My Budget Speech – 28 February 2012

Yee Jenn Jong Budget Speech (28 February 2012)

Mr Deputy Speaker Sir, I welcome the noticeable shift from previous budgets which concentrated mostly on economic growth towards more social programs in this Budget.

Over the last decade, our society faced many challenges such as widening income inequality; rising inflation and slower social mobility. Wages of low and lower-middle class earners have stagnated or grew much slower than that of our highest income earners. Our over reliance on market-driven policies has resulted in deficiencies in the provision of social goods.

Refocusing on the weak, disabled and elderly amongst us is timely. The government has to step up to mitigate the adverse impact of the widening income inequality by proactively providing essential social goods and services.

This budget is a first step. Moving forward, we need to tread between growth and equity; between individual’s and society’s responsibility. How far will we go in our journey to be inclusive? How much do we provide for in elderly care and medical costs? What is affordable public housing? What levels of social security are we comfortable with? These questions must be debated upon as our nation define a new social-economic model going forward.

SMEs

Next, I like to touch on Small and Medium Enterprises, a subject close to my heart as I operate in this space.

There are a number of assistance schemes in this Budget for SMEs. We have not been short of schemes for SMEs in the past, especially in the form of grants. While these can provide some slight help given the challenging environment SMEs operate in, they are like aspirins for short term pain relief. We need to look deeper beyond assistances to tackle directly the important issues confronting SMEs.

In preparing for this section on SMEs, I recall a hike I made into a primary rainforest in Sarawak some years ago. Walking into the rainforest on a hot day, I noticed dim lighting and a distinct lack of undergrowth. With sunlight blocked by the canopy of the giant trees, smaller plants could not flourish.

SMEs operate in challenging environments. Industrial rent increased at more than three times inflation rate at 16% last year. This increase is the highest level in the past 14 years. Retail rent rates have been rising steadily too. Industrial and retail spaces are now dominated by REITS. I join Members Inderjit Singh and Mr Teo to echo my concerns about the effects of a decade of the proliferation of REITS. Could the retail rents increase be partly driven by Retail REITS enhancing their negotiation position given common market practice that they can obtain the retailer’s gross retail turnover data? I urge serious review on the effects of REITS on SMEs.

Going forward, SMEs will find it harder and more costly to hire suitable manpower. In certain industries, there will be continued competition from the big boys. The Budget provides for assistance in Merger and Acquisition. Some SMEs may be forced to close or merge. SMEs form 99% of our business entities and employ some 63% of our workforce. Jobs will be at risk as a result of closures and mergers. We need brace ourselves for a rough ride in the SME space in the next 5 years as the economy restructures. We need to be prepared to help those whose jobs will be lost during this period of restructuring.

We dream of the next big thing to fly the Singapore enterprise flag globally. How do we achieve that?

Going back to the rainforest analogy, how do we get smaller plants to grow? They need air, water, good soil and sunlight. The seeds themselves must also be of good quality.

Companies need a positive business climate, which can be promoted by good government policies, just as plants need air and water for sustainability. We do have fairly positive policies that allow companies to get started up quickly. We need to constantly look ahead to ensure our environment stay small business friendly.

The market place is the soil the plants grow in. We may not have a large domestic market, but we do have a domestic market that can sustain our SMEs. It would help if the government can make the soil richer by stimulating domestic consumption from time to time.

The seed represents the soundness of each company’s business ideas as well as the talents it has. Good programmes to cultivate our young to be more innovative and entrepreneurial can help seed improvements for our future SMEs.

Carving out space to grow strategic SMEs 

SMEs need space to grow, just as plants need space for sunlight to come through. In the rainforest where there were patches that giant trees were absent for whatever reasons, there were thriving smaller plants. The space vacated by the giants had allowed smaller plants to flourish. I had spoken previously on this. I will agree to disagree with some members of this House as to whether there’s crowding out by large trees, the industry giants. Beyond arguing about crowding out by large companies, I like our government to create fresh spaces for SMEs. It can do so by being a significant player in the economy to drive the creation of innovative SME-led solutions in certain key sectors.

For example, the government’s call for consumer and first-user of innovative solutions to be developed by local enterprises in the 2010 ESC report, backed by a $450 million co-innovation fund is the right step.

We can do more.

There is danger that there may be risk aversion by government officers to buy solutions from SMEs for fear of having to answer for failures, even if SMEs can meet specifications and offer lower prices than larger companies. We need to prevent this mindset. One possibility is to have smaller tenders that only SMEs can participate in. If there are no SME who can fulfil the requirements, then the tenders will be opened to larger industry players.

We can identify certain areas where there is substantial government demand and a strategic reason for us to have our home-grown innovative solutions. A positive example that comes to my mind is in water technology. We could have imported all the technologies but it was good that we chose to also go with local firms which allowed them to grow and compete in similar projects internationally. We need more of such successes. 

We have many public building projects ongoing now. We can use this opportunity to aggressively push the development of innovative home-grown green technology to be incorporated into the buildings. We could also use it to push for productivity improvements in our construction industry by insisting on productivity conditions and rewarding for innovation in productivity enhancements.

I also like to see policies requiring the public sector to favour green procurements. This can spur the development of our local suppliers to meet green standards that will allow them to compete for projects in countries that have already implemented such policies. Green procurement policies are already gaining traction in places like Taiwan, Thailand, Canada, Japan and Korea.

We can even dovetail this initiative with that of the Renovation and Refurbishment Deduction Scheme by having better tax deductions for retail and F&B outlets to adopt renovations that are eco-friendly.

I was encouraged recently to learnt that a local SME, Greenpac (S) Pte Ltd had developed an environmentally friendly packaging solution for a global eye-care leader CIBA Vision, that won the international WorldStar Packaging Award 2010. I learnt that not only was the solution eco-friendly, it also saved space, resulting in lower transportation costs and eliminated unnecessary unpacking and re-packing , which resulted in productivity gains for the client.

There was a call to use green lenses in government procurement in the 2010 ESC report. I like to see greater speed in legislation and in execution of this recommendation. We can certainly develop more local SMEs to become world leaders in the promising green technology industry.

Sir, I have confidence in the innovativeness of our SMEs to rise to the challenge when spaces are open up for them to demonstrate innovative solutions to meet our public projects’ needs.

The Necessary Mindset For 21st Century Singapore

I like to end with a story. I took a walk outside this House recently and noted the inscription on the statue of Sir Stamford Raffles by the Singapore River. It says “On this historic site, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles first landed in Singapore on 28th January 1819 and with genius and perception changed the destiny of Singapore from an obscure fishing village to a great seaport and modern metropolis.”

Singapore has moved into a new phase of our development. The world has moved into a new century. There is a great need in this 21st century to have our people to be genius and perceptive to spot gems of opportunities caused by constant upheavals. There will be plenty, brought about by constant technological advancements, political changes, and shifts in economic power. We live in an exciting world. Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook became the world’s youngest self-made billionaire at just 23 years old four years after starting his business in the dormitory of his university. Such opportunity and speed are only possible today with the constant technological changes that break down old barriers and level the playing field for innovative newcomers. In this innovation-driven era, we need to empower our people through mindset change to achieve quantum leaps in productivity improvements.

Sir, We need people full of creativity, innovativeness, perception and daringness to find the next Angry Bird or Facebook in us. Sir Stamford Raffles took risk with Singapore, a small and undeveloped fishing island. In this age and time, we need to find in ourselves the genius, perception and risk-taking spirit to discover brave new worlds out there.

I like to conclude by saying that significant challenges lie ahead as our economy restructures. Our forefathers have worked diligently to get us to where we are. We need brace ourselves for changes to come, and find faith in our abilities to rise above the challenges, as we have done so in the past.

Thank you.

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Selected Parliamentary Questions I Raised (Oct 2011 – Feb 2012)

For convenience of access, I have compiled a selection of some of the parliamentary questions (PQs) and Supplementary Questions (SQs) I raised over the past five months below (Source: http://www.parliament.gov.sg/publications-singapore-parliament-reports):

MITA

Divestments of JTC’s properties (21 Oct 2011)

Mr Yee Jenn Jong asked the Minister for Trade and Industry (a) how many properties of JTC Corporation and how much total floor area have been transferred to Real Estate Investment Trusts or sold through trade sales since 2006; and (b) what is the average percentage change in rent of these properties one year after having transferred out from JTC.

Mr Lim Hng Kiang:

JTC Corporation undertook two phases of divestment in 2008 and 2011 respectively for its ready-built high-rise industrial properties. A total of about 2 million square metres (sqm) of Gross Floor Area (GFA) of space in 83 properties was divested. This corresponds to less than 5% of the overall industrial space market. Most of these properties were flatted factories. The remaining properties were amenity centres and other types of industrial buildings. Separately, JTC divested three dormitories in 2007 with an estimated GFA of 110,000 sqm.

The first phase of divestment was completed in mid-2008 with a sale to Mapletree Investments Pte Ltd. Under the divestment terms, the rent escalation for existing tenants was capped at 5% per annum over JTC’s July 2007 posted rents for a period of three years. Hence, one year after the divestment, the maximum rents these existing tenants paid should be no more than 5% above JTC’s July 2007 posted rents. The actual adjustment in rent would vary among individual tenants, depending on the level of their base rent. JTC is not privy to the actual adjustments, as the tenancy agreements had become private commercial transactions with the divestment.

The second phase of the divestment was completed in August 2011. One of the conditions of the tender was for the bidder to provide a business continuity plan for tenants.

One tranche was sold to Soilbuild Group Holdings Ltd, which committed to cap renewal rates for a three-year tenancy for existing tenants at not more than 10% above JTC’s July 2011 posted rents, for a period of two years.

Another tranche was sold to Mapletree Industrial Trust (MIT), where the renewal rates would be pegged to JTC’s July 2011 posted rents with a cap of 5% per annum for three years, upon the completion of the trade sale. In addition, for tenants who have more than 10 years of continuous tenancy, MIT has offered an additional 2% discount off JTC’s July 2011 posted rates in the first year. The renewal rates for this group of tenants would be subject to a lower rent escalation cap of 3% per annum of JTC’s July 2011 posted rates for the subsequent two years.

One year after the second phase of divestment (which would be August 2012), JTC would similarly not be privy to the actual adjustments of rent. However, the new owners will have to keep to the rent caps when negotiating tenancy renewals with the tenants.

JTC will continue to track industrial rents as part of its overall responsibility.

(NB: A recent ST report cited several industry leaders in retail and industry blaming REITS as the main cause of rental increase. REITS need to answer to shareholders to maximise returns. By being large land owners now, they dictate rents and smaller property owners will follow suit.)

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MEWR

Government Co-ordination for Handling of Problems Related to Birds (16 Jan 2012)

Mr Yee Jenn Jong asked the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources (a) why the issue of crows come under the purview of the National Environment Agency (NEA) while nuisance with pigeons is handled by the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) and complaints about mynahs are handled by neither agency; and (b) whether there is a plan for a single agency to handle problems related to birds.

Dr Vivian Balakrishnan:

The management of bird nuisance requires action from several different agencies. These measures include trees management, food waste management and occasional culling of birds as a last resort. For example, (i) NParks and the Town Councils maintain and prune trees regularly in areas where there are large numbers of nests; (ii) NEA ensures increased cleaning frequency at hot spots to remove litter which may act as food source for the birds and bird droppings; (iii) NEA ensures that operators of food outlets at hotspot areas observe good housekeeping practices, and requires refuse points to be properly secured with nettings and other anti-bird devices; (iv) both AVA and NEA take enforcement action against people who feed birds as this can result in littered premises; and (v) occasionally NEA and Town Councils cull crows and pigeons as a last resort.

In the past, the allocation of responsibility amongst agencies was based primarily on the nature of the intervention required, rather than the specific species of bird involved. This inadvertently led to a situation where there was some ambiguity over mynahs in particular. MND and MEWR have decided that henceforth, AVA will coordinate the work of all the agencies involved whenever problems caused by birds arise.

(NB: Mystery solved. Now we know who to call… AVA, the birds busters)

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Points Demerit System (PDS) for Food Vendors (18 Jan 2012)

Mr Yee Jenn Jong asked the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources since the implementation of the Points Demerit System (PDS) for operators of food courts, coffee shops and canteens in November 2010 (a) how many operators have been issued with demerit points; (b) what are the three most common offences; (c) how many operators have had their licences suspended or revoked; (d) how frequently is enforcement being carried out; and (e) what programmes are put in place by NEA to educate all operators and their cleaning contractors on hygiene standards.

The Senior Minister of State for the Environment and Water Resources (Ms Grace Fu Hai Yien) (for the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources): Mr Speaker, the Point Demerit System (PDS) was first implemented in 1987 for hawker stalls. PDS was extended to food courts, coffee shops and canteens in November 2010 to motivate operators to pay more attention to the cleanliness of the common areas in their premises. Food courts, coffee shops and canteens are routinely inspected at least twice a year. NEA also carries out additional inspections based on the feedback it receives from the public. Potential problem areas, such as toilets in coffee shops, are inspected monthly.

Since November 2010, 179 operators have been issued with demerit points, in addition to being fined for cleanliness-related offences. The three most common offences are the failure to keep the premises clean, the toilets clean, and to maintain the sanitary fittings in the toilets in good working condition. An operator who chalks up 24 demerit points within 12 months will have his licence suspended for up to three days. Thus far, no operator has accumulated the maximum number of demerit points for suspension.

Besides educating the operators during the inspections, NEA also carries out outreach and educational programmes, such as the “My Coffee Shop Shines” programme in the South-West district and the “Clean Food Shops” programme in the North-West district. Under these programmes, NEA works with the operators and stall owners to improve their cleaning regimes and works with the grassroots organisations to educate the public on keeping food shops clean and hygienic. NEA also works with the Public Hygiene Council (PHC) and Restroom Association of Singapore (RAS) to improve the state of toilet cleanliness in food establishments.

To raise cleaning standards, NEA also initiated a voluntary accreditation scheme for the cleaning industry in July 2010. The scheme recognises companies that have in place operating systems that ensure the provision of quality cleaning services by a professional cleaning workforce. We hope that this will bring about improvements in cleaning standards in the longer run, and encourage operators to hire accredited companies for cleaning so as to increase industry demand for more reliable cleaning services.

We need the concerted efforts of operators, cleaners and patrons to ensure a clean environment in food establishments. Moving forward, more educational efforts will be carried out together with the PHC, and we urge the public to also play a greater part in demanding a cleaner dining environment by providing feedback to NEA and not visiting establishments that are poorly maintained. At the same time, the public can also help the situation by being considerate when using the facilities in the food establishments and keep them clean for the next user. This will help to raise the level of public hygiene and improve our living environment.

Mr Yee Jenn Jong (Non-Constituency Member): I thank the Senior Minister of State for the very comprehensive answers. I have three supplementary questions. The first is: these rules and enforcement, how are they being applied to the hawker centres which are run by NEA? The second is: I have noticed that there are large numbers of foreign cleaners working in the various eating establishments in Singapore and they have various acceptable hygiene standards from their own countries. How is the Ministry monitoring this and are they satisfied with the level of cleanliness by these workers? The third question is whether there is any rating or grading of eating establishments’ cleanliness like the way hawker stalls are being graded.

Ms Grace Fu Hai Yien: Mr Speaker, I would like to thank the Member for the supplementary questions. For the enforcement, NEA hawker centres will be subjected to the same regime. Second question about foreign cleaners: I would like to stress that we do not make a distinction on the nationality or the race of the cleaners. What we will focus on really is the outcome and we will like to apply that same consistent principle, looking at the outcome of overall level of cleanliness. We have a standard that we apply on the various areas to watch. For example, as I mentioned in my reply, how clean is the toilet, whether the toilets are properly provided with the necessary supplies, and so on. So it is really outcome-driven. I would like to respond to the question I think that most Singaporeans are concerned with. It is really the overall hygiene standard and cleanliness at our food establishments. My Ministry has worked very hard to improve on that level but we are not satisfied, and we would like to see a bigger improvement in the level of public hygiene. This is an area that my Ministry will work very, very hard on for the coming years. On the standards of cleanliness of eating establishments, this is something that we will be prepared to consider, and if the Member would like to give us specific suggestions, we will be very happy to incorporate.

(NB: This PQ was prompted by a series of dirty eating establishments I visited recently that got me worried about the level of food hygiene in Singapore. I think we can all play a part in notifying NEA if we come across eateries that are unsatisfactory in hygiene.)

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MOE

Elitism in Schools (18 Jan 2012)

Mr Yee Jenn Jong: Thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing me to join in this interesting discussion. I would like to follow up on the specialised Normal (Technical) school. I can understand the rationale is that we want to have more resources to be channelled to this group of students, because at the current moment, each school have maybe just one or two Normal (Technical) classes and it is difficult to find the resources. Is there going to be a trend that there is going to be more of these specialised Normal (Technical) schools spread across Singapore? And whether MOE will instead consider perhaps clustering resources together so that, perhaps, within the cluster, they can help to set examination papers across the Normal (Technical) classes in the schools? Or maybe MOE can do that, so that we can still let these Normal (Technical) students stay in a normal school rather than separate them?

Mr Lawrence Wong: I thank the Member for the supplementary question. In fact, the second part of what he said is already happening. Within the clusters in the zone, the teachers who are involved in teaching Normal (Technical) do share notes, do come together and share experiences and resources. But the specialised schools are really a step forward in terms of thinking about perhaps a different way of doing things. So it is, to some extent, an experiment in terms of trying out something different where we have a specialised institution catered to this group of people, appropriately resourced, with a different curriculum catered to them.

There will be pros and cons, and we have to strike a balance. There is no plan for us now to expand these specialised schools because this is something new. As I mentioned earlier, we are developing these programmes and we are looking very hard and monitoring the results of what is happening through these schools. The initial findings are positive. We think these children are coming out better and they are coping better in their studies, and they are learning better, more effectively. That does not mean that we should proliferate and expand them. I do not think there are any plans now. But what we would want to do, as I mentioned, is to focus on these institutions to see how they can do better, in terms of developing their children in these schools. At the same time, we will take up Ms Denise Phua’s suggestion of programmes that can integrate better, students across different institutions. We are working on multiple approaches. I think these are things that we will continue to evolve and develop. If we think there are indications that a particular programme offers success and is useful, then we would look at ways to expand it in the most effective manner.

(NB: Mine was a supplementary question to a question raised by Dr Intan about elitism in school that led to the discussion on Specialised Normal (Technical) schools that will be operational from 2013. I subsequently wrote a blog piece on this as I am concern about the trend that this may lead to.)

 

Progress of Normal (Technical) Students (14 Feb 2012)

Mr Yee Jenn Jong asked the Minister for Education for each of the past 10 years, what is the number of Normal (Technical) students and percentage of its yearly cohort who (i) progress to Secondary 2 Normal (Academic) stream at the end of Secondary 1; (ii) progress to the Normal (Academic) stream after the Secondary 4 Normal (Technical) examinations; (iii) qualify for a place at the Institute of Technical Education; and (iv) progress to study at a local polytechnic or university.

The Senior Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Education (Ms Sim Ann) (for the Minister for Education) : Sir, on average, around 380 students or 6% of each Secondary 1 Normal (Technical) cohort transferred to Secondary 2 Normal (Academic). Most students who could benefit from a more academically-oriented track are identified early and would transfer to the Normal Academic course prior to Secondary 4. On average, around five students transfer from Secondary 4 Normal (Technical) to Secondary 4 Normal (Academic).

All students who complete the Normal (Technical) course qualify for admission to the Institute of Technical Education (ITE), and compete for courses of their choice.

On average, around 960 students or 15% of each Normal (Technical) cohort go on to our polytechnics and autonomous universities. Many also upgrade themselves to Diplomas and other qualifications after gaining some work experience, through Continuing Education and Training programmes at our ITE, polytechnics, and universities.

Mr Yee Jenn Jong (Non-Constituency Member) : Sir, I would like to thank the Senior Parliamentary Secretary for the answer. I have two supplementary questions. The first is that it seems that the mobility out of the Normal (Technical) stream is still quite low despite there being provisions for them to move to the Normal (Academic) stream. What does the Senior Parliamentary Secretary think of re-combining Normal (Technical) back with the Normal (Academic) stream to increase the mobility for the late developers?

The second question is that for the Normal streams, are we able to offer more widely modular courses that range from those that are technical in nature to those in the visual and performing arts? By “modular” I mean that we can even have examinations at the end of the module rather than at the end of Secondary 4 for the major examinations.

Ms Sim Ann : I thank the Member for his concerns on mobility for students. Please allow me to explain. Amongst our students, there are different aspirations, different aptitudes, different interests and learning profiles, and our education system seeks to cater for such a range of profiles amongst our students. The most important priority for us is to help them to learn best whatever their learning profiles or interests are. And this is the reason why within the education system, we do set up diverse pathways for our students.

The key for us, beyond ensuring mobility beyond the pathway, first, is to ensure that each education pathway is well supported and resourced, and this we have done, including for our Normal (Technical) students. The second is to ensure that there is mobility between the pathways. For instance, our students are able to move laterally between Normal (Technical) and Normal (Academic). This is in response to the Member’s concerns.

The third thing that we do is also to ensure that beyond formal education, there continues to be continuous education and training so that our students are able to upgrade their skills. And I think the most important and overarching priority is to ensure that there are fulfilling jobs and good employment outcomes for our students, regardless of whether they graduate from ITE, from polytechnics, or from our autonomous universities.

In terms of the design of courses for our students, the Ministry of Education is constantly considering different methods of pedagogy and of organising the way our curriculum is taught and managed so as to optimise learning outcomes for our students. For our Normal (Technical) students, for instance, we are considering experimenting with different ways of organising their curriculum and this has also been discussed in the House previously.

(NB: My belief is that we should have less tracks rather than more differentiated tracks, and we then try to find a way within the track to help those who need more help to catch up, or to allow them to do things differently as they may have talents in other areas besides academic.)

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Foreign scholars (Part 1 – 9 Jan 2012)

40 Mr Yee Jenn Jong asked the Minister for Education for the last 10 years what was (i) the annual number of foreigners who were granted scholarships by the Ministry to study in our schools and universities and the annual cost of these scholarships; (ii) the percentage of foreign scholars who commenced studies in secondary schools and proceeded on to local universities; (iii) the percentage of foreign scholars in local universities who had graduated with Second Class Upper Honours or better; and (iv) the percentage of foreign scholars who completed their contractual bond period to work in Singapore after their graduation.

Mr Heng Swee Keat: For students from ASEAN countries, MOE offers scholarships to promote mutual understanding and goodwill in the region. In the past few years, MOE awarded around 150 scholarships annually to students from the ASEAN countries at the pre-tertiary level and another 170 at the undergraduate level. The scholarships cover school fees and accommodation, and the annual cost is about $14,000 for each pre-tertiary scholarship and between $18,000 to $25,000 for each undergraduate scholarship. Around 65% of pre-tertiary international scholars progress on to our Autonomous Universities.

In addition, our schools, universities and the corporate sector also offer a range of scholarships to quality international students to create a diverse student body that encourages the learning of important cross-cultural skills, as well as to meet the manpower needs of our economy. With Singapore’s decreasing fertility rates, it is important that even as we seek to better develop our talent pool, we augment this with working professionals and students from abroad. This helps us to maintain our economic competitiveness and ultimately raise the standard of living of our people.

Of all the international students who graduated from our Autonomous Universities in 2011, around 45% did so with a Second Upper class of Honours or better.

Upon graduation, scholars are obliged to work in Singapore or Singapore companies for up to six years. More than eight in 10 scholars have been working in Singapore and are contributing to our economy. As for those who did not start work immediately, many had deferred their bonds to pursue postgraduate studies.

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Foreign scholars (Part 2 – 17 Feb 2012)

http://jobs.st701.com/career-resources/training-and-development/foreign-scholars-closely-tracked/a/49179 

16  Mr Yee Jenn Jong asked the Minister for Education (a) for the last 10 years what was the annual number of non-ASEAN foreigners who were granted scholarships by the Singapore Government to study in our pre-tertiary schools and universities and what was the annual cost of these scholarships; (b) how does the Ministry track and ensure that foreign scholars maintain good academic standards while studying here; and (c) whether the Ministry tracks foreign scholars after graduation and enforces their obligation to fulfil the contractual bond period to work in Singapore.

Mr Speaker : Senior Parliamentary Secretary, you have two-and-a-half minutes.

The Senior Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Education (Ms Sim Ann) (for the Minister for Education) : Sir, on average, about 800 pre-tertiary and 900 undergraduate international students (IS) are offered scholarships. The scholarships cover school fees and accommodation. The annual cost is about $14,000 for each pre-tertiary scholarship, and between $18,000 and $25,000 for each undergraduate scholarship.

The academic performance of each scholar is closely monitored every semester, and the scholarship would be withdrawn if the scholar’s performance is not satisfactory. Most international scholars serve out their bonds to completion. The scholarship administrators take action against the few who default on their obligations, by pursuing liquidated damages from individuals who default on their service obligation

Mr Yee Jenn Jong (Non-Constituency Member) : Sir, I thank the SPS for the answers. I have some supplementary questions. Firstly, is there any noticeable shift in the quality of scholars coming from countries that are fast-growing like China, because people may be richer and have other options to go elsewhere to study, and whether we follow a certain quota system of just maintaining a certain number from each country every year? Secondly, is there some figure that SPS can share regarding the number of scholars who had their scholarships suspended as they consistently did not do well in their performance?

Ms Sim Ann : Sir, because the admission of foreign scholars into our system is primarily to augment our manpower pool so as to better anchor investors and employers who can in turn offer good jobs for the economy and for Singaporeans, we do take the quality of such intakes very seriously. In terms of where the scholars come from, they come from the ASEAN countries as well as China and India. Basically, this has been the mix over the years. And over the years, we have been able to maintain certain standards in the quality of such students. In terms of the number of scholarships that has been suspended due to poor performance in school, I do not have the figures at hand, but, by and large, we monitor their performance very carefully. In terms of the quality, I can share with the Member that, for instance, in terms of the number of international scholars who have been awarded Second Upper and above in our universities, this has been around 45%, and this compares with about 32% for Singaporean citizens.
 
(N.B: Ms Sim Ann clarified subsequently in parliament on 28 February that the number of foreign scholars graduating with Second Upper and above in our universities is 67%, not 45%, which is the figure achieved by that of all international students. I still think 67% is low. It should be 100% or close to that, as we are looking at scholars, not students in general.)

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Sports CCAs in Schools (22 Nov 2011)

Mr Yee Jenn Jong (Non-Constituency Member): Thank you, Sir. I thank the Senior Parliamentary Secretary for his answers. I scanned through the most recent book published by MOE introducing secondary school education to the public, I noticed that most schools offer, perhaps, four or five sport CCAs. I like to ask: does the Senior Parliamentary Secretary feel that four to five sport CCAs is enough? I also noted that a number of popular sports like football, basketball are not being offered by many of the schools as sport CCA. The second question I have is that in speaking to a number of schools, one of the problems told to me is that they do not have the budget to hire the coaches and to handle the logistics for more than the four or five sport CCAs. So would the MOE consider increasing the budget to support sport CCA?

Mr Hawazi Daipi : May I just ask why does the Member think that four or five sport CCAs is not sufficient?

Mr Yee Jenn Jong : I think it is not sufficient because in a typical school there are 1,500 students and you have only four or five sport CCAs with, say, an average of about maybe 20 members, sometimes, in the smaller sports there are 10 members participating. I do not think that is enough to go round and I personally experienced this myself or I hear this from my friends – difficulties getting our own children into the sport CCAs that they wish simply because it is not being offered by the school.

Mr Hawazi Daipi : Sir, I think the Member is talking about students who represent the schools. Yes, we do need students to represent the school in sports or games that schools have chosen. Nevertheless, students have the opportunities to learn to play the games and take part in competitive games through other opportunities – through the CCA, through inter-class games, carnivals and so on. Many schools use the SEP Fund which is an initiative of SSC and MOE. So I would like the Member to consider that taking part in sports should not necessarily be just based on sport CCAs. It should be done through PE lessons which are now more structured. We have introduced more PE lessons in primary schools now and the students have the opportunities to learn to be able to like the games and to play on their own. So playing games should not be confined to taking part in CCAs in school. We can provide more opportunities by working together with the community organisations.

Second-Tier Competitions under Sports Education Programme (Secondary Schools) – (14 Feb 2012)

34  Mr Yee Jenn Jong asked the Minister for Education what is the progress in the implementation of second-tier competitions through the Sports Education Programme in secondary schools as recommended in the Secondary Education Review and Implementation (SERI) Committee’s Report in 2010.

Mr Heng Swee Keat : Since the release of the SERI Report in December 2010, the Ministry of Education (MOE) has piloted or expanded various programmes to encourage greater participation in sports and physical activities.

Organising recreational competitions is one avenue. The Sports Education Programme (SEP) is another, where students have the opportunity to learn to play one or more from over than 50 sports.

MOE will continue to expand the opportunities for students to participate in sports, but we have to pace this in accordance with the resources available, while ensuring safety and reasonable demands on students’ time.

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Holistic Assessment for Students at Lower Primary Levels

Mr Yee Jenn Jongasked the Minister for Education what is the progress on the holistic assessment approach for education at the lower primary levels that places less emphasis on semestral examinations, as recommended in the 2009 Report of the Primary Education Review and Implementation (PERI) Committee.

 
The Senior Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Education (Ms Sim Ann) (for the Minister for Education) : Sir, one of the recommendations of the Primary Education Review and Implementation (PERI) Committee was to introduce more holistic assessment to support learning. Holistic Assessment comprises the use of a variety of age-appropriate assessment modes. The emphasis is on skills development and to provide constructive feedback for meaningful learning.
Holistic assessment is being implemented on a progressive basis, starting from Primary One. In 2010, 16 prototype schools implemented holistic assessment in Primary 1 and Primary 2. In 2011 and 2012, another 67 and 54 schools started implementation at Primary 1 respectively. We expect the rest to start in 2013. For schools which have started earlier in the journey, efforts are now being focused on implementing holistic assessment at higher levels.

Preliminary findings from schools on holistic assessment are positive. Many teachers commented that their pupils have become more confident and are able to communicate better. Pupils also receive more feedback, have more opportunities to reflect and improve on their learning, and are developed more holistically.

Mr Yee Jenn Jong (Non-Constituency Member) : Sir, I thank the Senior Parliamentary Secretary for the answer. I would like to ask two supplementary questions. One is that when a child progresses to Primary 3, the school will face pressures, such as the Primary 4 streaming examinations and the PSLE, and it may start to switch back to being very examination-centric again. So, how can we continue to make sure that schools will support holistic assessment wholeheartedly? The second question is: how will holistic assessment eventually change the PSLE and can holistic assessment reports be used for Direct School Admission to secondary schools?
 
Ms Sim Ann : I thank the Member for his concerns on where we are going with holistic assessment. First, allow me to reiterate what the main purpose of holistic assessment is. Primarily, it is to place the focus on whole child development. It is also to ensure that we have ways of assessing the child for learning, instead of doing an assessment of learning. As we progress with PERI, we do help our teachers and our school leaders manage the transition. It is an important change. So, more time will be needed in order to smoothen out the process. In doing so, we do equip our school leaders as well as our teachers with classroom resources, with learning journeys to schools that are already implementing holistic assessment, and also through workshops and seminars as well as networking, so as to ensure that we bring out the most optimal outcomes in terms of holistic assessment. There will be a place for examinations as part of the overall education journey for children. But I think, in balancing assessment as well as other modes, our main focus really is in ensuring that there is a way for us to give meaningful feedback to the child. And also in the journey for holistic assessment, we make sure that these are bite-sized and these can be handled and are helpful to both the child, the teachers as well as the parents.
 
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Gifted Education Programme (GEP)

(Update on GEP Student Numbers, Budget Allocated to the Programme and Academic Performance of GEP Students)

18 Mr Yee Jenn Jong asked the Minister for Education if he can provide the past 10 years’ data on (i) the number of students admitted into the Gifted Education Programme (GEP) at Primary 4; (ii) the annual budget for the GEP; and (iii) the performance of GEP students at the PSLE and A level examinations in terms of minimum, maximum and average scores.

Mr Heng Swee Keat: About 500 students were admitted into the Gifted Education Programme (GEP) each year over the last 10 years.

Primary schools hosting the GEP are provided with additional teachers for the GEP classes they host over and above their usual complement of classes, and an annual programme grant of $53 per pupil.

Over 90% of GEP students score among the top 10% of PSLE candidates. About half of former GEP students scored 4As at the A levels. 

Do young Singaporeans lack drive and willingness to venture out?

At a recent forum at the Singapore Management University, Education Minister Heng Swee Kiat expressed his concern about young Singaporeans’ perceived lack of drive and lack of willingness to venture out of their comfort zone. He was given this feedback earlier by a group of CEOs who owned their own companies.

A personal experience with driven young Singaporeans

Do young Singaporeans lack drive? While I think the CEOs that Mr Heng mentioned had their valid concerns, my experience has given me confidence that there are Singaporeans who can have drive, when given the opportunity to unleash it.

I used to run a local operations that had 140 employees at its peak, with Singaporeans and PRs forming the majority. They were mostly recent graduates from local polytechnics and universities. The nature of the business required many Infocomm Technology (ICT) diploma graduates to be posted to local schools to train students in ICT skills and to assist with e-learning deployment. Many stay less than 3 years in this line as they took it as a stepping stone to other ICT professions. It was the norm in the industry we operated in. Hence over the 9-year period that I ran the business, I had the opportunity to observe as employer, a few hundred young Singaporeans with at least a diploma qualification.

I encountered Singaporeans on both ends of the spectrum – highly motivated and driven ones as well as those wanting to do just the minimum required of the job. As a growing start-up, we constantly needed people to fill key positions, namely in sales and operation management as well as middle managers to oversee an expanding operation. Initially, we hired people with track record in their previous jobs not related to our industry. It didn’t quite work out because the school environment was very different from that of the corporate world. We changed our human resource policy to recruit our own outstanding ICT educators placed out in the schools to fill key positions in the corporate office.

We had limited vacancies each year, so we would only promote those who had done exceptionally well in their existing jobs. We kept our eyes and ears on our pool of ICT educators to determine who had the drive to succeed in a new and more challenging role. This internal hiring policy was made known to all staff.

We could find Singaporeans with the drive to succeed. We increased their challenge level and some rose above that. Qualifications didn’t matter. What mattered was Attitude. Those who could perform the tasks were given the opportunity. The one who eventually rose to lead the software development team had come through a vocation institute and the one who led the company after I exited the business was originally a non-ICT polytechnic graduate, though he later obtained his Bachelor degree and MBA while working for the company. I observed that a lot of what they knew were self taught. Many rose through our junior ranks to hold key positions. What set them apart was the drive to succeed. Those who impressed me the most with their positive attitudes were all Singaporeans.

Is the lack of drive and willingness to venture out real?

So young Singaporeans can have drive. I could find those I needed to fill my business needs when I threw open the challenge and empowered those we identified. However, I understand where these CEOs were coming from. I too had my fair share of young Singaporean staff who lacked drive and initiative. 

Twenty years ago, as a university teaching staff, I had many young researcher colleagues from China and India as NUS opened up its postgraduate programmes to foreigners. Most came as singles and worked hard. How hard we work is sometimes related to how much we have. Those who have little often aspire to have a better life. That aspiration can drive them to work hard.

I visited Vietnam frequently in the mid 1990s, both for work and for a university course which involved a case study of Vietnam. I observed young Vietnamese in their twenties working a day job and attending courses or working a second job in the evenings. Learning centres for English, IT or business skills were packed, sometimes with one instructor to 100 students in the low-cost learning centres. I thought to myself then that they would surely give their neighbouring economies a good run for their money, once good policies are in place. The population was young, hardworking and driven. I observed the same thing of China too, with people competing hard to rise above the rest.

However, in recent years, I noticed children of rich Vietnamese and Chinese less driven than those I saw a decade ago. They have the choice of enrolling in private and international schools and their needs are well taken care of. I could hardly see any overweight Vietnamese children or adults in the 1990s. You can find them quite easily now.

Too much good things can make a person less driven. I like Steve Jobs’ philosophy for life, which was to “stay hungry, stay foolish.” When we have this attitude, even when we have enough comforts for a good living, we should continue to find in us the hunger to do more. Doing more does not necessarily mean acquiring more material wealth, it can also be about finding fulfilment in achieving.

Singapore had prospered in recent decades. Our forefathers were definitely hungrier and many were driven by the need to find a livelihood. From this perspective, perhaps the CEOs were right in that they could find hungrier workers from China and India.

We have also been conditioned to follow a fixed path for success. Study hard, do well in your examinations and you will be able to get a stable job. Schools prefer to get students take subjects that have definite answers because we can drill students to get the correct answers in examinations. We shun subjects that have ambiguous answers. So it is not surprising that in our culture, the willingness to embrace ambiguity and get out of the comfort zone seems lacking compared to other societies where people are either forced by circumstances to venture out or because they have been conditioned from young to handle ambiguity.

Having said so, I would not make a generalisation and say that all young Singaporeans are risk averse. As an entrepreneur, I have met many young Singaporeans taking the unconventional and risky path of start-ups. In running my business, I found Singaporeans willing to thrust into new and more challenging roles. However overall, I agree that there is a worrying trend of more people becoming less willing to venture out into the unknown.

What can our education system do about this?

The important question is what we can do to increase students’ drive and their willingness to take on new challenges? We cannot re-create a situation of poverty to make people have more drive or force them to venture out for the sake of finding a livelihood. How can we use our education system to prepare students better for the 21st century economy?

I suggest we can explore a few areas:

1. Embrace ambiguity and uncertainty

Our curriculum should not be afraid of exposing students to subjects that are ambiguous. Subjects such as literature, art and political studies will open students’ minds to alternative viewpoints. We should encourage students to debate over different opinions. Debating is not easy to handle in schools but should not be shunned.

Ambiguity happens all the time in life. Steve Jobs in his 2005 speech at Stanford university, shared the story of connecting the dots in his life. Many events in life cannot be fully planned for. He recounted how random decisions he made earlier in life only connected in the future to become important influencers in his success. One was his decision to drop out of college but staying on to pursue courses that interest him. The course on calligraphy exposed him to what great typography was about. Ten years later, he introduced that in the Macintosh to create the first computer with beautiful typography.

Steve Jobs was learning, not studying for a course requirement. The assimilated knowledge became useful later on. We should not be afraid of exposing students to content outside of their core requirement. We should also encourage them to be adaptable to apply what they have learnt to different context. Being able to handle ambiguity and uncertainty will prepare students better to take on new challenges.

2. Promote inquisitiveness

An Israeli Nobel prize winner was interviewed on Singapore radio some years back. He summarized the key difference between Israel and Singapore education with a story. He said when he was a young student, his mother would ask him when he returned from school, what good questions he had asked in school that day. The Singaporean mother would ask how the child did in spelling tests and examinations.

Would our teachers encourage children to ask curious questions in class, even those out of syllabus? Would parents be more interested to know if their children had asked good questions rather than to know their performance in a test? Kids are naturally curious. I hope the formal education our children go through will protect and nurture this inquisitiveness and not kill it with conformity to standards and expectations.

3. Celebrate innovation and creativity

Renowned education thinker Sir Ken Robinson observed from a longitudinal study of 1,500 children over 10 years that divergent (creative) thinking decreases with age. He observed that the current education system was invented during the industrial revolution but has not adapted to fit the fast changing dynamic world that bombards us with loads of instant information and is paved with uncertainty.

The ability to constantly innovate is important to survive in the 21st century. By exposing children to, as well as guiding them through tasks that require them to be innovative and creative at an early age, they can become more confident in taking on new challenges later in life. I believe the school curriculum can be redesigned to incorporate more opportunities for students to practice innovation and creativity. Give them the space to explore solutions to problems.

4. Learn resilience and other key life skills

Developing resilience will increase our ability to handle setbacks and provide greater drive to succeed. I read with interest the Straits Times report on 30 January 2012 that “SAF seeks to build mental toughness in recruits.” SAF found that recruits who went through its resilience-building programme outjumped, outran, outshot and outperformed those who did not.

Sounds wonderful. Why start only at National Service? The programme should be shared with MOE to see if it can be adapted and used in schools.

Resilience can best be learnt through life experiences. This is where I believe Co-Curricula Activities (CCAs) are important. CCA when implemented seriously, can build mental toughness and discipline. When CCAs involve competitions, it can bring out the experiences of the joy of victory and the pain of defeat. It can instil discipline and create the drive in students to win. Hence, I thought the 2010 Secondary Education Review and Implementation (SERI) committee report had a good recommendation to introduce more 2nd tier competitions to allow for greater participation of students. I hope this will be seriously carried out.

5. Deal with our examination culture

The most major factor driving our mindset of education is the heavy emphasis on examinations. Examinations are useful for determining how well students have learnt. However, by having many high stake examinations throughout the student’s journey, education becomes skewed towards delivering for examinations rather than on actual learning. It defines what schools will do to ensure good performance at examinations. Parents put children through hours of tuitions weekly out of fear that poor performance at any one of the key examinations will destroy the child’s future.

Students may end up being examination-smart but not really learning. They may become conditioned that the one way to succeed is drilling for examinations. Those who do well in their studies will tend to seek a secure and proven path in their career, as the risk of venturing out may be too high for them.

Tackling the examination culture will be very difficult because it has become so entrenched in our system and in the mindset of the population. But we will need to take a critical look at the issue and make changes where necessary, otherwise good initiatives will be killed in the process of implementation by the examination culture.

Conclusion

I believe that by adjusting our education approach, we can help improve the drive in Singaporeans and build up their willingness to accept new challenges. Having a can-do and resilient mindset will take Singapore forward into our next lap.