A story to warm your heart

We conducted our first house visit yesterday since the release of the EBRC report. As usual, it was a tiring affair, going door to door. People were noticeably more interested to engage with us now that the report is out. They were curious if we will be the ones that will contest in their constituency. As usual, we tried to cover as many houses as we could given that GE is imminent.

At this house, a lady in her mid 40s, Miss J, came to the door. We introduced ourselves. She opened the door and invited us in. Usually, we would just converse with residents at the door. This time, I saw an old lady sitting on a sofa gazing at us. Something made me want to go in and talk to the old lady, so we accepted the invitation to enter.

She was highly advanced in age, body deeply bent and her legs looked like they were too weak to support her. I spotted a wheelchair nearby, presumably used to transport her around the house and outside. Miss J went in to the kitchen to make drinks for us. It was extremely difficult making any conversation with the old lady. We used a mix of Chinese and Hokkien. Sometimes she seemed to understand, sometimes she would say something unintelligible to us. If not, she would gaze at us or at the television.

Miss J came out with the drinks and explained that her mother, aged 87, has dementia. It became very severe two years ago, so she quit her job to become a full-time caretaker. She said that her mother would get confused easily. Sometimes, she would think that Miss J was her daughter, sometimes her ah-ma, sometimes a maid, etc. At times, she seemed to understand and apologised to Miss J for causing her not to be able to work because of her poor health.

I told Miss J that she is very filial and that it must be really difficult for her to play the role of the sole caretaker. To my surprise, Miss J replied “No, it is my privilege that I have my mother to love and to care for”. Every night, she would hug and kiss her mother before she goes to bed. She said that whenever her brother’s children visit their grandmother, the grandchildren will do the same thing to their Ah-ma. She said that it is important for them to do this so that they will do the same thing for their own parents when their parents are old.

Miss J struggles with the finances. Her savings are mostly dried up. She tries not to ask for too much help from her siblings as they have their own family expenses. She has to buy adult diapers and to pay for all sorts of medicine that her mother requires. However, there was no trace of any bitterness in her. She said these as a matter of fact and ended by saying that this is what she wants to do as this is her mother. It is her privilege.

I was deeply moved and asked for permission to share her story. As she was narrating her story, the image of the recent viral video of a daughter beating up her mother and making her eat faeces and drink urine came to my mind. How did something go so wrong in that family, and how did Miss J find the strength to go through all these difficult daily duties with such a big heart?

May God bless people like Miss J for showing to the world what filial piety is.

Time to review our scholarship framework for international students

I had filed two questions during the recent parliament sitting on 13 July 2015, with answers as follow:

75 Mr Yee Jenn Jong asked the Minister for Education (a) since 2012, what percentage of international students on scholarships awarded by the Ministry have graduated with second class upper honours or better; (b) how does this figure compare with the 97% of Public Service Commission scholars who graduate each year with second class upper honours or better; and (c) whether the Ministry intends to set a base score of a second upper honours or its equivalent which international scholars must attain to maintain their scholarships at each renewal review.

Mr Heng Swee Keat: Since 2012, about 68% of international students on undergraduate scholarships have graduated with second upper class honours or better. This is comparable to the performance of Singaporean scholarship holders studying at the local universities. It is also higher than the overall percentage of students graduating with second upper class honours or better, which is about 38%.

Mr Yee asked how these figures compare with that of PSC scholars. There is no good basis for comparing as the number of PSC scholars is extremely small and they undertake their studies in a variety of top-tier universities, both local and overseas.

The basic grade that the international scholars have to meet in order to maintain their scholarships is a cumulative Grade Point Average of 3.5 out of 5 for NUS, NTU and SUTD, and 3.4 out of four for SMU. This is commensurate with what is required of Singaporean scholarship holders studying at these universities. These criteria strike a careful balance between encouraging students to achieve certain standards in academic work, while giving them the time and space to learn deeply and widely through a variety of activities

And

  1. Mr Yee Jenn Jong: To ask the Minister for Education (a) since January 2012, how many scholarships have been awarded each year by Ministries to international students to do their undergraduate studies at our local universities; and (b) what is the current average cost of each scholarship a year including but not limited to school fees, accommodation and other allowances.

Mr Heng Swee Keat: The annual number of scholarships awarded to international students at the undergraduate level has come down in recent years. Since 2012, about 900 such scholarships are awarded each year.

The scholarships include school fees, and typically include accommodation and some allowances. The annual cost per scholarship is about $25,000 on average.

The questions were to get an update from data I had obtained when I first entered parliament. In January and February 2012, MOE had revealed then that it awards 170 and 900 scholarships at the undergraduate level each year to ASEAN and non-ASEAN students respectively, making a total of 1,070 new international scholars a year. Budget per scholar then was between $18,000 and $25,000 a year.

A GPA average of 3.5 out of 5 is roughly the grade that will secure a student a second class lower honours degree. 68% of international students graduated with second class upper honours in the last four years, a slight improvement compared to the figure I had obtained in 2012.

At $25,000 per year per international scholar and with a scholarship lasting typically 4 years, the annual budget on international scholars would be $25,000 x 900 x 4, giving a total of $90 million a year (this figure excludes the amount spent on pre-tertiary and post-graduate scholarships, as well as that spent on tuition grants). The expenditure on an international scholar would be $100,000 over the 4-year time period to obtain his/her first degree. I believe this figure excludes tuition grants of typically $10,000-$20,000 per annum per student which almost all international students will get.

MOE had said that the expectation of a GPA of 3.5 out of 5 (or 3.4 out of 4 for SMU) is the general expectation for Singaporean scholars as well. It had said that we cannot compare PSC scholars’ performance with that of international scholars on MOE’s scholarship, as the number of PSC scholars is “extremely small” (5 President’s and 83 PSC Scholarships were awarded in 2014) and they study in a variety of top-tier universities, both local and overseas. DPM Teo had in May 2012 revealed that more than 97% of PSC scholars graduate with Good Class Honours (2nd upper or better) each year. PSC scholars I had spoken to have told me that if they did not maintain the GPA required for a good class honours for two semesters, their scholarship would be suspended.

The question then is whether our expectation for international scholars has been set too low or we have set a target number for recruitment and have not been able to attract applicants of suitable quality. When the expectation is a GPA of 3.5 out of 5, you can expect many of them to graduate without good class honours, as the case has been for many years.

Our universities have been constantly rising in their rankings to be amongst the top internationally. Since we expect our PSC scholars to study in top-tier local and overseas universities, we should also set top-tier standards for those we wish to fund generously for their studies in Singapore. I do not object to having top quality international students to study here on scholarships. Some Singaporeans do get scholarships from overseas to study in their top universities as well. I can imagine how difficult it is for Singaporeans to get fully funded scholarships to study in top universities internationally. You have to be really good and will likely graduate with good class honours if you manage to get a fully funded scholarship from a foreign government to study in their top institutions.

Perhaps we can draw lessons from how PSC maintains the consistently high standard of academic performances of its scholars. It takes in an “extremely small” number each year, puts them into top-tier universities including top local universities, sets a high expectation for the scholars in terms of GPA and monitors their performances continuously.

Since our universities are now world class, it is time to review and raise our expectations for those who we wish to fund generously to be in Singapore to provide competitive interaction with our local students. Perhaps the number has been too large and standards were set too low. Other international students can continue to come here to study on their own, subject to already established quotas for international students. With our universities’ top rankings, do we expect difficulties to attract enough international students to study here on their own?

A politically more robust Singapore

I contributed the following article to the just published Hammer newsletter of The Workers’ Party:

Former top civil servant, Mr Ngiam Tong Dow was once asked in an interview what kind of Singapore he hoped his grandchildren will inherit. He replied with a story of two city states in Greek history – Sparta and Athens. Ngiam said Singapore was like Sparta, where the top students were taken away from their parents as children and educated. Each cohort selected their own leadership, ultimately electing their own Philosopher King. Ngiam felt that though the starting point was meritocracy, the end result was dictatorship and elitism. He believed that was how Sparta crumbled in the end. He observed that Athens, a city of philosophers known for its different schools of thought, survived. Sparta was a well-organised martial society, but was very brittle. Athens survived because of its diversity of thinking and was a city Ngiam considered as worth fighting for.

In today’s post-Mr Lee Kuan Yew era, the question of what kind of system we want for Singapore has become more pressing. It was a question that I had asked myself five years ago before I eventually entered politics. No political party or government can rule forever. A party can become incompetent or corrupt over time. I had grown increasingly uncomfortable with the lack of diversity of views in our government and was concerned about whether my children will have viable alternatives to the current ruling party to choose from.

We have often heard the narrative that Singapore does not have enough talent for two teams, something which I disagree with. I believe there are enough people who want to serve Singapore, given a fair political climate. All the more going forward, Singapore needs to have diversity in political views for its long term sustainability. In an interview conducted at the World Economic Forum in 1999, when asked about people contesting against him politically, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew said, “They can run against me, but it’s an effort to gather enough people to make that consistent try year after year, to build an organization.”[1]

It is extremely difficult to form an organisation quickly to respond to a future situation where the incumbent party may no longer competent enough to rule. It takes a long time to build up a rational, respectable and responsible alternative party and to attract good people to join it. I believe this continuous process of building up of the alternatives is even more relevant today as we move into the post-Mr Lee era to have a more resilient Singapore.

In the business world, we value competition and even have anti-monopoly laws to protect the consumers. Competition forces the incumbent to improve or be forced out. It has been so in every business. Monopoly brings about complacency and dearth of innovation because there are few incentives for those with monopolistic control to improve or else lose market share.

There should be healthy competition in politics as well. Democracy is about empowering the people to choose their leaders and make decisions affecting their life. It should be about a fair system that allows willing people to come forward to serve according to the political beliefs they have. We should break away from the unhealthy fear factor under the iron-fist rule of the past that has unnecessarily limited the choices of our people because capable people have been deterred from politics due to high stake political price.

[1] http://infusionetwork.livejournal.com/4131.html

SG50 Charity Art Exhibition

My wife and I have contributed some of our paintings for a SG50 Art exhibition, with part of the proceeds going to World Vision for rebuilding homes hit by the earthquake in Nepal. It will feature works from 6 artists, as well as from budding visually impaired artists from Dialogue in the Dark. Event is from 13-18 June 2015 at Gallery@The Arts House, 1 Old Parliament Lane. Come join us for the event!

Below are the pieces we are contributing.

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Art pieces by JJ Yee:

Self-portrait: my first oil painting done in 2013

Self-portrait: my first oil painting done in 2013

My parents sent me for water colour and Chinese painting lessons when I was young. However, I didn’t quite appreciate painting then, and so I quit art. It was only two years ago that I restarted art after my wife had picked up oil and acrylic painting.

French Impressionist artist Edgar Degas had said, “Everyone has talent at 25. The difficulty is to have it at 50.” I was born in the year of Singapore’s independence. Now at age 50, I do not think it is too late for me to pick up a new skill. I paint whenever I can find free time in between running my businesses and my active community commitments. I am happy to contribute my pieces for this SG50 art exhibition.

(YJJ: Acrylic and oil on canvas, 102 x 76 cm, 2015)

(YJJ: Acrylic and oil on canvas, 102 x 76 cm, 2015)

Colours of the Bay

This piece depicts a celebration scene at our iconic Marina Bay. Many national celebrations are now held at the Bay.

Most of the buildings in the Bay were built in the last 10 years, many of them on land that has been reclaimed from the sea. It is a reflection of the rapid pace of development in Singapore in our 50 years of independence. The bright colours on the Bay each night is a constant reminder of the busy and bustling global city that Singapore has now become.

(Acrylic on canvas, 76 x 51 cm, 2015)

(YJJ: Acrylic on canvas, 76 x 51 cm, 2015)

Reflections of Nature

This piece is a scene of the “Little Guilin (小桂林 )” in Bukit Gombak. It is a granite rock sitting within a lake. The place was once a granite quarry, where granite rocks were blasted to obtain needed construction materials as Singapore modernised. It was originally intended to be covered up and a road built on it. However, the place was turned into a pond when the town planners decided that the rugged granite outcrops against a backdrop of green hills made it a beautiful place. Today, it is part of the Bukit Batok Nature Park. In rapidly developing Singapore, there is a need to balance development with having places of natural beauty.

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Art Pieces by Sharon Ngoi

self-portrait, oil on canvas

self-portrait, oil on canvas

It takes a long time to become young.  ~ Pablo Picasso

 I reconnected with visual art whilst on a project in 2010, working with primary school pupils using different art styles. It was an eye-opening experience to see the works of the great artists through the eyes of the children. This started my journey to play with different colours, paint mediums and styles… just like children.

It is a privilege to contribute my pieces to this SG50 Art event that will raise funds to rebuild homes in Nepal. I had participated in an earlier World Vision’s charity art exhibition organised by Pin Lay and was happy to have played my part to raise funds to build classrooms in Zambia.

(SN: Oil on canvas, 102 x 76 cm, 2015)

(SN: Oil on canvas, 102 x 76 cm, 2015)

The Last Kampung

This painting of a bicycle shop in Pulau Ubin depicts life in the rustic and rural island, abundant with flora and fauna.

Once, several thousand people live on this island. Today, only about 100 villagers remain. Many Singaporeans visit the island for day-trips to get away from the busy city, often renting bicycles to peddle around the island to get a glimpse of what life in Singapore used to be like with kampungs everywhere.

A kampung is a village in the Malay language.

The actual Ubin shop, photo taken by artist on 9 June 2015

The actual Ubin shop, photo taken by artist on 9 June 2015

(SN: Acrylic on canvas, 61 x 91 cm, 2014)

(SN: Acrylic on canvas, 61 x 91 cm, 2014)

Rising over Storms

This abstract piece depicts a sun rising over stormy seas, radiating its light over the darkness. Singapore has faced many storms since its independence. With resilience and resourcefulness, Singaporeans have risen over these storms and will continue to do so even as more storms come our way.

(SN: Oil on canvas, 41 x 51 cm, 2013)

(SN: Oil on canvas, 41 x 51 cm, 2013)

A Forest Giant

Singapore may be a bustling city, but it is also a city in a garden. Trees play an important part to maintain the green environment of the city. Today, several patches of primary rainforest still remain on the island.

(SN: Acrylic on canvas, 41 x 51 cm, 2015)

(SN: Acrylic on canvas, 41 x 51 cm, 2015)

Supertrees

These “Supertrees” at the Gardens by the Bay are giant man-made structures which also function as vertical gardens. They are lit up beautifully every evening. Which giant do you prefer – the Forest Giant or a Supertree?

(SN: Acrylic on canvas, 27 x 35 cm, 2012)

(SN: Acrylic on canvas, 27 x 35 cm, 2012)

Waterfall at Botanical Gardens

This waterfall is at the Ginger Garden within the 74-hectare Botanical Gardens. The Gardens played an important part in Singapore’s early history as it was the place where plants that were of economic importance were cultivated to assess their suitability for our climate.

MOE Committee of Supply Debate 2015 – Sports CCA

Encouraging sports CCA

Madam, several Members including myself have spoken previously about a greater level of sports engagement for our pupils and to increase the number of sports on offer by schools. Active participation in sports from young can hopefully help students develop a culture of active sports in the future.

I wish to suggest how we can add to schools’ efforts to provide more sports engagements for students:

  1. Introduce more fun competitions for sports within schools, which can be tiered so students who are at a lesser skill level can move up to a higher level when skills have improved.
  2. Introduce the concept of a minor CCA where students who want regular exposure to various sports can sign up for as a second or even third CCA. The time commitment may not be as intense as a regular CCA but it will allow students to try out more sports. CCA points would be correspondingly lesser.
  3. Recognise and award CCA points for the achievements of students who participate regularly and competitively with external training providers outside of school hours, even if the school does not offer the sports as a CCA. This will encourage students to pursue sports of their interest at a serious level where schools are not able to find the resources to offer that sport as a CCA.
  4. Allow international schools to join in the local inter-school competitions to increase the level of challenge, a point also raised by NMP Dr Ben Tan.

Thank you.

MOE Committee of Supply Debate 2015 – Mother Tongue exemptions at PSLE

Mother Tongue exemptions at PSLE

Madam, I agree with bilingualism being a cornerstone of our education system.  All students in our primary and secondary schools now have to offer a Mother Tongue Language (MTL).

In a recent parliament reply, MOE had said that around 3.5% of students are exempted from MTL at the PSLE yearly. I accept that there are genuine reasons for exemptions such as those who join our education system mid-way without prior learning of the MTL or there are medical reasons that adversely affect their ability to cope with MTL.

In another reply, MOE cited that on average over the past 5 years, 178 MTL exemptions were given at PSLE in the 5 schools with the highest exemptions. That is 35.6 students per school, which is around 15-17% of the PSLE cohort in an average school.

This is high compared to the national average of 3.5%. Has MOE examined the reasons why there are wide variations in MTL exemptions across schools? Has MOE or the principal of schools with high exemptions sought to interview applicants to probe further into the reasons for seeking MTL exemptions? Seeking exemption based on medical reasons is costly. Is there a strong correlation between MTL exemptions and the socio-economic status of parents?

I hope students will not find ways to opt out of MTL even if they find the subject difficult or parents worry that offering MTL may pull down their children’s PSLE T-Score.

MOE Committee of Supply Debate 2015 – Internship

I delivered the following speech during the Committee of Supply debate for the Ministry of Education on 6 March 2015.

Management of industrial internship

Madam, internship will play an increasingly important role as we move to a more skills-based economy.

I had spoken on this topic before. While I am happy that there will be more internship and are told that it will be more structured, I remain concerned about how industries will be engaged to ensure that internships are meaningful as we ramp up the number of such places.

I have taken interns over the past 15 years and have spoken with others who have as well. From the perspectives of companies, the supply of interns has been somewhat unpredictable. Some institutions give longer notice period of incoming interns, some are as short as two weeks before commencement. Sometimes we are allowed to interview and select interns but often we are not. It will be difficult for companies to plan for meaningful projects if the supply is unpredictable and if the existing skills of the interns are not properly matched to what companies need.

For projects to be even more meaningful and realistic, where possible, it will be better if there could be continuity across different internship intakes from an education institution. We can encourage projects commenced during internship to continue as say, a final year project when the interns return to school.

We have a new Earn and Learn programme with generous funding support. I hope to see internship funding support for companies that take in a minimum number of interns a year so that they can dedicate resources to make internship rigorous, akin to a sort of apprenticeship programme. I also hope there can be close coordination between companies and supervisors in schools so that projects will be useful to companies while the internship experience will result in the learning required by the school. Where possible, we can also bring in the expertise of industry associations to help plan and validate internship programmes.

MOE Committee of Supply Debate 2015 – Integrated Schools and GEP

I delivered the following two speeches during the Committee of Supply debate for the Ministry of Education on 6 March 2015.

 

MOE: Integrated primary – secondary schools

Madam, this is the fourth year that I am speaking on the topic of through-train schools from primary through secondary. If I seem persistent, it is because I truly believe that in a suitably diverse education landscape, Singaporeans should have access to such a publicly-funded education option.

Such through-train schools will not require the pupil to go through the PSLE. It will allow the school to develop holistic education for a longer period with the pupils, allowing time to work on their character and values, as well as other aspects beyond exams. From results seen in other countries and in private schools that offer such a through-train system, academic achievements need not be compromised.

I had previously outlined broad ideas on how we can start with, say eight of such schools distributed throughout Singapore, and exclude all top schools from being part of such a pilot. I had called for this to be implemented gradually and on a pilot basis because the majority of Singaporeans may not yet understand how an education system can work without the PSLE.  Nevertheless, I am convinced there is a sizeable minority who will be prepared to have their children go through 10 years of education in the same school, even if it means their children will find it difficult to enter the existing top schools without the PSLE.

I call upon MOE to seriously study the option, conduct public surveys to gauge the level of support of parents for such pilot schools and to publish these results so that we can have a meaningful conversation on this education option.

 

Review of GEP

Madam, Gifted Education Programme (GEP) was started 31 years ago. Each year, about 1% of the cohort are picked for GEP through a series of national tests for abilities in English, Math and Science at the end of primary 3.

I had previously asked MOE to review centralised GEP and in its place, provide support for as many schools to develop their higher ability students so that their students will not need to relocate to one of the nine GEP schools at primary 4.

There are many forms of giftedness, not just in language, science and math. Some are gifted in the arts or sports. The current definition of GEP is narrow. We can encourage all schools to have various forms of deep specialised enrichment engagement. Where we need scale, we can tap on the schools cluster system or work through existing institutions with strong expertise in science, arts or sports. And for the very rare pupil with extreme giftedness who would even find the current GEP unengaging, we can tap on our universities.

Some non-GEP schools have developed their own gifted classes to encourage their best students to stay with the school rather than relocate to a GEP school. We need not have this competition. We can spread the programme developed for GEP across more schools, and also widen our definition of giftedness.

Lastly, after 31 years, has MOE done longitudinal studies to track GEP graduates into their career, and can these studies be made public.  I hope the public can have more data on the outcomes of GEP to examine its continued relevance.

MTI Committee of Supply Debate 2015 – Internationalising Singapore companies

I delivered the following two speeches during the Committee of Supply debate for the Ministry of Trade and Industry on 6 March 2015.

Growing Singapore’s Global Corporate Champions

Mr Chairman, we have recognised the limitations of relying on Multi-Nationals to drive our economy.  SMEs account for 70% of employment but contribute a much smaller percentage of GDP.

I like to call for a whole-of-government approach to nurturing Singapore’s global corporate champions; just had we had done so in our pursuit of FDI.

This is an important national priority. We should create an inter-departmental secretariat to take ownership of the target to have 1,000 Singapore enterprises with revenues above $100 million by 2020 and even more ambitious goals. This is similar in approach to our National Productivity Council which sets over-arching goals – such as the 2-3% productivity growth targets – and then works with various agencies to set sector goals and monitor sectoral progress. For other urgent national priorities, we have committees, such as the National Climate Change secretariat and the National Population and Talent division

Such a secretariat could work with MFA to ensure that the wish-lists of the most promising Singapore firms be fully factored into our trade diplomacy. It could work with companies to identify R&D needs and coordinate with our tertiary and research Institutes to help to focus important IP developments. It could work with MAS and MOF to address issues related to funding – and perhaps revisit the idea of an EXIM Bank which some of our competitor nations have.  It could also work with all agencies to help improve access to government procurement opportunities or special innovation projects in ways that are GPA[1]-compliant.

It could also work with economic agencies like IES, EDB and SPRING to ensure that more aggressive support is given to firms with the most potential to become our global corporate champions. It could help bring partners together to exploit opportunities as well as government co-investment. But support has to be conditional on delivering results – exports, revenues and spin-off benefits to the Singapore economy.

In the early days of South Korea’s industrialization, then-President Park Chung Hee made aggressive government support available to the emerging chaebols, but conditional on the achievement of very aggressive export targets. Otherwise the firms would be dropped from the program.[2]

Looking at other countries with a similar population size to Singapore which have nurtured global champions – like Israel, Denmark, New Zealand and Norway – as well as looking at how a few of our promising local firms are making good progress globally, I believe that using this results-oriented approach can help build a strong third pillar to our economy.

[1] https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/gproc_e/gp_gpa_e.htm

[2]

http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/9d84d488-5f90-11e4-8c27-00144feabdc0.html#axzz3TPJbfFZ1

Encouraging Internationalisation

Mr Chairman, we need to grow our promising local firms into globally competitive companies, but with their roots in Singapore.

The new programmes such as IGS (International Growth Scheme) and the Double Tax Deduction for Internationalisation are a welcome step in the right direction. These schemes can benefit companies venturing abroad, especially by organic growth. However, in some situations, acquisition may be more efficient.

We can improve our ecosystem to enable our future world champs. We should encourage more companies to use IFS (Internationalisation Finance Scheme) now that it can be used for M&A. The number of companies getting IE-administered grants for cross-border M&A has been increasing but is still small at 32 last year[1].

To encourage strong development of our brands overseas, can we have a lower tax rate for IP-related income from abroad instead of the usual 17% for corporate tax?

I also like to ask about the new schemes. Can DTD cover manpower expenses incurred to put Singaporeans overseas, such as kids’ schooling allowances and relocation costs?

For IGS, is there a target for the number of companies to be on this? We have targets for the other schemes, but what about IGS? And how many years will be granted and what are the key conditions for renewal at expiry?

For Venture debt risk-sharing, do the schemes apply for overseas M&A?

Thank you.

[1] http://sprs.parl.gov.sg/search/topic.jsp?currentTopicID=00007198-WA&currentPubID=00007207-WA&topicKey=00007207-WA.00007198-WA_5%2BhansardContent43a675dd-5000-42da-9fd5-40978d79310f%2B

Tales from House Visits

Recounting the said encounters during my House Visits

Yesterday in Parliament during the debate on the motion on AHPETC, Education Minister Heng Swee Kiat cited my encounter with one of his parliamentary colleagues during my house visits (HV) a month ago and another of my HV on the Thursday that had just passed.

It was a surprise for me to hear my name being mentioned when I was not even speaking on the motion, having left it to the good hands of my WP colleagues who run AHPETC and who had already explained the necessary details in response to the AGO report. Nevertheless, I must thank the Minister for bringing attention to my busy schedule. I had sat through parliament the entire Thursday which ended around 630pm, then I rushed back to change and do my weekly HV.

Both incidents that Minister Heng cited happened at Pasir Ris town, where I have been doing HV for about a year on a weekly basis. They are part of the regular two, sometimes three times a week ground activities to various parts of Singapore that I take part in, rain or shine for several years already.

I had the privilege to ‘bump’ into DPM Teo last month, who is the fellow colleague that the Minister referred to. Since DPM and Minister Heng thought it was fit to talk in parliament about that casual encounter, let me recount from what I remember.

Several WP members and I were just gathering at the void deck of a block in Pasir Ris waiting for more helpers to arrive when DPM and his grassroots leaders were about to go into a meeting in that same block. The first question the DPM asked was, “What’s happening at the Town Council”. Puzzled, I replied there was nothing much and things were as usual. DPM then asked what was with the finances of the TC? That encounter with DPM was shortly after MOS Desmond Lee and Minister Lawrence Wong had written publicly about AHPETC’s finances in the context of high S&CC arrears.

I told DPM that we will reply at a later date as stated in our press statements, which WP subsequently did with respect to the correction to the S&CC arrears. Yes, I did say that I am not in the TC committees and my colleagues, the elected MPs run the TC and they will be responding in due course when the AGO report is out. I recall the DPM asking if I was a CEC member and hence I should know.

I found that to be a strange comment because I had already said that my colleagues run the TC and that they will respond at a later date as they had said in press statements. Asking me to account to him for things in a TC which I am not involved in the operations of because I am a WP CEC member, is like me asking the DPM in front of his grassroots leaders, to account for things that happen in other PAP TCs just because DPM is a PAP CEC member, such as why rats were running wild in Bukit Batok. Of course, I didn’t think it was appropriate for me to tell him that in front of his grassroots leaders so I left our conversation as it was.  I have confidence in our MPs running the TC and I still do now.

Minister Heng said I evaded a resident’s question on Thursday and walked away quickly. We had 2 groups doing HV at Pasir Ris that evening, so I had to check with everyone who were there on Thursday to find out if anyone did turn and walked away quickly when asked about AHPETC. No one had asked the other group about the TC, which was led by another WP CEC member. I had two helpers with me. I was sure I did not walk away without answering anyone on anything. Just to be very sure, I asked both of my helpers and they all were sure that I did not. Here’s the texted message from one of them, “I can’t remember the exact number of residents that asked about the AHPETC but you did not walk away nor not answer any resident.”

HV is exhausting. For evening visits, we could only do after dinner and have to end before it becomes too late that it disturbs residents’ rest. We try to visit as many as possible yet taking care to engage with residents who want to speak with us. We visit easily over 100 homes each time. Over the years of doing regular HV, I have worked out opening and closing lines based on the locations that I visit. I had applied the same opening and closing for all the homes that opened their doors to us that evening. I recall nothing special that Thursday. We moved quickly from one house to another to engage as many residents as possible before it became too late, but only after ending the conversation with an appropriate closing to make sure that it was a courteous departure.

I could only recall a middle aged man who referred to the TC debate. When I introduced myself as from WP, he said he knew as he was just at that moment watching the news covering the debate. I recall replying that 4 of our MPs had spoken to reply to the findings of the AGO and the remaining AHPE MPs will speak the next day. I had probably also said that our MPs are answering the details of the AGO report in the debate. There was nothing that was specifically asked of me about AHPETC by the resident. Without any specifics to answer, we ended the conversation in a manner as I would normally do before we moved to the next house.

Perhaps if I did unintentionally miss out on someone who had genuinely wanted to engage me, he can email me at jennjong.yee@wp.sg and I will gladly visit him during my weekly HV. Our answers were provided in detail in parliament by 7 speakers, and some further replies were given in clarifications to speeches by PAP MPs. I am satisfied with the answers that my fellow MPs gave and will give the same answers.

 

The Art of Answering Questions

Much had been said by the Minister in his long speech about the quality of the answers by WP members. I try to learn from our learned Ministers about how to give good answers. Here’s one in the name of the Education Minister from the parliamentary records.

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Foreign Scholars (9 Jan 2012)

40 Mr Yee Jenn Jong asked the Minister for Education for the last 10 years what was (i) the annual number of foreigners who were granted scholarships by the Ministry to study in our schools and universities and the annual cost of these scholarships; (ii) the percentage of foreign scholars who commenced studies in secondary schools and proceeded on to local universities; (iii) the percentage of foreign scholars in local universities who had graduated with Second Class Upper Honours or better; and (iv) the percentage of foreign scholars who completed their contractual bond period to work in Singapore after their graduation.

Mr Heng Swee Keat: For students from ASEAN countries, MOE offers scholarships to promote mutual understanding and goodwill in the region. In the past few years, MOE awarded around 150 scholarships annually to students from the ASEAN countries at the pre-tertiary level and another 170 at the undergraduate level. The scholarships cover school fees and accommodation, and the annual cost is about $14,000 for each pre-tertiary scholarship and between $18,000 and $25,000 for each undergraduate scholarship. Around 65% of pre-tertiary international scholars progress on to our Autonomous Universities.

In addition, our schools, universities and the corporate sector also offer a range of scholarships to quality international students to create a diverse student body that encourages the learning of important cross-cultural skills, as well as to meet the manpower needs of our economy. With Singapore’s decreasing fertility rates, it is important that even as we seek to better develop our talent pool, we augment this with working professionals and students from abroad. This helps us to maintain our economic competitiveness and, ultimately, raise the standard of living of our people.

Of all the international students who graduated from our Autonomous Universities in 2011, around 45% did so with a Second Upper class of Honours or better.

Upon graduation, scholars are obliged to work in Singapore or Singapore companies for up to six years. More than eight in 10 scholars have been working in Singapore and are contributing to our economy. As for those who did not start work immediately, many had deferred their bonds to pursue postgraduate studies.

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Surprised that only ASEAN scholars were numbered when the question was about foreign scholars and it was obvious that there are many scholars from other nationalities, I filed another question the next month about non-ASEAN scholars.

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FOREIGNERS ON SINGAPORE GOVERNMENT SCHOLARSHIPS (17 Feb 2012)

16 Mr Yee Jenn Jong asked the Minister for Education (a) for the last 10 years what was the annual number of non-ASEAN foreigners who were granted scholarships by the Singapore Government to study in our pre-tertiary schools and universities and what was the annual cost of these scholarships; (b) how does the Ministry track and ensure that foreign scholars maintain good academic standards while studying here; and (c) whether the Ministry tracks foreign scholars after graduation and enforces their obligation to fulfil the contractual bond period to work in Singapore.

Mr Speaker: Senior Parliamentary Secretary, you have two-and-a-half minutes.

The Senior Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Education (Ms Sim Ann) (for the Minister for Education): Sir, on average, about 800 pre-tertiary and 900 undergraduate international students (IS) are offered scholarships. The scholarships cover school fees and accommodation. The annual cost is about $14,000 for each pre-tertiary scholarship, and between $18,000 and $25,000 for each undergraduate scholarship.

The academic performance of each scholar is closely monitored every semester, and the scholarship would be withdrawn if the scholar’s performance is not satisfactory. Most international scholars serve out their bonds to completion. The scholarship administrators take action against the few who default on their obligations, by pursuing liquidated damages from individuals who default on their service obligation

Mr Yee Jenn Jong (Non-Constituency Member): Sir, I thank the SPS for the answers. I have some supplementary questions. Firstly, is there any noticeable shift in the quality of scholars coming from countries that are fast-growing like China, because people may be richer and have other options to go elsewhere to study, and whether we follow a certain quota system of just maintaining a certain number from each country every year? Secondly, is there some figure that SPS can share regarding the number of scholars who had their scholarships suspended as they consistently did not do well in their performance?

Ms Sim Ann: Sir, because the admission of foreign scholars into our system is primarily to augment our manpower pool so as to better anchor investors and employers who can in turn offer good jobs for the economy and for Singaporeans, we do take the quality of such intakes very seriously. In terms of where the scholars come from, they come from the ASEAN countries as well as China and India. Basically, this has been the mix over the years. And over the years, we have been able to maintain certain standards in the quality of such students. In terms of the number of scholarships that has been suspended due to poor performance in school, I do not have the figures at hand, but, by and large, we monitor their performance very carefully. In terms of the quality, I can share with the Member that, for instance, in terms of the number of international scholars who have been awarded Second Upper and above in our universities, this has been around 45% [please see report on 28 February 2012], and this compares with about 32% for Singaporean citizens.

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Strangely, are scholars from China and India not foreign scholars? What do you think?