A Balancing Act – dissecting the issue on foreign scholars and tuition grants

Two days ago in parliament in response to my WP colleague NCMP Leon Perera, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung revealed that government spending on scholarships and tuition grants for foreign students fell 50% over the past 10 years. It is now around $238 million, which means the annual spending around 2009 would have been $476 million. Put this in the context of Singapore having only 4 government funded universities then (versus 6 now), the percentage spent by the government then to support foreign students versus how much it spent on supporting local students would have been very much higher than today.

When I entered parliament in 2011, this was one of the issues I dug into immediately. I had met many Singaporeans whose children were not able to enter our local universities because of the limited number of places. Many went into private universities here or abroad. I had filed a question in parliament in 2011 to first gather some facts.  There were then 41,000 Singaporeans enrolled in private universities and private education institutions (PEIs). This number did not include Singaporeans studying in universities abroad because the government did not track the data. Add this group of overseas Singapore students in and the number of Singaporeans seeking private tertiary education would be even higher.

In any case, 41,000 was a very high figure considering our yearly cohort of Singaporeans of university-going age by birth was then around 45,000-50,000 . It showed the aspiration for higher learning was very big but places were very limited. The cost for private education, whether done here or abroad is steep and beyond the means of many ordinary Singaporeans. It was only later that the government decided to expand the number of places for local students and supported an additional two more universities – UniSIM (now SUSS) and the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT).

My friends teaching in our local universities had told me that they were alarmed at the then-increasingly large number of foreign students on our government scholarships who could barely even get third class honours. The cost of each foreign scholarship is high, and if we have to spend money on non-Singaporeans, then it should be on those who can really add significant quality to our education standards and to our economy.

Data was scant, so I began a series of probe into this issue. I asked in February 2012 about the number of foreign scholars in Singapore and the amount spent on them, only to be told that the government gave out 320 scholarships to ASEAN students yearly. I followed up again the next month with another questions about non-ASEAN scholars and was given a figure of 1,700 scholars a year. That meant 2,000+ foreign scholarships a year, multiplied by their disclosed rate of $18,000 spent annually on average per scholar. What MOE did not disclose was that scholarships given out would be valid for the duration of the studies here as long as the scholar continued to meet MOE’s criteria, which would typically be 4 years. The cost of foreign scholarships given out annually would have worked out to be at least $144 million a year then.

Next was whether we were giving scholarships to foreigners that are of good quality enough to add to the vibrancy of our education system. From further parliamentary questions, I found out that a third of foreigners on our undergraduate scholarships did not graduate with at least a second upper honours, the typical definition of a good honours. MOE later disclosed that these scholars were only expected to maintain the GPA equivalent of second lower honours to continue to be retained on their scholarship programme, a low benchmark indeed for a fully funded foreign scholar. On various occasions, I called for this benchmark to be set higher to at least at the GPA equivalent for a good honours but that was rejected by MOE. I am not sure if the benchmark has since been changed by MOE or such low expectations still exist.

My motivations for raising those issues were not because I am anti-foreigners. I have foreigner friends who have studied here on our government scholarships. Some have become Singapore citizens or PR and settled down to have children here. My concern was that we were giving out foreign scholarships too liberally with too low expectations. Yes, other foreign universities do give out scholarships to Singaporeans but for Singaporeans to qualify on those same generous terms given by MOE, surely they are expected to do better than second lower honours. We take pride that our most established universities, NUS and NTU now rank in the top globally with the USA Ivy league universities and UK’s Oxford and Cambridge. Surely when these elite universities give scholarships to Singaporeans, they expect much higher of us.

I was also concerned about the high amount spent with weak efforts to enforce their fulfillment of bonds, whether for scholars or for tuition grant holders. The figure revealed by Minister Ong is that 4% of tuition grant awardees are in default currently. I believe the figure was higher earlier until MOE decided to step up enforcement.

In any case, $476 million spent annually ten years ago was definitely far too high. Post GE2011, the government had realised the flaws in their earlier policies on foreign students and started the reversal. Singaporeans had spoken loudly enough to be heard. In the earlier rush to boost foreign student numbers, some secondary schools with boarding facilities were asked to ram up their hostel places. There are some deserted hostel blocks today in these schools, legacy of this failed policy. We may have cut the spending down to $238 million now but I think more details are needed as to what criteria we use for awarding scholarships and whether we expect scholars to remain in Singapore to contribute to us economically. Pre-tertiary students are not bonded and about half of them do not end up continuing their tertiary education in Singapore. They do not need to return to Singapore to work as well when they graduate.

Having foreign students can be good. The question is how generous we need to be, what criteria we set especially when we give out scholarships and how we enforce recipients to fulfill their bond obligations.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Examining The Storm Over Social Enterprises Run Hawker Centres

* published in The Workers’ Party Hammer Newsletter, March 2019

The recent storm over high rental prices in Social Enterprise-run Hawker Centres (SEHC) cast the spotlight on what social enterprises are and how they run public goods. When the plan was presented in parliament in 2013, I expressed concerned that if we gave too much autonomy to the operators to impose rents and other charges to hawkers, when they operated a significant market share of the hawker centres, we might face monopolistic behaviours that would impose high operating cost on hawkers. Hawkers would in turn impose higher food prices on consumers. Although we term the operators as social enterprises (SEs), from the reality of how SEs had run public goods in the past, it was obvious that they did make surpluses; and when they dominated the market, monopolistic behaviours had been observed.

Hence, I sought the assurance of the ministry to monitor the way SEHC are operated. Then-Minister for The Environment and Water Resources, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, gave his assurance in Parliament that his ministry would keep a tight watch over the way hawkers would be charged.

Fast forward five years and the issue became a national debate when food blogger K.F. Seetoh revealed details of high rental charges and ridiculous terms and working hours that hawkers had to bear with.

Much debate online ensued. Many Singaporeans were angry that commercial operators were allowed to form SEs to manage hawker centres with burdensome terms for hawkers compared to those at NEA-run hawker centres, and that hawkers seemed to be imposed with many other costs beyond the actual rental.

NEA finally acted to stop operators from imposing some onerous conditions, allowing now for early termination with smaller penalties, shortening required operating hours of hawkers, capping the fines that SEHC operators can impose on hawkers and imposing better feedback channels for hawkers.

I believe the unfortunate saga could have been prevented if NEA had indeed taken a very proactive examination of contracts by SEs for hawkers in the five years that SEHC had been operating.

The issue also called into question how government outsources the provision of public goods to third party organisations. The preference thus far has been for social enterprises to run public goods such as childcare and hawker centres. A commercial company has to incorporate a social enterprise entity to bid for such projects. I do not object to social enterprises running public goods, but we must know that they do not work magic and cannot be relied on to fulfill government objectives automatically. As can be seen from revelations of contracts and correspondences between SEHC and hawkers in the recent saga, the SEs tend to behave like typical large landlords, imposing harsh terms on hawkers and using employees who will apply rules strictly on hawkers without mercy. Without government subsidies or interventions, they also cannot work magic to bring about lower food pricing, maintain low rents to hawkers whilst having to manage own costs (including payments to NEA) and be profitable themselves.

I believe one reason this issue has generated so much sympathy for hawkers is perhaps because the situation hawkers faced mirrored the feeling of many SMEs and Singaporeans – squeezed by rent-seeking landlords in a country where costs have become very high. This has caused the ordinary person to feel the stress of making a decent living and small companies being forced out of business. It stems from a mindset of squeezing as much money as possible out of the people. Industrial land, for example, used to be managed by JTC who as a large supplier of such space, could dictate market rents. After JTC divested the industrial factories to Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs), many of them majority-owned by the government, rents went up steeply. Public transport was outsourced to private companies with the government also benefitting initially from the privatisation. This however backfired when private companies, pressed constantly for profits, cut back drastically on maintenance.

Mr Ngiam Tong Dow, former Permanent Secretary recalled a conversation he once had with the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew over the Certificate of Entitlement (COE) scheme, which he felt was taxing transportation, and hence taxing every man, woman and child in Singapore, from the day of his birth till the day of his death. The late Mr Lee shot back, “Ngiam, are you the Permanent Secretary of the Budget and Revenue Divisions at MOF? … What’s wrong with collecting more money?” (ref: https://www.theonlinecitizen.com/2013/10/01/pap-elitist-dont-feel-for-the-people-ngiam-tong-dow/)

Hawkers today are not spared from this, being squeezed by ever higher rentals and operating costs. A different government mindset, more understanding on the plight of hawkers and a better support system will be needed if we are to help hawkers manage a decent living whilst keeping food costs manageable for all.

Hammer-hawkercentre-chineseHammer-hawkercentre-english

Police, police on the streets, who is the fairest / smartest of them all?

One of the things you will definitely notice in Pyongyang, the capital city of the DPRK with a population of around 3 million, is the sheer number of smartly dressed police women and men on the streets. There seemed to be more police women than men, and many of the ladies are fairly young. They used to control traffic flow, although now traffic lights are available in most street corners of the city, most of which have been put up just a few years ago. They do not quite control traffic now but are nevertheless interesting to watch as they move about smartly, often turning sharply to the left or right in a military fashion.

Roads are not very busy but sometimes I worry for them when I see them in the middle of the road with big vehicles passing so near to them, but somehow knowing exactly how to avoid them.

So who is your favourite cop?

TrafficPolice1TrafficPolice2trafficPolice3TrafficPolice4TrafficPolice5TrafficPolice12-middle of junctionTrafficPolice13TrafficPolice7TrafficPolice8TrafficPolice9TrafficPolice10TrafficPolice10-withTaxiTrafficPolice11TrafficPolice12-middle of junctionTrafficPolice13

TrafficPolice12-withBus

Photo Essay of a Visit to the DPRK

In September, we visited the Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK but more commonly referred to as North Korea).

The next few blog posts will document, mostly in photos, what I saw and felt as a curious outsider as I moved through this country still rather restricted in trade (due to longstanding trade sanctions) and travel. It is a country that is portrayed so differently by the western press and by its own highly controlled media.

Crowd Cheering March Past

Crowds of people lined the streets to cheer the military contingent as it went pass the streets of Pyongyang on 9 Sep. Many were shouting “Kamsahamnida” (which means thank you) as the soldiers passed by. I reckoned some 1 million North Koreans were out in Pyongyang celebrating the event, with probably up to 100,000 in the performing / marching contingents. Unfortunately we were not allowed to bring cameras or phones into the parade square. It was a most spectacular and well synchronized performance. We could only take photos from the streets after getting back to our hotel from the parade.

PyopngStreet-flags

Flags adorn the streets of Pyongyang especially during their national day celebrations of 9 Sep. This year is the 70th anniversary.

Plane1

The Air Kroyo plane that took us from Beijing and back. Scheduled commercial flights are few, namely from Beijing, Shenyang and Vladvostok. Chartered flights can be arranged from China, Russia or Mongolia. Alternatively, many take the 24-hour train  from Beijing to the border of North Korea or an even longer ride from Moscow.

First World Country, Third World Democracy

Just returned from helping to cover a Meet-the-People session for one of our MPs busy during the 7th month and parliament sitting. I have been waiting to write this after hearing that awfully sad news that there will be a walkover for the reserved Elected Presidency because only one has been qualified to run for the office.

ISA against political detainees, Marxist conspiracy, law suits that bankrupts political opponents, GRC system, upgrading of HDB estates for votes, and frequent manipulation of electoral boundaries. These were things that irked me as I became more politically aware growing up in post independence Singapore.  I had admired the economic transformation of Singapore by the first generation of leaders. When I started work, started travelling around the world and read more widely, I had felt that the tight controls imposed by the ruling PAP would be harmful for Singapore in the long run. When I entered politics, finding that there were things like AIM with the huge capacity to trip up the opposition taking over town councils through the control of data irked me even further. Today, the reserved election for the Elected President (EP) has just been added to the list.

We have built a first world country but we have a very third world democracy.

This is not Singapore’s first election for president. We had an unenthusiastic opponent against the establishment’s choice of Mr Ong Teng Cheong in 1993. Nevertheless, the unenthusiastic Mr Chua Kim Yeow polled a decent 41.3% of the votes. Then there was Mr S.R. Nathan who had two terms as President through walkovers. In 2011, there was a keenly contested PE with 4 candidates. Mr Tony Tan became president with barely 35% of the popular votes and won Dr Tan Cheng Bock by a razor thin margin of just 0.35%.

This year, just months before the PE was to be held, parliament rammed through amendments to the Presidential Election Act that saw this election being a reserved one for Malays and the criteria for financial management being raised very substantially. In one stroke, Dr Tan Cheng Bock is disqualified from contesting this PE. No, I do not buy the argument that we need a reserve election for Malays to be elected. We have never ever had a Malay or anyone from the minority race lose to a Chinese candidate in a PE in the past. Neither had the government attempted to put forth any Malay candidate for presidency in the 47 years since President Yusof Ishak, until now. Yet the government concluded that there must be circumstances that the presidential election has to be reserved for minorities and it has to be this year.

Two enthusiastic and successful Malay businessmen stepped forward. Both are self-made businessmen with rags to riches stories. They did not inherit their wealth nor were parachuted like army generals into companies with huge shareholders’ equity. First generation successful business people tend to be prudent and have good financial judgement to be where they are. Unfortunately, they fell short of the technical qualification on this financial expertise part. They would both have qualified under the old rules which were valid up till the beginning of this year.

Ironically, the post of Speaker of Parliament qualifies a person for the post of President. Parliament employs few staff and operates on a very small annual budget, smaller than that of many of our SME companies. It is definitely a very respected post, but certainly not one that requires one to be financially savvy which our laws say is required for the President to safeguard our huge (but undisclosed) reserves. Yes, our reserves are so huge and secret that even our first Elected President Mr Ong (sorry, I do not consider President Wee to be our first EP) could not get the government to reveal to him what reserves he was safeguarding.

It is unfortunate that Mdm Halimah Yacob will not be going through an election. In an already very controversial election reserved only for Malays, it would have restored some of the lost moral authority by her winning against credible opponents through popular votes. She is after all, a veteran in elections and has won handsomely in the four general elections she stood in. Her opponents, if allowed through, are businessmen novice to the process of campaigning and without any campaigning machinery to back them.

Alas, the contest was not to be.

Perhaps Presidents are not meant to go through elections. We did well with Presidents elected by Parliament in the past. If anything, PE 1993 and especially PE 2011 show how vulnerable this post could be for the establishment’s favoured candidate. After all, the President has few executive powers. His/her powers were further crippled in the amendments to our laws this year for a Council appointed by the government to over-rule the president. Singaporeans could be more ready to vote against the establishment than they would in a General Election.

Perhaps we need to wait for another election, this time an open one before we can find out more about how Singaporeans think about choosing their President. Or perhaps, rules can be amended again by then.

 

 

Watching start-ups grow up

I attended my final evaluation meeting yesterday as an panel member of ACE Startup Committee. Yesterday’s session was a marathon one as some groups were re-invited back to present as the panel had queries on various aspects of their proposals in earlier sessions, and the rest were those rushing to meet the deadline for the final session before the startup funding programme is superseded by the recently announced Startup SG initiative.

It has been a fulfilling journey. I was invited to be on the then-newly convened panel in late 2011. I recall in my first speech in parliament in October 2011, I had offered to help with the government’s effort to develop entrepreneurial attitudes amongst students and youths. So I accepted the invitation readily.

The committee initially met monthly to evaluate application for startup grants from SPRING Singapore of up to $50,000 per successful application by new entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs-to-be. This was later changed to bi-monthly meetings. From time to time, as an ACE representative, I also sat in presentations at polytechnics, at ITEs and at non-government groups which were also centres where their alumni / mentees could apply for the same SPRING Singapore grants.

I must have listened to some 300 presentations through these session in these 5 and a half years as a panel member.

A lot has changed since I took the plunge to be an entrepreneur in end 1999. Back then, government support structures were lacking. It was not so cool to give up secure careers to try to realise the dream to create a new business in uncharted waters. The first wave of dotcom was just hitting Singapore. Some enthusiasm had built up due to the success of silicon valley in the 1990s and that caught on in Singapore around early 1999 with some dotcom listings on our stock exchange. It died very rapidly too with the NASDAQ crash of April 2000. The crash nearly killed our business too as we had started the business but had barely raised funds when all equity funding sources dried up. It forced us to be disciplined to chase for revenues and to evolve our business models to what services the market would want to pay us something for. Eventually, we had a lucky break when e-learning became an essential service in our target market and we successfully sold off our already profitable business in 2007 with decent returns to our investors. That’s another story you can read about in my earlier blog posts.

Now as panel member, I face eager new and would-be entrepreneurs of all types, determined to convince the panel that they have a differentiated, interesting and viable business. We see business proposals of all types – the typical tech and mobile / internet ones, to interesting ways to disrupt age-old businesses such as fashion and food. Many proposals were accepted but many more were not supported for various reasons, and hopefully they will have the resilient to move on and explore alternatives.

The ecosystem has changed much since my journey more than a decade ago. It is certainly more ‘cool’ now for young graduates or even undergraduates to try for that start-up dream. I have seen many top graduates and even highly qualified and successful professionals give up lucrative careers for the hard work of running a start-up. Passion is key to making startups work. We cannot artificially mandate entrepreneurship. It has to come from the founders as they will need that inner belief and drive to make it successful through the endless challenges that will come. It helps that the universities and to a lesser extent, polytechnics have taken on this message seriously and have created their own ecosystem to make it easier for ideas to be incubated. Whilst funding is nowhere as vibrant as that in established and more exciting markets like the USA and China, there is definitely a lot more channels for good ideas to chase for funding.

Our market size remains a huge constraint for startups to really grow big and take on the world stage. In some cases, regulators are opening up to create friendly environment for startups, though a lot more can be done. I would like to see more vibrant sandboxes in as many industries as possible. In some industries where the government itself is a big user and purchaser of services, such as education and defence, it can be more open to working with start-ups, and to create environments where startups can evolve innovative solutions. Whilst there has been a lot of preaching by our leaders about our country needing innovation and entrepreneurship to drive it forward, I still get a sense that many in the government services lower down have not bought into the vision. They are still creating rules that control and restrict, and relying on old ways that will not encourage vibrant industry ideas to flourish in their sector. Hopefully leaders themselves buy into what they preach and look into how there are rules and habits in their own backyard that can be changed to encourage national innovation.

I am happy to have played a role as best as I can as an individual in this scene. I had the opportunity to mentor some of the startups actively, particularly those in the education sector. It is still a great challenge that they face and will face, as this path is hardly an easy one. I have seen some grow after much sweat and even change of business directions, sometimes more than once. I have seen some give up too. Many will fail for every major success we hear of. Yet, try we must and I am glad that many of our best and brightest are indeed trying.

 

Think big, start small, act fast – here’s something for the Minister to consider

The speech by the Minister for Education, Mr Ong Ye Kung on the annual promotion exercise for the administrative service caught my attention.

Mr Ong was encouraging the public servants to offer bold policy suggestions, rather than “second-guess the policy preferences” of ministers. Amongst other things, he also had said that sound policies must take into account ground realities and constraints, and also that “there is no perfect comprehensive grant plan. If we over-plan, we run the risk of paralysis by analysis.”

I totally agree and so I wish to offer again a suggestion that I had mooted for many years already, both in and out of parliament. In his speech, Mr Ong had covered various initiatives in the domain of other ministries. I wish to suggest one that is for the ministry that Mr Ong is in charge of.

I had called for pilot through-train schools from primary 1 to secondary 4, extending to college even if necessary. We have often talked about our stressful education system; how our children are subjected to pressurising various high stake examinations early in life. Many have talked about our our students being exam-smart but lacking in creativity and imagination. Much hope was offered during the national Singapore Conversation exercise and when the Prime Minister said in his National Day speech that the PSLE will be changed. The changes though, after much anticipation, will not make any significant impact towards reduce the stress.

The suggestions for the through-train school that I had made can be found in the selected links below, so I will not elaborate in this blog.

a.  Committee of Supply debate on MOE, Mar 2012

b. Scrapping the PSLE, blog post, Sep 2012

c. Committee of Supply debate on MOE, Mar 2014

d. WP proposes small start for through-train plan, CNA 5 Sep 2015

e. Singaporeans need a bolder look at how to change education system, Feb 2017

Being involved actively in the K-12 education sector for over two decades, I do understand the challenges faced if we are to change the current education system too quickly. Having gotten so used to a competitive system with high stake examinations, constant streaming and highly differentiated schools, it will be hard to immediately switch to an alternative. I too understand that as then-Minister for Education, Mr Heng Swee Kiat said in 2012 in response to my proposal for such a through-train scheme, that pressure may be shifted to primary one. Hence, my suggestion was to avoid involving top schools for such pilot schools, and to also start small with a limited number of such through-train schools.

Attitudes need time to change. Right now, there is no alternative for parents who do not wish that their children be caught in this rat-race of constant high-stake streaming. There have been many good policy initiatives in the past, such as Thinking Schools Learning Nation, Teach Less Learn More, Every School a Good School, etc. Set against the overarching policy of having to differentiate schools by resources and students achievements, as well as high stake examinations to sort students into schools and academic stream, these good policies end up being sidelined. Tuition continues to flourish.

Having just a few pilot through-train schools, preferably neighbourhood schools or schools with existing strong primary-secondary affiliations (again, I emphasise excluding top schools and schools already on 6-year IP), will allow parents who believe in 10 years of holistic education to commit their children to the same school. Over time, perhaps we will have a chance to shift Singaporean mindsets to accept that we can develop successful students without competitively sorting students through high-stake examinations, and even allow students of mixed abilities to learn effectively together in the same class.

It is a big dream, but we can start small, and perhaps act faster too. Meanwhile, other messages that MOE sends must be consistent with what the minister is saying too. For example, two years ago, MOE totally took away the autonomy of principals to allow appeal by students into secondary schools and junior colleges, even if they had missed the cut-off by just one point for whatever reasons. It basically promotes a top-down approach to getting things done, which quite contradicts what we now often hear that there should be more autonomy and initiatives from bottom up.

PE2017 – A missed opportunity for EP to gain acceptance?

On Friday, former Presidential candidate Dr Tan Cheng Bock called a press conference to question why the late President Wee and not the late President Ong was considered as the first Elected President (EP). It was also an argument that Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC, Ms Sylvia Lim had put forth in parliament as well during the debate on the changes to the elected presidency. Blogger Andrew Loh captured their arguments, as well as listed many evidences of how history and Singaporeans, myself included definitely, had always regarded President Ong as our first EP.

At issue would be whether the upcoming Presidential Election (PE) should be a reserved election for Malays because it pertains to whether 5 continuous election terms had passed without producing a Malay President. The government’s unconvincing response so far has been that it was the advice of AGC to consider President Wee as the first EP, thereby triggering the reserved election. However, the government would not publish the advice of the AGC despite attempts in parliament and by the online community to ask for it.

The AGC may well have their reasons for advising the government in this manner, but it is also the government’s prerogative to decide if it wishes to accept. There are after all, good counter arguments against it. President Wee may have been given the powers and duties of an elected president but he was nominated for the position before the EP position was created. The powers of an EP were accorded to him near the end of his term as president until the first PE could be called. Hence, many Singaporeans are puzzled and remain unconvinced as to why the time should be counted from President Wee’s term because there was never an election to get him into office.

The issue of EP has long been a contentious one. It was conceptualised as a safeguard of Singapore’s reserves during the 1980s against a possible future ‘rogue government’ when the opposition started to make inroads with the electorate. For the first PE in 1993, ex-banker Chua Kim Yeow openly said that he was persuaded by former DPM Goh Keng Swee and then-Finance Minister Richard Hu to stand for election against the establishment’s preferred candidate, former DPM Ong Teng Cheong, in order to give a choice to the people. He however, seemed reluctant to campaign Singaporeans to choose him. That irked me enough to write and have my first letter published in the forum pages of Straits Times. I felt it seemed to be a contest for the sake of having a contest to give legitimacy to the first PE. Apparently, I was not the only one to have felt so because other forum writers and even journalist Bertha Henson also wrote to urge the late Mr Chua to show that he really wanted the President’s job.

We next had two uneventful PEs which were walkovers because only one suitable candidate was available for both elections. It wasn’t that there were no interests to contest. The barriers to qualify had been set very high and those who qualified were generally uninterested to offer themselves. Singaporeans generally lost interest in PEs until 2011 when four eligible candidates campaigned vigorously for the post.

After the nail-biting results of PE2011 in which President Tony Tan won Dr Tan Cheng Bock by just 0.45% with 35.20% of valid votes cast, the people’s expectations had been set high for PE2017. Dr Tan declared last year that he would contest again in 2017.

Subsequently, just months before the upcoming PE, the government pushed through various amendments to the EP that include setting aside reserve election for minority candidates if no President of that minority race was produced after 5 consecutive terms, as well as increasing the qualifying criteria for the top executive of private companies. The top executive now needs to run a business with at least $500 million in shareholders’ equity compared to $100 million in paid up capital previously. The previously very high barrier, has now been set to extraordinarily very high.

The government has now declared PE2017 to be a reserved election for Malays (counting 5 terms from President Wee). The candidate will be from a very, very short list, and most likely from the public sector (i.e. political appointees).

I find it a big letdown that Dr Tan, who was found eligible to contest in 2011, contested vigorously, and who continued to show interest since then to contest again, is now disqualified on various counts.

The government had pushed for the clause to have reserve elections for minority on the reason that voting is very much race-based. Well, we had minority candidates winning in elections against the majority chinese race in single seat contests many times since independence. Recent ones include Mr Murali Pillai in the 2016 Bukit Batok by-election and Mr Michael Palmer in Punggol East in GE2011. Both won very comfortably. Even opposition politician, the late Mr J. B. Jeyaretnam won in a 3-corner fight in the 1981 Anson by-election.

The government had never put forth a Malay candidate since the first PE in 1993, even when we had two consecutive walk-overs with only one candidate each time. Now it has decided that it is important to ensure minority representation and passed the reserve election amendment.

There’s nothing to prevent the government from recognising President Ong as the first EP and having the upcoming PE2017 as an open election. It can still put forth a Malay candidate. If it is as widely speculated to be Madam Halimah Yacob, the current Speaker of Parliament, the government should have confidence that she can stand her ground in an open election. She has won comfortably in four general elections and has high standing in the eyes of Singaporeans of all races. Many Singaporeans, myself included, do want to have minorities as Presidents. It will be truly a missed opportunity if we do not allow a highly suitable Malay candidate to become president on his/her own merits in an open election. It will quell the constant speculation that Singaporeans are immature and will vote along racial lines. Imagine if President Obama had somehow (although so unimaginable in the context of USA) been engineered into the White House because of rules safeguarding minority participation in politics, would he have been the popular president of all Americans that he was throughout his two terms of office?

AGC may have their reasons for the recommendation but the government should find the courage to allow an open election, which it can if it considers President Ong to be the first EP. Then the EP office will be more respected. If it wishes to play safe and only have preferred persons to be in office, let’s just dispense with the EP and revert back to having nominated Presidents, which had served us well for so long and had given us good and popular Presidents.

PE2017, with at least two interested and popular candidates contesting, would have rekindled Singaporeans’ interest in the office of EP. Instead, the response by the government to Dr Tan’s request for clarity and call for open election, is that Dr Tan’s comments did not require a response.

Sending the right signals

We have often heard, “Do what I say, but don’t do as I do.”

Sometimes the messaging can be quite subtle. Those in leadership positions may not realise it if we are not sensitive enough. The recent viral publicity over flyers by a Residents’ Committee touting the benefits of serving as grassroots volunteers such as car parking privileges and priority registration in primary schools for their children, comes to my mind. (http://www.straitstimes.com/politics/flyer-listing-benefits-for-grassroots-volunteers-draws-response-from-wp)

The issue of priority registration for primary 1 for community leaders is something that I had been concerned about, and had raised in parliament several times. In 2012, then-Education Minister Heng Swee Keat had a written reply for my question on this privilege for grassroots leaders. He said that an average of 330 children were admitted yearly under the active community leaders scheme, just less than 1% of the primary 1 cohort (we have around 30,000 babies born each year). They only need to have served for one year as a community leader.

In 2013, I joined in the debate on this issue with a supplementary question for then-Senior Minister of State for Education (SMS), Ms Indranee Rajah. I had asked if the Ministry has done any survey to see how many community leaders have actively contributed to the schools that their children are enrolled in, and ‘if it can be a criterion for community leaders to have first made specific contributions to the schools before they are being considered for priority’. The reply was that the SMS was not aware of any such survey and that the criterion is based on contribution to the community, as opposed to contributions specifically to the school. In other words, the community leaders need not contribute any time or service to the school the child is enrolled into under priority registration. This is strictly a reward for ‘contribution to the community’.

During Committee of Supply debate in 2013, I had also spoken on the topic as I asked for a general review of the Primary 1 admission system. Specifically on the issue of community leaders, I had said I feel community leaders need not be given priority. Being a community leader for the purpose of getting into top primary schools does not gel with the spirit of community service.”

I felt so because they do not necessarily add value to the primary school, unless they are also actively helping in the school in their position as a community leader. It becomes very transactional; the priority is a reward for the community leader, and a backdoor to get an edge to enter desired primary schools.

MOE has been touting that “Every School is a Good School” for several years already. So every school should be good enough for the community leaders’ children. Yet allowing for such privileges sends exactly the wrong signal, even if in a subtle way. That’s the same way ordinary folks will feel when a leader says that every school is a good school but they see that the leader’s own children are in preferred schools.

I agree with Former Nominated MP Calvin Cheng, who as reported in the Straits Time article of this Flyers episode, had left a pointed comment on his Facebook saying: “‘Selfless dedication’ does not need to be rewarded by preferential access to primary schools. Just saying.”

I think it is time to do what we say.

 

 

 

Go!

American best-selling author, H. Jackson Brown Jr. had this advice: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

That quote was made several decades ago, when travel was slower, more expensive and difficult. Today, with our highly interconnected world, it is so much easier to set off to explore the world. Perhaps more than just travelling, we can set our minds to sail away from the safe harbours of the mundane things we have become familiar with.The world is now constantly on the move. So we can set ourselves the target to learn something new each year. Challenge yourself to master a new skill or to do things differently.

As the year 2016 comes to a close, perhaps the best word to summarise my 2016 is the word “Go!”. Amongst other places, I finally visited the remaining two countries in ASEAN that I had then yet to visit. We even started business projects there, albeit cautiously on a small scale first.

2016 was a year that I set myself the target to venture out – in business, in travel and even in the things that I do. Driving a manual left-hand drive car in the crowded streets of central Vietnam was a first, and quite an adventure too, especially when the online navigator took us onto small paths we later found out were for motorbikes only. I had hesitated to turn into the small alleys but my Vietnamese friend with me (who was himself unfamiliar with the roads there), said, “Just go lah!”. Thankfully, we made it through after an arduous 30 minutes, with the car unscratched, squeezing with motor bikes and with padi fields inches to our left and to our right.

Learning to ski at 51 seemed ambitious and I had some nasty bruises to show for the many falls. Fortunately, I survived to continue with the rest of an all-AirBnB self-planned budget trip across South Korea with my family. Learning the hover board was thankfully much easier. Doing a live storytelling session was interesting, especially with a top radio DJ and a prize winning storyteller from USA in the same session as me. Doing live doodling performances on stage without my artists in three cities in China in front of officials and business leaders was initially intimidating. Learning to cook certainly benefited my family. I now have some decent dishes to show for a year of regular cooking :).

Not sure what 2017 will bring. Hopefully more interesting things to do, more projects to get ourselves busy with, and more places to see. Life is too short to hold back. Happy New Year and just go lah!