Extract of COS on MOT – Transport concessions for disabled and poly students

Transport fares and concessions

Mr Yee Jenn Jong (Non-Constituency Member): Sir, there are many requests for more public transport concessions for the disabled and for polytechnic students. On 21 November last year, Minister Lui Tuck Yew said that the Public Transport Council was aware of the concession request for these two groups and would work with the operators to see how best this request could be considered in future reviews of fares.

I feel the opportune time for review is now, especially with the Government investing $1.1 billion in the operations of new buses for the public transport operators. This Budget is called an inclusive budget that provides targeted help to those most in need of them. It would be a good gesture by the public transport operators to reciprocate our Government’s generosity by granting this request to these two groups who truly need better concessions.

Mr Lui Tuck Yew:

Several Members – Er Dr Lee Bee Wah, Mr Liang Eng Hwa, Ms Jessica Tan, Mr Baey Yam Keng, Mr Cedric Foo, Mr Alex Yam and Mr Yee Jenn Jong, I have noted all their names down – had asked for fare concessions to be extended to the polytechnic students, while Mr Baey Yam Keng and Mr Yee Jenn Jong mentioned the disabled, and Mr Baey Yam Keng mentioned PA recipients. I have taken careful note of what they said.

Sir, when I first joined the Ministry, I said that I was most sympathetic to the senior citizens and their desire for full-day concessions. So I thank the PTC and the operators for giving due consideration to this hint when they extended senior citizen concession hours as part of the 2011 Fare Revision Exercise. I am still reminded by my senior residents today who have benefitted from this tremendously, especially for those who need to commute in the morning hours by public transport to go to work.

Now that senior citizens have been granted their full-day concessions, the next groups that I am sympathetic to are the disabled and the polytechnic students. And I think for the Public Assistance recipients, many of them actually already come under the category of senior citizens and for others, we have other measures to target our help to them, especially through the public transport vouchers. So the two groups that I am most sympathetic to are the disabled and the polytechnic students. But, again, I urge Members to be patient as not all of these requests can be addressed immediately or entirely within a single Fare Revision Exercise.

Mr Baey Yam Keng asked a very useful specific question on the role of the PTC. PTC is now the authority to require the PTOs to give concessions in situations when there is a fare adjustment. The PTC can do so by requiring the operators to comply with the condition for concession before they are granted the fare increase. This was done for senior citizens in last year’s fare adjustment. However, PTC obviously needs to also bear in mind the impact on fares, especially adult fares, which are cross-subsidising the revenue loss from the concessionary fares. For this reason, the PTC, while sympathetic to all these requests for concessions cannot accede to all of them immediately or entirely within a single fare adjustment exercise. But I know that when future fare revisions take place, the PTC, which is acutely aware of the different requests for concessions, will work with the operators to give careful consideration to all these appeals. Well, such concessions will not be given out in 2012. I shook my head when many Members made their appeals, as concessions will not be given out in 2012 because there will be no fare increase and no fare revision exercise this year.

The current fare formula is due for review this year for implementation in 2013. I intend to appoint PTC member, Mr Richard Magnus, to head the Committee for the review. He has just joined the PTC recently, and Mr Magnus will bring a new pair of eyes and a fresh mind to the task. His Review Committee will seek views widely, study the possible options and propose improvements to the framework for the fare review exercise, including the price cap formula that we will adopt.

Sir, the outcome of the review should be a framework that continues to achieve a good balance between affordable public transport fares and sustainable public transport operations and which continues to ensure productivity and efficiency. I look forward to the Committee completing its work within a year.

While this review is on-going, we should not rush to implement this year’s fare adjustment, even though we recognise that the operators are facing significant cost pressures, especially on the bus side. Hence, I discussed this matter with PTC Chairman, Mr Gerard Ee, and he has agreed to my suggestion that we suspend this year’s fare adjustment exercise. Instead, the new fare formula, which will be ready in 2013, could take into consideration the fact that fare adjustments were not made in 2012. So, no fare revisions, no increases this year and we will also await further future revisions in order for the concessions to be considered in due course.

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Extract of COS on MOF – Project Finance Company

Project finance company

Mr Chen Show Mao (Aljunied): Based on the recommendations of the Economic Strategies Committee (ESC) in 2010, Budget 2012 announced that Temasek has put together a consortium of reputable financial institutions to establish a specialised project finance company (PFC). I would like to understand more specifically how the PFC will benefit our companies.

First, the PFC will aim to have about 80% of its portfolio comprising cross-border projects with significant Singapore-based corporate participation. What does the Government mean by “significant Singapore-based corporate participation”? Does significant participation means majority ownership? And how does the Government define a Singapore-based company for this purpose? Does it have to be headquartered in Singapore? Listed on the SGX? Or majority owned by Singaporeans? Is a Singapore subsidiary of a foreign multinational company considered a Singapore-based company?

I hope the Government will have clear guidelines on this. The ESC has made it very clear what the gap is and that is to facilitate cross-border financing for our companies that are investing in large-scale projects overseas, because project finance is significantly less developed in Singapore than elsewhere and capabilities of our local banks in this area are relatively limited. These concerns do not exist in the case of companies that can access project financing outside Singapore’s financial system.

Second, the ESC highlighted that as foreign export/import banks (EXIMs) remained largely nationalistic, Singapore companies are currently disadvantaged in this aspect. In order to help our companies compete on an equal footing, will the PFC adopt a similar approach to the foreign EXIMs? The Singapore Government will provide backing to the PCF by guaranteeing it debts. Will the PCF require some form of participation by Singapore companies in every project that it finances?

The Minister of State for Finance (Mrs Josephine Teo):

.. (other replies) …

Sir, we had said that to further support internationalization efforts, a Project Finance company (PFC) will be operational from the second half of this year. Mr Chen Show Mao sought to understand how the PFC will benefit local companies. The PFC addresses a market gap in long tenure, cross-border project financing. The PFC, which is a commercial venture led by Temasek Holdings, will address this gap and catalyze the supply of such project financing. Local companies will benefit in the following ways: first, access to financing gives them added confidence and ability to bid for major projects on an equal footing with their competitors, who typically have funding support from their respective national Export Import (Exim) banks. The PFC removes a constraint on our companies where Singapore companies have had to partner foreign contractors to tap financing facilities overseas. And as Mr Chen pointed out, we have put our companies at a slight disadvantage. So this opens up opportunities for our own SMEs to participate in these projects.

Mr Chen has a specific question on the definition of Singapore-based companies. We have defined a Singapore-based company as one that is listed or incorporated in Singapore and have at least three global or regional strategic decision-making functions located in Singapore. This is the definition that is commonly used in incentive schemes of our enterprise development agencies. While this definition does include foreign companies based here, these companies will have substantial presence anchored in Singapore. And there are significant spin-offs to the economy such as value-add and jobs created because they use Singapore as a base for internationalizing and undertaking major projects overseas. This will strengthen our position as a global Asia hub.

Mr Chen also asked whether the involvement of Singapore’s companies will be a requirement in every project. Let me reiterate that the PFC will aim to have 80% of its long-term portfolio comprise projects with significant participation from Singapore-based companies. This already assures us of significant benefits because the Singapore-based company must have at least three global or regional strategic decision-making functions located in Singapore, which I have explained earlier. The additional condition of local partnership, if we were to put it in, will unduly constrain the borrower and make it less attractive for the deal to be financed out of Singapore. So if we make that as a requirement, you might not even get it. Notwithstanding this, our economic agencies will continue to facilitate meaningful partnerships between our local SMEs and international companies for infrastructure opportunities in the region.

… (other replies) …

Mr Yee Jenn Jong: I have two questions regarding the PFC. It seems that the criteria allow Singapore incorporated foreign companies with zero Singapore ownership to take part. First question is that can the evaluation criteria be bias in such a way that it will favour companies with local ownership so that we can help grow locally-owned companies? The second question is that by having only 80% of the projects required to be Singapore-based companies involved and not 100%, is it because we are not confident that there will be enough projects that will involve at least some of our local companies?

Mrs Josephine Teo: Mr Chairman, I will try to be brief. On his second question first: why 80% and not 100%? Actually, with the requirement to have 80% of the portfolio comprised projects with significant participation from Singapore-based companies, the mandate of the PFC is very clear. However, as with any investment portfolio, the PFC needs to diversify its project portfolio and also the risks. Other countries and their EXIMs are far larger than Singapore’s and able to achieve sufficient risks diversity within their own country’s industries and companies. So, it is a practical concern there. With us, there is a reason why we have decided to allow the PFC some flexibility to provide financing for projects not involving Singapore-based companies. It is to our benefit that the PFC is able to diversify and manage it risks to enhance the commercial viability. So that is to the second question.

To the first question: I have every confidence that Singapore companies are up to it and, in fact, all of our efforts are directed towards helping them to build the capabilities and not assuming that they are not up to it. So, let me give him that assurance.

Extract of COS on MTI – REITs & Tourism Development Fund

Affordable rentals

Mr Yee Jenn Jong: Since the first REIT was formed here in 2002, REITS have grown to be a dominant force in the space leasing industry. The costs of rents remain a huge concern to SMEs. In an article in TheStraits Times last month, industry players pointed to REITS as the main driver of increases in retail and industrial rents. We saw closures large and popular bookstores with rentals cited as a main cause. Last year, industrial rents jumped by its highest level in 14 years. I hope the Ministry can actively look at how rental rates can be brought done.

A good place to start is at JTC. Since 2008, JTC has divested 2 million square feet of industrial space to REITS. I urge JTC to stop all future divestment. I also hope JTC can resume its original role of building and leasing affordable industrial space again to SMEs, rather than relying only on land sales and market forces.

The Minister for Trade and Industry (Mr Lim Hng Kiang):

.. (other replies) ..

We recognise that Singapore cannot be a low-cost location and we have to accept pricing costs because of our limitation in space and, more importantly, our shortage of labour. Our best approach is really productivity. More specifically, Mr Inderjit Singh and Mr Yee Jenn Jong asked how we can help our SMEs manage rental increases and also how JTC can play a more appropriate role.

Let me use this occasion to explain the role of JTC. The industrial property market comprises four main sectors – land, specialised facilities, standard factories, and generic multi-storey multiple-user factory space. In the first segment, JTC allocates industrial land to companies to build their special purpose facilities, provided these companies meet our criteria in terms of value-add, linkages to other sectors of our economy as well as jobs creation. In the second segment, JTC provides innovative industrial facilities such as the Jurong Rock Caverns, the Very Large Floating Structures (VLFS), Offshore Marine Centre, Seletar Aerospace Park, Clean Tech Park, Med Tech Hub, etc. This is to meet the specialised needs of these key clusters. The third segment is standard factories where the investors need a quick start-up and can fit their operations in JTC’s standard factories. In all these three segments, JTC has a very important role to play and will continue to do so. For such premises, JTC will price the industrial land judiciously. We cannot price industrial land cheaply in Singapore because land is at a premium. But at the same time, we cannot price ourselves out of the competition. We do benchmark our industrial land price against regional alternatives. By and large, I think JTC’s industrial land prices are set at a fair and competitive level for these three segments.

For the fourth segment, the generic multi-storey multiple-user factory space, or what is commonly known as flatted factories, the Government decided in 2005 that JTC should exit this segment. There is already a competitive market for flatted factory space in the private sector. JTC’s market share was only 18% at that time. JTC’s tenants were enjoying lower rentals than the others. This was inequitable. JTC should be concentrating on the first three segments which are more challenging rather than undercutting the flatted factory private sector players with JTC’s lower rentals. That is why JTC divested their flatted factories in order to ensure a level playing field in this segment. It is also in line with the “Yellow Pages” rule where Government would exit from market segments where there are already active private sector players.

I would also like to address Members’ concerned, especially Mr Yee Jenn Jong’s concern, about the impact of the Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) on rentals. Today, the seven industrial REITs compete with the other property developers and landlords. Like any other landlord, they have to compete in the rental market to attract tenants. REITs are part of the competitive rental market where no single player should have the market power to influence rentals significantly. I would like to assure Members that we will not hesitate to intervene if we see evidence of collusion or abuse of market dominance by the REITs.

While JTC may have exited from the flatted factory market segment, we continue to monitor it vigilantly. Rentals have indeed gone up, in tandem with our economic recovery in 2010. To keep industrial space affordable, we have increased the supply of industrial land to meet the demand. In 2010 and 2011, under the Industrial Government Land Sales (IGLS) programme, about 20 hectares of land was released for every half of the year. This is about 30% higher than in 2008 and 2009. To ensure a more timely supply of space, we have also shortened the project completion period for the IGLS sites from eight years to between five and seven years.

Tourism development fund

Mr Yee Jenn Jong: In January 2005, Minister for Trade and Industry Mr Lim Hng Kiang announced the $2 billion Tourism Development Fund to support the Tourism 2015 targets of doubling visitor arrivals to 17 million and tripling tourism receipts to $30 billion by 2015. This Budget has an injection of an additional $905 million into this fund. Can the Minister share: (i) how were the original funds used and why are additional funds needed, given that the $2 billion was to last until 2015; (ii) what projects will be funded by this additional amount and how are these projects different from those unveiled in 2005; (iii) is STB on track to achieve the 2015 targets? What new outcomes and targets can we expect from this funding beyond the original targets; (iv) lastly, how much of tourism receipts is contributed by gaming revenue, and should gaming revenue even count towards the target of $30 billion in tourism receipts, unless it is MTI and STB’s role growing gaming revenue?

 

The Second Minister for Trade and Industry (Mr S Iswaran): Thank you, Mr Chairman. And may I, first, thank all the Members who have raised issues pertaining to R&D, tourism and energy, and I will respond to them in turn in the context of our efforts to restructure for growth.

… (other replies) …

Let me now turn to tourism- a sector which has grown well and has further potential. Mr Yee Jenn Jong asked how we spent the $2 billion in the Tourism Development Fund (TDF). The fund was launched in 2005 with a five-year funding commitment period. And the reason you have a five-year commitment period is because many of these projects have a gestation period. You invest early in order to let the infrastructure kick in, then contribute to your tourism spend. The long-term target is $30 billion of tourism receipts and visitor arrivals of 17 million by 2015. The fund has supported many major projects – Formula One, Gardens by the Bay as well as the International Cruise Terminal and River Safari, the latter two are scheduled to open later this year. It has also brought in numerous events and helped our tourism companies build capabilities. These, together with private sector investments such as the Integrated Resorts, have transformed our tourism sector and kept us on track to achieving our long-term targets. In 2011, Singapore had 13.2 million international visitors and Tourism Receipts of $22.2 billion. This is a 13% increase in visitor arrivals and 17% increase in the tourism receipts. To respond to Mr Yee, tourism receipts include spend on accommodation, spend on shopping, spend on entertainment, so it is a collection and not segmented into particular parts alone. STB’s strategies cannot segment the spending activity of tourists in Singapore to the degree that he has asked.

This growth in tourism has also created more and diverse job opportunities for Singaporeans. Let me give you a couple of examples, Catherine Ho is a former Warrant Officer with 26 years of service in the SAF. Now, she is a theme park manager in charge of park operations in Universal Studios Singapore, assuming there are some relevant skills there. She is now helping to set up operations at the upcoming Marine Life Park. Another example is Gwern Khoo. A chef in the Celebrity Chef Restaurant Waku Ghin in Marina Bay Sands, who has been identified by Chef Tetsuya as a promising local talent with plans to send him to Sydney for further training. He has come a long way from his days at SHATEC and from helping out at his father’s duck rice stall. And these are some examples of how the growth in our sector has created interesting and diverse opportunities for Singaporeans.

The Formula One Race (F1) has also been good for our tourism sector. Besides generating economic benefits and creating a good platform for business networking, F1 has helped to brand Singapore as a global city with a vibrant lifestyle and this has other collateral benefits for us as an economy and as a country. In response to Mr Liang’s question, I would say that on the whole, the benefits of F1, both tangible and intangible, have outweighed the costs. Yes, there are certain disruptions like the road closures, and this is something between the Government agencies and the race promoter, there has been significant effort to reduce that by more than half to about six days now, compared to where we were at the start, but we need to continue to work on this. Overall, the benefits have been significant and they outweigh the costs and any decision on an extension will have to be premised on the value that we can continue to derive from such an event. The Government will make this decision only after carefully weighing all factors.

We must build though on these significant tourism inroads that we have already made by seeding the sector’s next stage of growth. We must especially focus on quality or yield-driven growth by attracting tourists to visit more often, to stay longer and to spend more. That means enhancing the tourism experience through creativity and innovation, higher capabilities and productivity, and superior service standards. For this, we are injecting $905 million over the next five years as the second tranche of the Tourism Development Fund.

Mr Yee and Mr Liang have asked what strategies this second tranche will support. First, we will invest $300 million to build on Singapore’s positioning as an international Lifestyle and Business events hub through the Tourism Events Development Scheme (TEDS). It will seed and anchor best-in-class events, whilst bringing in international conferences and exhibitions as well as leisure and lifestyle events.

Second, we will co-create new tourism products with the industry, and rejuvenate existing products, through the Tourism Product Development Scheme (TPDS). A sum of $340 million will be set aside to drive new concepts and ideas for tourism products.

Third, we will invest $265 million to enhance capabilities in our tourism-related enterprises as a part of our key drive for higher tourism yield. Mr Dhinakaran raised the issues of manpower and the challenges faced by some of the companies in the sector. Substantively, the points on DRCs and levies have been dealt with in the Finance Minister’s discussion earlier on the debate, and also earlier in the COS discussion. Let me complement that by talking about what we are doing specifically in one or two areas. STB drives a productivity roadmap for the sector, and what it seeks to do is increase the attractiveness of jobs through redesign and reengineering of business processes. This will attract more Singaporeans to come and work in this space. We are open to more ideas from the industry on how else we can increase local labour force participation rate.

Mr Yee Jenn Jong: Sir, I have two categories of questions relating to the two cuts that I have made. The first is regarding the strategy of using land sales to manage the cost of industrial space which the Minister of Finance and also the Minister for Trade and Industry mentioned today. I like to seek clarity on how Government price the land sales. Last year there was this Paya Lebar industrial site that was not awarded because it went below the price. So there is some perception that during economic boom, developers would bid very high prices and we award to the highest bidder, but when the market is down then we will not award. So, will this be artificially keeping prices up so that it is quite impossible to have rent rates going down?

I am also concerned that there is the effect that REITS being a dominant force in the market now, they are actually price maker in the rental market. So, if we take the rent benchmark to price land, then we will have a cycle that it can only go up, it can hardly come down. So I need clarity on this.

The second question that I have relates to the Tourism Development Fund. I am not sure if I missed out something, I just want to understand. On the committed amount to the Tourism Development Fund since 2005, is it $2 billion plus an additional $905 million? Has the KPI still being set unchanged to 17 million for tourist arrivals and $30 billion in tourism revenue?

I also just want to clarify the question that I made regarding gaming receipts. I notice, for example, that tourism receipts jumped 49.6% in 2010 and that coincided with the opening of the two IRs in January and April respectively. I also notice that gaming revenue is classified under “Sightseeing and Entertainment”. So my question – for the original $30 billion receipt target in2005, did it actually factor in gaming as revenue?

Mr Lim Hng Kiang: Sir, let me take the first question and Mr Iswaran can take the second question.

Government land sales procedure is very well documented. It is the same procedure whether it is industrial land sales, commercial land sales or residential land sales. Basically, land is protected. It is considered part of the old reserves. Therefore, the way we sell land in Singapore has to go through the same processes which are agreed to with the President. Essentially, we must sell land at a competitive market rate; otherwise, we are not preserving old reserves. And to do so, we need evidence that there is competition. And if there is competition, then we go at the going market rate of the highest tender. If there is not enough competition, then of course we have to satisfy the Chief Valuer, who is.an appointment made by the Elected President, to make sure that we are selling land at the right price and not under pricing it. So that is the procedure for the sales. So we can have sales that come in with very few tenderers and still being awarded, because the Chief Valuer certifies that this is reflective of the market price.

Mr S Iswaran: Sir, I thank the Member for his question. Let me take the second point first. I am not sure why he is so fixated on this gaming revenue element but let me elaborate.

Firstly, when we do a tourism revenue forecast, we take into account all dollars spent by the tourists. I do not think we split them up, and whether expenditure on shopping should be under another body and so on. We look at the total amount tourists spend. And this is how STB did its forecasting when it launched its programme for the Tourism Development Fund.

Importantly, and I think this is important to register, this is a purely private sector investment. There was no Government money used on the Tourism Development Fund or any other source to support this project. So, essentially, these are projects that were conceived in order to enhance the tourism environment as part of a larger ecosystem in Singapore. And it is difficult really to start splitting out what is the tourists’ spending because of the IRs, what is the tourists’ spending because of other new entertainment and other new products we have in Singapore. So we look at it collectively as part of the overall wallet and the share of the wallet that we are able to draw into Singapore.

The second question, which is his first, on the Tourism Development Fund, yes, it means that there was $2 billion in the first instance as a first tranche, and there is now $905 in the second tranche. So the question is: why are we having a second tranche? Let me explain again because I think it may not have been clear for the Member. We put in the first tranche in 2005 and we said that there was a commitment period of five years, because these investments would need to be incurred early in the period in order to generate the returns over the longer term, and that is what we are seeing now. Many of the investments we made in the first five years are now beginning to yield results for us, and some are still coming on-stream, such as the International Cruise Terminal and the River Safari. And secondly, this new tranche is not just about achieving these numbers that we talked about. It is to go beyond that and drive our yield driven tourism strategy and also to raise productivity and create more job opportunities in Singapore.

… (other replies) …

 Mr Yee Jenn Jong:Thank you, Mr Chairman. I just want to refer to my question and what the Second Minister said that why am I so fixated about this gaming revenue. Maybe I should rephrase it. I am not so fixated about it and I also understand that it is private investment. TDF will not spend on it. Maybe I will rephrase my question this way. When we set the $30 billion tourism receipt target revenue in 2005, did we envisage gaming revenue to be part of it, because gaming revenue is now a significant part of the tourism receipts by the statistics that we capture? Should we not look at the KPI of our tourism investment to be based on the $30 billion without the gaming revenue?

Mr S Iswaran: Mr Chairman, I thank the Member for clarifying his fixation – sorry, lack of fixation – on the matter. When the target is set, we are talking about tourism spending as a whole. In other words, when a tourist comes to Singapore, what is he spending his dollar one? We do not preclude future innovations or new developments in the market which might encourage the tourists to spend more. Let me use an alternative example. We are now going to have an International Cruise terminal, which presumably will boost our cruise industry in Singapore and bring more tourists to Singapore who will buy cruises. Should that be excluded from tourism spending forecasting or calculations? So, the way I put it is at the time this target was drawn up and the Tourism Development Fund was set up, there was a clear goal that these are the resources, this the mission that the Government gave the STB. This is the goal, this is funding available, now go forth and seek ways to make it happen, and that is what they have done.

Extract of COS debate on MEWR – Hawker Centres

Mr Yee Jenn Jong (Non-Constituency Member): Thank you, Mr Chairman, for allowing me to join in the debate. I have a question on the operating model of the hawker centres. Earlier, the Minister said that he intends to accept all of the Panel’s proposals, so I would like to ask regarding the model of letting the social enterprises run the operations. Will the Ministry be keeping a very close watch on the rents and the way the operations will be run? I consider the provision of hawker centres to be essential social goods, to make food prices affordable to everybody. I am concerned that sometimes when we let market forces take over the provision of social goods, we can end up with rising cost, just like we saw industrial spaces going to REITS and then prices have been creeping up. So, is there some assurance that there will be very close monitoring on the way this is run, especially when more and more hawker centres are being run by social enterprises?

Dr Vivian Balakrishnan: First, I better clarify that I did not say that I would accept all the recommendations of the Panel. I was referring to the Drainage Panel. The Hawker Centre Panel has not submitted their final recommendations yet, so I do not want to jump the gun. But let me tell you basically how I see this.

First, I have to persuade all of you to accept that hawker centres are social infrastructures. Therefore, as the ultimate landlord, we are not trying to maximise rentals from it.

I am keen to accept the recommendation for social enterprise because, if you remember, when I first announced that we would reverse this policy, I said that I wanted the manager to be a not-for-profit model. Basically, you still need to be viable and to make ends meet. But you are not out there as a real estate player and you are not engaging in arbitrage. And what starts off as a hawking business becomes a real estate business. All this is very easy to express but I am not going to underestimate the difficulty of making it work in practice.

In the context of Singapore, the most successful co-operative is FairPrice. I give all due respect to Mr Seah Kian Peng. It is a social enterprise, it has fulfilled a social mission of ensuring commodities and essential food are priced reasonably and provides competition. What I am hoping to do by changing this hawker centre policy is, number one, increase the supply of places. That should have some effect on prices, both in terms of rental as well as the prices charged by hawkers. But having said that, I do not believe that simply lowering rentals by itself will necessarily lead to lower prices charged by hawkers. At the end of the day, they are people making a living. They will also try to charge what the market will bear.

So I just want the Member to understand – let us not be overly simplistic in the way we implement this, and also to be very careful that we do not get unintended consequences. For now, if we can get a cooperative to run it, and the cooperative knows that what we are after is cheap, good and clean food, and that the people who are working there are Singaporeans, locals – better still if they are people within the community, they are there to make a living for themselves and they are preparing cooked fresh food, good enough for their own families and friends to eat – I think that will be an achievement. That already makes us unique, because when we first created hawker centres, it was just a hygiene measure – clear mobile hawkers on the streets. But this has taken on a life of its own, it has become a unique icon of Singapore life. So I give the Member the assurance that we will certainly be watching it very, very closely, and to watch the evolution of these new generation hawker centres, that it does not deviate from the original objective. Does the Member have a specific suggestion in mind?

Mr Yee Jenn Jong: No, I do not have a specific suggestion. I thank the Minister for the answers. It is easier to control when we have one or two hawker centres being run by a particular social enterprise. But I imagine a day when maybe we have half or even more of our hawker centres being run by social enterprises, and then they become a very sizeable market force. So, would we want to start thinking right now how do we set the KPIs to ensure that the outcomes will always be affordable food, whether it is done through fixing the rent that they can charge to the hawkers or through other means? I think we should think seriously about this rather than leave it to market forces.

Extract of COS debate on MOE – Gifted education and Pri to Sec integrated programme

Extract from Singapore Parliament publication on Committee of Supply debate on MOE (8 March 2012). I had spoken on 5 separate issues in the MOE debate but with the limited time left for further questions, I had decided to seek clarification only on the following two issues. I subsequently spoke with Ms Sim Ann during tea break time on what I meant when I proposed the Special Needs Innovation Fund (see item 3), which I had intended to be a special fund rather than for schools to use a generic fund like the Schools Innovation Fund. I had based on my proposal on the LEAD ICT fund model which MOE had set up for all schools to apply to which can only be used to drive innovative / niche ICT programmes. A similar fund can be established to support special needs intervention activities in mainstream schools or to fund innovation programmes to get mainstream students to interact more with the special needs people within and around them.

 

Integrated programme

Mr Yee Jenn Jong (Non-Constituency Member): We started the Integrated Programme (IP) in 2004 to allow higher ability secondary school students to skip the “O” levels into the “A” levels or its equivalent. I wish to propose an alternative IP, from primary one to secondary four. The current system puts huge pressure on students, parents and teachers in primary schools to prepare for the PSLE. Various Members in this House, including myself, had spoken on the excessive pressures in our school system. A Straits Times article last month reported more parents taking their primary school kids to see psychologists after doing badly in school tests, some as young as Primary 2. The purpose of PSLE and other major exams appears to be to sort students into different streams and into different schools. Our highly competitive examination-driven system has resulted in high dependency on tuition and drilling for exams rather than education for the joy of learning.

Sir, I understand this is a difficult and emotive issue as there are parents who may feel a competitive system is desirable. However, there are parents, like myself, who can accept that our children need not fight to be in the best schools. The current system offers us no choice at all because of the dreaded consequence of the child doing badly in a major examination at aged 12. Many parents feel their child’s future is determined by the PSLE. Many private schools globally already through-train students from primary to secondary, including overseas schools based on the Singapore curriculum. Some of these schools have done well in international tests despite not subjecting students to standardised examinations at Primary 6. Finland switched to such a through-train system nationwide with encouraging outcomes. Its PISA test scores are comparable to Singapore’s.

I would like MOE to consider piloting primary through secondary IP schools with the same level of funding per student as any Government or aided school. With such schools, primary education need not be focused on grinding out results just for PSLE and schools can spend more time on values-based education. The post-primary section will eventually prepare students for a recognised examination, namely “O” levels, “A” levels or even the International Baccalaureate. By that time, students are more mature and better able to handle stress. Existing school groups may opt to run such a programme. There are already aided schools in Singapore with affiliation schemes where the majority of primary students enter the affiliated secondary schools. Such schools have long histories and are trusted education brands. They are potential candidates to kick-start the programme. MOE has implemented holistic assessments since 2010. The experience of holistic assessments can be incorporated to ensure the rigour in learning throughout the years of studies in such pilot schools.

Sir, I believe we have the calibre of management and teachers in Singapore to achieve this. I hope MOE can do a serious study on making this option available.

Gifted Education Programme

Mr Yee Jenn Jong: Before I talk about gifted education, I must say I support Mr Laurence Lien’s call as well. (remark: NMP Laurence Lien had also made a similar call for independent primary schools that do not require students to take the PSLE. He spoke right after I delivered the above speech.)

The Gifted Education Programme (GEP) was implemented in 1984. Primary school GEP starts the child at Primary 4 in one of nine designated schools. Schools are identified after a nationwide test at Primary 3. Centralised secondary school GEP was scrapped in 2008 following the low take-up rate after the introduction of secondary school IP.

I would like MOE to consider scrapping centralised primary school GEP, too. Currently, a nationwide effort is required to identify just 1% of the cohort. With centralised GEP for secondary schools already scrapped, much resources are now spent on a small group of students in the programme that lasts only three years. Based on the figures provided by MOE in a Parliamentary Question (PQ) last month, the past 10 years’ performance of GEP students did not suggest that centralised GEP had generated better examination results at PSLE and at “A” levels. We can continue differentiated learning to develop students with stronger learning abilities. In place of the current GEP, we can implement the following:

(1) Encourage all schools to do their own subject-based accelerated learning. Giftedness is often specific to subjects as the child may be strong in one subject but average in others. Schools can have their own methods to identify students who are stronger in specific subjects and run accelerated learning for these students.

(2) Further support can be given through the cluster system. Learning camps, workshops or talks involving special lecturers to challenge higher-ability students can be organised by the cluster.

(3) Schools can be supported by the GE branch with learning resources distributed to them for use or schools may prepare their own contents. Selected teachers in all schools can be trained on how to guide students with stronger learning abilities.

We can spread accelerated learning across many more schools. Parents need not transfer their child out to a gifted school at nine years old. MOE wants to convince parents that every school is a good school. Separating gifted students into special schools undermines this message. Retaining good students in their current schools provide better integration of children so that children of all abilities can learn from one another in a natural and authentic environment. I hope MOE will consider this request.

The Minister for Education (Mr Heng Swee Keat):

… (other replies) …

Members have, in this debate, made interesting suggestions for more pathways and options. Mr Baey Yam Keng, Mr Yee Jenn Jong, Mr Laurence Lien have suggested more options. Mr Yee suggested having an integrated programme starting from Primary 1. My concern would be that far from removing pressure at Primary 6, you will now transfer the pressure to Primary 1. South Korea have abolished national examinations at the equivalent of Primary 6 but that has not taken away the pressure. Mr Laurence Lien and Mr Yee Jenn Jong spoke about Finland – 40% of the students move on to vocational track at Grade 9, equivalent to ITE.

While Mr Laurence Lien, Mr Baey Yam Keng and Mr Yee Jenn Jong asked for diversity, Ms Denise Phua was concerned about segregation and how that might have unintended consequences. So did Dr Intan Azura, who raised concerns about segregation. I agree with Mr Teo Ser Luck who said that we should not be apologetic about neighbourhood schools. The truth is our schools are geographically sited in our neighbourhood, so naturally they draw students who are living in the neighbourhood. So we have to ensure good schools in every neighbourhood and not use the term “neighbourhood school” as an apology. So we must collectively change perception and change mindsets as Mr Edwin Tong mentioned.

Mr Yee Jenn Jong: Thank you, Chairman. I have two sets of questions for two of the cuts. The first is regarding the primary to secondary integrated programme pilot. The Minister said that “we will be transferring the pressure to Primary 1” – does the Minister not agree that when that happens, it means that this pilot is very successful and it is time to actually open more of such pilots, just as we have done so when we did the secondary to college integrated programme. Minister also said that in Finland, 40% of the students go to vocational stream at Grade 9. I am not sure why this was raised as a problem by the Minister. Is it because the Minister thinks that going to the vocational stream is actually under achieving?

In speaking with Finns, I actually found that parents and students, they choose the vocational track by choice because in Finland, the salary differential between the vocational stream and professional stream is not as great as in Singapore. So, the higher percentage may not mean that they are under performing. Is the Minister open to dialogue with schools and parents to see if they actually want such a track because when I did my survey, I found that there is significant number of educators and parents who are interested and I heard that – perhaps Minister can confirm that — one aided school even approached the Ministry for discussion on this several years back.

The second is related to the GEP cut. Minister questioned my use of the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) and GCE “A” level scores as a means of assessing the performance of GEP students. I would like to ask the Minister, are these not the same data the Ministry of Education largely relies on currently to channel our students into different academic streams and into schools and also in the Award of Scholarships? Does the Minister not agree that parents today perceive, the nine GEP schools as being “the” good schools as evident by the rush for places in these schools?

On the point that we need critical mass to put them into the centralised nine GP schools, I want to clarify specifically that I am not asking for GEP or accelerated learning per se to be abolished but I am asking for centralised GEP to be scraped, and in place of it, being disseminated to different schools. Does the Minister think that we can actually make use of our cluster school system to achieve that critical mass?

Mr Heng Swee Keat: I thank Mr Yee for his follow-up questions. First, on your point about your proposal for an integrated Primary 1 to Secondary 4 programmes, I have made two points. First, that you will be transferring the pressure to Primary 1. Second, you mentioned my point about Finland, that at the end of Grade 9, 40% are on the vocational path. I want to use that to illustrate a very basic point which is that in our system, we have many pathways and many options. This has been enhanced over the years and the results have been very good across the entire system. In the last few years, MOE had done major review of primary and secondary education. In fact, Senior Minister of State Ms Grace Fu who is here led the review on the primary education. That is after very extensive consultations with educators, specialists, parents and the broader community.

As a result of the review, you will find that in all primary schools now, we are implementing a very wide range of very important and interesting programmes. I mentioned about PAL, the Programme for Active Learning, I mentioned about the learning support in order to raise numeracy and literacy. With the additional bilingualism effort at pre-school, we will continue to enhance that. Schools are given a lot more resources to level up. I also announced earlier that we have now five major measures to level up the lower and middle income families. And I have also announced significant changes to Edusave.

So, across the entire system, changes are being made. All these are part and parcel of our entire effort to provide opportunities for all Singaporean students and at the same time, these are in line with our shift towards holistic education and values-driven education.

Now, it is very important for us to look at how we design our system in a way that maximises the opportunities for every child. At this point, with so many initiatives, we must focus on good implementation. I have also mentioned how in our system, that over 93% of our students are moving on to post secondary education. In my second set of remarks, I also mentioned how vocational pathways and technical pathways are very important. In fact, I deeply believe, as Mr Zainudin Nordin has mentioned, that the ITE and Polytechnics are crown jewels of our system. We have a system that works very well and a system that has served all Singaporean students very well.

Now, on the Member’s question on GEP, he asked whether that is the way that MOE assesses the success of GEP. The answer is “No”. In fact, it has to be a holistic assessment —

Mr Yee Jenn Jong: That is not my question. My question was: is this the way that MOE currently relies on to channel students to different academic streams, schools and in the Award of Scholarships, that is, by relying on PSLE, GCE “A” level grades and so on?

Mr Heng Swee Keat: Well, a large part of it, “yes”, in the form of examinations results at PSLE. But we must also recognise the changes which have been made over the years. Schools now have Direct School Admission (DSA), in order to recognise a wider range of talent; in order for us to develop a whole slew of different skills and aptitudes and talents. That is how we have been doing it. Admission into schools like SOTA, for instance, requires students to show the aptitude and interest in the arts, similarly admission through sports. So, if you look at the entire system, we have created many, many more options, pathways and opportunities for our students. We have to recognise all these very important changes which have taken place and I think we have to go out and communicate better with our parents on all these changes.

Extract of COS debate on MCYS – Preschool support for lower income families

The following is extract from the Singapore parliament publications (9 March 2012) pertaining to the debate after my ‘Cut’ on MCYS. My motivation for this Cut is that while child care and kindergarten sectors each have a generous financial scheme to help the lower income families get their children to study in preschool, the child care scheme allows all operators to be eligible while the kindergaren scheme has qualifying criteria that has allowed only PCF to qualify thus far, despite there being many other kindergarten operators in the industry. I feel the scheme should be inclusive of all operators, just like in the child care scheme, so as to give families the choice of where they wish to send their children to. 

My Cut:

Mr Yee Jenn Jong (Non-Constituency Member): A good early start to education is important to a child’s development. It is especially important for the lower income families to help the child be ready for primary school. Schemes like the Kindergarten Financial Assistance Scheme (KFAS) with start-up grants and monthly fee subsidies are helpful to the low income group. However, after eight years of KiFAS’ implementation since January 2004, only one kindergarten group, namely the PAP Community Foundation qualifies as the eligible provider despite there being some 260 non-PCF kindergartens.

In contrast, all childcare centres licensed by MCYS are eligible centres for the Centre based Financial Assistance Scheme for Childcare (CFAC). While understanding the need to ensure quality of education, the bar is set so high that only organisation in the industry has qualified so far.

There are many established and reputable kindergarten providers in the industry including the kindergartens that my siblings, my wife and I attended as children. Many of these kindergartens operate within the community providing affordable and high quality pre-school education but are not KiFAS eligible. KiFAS eligible criteria amongst other include

one: have no religious affiliation or relation to racial group; and

two: be financially sound with a minimum paid-up capital of $5 million.

These two stringent criteria are not required for CFAC and I am not sure why they are required here. I hope MCYS will review the eligibility criteria to ensure greater choice of kindergartens for low income families to send children to, including to private kindergartens.

The Acting Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports (Mr Chan Chun Sing): …. (other replies) …

Mr Yee Jenn Jong asked for a review of the kindergarten assistance criteria so that more operators can become eligible centres. Today, eligible children can receive such subsidies at 240 MOE-registered kindergartens that meet the criteria, such as being non-profit and secular, and are in a good financial position to provide quality pre-school education. I understand and I share Mr Yee Jenn Jong’s concern to better help our people access more affordable childcare and kindergarten. But let me explain how we try to do this on two levels. On one level we try to lower the fees that are charged across the board by helping the kindergartens and the child care to make sure that their costs are contained. On the other hand, CFAC is really a scheme targeted at the people at the lower end of the financial spectrum. It is centred on the family circumstances rather than centred on the operators themselves. So it is a family and children specific scheme and not so much to help bring down the costs for the high-end operators.

MCYS will continue to conduct regular reviews of our pre-school schemes to improve accessibility and affordability. To ensure that the lower income households with more dependants receive adequate assistance for their children, we will introduce a parallel per capita income criterion for our assistance schemes in child care, kindergarten and student care. From April, children from large families will qualify for child care and kindergarten assistance if their per capita income is less than $875. The same will apply for student care assistance from July. About 5,000 children will benefit from these enhancements.

… (other replies) …

Mr Yee Jenn Jong: Thank you, Mr Chairman. I am glad the Acting Minister emphasised inclusiveness as MCYS’ theme. I have two questions relating to his reply on my cut. He mentioned that there are 240 centres that are KiFAS-approved. I like to know whether there are any non-PCF centres included in the list. The second question is that he said that KiFAS is targeted at lower income families. It is a child and family specific scheme and not centre-specific. I understand so is CFAC which is for childcare and we have KiFAS which is for kindergarten. But I understand CFAC is inclusive; all operators included, including private centres are eligible. But KiFAS is exclusive; so far only to one organisation. So I am sorry I do not understand the Acting Minister’s explanation and I do not understand the reasons behind KiFAS’ very onerous criteria.

Mr Chan Chun Sing: Mr Chairman, Sir, in response to Mr Yee Jenn Jong’s clarification, let me just say that the current criteria for all the centres – there is a set of criteria, we do specify which operator can or not come in. So long as an operator meets the criteria, we will allow them to go onto the scheme. I do not preclude anybody else from coming onto the scheme so long as they meet the criteria, and I trust that the criteria are put in place to safeguard the balance of considerations for the use of public funds in all subsidies. At the same time, to make sure that there is a certain quality of education for the children available. So I do not for one, prescribe that there will only be one. So long as anybody who meets the criteria, we welcome them to join the sector and provide affordable and quality services to the children that they want to serve.

I Wish My Children SUCCESS! – A poem by an anonymous mother

I received this email from a mother who prefers to remain anonymous. The poem was a response to 2 forum articles in The Straits Times, Sat 17 (“Pace of paper chase too stressful for pupils” and “Something’s wrong if children don’t have time to read“). She is tired of the paper chase too!

I Wish My Children SUCCESS!
Expectations of society
I have energy, lots of it, to invest into the lives of my children.
I have resources, lots of it… how to use them for my children?
I have networks, lots of it… how to turn them into an advantage for my children?
I am afterall sucessful, well-off and what I do cannot-go-wrong.
 
Do I need more Math, more Science, more English, more MotherTongue?
Do I need more worksheets, more tuitions, more studies, more drills?
Do I put my children to be analysed, examined, tested, medicated?
School is afterall, well-defined and cannot-go-wrong.
 
The Tyranny Of School
School has a formula for suceess,
Well-defined pathways, the broad and straight roads.
Is there a road less well-travelled or more windy,
Yet leads to a beautiful destination, a happy and meaningful journey?
 
The children I have are gems, destined to hold the future of the world,
They are spontaneously imaginative and confidently creativity,
They have fresh perceptions and ingenuis ideas.
The excellent grades in school can wait.
 
I wish them happiness,
I wish them the world,
I wish they love themselves, I wish they love people.
The excellent grades in school can wait.
 
The Power Of Our Children
Let’s get our children to connect with people,
To communicate,
To negotiate,
To show empathy.
 
Help our children gain perspectives,
To know the unwritten,
To understand the unsaid,
Starting with family, friends then the world.
 
Show our children how to care for the world we live in,
To see how interconnected we are with everyone and everything around us,
To see beauty around us,
To soak up the colours, the warmth and the groans from Mother Earth.
 
Be a role model to shout the importance of simplicity,
To separate the clutter and the gems,
To keep the things that endear,
To plough through the mandane to reach the light at the end of the tunnel.
 
Tell our children to be confident and unafraid.
They are good in whatever they are good in,
Follow their hearts and deep desires,
The excellent grades in school can wait.

GE + 1: Has Anything Really Changed: Political Forum at NUS

 I took part in a political forum at NUS on 19 March 2012. The topic is:

GE + 1: Has Anything Really Changed

The 2011 General Elections have often been described as “watershed”. Political observers have suggested that a “new normal” has emerged in Singapore politics, with a more politically aware citizenry and greater opposition party presence in Parliament. But as the dust settles from the whirlwind of the elections, and we can see the state of the Singapore polity more clearly one year after the elections, the question is has anything really changed? Has party political strategy become different? Have government policies shifted or do only have the appearance of a shift?The panel discussion, with representatives from the major political parties, an NMP and a member of academia will unpack the realities of this “new normal”.

My Opening Comments:

(note: The actual delivered speech differ as I spoke mostly off-the-cuff, but with the same points)

The question posed today is whether the political situation has changed a year after GE2011.

I will describe the political transition with a glass of water (hold cup with some water). This glass was initially quite empty, though there are some water in it. A good amount of water has recently been added, but from time to time, some water may be evaporated or consumed, but more can be added again (pour some more water in and sip).

Political change here is a continuum. We did not get a major revolutionary change that brings us from an empty state to a full state due to the last general election, and I don’t think it is reasonable to have such a drastic change too. However changes had surely taken place in a few ways:

  1. There were 6 elected MPs from opposition, up from 2 previously. Of course we are now awaiting the calling of by-election for Hougang; soon, I hope. Coupled with 3 NCMPs, there are now more opposition voices in parliament. The increased number of seats also mean more constituency and town council work that the WP is now doing. Winning the Aljunied GRC was a major breakthrough for the opposition.
  2. We see more vocal voices by Singaporeans through the ever growing presence of online media.
  3. PE2011 saw the unprecedented challenge by three others on the favoured candidate of the establishment, something that may happen again in future. The willingness to challenge the incumbent has increased.
  4. We saw an unprecedented reshuffle of cabinet positions and the dropping of many ministers.
  5. Budget 2012 presented some surprises in the huge focus on social programmes as opposed to the heavy emphasis on economic growth in previous budgets.

I see political change here as a gradual but positive move towards one where there will be increasingly more credible alternatives to the ruling party. Some breakthroughs were achieved in GE2011 but more can still happen. The glass still has a lot more capacity to fill. As a business person, I always believe monopoly of anything is bad for the general public. There has to be some level of competition to force the level of the incumbent’s game to go up.

 
Other Comments Made:

The 1.5 hour discussions had various questions that ranged from the role of social media, whether we will have 2-party/multi-party system in future, response of PAP to GE results (if PAP was turning populist), analysis of GE results, etc.

Here are some comments I made which I can recall:
a. Role of social media:
It is a useful tool and I relied a lot on it in GE2011 as I figured mainstream media would not give me much coverage as a newcomer. It helped bring my messages to the Joo Chiat SMC voters which I was then targeting. However, the responses tend to be amplified. A large silent majority will determine the outcome of the voting. Social media does put pressure on mainstream media to cover issues that it may not otherwise cover if not for the profile of the issue being raised once it get viral on the social media.
 
(Note: there were varied views from panel and audience as to how much voting was swayed by social media. My view is that it forces issues to be put out in the open but as to whether it does sway voting decision significantly is not conclusive.)
 
b. If Singapore will get to a 2-party / mulit-party system:
We are still quite a long way from there and we are in an early phase of Singapore’s political development towards being mult-party. As a party, WP will focus on growing ourselves and draw in good people. I disagree Singapore does not have enough talents for 2 parties. People need to come out of their shell and be part of the change. Whether we get to 2-party system eventually or not and how soon will depend on voters and how political parties develop.
 
c. That PAP is trying to be populist and if WP is worried about that.
It’s good that PAP is making policies to cater to the needs of people. We are not in race with them to be more populist. We focus on drawing in talent to our party and developing our alternative ideas and let people decide. 
 
d. That the quality of debate in parliament can improve and some PAP backbenchers are sometimes as or more vocal than the opposition:
In the past, some PAP backbenchers were even more vocal than the current lot. Yes, we do sometimes raise the same issues as some PAP backbenchers. Problem is whether the ministers will listen. Sometimes you get the feeling they are not listening. It is only when enough voters are unhappy then they will listen. We just have to continue raising up issues until they get the desired attention.
 
e. Importance of generational change factor in GE and its future implications:
Generational change is happening, like it or not. It has influenced GE results somewhat and will continue to be important. Political parties will have to learn to deal with that. Nothing lasts forever. We have seen political change in places such as Japan and Taiwan where a party used to dominate for decades. We do not have dynasties for hundreds of years now. Change will happen more rapidly with each new generation.

Suggestions for our mainstream education system by a Singaporean student

The following is contributed by an undergraduate reader of my blog. He prefers to remain anonymous for this post.

————————————————————————
I am currently a final year undergraduate student in one of the local Singapore universities. I have a typical sandwiched class education profile, completing my non-tertiary education in neighbourhood schools. Just before I enter the workforce, I have some suggestions for improving our education system, mainly to enhance the quality of the neighbourhood schools, which form the bulk of the education system

Firstly, during my exchange studies in Europe, I found out that most European students are able to speak 3 or 4 languages. The native language, English, and one other language, usually an european language although Mandarin is becoming more popular. This has put the students in Singapore at an disadvantage among the global stage, especially when the government encourages the young workers to venture overseas in securing new opportunities for Singapore.

Although English is the unofficial business language, many of the european companies often communicate in their native languages, or French/Spanish/German at their workplace. They will be very impressed if someone from Singapore, is able to communicate with them, in one of these languages, and I think this is an very important soft skills in the corporate world, to establish a relationship. In addition, EU is one of the biggest trade partners of Singapore, and languages like Spanish, and French are also commonly spoken around the emerging world, such as the South American Continent, and certain parts of the Africa Continent.
 
Singapore is a very small city state. With the speed of globalisation, there is a need for Singaporeans to be equipped beyond 2 languages. Introducing a third language in Singapore education will enhance the competitiveness of the local students. In Singapore, there is a minority of students, usually from the good schools, who study a third language. Hence, I feel that there is a need for Singapore to enhance the accessibility of a third language education to the masses.

We could introduce basic third languages as an elective at 15,16 years old level, with the option of taking A1 level examinations at the end of the electives. Two hourly lessons/week, over 40 weeks will give an total study time of 80 hours. A1 level requires 90-100 hours of contact time. Hence, a two year elective should give the students more than enough time. During the course of study, they will be able to understand and converse in simple terms, as well as introducing the cultures of the native country. This will expose the students to the language for a start and encourage them to continue learning them at higher level, in poly, jc, or University after graduation. At the same time, capable students could even stretch their ability and interest, by completing the A2 level certification at O level, which would give them the necessary skills to communicate on a personal interest level.

With a ready pool of workers who are able to converse in other languages will attract more MNCs to set up offices in Singapore. In addition, Singapore companies are able to send Singaporeans to manage overseas market if Singaporeans are able to converse with the local market.

I believe that hiring foreign language teachers for every school can be expensive and challenging. MOE could expand the network of MOE language centre by establishing one language centre in each cluster of schools, and allow more students from the neighbourhood school to be exposed to the third language.
 
 
The second issue which I would like to raise is the actual teacher to student ratio. In a comment by the previous MOE minister, the teacher to student ratio is below 1:20 in secondary schools. However, a check with my former teachers who are still in the system, they still face a class size of 1:35 and above. One of the reason which we discussed, is the lack of facilities for the schools, as they are built with the model of large class sizes. I hope that MOE could look into this, and look at ways to improve the infrastructure of the school so that the class size could be reduce to smaller actual class size. Personally, i have benefitted from smaller class sizes in JC, with 1:20, and in university, with a maximum size of 45 for my modules.
 
I understand that it is impossible to expect drastic changes for the education system in a short time, a fine system which has worked well and serve Singapore well for the past decades. With slight modifications, I have confidence that Singapore will be able to enhance and cement its position as one of the top education system providers of the world.
 
(comment by Yee JJ: The ratio that the Minister referred to is typically based on the number of teachers in a school to the number of students in a school, which will be a much smaller number compared to what the author refers to as class size. So both are correct in citing their statistics.
 
I also clarified with the author what he meant by the third language suggestion, which has been in existence for over three decades as an  O / A level subject. I was actually the first batch of students on a third language, although I dropped it after a year because of inconvenience of travel to another school for twice weekly lessons. He replied as follow:
 
My point was to introduce third language, not for the O level exam load, but for the external qualification test according to European Comission Guidelines of A1,A2,B1,B2, C1 and C2 levels. Typically, 1 level takes about 80-100 hours of contact times, and just a passing grade of 60% would be sufficient for each level. A2 level would be more than sufficient for communication with the native speakers. A couple of my friends have attained A2 levels before moving to Germany and start their own businesses there. Hence, it would be a good start for our students to be exposed to different languages during secondary school education as enrichment program. I think when a language is taken as an exam-able subject, it takes the fun out of learning a new language and culture. This is similar to our MT education when we study for the exams, but rarely use it or engage it outside school hours. 
 
My main motivation is to make languages more accessible to students in neighbourhood schools, outside the top schools. Currently, these students are not given the opportunities. While not everyone in the school is up to it, from my own experience and observation, the top express class of every neighbourhood school typically attained a university education, and on par with those of top schools. As families of these students tend to be from the lower strata of the society, their parents might not be able to afford these extra enrichment for them.
 
One suggestion would be for MOE to have more language centres to cater to every area, such that every 8-10 secondary school can share a language centre so that capable students from these schools can learn a third language or have enrichment classes to expose them to different disciplines. These centres could function as enrichment centres as well to provide “modules” such as robotics, aerospace classes.)
 
(Additional notes by Yee JJ – 14 March 2012: A newspaper reporter called me yesterday to ask about this post and if I agreed with the article’s author. He said I posted it up, so I must have agreed. Just wanted to clarify that just as newspapers accept forum letters of various opinions, I allowed posts by contributors to be made to encourage discussions on various issues by readers. Told the reporter that I agree with smaller class sizes. It’s also in WP’s manifesto and it is my personal opinion too, having conducted or observed classes in many schools. Smaller class sizes will allow better interaction and attention. While some schools may now have a senior educator and an allied educator or a new teacher in a class of 40+ students, it is different and not as effective as having say 1 teacher to 25-30 students.
 
On the third language issue, I have no strong views on this. While it is useful to learn an additional language, I think operationally it will be difficult to do as what the author suggested as schools will prepare students for O / A levels. Anything that is enrichment-based by the schools will just be surface deep unless we change our system to be modular examinations, like in the polytechnics and universities. In the polytechnics, students can select a language course to various levels of proficiencies as elective modules. In the secondary / college system, there is a big major examination at the end, so schools would not want to be burdened by modular programmes. So this idea is hard to implement unless there is a major structural change to our secondary / college system, which I do not see will happen anytime soon.
 
I recall an interview by my friend A/P Lubna Alsagoff, Head English Language and Literature Academic Group of NIE last November in Berita Harian. Dr Lubna can speak English, Malay, Mandarin and Hokkien, and had previously studied Tagalog, Thai and German languages. She said that one’s mindset and worldview would be more open if one knew more languages, as it would allow the person to understand and learn different culture. That’s very true. Just that in Singapore schools context, it is not easy to fit that into the existing rather rigid system. And yes, we need not learn just European languages. Asian languages to better interact with our neighbouring countries will be very useful to our students too.)

My ‘cut’ in MCYS Committee of Supply debate – Pre-school support for low income families

 A good early start to education is important to a child’s development. It is especially important for the lower income families to help the child be ready for primary schools.

Schemes like the Kindergarten Financial Assistance Scheme or KiFAS, with start-up grants and monthly fee subsidies are helpful to the low income group.

However, after 8 years of KiFAS implementation since January 2004, only one kindergarten group, namely the PAP Community Foundation qualifies as eligible provider despite there being some 260 other centres in the industry. In contrast, all child care centres licensed by MCYS are eligible centres for the Centre-based Financial Assistance Scheme for Childcare, or CFAC. While I understand the need to ensure quality of education, the bar is set so high that only one organisation in the industry has qualified.

There are many established and reputable kindergarten providers in the industry, including the kindergartens that my siblings, my wife and I have attended as children. Many of these kindergartens operate within the community, providing affordable and high quality preschool education but are KiFAS eligible. KiFAS criteria, amongst others include :

1. Have no religious affiliation or relation to racial groups; and

2. Be financially sound with a minimum paid-up capital of $5 million

These two stringent criteria are not required for CFAC and I am not sure why they are needed here. I hope MCYS will review the criteria to ensure greater choice of kindergartens for low income families to send children to, including to private kindergartens.