Parliamentary Speech (19 October 2011)

Introduction

Mr Speaker, Sir, before I touch on the President’s speech, I like to add to the references on Bhutan, as well as correct misconceptions that had surfaced in this House. I happen to visit Bhutan just before this year’s General Elections and am now involved in a non-profit education project for the country.

Mr Cedric Foo joked that Bhutanese are happy because they have only 2 elected opposition members. Bhutan’s concept of happiness was implemented by the 4th King in the 1970s, long before they had parliamentary democracy in 2008. On my flight into Bhutan, I picked up this In-Flight magazine of Druk Air, their national airline. This page listed the 4 most important persons in Bhutan: His Majesty the King, the Chief Abbot, the Prime Minister and … the Leader of the Opposition. Speaking with Bhutanese, I was amazed at the respect they accorded to the Opposition, as well as to the democracy process.

Just as Minister Khaw said that developing Bhutan wants to learn from Singapore, there are useful lessons from Bhutan. The concept of Gross National Happiness is not some fuzzy feel-good about individual happiness as some members alluded to, but about collective happiness and long term sustainability. It does measure economic indicators, like all other countries. It also measures three other important areas: Preservation of Culture, Preservation of the Environment and Good Governance. Bhutan chose to do so because it wanted to leave something for future generations, rather than mine natural resources for short term gains or destroy the culture that made them unique. We have seen measures to prop up the economy, like liberal immigration and the casinos, which may bring immediate benefits but can lead to long term problems. Are Singaporeans happy with headline-grabbing economic growth when it is their jobs that have been impacted; when they struggle with high cost of living; or if family members face chronic gambling problems?

Sir, I will now move on to my main speech. I thank the President for reminding us to do our very best for our country and to make it the best home for all Singaporeans. I grew up in an independent Singapore. I have seen the changes we went through. Doing my best for Singapore is an aspiration that I share. Singapore is my home and my family.

The President touched on many issues. I will focus on education and the economy.

First, I like to declare that I have vested interest in the education space as an owner of several private companies offering education services, mostly to schools.

Education 

Sir, the President said that we should have “a truly special Singapore, where our children can grow to be the best that they can be.”

The main form of our current mainstream education started with the bold 1979 Goh report by the late Dr Goh Keng Swee, then Minister for Education. It was to address the challenges of the day. Streaming was introduced. Singapore went for mass production to raise the overall level of students’ performance.

Schools were differentiated progressively from 1988. From 1992, they were ranked yearly by MOE and the ranking were published. Next, MOE published schools’ actual versus expected performances. Ranking was later replaced with banding schools of similar range of students’ academic performances together. Today, while schools are appraised in non-academic areas, they are still banded by academic results.

The changes have raised overall education levels, but they also created excessive anxieties for parents and students, and widened public’s perception of quality between top and lower ranked schools.

An educator friend blogged that she had asked parents in workshops to draw their impression of our education system. One drew prison bars! There were similar drawings by other parents expressing helplessness at being trapped in the system. They felt helpless over the many high stake examinations; and pressure to get children into good schools, failing which they deem the future of their children would be compromised.

In a recent 938Live radio talkshow, a caller whose daughter was taking PSLE this year described how her family relationship became strained while preparing for the exams. A friend shared that his daughter in a top school cries frequently just before exams. I feel terrible hearing of children having their confidence crushed and growing up in fear of education. A former civil servant I met online wrote that he had migrated to Finland because he did not want to subject his son to the unhealthy system here. He wanted his son to simply love learning.

Today there is over reliance on academic performance as a benchmark of success and meritocracy, a phenomenon I call hyper-meritocracy. Hyper-meritocracy has seen parents who could afford it, pack children’s schedule with tuition.  A good paper qualification is seen as a guarantee to a successful career. The safe thing to do in Singapore is to score in exams, get a scholarship and land a secure good-paying job. This has led to a dearth of risk-taking and entrepreneurial spirit in Singapore.

I share Mr Teo Ser Luck’s observation that risk aversion will be a key challenge for him to promote entrepreneurship. The problem of lack of entrepreneurs begins in schools, where students are conditioned not to take risks and do not learn to handle ambiguity. In this aspect, I am happy to work with Mr Teo as I have been working with young entrepreneurs and students for quite some time now.

Sir, I am happy to note that MOE is looking into Character and Value-based education. Character and values are important guiding principles for life and must be imparted to students. However, schools are supposed to already have civics and moral education for years. MOE’s 21st Century Skills framework, already included character and values development. Schools, preoccupied with measurable indicators of success such as school ranking and academic grades, are known to have replaced civics periods with mainstream subjects. This sends wrong signals to children that values are not important.

Schools pile homework on students and drill them for major exams. I know of a top school which had three full-scale prelim exams in addition to mock exams using prelim papers of other schools, in order to prepare students for this year’s ‘O’ levels. Principals feel pressured into delivering academic results over other forms of holistic development.

We have had education policies with good intents before, but their effects were often muted because we did not address our examination culture.

At the heart of the issue is what good education should be about. Do we sieve out academic performers through a series of examinations so that we can concentrate them together? Is this so because we believe we need to identify the top 5% of each cohort who will run our country and our top companies in the future?

Today, we face a totally different world where what we know can quickly become obsolete. Nimbleness to change is essential for survival. We do not just churn out workers for the multinationals. We are competing against the world for investments, businesses and jobs. We need our people to be innovative and adaptable.

Mr Speaker, I hope two areas can be addressed:

1. Critically examine our intense examination culture. Can we cut down on streaming and do we need to start streaming so early?

 Finland, a country with about the same population size as Singapore, went the opposite direction with their education reforms, equalizing resources in schools and spreading talents across the system. They stream students only at 15 years old. Finnish students do well in international assessment benchmark. Notably, it has the shortest school hours in OECD countries and the narrowest gap between the high and low scorers, indicating education equity. Students hardly go for tuition. I feel it is useful to study their approach.

2. Broaden learning and seriously infuse character and values development.

Already schools are reluctant to offer subjects that are important to broaden students’ thinking, such as literature and history, as these subjects are difficult to score well in. Yet they are important for students to appreciate diversity, handle ambiguity and to develop critical thinking.

We should further broaden learning to include political education so that students can grow up with a wider spectrum of thoughts. Perhaps, they can then develop the Digital Quotient that Dr Lam Pin Min spoke about and can become responsible participants in our evolving parliamentary democracy.

Today, we appear more educated. However, I am not sure if we are more learned and more innovative, or we are simply more exam-smart.

I like to share a story with this House. Recently, I met a Singaporean couple who run an international school in Bangkok. They shared the experience of their daughter.  Jazlina retained a place in a Singapore school under overseas leave of absence. She returned in primary 6, took her PSLE and was admitted into an autonomous school. She spent her secondary two in Singapore.

Jazlina is a bright and self-motivated girl who had thrived in school while in Thailand. But under our system, she felt constrained trying to conform to a rigid regime expecting standard answers. With a class size of over 40 students, her mother had to put her through tuition to keep pace with the class. Jazlina started to lose self-confidence and told her mother that ‘maybe I am not so smart after all’. At secondary three, she was streamed into a subject combination that was not her passion. After fighting the system for a few more months, the family put her back into their own school in Thailand.

Jazlina blossomed again. She now represents Thailand in international debating competitions, where she has won prizes. At this year’s iGCSE exams, Jazlina aced all her subjects and scored 100% in two subjects, including for the subject of her passion which she was not selected to take in Singapore.

Her mother shared that had they not brought her back into a more nurturing environment, her confidence would have plunged further. She felt that Singapore’s system was not bringing out the best in Jazlina, but was instead drowning her.

Mr Speaker, Sir, the President’s call for our children to ‘grow to be the best that they can be’ is a great ideal. Like Mr Lawrence Wong, I believe that education should light up fires in children. We have to deal with many like Jazlina, who are talented and passionate, but constrained by the system. Instead of being obsessed with picking out winners, education should make winners out of the ordinary.

We may have done well in the past. Based on that, we entrench our processes further without critically considering the changing environment or the negative effects. It has been 32 years since the Goh Report. I believe it is time to make bolder evaluation of our mainstream education.

Economy

Sir, next, I like to talk about the economy. I feel the government has become small in areas it should be big in, and big in areas it should be small in.

In the last decade, Singapore has adopted a free market approach for many government services. Some areas like the provision of public housing, public transportation and health care, which are essential social responsibilities of the government, have gone this route too.

My colleague, Gerald Giam had touched extensively on the under-capacity of hospital beds, public transport and housing as a result of this policy. We outsource critical areas to the private sector and hence we had issues such as DBSS which had caused unhappiness due to public housing being pushed to unaffordable levels.

The government chose to play a smaller role in the provision of essential services. It passed these responsibilities to the free market. With a free market mindset, the government was not prepared to take risks. As a result, Singaporeans bore the cost of the under-provision.

On the other hand, in areas that the government should play a smaller role, it has instead grown bigger.

As our economy developed through the years, instead of letting private enterprises take more initiative in the economy, our government’s share of the economy has grown through its participation in Government Linked Companies or GLCs. This is in contrast to countries like South Korea and Taiwan whose governments also had helped pioneered some key businesses but progressively withdrew to let the private sector drive growth thereafter.

The NTUC group is a large cooperative with a stated US$3.5 billion annual turnover from its website. GLCs and cooperatives like NTUC inevitably compete with local enterprises, making the domestic market even smaller for them.

A Straits Times Forum writer wrote last week to share his experience as an entry-level entrepreneur in Chinatown Complex. In May this year, NEA engaged professional valuers to appraise the value of the complex. Rent went up by 71 to 100% as a result.

Keeping rental cost manageable is important to the survival of small enterprises. In the past few years, JTC divested many of its properties to Real Estate Investment Trusts. I noted that rental cost of former JTC spaces have gone up as a result, an observation shared by SME leaders in an article in the Straits Times today. Hence, SMEs today struggle with high rental cost on top of challenging manpower cost.

SMEs sometimes also suffer in tenders due to risk aversion by government officers who may shun smaller companies even if the solutions offered have met specifications at lower costs. To promote the growth of SMEs, the government could look at ways to allow GLCs to participate only in tenders above certain minimum values. Or GLCs and cooperatives should withdraw totally from non-essential market segments if SMEs are capable of fulfilling local demands.

I believe there’s merit in encouraging SMEs to develop themselves further with a mindset of professionalism, precision and perfection. In some developed economies like Germany and Switzerland, there are vibrant cottage industries comprising long established family-run businesses. They have generations of know-how that have allowed their products to be sought after despite competition from lower cost countries.

SMEs create jobs. Those that have succeeded locally could end up as global winners. In Singapore, we also have our cottage industries. I am happy to note that we have long established food brands like Tee Yih Jia, Sin Hwa Dee, Polar Puffs and others that have been able to scale globally. It is imperative that Singapore provides the conditions to develop more of such local enterprises.

As we move forward to strengthen our economy, I hope the government can consider right-sizing itself in the appropriate areas. I like to see it being big in providing essential social services. I like to see it become small in running domestic businesses and leave the space to grow our SMEs.

With that, Mr Speaker, I support the motion of thanks.

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Stay hungry, stay foolish – A great principle for life

The guiding principle in the life of Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs, the visionary US entrepreneur that gave us many wonderful tools (Mac, iPhone, iPad) and animations (Toy Story, Finding Nemo) that the world has grown to love, has just passed away.

He is an entrepreneur and innovator that I truly admire. This is even more so after I have watched his 2005 speech at Stanford University. He shared 3 important points:

1. Connecting the dots in life

Steve Jobs shared about his bad start in life, where he was given away for adoption by his unwed natural mother. His adopted parents promised and fulfilled the promise to give him a college life. He chose to drop out of college after 6 months, because it cost his adopted parents a lot of money and he had no idea what the college degree would do for his life. He stayed on as a college drop-in for another 18 months. He could then attend the courses that he liked, instead of those that he did not like but had to take to fulfil the degree’s requirements.

It wasn’t that he knew exactly what he was doing back then. He took a journey off the well-beaten path. It was scary, but he wanted to follow his curiosity and trust that things will turn out ok in the end. He did not see the dots when he started out. They only connected when he looked back with hindsight.

2. Love what you do

He loved what he did and grew Apple Inc. within 10 years to become a US$2 billion company with 4,000 employees. Then, he was fired at age 30 because of differences in vision with Apple’s board about the company’s direction. He became a high-profile ‘failure’, known throughout the world for being fired from his own company. Ironically, that loss gave him the lightness of being a beginner all over again. From there, he founded NeXT Computer Inc.  (which was later sold to Apple and he re-joined Apple) and Pixar Animation.

He shared that life sometimes hit you hard with a brick. However, as long as you have genuine love and passion for what you are doing, you can cope with it, as he has demonstrated by bouncing back stronger than ever.

3. Facing the certainty of death

He has learnt from a young age to understand human mortality. Death is the destination that we all share. Instead of being morbid about it, he used it to follow his heart; to do what he felt was necessary. He called on us not to be trapped by living other people’s life for us, but to find the courage to follow our heart and intuition. Indeed, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and had to deal with various illnesses along the way. Yet, he went on to create the hugely successful iPhone and iPad even while fighting his illnesses.

Steve Jobs ended his Stanford talk with the phrase, “Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish”. It was something he read when he was a young man, and it became his guiding principle throughout life. He wished that for the Stanford graduates as they journey in their lives.

I totally understand and appreciate his perspective in life. I had undergone a journey too where I decided at some point, that I was chasing academic qualifications without the love for what I was doing. So I left a secure career to begin a journey to find and connect the dots in my life.

I found my passion later running businesses, first as a professional manager for an entrepreneurial company and later starting out my own. When you have found the passion for what you do, work was never a chore. Each day was filled with new challenges that you look forward to overcome. My company nearly failed a couple of times. I saw them as bricks that life threw at me. These were challenges you just have to overcome.

I left the company I founded after 9 years. Nothing man-made is too important that we cannot let go of. And in letting go, we have to trust that the dots that will come will somehow connect together.

Death is a certainty for all. We do not have long to live. I rather live my own life than to worry how other people want me to live it.

Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish

I feel Singaporeans can do with a dose of the advice from Steve Jobs. Often, we go through life living it for someone else.

Too often, we seek the security of our qualifications. With the qualifications, we find a secure job. With so much at stake, we do not wish to take risks anymore. When I was starting off after leaving my academic career, I wanted to stay hungry. I prefer not to be too comfortable with life that I would not want to venture out anymore. My wife and I started our first venture when our three children were very young. We threw in all our savings. By being hungry, we had to make it happen.

Being foolish is going against conventional wisdom. Steve Jobs natural mother wanted him to go through college so that he could have a secured life. That was her condition for giving him up for adoption. His adopted parents fulfilled that promise and sent him to college. Steve Jobs wanted something else. He wanted to follow his passion, even though he did not fully know what that was then. He did not choose a lazy path by stopping his studies. He continued in college taking courses out of interest, and one of the courses influenced how he designed Apple later on. He worked harder to continue learning, and he chose what he wanted to learn rather than to be constrained by course requirements. By staying hungry and foolish, he went on to turn his passion into great inventions.

Our society has grown into one where we promote elitism. We encourage people to pursue good paper qualifications, sometimes at the expense of cultivating the love for learning. Learning is mostly to achieve the grades. We use our education system to sieve out the academically able to prepare a secure career path for them. Our system has evolved into one in which academic  results become linked to one’s value in society. This has led many parents to become highly anxious over the education of their children. Hence, I am not in favour of the high number of scholarships our government institutions and government-linked companies dish out yearly. It creates an unnatural sense of security and discourages risk taking. Our best talents are not prepared to take risks, whether in their professional jobs or to venture out on their own. And we wonder why we cannot produce innovative world-class companies.

As we continue to use our iPhones and iPads, or enjoy the next Pixar movie, let’s remember that the man who gave these to us advised us that sometimes, it is better to stay hungry and to stay foolish. Trust in your own instincts, follow your heart and if required, break free from the secure.

Thank you for what you have shown to the world. Very few people prepared for death as well as you did and lived life as fully as you did. Rest in peace, Steve Jobs.

What should be the focus of our education?

The task of the excellent teacher is to stimulate “apparently ordinary” people to unusual effort. The tough problem is not in identifying winners: it is in making winners out of ordinary people. ~K. Patricia Cross, Education Scholar

I like this quote because it reminds us of what education should be about.

In fast pace Singapore, we have made education into a stressful race. For entry into what people perceived as the best primary schools, parents would do voluntary work or shift their homes to be near a choice school, hoping to give a head-start in life to their precious ones.  We have streaming for gifted students at the end of primary three; streaming by subject banding at the end of primary four; and the all-important Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE) at primary six. The PSLE results will determine a child going into schools with specialised programmes or integrated programmes or into the special, express, normal academic or normal technical stream of mainstream schools. It will also determine if they enter a less preferred neighbourhood school or a prestigious branded school more endowed with resources.

At the end of secondary two, students are tested again to be streamed into different subject combinations. This is usually followed by the N or O levels examinations before streaming into the Institute of Technical Education, polytechnics, pre-university centres or junior colleges.

The main form of our current education system started with the 1979 Goh report, named after the late Dr Goh Keng Swee, who was then Minister for Education. It was to address specific problems then, which amongst other things included a low rate of progression for students from primary to secondary school and low literacy achievements. Streaming was introduced.  Singapore went for a mass production model to raise the overall level of students’ performance.

Independent Schools were introduced in 1988 and Autonomous Schools in 1994. Integrated Programme, with students skipping the O levels was introduced in 2004. Progressively, schools began to be graded and ranked. As early as 1992, the Ministry of Education (MOE) started using Mean Subject Grade (MSG), the average of all subjects offered by a pupil as an indicator of academic performance. Also in 1992, The Straits Times created the ST100 Schools list, which ranks schools based on their yearly overall results using information from MOE. Two years later, MOE introduced the PRISM tool for measuring a school’s actual performance against its expected performance. The result for each school was published; a practice that continued till it was replaced in 2004 by a scheme that banded schools of similar range of students’ academic performances together.

Today, schools are appraised based on the School Excellence Model (SEM). Awards are given to schools that score highly in various categories. Thankfully, the measures are not all about academic results though banding by academic results still exists. The effect of ranking and branding is that over the years, the public’s opinions of quality between top schools and neighbourhood schools have widen considerably. Principals feel pressured into delivering the academic results over other forms of holistic development.

While the Goh report and subsequent changes did raise overall education and literacy levels, they also created a lot of anxieties for parents and students. With the branding divide, parents worry over getting their children into the ‘best’ schools, failing which they deem the future of their children will be compromised.

There is today an over reliance on academic performance as a benchmark of meritocracy. A good paper qualification is seen as a guarantee to a successful career. It would be even better if one can land a scholarship. A scholarship is seen as the pathway to a safe government job or a secure position in a government linked company. There has been an explosion in the number of scholarships since the 1980s. Today, most government agencies and government linked companies offer scholarships, adding fuel to the perception that scholarship is the way to a successful life.

Many parents see academic achievement as the only way to success. The safe thing to do in Singapore is to get a good education and land a secure good-paying job, leading to a dearth of entrepreneurial spirit. Entrepreneurship, a key driver of wealth creation in countries such as the United States is hence sorely lacking here. It is in part due to a sterile education curriculum that values scoring in examinations over creativity, innovation and embracing ambiguity.

In his September workplan seminar speech, Education Minister Mr Heng called for a Character and Value-based education. Character and values are certainly important guiding principles for life. I fully agree we need to impart these to students. However, it is not that these are totally new to MOE. There have been civics and moral lessons in schools for years. More recently, MOE’s 21st Century Skills framework developed in 2009 also included character and values development.

It remains to be seen though, how seriously schools and parents will take to the Character and Value-based education, given that Mr Heng had not announced any fundamental change in our school system, assessment methods for students and MOE appraisal for schools. Schools will continue to be judged by the public based on the academic results they generate. Schools in Singapore today display huge banners announcing the academic achievements of their recent cohorts of students. Academic results are still what matters. Parents will continue to pack their children with tuition to gain every bit of advantage. Those who cannot afford tuition will be disadvantaged, leading to lowering of social mobility. Schools will continue to pile homework on students and drill them for the major examinations. I was surprised recently to hear of a school having three mock examinations in addition to the prelims to prepare students for the O levels.

We have seen it happen before. We had ‘Teach Less, Learn More’ (TLLM) initiated after the Prime Minister’s National Day Rally in 2004. It is a noble exercise. In actual execution, it turned out to become more like ‘Teach Less, Tuition More’ because there was no change in the way students were assessed. Parents anxious about the reduced teaching time for their children will pack in more tuition. Schools continue to put in high homework load and drill students for the high stake examinations. Schools and parents continued to rely on time-tested practices to grind out the results.

For TLLM to have a chance, we will need to critically relook at syllabuses and methods of assessments. We will need to have broader range of experiences for students such as experiential and collaborative learning to learn important skills such as critical thinking and problem solving, which cannot be graded through written examinations. Schools find it difficult to do these given the pressures of delivering results for high stake examinations, which remained unchanged even with TLLM.

At the heart of the issue is what education should be about. Is it to sieve out academic performers through a series of high stake examinations so that we can concentrate the best learning resources on them? Is this so because we believe we need to identify the top 5% of each cohort who will become future leaders of Singapore?

Education is a journey. In Singapore’s journey, we had the landmark Goh Report that made sweeping changes to the system to address the pressing problems at that time.

Much has changed since the Goh Report. Today, we face a totally different world. We have entered into the 21st century where knowledge can get obsolete quite quickly and nimbleness to change is essential for survival. We are no longer just churning out jobs for the multinationals. We are competing against the world for investment, for business and for jobs. We need our people to be innovative and adaptable.

Is Mr Heng’s call for reform bold enough? What more can be done?

I believe if we are to truly transform ourselves for the 21st century, we need to seriously answer some key questions, even if it means reviewing some jealously guarded practices:

  1. Are we over reliant on high stake examinations which measure mainly knowledge? Do we need so many streaming examinations and do we need to start streaming so early in a child’s school life?
  2. Can we spread out students and teaching talents across schools rather than concentrate them on elite schools? Finland, a country with about the same population size as Singapore, went the opposite direction from us with their education reforms in the 1970s and 80s, equalizing resources in schools and spreading talents across the system. Finnish students did exceptionally well too in recent international assessment benchmark such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Notably, it has the narrowest gap between the high and low scorers, which indicates educational equity. Today, its education system is highly respected and is being studied with interest internationally.
  3. Will schools seriously infuse character and values development into their curriculum? How do we develop our students in imagination, creativity and critical thinking, which are critical 21st century skills yet are difficult to assess through examinations? Can we even broaden learning to include political education so that students can grow up with a wider spectrum of thoughts and can better embrace diversity.

Beyond education, are we brave enough to embrace a fundamental change in the way we run our government institutions and government-linked companies?  Do we need these organisations to continue to dish out so many scholarships? Can we encourage greater risk-taking in these organisations?

Our current system seems to be obsessed with identifying the academically inclined. I believe education should be about making winners out of ordinary people. It should be about stretching students at all levels to be confident in themselves and to create in them a love for learning.  Today, many students select subjects based on how they can best score in examinations. Schools offer subject combinations based on how confident they are of generating the grades. Subjects such as literature and history are often not offered because academically good students may not score well in them.

In his book, The Element, eminent education thinker Sir Ken Robinson documented real-life accounts of how initially ordinary people or even those rejected as underperformers became successful after discovering their elements. Passion drove them to success after they had discovered their talent and found their love.

I hope to see a deeper and more critical study of our education system vis-à-vis the 21st century context, perhaps an education report for the next phase similar to what the Goh report did to transform education since 1979. Change takes a generation to see the effect. Have we examined our system hard enough to make the changes that are necessary to take us into a new century?