(Speech delivered on 6 Feb 2013 for the Population Debate)
A Singapore Core
Madam Speaker. I object the motion. The Workers’ Party is proposing an alternative model – one that is based on a dynamic population for a sustainable Singapore.
What is a sustainable Singapore?
Reading through the white paper, I get a sense that Singapore is a large factory. We need 2-5% annual economic growth. Our local workforce will shrink due to ageing and fertility issues. To achieve the targeted economic growth, the paper worked out that we need 1-2% yearly increases to our workforce. Based on that, Singapore will receive large number of immigrants. It could bring our population to 6.9 million within the next 17 years. There will be a population increase of up to 30% in an already congested Singapore. Most of us in this House will still be around 17 years from now. It will be a situation that we ourselves will face, not just our children and grandchildren.
If we are just Singapore Inc. a business that looks coldly at hard economic data and at the bottom line, the above sounds logical. However, we are not a business. We are a country, a nation.
I grew up learning to be proud of my country. Proud to be called a Singaporean. I was born here in the year of our independence, studied entirely in our local schools and went through national service like all Singaporean males. In school, we had programmes that made us feel proud of this little red dot, proud to be part of a free and independent nation. When I travel overseas, I am happy to identify myself as a Singaporean.
The first pillar of the white paper states that Singaporeans form the core of our society and the heart of our nation. I agree with this statement. But who is a Singaporean?
The paper projects that there will be 3.7 million Singaporeans in 2030, forming roughly 55% of the population. I have two problems with this.
My first objection is that 55% will cross the psychological 60% threshold of citizens forming our population. This is a line that is not crossed by the global cities we are comparing ourselves against, including New York and London. The percentage of citizens in our population has steadily declined from 74% in year 2000 to 62% today. It will further decline to 55% by 2030. Will it go below 50% soon?
My second objection is who the paper defines as the Singaporeans that will form our core. We had 77,000 new citizens added in the last 4 years alone, an average of over 19,000 a year. Already, many local-born citizens are uncomfortable with this pace. The paper provides for new citizens growth to be as high as 25,000 a year. With current annual citizen birth rate of 31,000, this means that up to 45% of citizens added to the population yearly will be foreign-born.
Madam Speaker, I am not against foreigners who wish to become Singaporean. Truly integrating them to become Singaporeans as we know Singaporeans to be, will be take time. To integrate, the foreigner has to spend substantial time here and should make genuine effort to understand our way of life and speak our language. How fast can we make that happen with adult immigrants?
We are already facing many integration issues in Singapore today. Various enclaves with majority of residents from specific countries of birth have sprung up. New citizens often bring their parents and families along, many of whom do not speak English. They live amongst us daily. We may have 3.7 million Singapore citizens, but just over 3 million will be local-born. This means that as low as only 45% of our population in 2030 could be local-born. True-blue Singaporeans will become the minority here. What would become of Singapore’s culture? Whose culture will influence whose?
Singapore only established the National Integration Council in 2009, four years ago. Our programmes for integration lag behind those of our countries and cities. In other multicultural immigrant countries like Australia, Canada, and the USA, immigrants have to show that they are integrated before they get citizenship. Ability to integrate should be a key consideration to grant citizenship and not as an afterthought, after giving citizenship.
Madam Speaker, I have a tale of two videos – two widely watched national day videos last year. The first is the government’s official video, showing beautiful buildings, magnificent skylines, luscious gardens and beautiful homes. The second is an informal video made by teachers and students of a college. It speaks of the heart of the people, what makes Singapore Singapore: HDB flats, children playing together in a humble playground, getting stuck in traffic jams, being packed in MRT trains, coffeeshop scenes and more.
The first showed beautiful hardware, like the infrastructure in this Land Use Plan. The second speaks to our hearts, loving Singapore in spite of the problems we face. It is getting Singaporeans to love Singapore for what it is, loving the mix of people in our midst, loving the common things that we do every day.
The white paper has proposed a lot of infrastructure. Yes, it is important to have good infrastructure. Beyond the hardware, we need to build a strong Singapore core that share common values, worldviews, culture and a sense of identity. These can only be cultivated over time. Taking in too many new citizens too fast will only give us a false sense of complacency that we have a Singaporean core when we actually do not have a strong one.
Before we open the floodgate for new citizens, we have to learn how to integrate new citizens properly. True integration is difficult. The pace needs to be more manageable. Anecdotally, a pace of around 10,000 a year, which was what Singapore had before 2005 is perhaps more sustainable.
Our immigration policy takes into account factors such as the individual’s family ties, economic contributions, qualifications, age, family profile, ability to contribute and integrate into our society, and commitment to Singapore. How exactly are these factors being computed? Can we have a more transparent point system like that in other countries? I ask this because all MPs must have seen many people during their Meet-The-People sessions to appeal for LTVP, LTVP+ and PR for their foreign spouses. Some have been married for years to Singaporeans and have Singaporean children, yet they continue to be denied PR and sometimes LTVP+. We were often not told why in the rejection letters.
Education and childcare
Next, I wish to touch on increasing TFR. Challenging as it may be, increasing our TFR is still the best way to sustain a Singaporean core. My party colleagues have made various suggestions earlier. I would like to focus on education and childcare. These can influence young couples in their decision to have children or have more children.
Yesterday, Minister Grace Fu said the National Population and Talent Division (NPTD) is working with MOE to reduce stress and provide holistic education for students. I am glad MOE wants every school to be a good school. However, MOE is struggling against many of their entrenched policies that have added unnecessary stress and cost to education. The primary 1 registration gives priority to alumni, to those living in the immediate vicinities of schools and to parent volunteers. Getting children into what parents perceive as good schools is a stressful process. And while MOE tells parents that every school is good, parents know which schools are better. From MOE’s data, we see that the results achieved by students at PSLE are vastly different across schools. Two days ago, we were told that median 2012 PSLE T-scores in schools range from 160 to 247, reflecting a wide difference in standards. So parents try very hard to get their children into what they perceive as better schools.
Unnecessary examinations such as for giftedness add to parents pushing their children hard right from entry into primary schools. Secondary school admission is almost entirely based on the T-score achieved at the PSLE. Today, secondary schools and academic streams are highly differentiated. Students are sorted into schools of different status and into different academic streams. Parents push children hard at high stake examinations to get them into desired schools or avoid certain academic streams. Often, they take work leave to coach their children. Even Minister Grace Fu has said that she took leave to coach her children for the PSLE. Some get so exhausted in the process that they decide not to have more children.
Many parents have deemed it necessary to get private tuition for their children. A Sunday Times poll 5 years ago of 100 students showed that 97 of them had tuition. The situation is no better today. Parents even send children for tuition to hope to enter gifted education, because GEP provides the Direct School Admission advantage into top secondary schools.
While some level of stress is healthy to keep students diligent, many parents have cited stress in our education system and the high cost of tuition as important factors for not having more children. We are often told that Singapore parents are kiasu. I believe the system has made them so.
I will elaborate on future occasions when I make proposals for the education system.
Next, infant and child care are important for young parents. Last month, the government announced a slew of goodies in this area. I welcome the fact that the government is willing to put more money into the industry. I had made various proposals in an adjournment motion on childcare last year. While a lot more money is now added, there is no change to the structure of the industry, which I consider is flawed. It is flawed because the industry is left to private market mechanisms. This is made worse by hugely disproportionate government support for a small number of anchor operators that gives them incredible advantages over other players in the industry.
I fear that the monies injected will inflate rents and fees. We had seen that before. In 2008, the government doubled monthly subsidies to working mothers. Fees quickly went up after that. Under this new subsidy framework, the situation will be worse for higher income families. Those with near to or above $7,500 in monthly family income will get little or no additional subsidies. Private market forces will escalate fees. These parents will end up paying more for child care. I hope MSF can consider making child care as a public good, with open competition for all and with fairer support for all operators. MSF is already spending a lot of money on infant and child care. Reforming the industry may be a smarter and more efficient way to achieve affordable fees and high quality services with the same money. It will take away the uncertainty of child care cost for young parents.
Impact to Businesses
Next, I like to deal with issues raised by some PAP MPs. Dr Amy Khor has said our proposal will hurt businesses. Ms Jessica Tan asked if we had read the new reports that businesses are planning to leave. Yes, the economy will go through some pains but it is simplistic to say slowing the manpower growth is what kills businesses. I know of businesses that have been killed not by lack of manpower, but by high rentals. The government’s policy on industrial land for example has caused huge spike in rents and land prices. Companies that need transport find it hard to afford vehicles due to high COE prices. The cost of many items has gone up. These are in part due to government policies and the overcrowding of Singapore. The government certainly has scope to re-examine its policies and to see how else it can help businesses restructure in times like this.
Mr Indeerjet Singh has called our proposal zero growth. Our proposal is not zero growth. Our GDP projections are just 0.5-1% lower than the government’s. GDP growth of 1.5 – 3.5% is decent by the standard of matured economies. We have a 1% increase in residents workforce.
PAP MPs have painted us as turning off the tap, as if leaving businesses to dry up. This is an incomplete picture. The tap leads into a plugged sink that is already filled with quite a lot of water. There are 2.1 million residents and 1.3 million non-residents in our workforce. We have 2 taps. As foreigners leave for whatever reasons, we turn on the non-resident tap to fill it back up. We try to get more out of the resident tap by increasing it at 1% per annum. If the resident tap cannot fulfil that, we turn up the non-resident tap. We are not leaving the sink dry. In contrast, the government needs to be reminded that the sink is quite full. Having the taps on too fast may flood Singapore with a population we will struggle to manage in the future.
We have studied the population data. You can see from our projections that by managing both taps, there could be an increase in population to 5.8 million in the worst case. This GDP trade-off will allow a more sustainable population growth of at most 500,000 people over the next 17 years.
Lastly, Mr Vikram Nair seems fascinated with the way we run our Aljunied-Hougang Town Council. He is welcomed to visit us. He said he is interested because he wants to know how the WP will run this country if we are in power. He wants to know how we use foreign manpower. I believe Mr Nair has forgotten that we are elected by the people to be in this House to establish policies and make laws, not to run businesses. This is precisely the problem I spoke about in my maiden speech in this House, that our government runs many big businesses across our economy. When the government is itself a big vested player, and in fact the single biggest player in the economy, it will itself take a lot of pain when the economy is restructured hard.
Mr Nair may like to know that the WP is interested to get policies right for the people of Singapore and not to run businesses, whether with foreign or local staff.
In conclusion, PAP MPs spoke of the pain to SMEs with our proposal. I should know. I have owned and run private companies for the last 13 years. Yet, I am also reminded that I am a father to three children. I think of what Singapore will be like for them and their children 17 years from now with 6.9 million people. I think of what Singapore will be like for all of us when we ramp up our population so fast, leaving just 4% of our land as reserved space. Would we reach a population cliff by 2030?
Singaporeans are told that there are trade-offs. We are told that a population of up to 6.9 million may be required because this government believes we need 2-5% economic growth yearly. Unlike the government, we present a model for sustainable growth, more consistent with fostering a strong Singapore core.
If there’s a trade-off, are Singaporeans given any choice? Perhaps there is an overwhelming majority of Singaporeans who do not wish to become the minority in their own country? Perhaps Singaporeans will rather make do with a more manageable growth to keep their birthrights?
We had already moved too fast in the past eight years. The decisions made today cannot be reversed. We will sooner or later face the constraint of our land size. If this government moves too fast again, what will be left to sustain future generations? I urge the government to reconsider its plan and opt for a more manageable growth that will allow us to keep Singapore as the Singapore we know.
Madam Speaker, I oppose the motion.
Any discussion over the PSLE is likely to generate many comments. We saw that happen yesterday.
Minister of State Josephine Teo’s Facebook comments about OCBC’s PSLE leave as “over-the-top” and fanning the exam fever have stirred up robust online discussions. It prompted TODAY to write a front page story on it. ChannelNewsAsia featured her comments as well.
My three children have completed their PSLE. The youngest did his last year. My wife and I did not take extended leave to be at home to watch over them. We try not to be kiasu parents, although as concerned asian parents, we did monitor them more tightly during the PSLE year. We try to encourage them along the way, both at PSLE and at O levels. If we were at OCBC, we would probably not forward our annual leave to use all 15 days for the PSLE. After all, the 10-15 days in OCBC’s scheme are not extra leave but staff are allowed to carry them forward to be used during the PSLE year.
In response to press queries, OCBC Bank Head of Group Corporate Communications Koh Ching Ching pointed out: “We have seen more and more employees applying for annual leave to spend time with their children who are taking PSLE or for sabbatical leave to take a break from work.”
Then-Senior Minister of State, Ms Grace Fu had said in a parliament speech during the Oct 2011 Debate on the President’s Address that
“Many women whom I have met told me about their concerns for their children’s education, and I would add to Minister Heng’s list of 20 speakers now, who will speak on this issue. They have found the system to be highly competitive and felt compelled to take time off for their children’s education. Many education systems in Asia are competitive but, in Singapore, competition comes early with a high-stake examination – PSLE – at 12 years old. Peer pressure cause parents to head towards award-winning enrichment centres, tutors and coaches for their children.
Sir, having spent three years in MOE, I would, more often than not, explain to them the policy considerations. They generally understand the policy intent but, nevertheless, find it emotionally very tiring to cope with it. Coaching their children for PSLE is probably one of the most frequent reasons for working mothers to take leave from work. I know because I used to do it.”
OCBC was responding to a trend and the call by the government for companies to provide more work-life balance for employees. OCBC and others like Minister Grace Fu have acknowledged the high stress parents face over the PSLE.
I am not a fan of our high stake PSLE exam and the sorting that comes with the results. It is done too early in the education lifetime of the child. The exam is over in 4 days (5 days if there’s a higher mother tongue), conducted over a couple of hours each day. Our system has made it such that the results obtained over that 4-5 days essentially determines a lot about the future of the child. This is so because we have made our secondary schools so highly differentiated. Students are sorted into academic streams. Within academic streams, there are further differentiation. Years of branding, banding and ranking have cast schools into different brackets. Whether MOE intends it or not, parents perceive how good a school is based on the types and grades of students they take in. They want to push their children into as ‘good’ a school as they can, with ‘good’ being measured most of the time by the academic abilities of students entering the school. Students that do not do well academically will somehow have an invisible label stuck on them that they are not as good.
I can understand where MOS Josephine Teo is coming from. PSLE is already a highly stressful event, both for children and for the parents. I am glad her husband and her chose not to be overly anxious for their twin children’s PSLE this year. Unfortunately, many parents are so highly anxious over PSLE that they will take many days of leave and even a year off from work to coach their children for the PSLE. Even Minister Grace Fu said she had taken leave for her child’s PSLE. She acknowledged that the PSLE is high pressure that comes early in the child’s life.
My concern is why our system has come to a state where the competition level at 12 years old has become so excessive that a major bank has offered special leave consideration for it and saw it as important enough to have a press announcement to highlight this. Often, when I explain our education system to foreigners, they found it strange that we have high stake sorting done at age 12. What is there so much attention on a single year and on a single event in a child’s life? In that respect, I agree with Josephine Teo that we do not have to specially highlight PSLE leave to make already anxious parents wonder if they are doing enough to push their children at this exam. The bank intends well for its staff. It can implement this as an internal matter without any public announcement.
I recall when I was schooling, I went to a neighbourhood primary school. The majority of my peers progress to the affiliated secondary school. My humble neighbour secondary school has produced the current President of Singapore, a former Minister, many scholars, and top lawyers, doctors, engineers, professionals, entrepreneurs and some politicians. Singapore did not have academic streams, Gifted Programme or Integrated Programme then. We went through a common curriculum with other secondary schools. That neighbourhood school could produce many successful people. The PSLE was a non event for most of us.
Since then, many changes were introduced to the education system to differentiate secondary schools. Today, these changes have effectively pulled the neighbourhood and top schools apart because schools are now highly differentiated. Some differentiations are real while some are perceived by parents. Schools today enroll students from a narrow band of T-Scores for each academic stream they take.
The result of the changes over the years is that parents have now become very conscious of what the PSLE score can do for the child. Many unfortunately think the overriding outcome of a primary school education is what happens at the PSLE. The PSLE determines the academic stream and the secondary school the child will enter. Parents see a top school as a black box where if you put their child there, the school will somehow magically produce someone successful in his/her career later on. People consider top schools as having better resources and a better learning environment. With a top school, they believe there will be better chances for scholarships and more secured pathways to top jobs.
There is a National Conversation that is currently ongoing. The PSLE came up rather early for discussion. The Prime Minister has weighed in on this topic, saying that the PSLE is here to stay. He explained that the PSLE is needed to assess the standards obtained by students and to determine who goes to which secondary schools. I certainly hope policymakers will take an open view on this topic. While MOE has been introducing holistic assessment and values and character education, the schools are under pressure to deliver at the PSLE. The pressure has caused many good holistic programmes by MOE to be overriden by the singular concern over PSLE results.
A proposal I had surfaced during the Committee of Supply debate on MOE is to have through-train primary to secondary schools for those who wish to opt out of the PSLE. I elaborated further in a blog post to allay concerns that people may use this to a shortcut into top schools. We can exclude top schools from the exercise. After some period of execution, we can review society’s attitudes again to see what more we can do to cut down the importance of the PSLE, or even do away with it totally. I believe we can see positive results from schools that have 10 continuous years to develop a child without a high stake examination mid way. Continuous assessments of students to assess standards would suffice.
Another thing I believe we can do is to consciously make the differentiation in secondary schools less acute over time. I would like to see a system in which students of varying abilities can be mixed in each school and with resources and good teaching staff distributed more evenly across schools. This will allow better integration between students of varying abilities in a natural setting. It will also make the choice of secondary schools less critical. Others have also made interesting suggestions on how to tweak the secondary school admission system, such as discarding the use of T-Score and to use actual grades instead. To make any modification to the school admission system work, we will first need to narrow the differentiation (both real and perceived) between schools.
Unfortunately, the policy has been moving in the opposite direction for some time. It has introduced finer categories to further differentiate schools based mostly by academic abilities of students. The most recent changes were more Integrated Programme schools that will effectively take the top 10% of the cohort out of regular schools, and specialised Normal Technical schools that will only have N(T) students. Such changes will inevitably add more stress to the PSLE as T-Scores are used to select students into schools, not withstanding Direct School Admission exceptions. MOE may say all schools are good, but as long as some schools are perceived to be much better and to be safer bets for the future success of the child, we will continue to have excessive stress at the PSLE.
We are still in the early days of the National Conversation. We should continue to be open to proposals on our education system, even radical ones. I look forward to how we can have education without the national obsession over early high stake exams.
The 17 Oct issue of TODAY featured Psy and the economics of Gangnam style. Psy (Park Jae Sang) is suddenly famous. He holds the record for the highest number of Youtube likes (now over 4 million and still rising) and over 400 million views, after officially releasing his video on Youtube only in July this year.
Psy goes against the grain of successful pop stars. He is portly and by his own admission, is not good looking. He was once told by major record labels to get a drastic image overhaul, including plastic surgery to ever be successful. He did none of these and chose to “dress classy and dance cheesy”. He is the total opposite of what had made K-pop successful in the past: stars with long legs, robotic dance moves and years of training and grooming to make more out of the same mould.
He got South Korea’s finance minister talking about him. South Korea’s top economic official cited Psy as an example of the kind of creativity and international competitiveness the country needs. It was a plea for South Koreans to let their hair down and dream a bit.
As successful as South Korea is in the competitive world of global electronics and export, the finance minister recognises that the country needs to continue to find its own groove. It needs the creative Psy in businesses to go against the grain for the country to continue to propser as innovation becomes more important for success globally.
I believe Singapore needs that too. We may have found success in our early industrial policy. We went against the nationalistic grain of what our neighbours were doing and attracted multinationals to our shores. Former Perm Sec Ngiam Tong Dow had warned of flying on auto-pilot mode, relying on past successes as a sure and safe way for future progress. He was pushing for Singapore to grow its local ‘timber’, i.e. develop our SMEs to a level that they can compete globally. To do so, we will need innovation.
Innovation needs a mindset change. It is difficult to mandate innovation. It has to start from a culture from young where we dare to be different, where we dare to go against the grain and we dare to try alternatives. Our formula for success is too predictable. Our system has put too much emphasis on measuring children from young and sorting them into cookie-cutter programmes we think are best for them. We sieve out the elites through tests and channel them onto fast tracked programmes. We have created an excessive meritocratic education system where the rewards for doing well in academic examinations are exceedingly high. We will end up breeding a next generation of policymakers fixed on doing what had been done previously because that is the safer way to carry on with things.
To have a culture of innovation, we need to cultivate such an attitude right across all areas of our society. If we want a Singapore Psy, we need to let our hair down in our creative sector, even if it causes a bit of discomfort sometimes. Once a while, over enthusiastic officials will clamp down on artistic expressions in the fringes, afraid that our population cannot discern. We will get conforming people but not the next Psy.
If we want Psy-thinking in our businesses, we need to encourage divergent thinking from young. We need to find alternative ways to educate our young and to find a different way to progress them up the education ladder. We need to incorporate into our education more areas that do not have fixed answers. We need to find a way to embrace greater ambiguity and diversity.
Our economy will also need to allow the space for SMEs to develop. We need to allow fresh spaces for them to grow, rather than stiffle them under the shades of giant GLCs and multinationals. I had spoken on this earlier in my Budget speech in parliament this year.
I look forward to a day when we can have our Singapore Psy, in pop culture and in business. We need confident Singaporeans, prepared to be different.
Yesterday, Ang Peng Hwa the Director of the Singapore Internet Research Centre at NTU, and president of the Singapore chapter of the Internet Society wrote in the Straits Times (5 Oct 2012, pg A32) about learning from Bhutan in how Singapore can go about developing its own identity. He stated that Bhutan’s concept of GNH is not about replacing GDP and is not just about happiness. It is something designed to distinguish Bhutan from their neighhours and from the rest of the world.
I had spoken about Bhutan’s GNH in my maiden parliament speech as well (see link). The GNH concept is to also ensure their culture and environment are preserved for the benefit of future generations. It is as much about leaving a future for the next generation as it is about current economic growth. It is centred on collective happiness as a society, rather than individual happiness. Hence, preserving its culture, ensuring sustainable development and having good governance are as important as measuring economic development.
Many Bhutanese may have also gone out to the world to study and work. However, ask any Bhutanese where he/she would like to spend his/her last days, and it will be in Bhutan. Their identity has remained strong over the years. Singapore has been building a global city, but it is weak on building a nation with its own identity and culture. As our people study, live and work overseas in an increasingly globalised world, how can we root them back to Singapore? How do we build an identity with the constant influx of new migrants into our society? What do we want to leave behind for our children’s generation? Let’s hope we address this as we talk about what we want Singapore to be 20 years from now.
The following is an article contributed by a Singaporean parent with a preschooler living in Finland.
There has been much debate recently on the quality, quantity and organization of childcare centres in Singapore. Childcare is understandably important for any country and in particular, Singapore. Manpower and specifically talent is Singapore’s best as well as only natural resource (if you do not count our national reserves as one). Undoubtedly, this implies that children are an important factor in the nation’s survival. The role of childcare thus can encourage the national total fertility rate (TFR) to a certain extent; put existing parents at ease and better prepare children for a fiercely competitive globalised world.
Finland was ranked first in the world for preschool in recent Economist Intelligence Unit report commissioned by the Lien Foundation. There has been much written about the Finnish education system but what does it really look like from the inside? A picture tells a thousand words so hopefully these pictures give some insight into the Finnish daycare system.
Information privacy and protection are key cornerstones to Finnish individual rights. As such, no recognizable pictures of children can be taken without the permission of the parents in writing. Thus, the following pictures will be strange to viewers since there are hardly or no children in it. Incidentally, the pictures were taken when the children were out playing or in the gym. The pictures were taken from a typical Finnish district daycare centre, i.e. in Singapore’s terms a childcare centre. There are approximately 80 children in this daycare, managed by 16 daycare staff and 1 principal. The centre comprises of two levels. This is the ground level and there is another level below with its own play yard. There is also a kitchen and gym at the lower level.
The daycare opens at 7 every morning and closes at 5 in the evening during the weekdays. This is the front entrance. Incidentally, there is no lock on the front gate, only the main door is locked. The centre is fenced up but is accessible to all, including the outdoor play areas. This means that during the weekends, parents are most welcome to take their kids to the play areas.
There is a huge playground to the left (for kids aged 4 and above), comprising a junior sized football field, down slopes, a swings area and a “treehouse”. Singaporean parents would not dare let their children anywhere near this “treehouse”. It is almost 4 metres high, with a fireman’s pole and long slide down.
There is another adjoining yard, which is smaller (to the left) for the younger kids (aged 8 months to 3 years). Every Finnish play area always comprises of swings, stairs, slides and most importantly a sand pit. The sand pit is where kids learn to play together and share the toys. All toys for the sand pit are communal. This means that the spades and so forth are kept in a box, which is usually unlocked in the morning. After playing, the kids will return their toys into the box when it is locked in the evening. This is intended to teach them responsibility even for common things that are shared.
This is a typical sight as you enter through the main door a Finnish daycare centre. As it is autumn now, Finland experiences monsoon like weather where it rains most days. Kids are not kept indoors because of the rain. They just need “wellies” or boots so that they can go outdoors and keep their feet dry. To the left of the shoe rack is a wash area where boots or raincoats can be washed. The washing is never done by the teachers, always the parents!
The picture below shows the (aged 3 and under) kids’ individual lockers where their extra clothes are stored. Parents ensure that there is always an extra pair of short, trousers, socks, etc. Teachers help with reminders stuck at the top to remind parents of needed items.
Just opposite the locker area is the principal’s office, which is also used for all other administrative purposes. Just look at the amount of books on the shelves!
This is the locker area for kids aged 4 to 7. There are no locks, but nothing has ever gone missing! Learning integrity at a young age regardless of status or class is perhaps one reason why Finland is such an egalitarian state.
In front of every classroom, the weekly schedule is shown. This includes what the kids are doing each day as well as the menu for the week. Breakfast starts at 8am, lunch at 11am and a snack at 3pm. Other important notices are also put on this board. There is absolutely nothing on this board that is in English so foreigners are expected to learn the language.
On entering the classroom, one is usually surprised at the simplicity of the arrangements. The kids all have their designated seats. They draw, write, paint and eat at the same place. The only instance they are free to roam is when there is free play time. All the materials are neatly stowed away in the corner of the room. The kids all play a part in keeping the classroom tidy with guidance from the teacher.
The above picture shows a play room for the kids. The toys are neatly stowed away in the boxes. Again, the kids do the cleaning up once play time ends. The toys are very typical and normal ones, ranging from puzzles, lego blocks to plastic model cars.
The below picture shows the sleeping are for the kids. According to the daily schedule, the kids have a compulsory “quiet time” from 12 noon to 2pm. Kids who do not fall asleep, are still expected to be silent. For those kids that are uncontrollable, they are usually “escorted” to the play room with a teacher present. No kid has ever been “escorted” more than twice during their lifetime in this daycare.
A toilet designed and built for kids! All kids in Finland are toilet trained by the time they are 3 years old. The daycare staff together with the parents toilet train the kids with a routine that works like magic. There is hardly any supervision required from age 4 onwards since the kids take their own initiative.
Can Singapore replicate this? My opinion is that it will be very difficult. The lack of land space can be addressed. Attitudes, mindsets and cultural norms are high hurdles to clear and cannot be leapt over in one bound. But if there is a will, there will always be a way.
The Straits Times carried an article today on “Childcare crush sees rents, fees shoot up” (ST 21 Sep 2012 page A8). The report cited keen competition for limited new childcare centres that has caused rents to spike from $10,000-$20,000 per month five years ago to $30,000 to $40,000 per month in recent tenders. This has translated into rise of monthly childcare fees of hundreds of dollars per child in this period.
The article highlighted perfectly the situation I had presented in parliament last week.
Childcare fees has been rising, fairly rapidly in the recent two years. Rent is a big issue. Since the start of the Anchor Operators scheme in 2010, the number of HDB void deck centres available to private and non-profit operators outside of the Anchor Operator scheme are few. From MCYS’s website, I see around 5 available for each category a year. Each of the two Anchor Operators however, opens around 25 centres a year, for a total of around 50 centres between both. They seem to get their sites from unpublished quotas. Anchor Operators pay $1,000-$2,000 rent per month per centre, based on MCYS’s data of $2-$4 per sqm and typical size of 400-600 sqm.
It is easy to work out the mathematics. A typical childcare centre will have an MCYS approved capacity of 70-100 children, depending on the size of the centre. A centre operating at over $40,000 per month rent will have to charge at least $400 more per child per month compared to an Anchor Operator renting at $1,000 per month. This is based on a maximum enrolment of 100 children. If approved capacity or enrolment is lower than 100 children, they need charge more than $400 in monthly childcare fees just to recoup the cost due to rent differential.
Anchor Operators also get set-up grants (over $100,000 per new centre) and other grants such as for maintenance, learning resources and manpower. MCYS has said recurrent grants (excluding setup and maintenace grants) for Anchor Operators will reach $30 million per year.
Minister of State for MCYS, Mdm Halimah Yacob had stated in her reply to my adjournment motion last week that “we have seen growth in both the Anchor Operator market, as well as growth in the commercial sector”. To her, private operators are not impeded by Anchor Operators.
I will differ on this. The number of HDB void deck sites have become few since this scheme came into being. Operators have to go into commerial properties, which charge higher rents. When a rare new void deck space is made available, existing and aspiring new operators bid unrealistically high prices. They benchmark against commercial properties and may also have been frustrated by earlier unsuccessful bids at lower prices.
This will in turn affect existing centres because when their tenancy is up, HDB will look at market rents and adjust their rental rates accordingly. Recent high bid prices will drive up industry average rental, and cause HDB to increase rental charges.
Right now, there is a shortage of childcare places due to rapidly rising demand. Parents are switching from 3-hour kindergarten programmes or from grandparents’ care into childcare. Many parents have complained to me that they have to wait for more than a year to place their children in an affordable centre. Hence, they have no choice but to enrol with a private operator, despite fees being about $200 more. So there is still sufficient current demand for private operators’ services, despite higher fees due to higher rentals.
MCYS will select another 2-3 Anchor Operators. Anchor Operators will use up almost all the new available void deck centres. When the number of places by Anchor Operators catches up with demand, parents will switch out of private operators due to fees. Private operators will then feel the pinch. Many will close down. They are already operating with tight margins due to rising manpower and rental cost. Indeed, speaking recently with staff at some private centres, they complained of increasingly stressful work situation due to high staff turnover and their companies tightening control of costs. Anchor Operators with recurrent grants for manpower, are in a better position to retain staff and even recruit from other centres. This has caused an outflow of staff from other operators into Anchor Operators in the competition for limited trained staff.
It is a graudal process that is slowly but surely happening. We will be left with only Anchor Operators and high-end premium operators who cater to a different market from Anchor Operators.
The current two Anchor Operators are NTUC First Campus and PCF Sparkletots. They were selected in 2009 based on criteria that included: (a) $5 million paid-up capital, (b) non-profit and (c) non-religion and non-racial. The entire universe of childcare operators in Singapore in 2009 that could have met the criteria may well have been just two operators.
Mdm Halimah Yacob in her reply in parliament stated “The basic entry criteria to the scheme are made known. In addition to development grants and subsidised rental rates, Anchor Operators also receive a recurrent grant to defray the costs of recruiting and developing good quality teachers for their new centres. In other words, whoever wants to take advantage of the Anchor Operator scheme and wants to receive additional grants and support, is entitled to do so. It is open to them, even if you have a commercial entity who feels that it wants to do that, can always set up a non-profit arm. And if they qualify and fulfil the conditions, they are also eligible to become an Anchor Operator and receive the additional support from the Government.”
I find this very strange. What is the purpose of expecting a commercial operator to form a non-profit arm just to be able to enjoy these grants and privileges? It is like stretching your arm around your head to scratch your nose, when you could just scratch your nose directly.
We should be outcome-based, regardless of whether an operator is for-profit or non-profit.
We already know what the two current Anchor Operators can do. They charge around $640 in monthly full-day childcare fees afer receiving all the generous support from the government. If MCYS’s concern is affordability and quality, it can challenge any operator (private or otherwise) who wants to receive similar grants to charge at $640 or lower, while proving they can also run quality operations. As a keen observer and former participant in this industry, I am very confident there will be many players able to do that.
If private operators can do that, it will mean one of two things: either
(a) current anchor non-profit operators are not really non-profit; they make decent surpluses, or
(b) current anchors have not been operating efficiently to bring cost down enough for consumers.
In my parliament speech, I had cited some examples to show why I believe quality private operators are capable of beating the Anchor Operators at their game if offered similar conditions.
Our government seems to have an aversion for giving support to for-profit operators when it comes to childcare. However, when it comes to public transport, they see it fit to pump in billions into infrastructure and bus subsidies for SMRT and Comfort Delgro, both public listed entities. If our government is consistent, shouldn’t these two private transport operators be turned into non-profit operators since it is against our government’s principle to support private companies with grants for their operations?
I also fail to see why the scheme has to be for non-religious and non-racial groups. After all, MOE saw it fit to support schools run by mission groups, buddhist groups and various race-based associations. Is MOE wrong to support education by groups with such affiliations? What’s so special about childcare?
I believe the Anchor Operator scheme is ill-conceived. Granting another 2-3 operators and asking existing commercial operators to set up non-profit arms to qualify can only make matters worse. It will kill of all remaining low-mid cost operators, given they already face enornmous pressure from rising rental and manpower costs. Those receiving such generous support will easily kill off their competitors. It will reduce diversity. It will freeze our industry at the point when this selection for the next 2-3 operators will take place. After that, this group of 4-5 Anchors will corner the market by their sheer size and advantages, and with new childcare sites deprived for new players.
My proposal made in parliament is for an alternative model. In summary, it calls for:
- Government to organise all child care sites under its control (void deck, JTC, government buildings) in a managed low rent fashion. This would comprise more than half of all current child care sites in Singapore.
- Government to create or secure more sites, even negotiating with large private landlord as anchor tenant and building mega child care sites out of disused schools or on empty land next to primary schools.
- Sites can be grouped into package of centres and each package tendered out for all operators (private and non-profit) to compete fairly in based on concept, quality and affordable fees, and not on rent. Rent will be a prefixed low amount equivalent to what non-profit operators currently enjoy, at $2-$4 per square metre. Operators cannot adjust fees without the approval of the government or an independent council monitoring quality and fees of operators. Such package of centres should have a fixed tenancy period, sufficiently long enough for operators to meaningfully recouperate investment and thereafter be subjected to contestability again to see who can continue to better run these sites.
- Recurrent grants and other support system should not be given only to non-profit operators but to all who are operating on these sites which are under strict fees and quality guidelines.
I believe this alternative will be more outcome-based. We will be focused on affordability and quality, while providing ongoing diversity. Contestability will keep all operators on their toes, ensuring that no group of operators are annointed with special privileges that can allow them to sit back and relax, knowing that the competition can never beat them because of their special position.
In the end, consumers will benefit from this alternative model.
I delivered the following as an Adjournment Motion in Parliament during the sitting on 10 Sep 2012.
Mr Speaker, I like to add my suggestions for reforms to the child care industry even as the government is looking at how to boldly transform this sector.
I wish to declare that a part of my business supplies products and services to preschools. I have also previously managed and owned child care centres but have no longer been doing so for the past 7 years. This proposal is to improve the industry to benefit consumers. It will not benefit my business.
I will first speak in mandarin.
到了90年代，由于有更多双薪家庭的产生，托儿企业开始发展起来。在过去十年里，它的发展更急速。在工作场所开设托儿所变得常见。在2004年初,有651间托儿所。到了今年6月,这数目增加到987间. 在这期间里，托儿所招收的儿童人数从38,455名增加到75,456名。许多组屋新镇里的托儿所供不应求, 有的报名後甚至要排队等一年以上。
In the child care industry, there are many private operators, most with one or a few centres while several run chain stores.
We also have non-profit operators, dominated by NTUC First Campus and PCF Sparkletots. They are called Anchor Operators, so determined after an exercise in 2009. The criteria used included: (a) $5 million paid-up capital, (b) non-profit and (c) without any religious or racial affiliation.
Anchor Operators function mostly from HDB void decks, at rents of between $2 to $4 per square metre as disclosed by MCYS. For a typical centre of 400-500 sqm, this means monthly rent of $1,000 onwards. They receive generous set-up and furnishing grants for each new centre. In addition, Anchors get recurrent grant for manpower development and learning programmes which is estimated to go into $30 million per year.
MCYS publishes upcoming new centres from HDB and SLA. From its website, I see just a few centres available to private and non profit operators. Yet at the opening of the 100th NTUC centre in October last year, NTUC declared it will open 50 new centres over the next 2 years, which is one every fortnight. PCF too had been growing just as rapidly in the last three years. Just five years ago, PCF was a small child care player. Today, it is number 2 with 90 centres, just behind NTUC. The many new centres by these two do not match the very small number of published centres for non profit operators. Are they given unpublished quotas?
We are told that the role of non profit and Anchor operators is to bring cost down while maintaining quality.
Sir, there is no magic in non profit or in Anchor Operators. The lower fees they provide can be matched by private operators. I will now demonstrate that if private operators get the same benefits as non profit and indeed the Anchor Operators, they have shown that they could match the fees of non profit peers.
Financial modelling for child care is straightforward. The main start-up cost is renovation, fitting out, and investment in resources. Set-up cost can be high, running into several hundred thousand dollars per centre.
In a typical centre paying competitive rents, manpower and rent account for some 80% of all ongoing operating costs. Private operators function from landed houses, commercial and government-owned buildings or purpose-built HDB void decks. Tenancy is often subjected to bidding. When tenancy expires, there is usually open bidding or adjustments to market rate.Competition has caused rents to be in excess of $10,000 to even as high as $40,000 per month in recent tenders.
Anchor Operators get choice new sites regularly at highly subsidized rents. They receive start-up, furnishing, maintenance and recurrent grants. These give them huge operating benefits over competitors.
The difference in monthly rent between non profit and private operators can be $15,000 per month or more. Divide $15,000 by a typical centre enrolment of 75 children. That works out to around $200 cost advantage per child per month. With setup grants, Anchor Operators need to provide less for amortization of investment. They get ongoing grants to defray costs. Yet with these cost advantages, non-profit’s median fees is currently just two hundred over dollars lower than that of private operators. We can find private centres whose fees are not much higher than that of Anchor Operators. Are Anchor Operators with all these cost advantages, really doing enough to keep fees affordable?
Sir, there are other industry data to support my claim.
In a parliament reply this year, MCYS disclosed that EtonHouse, a premium operator with fees of $1,500 per month, charges only $728 per month at its Hampton Preschool. The centre is a collaboration with PCF. PCF secured the site at low rent, and can enjoy other grants. EtonHouse is responsible for programme delivery, set-up and pedagogy. According to a speech by Mr Wong Kan Seng in 2009 , EtonHouse manages the centre and was selected because PCF wanted to work with a private operator that could deliver ‘high quality programmes’. While there could be variations in operations compared to a typical EtonHouse’s centre, the fact is, EtonHouse could deliver ‘high quality programmes’ atless than halfof its usual fees when it operates at a void deck that enjoys subsidised rents and grants.
In the 1990s, government buildings started to provide for workplace childcare. There was an interesting practice then to charge $1 or other token monthly rent for purpose-built child care facilities which catered to children of staff working in the building. Bids were called. I noted that in open competition, these sites went to established private players whose own centres charged in the mid to upper price range.
The condition for low rent then was that fees for children of staff in the buildings must be kept low. Premium private operators could match prevailing fees of non profit operators.
Today, costs are escalating due mainly to rent and manpower. Manpower cost affects all in the industry. Anchor Operators with recurrent grants can better retain staff, head-huntfrom other centres and deal with rising costs. Rent is steadily rising in our competitive market.
This has caused fees to rise. Out of pocket payments by parents in many private centres today are higher than before subsidies were increased in 2008. MCYS has no control over fees. Centres just need to give ‘ample’ notice to parents, which MCYS recommends as 3 months, and then fees will go up.
The government has announced new measures for the industry. While they may be initiated with good intent, I fear it could end up creating more unfair competition, destroying the diversity and innovation in our current system.
I have a proposal to bring costs down while pushing for quality and diversity – Child care as a public good with private partnership through contestability.
I noted that in delivering public goods such as transport, the government has pumped billions in rail and bus investments without expectingpayback from private operators or charging infrastructure at market rent to them. We were told this is to bring the cost of public transport to a level that people can accept.
If we wish for young working couples to be able to afford child care and be encouraged to have more children, then we have a case to use a public good’s approach for child care.
Government can build and lease out centres at managed low rent. All its existing sites can come under the model. Based on answers in parliament, there are 290 void deck centres for non profit and 176 for private operators in void deck and JTC buildings, and another 52 in government buildings. That’s 518 centres, roughly 52.4% of all child care in Singapore. With 200 more centres to be built mostly in government controlled spaces, the share of sites under government‘s control will rise.
Old schools, disused community centres and other SLA spaces can be purpose-built by the government into mega child care facilities, even housing different operators under one roof. Child care generally should be within 2-3 km of workplaces or homes. Many small void decks innew flats are not ideal for child care, limiting options in new towns. We can have mega child care sites as long as we ensure there iseasy access by parents, with roads and parking well planned.
We can utilise unused land parcels next to primary schools. There are small plots around some primary schools which are not big enough for meaningful commercial projects. We can tap on infrastructure of the primary schools to addnew preschool facilities. This will make use of unutilised space, save on infrastructure costs and cultivate exchange between preschool and primary school.
The government can negotiate as main tenant withlarge private landlords for sites as a bloc to supplement their bank of child care sites. It can work with property developerswho get additional Gross Floor Area when they set aside preschoolspace at cheap rents and let the government use the space for any type of operator. We should actively pursue all options to increase the state’s child carebank to cater to the mass market.
How do we allocate these centres? Rather than have more Anchor Operators, I have anothersuggestion.
The Anchor Operators concept has skewed the market. It is like giving a boxer super glooves and energy boosters while tying the hands of the competitor and asking them to fight each other. The stated objective for Anchor Operators was to “develop childcare operators that will set the benchmark for quality and affordable childcare services.”
It may have allowed Anchor Operators to achieve higher quality as they get resources, economy of scale, and certainty of their leases. Is it fair to expect other operators to keep pace? Other operators get little or no state funding. They hesitate to invest, worried if others will outbid them for their centres at each renewal, which will wipe out sunk investment. New HDB sites are so few compared to unannounced sites for Anchor Operators. Anchor Operators could lure their staff away with scholarships. Instead of encouraging other operators to step up, it cancause some to think short term and extract as much out of their investment while they can.
We can apply contestability. Contest clusters of sites openly based on concept rather than on rent. This was done before, when government building sites chargedtoken rent and selection was on other factors such as quality and fees.
There is no need for a one-time selection of new Anchor Operators which will strengthen only a select few and weaken everyone else. Worst, it may become impossible for new operators to enter the market, killing off future innovation. We need active competition to raise standards and to continuously drive innovation.
Recurrent and other grants should apply to all qualifying participants as long as they meet strict selection criteria on fees and quality. There should be no differentiation between private and non profit operators. We already know what the current Anchor Operators can do with the support they had been given. Why have we been limiting ourselves to think only selected non profit players can bring cost down? Let’s open up and see how all others, including private operators can better that in terms of price and quality, if given similar support. I believe fair competition may even force current Anchor Operators to better their pricing, ultimately benefiting consumers.
New operators can surface from time to time. Small operators may band together into economic groups to better compete.
Contestability will drive diversity and quality. Operators cannot increase fees without approval. The government will regain control over the fee process to ensure affordability.
Government can better direct its key programmes. MCYS had found it hard to get private operators to go along with some of its programmes, such as SPARK. Last month, we were told only 115 preschools had attained SPARK accreditation, of which just 39 were private operators. This is way way below the target of 85% of all centres to be SPARK-tested by 2013, a figure established by Minister of State for Education, Mr Masagos in November 2010. We can allow only SPARK-accredited operators to contest these sites.
There may not even be a need for state-run preschools. The call for nationalisation was made by many frustrated with differing standards and high costs. We can improve quality even at the low cost segment by having a critical mass of centres available in this public-good model, and the state regulate to steer quality and pricing. It can designate some centres for the low income group by packaging centres for different market segments in each tender exercise.
While this proposal is in the context of child care, it can also be used for kindergartens.
In summary, I am calling for child care to be a public good with fair contestability of sites at managed rents for all types of operators, with tighter control of fees and quality by the state. This will benefit Singaporeans as fees will drop industry-wide while preserving diversity and driving up quality and innovation. I hope the government can carefully consider this proposal.
On 1 Aug, Singapore received an early birthday gift for her National Day when Feng Tian Wei won Singapore’s first individual Olympics medal since Tan Howe Liang’s silver in 1960. I posted a simple “Congratulations Tianwei!” message on my Facebook. Not unsurprisingly, it garnered positive comments as well as a number of uncomplimentary remarks about our use of foreign talents.
I had read up about Tian Wei. I summarised a part of Wikipedia’s post of her as follow:
Feng Tianwei was born on 31 August 1986 in Harbin, PRC. She is the only daughter of Feng Qingzhi, a granary worker, and his wife Li Chunping, an employee of a department store. Feng’s parents, who were poor, lived frugally for years to pay for her table tennis training. Her father suffered from multiple sclerosis, but she was not told how severe his illness was. He died in 2002, weeks before Feng tried out for China’s national B squad. Although Feng topped the qualifying matches a month later and was called up for the national team in 2003, she suffered from a long illness; a source close to her said it was “because she missed her father too much”. Feng left China in 2005 to play in the Japanese professional league. While there, she was spotted by a coach with the Singapore Table Tennis Association, in 2006. In March 2007 she was invited to train in Singapore under the Foreign Sports Talent Scheme. She became a Singapore citizen in January 2008.
For Tianwei to be where she is today, she had to work hard and overcome many personal struggles. That’s great resilience and something worthy of celebrating in a human’s achievement. From what I have read of her in the media, she has so far been a good sports person and without any controversial news that I am aware of.
We also had Shanghai-born Jing Junhong who was the first to break into the semi-finals of an Olympic table tennis singles in Sydney 2000. She is now married to Singaporean former paddler and Table Tennis team manager Loy Soo Han. Junhong is a coach for Team Singapore as well. They have a son, Darren Loy who is now in Singapore’s junior Table Tennis team.
When I made a national day blog post last year, some netizens commented in unflattery tones that my parents came from Malaysia. It didn’t matter to them that I was born here or that my parents came when Singapore was part of Malaya and that they had long become Singapore citizens. We cannot choose where to be born in, nor can we choose our parents. From what I read, I would say Junhong has integrated well into Singapore, establishing her family here, producing a son who is now representing Singapore, and training our national team. Tianwei has been fighting for medals in Singapore’s name since 2008. She came to us as world no. 73 and is now world no. 6 and an Olympic individual medalist. Tao Li came to Singapore at age 13, speaking hardly any English at all. Today, she conducts her interviews regularly in English, with the occasional “lah”s in it.
That had me reflecting why each time a foreign-born sports person wins something for Singapore, we have such a large number of unhappy people. The problem may not lie in the athletes themselves. Having large number of foreigners injected into our midst over the past two decades has created many problems in society. Unfortunately, some people will project the problems we are facing with foreigners onto all non local-born. Irresponsible headlines by the media like “Feng Tianwei shows FT is the way” (The New Paper, 3 Aug) only serves to stir up more resentment amongst locals.
I recall when I was younger, foreigner means fair-skinned ‘ang mohs’ (the westerners), who did not get into the way of locals very much. We have always been having Malaysians and people from ASEAN in our midst, mostly as students and as workers, with some as professionals. We never complained so much then. Culturally, they are closer to us and live quite like Singaporeans. A fair number of Malaysians who study here regularly become PRs and citizens. Foreign domestic workers have also long been a feature in Singapore as well. They gather mainly at specific spots during the weekends. The jobs done by the workers and foreign domestic workers are also not the ones that Singaporeans aspire for.
In 1990, Singapore celebrated ’25 years of nationhood and another 25 years of achievements’. That was the slogan of the National Day parade of 1990. The theme of the parade that year was “One People, One Nation, One Singapore”. Back then, our population was 3.047 million, of which 2.634 million were citizens and 112,000 were permanent residents (PRs). Foreigners made up around 311,000, or 10.2%. Together, PRs and foreigners made up a total of only 13.9%. Singaporeans did not seem to have any major issues with foreigners then.
By 2011, our population grew to 5.184 million. Of these, there were 3.257 million citizens (including new citizens), 532,000 PRs, and 1.394 million foreigners. Foreigners constituted 26.9% while PRs and foreigners together formed 37.2%. When we combine this figure with another 15,000 – 20,000 foreign-born that are being added yearly as new citizens, the percentage of local-born citizens becomes even smaller. Source: http://www.singstat.gov.sg/pubn/popn/population2011.pdf (with rounding off).
In 1990, we had by then built the nation largely on Singaporeans. We were of different races, but we formed the vast majority of the population and we understood each other’s habits, religions and cultures. Sure, it didn’t happen naturally. It took some effort to constantly remind ourselves of the diversity amongst us. We could live with and adjust to one another. We were indeed one people, one nation, one Singapore.
I love to travel. I would mix around the locals when I travel, take their local transport, eat at their local eateries, buy at local joints and do things locals do. My travels were all self planned itineraries. You get to understand people better that way.
China has been quite an experience. In one of my early trips to China, I was once stuck in Pudong, Shanghai at night with three young children in the drizzle trying to catch a cab to Puxi across the river with our bags of shopping. There was no queuing bay. Many people were on the streets trying to grab a cab too. The locals were rough. I had people cut me off even though cabs alighted passengers in front of me. I nearly got into one after I had negotiated with the driver through his window where we wanted to go when suddenly, a young couple barged into the cab and the cab took off with them. Half an hour later, a taxi driver who had been parked on the side all this while drove over and told me that this is Shanghai. He said I would never get into a cab by being so mild, and that I should just jump into the first cab and demand to be taken to where I want. He said he was taking me on account of my three young kids, as he usually would not go across the river at that time of the night.
Another Singaporean friend who had been living for several years in China told me in a cab one day at a chaotic traffic junction in Shanghai that there is only one rule to follow at such junctions in the cities. The car whose head juts out first has the right of way. Forget about official traffic rules. Hence they drive aggressively. I noticed this too in some crowded Asian cities.
I watched a recent video that had gone viral on the Internet of a China woman scolding two elderly Singaporean ladies over the priorty seating on a bus. I have seen such scenes in China. People are conditioned to demand their rights, sometimes in loud and forceful ways because in their system, you will lose out if you are too gentle. I found out the hard way trying to get my cab.
We may be seen as sharing the same ethnicity. Our way of life has become very different though. China had gone through a traumatic cultural revolution and now a long economic boom. It is a big country where people may have grown used to roughing things out.
I do not wish to generalise that all from China behave badly, or that foreigners of other nationalities do not bring with them issues that also challenge the integration with Singaporeans. I have chinese friends who are cultured and who have decided to set roots in Singapore. But with so many foreigners of so many nationalities, each with their own deep-seated culture that had shaped their behaviours, our way of life is bound to become upset; from bus quarrels to spitting on roads to complaints about curry cooking. It does not help that in some areas, foreigners may even outnumber locals as the foreigners tend to be clustered together by their communities. It also does not help in our multi-cultured society that some of them work as service staff but speak no English at all.
When I was a student, I remember the many campaigns to teach us how we should behave as responsible Singaporeans. I remember the ‘Use Your Hands’, anti-littering and courtesy campaigns. I remember once a few of us did an overnight hike to a secluded part of Pulau Ubin while we were college students. The next morning, we packed up to leave. We had a few bags of rubbish. Our first tendency was to leave the rubbish there since the nearest dustbin was several kilometers away, past a plantation we had hiked through. Someone from the group picked up the rubbish bags and carried it along, together with his camping load. Another asked why he didn’t just leave it behind. He said, no, we should not litter the place. I still remember such lessons well to know that we should not litter. How do we tell that to 37.2% of the population (more if we count new citizens) who had not gone through our education system? How do we teach courtesy to those who grew up believing they need to demand aggressively to get what they want, and where spitting and littering are acceptable where they used to live? Will their way of life influence us instead and undo what we had learnt from young?
I am not anti-foreigner. I have spoken out before on such issues like foreign scholarships. That is because I feel the policy had spent to much, took in too many, failed to attract people of the right quality, and failed to get them to root themselves in Singapore. People like Junhong, Tianwei and Tao Li have done Singapore proud on the sports front. I wish all foreign-born sports person in Singapore can follow the example of Junhong and truly root themselves here even when their competing career is over. The issue of foreigners in our midst will continue to be hotly debated, even more so in the coming months with the recently publised paper on Population.
The call to be ‘One People, One Nation, One Singapore’ is even more urgent today than it was in 1990, when there were then fewer cracks in society. Today, the cracks are between the haves and a growing class of haves-not, between local born citizens and a sizeable pool of new citizens and between residents and a very large number of foreigners. We may have 47 years of economic progress as a nation, but do the newer citizens and permanent residents have the same understanding as other Singaporeans of ‘One People, One Nation, One Singapore’? That is the unenviable challenge that the PAP government has set for itself by its policy of liberal immigration.
As you mull over this, do enjoy this song which is one of my National Day’s favourites:
Happy 47th National Day.
Two years ago, when the MRT cabins were spray painted, I wrote an article to TODAY expressing the need for spaces to be set aside in which creative people can express their artistic desires in an orderly manner (http://yeejj.wordpress.com/2011/03/27/today-voices-jul-6-2010-why-not-liven-up-mrt-cabins-legally/).
The recent arrest of the 25 year old lady, dubbed The Sticker Lady by netizens has sparked calls again on how we can better manage the desire for creative expressions in our society. I do not agree that one can express themselves as they wish on public property. However, we need to create enough spaces for people to express themselves. If we have such spaces and processes clearly spelt out, then those who defy the rules will have few excuses for what they do. Right now, our enviroment is too drab and sterile. Hence many people are openly supporting The Sticker Lady because they identify with the lighthearted nature she had gone about looking at our way of life. I certainly hope the authorities can apply a lighter touch to her case.
Moving forward, I feel the authorities can be more daring to allow designated public spaces to be set aside for public expressions of creativity. I suggest that postboxes, MRT cabins and selected void decks and street corners can be set aside for proper application by aspiring artists with design proposals to work on, subject to approval. Places like Youth Park where youths gather regularly will also be an ideal location for this. If done in a proper manner, we can have a more creative and colourful Singapore without compromising the respect for law and order.
After my posting, my parliamentary colleague, Mr Hri Kumar commented on my proposal to have an approval committee look at applications to use designated public spaces for art.
My response to that in my FB page is as follow: … I suggested having a committee to look at proposals by artists to use designated spaces is because I think Singapore is not yet at a stage where we can accept random art, as well as to screen for objectionable language or attacks against race/religion. I would have suggested letting it free for all in designated spaces but I think society needs time to progress to that stage. So a compromise is to have a review process and some space for creative expressions. It is a bit like us having Speakers Corner at Hong Lim Park. It is not a free-for-all. There are some rules and an application to be made in advance. Why can’t Hong Lim Park be like Hyde Park in London? Is Singapore ready for that?
Another additional thought that came to me is to have organisations like Singapore Post or our train operators commission The Sticker Lady to put up ‘approved’ stickers at PostBoxes and inside train cabins. It would certainly add spice to our lives and give us something to think about while we are commuting in our crowded trains. If crafted carefully, the messages might even be effective in our campaigns such as being courteous, promoting neighbourliness, speak good English, etc.