Playing the politics bogeyman

I was flabbergasted to read of the scenario planning exercise at the Institue of Policy Studies (IPS). The article, “A Singapore with more .sg than .gov?” by the Straits Times, 27 Oct 2012 reported that IPS gave three scenarios of how Singapore might be governed 10 years from now. One is a strong pro-growth, pro-business government that citizens trust. The second is a pro-welfare state that sacrifices growth for inclusiveness. The last scenario is that of a corrupt and untrustworthy government, one which according to the ST report, is ruled by a coalition government that is corrupt and so weak that citizens are largely left to fend for themselves, running their own schools and hospitals.

I am not familiar with the details of the IPS exercise. My reaction from my reading of the article is, why are we painting such stereotypes? Why is a corrupt and untrustworthy government that of a coalition government? A coalition is necessary when no one party has enough seats to form the government. Is such a government necessarily corrupt? Many governments in the world are coalitions. A Singaporean based in Finland shared in my blog about the Finnish government. The current government is a 6-party coalition, with another 2 parties forming the opposition. The UK is currently having a coalition government. So are Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, Denmark, Norway and many other developed countries.  Are these corrupt governments? Are they weak and unable to execute policies? Surely these countries would be finished off by now, as some have been having coalition governments for decades. They have learnt to adjust and deal with the situation. Why can’t we have honest and capable coalition governments?

Is a single party government necessarily strong and non corrupt? There are many examples of single party governments in the world that are said to be corrupt or deemed weak in policy execution.

Sure, we need certain scenarios for planning purposes. If IPS wish to get people to talk about the possibility of a future corrupt Singapore government, why can’t it just be about a corrupt and untrustworthy government instead of a corrupt and untrustworthy coalition government? The 3 scenarios paint the typical cases we have been told so many times: Strong single party government having to choose between growth and inclusiveness, and an incapable non-single party government.

When repeated often enough, it is designed to lead people to make stereotype assumptions. You will hear such sterotypes repeated many times during elections, questioning the motives of opposition members (as if we have so much to gain by joining the opposition) and that Singaporeans will mess things up if we break the strong single party rule (TOC article and YeeJJ’s rally speech).

I am reminded of how as a child, adults would use a bogeyman story to get me to do things. I was told to finish my meal, or stop crying, or behave myself. If not, some bogeyman would come and catch me. At some point, I grew old enough to know this is just scare tactics. In this day and age, we have better access to open information. I just hate it when I read of such stereotypes. They are nothing more than putting up politics bogeyman to hope to frigthen people to behave in a certain way desired by certain groups.

Note: I had written and published this post after reading the ST article on 27 Oct. Later, I read through the paper by IPS. I did not see the word “corrupt” in IPS’s 3rd scenario. It was just “A coalition government is elected but public trust in government is low; no one central power dictates; this is a self-activating and self-correcting community.” So to be fair to IPS, I wasn’t privy to details of their scenario planning exercise and why ST chose to describe the 3rd scenario as “a coalition government that is corrupt and so weak that citizens are largely left to fend for themselves”.

Further Note (1 Nov 2012):

IPS wrote to me on 31 Oct to clarify that in their intended scenarios, the coalition government isn’t the one that is corrupt but it is the previous government that was.  The government is gridlocked. The full version of the scenario in their media release is at: http://www.spp.nus.edu.sg/ips/docs/events/prism/Scenarios/Prism%20Project_The%20Prism%20Scenarios_English.pdf. They informed me that they have since added in a line (underlined) to make that even more explicit:

 “The third scenario is called “WikiCity.sg”. The reference is to Wikipedia where there is no editor and therefore no central power, but is most critically self-activating and self-correcting by its own user-community — its citizens. This is Singapore after several political convulsions arising from years of being governed by leaders who were disconnected from ground sentiment.  It was an incompetent government that lacked integrity. “Corruption in CPIB” is the most memorable headline of the decade. Trust in a central government is so low among the people in WikiCity.sg that they will not let it regulate, manage or control their lives. The old government is thrown out and a coalition government is elected but it is mired in policy gridlock, which further diminishes people’s trust in central government. The broad political consensus is that the state should take care of foreign relations, trade relations and maintain law and order. It should also keep the other burdens on the people, such as taxes and regulations, as light as possible. Critics call it a “donut state”.”

I replied to thank IPS for the clarification. I also let them know I had based my blog post on the report by ST on 27 Oct which did clearly state that the coalition government is the one that’s weak and corrupt and not the previous government. Even before IPS wrote to me, I had already posted my above NOTE after I had read from IPS’s website and realised that the scenario seemed different from what ST had reported. I am posting these NOTES as I have read comments that criticised IPS for painting this corrupt coalition scenario.

The scenarios are described in: http://www.spp.nus.edu.sg/ips/ipsprism.aspx. The scenarios will be acted out at NLB from 8 to 14 Nov by the Drama Box, a forum theatre experts.

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Reflecting on the storm over PSLE leave

Any discussion over the PSLE is likely to generate many comments. We saw that happen yesterday.

Minister of State Josephine Teo’s Facebook comments about OCBC’s PSLE leave as “over-the-top” and fanning the exam fever have stirred up robust online discussions. It prompted TODAY to write a front page story on it. ChannelNewsAsia featured her comments as well.

My three children have completed their PSLE. The youngest did his last year. My wife and I did not take extended leave to be at home to watch over them. We try not to be kiasu parents, although as concerned asian parents, we did monitor them more tightly during the PSLE year. We try to encourage them along the way, both at PSLE and at O levels. If we were at OCBC, we would probably not forward our annual leave to use all 15 days for the PSLE. After all, the 10-15 days in OCBC’s scheme are not extra leave but staff are allowed to carry them forward to be used during the PSLE year.

In response to press queries, OCBC Bank Head of Group Corporate Communications Koh Ching Ching pointed out: “We have seen more and more employees applying for annual leave to spend time with their children who are taking PSLE or for sabbatical leave to take a break from work.”

Then-Senior Minister of State, Ms Grace Fu had said in a parliament speech during the Oct 2011 Debate on the President’s Address that

“Many women whom I have met told me about their concerns for their children’s education, and I would add to Minister Heng’s list of 20 speakers now, who will speak on this issue. They have found the system to be highly competitive and felt compelled to take time off for their children’s education. Many education systems in Asia are competitive but, in Singapore, competition comes early with a high-stake examination – PSLE – at 12 years old. Peer pressure cause parents to head towards award-winning enrichment centres, tutors and coaches for their children.

Sir, having spent three years in MOE, I would, more often than not, explain to them the policy considerations. They generally understand the policy intent but, nevertheless, find it emotionally very tiring to cope with it. Coaching their children for PSLE is probably one of the most frequent reasons for working mothers to take leave from work. I know because I used to do it.”

OCBC was responding to a trend and the call by the government for companies to provide more work-life balance for employees. OCBC and others like Minister Grace Fu have acknowledged the high stress parents face over the PSLE.

I am not a fan of our high stake PSLE exam and the sorting that comes with the results. It is done too early in the education lifetime of the child. The exam is over in 4 days (5 days if there’s a higher mother tongue), conducted over a couple of hours each day. Our system has made it such that the results obtained over that 4-5 days essentially determines a lot about the future of the child. This is so because we have made our secondary schools so highly differentiated. Students are sorted into academic streams. Within academic streams, there are further differentiation. Years of branding, banding and ranking have cast schools into different brackets. Whether MOE intends it or not, parents perceive how good a school is based on the types and grades of students they take in. They want to push their children into as ‘good’ a school as they can, with ‘good’ being measured most of the time by the academic abilities of students entering the school. Students that do not do well academically will somehow have an invisible label stuck on them that they are not as good.

I can understand where MOS Josephine Teo is coming from. PSLE is already a highly stressful event, both for children and for the parents. I am glad her husband and her chose not to be overly anxious for their twin children’s PSLE this year. Unfortunately, many parents are so highly anxious over PSLE that they will take many days of leave and even a year off from work to coach their children for the PSLE. Even Minister Grace Fu said she had taken leave for her child’s PSLE. She acknowledged that the PSLE is high pressure that comes early in the child’s life.

My concern is why our system has come to a state where the competition level at 12 years old has become so excessive that a major bank has offered special leave consideration for it and saw it as important enough to have a press announcement to highlight this. Often, when I explain our education system to foreigners, they found it strange that we have high stake sorting done at age 12. What is there so much attention on a single year and on a single event in a child’s life? In that respect, I agree with Josephine Teo that we do not have to specially highlight PSLE leave to make already anxious parents wonder if they are doing enough to push their children at this exam. The bank intends well for its staff. It can implement this as an internal matter without any public announcement.

I recall when I was schooling, I went to a neighbourhood primary school. The majority of my peers progress to the affiliated secondary school. My humble neighbour secondary school has produced the current President of Singapore, a former Minister, many scholars, and top lawyers, doctors, engineers, professionals, entrepreneurs and some politicians. Singapore did not have academic streams, Gifted Programme or Integrated Programme then. We went through a common curriculum with other secondary schools. That neighbourhood school could produce many successful people. The PSLE was a non event for most of us.

Since then, many changes were introduced to the education system to differentiate secondary schools. Today, these changes have effectively pulled the neighbourhood and top schools apart because schools are now highly differentiated. Some differentiations are real while some are perceived by parents. Schools today enroll students from a narrow band of T-Scores for each academic stream they take.

The result of the changes over the years is that parents have now become very conscious of what the PSLE score can do for the child. Many unfortunately think the overriding outcome of a primary school education is what happens at the PSLE. The PSLE determines the academic stream and the secondary school the child will enter. Parents see a top school as a black box where if you put their child there, the school will somehow magically produce someone successful in his/her career later on. People consider top schools as having better resources and a better learning environment. With a top school, they believe there will be better chances for scholarships and more secured pathways to top jobs.

There is a National Conversation that is currently ongoing. The PSLE came up rather early for discussion. The Prime Minister has weighed in on this topic, saying that the PSLE is here to stay. He explained that the PSLE is needed to assess the standards obtained by students and to determine who goes to which secondary schools. I certainly hope policymakers will take an open view on this topic. While MOE has been introducing holistic assessment and values and character education, the schools are under pressure to deliver at the PSLE. The pressure has caused many good holistic programmes by MOE to be overriden by the singular concern over PSLE results.

A proposal I had surfaced during the Committee of Supply debate on MOE is to have through-train primary to secondary schools for those who wish to opt out of the PSLE. I elaborated further in a blog post to allay concerns that people may use this to a shortcut into top schools. We can exclude top schools from the exercise. After some period of execution, we can review society’s attitudes again to see what more we can do to cut down the importance of the PSLE, or even do away with it totally. I believe we can see positive results from schools that have 10 continuous years to develop a child without a high stake examination mid way. Continuous assessments of students to assess standards would suffice.

Another thing I believe we can do is to consciously make the differentiation in secondary schools less acute over time.  I would like to see a system in which students of varying abilities can be mixed in each school and with resources and good teaching staff distributed more evenly across schools. This will allow better integration between students of varying abilities in a natural setting. It will also make the choice of secondary schools less critical. Others have also made interesting suggestions on how to tweak the secondary school admission system, such as discarding the use of T-Score and to use actual grades instead. To make any modification to the school admission system work, we will first need to narrow the differentiation (both real and perceived) between schools.

Unfortunately, the policy has been moving in the opposite direction for some time. It has introduced finer categories to further differentiate schools based mostly by academic abilities of students. The most recent changes were more Integrated Programme schools that will effectively take the top 10% of the cohort out of regular schools, and specialised Normal Technical schools that will only have N(T) students. Such changes will inevitably add more stress to the PSLE as T-Scores are used to select students into schools, not withstanding Direct School Admission exceptions. MOE may say all schools are good, but as long as some schools are perceived to be much better and to be safer bets for the future success of the child, we will continue to have excessive stress at the PSLE.

We are still in the early days of the National Conversation. We should continue to be open to proposals on our education system, even radical ones. I look forward to how we can have education without the national obsession over early high stake exams.

Finding the Singapore Psy

The 17 Oct issue of TODAY featured Psy and the economics of Gangnam style. Psy (Park Jae Sang) is suddenly famous. He holds the record for the highest number of Youtube likes (now over 4 million and still rising) and over 400 million views, after officially releasing his video on Youtube only in July this year.

Psy goes against the grain of successful pop stars. He is portly and by his own admission, is not good looking. He was once told by major record labels to get a drastic image overhaul, including plastic surgery to ever be successful. He did none of these and chose to “dress classy and dance cheesy”. He is the total opposite of what had made K-pop successful in the past: stars with long legs, robotic dance moves and years of training and grooming to make more out of the same mould.

He got South Korea’s finance minister talking about him.  South Korea’s top economic official cited Psy as an example of the kind of creativity and international competitiveness the country needs. It was a plea for South Koreans to let their hair down and dream a bit.

As successful as South Korea is in the competitive world of global electronics and export, the finance minister recognises that the country needs to continue to find its own groove. It needs the creative Psy in businesses to go against the grain for the country to continue to propser as innovation becomes more important for success globally.

I believe Singapore needs that too. We may have found success in our early industrial policy. We went against the nationalistic grain of what our neighbours were doing and attracted multinationals to our shores. Former Perm Sec Ngiam Tong Dow had warned of flying on auto-pilot mode, relying on past successes as a sure and safe way for future progress. He was pushing for Singapore to grow its local ‘timber’, i.e. develop our SMEs to a level that they can compete globally. To do so, we will need innovation.

Innovation needs a mindset change. It is difficult to mandate innovation. It has to start from a culture from young where we dare to be different, where we dare to go against the grain and we dare to try alternatives. Our formula for success is too predictable.  Our system has put too much emphasis on measuring children from young and sorting them into cookie-cutter programmes we think are best for them. We sieve out the elites through tests and channel them onto fast tracked programmes. We have created an excessive meritocratic education system where the rewards for doing well in academic examinations are exceedingly high. We will end up breeding a next generation of policymakers fixed on doing what had been done previously because that is the safer way to carry on with things.

To have a culture of innovation, we need to cultivate such an attitude right across all areas of our society. If we want a Singapore Psy, we need to let our hair down in our creative sector, even if it causes a bit of discomfort sometimes. Once a while, over enthusiastic officials will clamp down on artistic expressions in the fringes, afraid that our population cannot discern. We will get conforming people but not the next Psy.

If we want Psy-thinking in our businesses, we need to encourage divergent thinking from young. We need to find alternative ways to educate our young and to find a different way to progress them up the education ladder. We need to incorporate into our education more areas that do not have fixed answers. We need to find a way to embrace greater ambiguity and diversity.

Our economy will also need to allow the space for SMEs to develop. We need to allow fresh spaces for them to grow, rather than stiffle them under the shades of giant GLCs and multinationals. I had spoken on this earlier in my Budget speech in parliament this year.

I look forward to a day when we can have our Singapore Psy, in pop culture and in business. We need confident Singaporeans, prepared to be different.

Developing our national identity and values

Yesterday, Ang Peng Hwa the Director of the Singapore Internet Research Centre at NTU, and president of the Singapore chapter of the Internet Society wrote in the Straits Times (5 Oct 2012, pg A32) about learning from Bhutan in how Singapore can go about developing its own identity. He stated that Bhutan’s concept of GNH is not about replacing GDP and is not just about happiness. It is something designed to distinguish Bhutan from their neighhours and from the rest of the world.

I had spoken about Bhutan’s GNH in my maiden parliament speech as well (see link). The GNH concept is to also ensure their culture and environment are preserved for the benefit of future generations. It is as much about leaving a future for the next generation as it is about current economic growth. It is centred on collective happiness as a society, rather than individual happiness. Hence, preserving its culture, ensuring sustainable development and having good governance are as important as measuring economic development.

Many Bhutanese may have also gone out to the world to study and work. However, ask any Bhutanese where he/she would like to spend his/her last days, and it will be in Bhutan. Their identity has remained strong over the years. Singapore has been building a global city, but it is weak on building a nation with its own identity and culture. As our people study, live and work overseas in an increasingly globalised world, how can we root them back to Singapore? How do we build an identity with the constant influx of new migrants into our society? What do we want to leave behind for our children’s generation? Let’s hope we address this as we talk about what we want Singapore to be 20 years from now.