedings, many speakers including myself had referred to the Asian century. As I listened to the optimism and occasional words of caution sounded by the speakers of the enormous potential of Asia, I was reminded of a discussion during my General Paper (GP) tutorial class in college over 30 years ago. The topic then was about Africa. After World World II, there were many countries that were gaining independence. Africa was exuberating with confidence as their resource-rich countries broke away from their colonial master. Sadly, with wars and mismanagement, the huge potential of Africa did not materialise, perhaps not yet. Asia is now indeed racing ahead with many of its huge economies on the rise. However, political leaders must guard against terrorism, internal and external conflicts and narrow-minded policies that can tear a country apart.

Yee JJ delivering speech at ICAPP, 19 Sep 2014

Yee JJ delivering speech at ICAPP, 19 Sep 2014

Building an Asian Community: Promoting Peaceful Developments and Embracing Political Diversity

Good afternoon, Mr Chairman and honourable delegates of ICAPP. As introduced, I am a Non-Constituency Member of Parliament in Singapore’s 12th Parliament. I am here with two Youth Wing colleagues of the Workers’ Party. They are currently in the youth wing session delivering a speech.

Thank you for inviting us to be at this gathering of political parties across Asia.

I am happy to be back in Colombo. My last trip here was for the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association’s conference in 2012, also in the month of September and also in this same venue. I had received warm hospitality from the host during that trip so I am glad to be able to come back for this ICAPP General Assembly.

Geographically, Singapore is a small country by land size, somewhere in the middle of South East Asia and Asia. Since the founding of Singapore by the British nearly 200 years ago, the country had thrived by being a trading hub and more recently as a business, financial and technology hub. Next year will be the 50th year of our independence. Four years after that will be our 200th year since Sir Stamford Raffles founded modern Singapore.

As a small trading nation and business hub, peace and cooperation with other countries, especially in our region has been very important to Singapore.

I am personally alarmed and saddened by the recent increase in violence and conflicts globally, such as in the Middle East. Even though the Middle East conflicts are far away from Singapore, in our interconnected worlds, it is nevertheless very close to home. Once a while, we hear of volunteers from Singapore and from our nearby region joining the ISIS movement. Yesterday, as I was travelling here, I heard the news that an ISIS network was broken up in Australia, fortunately before they could strike within Australia. These are dangers we must constantly guard against if we wish to build a strong Asian community.

Singapore is a multiracial society comprising of four main races – Chinese, Malay, Indians and Eurasians. We also have many new immigrants amongst us, especially from Asia. Foreigners comprise nearly 40% of the population in Singapore today. Hence we have a rather diverse Asian community within Singapore. It is a challenge that we have to take on an ongoing basis to preserve the peace and harmony amongst one another. The relative peace between different ethnic groups and people of various faiths has been a key to enable our economic progress.

Hence I look forward to peaceful developments in countries across Asia, despite the challenges of many diverse religions, ethnic races and ideologies. Only peaceful development and cooperation with one another can help realize the potential of the Asian century.

The Workers’ Party of Singapore was formed in 1957. As the name implies, we started with a socialist incline. Currently on the political spectrum, we can be considered as being centre-left.

Those who follow Singapore politics may know that the ruling party has been in power since the self-independence of Singapore in 1959. From 1968-1981, there was no opposition presence in parliament. From 1981-2011, there were between 1-2 members of the opposition in parliament.

In 2011, the Singapore electorate voted in a record six members of the opposition at the General Elections. Today, there are seven elected opposition members and three non-constituency opposition MPs in our parliament. While this is still a very small number compared to that of many countries here, it was nevertheless an important political milestone for us.

I believe greater political competition and political diversity is yet another important development in our relatively young country’s progress. I believe we are not alone in Asia in moving towards greater political diversity as the proliferation of social media and the rising levels of education of the people have driven the desire in many countries for more political diversity.

Our team is happy to be here in the midst of so many political parties in Asia, the largest and most populous continent on Earth with so much political diversity. We look forward to fostering friendship and cooperation with the many political parties here. Thank you.

My thoughts on National Day Rally 2014

With NCMP Gerald Giam at NDR 2014, ITE College Central

With NCMP Gerald Giam at NDR 2014, ITE College Central

Yesterday, I attended the National Day Rally 2014 at ITE College Central. Amongst others, the Prime Minister touched on pathways to success, especially for non-graduates, retirement adequacy and making Singapore as an endearing home for all. My Parliamentary colleague NCMP Gerald Giam touched on issues related to changes that are to be made to the CPF scheme. I will be sharing my thought about shifting our mind-set to support different pathways to success.

The PM shared stories about the successful non-graduates from Keppel Corporation. Keppel’s positive attitude to create opportunities for all its employees is commendable. These stories, however, are actually common in the private sector. I know of many cases of those with vocational training or diploma climbing high in the corporate ladder, exceeding that achieved by their graduate peers. Amongst those that I had personally supervised in the course of my work, I had one who came through the now defunct Baharrudin Vocational Institute (later merged into ITE). We took him into our company even though he did not have a diploma which we generally expected of staff as we were running a technology business that required people trained in specific skills. He came through because he had the relevant work experience. He demonstrated great work attitude and initiative and eventually rose to head the software team, a very critical part of our business, with many graduates reporting to him. His skills were self-taught or through courses attended along the way. There are many other such examples.

The elephant in the room is actually in the government service. The structures are well defined and it is no secret that scholars and those identified early as having potential are fast tracked through the system. They are typically those with stellar academic achievements. The promotion pathways are fairly rigid, with paper qualifications being sometimes the barrier preventing someone from jumping into a new career track within the civil service. While the PM had said changes will be made to the public service to merge the career tracks of graduates and non-graduates, no details were yet given. The execution will be challenging. It is helpful though that they have acknowledged this problem. What ASPIRE wants to achieve in providing fulfilling opportunities for Polytechnics and ITE graduates will need a major mind-set shift across the country, especially in the Public Service Division. Putting DPM Tharman to head the tripartite committee to make this happen does send an appropriate signal that this needs attention at the highest level. 

In this globalised and highly connected 21st century, information becomes obsolete rapidly. The pace of change is rapid. Economies compete aggressively with one another. It is appropriate for Singapore to move away from a paper chase culture. It is useful to look at countries such as Germany and Switzerland that have placed strong emphasis on vocational training, and have ensured that those with the right skills are compensated competitively against their graduate peers. I had touched on this during the Parliament debate on the Singapore Institute of Technology bill.

The PM wants the current generation to be pioneers for the future generation, just as the first batch of pioneer generation had taken Singapore from third world to first world. We will need a culture of believing in our own people, developing them and giving them the opportunities to progress. We will need to move away from blind paper chase to chasing to equip ourselves with the skills to do the job well, and to do the job with pride. I certainly hope this mind-set shift will not be just lip service but will be pursued earnestly.

Transboundary Haze Pollution Bill

The following is my speech delivered on 5 August 2014 in Parliament and a follow-up question for MEWR Minister. Source: Parliament website – http://sprs.parl.gov.sg/search/topic.jsp?currentTopicID=00006478-WA&currentPubID=00006482-WA&topicKey=00006482-WA.00006478-WA_1%2Bid-4067f594-ea00-4e20-ac4b-1ad5493c5b74%2B

TRANSBOUNDARY HAZE POLLUTION BILL

[speech by MEWR Minister and other members…]

Mr Yee Jenn Jong (Non-Constituency Member): Mdm Speaker, I rise in support of the Bill. Since 1991, Singapore has endured recurring haze episodes resulting from land and forest fires in Indonesia, with last year’s being the worst ever. While I appreciate the efforts of our officials over the many years in trying to find workable solutions with our ASEAN neighbours on this issue, I have been concerned about our lack of ability to take more actions that are within our controls.

Hence, two years ago, I had asked the Government to consider legislative measures to allow us to prosecute companies found guilty of causing haze in Singapore through illegal burning, even if the acts were committed outside of our shores [1]. This Bill now gives us a new legal lever to exercise our rights to clean air, covering both criminal and civil liabilities for commercial entities responsible for land clearance if their actions outside of our territorial boundaries cause haze pollution in Singapore.

This Bill signals Singapore’s seriousness in combating this issue. Agricultural companies that wish to do business with Singapore or have their operational headquarters here will have to think seriously about their practices if they are not already practicing good land clearing practices.

My speech will focus on some details of the Bill and the potential challenges to put it in place, which the Minister and other Members had also pointed out.

Presumptions. First, there is a string of sweeping presumptions under clause 8 of the Bill which we need to especially convince our regional neighbours that these are fair and reasonable.

Clause 8 contains a series of legal presumptions to assist the prosecution to pin guilt on entities. There will be much controversy surrounding clause 8(4), which presumes the accuracy of land maps obtained by the Singapore Government from the foreign government or any person requested by the Singapore Government to furnish a map. If the Singapore Government decides to rely on that map, it is presumed under clause 8(4) that the entities reflected on the map as occupying particular geographical areas will be presumed to be doing so unless the entity proves otherwise. Is this presumption from a map reasonable? Therein lies a potential minefield.

Experts in agrarian land laws have cited the complexity of the law related to land in Indonesia [2] and the need for reforms in land registration [3 and 4]. There are reportedly ambiguities in land rights between the customary law or adat, which deems land as belonging to communities, and the formal law called the Basic Agrarian Law giving individual title to land. There are thus unregistered but valid land rights which would not show up in maps as they are generally not recognised by the State.
A further complication is that, under the Basic Forestry Law of 1967, all forest land is deemed to belong to the State, even when communities recognise their customary rights to the forest land among themselves. The Basic Agrarian Law of Indonesia recognises four types of land tenures that can be registered: (a) the right of ownership; (b) the right to use; (c) the right to exploit; and (d) the right to build. Different entities can hold the four different rights to the same piece of land. Many of the rights given to the urban and rural land in Indonesia have not been registered. In addition, foreign entities also team up with local entities to get de facto rights to the land, making it unclear as to who is the actual entity that is in charge of activities on the land parcels.

Given the state of affairs, how reliable would land maps from Indonesia be? Do the Indonesians themselves accept their government maps as accurate? This may call into question the reasonableness of the presumptions under clause 8(4).
Besides clause 8(4), the rest of clause 8 also places the burden of proof on a suspected entity to disprove its guilt. Clause 8(1) presumes that haze pollution in Singapore is caused by a land or forest fire outside Singapore if the meteorological data suggest so. Clause 8(2) presumes that an owner or occupier of the land alleged to have caused haze pollution in Singapore had engaged in conduct that caused or condoned the haze pollution. Clause 8(3) presumes that if any entity is believed to have caused or condoned haze pollution in Singapore, any other entity that participates in the management of the first entity has also caused or condoned haze pollution in Singapore.

While presumptions have been used in Singapore laws before, such as in the Misuse of Drugs Act, shifting the burden of proof to persons is likely to be more demanding, and even more so when the evidence is overseas. Where a legal presumption operates against an accused, it is not sufficient for the accused to cast a reasonable doubt on the prosecution’s case; instead, the accused has the burden of proof to rebut the legal presumption on a balance of probabilities. In order to do so, the accused entity is expected to bring its witnesses and documents to Singapore and foot the expenses of such. Even assuming that a foreign entity does all these things and is acquitted, there is no provision for it to recover its expenses or legal costs, since this is a criminal proceeding. A challenge will be that some foreign entities may not be interested to clear their name at their own expenses in Singapore.

Next, on the defences provided in the Bill. The Bill provides as defence to condoning haze pollution that if the accused Primary Person proves on a balance of probabilities, that the Primary Person took “all such measures reasonable” to prevent or stop or reduce substantially such conduct by the Secondary Person, if the haze pollution has already happened.
It will be good for parliament to clarify what standards of behaviour are the Primary Persons expected to implement to constitute a good defence? It would be a perverse policy outcome if Primary Persons are able to get away by simply inserting clauses in their contracts with their supplier Secondary Persons that the Secondary Persons must not engage in conduct that causes haze, and with the rights to terminate their contracts in the event of a breach.

Should we expect a higher standard of behaviour to be met before the clause can be invoked, such as for the Primary Persons to conduct regular audits of their contractors, plus provide resources to fight fires once they have broken out, and to do everything possible to prevent and fight haze fires?

The Bill provides for a fine of $100,000 per day if a party is found guilty of causing haze, plus $50,000 per day for failing to comply with preventive measures, up to a cap of $2 million. This was an increase from the earlier draft for caps of $300,000 to $450,000.

The Minister had said that we need to increase the overall level of deterrence [5]. For the purpose of clarity to the public, I would like to know the processes which the Government had used to arrive at these figures. Were other methods of computations for caps considered? I feel it is important for the Government to have a principled basis for these figures so that there will be greater acceptance of this Bill by our regional neighbours.

Enforcement. The Bill provides for the Director-General of Environmental Pollution or an authorised officer to give notice to any person, whether within or outside of Singapore to furnish information or documents. The challenge is to get the cooperation of contractors or sub-contractors, when the persons or corporations that do not have presence in Singapore or are not even managed from Singapore. Large plantation companies often work through contractors. Our courts will need to have concrete evidences if we wish to prosecute these plantation companies. Would this make it vulnerable for prosecution under this Act to fail due to the lack of evidence because of the lack of cooperation?

There are provision under Sections 4, 6(3) and 6(4) for “extra-territorial application”. Singapore currently does not have any umbrella extradition treaty with Indonesia. If the accused person fails to appear in court, a warrant of arrest is issued under Section 17. This will likely have little or no effect if the person is not in Singapore. We have many examples of such cases in other aspects of our laws. For example in divorce-related maintenance issues, there are many cases that have stalled for indefinite periods at this stage of the legal process because the accused is in a country which Singapore does not have an adequate extradition treaty with, such as Indonesia.

Good evidence is needed given the complex nature of the ownership and operations of plantations in Indonesia. Last year in the midst of the haze, several large plantations were flagged out publicly as possible culprits. The press reported that several of the named companies said that they followed strict no-burning policies, demanded their contractors to do the same, and had in fact worked to put out fires in neighbouring areas [6]. They also stated that while the permits for lands may be listed as belonging to them, they were not conducting activities on these concessions, or the permits have expired, or were not under their control as parts of the land may be occupied by others.

Regional Cooperation. While having this new legislation is good for signalling Singapore’s strong intent to fight transboundary haze, we will still have to rely heavily on good old-fashioned diplomacy and extending our strong support to our neighbours to help them prevent and fight forest fires. We also need their cooperation to ensure that prosecution and the enforcement of punishment can be carried out.

In this respect, it is very encouraging that Indonesia’s President-elect, Mr Joko Widodo, who also happens to be a forestry graduate, has backed our plans to impose heftier fines on transboundary polluters, but with a caveat to respect the sovereignty of Indonesia.[7]

Ultimately, the fires are burning in a sovereign foreign country. We need to have accurate and up-to-date land concession maps in order to have evidence against the companies implicated in unlawful forest fires. Most of all, it is best to be able to prevent these fires from starting.

An important step to solve the regional haze problem is for Indonesia to ratify the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution. Indonesia has remained the only ASEAN country not to have ratified the Agreement, with some officials citing the need for detailed protocols to guarantee Indonesia’s sovereignty. As the Minister and others had also pointed out, the haze, unfortunately affects ordinary Indonesians even more than it does to their neighbours as those in Riau and Kalimantan are where the most intense fires are. Our diplomacy efforts can extend towards helping Indonesia achieve their stated aim for a more sustainable agro-industry.

Last year, the Minister shared about Singapore’s collaboration with the province of Jambi [8]. He had termed it as one of our more successful efforts that saw a greater reduction in the number of hotspots in Jambi Province during our years of collaboration, compared to other fire-prone provinces in Sumatra. He attributed the success to the strong support given by the then Governor of Jambi, Pak Zulkifli Nurdin. The collaboration was not renewed, unfortunately, after 2011.

I believe our officials must be hard at work trying to build up that same level of close collaboration that we had back then with Jambi province and with other Indonesian provinces. This is a tireless effort that must not stop. With the signal of support sent by President-elect Mr Joko Widodo to have greater ASEAN collaboration on various environment issues, let us hope the Minister can soon share more success on this front of preventing fires at the frequent hotspot areas.

Mdm Speaker, notwithstanding the challenges to operationalise this Bill, I am pleased that we now have the legislative means to allow us to do more in the fight for our right to clean air. Thank you.

… [Speeches by other members and Minister’s response]

Mr Yee Jenn Jong: Thank you, Madam. I thank the Minister for the clarifications. I just have one question which is actually from my speech. I would like to know what would be our Singapore Government and the Minister’s expectations as to the Primary Person’s responsibility. How do you define “taking all such measures reasonable to prevent, stop and reduce substantially such actions by the Secondary Persons”? The reason I am asking this is it is very simple for large companies to insert clauses into their contracts with sub-contractors and then say that they have, therefore, safeguarded themselves. If a forest fire happens, they can then simply say it is the responsibility of their sub-contractor and, therefore, they have taken all reasonable measures. Thank you.

Dr Vivian Balakrishnan: I thank the Member for that query. I do not think the simple insertion of a few clauses into a contract will be a sufficient defence. But I will leave it to the judge in the court of law to assess whether that controlling entity has really done the best to prevent a fire, or did not know about the actions that led to the fire, or having known that the haze has being caused, did not take adequate action to put it out. These are issues which have to be settled in court. I do not think just having a clause in the contract absolves you of your responsibility and of your liability.

——————————————-

References:

[1] http://www.landcoalition.org/sites/default/files/publication/1357/2012AsiaLandForum_AdeCholikMutaqin.pdf

[2] http://www.landcoalition.org/sites/default/files/legacy/legacypdf/angoc/ch2/ch2p06.pdf?q=pdf/angoc/ch2/ch2p06.pdf

[3] http://usaidlandtenure.net/Indonesia

[4] http://sprs.parl.gov.sg/search/topic.jsp?currentTopicID=00078137-WA&currentPubID=00078220-WA&topicKey=00078220-WA.00078137-WA_1%2BhansardContent43a675dd-5000-42da-9fd5-40978d79310f%2B2

[5] http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/up-to-s-100-000-fine-for/1243194.html

[6] http://www.straitstimes.com/the-big-story/the-haze-singapore/story/haze-update-companies-reject-claims-they-were-behind-fires-20

[7] http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-07-29/haze-fines-win-indonesia-s-support-with-caveats-southeast-asia.html

[8] http://sprs.parl.gov.sg/search/topic.jsp?currentTopicID=00000206-WA&currentPubID=00000140-WA&topicKey=00000140-WA.00000206-WA_1%2Bid-631404fd-00cb-43b5-a98b-4d0b51828ccb%2B16

Debate on MediShield Life – Keeping Healthcare Cost Manageable

(I delivered this speech on 8 July 2014 during the debate on MediShield Life)

Madam Speaker, I welcome the move to improve protection against large hospital bills and against expensive chronic treatments, as well as to cover those with pre-existing conditions. My colleagues have touched on and will be touching on various aspects of MediShield life. I wish to speak today about keeping healthcare costs manageable.

 

The Committee reported that in the recent five years, our total healthcare spending has risen close to 10% each year on average. Medical inflation has been rising much faster than inflation in general. The healthcare industry has little incentive in itself to contain costs. If this medical inflation trend continues, it can be worrying as to how much MediShield Life’s premiums will be in future, as well as the cost of smaller medical bills which are not covered by MediShield Life.

 

The report touched on some areas that the government can look into to contain costs. First, I’d like to understand how we can keep claims reasonable. I’d like to see a robust framework to detect inflated or frivolous treatments by healthcare professionals. Inflated claims can come in the form of prescribing treatments beyond what the patients need or from the over prescription of drugs. How will the government track claims to ensure that even as we strengthen our insurance framework, we will not have inflated claims and unnecessary treatments that will push up healthcare costs, as we have seen that happened in many other countries?

 

Another way to keep costs manageable is for people to stay healthy. That’s easier said than done. Many in Singapore today are already not healthy, being diagnosed with chronic illnesses. For example, 11.3% of Singaporean adults are diabetic. 1 in 3 people are currently diabetic by age 70. A recent study by NUS Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health forecasted that by 2050, Singapore may have as many as 1 million diabetics, with 1 in 2 being diabetic by age 70. [1] Around 24% of adults in Singapore now have high blood pressure (hypertension). [2] What’s needed will be to prevent those with chronic illnesses from developing complications. Diabetes itself is not scary, but it can lead to kidney failure, or the patient becoming blind or needing amputation. A person with high blood pressure may feel healthy, but the ailment can develop into stroke or a heart attack if the situation is not controlled.

 

Our lifestyles are increasingly becoming unhealthy. We can put more effort to focus on those that are already diagnosed as unhealthy and invest in preventive care for them. We need to give the best care possible and to monitor the proper taking of medication to prevent complications from developing, which will be life threatening and are very costly to treat. While we currently already have schemes like CHAS and various subsidies for medicines, it is frightening to note that we now have four new cases of kidney failure every day[3] and two cases of limb amputations are performed each day due to diabetic foot complications[4]. We should constantly monitor the schemes to see how they are working and what else can be done if the results are not as good as what we want them to be.

 

Drugs are another area for cost control. I am also concern about the potential impact that the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) may have on the cost of drugs. TPP is currently being negotiated between 12 countries which include Singapore. Many negotiating countries have raised concerns about the Intellectual Property (IP) rights chapter in the TPP which reportedly seek a much more stringent level of IP protection than the WTO’s (World Trade Organisation) standards. Fears are that these new rules will strengthen the drug monopoly of big US pharmaceutical companies by altering existing patent laws in their favour[5]. The Medishield Life Review Committee has recommended using generic drugs as far as possible to lower costs. We will need to guard against the TPP drastically changing IP rules that may delay drugs becoming generic.

 

Next, on electronic health records.  I believe information transparency will allow the government to monitor the performance of healthcare providers and to track if appropriate and cost effective treatments are provided. Readily available comprehensive medical data will allow the government to better manage cost across the entire healthcare sector. This is especially so for the private sector, which the Committee had highlighted concerns about “high professional fees” in the private sector.

 

Some 10 years ago, the Ministry of Health made it as one of its priorities for the healthcare sector to adopt ICT for health and to set up a common Electronic Medical Record system. Much has been invested in the National Electronic Health Record system (NEHR) and international experts have been brought in to implement the system. I understand that today, a version of the system is used in the public healthcare sector. However, the vast majority of those in the private healthcare sector and those run by VWOs are not yet adopting the system.

 

For NEHR to help better manage the industry efficiently and effectively, I think it will be necessary to have the private sector and VWO health providers adopt the National Health Record system. We should have all healthcare providers on board the same system. This will let patients have the choice to move to other healthcare providers with full portability of records. The information will allow the government to measure the performances of healthcare providers and if necessary, to even effect changes to payment models, such as to pay for health outcomes rather than just on treatments.[6] I like to know if there are timelines in place for NEHR to be used industry wide.

 

Healthcare has been a laggard in the exploitation of ICT. As we move to provide wider healthcare coverage for all Singaporeans through MediShield Life, how will NEHR play a role in providing more efficient healthcare?

 

Also on technology, telehealth or telemedicine offers opportunities to enable the diagnosis, consultation, treatment, education, care management and self-management of patients remotely.  Telehealth can include the home monitoring of chronic diseases, time sensitive assessments in accident and emergency (A&E) departments by medical specialists in another hospital, video conferencing between patients and health providers, and store-and-forward technologies such as for X-Rays and photographs to be captured and transmitted for analysis by doctors later and remotely.

 

Expanding the use of telehealth has the potential to reduce healthcare costs, increase the level of convenience for patients, and improve patient outcomes over traditional methods. Home monitoring of chronic diseases has been shown to lead to reduced hospitalisations.  A patient in the A&E department can receive care by videoconferencing with a specialist in another hospital and thus may save a transfer to that hospital. Telehealth can provide timely care for stroke patients who may have difficulties travelling to hospitals. [7]

 

I understand telehealth is currently being piloted in Singapore. We will need to move to an agreed-upon reimbursement model. If doctors cannot be compensated for tele-consultations, they will likely fall back on the traditional mode of getting patients to visit them in their clinics. If patient cannot use Medisave or be covered by insurance for telehealth, they may opt not to have telehealth even if it can be more suitable for them. I’d like to see greater adoption of telehealth through better infrastructure and changes to reimbursement models or regulations that inhibit telehealth.

 

Finally, the Committee has recommended that the government build up capabilities to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of medical practice, technologies and drugs. I wish to understand what measures have the government put in place to ensure that new practices, technologies and therapies that are cost-effective in achieving a good treatment outcome are covered by Medishield Life? What will be the measures used to define cost effectiveness? What will be the frequency of such evaluation so that good treatment methods can be covered as soon as practical? Will there be a formal institution that will be set up to make these decisions in a transparent manner and to evaluate appeal on decisions? For example in the United Kingdom, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) is government-funded and exercises independent and binding decision-making on what the health service needs to offer[8]. Crucial to the Institute’s independence is its transparency in decision-making. The academic research, industry input, patient advocates’ filing, demographic and epidemiologic data that go into the decision-making process are freely available.

 

In conclusion, MediShield Life is a step in the right direction to ease the worries of Singaporeans on large healthcare bills. I hope the government will examine all ways possible to contain healthcare inflation so that healthcare will be affordable to all.

 

Madam Speaker, I support the motion.

 

———————————– References ————————————

[1] http://www.straitstimes.com/breaking-news/singapore/story/1m-diabetics-2050-singaporeans-get-older-fatter-20121002

[2] http://www.myheart.org.sg/article/about-the-heart-and-heart-disease/statistics/risk-factors/77

[3] http://news.xin.msn.com/en/singapore/sdollar70m-needed-to-support-kidney-patients-nkf-1

[4] http://www.annals.edu.sg/pdf/39VolNo6Jun2010/V39N6p472.pdf

[5] http://www.citizen.org/Page.aspx?pid=5325&frcrld=1

[6] http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/17/business/17quality.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&

[7] http://cchpca.org/sites/default/files/Fiscal%20Impact%20of%20AB%20415%20Potential%20Cost%20Savings%20from%20Expansion%20of%20Telehealth_0_0.pdf

[8] http://www.nice.org.uk/About/Who-we-are

Time to review priority for Primary 1 registration for community leaders

 

Last Thursday (12 June 2014), it was announced that parents who become grassroots volunteers will have to do at least two years of grassroots work and not one year as was the case previously, to qualify for getting priority for their children in the Primary 1 registration exercise. They will also be restricted to schools in the constituency where they live. The changes were announced by the People’s Association (PA) in a circular sent in April 2014. It was reported that the PA had reviewed the scheme and felt it was still “relevant” in promoting collaboration between schools and the community. The report stated that the changes were made to ensure that only “deserving” grassroots leaders and district councillors would benefit.

I think it is time to totally review this scheme. I had spoken on this issue a few times in Parliament, the records of which I have extracted and appended below.

The stated reason for this privilege is to promote collaboration between schools and the community. While I think it is relevant that there should be collaboration between schools and the community, it is questionable how many community leaders have actually been actively doing so. If the intention is really such, there can be a change to the rule. The principal of the school that the community leader is applying for priority entry for their children into, must endorse that the community leader is actually actively involved in collaboration projects with the schools for a sustained period. Right now, it appears that this is not the case from the reply given by Senior Minister of State, Ms Indranee Rajah to my question on 13 May 2013 (see below).

Anyone who wishes to serve as a community leader should serve voluntarily. I fail to see how active service to the community but not to the school will actually “promote collaboration between schools and the community.” By attaching various benefits to service as a community leader, it may distort the meaning of community service. The reason stated by the PA that “only deserving grassroots leaders and district councillors would benefit” seem to imply that these leaders must receive various benefits for their service.

 

 ————— Extracts from Singapore Parliament’s Reports ————–

1. Priority for Primary 1 Registration (13 May 2013)

http://sprs.parl.gov.sg/search/topic.jsp?currentTopicID=00000108-WA&currentPubID=00000021-WA&topicKey=00000021-WA.00000108-WA_1%2Bid-d0092b7e-8fb7-4aa8-a342-5c6f5a1a6329%2B

Mr Yee Jenn Jong (Non-Constituency Member): Thank you, Mdm Speaker. Earlier in her reply, the Senior Minister of State mentioned that the community leaders are important to build the bond between the schools and the community. I would like to ask if the Ministry has done any survey to see how many community leaders have actively contributed to the schools that their children are enrolled in, and if it can be a criterion for community leaders to have first made specific contributions to the schools before they are being considered for priority.

Ms Indranee Rajah: I am not aware of any survey. I do not have that information at the current time. If the Member would like to file a specific question on that, I can check. But currently, the criterion is based on contribution to the community, as opposed to contributions specifically to the school. Contributions specifically to the school would be under the parent volunteers scheme or on the Advisory Council of the school. But with respect to the community leaders’ contribution, it is contribution to the community.

 

2. COS 2013 – Ministry of Education (13 March 2013)

http://sprs.parl.gov.sg/search/topic.jsp?currentTopicID=00079140-WA&currentPubID=00079143-WA&topicKey=00079143-WA.00079140-WA_4%2Bbudget%2B

Primary One Admission

Mr Yee Jenn Jong: Madam, while MOE wants every school to be a good school, there is great disparity in results between schools. The highest and lowest medium PSLE T-scores amongst schools last year are 247 and 160 respectively, a difference of 87.I feel community leaders need not be given priority. Being a community leader for the purpose of getting into top primary schools does not gel with the spirit of community service. With the change, we can have a better mix of students of different social backgrounds in our schools, allowing better integration among pupils.

I hope MOE can better spread resources across schools, reduce class size and review the need to centralise gifted students into top schools, then it may not be as much stress over which primary schools to enter.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew had observed that admission to primary schools is based on the social class of parents. Six out of 10 pupils in six of the top primary schools live in private houses. But it is useful to review the primary one admission system. It is a stressful process for some; shifting house and doing volunteer work to get their children into top schools. I agree that priority should be given to those with siblings already in the school for the sake of convenience. Beyond that, we can consider a system with higher balloting chances for alumni, school volunteers and those living near the school. But it need not guarantee their position over others like in the phase system today.

 

(3)  Priority for Primary One Registration Based on Active Community Leadership (13 AUG 2012)

http://sprs.parl.gov.sg/search/topic.jsp?currentTopicID=00077817-WA&currentPubID=00077751-WA&topicKey=00077751-WA.00077817-WA_2%2BhansardContent43a675dd-5000-42da-9fd5-40978d79310f%2B

Mr Yee Jenn Jong asked the Minister for Education with regard to the priority granted for Primary One registration based on active community leadership by the child’s parents (a) what constitutes active community leadership; (b) how many children have gained admission to primary schools yearly based on this priority over the past five years; and (c) whether the Ministry plans to review the necessity for this priority.

Mr Heng Swee Keat: Under the current Primary One (P1) Registration Framework, current serving committee members of the Residents’ Committee (RC), Neighbourhood Committee (NC), Citizen’s Consultative Committee (CCC), Community Club Management Committee (CCMC) and the Community Development Council (CDC) are eligible to register their children under Phase 2B as active community leaders. To qualify as active community leaders, the People’s Association (PA) requires the community leaders to serve actively in these Committees for at least one year prior to the P1 registration exercise.

While active community leaders can choose to register their child under Phase 2B, there is no guarantee that they will be successful in obtaining a place in their school of choice if the number of applications in Phase 2B exceeds the number of places in a school. In the last five years, an average of 330 children, or less than 1% of the primary 1 cohort, were admitted annually under the active community leaders scheme.

The Ministry regularly reviews the P1 Registration Framework, taking into consideration the feedback received after every exercise.

Education and Social Mobility

I delivered this speech in Parliament on 27 May 2014 as my response to the President’s Mid-Term Address.

Madam Speaker, I will be speaking on education and social mobility. I wish to declare that I own businesses that provide services and products to schools.

Education is a key factor for social mobility. It is often presumed that access to education will ‘level the playing field’ for students of different backgrounds, thus creating an environment where individual merit can be identified and rewarded. Indeed it has been so for a good number of Singaporeans as our country moved from third world to first in a relatively short time.

Today, I wish to warn of dangers that can compromise our ability to achieve social mobility through education.

First, is a danger of education perpetuating class stratification, instead of leveling the playing field. It has been acknowledged both by politicians and scholars that entry into ‘branded’ schools in Singapore is a reflection parents’ social class than of student merit.[1]

Entry into the more prestigious and popular primary schools is based strongly on factors such as the location of the family home and parents’ connections to the school. Former Minister Mentor Mr Lee Kuan Yew had observed that admission to primary schools is based on the social class of parents. In a parliamentary reply in 2012, it was revealed that only 40% of the students in six of the most popular primary schools live in HDB flats. This contrasts greatly with 80% of all primary school students residing in HDB flats. MOE had replied that this reflected the mix of residential housing in the vicinity of these 6 schools. Given the current primary 1 admission rules, it will mean that those in the higher social classes will continue to have preferences to enter popular schools.

A second worrying data that suggests the reproduction of class is the profile of the Public Service Commission (PSC) scholarship holders. In 2008, the PSC revealed that 47% of the PSC scholarship recipients that year lived in HDB flats, and 53% lived in private housing. This is an over representation of private housing as up to 85 per cent of Singaporeans live in HDB flats.

Another set of data that also shows class stratification is the profile of students entering universities. In response to a parliamentary question from Member Sylvia Lim in 2008[2], it was revealed that students from 5-room flats and private housing were more likely to enter university (see table below). MOE tracked the 1990-1992 Primary 1 cohorts until they reached ages 22 to 24 in 2007 in order to ascertain levels of university participation according to household types.

Housing-type Distribution of the 1990-1992 SC/PR P1 Cohorts

Housing-type Distribution of the 1990-1992 SC/PR P1 Cohorts

According to MOE, “1 of every 8 undergraduates comes from poorer families who live in 1- to 3-room flats. When compared with the distribution of households of Primary 1 cohorts, students whose parents are more successful are more likely to make it to university.”[2] From the data, only 13% of those living in 1 to 3-room HDB flats made it to university although they had formed 23% of their primary 1 cohort. In contrast, 19% of those in private housing made it to university when they had formed only 12% of their primary 1 cohort.

MOE’s reply stated that “Admission to our publicly funded universities is strictly on the basis of merit. All those who qualify will have a place, regardless of socio-economic status.” However, the definition of ‘meritocracy’ is premised mainly on good examination results which, in turn, do not reflect structural disadvantages that working class families may face such as not being able to afford good tuition or academic enrichment classes.

Taken together, these trends should compel us to critically examine how we can strengthen education’s role as a key facilitator of social mobility. I will list a few areas for review.

First, there are subtle trends of class stratification within the education system. The practice of dollar-for-dollar topping up of the Child Development Account (CDA) is one such example. Here, parents who allocate more funds to their child’s CDA will get more public funds than parents who cannot afford to allocate as much. This is up to $6,000 each for the first two children, $12,000 each for the third and fourth child, and $18,000 each for the fifth child and beyond. Such a practice has the effect of rewarding higher income households while withholding funds from lower income households. The CDA is often used for pre-school education costs and therefore gives a leg up to children of higher income families. Yesterday, I was quite alarmed to hear from the Senior Parliamentary Secretary Mr Hawazi Diapi that since 2001, only 64% of the CDA budget allocated was actually used. No breakdown was provided by the SPS yesterday, but it will not be surprising to anyone that the lower income group who should be using this scheme for their children’s education are not drawing on the CDA budget.

I wish to propose that the funds be allocated to the CDA automatically and that the quantum be standardized to $10,000 for each child. Parents can have the option of topping up the CDA up to $10,000 for each child, if they so wish, to earn higher interest offered by the CDA, as a way of earmarking savings for the child’s education.

Second, I repeat my concern that student care facilities in schools should expand at a faster rate. Student care is an excellent way to help weaker students through care and coaching programmes within the school, before or after school hours. Demand is very strong across all schools that offer such services. Even with the expansion planned by MOE, more than 1/3 of all schools will still not have school-based student care services by 2016.

The impact is felt most strongly by young families where both parents need to work and alternative care at home or from the extended family is lacking. The demand for student care mirrors the strong demand for child care facilities which had caught the government off-guard and for which we are now rapidly ramping up the supply of places and teachers. We need to put more attention and resources into student care right now. By re-assuring parents that every school will have sufficient and affordable student care places within the school, many young parents could be more reassured to have more children and the need for private tuition will be reduced.

Next, I wish to reiterate a proposal I have presented several times since I entered this House. We currently have a competitive system that relies mainly on academic results to sort students into secondary schools and academic streams. While MOE has repeated stated that ‘Every school is a good school”, parents know which schools and which academic streams are most desired. Secondary schools are today highly differentiated and resourced differently. This has created a huge billion-dollar-a-year private tuition industry for those who can afford to seek additional help to give their children the boost to their academic results to get into the desired schools. A disproportionate effort is being spent on chasing academic scores over and above other forms of educational development.

I hope to see pilot neighbourhood schools offering 10-year integrated programme from primary one to secondary four, or even from kindergarten to secondary four. These schools will allow for holistic development of students without the distraction of high-pressure sorting and streaming examinations. It will allow students of mixed abilities to develop together in the same school throughout the 10 years in an environment that is more representative of our mix in society and in real life.

We also need to constantly guard against developing gap in resources between schools and between programmes. The widening income gap amongst Singaporeans has manifested itself in a variety of ways. So-called ‘branded’ or ‘elite’ schools which have larger alumnus or networks may be able to offer more expensive and more comprehensive learning programmes than neighbourhood schools.

I wish to also reiterate my call for smaller class sizes, especially in primary schools. Most schools in Singapore have a class size of around 40, while Primary 1 and 2 classes have 30 students. This is large compared to the OECD’s average of 21 per class. MOE has constantly emphasized that teaching quality is more important than going for smaller class sizes. I agree that teaching quality is important. However, it does not mean that we cannot move towards having general class sizes that are smaller.

With falling birth rates, it appears from MOE statistics that the cohort of students in primary school is getting smaller each year. In 2012, there were nearly 49,000 students in primary 6, versus less than 39,000 students per level in primary 1 and in primary 2; a difference of 10,000 students a year [3]. In contrast, the number of teachers is increasing. The Education Service has grown from under 30,000 in 2009 to 31,800 in 2012 and is projected to grow to 33,000 by 2015 [4]. I understand some of the increases have been and will be used by schools to decide how the teachers will be flexibly deployed in specific situations, such as for Learning Support Programmes and sometimes to have two teachers in a class of 40.

The best time to do the planning for smaller class sizes is now. With increasingly smaller student enrolment, we may not need a lot more teachers than what MOE had already planned for. We can start to move towards smaller class sizes, say starting at 30 students per class from primary 3 and 4, and then gradually moving towards that ratio for primary 5 and 6. This would also necessitate some re-design of the physical infrastructure in schools to have more classrooms.

The smaller class size will also allow teachers to better understand individual students, which will be essential as we move towards a more holistic character and values-based education system. It will also help make classroom management easier for teachers, who may otherwise not be able to pay attention to the weaker students. In my COS speech last year, I had cited studies which noted that large class-size reductions can have significant long-term effects on students’ achievement, and these effects seem to be largest for students from less advantaged backgrounds.

Finally, I like to add my thoughts on the topic of constructive politics which the President has spoken about. I am all for constructive debate in a contest of ideas, conducted with decorum. I believe that debate should be measured and not personal. At the same time, I believe that there should be an environment where politics is seen to be fair and where important institutions are independent so that we can encourage the development of constructive politics.

I do not mean constructive politics just in this House, as the Speaker had observed that ‘we do have quite a constructive Parliament.’ As the Secretary-General of the Workers’ Party Mr Low Thia Khiang had said yesterday, to achieve constructive politics in a diverse and open society, everyone across society has their part to play.

Since I had started my speech on the topic of education, I like to repeat a call I had made in my maiden speech in this House, which is to have Political Education in schools so we can train up a new generation to be more able to participate in constructive politics.

Political education can be about learning how to handle diversity and disagreement in views. It can help students understand our constitution, the role of various institutions, citizenry rights and obligations, as well as the rationale behind these rights and obligations. It can provide them with platforms to air their views on policies and learn how to handle differences in opinions.

Our education system should allow students to engage deeper into subjects where there are ambiguity, where there are not always clear right and wrong answers. Such education programmes can help our future generation be more confident to deal with the diversity of views in the public spaces when they grow up. This will allow Singapore to move towards more constructive debates in politics as the country matures.

Thank you.

———-
1. http://newshub.nus.edu.sg/news/1102/PDF/IMMOBILITY-st-16feb-pA25.pdf
2. http://www.moe.gov.sg/media/parliamentary-replies/2008/04/social-mobility-through-univer.php
3. MOE Education Statistics Digest http://www.moe.gov.sg/education/education-statistics-digest/files/esd-2013.pdf
4. http://www.moe.gov.sg/media/parliamentary-replies/2012/04/target-class-size-in-primary-a.php and Ibid.

3rd Anniversary of GE2011

It’s the 3rd anniversary of GE2011 today and supposedly mid of current term. I randomly googled and found this video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OfIguU1mVIY) which summed up my rollercoaster emotions after 2 months of hard campaigning as a then-newbie. So many people came along the way to help an inexperienced politician. We started with just 2-3 persons walking daily in the first week after I was selected to lead the thrust into Joo Chiat, and it grew into a fairly large team by the end of the campaign. So many residents encouraging us along the way, getting our share of brick-brats, old friends that I found again and many new friends made, and the 5 kg I lost through the daily door-to-door house visits (Alas, the 5 kg was gained back too quickly afterwards and in the wrong places too :>).

Polling day was a mix bag of emotions: Casting my vote at St Pats first thing in morning, then moving from station to station to encourage my polling agents, bumping into residents after their voting who cheered me on, and the tense 2 hours of counting. Up one moment, down the next, and not knowing the results for certain until the last numbers were in. I was asked if I wanted a recount, because it fell just at the allowed 2% limit. I knew it was quite fruitless as I had witnessed the counting and it was impossible to have a 2% error, but we called the recount anyway just to be absolutely certain.

Then began the long drive from Victoria JC counting station to Hougang where we were to assemble for the final results with WP supporters. The two months of events and words in the daily gruelling campaign kept playing through my mind in the 30-min drive: What I could have done better that would have changed the result and the hopes of people which I could not fulfil. One that kept flashing through my mind was that of the retired teacher who phoned me a few days before polling to say “I have been voting for many years with my head. I now believe I must be true to my heart. I am a retiree. I wish to give you something but I have nothing to give. I can only give you my vote.” She was voting for the opposition for the first time. Hers and the hopes of many I met along the way weighed heavily on me as I delivered the short speech in that video, choked with sadness that I had to disappoint them.

I was glad though that the day ended with the major breakthrough of a GRC going to the opposition for the first time, that supposedly impenetrable fortress designed to keep the opposition from playing any big role in local politics. It led the way to two more consecutive by-election victories for the WP subsequently.

Enough of recollections on this GE2011 anniversary morning and back to the long work to build for the future.