Yes, 2015 has been an eventful year. Not the outcome we may wish for, but thanks for the journey.
Thanks for being with me on the journey.
Thanks to my wonderful team mates for being together in the contest.
Thanks to the many who had given so much of your time and resources. Thanks for your sweat, thanks for your tears. Thanks for your cheers, thanks for your hugs. Thanks for the many kilometres travelled together. Thanks for the new friends made, thanks for old friendships rekindled.
Thanks to the many who gave us drinks on our hot and tiring visits, and for the occasional snacks to give us the energy to go a bit longer. Thanks for your many words of encouragement.
Thanks for a year that I shall always remember.
To the many who had come my way this year, as William Shakespeare put it in the Twelfth Night, “I can no other answer make but thanks, and thanks, and ever thanks…”
See you all in 2016. Wishing everyone a fulfilling year ahead.
Two news related to education in the last 2 days caught my attention.
Recently appointed Acting Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng had in his first major speech outlining his vision for schools yesterday, said that schools must go beyond teaching students to be good at solving problems, but help them develop the instincts and ability to be value-creators. He called for schools to encourage students to “have the courage to try, fail, try again, fail again, and eventually succeed.” He had urged for students to be innovators for Singapore to succeed.
I agree that’s needed. There is nothing new in the statement though. Every Education Minister since RADM Teo Chee Hean had been calling for greater innovation in students. Google search with the name of every Education Minister since 1997 together with keywords “innovation”, and “students” and you will get many hits. Then-Education Minister Teo had said in 1998, “Innovation will be absolutely critical to the creation of wealth in the 21st century … To develop an innovative work force, we will need to start in school by training our students to be enterprising and creative thinkers. The education system in Singapore has thus far emphasized the acquisition of factual knowledge. We will need to shift our focus to creative thinking skills. Instead of just being followers, our young must be prepared to experiment, to make mistakes, to learn and to innovate, in order to be leaders in their own fields.”
Schools have indeed tried different ways to get students to be creative and innovative since this push in the late 1990s. I have seen quite a number of these myself first hand. The difficulty is in how to make it systematic and lasting, in the face of other more important KPIs that schools must achieve and which parents expect schools to achieve. Innovation is usually not one of the key things in the mind of parents for their children to get out of schools. They worry about how to make it through our tough national streaming examinations, getting into what they consider as “good” schools (which tend to differ from MOE’s wish for ‘every school to be a good school’), getting the grades to be good enough for scholarships, and so on.
Innovation (or variations of it) is already one of the several values in most Singapore schools today. Efforts are already there, for nearly two decades now, on and off. The trouble with innovation or creativity, is that it is difficult to quantify. It is messy to encourage. It is not objective. It is hard to put a score to it like how you can put a T-Score to students for their PSLE results. T-Scores are objective. Deciding what is innovation is often very subjective. Teachers, most of them who have come through our education system and our society’s way of thinking, will often find it hard to deal with this as a subject or something to do in the classroom.
There are also the society’s expectations. We want students to try, fail, try agin, many times over. How many parents can accept that? How many students can accept that? Should we expect them to accept that, when our system try to measure things objectively and put scores to different things to make sure we are objective? These measurements usually have important implications, like the secondary schools and academic streams students will go to. It might even affect qualification for scholarships and jobs later in life.
The second piece of news, seemingly unrelated to the first, but which I consider is relevant, is that of schools being told not to take in transfer pupils whose PSLE scores did not meet the schools’ cut-off point during this school transfer period.
Each year, right after the PSLE results are known, students choose their secondary schools. MOE will run the applications through a computerised system to assign schools to students, based on the PSLE T-Scores. After that, there is a couple of weeks where students can appeal to schools they did not get into, subject to vacancies and to the discretion of principals. If successful in the appeal, students get to start within the first few days of the new year in the school of their appeal choice. Usually, only a handful of appeals are successful per school anyway, because not that many would get to move out of a school to create the vacancies for others to come in. This year, the directive appeared to have put an end to this appeal process.
In a reply to the press, MOE said students are posted to schools based on “objective and transparent measures of academic merit” and appeals afterwards “should be aligned to these same principles, to be fair to the other students”.
It is often hard to argue against the principle of being objective and transparent. We do not like mess. Appeals are messy. Some parents will cry foul when they see someone of a lower T-Score getting into a school when their children could not.
Well, innovation is messy too. We want kids to try, fail and keep trying. Innovation sometimes involve trying unconventional ideas, often doing things differently. As a school system, however, we try to make things standard, measurable and objective. Otherwise there will be many complaints to deal with. Such desire for objectivity does not stop just at the schools. Hence as a society, we end up being obsessed with academic results and awards, because these are measurable and objective. We end up with “extreme meritocracy“, where academic grades achieved early in life can determine a lot of the person’s success later in life.
Should we give back that autonomy to principals to decide on just a few places in this short transfer period, together with all the messiness it will bring? I think the implications may be beyond just the few places per school today.
Two years ago at NDR 2013, PM Lee Hsien Loong announced that the PSLE T-score, long a stress point for parents, will eventually be removed and replaced with bands similar to those used for O’ and A’ levels. We have yet to hear definitively how and when this implementation will take place. Without T-Score, it will become even more subjective on how to post students. If we attempt to once again be objective, T-Scores may still be kept for students but will not be known to them. When they apply for schools, the computer system can check the ‘hidden’ T-Scores and determine how to place students “objectively”.
Or we can leave it more open to principals to decide by looking at the grades achieved together with other holistic considerations. We will end up with students with say three A* (or even two A*) making it into a top school while other with four A* may not. I can already hear some readers crying foul over this.
If we are to expect principals to make such decisions in a few years, assuming we get to eventually carry out PSLE without T-Scores, will they be ready to make such decisions if they cannot have the autonomy to decide on a few post-PSLE results transfer places from now onwards?
There is a dilemma, whether we like to acknowledge it or now. Can we accept a messier and hopefully more creative and innovative society, or are we such strong believers in measurements and objectivity? Acting Minister Ng cited the example of Steve Jobs enrolling in a calligraphy course when he was young and that helped him later in life with Apple’s distinctive typography. Well, Steve Jobs had quit college because he questioned if the degree would not be helpful to his life. He however, continued to stay on in the same college to take random courses, including the course on calligraphy . How many parents will accept that for their children in Singapore?
Acting Minister Ng also threw down the gauntlet for nay-sayers to be proven wrong that our education system and teachers are conservative and risk-averse. As a policy, are we prepared to be more risk taking? The latest announcement to disallow principals the autonomy for appeals does not seem to suggest so.
I think we can even go beyond allowing these sort of autonomy in school places and changing from T-Scores to subject banding, depending on how big our appetite for moving away from conservatism is. I had for many years, called to start pilot schools that allow through-train from primary to secondary, with ‘O’ levels as the first major examinations for these students. I had already put out various ways this can be done in a gradual manner more acceptable to society, so I shall not elaborate in this post. Here’s just a funnier recent report of that proposal from Mothership. I think gradually moving away from early high-stakes examinations can contribute to an environment where innovation can be allowed to flourish.
To seriously innovate or not, that is the difficult question.
Some buildings and places we visited in Japan, Nov-Dec 2015
Walking tour of West Shinjuku, Tokyo
Miyajima, one of top 3 official scenic spots of Japan
Naritansan Shinshoji Temple and Garden, Narita Town
More Temples, Shrines and Castles
Towers, towers everywhere, in cities and in towns
Matsushima, another of the three most scenic places in Japan
Hakodate, viewed from Mount Hakodate from 330pm till 5pm
The 8 hotspring “hells’ of Beppu
and some the animals and plants in the “hells”
Hiroshima Atomic Peace Memorial Park
Toya – Nishiyama and the destruction caused by Mount Usu’s eruptions
and the cold, cold walk after last night’s snow
Lake Toya, where G8 leaders met in 2008
Here are some photographs with people as the main theme from my recent Nov-Dec 2015 travel to Japan.
It has been a long while since I got to travel for 15 days at a stretch. We decided to get a JR Rail Pass and do a DIY getaway. Our travel took us from Tokyo to Beppu in the south (Kyushu island), north to Hakodate and then back to Narita for the flight back. We had stopovers in Himeji, Hiroshima, Miyajima, Osaka, Kyoto, Kokura, Sendai, Matsushima, Aomori and Toya, some of which were just day trips from a nearby town.
It was quite an experience travelling some 4,500 km without any private transport or taxi. The trip was done entirely by trains, trams, buses, boats, occasional cycling and lots of walking with our roller luggages. We experienced both peak and off peak travels, including the famed Tokyo peak hour trains. For some cities, we bought the day passes for either trams or buses or subways, depending on our travel plans if it works out to be cheaper than the rather expensive individual rides.
When in Japan, do as the Japanese do. We often bought along our pre-packed food and start our picnic on the long Shinkansen (bullet train) rides the moment we got to our seats. The system is so efficient that we can stopover at an intermediary city just to catch a meal at a restaurant near the station that has great online reviews and then catch another train after our meal, carefully timing our stops and monitoring the schedules.
The transport system was amazingly efficient, even on networks that are decades old. We relied on the published timetables. Train were reliable to the exact minute arriving and departing at the various stations we were at. The punctuality was critical for planning especially in the more remote parts of Japan where transport services were often infrequent. We wanted to minimise waiting time and had to match the timetables of trains and bus / tram services.
My most frequently used words for the trip? “Sumimasen, xxxx wa doko desu ka?” (or “Excuse me, where is xxxx?” as we stop strangers and transport officials and ask for directions getting around to new hotels, to restaurants that were highly rated on travel sites and to the many places of attractions. Almost all whom we had asked tried their best to be helpful, giving us instructions which we often cannot quite fully comprehend due to our very limited range of Japanese vocabulary. However with sign language, we can roughly figure out and get near enough to our destination to ask another random stranger if we need to again. Some were even so helpful that they walked part of the way with us. A young lady even used her mobile app to translate her instructions into English for us!
I must say Japan is a relatively safe place as we navigated sometimes early in the morning to sometimes late at night, in both busy and quieter areas feeling completely safe all the time. Bicycles are commonly used by Japanese but not always safe as roads can be busy and there are no bicycle lanes. Bicycles often share the pedestrian walkways but I notice that cyclists are careful to coexist safely with pedestrians.
Have travel passes, will travel!
I read to my great surprise this feature by The Straits Times today, “Workers’ Party trying to move forward” (http://www.straitstimes.com/politics/workers-party-trying-to-move-forward).
The report stated,
“It is also, perhaps, trying to send a signal about the importance of party discipline, insiders say.
They point to how its Marine Parade team was also made up of highly-qualified candidates – including crowd favourite, legal counsel He Ting Ru, 32 – none of whom were brought into the CEC. The team was apparently plagued by simmering discord among members, which displeased party leaders, who have always prized tight discipline and frowned upon power play.”
As leader of the WP team for Marine Parade GRC for GE2015 (or Team Marine Blue as we call ourselves), I am shocked by what was reported of “simmering discord” and “displeased party leaders”.
During my first rally speech on 2 Sep 2015, I had introduced Team Marine Blue proudly. The relevant parts are extracted at the end of this article:
Allow me to put on record that I have become even prouder of the team since delivering that speech. Marine Parade GRC was never going to be an easy contest. We were thrust into that battle because a small but powerful Electoral Boundaries Review Committee.
We had just 6 weeks to campaign in one of the biggest GRCs that is a stronghold of the PAP. The team had signed up for the contest knowing very well of the challenges and of our chances. Yet, they pressed on diligently to visit almost all of the public housing units and a good number of homes in the private estates. We had many volunteers to manage, many of whom were signed up only during the campaigning period. Keeping volunteers trained, organised and motivated in such a short time was challenging. Yes, it was stressful for all of us and things could always have been done better in hindsight. I am proud of how each of them managed their group of volunteers as we divided up our roles and areas to cover as much ground as we could. Except for me, all were first time candidates. They also had to prepare for and deliver their own rally speeches, often a formidable task for new candidates.
None of us are aware of any “power play” or “discord” amongst ourselves. The team had cheered and encouraged each other along the way as we kept ourselves posted of each other’s campaign activities. In her interview with Yahoo Singapore last week, He Ting Ru shared about a group hug with the fellow candidates at one of the counting centre when it was evident that we had lost. She had recalled that “at that moment, I really felt that we were part of a team. That, to me, was something that was quite striking for the night itself, that we were in this together.”
We were also given encouraging words by the party leaders during the campaign and even after the results were known.
Today, a month after polling day, I am pleased to say that all candidates of Team Marine Blue remain committed to the party, with some taking on additional responsibilities within the party. My respect for each of them has increased throughout the campaigning and thereafter. They are all good team players, completely dedicated to the tasks they had been entrusted with, no matter how difficult the tasks were. Never mind the difficult circumstances and short time that were given to us to put the team and campaign together. I could not have asked for better fellow candidates.
I am deeply disappointed that the Straits Times had run the report on the Marine Parade Team without checking the facts with me or any of the candidates. How many ‘insiders’ did they speak to and what evidences do these ‘insiders’ have of ‘discord’ and ‘power play”. The article did, however, allow me this chance to publicly say “Thank You” once more to my wonderful Marine Blue team members and our many volunteers.
———- Extract from YJJ’s speech on 2 Sep 2015 ————-
“Let me first introduce you to Terence Tan, lawyer. Many would know that he fought the cases for AHPETC with NEA and with MND, pro-bono, without charging us any fees. He also does pro-bono work for capital offences cases and others requiring legal aid. He is not just a lawyer, but was an entrepreneur who started a popular bar and restaurant establishment early in his career. He had stints overseas that included being the Managing Director of a multinational hotel group with operations from Spain to South-East Asia.
Terence joined WP after GE2011 and has been walking the ground with me for over 2 years. He’s also a local boy of Marine Parade GRC, a Peranakan who lives in the traditional part of Joo Chiat.
Terence has served faithfully in our grassroots and meet-people-sessions. Today, he’s your candidate for the Marine Parade GRC.
Next, we have He Ting Ru, just 32 years old and already a successful corporate lawyer heading up the legal department in a public listed company. She volunteered as a helper in our Meet-People-Session right after GE2011. She came on her own, seeking to find ways to contribute to Singapore. From there, she expanded her work into our community events and diligently assisting in the policy work of our parliamentarians. You may find it hard to believe that a bright, successful and busy lawyer would spend so much of her free time to volunteer week in, week out with us, but here we have the living proof. Ms He Ting Ru, your candidate for Marine Parade GRC.
And right in the Malay heartland of Singapore, is your local boy, Mr Firuz Khan from Haig Road. He has been in the Party longer than I had, since 2006. His service was disrupted when he went with his family to UK for several years, where he started a successful chocolate factory. Then he came back to Singapore in 2010 and continued his service with the Workers’ Party serving Singaporeans.
Firuz’s heart is in the right place. He took a pay cut from his banking career in 1999 to be the principal for the Pertapis Children’s Home, where he had learnt first-hand the issues of those that have fallen through the cracks in the Malay-Muslim community. He is also a hands-on guy, who started and grew the Royce’ Chocolate business for the Japanese company in Singapore and in the region, before starting his own chocolate factory in Wales, UK. Mr Firuz Khan, a hands-on person with commitment to help the vulnerable and needy in the community, your candidate for Marine Parade GRC.
Last but not least, Mr Ng Foo Eng, Dylan. Foo Eng came from a humble family background, studied in neighbourhood schools, worked his way through university. He found success in his banking career, working in both local and foreign banks. He has built up the wealth management business for the bank from scratch.
Foo Eng is passionate about serving the community, and has served as a volunteer in WP’s grassroots and in the meet-people-sessions. Mr Ng Foo Eng, your candidate for Marine Parade GRC.
This is a team that’s part of the renewal story in the Workers’ Party. This is a team that’s willing to take on the difficult task in what the PAP considers as one of its strongholds, to give you a credible alternative to choose from. We know the challenges are not just in fighting this election. We know there will be lots of start-up issues. This is a team with a good range of complementary strengths and operational expertise that can see this through. “
Candidates and volunteers of Team Marine Blue, 2015 at a Thank You BBQ a week after polling day
Cleared my locker in parliament and gave chocolates to the nice staff in parliament who have been most helpful, whether in finding information in the library or helping with my filing of parliamentary questions and in other administrative things, as well as those looking after our welfare.
I have enjoyed my 4 years in parliament. It has been an enriching experience for me. Looking back, I am happy to see changes in the early childhood sector which I believe will lead to child care becoming a higher quality public good affordable to the masses. I am also glad that there is better recognition of the need to have more pathways for late bloomers in education and in their careers (although a lot more still can be done).
There are also changes which I had pushed for frequently which I hope can come soon. These include:
I congratulate all who have made it back into parliament. I also wish a fruitful journey to those who are coming in for the first time. Let’s empower our future!
Below is the gist of the impromptu speech I delivered when the result for Marine Parade GRC was announced on polling night:
Dear voters of Marine Parade GRC, dear supporters of the Workers’ Party, dear Singaporeans.
It has been 7 weeks since we were thrust into the battle for Marine Parade GRC when the EBRC report was announced. It has been a very tiring 7 weeks as we pounded the streets day and night to make up ground.
We are very grateful to supporters and residents whom we have met that have shown us your care and love. We are very touched by the volunteers who have put in hundreds of hours each of toil and sweat to help us see to every aspects of our campaign, sometimes into the wee hours of the morning. You have been most wonderful. Thank you!
I am very proud of my team who have run a good campaign. Although Marine could not be blue this time, we believe one day it will!
I pray that the young and passionate candidates whom we have offered to you for this GE will find it in them to overcome the setback in this GE and continue on the journey with you, so that we can move together on the long and difficult road of building a rational, responsible and respectable alternative for Singapore.
Separately, our team were out and about this morning in our preambulatory truck across the GRC to thank residents. It was a day of bad haze that clouded the place. Despite, the haze, our team kept our spirits up as we greeted residents and waved to them from afar. Thank you for your support. The Workers’ Party thanks all friends and supporters for being with us through this challenging campaign. We will take lessons from this as we move forward to the next battle.