Who can be the Future President of Singapore?

The hotly contested PE begs a hard question – who can be the next president of Singapore after Dr Tony Tan?

Gone are the days where there will be no contests or meek contests. We saw how fiercely GE2011 was contested. PE2011 was no different. Some said it was because PE2011 was so soon after GE2011. It is not necessarily so. There is a louder cry for voices from the ground to be heard. There’s boldness amongst higher calibre people to stand as candidates for the alternative voices in elections, be it GE or PE. If PE is held in a different year, it will likely still be as hotly contested.

The establishment threw up a candidate with impressive credentials, one that was Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s original choice for his successor as prime minister. Dr Tony Tan was a former deputy prime minister and has a string of achievements in running large organisations and financial matters. Yet he drew only 35.2% of the valid votes, winning by the narrowest of margins. I think any lesser candidate may not have made it.

In 2017 or 2023, who can be the establishment’s choice after Dr Tony Tan retires?

I next wonder how many of the past presidents we have had could be elected in today’s situation. One of my favourite presidents, Mr Wee Kim Wee had a low public profile prior to his appointment as president. He proved to be very popular with his genuine desire to help the people. He would likely not have been elected given his low profile. We would not know how good a president he would be until he became one. Probably not Dr Benjamin Sheares nor Mr Yusof bin Ishak as well. Mr S.R. Nathan went through without contest twice. I leave readers to form their own conclusions about his chances against someone like Dr Tan Cheng Bock or Mr Tan Jee Say in a one-to-one contest if he had to be a fresh unknown candidate in this contest. 

Mr Ong Teng Cheong and Mr Devan Nair were seasoned politicians. They knew how to run campaigns and had high public profiles before becoming presidents. They would have the chance to be elected. Indeed, Mr Ong was the first elected president. The contest was much meeker then.

We had ceremonial presidents for a long time, from our independence till 1993. We had selected the presidents carefully to fulfil ceremonial duties. These are nevertheless important duties as the president represents our country. His and the first lady’s photographs hang in every government institutions. The president represents us to meet with the heads of state of other countries. The president has to be the pride of the nation.

For the purpose of providing a second key, we now make our presidents now go through gruelling elections. Elections in the past may be meek and controllable. In the future this may not be so. In a tough campaign, accusations will be thrown. Their images may be damaged. Politicians are hardened people. They have gone through contests in the past. Three of the candidates in this PE had been politicians. We saw what happened to the non-politician candidate.

The establishment justifies having GRCs by saying that we need minority races to be represented in parliament. Someone with great political wisdom foresaw long ago that it would be difficult for minorities to enter parliament in single seat contests.

The presidential election is like a huge single seat contest. By the establishment’s argument, does it mean we will never have a minority race president again?  We had some good minority race presidents in the past. I can think of perhaps a few from the minority races who may be popular enough and experienced enough in campaigning to win in a gruelling national level contest. It will take a special person to fill that role, and that person may not be willing to do so.

In every general election, we are ‘warned’ by the establishment there could be freak results. We can have freak results in presidential elections as well. That begs the question of what is a freak result. Freak by whose standards? We see emotions running very high now, with people calling 35.2% not a mandate. Those whose preferred candidate did not get elected will call it a freak result. What if it had gone the other way and TCB won by a whisker? Would the other camp start calling this a freak result as well?

By having presidential elections, we will inevitably narrow our choice of who can be our president. We will create more division amongst the population by making the president go through a gruelling nationwide contest. We need to ask ourselves if all these are necessary because of the second key, a concept invented after a poor GE1991 showing for the ruling party.

Hard truths from the PE

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in an official statement on the PE said voters faced a difficult choice between Dr Tony Tan and Dr Tan Cheng Bock. He said that this explained why the winning margin is so narrow, and why the winner only gained slightly more than one-third of the total votes.

I am sorry, PM Lee but I do not think that is the most logical explanation for the results.

The were two main dilemmas that voters faced, depending on their political ideologies. For voters who usually votes PAP, it was a choice between Dr Tony Tan and Dr Tan Cheng Bock. For those who supports the opposition, it was mostly between Dr Tan Cheng Bock and Mr Tan Jee Say. If it was a straight fight between Dr Tan Cheng Bock and Dr Tony Tan, the dilemma would have been a lot less. Dr Tan Cheng Bock would have won convincingly.

There are noteworthy hard truths from this PE:

1. Dr Tan Cheng Bock has a powerful and compelling message of unifying people across the political divide. That should not be ignored. It had really reached to voters on both camps, showing that it is something the people desired.

2. Dr Tony Tan is now president-elect of Singapore. He had managed to reach to only the loyalist PAP supporters. A true president of Singapore must now work hard to reach out to the other groups which he could not during the campaigning.  The president’s term is 6 years. There is sufficient time to win people’s hearts over and I hope the process starts now.

3. PE is not supposed to be a political contest but it had turned out to be one. We need to ask why? Are people dissatisfied with the disproportionate translaion of 40% of popular votes into only 6 seats out of 87 in the parliament? Do we still want to have an elected president given that it may become another political elections in future rather than a selection for a candidate based on individual credentials? Perhaps after 18 years of elected presidency where there was only one previous election prior to this, it is time now to critically examine this institution and ask ourselves hard truths about whether it is required at all.

Meanwhile, I await to see the future that Dr Tony Tan can help Singapore define even as the establishment grapples with the hard truths from GE2011 and PE2011.

Analysis of PE2011 Result

Before polling, I made my prediction to close friends. I posted that prediction on my personal Facebook before counting results came in, at around 10 pm on polling night. I didn’t post it publicly before voting ended because I did not want my predictions to influence voting. My post was:

Now that counting is underway and I am just back from shopping, let me share what I had predicted to close friends:
TT will take around 60% of PAP votes. TJS will take 60% of Opp votes. TCB takes most of the rest (40% of both PAP and Opp). That means TT may win TCB narrowly. TJS will do reasonably well but hard to cross 25%. Winner will have less than 40% overall, maybe around 36%. Sorry, TKL. You tried.

Based on the GE2011 results, that would mean 60% x 60% = 36% for Dr Tony Tan, 60% x 40% = 24% for Mr Tan Jee Say. Based on GE2011 3-corner fight result, I felt Mr Tan Kin Lian could garner around 5-6% of the votes only, which would have left Dr Tan Cheng Bock with around 34-35%, a close second.

The final result was amazingly close, closer than I had imagined.

I based my prediction on a fairly crude model. Being a political person, I now have access to many people who volunteered to tell me who they are voting. I must have met or had Facebook and email exchanges with over 100 people. I scanned the social media such as TOC and TRE to gauge sentiments.

I asked 2 key questions: (1) Who are you voting for and (2) which party do you normally vote for in GEs. In many cases, I did not even need to ask the second question as many that I interact with are in the opposition camp. Most volunteered to tell me the reasons for their choice as well.

While PE is not supposed to be a political contest, it nevertheless reflects the political desires of the people with proxy fights based on political ideologies.

The results were (after some generalisation of reasons):

  1. I found around 40% of PAP voters going for TCB. Those who would go for TCB may have some personal interactions with him previously or felt that he was truly sincere about his mission and had the heart for the people. They expressed reservations about why TT was in the race. Those who would go for TT felt he was best qualified or would simply vote for him because they knew he was the official choice of the PAP. I found no PAP supporters willing to go for TJS or TKL.
  2. The opposition side is split between TJS and TCB. The moderate opposition supporters were inclined towards TCB. The vocal opposition supporters went for TJS. I met more TCB supporters on the opposition camp than TJS supporters. However, I knew my circle of interaction had more moderate supporters. From my scan of the vocal online media such as TRE and TOC and looking at TOC’s survey, I felt after accounting for the more vocal group, around 60% of those who voted opposition in GE2011 would go for TJS.  I found almost none that would go for TT (yes, I said almost none, because there were a small handful that felt PE should be about the person rather than political ideologies and they went for TT despite voting opposition in GEs).
  3. I found few TKL supporters. He was the second choice of a number of people. Those who felt strongly that they could not support any former PAP senior members would pick TJS first and TKL second. Those who felt we should not have an aggressive president but could not support TT because he was the choice of the PAP would pick TCB first and TKL second.  Unfortunately, there is no prize for being second in the one-vote system. Based on this, I used the percentage from Punggol East 3-cornered fight in GE to predict a slightly better votes’ percentage share for TKL than Desmond Lim.
  4. Most of the opposition supporters’ dilemma centred around choosing TJS or TCB. It was a fluid situation that changed with additional press and online reports, debates and media broadcasts. These were for votes from the moderate opposition camp.

The final result shows a number of things:

  1. There is currently a base of around 36% who would support PAP rock solid. Hougang’s result in GE2011 sort of reflected this. Hougang is the strongest opposition base with a young rookie PAP candidate contesting. Desmond Choo’s 36% reflected the percentage of people that are solidly behind whatever PAP do.  In Alex Au’s Yawningbread recent blog, he shared a story of several elderly ladies in a coffeeshop talking about how they would vote. One said that it was simple. Just go into the poll and look for the lightning symbol! They do not care about the other candidates. Just go for the lightning. In this case, go for the person implicitly representing the party’s choice. Hence, the clever use of unions and associations to support a candidate. It is a proxy to the party’s choice and the mainstream media would dutifully publicise the endorsement. It is not to force their members to vote en-bloc but to indicate to the ‘aunties’ and ‘uncles’ PAP supporters who the establishment’s choice is.  
  2.  There is a vocal opposition group of supporters who will always choose the one who is the most anti-PAP. That vote went to TJS. However, given that TJS did have a good career track record, he pulled in some votes from the middle ground as well. However, by positioning himself as the opposition-type, he could not draw votes from the usual PAP voters, which meant it was impossible for him to win but he would finish well.
  3. There’s a moderate ground prepared to accept a good compromise candidate. TCB represented this middle ground. He could pull in voters from both the opposition and PAP camps. TCB marketed himself as an independent-minded guy with the capabilities to fit the office.
  4. There is no fourth group. TKL appealed to none of the above groups as their first choice. Second choice does not count!

PE2011 offered analysis not possible in GE because:

  1. There was only one 3-corner fight in GE where the choices were obvious: either for PAP or for the strongest opposition proposition.
  2. The candidates in PE2011 have credible track records, having to go through a stringent PEC qualification. Three of the candidates positioned themselves nicely into the pro-PAP, pro-opposition and middle ground. That is something we did not have in GE.
  3. Voting in PE is across the whole country making it like a referendum on the agenda presented by the candidates. In a GE, there are differences between political parties in their ideologies and also in the slate of candidates. That makes it more difficult to compare results across constituencies.

Having said all these, we follow the first-past-the-post election system. Even if it was by a single vote, the winner takes all.

Dr Tony Tan is the 7th president of Singapore. Let us congratulate Dr Tony Tan, whatever your political ideologies may be. He will enter the office with a burden to bridge the divide in expectations. It is useful to study why Dr Tan Cheng Bock was popular enough to garner 35% of the votes despite the tough 4-cornered competition that had damaged his chances much more than it did for Dr Tony Tan. TCB represents something significant for the people of Singapore – a desire for a president that has passion for the people and independence to check the government, when it is necessary. The fact that he could draw strong supporters and votes from both the opposition and the PAP camps was amazing. It showed that what he stood for had the chance to unify a political divided country.

I did not vote for the late president Ong Teng Cheong because of political ideologies. But he won my respect during his term in office for proving that he truly could cast aside his political baggage and challenge the government when it mattered. I am prepared to do likewise for Dr Tony Tan.

To Dr Tan Cheng Bock, congratulations for putting up an honourable contest. You have demonstrated that it is possible to rally people from both side of the political divide. I am reminded of Al Gore, who lost a bitterly close election to be president of the United States of America to George Bush. It must have been really shattering for him to win the popular votes but not the electoral college and even so by technical problems with the automated counting system. Yet Al Gore bounced back to make himself useful championing causes he believes in.

So, Dr Tan Cheng Bock, even though you are not our president, I hope you will continue in this work that you have started.

Whatever the PE2011 outcome, Singaporeans are already winners

 It’s 5 am on polling day. I slept past midnight and woke up before 5 am. The first thing I did was to look through my Facebook reading posts by Friends to gauge the voting sentiments for today. The mood is still quite the same. There is vocal support for both the Palm Tree and Heart camps and relatively muted on the other two. However, we all know that the silent majority decides at the ballot box.

This is strange. I am not involved in this PE. I am not taking part in this election, unlike in GE where I slept late and woke up early for obvious reasons. I am not counting nor polling agent for any candidate. My Party is not involved. Some of my active volunteers during GE are actively helping in two different camps. They actively try to solicit support from people they know. I wish them well.

PE is not supposed to be a political campaign. Constitutionally, the president is not another seat of executive power. There are limited powers. Yet there is unprecedented interest in this election. The ruling party obviously has a preferred choice with praise of the qualities of one candidate by none other than the Prime Minister himself. Three quarters of the trade unions and various associations (some whom I have not heard of before) and business federations have thrown their support behind that same candidate. I fail to see why their members would feel obligated to vote for their leaders’ choice. I suppose it is to signal who the government’s endorsed candidate is without the government having to officially endorse that candidate. 

So quite obviously, the ruling party is anxious to have its candidate selected. After all, there was a rather muted contest in the first PE in 1993 and a famine thereafter with two walkovers. It wasn’t that there were no interested parties in 1999 and 2005, but only 1 made it through the rather strict PEC vetting.

GE2011 was a watershed. There were contests in all but the Tanjong Pagar GRC, which itself was not contested due to a technical problem by the opposing team rather than a lack of interest. People were talking politics in the coffeeshop, in office and in cyberspace like never before. The quality of alternative candidates was much higher than before. The result was also unprecedented. History was made when a GRC finally fell to the alternative camp. Singapore went from a miserly two elected opposition members of parliament to a more respectable six. It is still a long way from a functioning democratic parliament but nevertheless a positive progress.

Now, four candidates have made it through the strict PEC requirements. It showed that there is now sufficient courage by capable people to step forward as alternates to what the ruling party desires. I applaud all who have stepped forward, even if I cannot agree with the platform that some have contested on. They are winners in my eyes for stepping forward. And who is my choice? I can only say that the two past presidents I most admire are Mr Wee Kim Wee for his genuine love for the people and Mr Ong Teng Cheong for his courage to stand up where it mattered seriously to him and to the country. I will go for someone whom I feel has the qualities of both.

I had long sought a decent contest for the PE and was dismayed at the weak challenge by Mr Chua Kim Yeow and the non-contest in the other two PEs.  I wrote to ST Forum in 1993 to urge Mr Chua to give a more spirited fight, which he eventually did on the 11th hour. I gave him my vote. Nevertheless, Mr Ong Teng Cheong won my heart later for his determined challenge for what he felt should be right for the office. I wrote again to ST Forum in 2005 to urge the PEC to be more flexible in their evaluation to allow a contest. That did not mean I would have supported the alternative candidates but I wanted to have my choice.

The calls for contest also did not mean I supported the idea of an election for the president. I see nothing wrong with the old system of selecting dignified people for a ceremonial post. The reason for an elected president is clear for all to see. It was initiated after a poor GE showing by the ruling party in 1991 to check a ‘rogue’ government that may be elected by the people. Since the post had been created, it was then best to have it contested to let the true choice of the people be represented. And if the result turned out to be undesirable for the ruling party, it may then feel compelled to review the scheme again. Hence, I am certain they are keenly watching this contest closely to see the outcome.

The selection and campaigning process itself has already done much to change our political landscape in a non-political election. The strict PEC requirements meant only an elite group of perhaps 300 people could qualify to contest, most of them with past links to the establishment. The fact that four had qualified is a big surprise to many. It shows a growing desire by capable people to challenge the establishment, whether in this PE or in the GE or in other matters of governance. The establishment has long lamented that we are politically apathetic and that it was difficult to get good people to step forward to hold public office. I think that will be no more. However, the ruling party will not have the monopoly of talent anymore. There will be more reasonable contests in future elections.

Voters are no longer passive like in past elections. In GE2011 and now in PE2011, more people are interested in the process. In the “cowboy towns” of the cyberworld (a term by PM Lee), people have dug deep to research about candidates and their past. Some on the “lunatic fringes” (a term by a new Minister) may perhaps have been too enthusiastic. It is an unstoppable process unless we kill the Internet and move ourselves back to the stone age of not-so-long-ago where only the mainstream media is what we had to live on.

I was surprised at the sheer number of people volunteering for the alternative parties in GE2011. It was more than I could personally cope with to get them organised given the short campaigning time. Some are highly qualified lawyers, doctors, bankers, professionals, business people and even civil servants (surprise, surprise). Some have continued in PE2011 to help the different candidates.

I am excited in this PE and watching the outcome because Singapore has reached a new political landscape. It is hard to imagine going back to the muted elections we had in the past. If we cannot move backwards, the only reasonable thing going forward is to define a new political playing field where we will progress together for the common good of Singapore. People want to hear alternative voices. For there to be alternative voices, there must be enough good people stepping forward to fill the roles. It is happening now.

Where there’s change, there may be some discomfort during the adjustment. We might as well learn to adjust now. The process has started and Singapore is the winner.

It is now 7 am. It’s almost time to get ready to cast my vote. Meanwhile, thanks again to all the four Tans for stepping forward. Whatever the outcome, let’s respect voters’ decision and move on to define the new political landscape together.

Entrepreneurship begins in school

 Presidential candidate Dr Tony Tan spoke of bringing the ‘spirit of Silicon Valley’ to Singapore during his lunchtime rally (http://www.todayonline.com/Hotnews/EDC110824-0000892/President-is-not-a-Super-MP–Tony-Tan).

Dr Tan said “(If elected,) I will encourage Singaporeans to strike out in new areas, and give them opportunity to try new ventures and new ideas. I can help encourage their dreams and bring them to reality.” He told of how he had met with many entrepreneurs and people in voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs) in recent months, and came away deeply impressed by their ideals, determination and passion to succeed.

“Even if they fail they will try again, and eventually succeed,” he said. This is the spirit of Silicon Valley I’m confident we can bring to Singapore.”

As an entrepreneur, I am glad to hear of this.

Several politicians and public personalities have talked about bringing this spirit of daring to fail and try again to Singaporeans. Minister of State for Trade and Industry Mr Teo Ser Luck spoke of this lack of risk taking at the recent Start-Up Enterprise Conference too (http://business.asiaone.com/Business/News/Story/A1Story20110823-295748.html).

I like to suggest that this spirit must start from young, right in school.

Our education system is rigid and stressful. We stream them from young and put them through several high stake examinations. We put schools through ranking exercise to see how well they produce results, brand the schools accordingly and stream students into schools according to their academic achievements.

Parents are put through this fear of their children failing. There’s a social stigma to have your child do badly in examinations and be streamed into less desirable education pathways and institutions. So they apply pressure on their children through tuitions and intense studying. Schools pack students with lots of drill-and-practice to get them exam-smart. It follows a rigid path to success. Studying is not about passion but about doing well in standardised examinations. We hear the recent cry of 16-year old Janelle Lee to our Education Minister through her Facebook post.

When our students finally graduate from the education system, we tell them to find their dream. We tell them it is okay to fail in their ventures.

Our education system is good for training students in skills and knowledge, essential for creating a skilled workforce. It does not promote much creativity nor equip students with sufficient skills to cope with handling the dynamism of the Silicon Valley-styled entrepreneurship. It does not cultivate an innovative mind-set nor provide room to seek one’s passion.

Another problem facing entrepreneurs is the competition faced from GLCs and union-run social enterprises that extend their arms into so many aspects of our lives from cradle to grave. We lament that we cannot have a free-spirited entrepreneurship culture like that in Taiwan and Hong Kong yet these government and union enterprises that jump in frequently to compete with entrepreneurs whenever they smell the opportunity to make money. 

It is good that Dr Tony Tan, Mr Teo Ser Luck and others are talking about our people taking more risks. I suggest they look at this from a holistic point and start their work with their counterparts in the education ministry. They can also review what businesses our government and union enterprises should run and trim these to what’s absolutely necessary. Leave ample room for entrepreneurship to bloom.

 

Additional notes after posting

Today, a university junior reminded me of something  which I had forgotten to put into my article. It is something I had previously written to newspapers’ forums and blogged about on as another factor contributing to the lack of entrepreneurship culture in Singapore.

Our government organisations tend to operate in a manner where risk-taking is avoided as a mistake can jeopordise one’s career. Once a person is identified as having high potential, the tendency is to cruise along and avoid taking risks so the person can rise at least to the level he/she is targeted for.

I had a conversation once with a then-high ranking government official. He said he had just awarded a multi-million contract to a top international IT company even though it was the most expensive and twice as high as that of various comparable local solutions. He said he was doing so because he was awarding to the biggest IT firm so if anything was to go wrong in future, he and his team had already awarded to the best; therefore the problem could not be avoided. For the records, I was not an interested party in the tender but am familiar with the scope of the project.

I was not impressed with the logic. I can understand if the other companies had failed to meet specifications or could not produce value for their proposals. Instead, the key motivation for the award seemed to be to find an acceptable answer should there be a failure in the future. 

The incident is not the only one of such nature that I know of or have heard from other technology entrepreneurs. Officially, the reason for not awarding the tender to a local start-up could be something else, but this fear of failure amongst officials is something real and which I had witnessed for myself in my stint in a government organisation.

The irony is that we are to develop global businesses but it is tough to begin at home. I had written about this earlier in the posts below:

https://yeejj.wordpress.com/2011/06/10/congratulations-to-oliva-lum-world-entrepreneur-of-the-year/

https://yeejj.wordpress.com/2011/04/09/singapore-needs-to-break-away-from-risk-averse-culture-to-succeed-in-the-21st-century/

I hope Dr Tony Tan and those who wish to promote technology entrepreneurship here will also look into this fear of failure mindset in the government organisations even as they encourage budding entrepreneurs to dare to fail.

Fear is still relevant

Presidential candidate Dr Tan Cheng Bock spoke of the fear that he saw in some Singaporeans, including his former PAP colleagues, who told him they did not want to openly support him for the election for fear of being “penalised” or “victimised”.

His fellow presidential candidate, Dr Tony Tan said “this kind of fear-mongering is very mischievous”. He added that “The last GE has shown that Singaporeans are confident enough to express their own views. I don’t think any Singaporean could seriously believe that they will suffer for supporting another candidate.”

(ref: http://www.todayonline.com/Hotnews/EDC110825-0000309/Candidates-tackle-viewers-questions-on-CNA-online-forum)

I had blogged about this in April from my own GE experience (https://yeejj.wordpress.com/2011/04/26/the-fear-factor-singapore-style/). I entered politics only this year. I saw first-hand how real the fear factor was. From my own family members to friends to people I meet, there were still lingering fears, a legacy of our early political landscape.

It is good that Dr Tan Cheng Bock, a long-time former PAP MP who holds the record of securing 88% of the popular votes in his former constituency realises this. Although the presidential election is not supposed to be political, we can all tell who the ruling party prefers and who are standing as alternatives. Even in a “non-political” election, Dr Tan feels the fear people have. So how much more fear do you think there is in the general elections?

For that, I thought it is admirable that his former PAP colleague, Mr Maidin Packer Mohammed, the former parliamentary secretary of the Ministry of Home Affairs came out openly in support of Dr Tan. (http://www.asiaone.com/News/AsiaOne%2BNews/Singapore/Story/A1Story20110823-295779.html)

Dr Tony Tan would not have the chance to experience this fear factor unless and until he stands as an alternative to what the ruling party endorses.

The good news is that with better education, widespread availability of information on the Internet and many alternative platforms other than the mainstream media for people to express their views, the fear factor has been diminishing. It also helps that many more credible people have stepped forward to contest as alternatives, whether in this PE or in the GEs. Successful people have cast aside their own fear in standing up and are showing to all that it is alright to have alternative political viewpoints.

I have long advocated that the PE should be contested, right from the first PE in 1993. Since our system requires an elected president, I want to see the post being challenged. We should not have the viewpoint of just one group being represented without the ability for Singaporeans to vote their choice. We had a famine of candidates since 1993. I am happy that this year there is a feast of four candidates, each campaigning on a different platform. These candidates have been scrutinized by the Presidential Elections Committee against a strict set of eligibility criteria.  PE2011 and GE2011 are setting the stage for more contests in future.

I hope in this PE and in future PEs and GEs, Singaporeans will boldly vote their preferred candidate. Your vote is secret. No one will know your vote unless you choose to disclose.

We also have to remember that we are a democracy. We should not have to fear even if we openly state our political views.

So this 27 August, vote boldly for who you prefer. At the same time, respect others for whom they choose to vote.

 

Note: This post represents my personal views

An unwritten expectation of political allegiance?

I am intrigued by a statement made by presidential hopeful Mr Tan Kin Lian during the pre-nomination roundtable discussion in response to a question about his earlier active involvement in the PAP. He said, “… So I stopped being active (in PAP). I couldn’t resign because I was working for an NTUC organisation.” (quoted from Straits Times, 18 Aug 2011, page A8)

Before I am misunderstood, I am not supporting nor attacking any of the 4 presidential candidates. They each have their own motivations for standing for election and I wish them well. I am concern about this long and close link between NTUC and PAP that extends even to employees running their social enterprises.

The NTUC is a labour movement comprising a network of 60 trade unions, six associations, 12 social enterprises and 4 related organisations (source: www.ntuc.org.sg).

Since its formation in 1961, NTUC has grown from being purely a union representing workers into one that runs businesses that spans covers many aspects of our lives, literally from cradle to grave. Its 12 social enterprises (i.e. businesses) runs early childhood centres, club membership services, elder care services, supermarkets operations, food courts, training centres, insurance products, media and advertising services, loan services, pharmaceutical stores and property development.

I recall when the union first started business operations, it was to control the cost of staple food. I was often sent by my parents in the 1970s to queue to purchase of cheap rice in an outlet in Chai Chee, a 5-minute walk from my house. That has now grown into NTUC Fairprice which has over 200 outlets throughout Singapore.

I would say that it was a noble objective to keep the cost of living down. NTUC has been successful in business operations under a social enterprise status which grants it business advantages over competitors. It has since grown to cover many other business areas, some of which the social objectives are less obvious. Today, it has a group turnover of over US$3.5 billion (http://www.ntuclearninghub.co.in/frmContent.aspx?Page=Who%20are%20we), larger than many public listed companies in Singapore. I am not certain though if its original objective of keeping cost low is still valid. Despite heavily subsidised rents, its childcare services are comparable in fees to those at private centres paying commerical rents. I often find cheaper groceries in non-Fairprice supermarkets as well.

Now we hear from a former senior member of a key NTUC social enterprise that he had to be a PAP party member because he worked for an NTUC organisation. I am not privy to the internal functioning of NTUC as to whether this is a verbal instruction or an unwritten expectation for senior members to strongly comply with. The sprawling NTUC Group resembles a business conglomerate.  I would expect that people working in and running its operations should be selected for their business and work abilities rather than for their political affiliation. When there are strong political expectations required of employees in a business organisation, I wonder if the organisation’s objectives are purely social in nature.

The Challenges of Students with Special Needs in the Mainstream School

Invited article by Mr Yap Keng Ann, parent of a son with special needs

I am heartened to hear the Prime Minister say that “more can be done” and the capacity in the special education (SPED) schools will be expended. This is what many parents of children with special needs have long waited for.

However, I wonder if people are aware that not all children with special needs go to SPED schools? I know, because I am a parent of a child with special needs studying in a mainstream school.

Any additional help by the government for the special needs community is definitely welcomed. Therefore, I am not writing to dampen the mood. Instead, I am riding on the opportunity given by the Prime Minister’s national day rally speech, and the heightened interests of the public and media at this time, to highlight that students with special needs in the mainstream school are also facing certain challenges. And I felt that government should likewise look into this area.

STUDENTS WITH SPECIAL NEEDS IN MAINSTREAM SCHOOL

“Special Needs” is a term generally use to describe a person with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, learning difficulties, and other intellectual challenges. 

I have two points to make as follow:

Firstly, as the Prime Minster had noted, SPED schools have long waiting list. The demand for vacancies is always greater than the supply. Due to this limited supply, SPED schools have to set certain criteria for admission. Children who are not able to get into SPED schools for whatever reason would either continue to be on the waiting list, or enter the mainstream schools; except in cases where a relatively small group of parents who prefers to home-school their children.

Secondly, children may have entered the mainstream schools as a “normal” student but later diagnosed to have special needs. Let me use Autism Spectrum Disorder as an example which I am familiar with.

It is called a “spectrum disorder” because it is a range of conditions range from severe, to mild, and to almost unnoticeable.

My son is now studying in Primary 3 in a mainstream school. When he was in K2, the teachers and principal brought to our attention that he showed signs of having difficulties in learning. Later, an education psychologist we engaged to observe him in class told us that he could have Asperger Syndrome coupled with Sensory Integration Disorder.

However at time, he had already secured a place in his present primary school. We were advised that if we wanted to defer or delay admission to primary one, we had to write in to MOE with supported medical reports.

There was simply not enough time to get a formal medical diagnosis report. The decision then was to let him go ahead with Primary 1. I became my son’s primary caregiver to provide all the necessary support to him as he entered the mainstream education.

After he was already in Primary 1, we got his form teacher to write a referral letter for him to go to Child’s Guidance Clinic. The entire process from making an appointment for the formal assessment (in March) to undergoing the tests (in September) and to finally receiving the diagnostic report (in December) took 9 months.

In my son’s case, we were already aware of his condition before he entered primary 1. Getting the formal diagnosis was just to provide the necessary documentary support in order for the school to justify certain special accommodation measures for him – such as giving him extra time for the year end examination and be allowed to sit in a more conducive and quieter place to complete the examination papers. The irony was that extra time was actually given to him during the examination before the diagnostic report was received in December when school holiday already started.

However, If one were to speak to the school’s Allied Educators (or Special Needs Officers as they were initially called), she would tell you that school teachers monitor and refer those student whom they suspect to have learning difficulties and sometime behavioural issues to them, and through them to education psychologists for assessment.

There are actual cases of students being diagnosed even as late as at primary 4. These cases usually come as a great shock in life to their parents as they could not accept the fact.

One would ask again, if students were diagnosed while in mainstream school, would they be transferred to SPED schools? The answer is it depends on the case itself. Some may be able to get a place in SPED school, but it is also true that many will just continue with the current mainstream school, or transfer to another mainstream school with better support for students with special needs.

Whichever the case, the fact is there are students with special needs in the mainstream school. It may seem that I am stating the obvious but I observed that many parents including myself (before I became a parent of a child with special needs) are not aware of this.

WHAT COULD BE DONE AT MAINSTREAM SCHOOLS

Allied Educators were only introduced into mainstream schools in recent years. It was an effort by the government to help the special needs after realising of such needs. So I really welcome what the Prime Minister said in the rally speech – that more should be done, both at the special education schools and at the mainstream schools. Like others with keen interest in this area, I await eagerly further announcements on these.

Since my son entered the mainstream education about 3 years ago, as an interested parent, I have made some observations which I hope the government can consider.

 1. PSLE

My son is Primary 3 this year. Two months ago, he sat for his first formal Semestral Assessment (SA). For his school, there are no SAs for Primary 1 and 2.

I was not at all surprise when his teachers told me that his result is one of the “bottom” few. The teachers advised me on various options to help my son. One of the recommendations was to take the examinable subjects at the foundation level for PSLE.

I appreciate the teacher’s recommendations and I state without reservation that the teachers and principal are very supportive and caring for my son all these years. But none of them can really help it when it comes to PSLE.

In Singapore, the performance of the schools is somehow ranked according to PSLE results. I can understand why this is done. However, I wonder if PSLE is meaningful for a student who has already been diagnosed with learning difficulties?

To the school principals, HODs and subject teachers, especially those teaching the higher primary classes, they are naturally very concerned when a student is not doing well academically, and the result will eventually pull down the overall performance of the school.

The school teachers, the parents and the child are all stressed out, to order to put in more effort hoping that this child do better for the PSLE.

 What meaning does PSLE hold for children with special needs? They are different from their peers. Their pace and style of learning are different. If they are already being diagnosed as such, why put them through a national examination where the objective is to measure the normal students?

 Therefore, I urge the MOE to consider:

 (A) Exempt students with learning difficulties or with special needs in the mainstream schools from taking PSLE; or

 (B) if they are still sitting for the PSLE either because such exemption cannot be granted based on current education policy, or because the parent do not mind that particular student take the PSLE (because as I mentioned earlier, the degree of learning difficulties varies and some would be able to do so), EXCLUDE their individual results from the computation of the overall ranking in their respective schools.

This way, we take the stress from the school teachers, parents and the students because they will no longer negatively affecting the school’s performance ranking.  The subject teachers can now be more relaxed and have the discretion of giving a reduced workload to the student with special needs.

In my son’s case, I have applied to MOE for MTL exemption following the school’s advice. And after the 3rd school term started, the teacher feedback to me that my son actually performed better and appear to enjoy more in the learning because he is now given much less work. This is a case in point.

 2. OTHER ACCOMODATIONS

 Along with Asperger Syndrome, my son also have visual tracking difficulties. This is part of the overall neurodevelopmental disorder. He had great problem doing comprehension passages when the text was printed on one page and the questions are printed on the back page. He had problem copying the answers from the text as it requires him to flip the page back and forth.

 As he was not able to track where he last copied the word, he ended up spending time looking for where he left off again and again, copying the words wrongly, getting frustrated and in the end gave up writing.

 Once I remembered asking the school if it is possible to print the worksheets or test papers in a A3 size paper and perhaps enlarge it for him so that his eyes can read easier and he does not have to flip the papers.

 I remembered I was told that it is the job of the school to “prepare” the student for PSLE and in PSLE, there is no such thing as a bigger examination paper printed in single side. This is another case in point.

 Once I attended a workshop organised by the Dyslexia Association of Singapore. I remembered a parent stood up and told the story of her daughter failing her science paper because while she correctly answered the questions but failed to darken corresponding small dots on the OCR answer sheet! The father was upset that the school insisted that what was on the OCR answer sheet is the final. This is another case in point.

I hope any inter-ministerial taskforce on this topic will seek out genuine feedback from parents like me. These are important daily issues affecting the students with special needs in mainstream school.

 Often people said that children with ASD seem to have come to a wrong planet. The question is can we make it right for them and how? I believe the government wanted to make positive changes. Perhaps they are not able to identify very specific issues.

 Being a concern parent has led me to become an active citizen. I am putting together a plan to form a non-profit organisation to champion such causes for parents (or caregivers) of children with special needs especially in the mainstream environment.

I hope this effort can be just as successful as the one initiated by those active parents in our special needs community many years ago, resulting in a better SPED school environment in Singapore. The objective is to let the students with various learning difficulties and special needs to be to enjoy at least the first 6 years of basic education at a pace and approach suitable to them, and together with their mainstream peers.

 While there is no doubt definitely a need for government to continue enhancing SPED, as a parent of a child with special needs in the mainstream school, I always have this thought:  if the ultimate aim is to include and accept those with special needs into mainstream society, educating them and equipping them with knowledge and skills, wouldn’t it make sense if a larger percentage of these efforts are put into the mainstream schools where they can integrate at an earlier age?

Yap Keng Ann

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Comments by Yee Jenn Jong:

I invited Keng Ann to write this article after PM’s National Day Rally. I have become interested in the situation surrounding children and adults with special needs through the works of people like Keng Ann. Keng Ann gave up his full-time job to be care-giver for his son after finding out his son has special needs. He founded an online forum, Shoulders.sg to provide support for parents with children with similar needs. I was introduced to some of the parents and have since been running art activities for some of these children, where I experienced first-hand how they function.

Keng Ann is now forming a social enterprise to promote active support for parents of special needs children in mainstream schools.

Last year, I spoke to an educator whose two sons are autistic and are now grown up. He shared how he was planning for start a small business after his retirement so that his sons could run to make a modest living to look after themselves when he and his wife are no around to care for them anymore. They have to choose the business very carefully, to ensure it is something that their sons are capable of handling that do not involve much frontline interaction.

I salute parents of children with special needs. They face challenges that many of us do not understand. It goes beyond providing education for the children in school. The condition follows the special needs children throughout their lives into adulthood, even beyond the point where the parents can help them anymore.

A new National Day for me

National day has always been a reminder of how old I am. I was born in the year of our independence, though not on the same date. I am as old as modern Singapore. The celebrations will splash the age of our nation which is now a reminder to me that my age is adding up.

My parents came from Malaysia to find work in Singapore even before Singapore achieved self-independence. They met at Teachers Training College (now NIE), got married and settled down to work and raise a family here. When I was young, I moved frequently and freely between Singapore and Malaysia. I spent my first 2 years with my grandparents in a sleepy town called Gopeng just south of Ipoh. Sometimes, I visited my maternal grandparents in Muar, famous for durians, otah and fried oysters.

My life is in a way a reflection of the development of Singapore. As a child, life was simple. Kampong Chai Chee was just behind my home at Opera Estate. It was really a kampong back then. There were pig farms and vegetable farms. I remember pig farmers collecting waste from our backyard for pig feed and giving us gifts of eggs during festive occasions. The farms must have been removed when I was young. When I started primary school, I remember frequenting Chai Chee library and the bus interchange, both of which were later moved to Bedok.

The earliest national day celebrations I could recall were those with lots of marching. The shows with smart uniformed men, guns, tanks and airplanes were reminders in the volatile environment at that time that Singapore was not to be messed around with. National day was holiday time from school. Celebrations in school were simple. I don’t recall getting mementos from schools for celebrations. We watched the parade from our small black and white television set. Some years, when the parade went into the streets, I would go and watch on the streets. In later years, fireworks were added and that was the highlight of each show.

In secondary school, I joined the St John’s Ambulance Brigade. One year, I took part in the parade and we marched through the streets of eastern Singapore. It was a proud moment, marching through the streets with many watchful eyes, including those of my parents as our contingent went past the back of my own home. There were no frills at these parades. We put in lots of practice in marching and the parade was all about marching. There were no shows and fancy performances.

When I grew older, I paid more attention to the National Day rallies. The rally that had the strongest impression on me was in 1983, when then-PM Lee Kuan Yew spoke about the graduate mothers’ scheme. We had gathered to play board games at a college classmate’s house while watching the live telecast of the rally. Our reactions were unanimous. Even as 18-year olds, we were surprised at what the PM had said. It sounded so wrong.

I served my national service and helped at one of the parades. When I started work, I became more interested in the Prime Minister’s rally speeches than in the parades, though I would still watch the parades each year from the live telecasts. I would not miss the rally speeches. I had begun to travel more frequently and was becoming more politically and socially aware. I began to write in to the forum pages of newspapers, initially once every few years and later more frequently. It felt good to see the letters published though it was sometimes frustrating to see letters edited beyond my recognition.

The parades became more interesting again when I had children and they attended rehearsals which all children must at primary 5. The goody bags became nicer each year. I was unlucky in all my balloting for tickets for the parades but I did once win 4 tickets through a radio quiz and our family attended a parade at the now-demolished national stadium. It felt good celebrating with my family even though we had to brave crazy traffic and huge crowds. This is their country and it is good to make my children feel proud to be Singaporeans.

This year, national day will have a surreal feeling. I will no longer be watching on TV or in some corner amongst the crowd. I had not envisage that one day I would become active in politics, even though I had been watching Singapore’s political developments with increasing interest over the years. GE2011 came and I became a Non-Constituency Member of Parliament on my first attempt. I will be with the policymakers of our country that I had watched from afar since young. I will be sitting in the same area as former PM Lee Kuan Yew, whom I had watched as a kid growing up. Even more so than in previous years, I will be listening intensely to the Prime Minister’s rally speech. This time, it will be in the auditorium and not from a television set.

Presidential hopeful, Dr Tony Tan has said that Singapore’s politics has entered a new normal, a strong party in government matched by an effective opposition. Parliament will sit again on 10 October. We will see how this ‘new normal’ will shape up. It is a progression no one can fully predict but one which all parties must play their roles in.

For me, national day will not be the same again. I remain proud of my country, even more so now donning the colours of WP blue, and ever mindful of my role in the new normal that our country has arrived at.

Happy 46th National Day, Singapore.

Post event note:

I was seated with Lina Chiam of SPP on the back row of the MP gallery. The show was enjoyable. It had the usual display of military power coupled with displays by the Home Team as well as the usual march past by various contingents. The stage was magnificently set up. The show was performed with a colourful mix of live singing, dance, animations, sound and lights.  It was also refreshing to have a woman as Parade RSM, a first for Singapore.

Wearing WP light blue with our badge amongst the many Men In White, I was ever conscious of the new responsibility thrusted upon us by the people of Singapore.  During the show, I received various SMSes from well wishers happy to see the blues amongst the whites. These were from my supporters in the Joo Chiat campaign who sweated it out with me on our many door-to-door visits. I feel the weight of responsibility to the many that had pinned their hope for change on us. I know we will meet our MIW counterparts again, the next time in October when we will spar in parliament. It is an honour for me to be able to play a bigger role in this country that I call home all my life.

A new blog about Joo Chiat

I have put up a new blog relating to Joo Chiat. Do check it out at:

http://joochiattoday.wordpress.com.

Recent articles include a meeting with Philip Chew, great grandson of Chew Joo Chiat, the philanthropist whom the place was named after.

Will be updating the site with new content approximately once a week. Do suggest issues I can cover as well.

After breakfast with Philip Chew at Marine Terrace Market