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?

Liquor Control (Supply and Consumption) Bill

I delivered the following speech in Parliament on 29 January 2015

Madam Speaker, I echo the position presented by my Party’s colleague Mr Pritam Singh.

While I welcome additional measures to better manage unwanted and rowdy behaviour caused by drunkenness especially in residential areas, I am concerned if some parts of the Bill are too far-reaching.

The Bill makes it an offence to consume alcohol across Singapore during the prescribed no-public drinking period, which is currently planned to be between 1030 pm and 7am. The exception would be to drink at licensed premises or if consumption permission has been applied for and granted to an event organizer prior to the event.

Madam, I am of the view that there are public spaces where the consumption of liquor can be permitted without disturbing residents. An example would be in areas popular for barbeques and gatherings such as the Changi Beach, East Coast and West Coast Parks. I live near one of these parks and would often go there in the evenings. The people at the parks, even those who have been drinking, are generally well behaved. Many are the occasional social drinkers. They are also far away from any residence so there is also no disturbance caused to households.

I believe we can relax the Bill to allow the Minister to designate areas where drinking can be allowed at all times. If there are frequent undesired incidents related to drinking in these areas, the Minister can publish an order in the Gazette to restrict the drinking period or totally ban drinking in that area, just as the Minister will be able to do so for liquour licence holders under this Bill.  In any case, under existing laws and also under section 14 of this Bill, we will have the powers to deal with drunkennesss in public places at all times and against behaviours that cause public nuisance, so we have the means to take action against drunkards and those behaving in unruly manners.

I believe this will lighten administrative load of having to approve consumption permission for events in areas where drinking is unlikely to cause problems. During weekends and on public holidays, it is common to find many of the barbeque pits in popular public spaces occupied. How responsive will the processing of permits be? Will we have enough security personnel to patrol these areas to enforce the no-drinking rule? Is it necessary to have the police patrol such public places to catch people drinking?

Already, we have heard during the Committee of Inquiry, or COI on Little India that our police force is understaffed and highly stretched. Paragraphs 196 to 198 of the COI report had called for more officers but this issue has barely been addressed. The then-Commissioner of Police Mr Ng Joo Hee closed his testimony before the COI with a plea for another 1,000 more officers to be added to the police’s ranks

Given this situation, how ready are we to enforce this no-drinking rule in all public places across Singapore? If enforcement of this Bill is weak, it will not reflect well on our law enforcement officers

Next, I like to seek some clarifications from the Minister on the Bill.

First, there is some public disquiet over what may seem to people as excessive powers to search individuals for any container of liquor and to search premises. I like to seek clarification that an individual who was consuming liquor in a licensed premises and who leaves the licensed premises with opened and unconsumed liquor in a container during the prescribed no-drinking period has not committed any offence under this Bill, i.e.  the presence of liquor with the person in a public place but who is not at that point consuming the liquor, is not an offence, if the liquor was purchased in a licensed premises or during the allowed sales period.

Second, I seek confirmation that while a foreign employee dormitory is deemed to be a public place, it is only for the purpose of being drunk as defined by section 14(1) of this Bill, i.e. it is not an offence to drink in a foreign employee dormitory after 1030 pm unless the person becomes drunk.

Finally, I like to seek an update from the Minister that with this Bill and the designation of Little India as a Liquor Control Zone, what will happen to the measures that had been earlier imposed on Little India in the aftermath of the riot and subsequently with the temporary public order bill on Little India? There are a couple more months before the expiry of the Temporary Public Order Bill. Will the restrictions be immediately superseded when this Bill takes effect? What were the key lessons learnt on the ground from the imposition of the restrictions on Little India?

Madam Speaker, in conclusion, while I support the principle of this Bill, I like to urge the Minister to review the scope of the regulations to leave more flexibility for the sales and consumption of liquor in areas that are away from private residence. Thank you.

Pawnbrokers Bill

I delivered the following speech in Parliament on 19 January 2015.

This Bill seeks to update the Pawnbrokers Act which was last amended in 1993. Amongst others, it removes the existing auction system, requires pawnbrokers to provide an indicative valuation of a pledge to a pawner at the point of pawning and at the end of the redemption period, and raises the minimum paid-up capital of pawnbrokers for their first outlet and for each subsequent branch.

Madam Speaker, I support the Bill. I am concerned though about the rise in the number of pawnshops and in the total value of pawnbrokering loans in recent years. The number of pawnshops has grown from 114 in 2008 to 217[1] as at June 2014. The value of pawnbrokering loans rose more than three times from S$2 billion in 2009 to a peak of S$7.1 billion in 2012[2]. Many of the pawnshops are in the HDB heartlands. In an earlier parliament reply, we are told that HDB does not generally limit the number of shops for each trade and leaves it to market forces to determine the trade mix of shops. Market forces have indeed led to the rise of the pawnbroking industry.

In our geographically small island state, with some 217 outlets, access to pawnshops for a quick loan is easy. This has prompted some journalists to cast the spotlight on our pawnbrokering industry which now has three publicly listed pawnbrokers as key players in the market. A Bloomberg report in June last year titled “Rolex for Casino Cash Fuels Singapore Pawnshop Growth”[3] highlighted stories and statements by industry players about the rise in pawnbrokering activities being driven by gambling. The report, as well as other reports[4] [5], also pointed to soaring living costs as another reason for Singaporeans to turn to easy credit sources such as pawnbrokers to cover their living expenses.

Madam Speaker, there is very little data available on the profile of pawners. The ministry has said that it does not track the reason for non-redemption of pledges[6]. While the overall percentage is small at 5%[7], 5% of 4 million valuables pawned in 2012 works out to around 200,000 items that were unredeemed and had to be sent for auction. We do not know how many of these 200,000 items were from pawners who repeatedly failed to redeem their valuables. We also do not know the reasons for these non-redemptions.

I’d like to call for a more detailed study on the profile of pawners and on the industry. In particular, we should look at those who do not redeem their valuables to understand the underlying reasons. Also, in order not to become a society with excessive pawning, the study can also look into the appropriate number of outlets in each neighbourhood and if the level and content of advertising should be subjected to some controls. I believe better data will be useful to help look into the underlying causes for the rapid rise in the pawnbrokering trade and how we can tweak the Pawnbrokers Bill in future to continue to keep pace with this industry’s changing landscape.

Thank you.

[1] http://business.asiaone.com/news/pawnshops-the-rise

[2] http://tablet.todayonline.com/singapore/removal-auction-system-among-proposed-pawnbrokers-act-changes

[3] http://mobile.bloomberg.com/news/2014-06-17/rolex-for-casino-cash-fuels-singapore-pawnshop-growth.html

[4] https://sg.finance.yahoo.com/news/singapore-cost-living-sees-pawnshops-043309125.html

[5] http://www.fool.sg/2013/11/04/the-battle-of-the-pawnbrokers/

[6] http://sprs.parl.gov.sg/search/topic.jsp?currentTopicID=00006308-WA&currentPubID=00006301-WA&topicKey=00006301-WA.00006308-WA_1%2Bid-da07f921-38d6-46fc-8a85-f7f746df8cfd%2B

[7] http://news.asiaone.com/print/News/Latest%2BNews/Singapore/Story/A1Story20130527-425418.html

 

减少学校班级学生的人数 – Towards Smaller Class Sizes in School

The following is a Chinese article reproduced from my submission to WP’s Hammer article published in December 2014. The English translation is provided for your convenience.

A school in Singapore

A school in Singapore

减少学校班级学生的人数      

 

在新加坡,大多数的学校每班有40名学生。自2005年以来,小学一年级和二年级的班级人数逐步减少到30名学生。这虽然是一个令人感到鼓舞的趋势,也符合工人党呼吁减少学校班级学生人数的目标。但是,如果与经济合作与发展组织(OECD)成员国统计数据中的平均每班21名学生来比较,我国的学校班级学生的人数还是相对的多。

 

海外进行的各个研究项目已经觉察到较少学生人数的班级所带来的正面效应。美国的布鲁金斯研究院(Brookings Institution)的研究显示,大量减少班级学生人数能对学生的学业成绩有显著而且长期的效应。这些效应似乎是越早推行少人数的班级就越有效果;而且,对于来自家庭背景比较不良好的学生有利,并能实现更好的教育成果。

 

在美国田纳西州进行的“学生与教师成就比率”研究项目(Tennessee STAR – Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio) 和在威斯康辛州实行的“学生教育成就保证”计划 (Wisconsin SAGE- Student Achievement Guarantee in Education)也都显示出较少人数的班级对学生的认知和非认知学习成果有着正面的效应。这些正面的效应在学生整个的学校生活中持续不断。其他研究也显示出较少人数的班级能让来自家庭背景比较不好的学生受益。

 

在新加坡,我们学校里班级学生人数多有其弊端。教师们必须处理更多与纪律和行政有关的事项,与此同时,学习能力较弱的孩子也有可能被忽略;因为教师有限的时间都分给了所有的学生,因为班级学生人数多,个别学生所能获得的时间也相对减少。

 

不过,要更好地促进学生的学习进展,减少班级学生的人数并不是唯一的途径。它必须从整体上与其它的教学策略一起实施。教育部一再强调,教学质量比班级人数的多少来得更重要。当然,教学质量是重要的,在这方面的投入是理由充足的。然而,我认为我们也应该同时策划把学校一般班级的学生人数减少,并为此设定目标。

 

随着生育率的下降,从教育部的统计数字来看,报读小学的人数一年比一年少。以2012年来说,小六学生人数有将近4万9千名,相比之下小一和小二学生人数每个年级则少于3万9千名,差别为1万名学生。反观教师的人数则一直在平稳增长。从事教育服务的教师人数已经从2009年的少于3万人增加至2012年的3万1千8百人,预计在2015年将会达到3万3千人。在所增加的教师人数中,其中的一部分学校会灵活地决定分派担任一些特定的职务,比如“学习支援计划” (Learning Support Programme),指导学习进度比较慢的学生,一些时候甚至安排一班里有两名教师。

 

我认为,现在正是施行减少班级学生人数计划的最佳时机。由于学生人数逐年减少,我们或许不需要聘请比教育部原先计划中的更多的教师。比方说,小三和小四的班级可以先开始减少学生人数到每班30名学生,然后逐步将这个比例扩展到小五和小六,朝人数较少的班级的目标前进。这或许需要重新设计学校里的一些基础设施并增加多一些课室。

 

较少学生人数的班级使教师能更好地了解每一个学生。新加坡的教育体系正朝向一个更加强调全面化的教育、品格和以价值观为基础的方向发展,教师对个别学生的了解因而就显得更加重要。此外,好些家长总是觉得学校里的老师无法有足够的时间和注意力来教导他们的孩子应付学校的课业和考试,这是他们认为孩子必须上额外补习课的原因。班级人数少也有助于教师的课室管理的工作,使他们能有多余的时间关注那些学习能力比较弱的学生。

 

English Translation:

Towards Smaller Class Sizes in School

 

Most schools in Singapore have a class size of 40. Since 2005, Primary 1 and 2 classes were progressively reduced to 30 students. While this is encouraging and is in line with the call by the Workers’ Party for smaller class sizes, it is still large compared to the OECD countries’s average of 21 students per class.

 

Various research projects overseas have noted the positive effects of smaller class sizes. The Brookings Institution noted that large class-size reductions can have significant long-term effects on students’ achievement. These effects seemed to be largest when introduced earlier, and for students from less advantaged backgrounds. The Tennessee STAR and Wisconsin SAGE projects also demonstrated the positive effects of smaller classes on students’ cognitive and non-cognitive outcomes. These effects persisted throughout the school life of the students. Other studies also show smaller classes have benefited students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

 

There are drawbacks to the large class sizes we have in Singapore. Teachers have to deal with more disciplinary and administrative issues, while weaker children risked being marginalised because the teacher’s time is divided amongst all students.

 

Class size reduction is not the magic bullet to better student development. It has to be implemented together with other holistic policies. The Ministry of Education (MOE) has repeatedly emphasized that teaching quality is more important than smaller class sizes. Certainly, teaching quality is important and investments in this area are well justified. However, the time is right for us to also plan towards having general class sizes that are smaller as well.

 

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

 

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

 

The smaller class size will also allow teachers to better understand individual students. This is even more important now as Singapore move towards a more holistic character and values-based education system. Also, an oft cited reason for parents to have tuition for their children is because they feel teachers are not able to provide the attention needed by their children to catch up with our demanding syllabus. It will also help make classroom management easier for teachers, who may otherwise not be able to pay attention to the weaker students.

Confronting the dangers of radicalisation into violent extremism

The massacre in central Paris yesterday shocked me. It shocked the world. 12 lives were lost, 4 more were critically wounded and several more were injured. Masked gunmen had stormed into the office of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and opened fire randomly at people. Supporters of the ISIS movement have already openly praised the attack.

I offer my deepest condolences to those that have lost loved ones in this tragedy.

Last month, it was the siege incident in a popular downtown Sydney café by a lone gunman who was making demands to support the ISIS movement. It resulted sadly in the death of two of the hostages.

Four months ago at a gathering of Asian political parties in Colombo, Sri Lanka, I gave a speech calling for the promotion of peaceful developments and to embrace political diversity. I had shared my fears of remote conflicts spreading their influences to places all over the world, including Singapore. Text from speech extracted as follows:

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

In particular, I am very apprehensive of what the ISIS movement may mean to the world. There are many supporters of the movement being won all over the world. These include those born into good families with comfortable lives in developed countries. Some of them have excellent education and professional backgrounds. Not all will join the fight just in Syria and Iraq. Some will carry the fight into places everywhere. Singapore is not immune to this too.

In the multi-racial, multi-cultural and highly interconnected world that we live in, we need to be constantly on our guards to safeguard peace and to embrace diversity. Only then, progress can be made. It is important especially for those in positions of influence to speak out against misunderstanding of teachings that may lead to radicalisation. It is equally important that we should not form stereotypes and be biased against others of different beliefs because of the actions of some in their community. It is good to know that some leaders have indeed spoken out against extremism. Let’s work to preserve the peace and harmony in our community.

My 50 Years With Singapore

Photo with mum and siblings taken at the old Nantah University at age 9. I am on the extreme left.

Photo with mum and siblings taken at the old Nantah University at age 9. I am on the extreme left. Once in a while, we will get all dressed up and dad would drive us to interesting places in Singapore. I remember admiring the grandeur of the place, built mostly by donations from the Chinese community. The next time I would set foot in the university was as a student representing Temasek Junior College in the annual pre-university seminar in 1982. By then, Nantah had ceased to exist and it was part of the National University of Singapore. Much later in the 1990s, I completed my MBA from the Nanyang Business School, which is located near where this picture was taken. It had by then been changed into the Nanyang Technological University, our 2nd university. So in my first three occasions to step into the university, it had three different identities, a reflection of the changing situation surrounding its controversial early years.

The Straits Times featured me alongside four other Members of Parliament in its article of the same title today. My original text is reproduced below. Added other photos too to complete this post.

On growing up in Singapore over the last 50 years:

I grew up in Opera Estate, living with my parents – both of them teachers – and three siblings.

Just behind our house was Kampong Chai Chee, which had some small farms then. The farmers would sometimes take food waste from our house for their animals and give us eggs on festive occasions.

Afternoons were usually spent exploring the neighbourhood on my rickety bicycle, or playing with neighbours. Once in a while, we would get a supper treat when dad came home with his pay from giving tuition.

I have happy memories of schooling, which were all in neighbourhood schools in the east. Many of my friends went through the same schools from primary school till junior college.

I remember the numerous campaigns in schools, such as Use Your Hands (encouraging students to take care of their surroundings), Anti-littering, Courtesy, and so on. I enjoyed these campaigns and other shared experiences with my peers.

I now have children of my own. My wish is to see a more resilient new generation of Singaporeans so that we can chart a better future for our children.

My wish for Singapore politics in the next 50 years:

I hope to see a more resilient political system, where people of different ideologies can play their parts to develop Singapore, and where there are strong and independent institutions to provide checks and balances for a stronger democracy.
I have always believed that Singapore has enough talent for more than one team. I hope to see the day that enough people will come forward in the political scene so that there will be viable alternatives in the political system.

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Yes, growing up in Singapore was memorable. I could only use about 200 words for the ST article. I had found other interesting photos while searching for the above for ST, which I have inserted below.

With paternal grandmother in Ipoh. I had lived the first 2 years of my life with my grandparents in Gopeng (near Ipoh) as both my parents had to work and they already had two elder siblings to look after.

With paternal grandmother in Ipoh. I had lived the first 2 years of my life with my grandparents in Gopeng (near Ipoh) as both my parents had to work in Singapore and they already had my two elder siblings to look after.

At the tower of Seletar reservoir with family on another outing at around 7 years old. I must have opened my mouth to shout into the wind.

At the tower of Seletar reservoir with my family on another outing at around 7 years old. As a cheeky boy, I must have opened my mouth to shout into the wind.

Received a surprise gift of a live chicken from my college classmates for my 18th birthday in school.

Received a surprise gift of a live chicken from my college classmates for my 18th birthday in school.

I went to St. Stephen’s School near my house because dad wanted us to have an English-based education. My parents were Chinese teachers but they realised that it would be a dead end for us to go to a Chinese school given the strong switch to English as the medium of education throughout Singapore then. Most of my schoolmates and I graduated to St. Patrick’s for secondary school and later to Temasek Junior College. We studied hard but we also played hard. I ended up taking part in five CCA groups in college, something unheard of these days.

I had received my education entirely in Singapore, including for my postgraduate courses. It was during my working years that I got to travel more widely and became exposed to different forms for governance and political systems. I started to write to the forum pages of newspapers and international magazines.

With NUS Computing colleagues in Tokyo for my first overseas conference. My first job was teaching computer science at NUS.

With NUS Computing colleagues in Tokyo for my first overseas conference (3rd from left). My first job was teaching computer science at NUS while undergoing my postgraduate programme.

In Boys' Brigade officer uniform with my eldest child, then around 2 years old.

In Boys’ Brigade officer uniform with my eldest child, then around 2 years old. I had continued my active involvement in the community with various organisations even after I had started working.

Greater push needed for Student Care sector

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Debate on Education Endowment and Savings Schemes (Amendment) Bill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Madam Speaker, I support the Bill. Thank you.

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

Remote Gambling Bill – Strong Safeguards Needed

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

The Rise of Remote Gambling

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

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

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

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

Exemptions

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

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

Dangers of Gambling and Lessons We Have Learnt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strong Verification and Controls Needed

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

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

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

Commit Bill to a Select Committee

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

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

Thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

Delegates from WP and SPP of Singapore at ICAPP 2014

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

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

Yee JJ delivering speech at ICAPP, 19 Sep 2014

Yee JJ delivering speech at ICAPP, 19 Sep 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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