Greater push needed for Student Care sector

The following is an article which I had written for the Workers’ Party Hammer newsletter that was published several months ago. I am reproducing the article online after reading the article, “Demand rises for after-school care services” in the Straits Times today. The Straits Times’ article described the urgent problem facing young working parents vying for the very limited places in School-based Student Care Centres today and across the industry. It is an issue that I have been highlighting in parliament for several years already.

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Student care centres (SCCs) provide before or after school care for primary school pupils. They are an essential service for young working parents who do not have alternative arrangements to look after their primary school- going children during school days.

In recent years, there has been a huge increase in demand for student care services. This has followed a similarly large increase in the demand for childcare services since the last decade. The same young working parents that use childcare services will usually need student care for their children, at least for the first few years of schooling.

For many years, this sector has been left very much to market forces to fulfil the demand. Commercial SCCs are unattractive to run given the high cost of rent and a general lack of government support, compared to childcare. As at June 2014, the Ministry of Social and Family’s (MSF) website listed 214 student care centres, of which a good number are tuition or childcare centres. These centres may take only very few student care students, if at all, as their other operations are generally more profitable.

Good student care services could eliminate the need for tuition. However, the current number of SCC places available are too few to meet parents’ needs. The best place to run SCCs is in the schools, where students need not move out of the school and the operators can best coordinate with the teachers to follow up on homework and learning. Schools’ facilities in single-session schools are not fully utilised after school hours. If facilities are offered at token rents to operators, MOE can negotiate for lower fees and higher quality programmes. It will also reduce the need for tuition, benefiting students from disadvantaged families.

The government made a late start on this, growing school-based SCCs (SSCs) at a faster pace only after 2010. There are now 80 SSCs, with another 40 coming on-stream over the next 2 years. Even though this is fast by historical standards, more than a third of schools will still not have SSCs come 2016. MOE did not provide figures for my parliamentary question on the waitlist in existing SSCs. So, I did a random check on 12 SSCs in March 2014. I found that all had no vacancies, with one having over 50 children on the waitlist! MOE would also not commit to when all primary schools can have SSCs.

I like to see MOE aim for 100% of all primary schools to have SSCs as soon as possible. Existing operators that run community-based centres will likely be interested to move their operations into schools to avoid high rents and can pass the cost savings on to parents or to invest in staff recruitment.

Another overlooked aspect of the student care operations is that of staff training. Unlike in childcare, there is currently no mandatory requirement on training and there are few training providers with programs specific to the industry. Hence, the level of staff training in this sector is very low compared to childcare. One reason is the lack of government funding support that has made it unattractive for operators to be in the student care business or to send their staff for training. A good source for staff recruitment could be from mothers wishing to return to the workforce, as they would have experience looking after their own children of similar ages to that of SSC users and student care work hours are less demanding than that of other full-time jobs.

A plan should be urgently established to make a bigger push to help attract staff into this sector, get them trained and to support operators to keep cost affordable while maintaining a quality framework. Some level of fee subsidy support for Singaporean parents similar to that of childcare could also be established to help drive more operators into the business and to raise overall quality of operations.

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Debate on Education Endowment and Savings Schemes (Amendment) Bill

I delivered the following speech in Parliament on 8 October 2014.

Madam Speaker, I wish to declare that I run businesses that offer education services to students.

This bill will ensure that all Singaporean citizens aged seven to 16 who are not enrolled in mainstream schools will now also receive the $200-$240 yearly Edusave contributions by the government. News reports have estimated that 20,000 more children will benefit from this[1].

I believe this is a strong signal to tell Singaporeans that there are many education pathways, and Singapore children who have chosen to be enrolled in Madrasahs and other religious schools, private schools and home schools or are studying overseas are part of Singapore and deserve access to the funds that are meant for use for activities to enrich their minds.

The scheme, popularly known as Edusave was designed to provide yearly funds to students in mainstream schools to allow parents to use the moneys to pay for enrichment activities for their children in programmes that are approved by the schools. Autonomy has been given to the schools to decide what activities are best suited for the students. This is something that is useful as schools can bring in programmes that extend on their niches or programmes that they believe are best for their students.

Over the years, students have used their Edusave moneys for many sorts of programmes such as speech and drama, sports, learning expeditions and camps, and even for overseas trips.

Enrichment programmes offered through mainstream schools are often very competitively priced, as there is economy of scale from having a large number of students. Facilities within the schools are not charged to these service providers, so fees are much lower than that of similar programmes offered in venues outside of the schools that have to pay commercial rents. The enrichment providers sometimes also offer other type of programmes and services to the schools outside of Edusave funding, so there’s incentive for these providers to be as competitive as they can to sell a continuous stream of services to the schools.

While the same amount of funding per child is now available to children in religious and private schools and those that are home-schooled, enrichment providers will not rush to offer services to them as the scale of business is small. Granted that depending on rules that MOE will establish, those that are home schooled can attend enrichment courses by commercial providers individually, the costs are a lot higher per hour of learning. Hence, the yearly $200-$240 Edusave contribution that a student will receive will not go far. More importantly, there will be the missing social emotional learning elements of learning together in a large group.

I’d like to suggest that MOE can look at having schools open up participation of edusave-funded enrichment courses in their schools to those that are home schooled or in the smaller religious and private schools nearby.

I’d like to suggest that this can be a nationwide effort coordinated through MOE. Selected schools spread throughout Singapore can be satellite centres to partner with students that are in the religious schools, smaller private schools and home schools. Enrichment courses offered in the schools, especially those that are Edusave funded can be extended to these external students. This will foster interaction through joint programmes which will help develop the social and emotional learning of those outside of mainstream schools while helping students in the mainstream school better understand their peers learning under a different education system. It will also provide some form of common education experience for both groups of students.

Madam, the idea may sound radical but I believe it is doable. Some schools have on their own initiative, fostered partnerships with communities in their neighbourhood, including with disadvantaged children. I believe we can have a more structured approach on enrichment programmes to have schools partner on regular basis with neighbourhood children outside of mainstream schools. This will give more value to the Edusave contributions that the government is now giving to this new group of beneficiaries. I hope MOE can study the feasibility of this proposal.

Madam Speaker, I support the Bill. Thank you.

[1] http://www.todayonline.com/singapore/more-children-benefit-edusave-enhancements

Remote Gambling Bill – Strong Safeguards Needed

I delivered this speech during the debate on the Remote Gambling Bill on 7 October 2014. The video of speech is here.

The Rise of Remote Gambling

Madam Speaker, online gambling is increasingly becoming a problem, both globally and in Singapore.

In 2013, a news article reported an online survey by the Ministry of Home Affairs which found that 3 in 10 out of 1,000 respondents had gambled online or through the mobile phone. The article estimated that the size of the remote gambling market in Singapore was $376 million[1]. MHA had also estimated that the revenue of the global remote gambling industry was around US$35b in 2012[2].

A survey conducted in 2011 with Singapore residents by the National Council on Problem Gambling found that 10% of the respondents had gambled remotely in the preceding year, and those who did so said they often found themselves spending more time and money than they had intended to[3]. With the wide penetration of the Internet and mobile phone here, and an increasingly technology savvy population, remote gambling will rise rapidly if left unchecked.

Singapore currently already has tough laws on gambling in the real-world physical form, but has lagged behind that of other countries in imposing legislation on remote gambling, at least until now. Hence, I support the government’s move to impose tough legalisations on remote gambling. Remote gamblers will now face fines and even jail terms, while those who facilitate remote gambling will be subjected to even heftier fines and up to 5 years in jail. Industry experts have said that we will have one of the toughest laws in the world against online gambling. While most countries would adopt one or two of the key measures to control online gambling, Singapore will adopt all three measures with the proposed regulation: ban advertisements, block access to such websites and block payments to and from gambling sites.[4]

Exemptions

However, a worrying aspect of the Bill is that under Part 5, it provides for exemptions for Singapore-based not-for-profit operators with a proven track record of distributing moneys to public, social or charitable purposes in Singapore and with good compliance track record with applicable legal and regulatory requirements.

Our state-run operators, Singapore Pools and Singapore Turf Club have already been quoted in the press as saying that they will apply for the exemption certificate once this Bill is passed into law.[5] Last year, it was reported that Singapore Pools is looking to launch the first licensed gambling website that will be based in Singapore.[6] The same report cited sources who said that Singapore Pools had already begun design for a website with online betting functions. In effect, this Bill will create a monopoly for legalised online gambling in Singapore for the existing operators.

Dangers of Gambling and Lessons We Have Learnt

Madam, while it is good to have only compliant not-for-profit organisations with charitable outlook to be considered for exemption, we must not forget that there are very real dangers of people and families that have been and will continue to be destroyed at our existing legalised casinos, turf club and betting outlets.

According to a British gambling consultancy, H2 Gambling Capital, Singaporeans are the second biggest gamblers in the world, and the average adult resident lost $1,189 in 2013.[7] This ranks Singapore only behind Australia in terms of gambling losses per resident. Half of this amount was reportedly lost in casinos, with the other half going to other forms of gambling such as lotteries, non-casino gaming machines, betting, and offshore gaming websites.

While the rates of problem and pathological gambling across the board are still considered relatively low,[8] a local study funded by the Ministry of Social and Family Development has found that there has been an increase in the gambling participation rates among older adults aged 60 and above;[9] this is consistent with other countries such as the UK and the US which have also found similar trends. What is worrying about the prevalence of gambling participation among older adults from the study is that none of those identified within the problem gambling and moderate risk groups in the study, were seeking professional help.[10] As a result, while there are generally more people seeking help for gambling addiction, there still remains a significant group of people who do not do so, for various reasons such as being unaware of the problem, or the fear of being stigmatised, amongst others.

This is a cause for concern not just because this group of people are around retirement age, but also because of the dire consequences that could befall their families if the problem is not addressed in time.

When we legalised casinos in 2006, we enacted the Casino Control Act which had provisions aimed at protecting vulnerable persons and society at large from the potential harm of casino gambling. Yet we still saw individuals and families being destroyed by the scourge of addictive gambling. That resulted in amendments to the Bill 2 years ago to offer further safeguards.

I’d like to know what are the lessons learnt from the operations of our legalised gambling franchises that our authorities intend to incorporate to control the negative aspects of addictive gambling. This is especially so when remote gambling is so much more convenient for the gamblers.

While we are legislating remote gambling for the first time in Singapore, there are already some form of remote gambling by our two state-run gambling operators. Singapore Pools already allows phone betting[11] and Singapore Turf Club’s MobileTote allows betting via mobile devices[12]. Phone betting allows for the placement of lottery bets by following voice prompts and through data entry using the phone’s number pads. It also allows for Sports bets through speaking with a customer service representative. The MobileTote allows Telebet account holders to view raceday information and place their racing wagers on their mobile phones. ​Users of these services must first be registered with the gambling operators.

I trust that our authorities have been monitoring these existing forms of legalised remote gambling services. I’d like to know if we have examined the frequency of usage of these types of remote gambling, such as number of bets and amount of bets versus the traditional forms. Have we studied the betting patterns of those who use these remote gambling services to see if the services had led to an increase in the number and overall values of their betting? What is the size of the existing memberships of these services? The information could be helpful to determine the extent of the danger for legalising online gambling through exempted operators and if these two existing state-owned operators should be granted exempt-status. With the exemption provisions in this Bill, it could open the floodgates for these operators to be more aggressive in offering a wider range of services with greater convenience, which could inevitably result in more people becoming addicted to gambling.

Strong Verification and Controls Needed

With online gambling, one should logically first need to be registered with a login identity and to have financial details linked to the gaming operator to facilitate payment. If we have to go down the path of having exempt gambling operators, we will need a way to impose controls on the legalised gambling sites such as exclusion orders, voluntary self-exclusion and limits to gambling tied to financial abilities. With the current exercise to strengthen Singpass security with 2-level authentication, perhaps Singpass could be used as the means for authentication and financial background checks. At the very least, some form of strict authentication of the identity and background of online gamblers at the initial creation of their account is important. Those on state-funded welfare programmes can be automatically excluded as such information will be readily available about the person. Those already on casino exclusion orders and are bankrupt should also be automatically excluded. Known financial details could perhaps be used to determine gambling limits.

What forms of remote gambling will be allowed for the legalised exempt operators? I am glad to hear from the Minister that there will be no online casinos as casino games are potentially more addictive compared to other forms of gambling. It would have allowed a loophole to let Singapore residents gamble on casino games without the safeguards such as entry levies that physical casinos have.

Another issue that we may need to look at in the implementation of online gaming is live betting. With live betting, one can bet on sporting events as they happen, with odds changing by the minute as the game progresses. Gambling sites internationally have devised all sorts of creative live bets, such as the number of yellow cards in, say the first 20 minutes of the game. This can lead to more bets being placed on each sporting event and it also raises the risk for match fixing. Australia, which has laws regulating online gambling since 2001, moved last year to ban live betting and live odds on all sports event, with the exception of horse racing. [13] Their reasons, amongst others for this move were to control excessive gambling and to prevent the sporting values of games from being distorted by gambling. I hope live betting will also not be allowed in Singapore.

Commit Bill to a Select Committee

Madam Speaker, I understand a reason given for allowing exemptions is to allow enforcement through entities that we can better monitor. However, we need to tread this carefully as the ills of gambling are far reaching, as we have already seen from our experiences with the casinos and other forms of legalised gambling. There need to be constant monitoring of the effects of remote gambling and to restrict participation by vulnerable persons and to also restrict the type of gaming activities allowed.

While I support the broad principles of the Bill to ban remote gambling, I find that there are many unanswered questions regarding the exemption provisions. I fear that once we open the floodgates to have legalised remote gambling, we may end up with very high social costs and other unintended consequences in the future. Hence, I also ask that the Bill be committed to a Select Committee to examine the exemption provisions in detail to convince Singaporeans why exemptions are necessary and if so, how we can tighten our legislation to implement very strong safeguards.

Thank you.

[1] http://m.todayonline.com/singapore/govt-moves-moves-curb-remote-gambling-websites
[2] http://www.mha.gov.sg/news_details.aspx?nid=MzAzOA%3D%3D-YA3Z%2BhZbN8g%3D
[3] http://app.msf.gov.sg/Research-Room/Research-Statistics?tid=26&title=Gambling/Problem%20Gambling
[4] http://www.establishmentpost.com/singapore-pools-plug-online-gambling-remote-gambling-bill/
[5] http://www.straitstimes.com/news/singapore/more-singapore-stories/story/online-gambling-sites-urged-keep-addicts-out-20140927
[6] http://www.straitstimes.com/breaking-news/singapore/story/singapore-pools-looking-start-licensed-gambling-website-20131213
[7] http://www.todayonline.com/singapore/sporeans-remain-second-biggest-gamblers-world
[8] http://app.msf.gov.sg/Press-Room/Preventing-rise-in-Gambling-Addiction
[9] Tsu S, et al., (2013). Estimating the prevalence of problem gambling among older adults in Singapore,. Elsevier., p. 607.
[10] Tsu S, et al., (2013). Estimating the prevalence of problem gambling among older adults in Singapore,. Elsevier., p. 610.
[11] http://www.singaporepools.com.sg/en/pb/Pages/index.aspx
[12] http://www.turfclub.com.sg/Wagering/BettingServices/Pages/MobileTote.aspx

[13] http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/gillard-moves-to-ban-live-odds-restrict-gambling-ads-during-games-20130526-2n4tc.html