Tales from House Visits

Recounting the said encounters during my House Visits

Yesterday in Parliament during the debate on the motion on AHPETC, Education Minister Heng Swee Kiat cited my encounter with one of his parliamentary colleagues during my house visits (HV) a month ago and another of my HV on the Thursday that had just passed.

It was a surprise for me to hear my name being mentioned when I was not even speaking on the motion, having left it to the good hands of my WP colleagues who run AHPETC and who had already explained the necessary details in response to the AGO report. Nevertheless, I must thank the Minister for bringing attention to my busy schedule. I had sat through parliament the entire Thursday which ended around 630pm, then I rushed back to change and do my weekly HV.

Both incidents that Minister Heng cited happened at Pasir Ris town, where I have been doing HV for about a year on a weekly basis. They are part of the regular two, sometimes three times a week ground activities to various parts of Singapore that I take part in, rain or shine for several years already.

I had the privilege to ‘bump’ into DPM Teo last month, who is the fellow colleague that the Minister referred to. Since DPM and Minister Heng thought it was fit to talk in parliament about that casual encounter, let me recount from what I remember.

Several WP members and I were just gathering at the void deck of a block in Pasir Ris waiting for more helpers to arrive when DPM and his grassroots leaders were about to go into a meeting in that same block. The first question the DPM asked was, “What’s happening at the Town Council”. Puzzled, I replied there was nothing much and things were as usual. DPM then asked what was with the finances of the TC? That encounter with DPM was shortly after MOS Desmond Lee and Minister Lawrence Wong had written publicly about AHPETC’s finances in the context of high S&CC arrears.

I told DPM that we will reply at a later date as stated in our press statements, which WP subsequently did with respect to the correction to the S&CC arrears. Yes, I did say that I am not in the TC committees and my colleagues, the elected MPs run the TC and they will be responding in due course when the AGO report is out. I recall the DPM asking if I was a CEC member and hence I should know.

I found that to be a strange comment because I had already said that my colleagues run the TC and that they will respond at a later date as they had said in press statements. Asking me to account to him for things in a TC which I am not involved in the operations of because I am a WP CEC member, is like me asking the DPM in front of his grassroots leaders, to account for things that happen in other PAP TCs just because DPM is a PAP CEC member, such as why rats were running wild in Bukit Batok. Of course, I didn’t think it was appropriate for me to tell him that in front of his grassroots leaders so I left our conversation as it was.  I have confidence in our MPs running the TC and I still do now.

Minister Heng said I evaded a resident’s question on Thursday and walked away quickly. We had 2 groups doing HV at Pasir Ris that evening, so I had to check with everyone who were there on Thursday to find out if anyone did turn and walked away quickly when asked about AHPETC. No one had asked the other group about the TC, which was led by another WP CEC member. I had two helpers with me. I was sure I did not walk away without answering anyone on anything. Just to be very sure, I asked both of my helpers and they all were sure that I did not. Here’s the texted message from one of them, “I can’t remember the exact number of residents that asked about the AHPETC but you did not walk away nor not answer any resident.”

HV is exhausting. For evening visits, we could only do after dinner and have to end before it becomes too late that it disturbs residents’ rest. We try to visit as many as possible yet taking care to engage with residents who want to speak with us. We visit easily over 100 homes each time. Over the years of doing regular HV, I have worked out opening and closing lines based on the locations that I visit. I had applied the same opening and closing for all the homes that opened their doors to us that evening. I recall nothing special that Thursday. We moved quickly from one house to another to engage as many residents as possible before it became too late, but only after ending the conversation with an appropriate closing to make sure that it was a courteous departure.

I could only recall a middle aged man who referred to the TC debate. When I introduced myself as from WP, he said he knew as he was just at that moment watching the news covering the debate. I recall replying that 4 of our MPs had spoken to reply to the findings of the AGO and the remaining AHPE MPs will speak the next day. I had probably also said that our MPs are answering the details of the AGO report in the debate. There was nothing that was specifically asked of me about AHPETC by the resident. Without any specifics to answer, we ended the conversation in a manner as I would normally do before we moved to the next house.

Perhaps if I did unintentionally miss out on someone who had genuinely wanted to engage me, he can email me at jennjong.yee@wp.sg and I will gladly visit him during my weekly HV. Our answers were provided in detail in parliament by 7 speakers, and some further replies were given in clarifications to speeches by PAP MPs. I am satisfied with the answers that my fellow MPs gave and will give the same answers.

 

The Art of Answering Questions

Much had been said by the Minister in his long speech about the quality of the answers by WP members. I try to learn from our learned Ministers about how to give good answers. Here’s one in the name of the Education Minister from the parliamentary records.

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Foreign Scholars (9 Jan 2012)

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

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

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

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

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

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Surprised that only ASEAN scholars were numbered when the question was about foreign scholars and it was obvious that there are many scholars from other nationalities, I filed another question the next month about non-ASEAN scholars.

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FOREIGNERS ON SINGAPORE GOVERNMENT SCHOLARSHIPS (17 Feb 2012)

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

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

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

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

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

Ms Sim Ann: Sir, because the admission of foreign scholars into our system is primarily to augment our manpower pool so as to better anchor investors and employers who can in turn offer good jobs for the economy and for Singaporeans, we do take the quality of such intakes very seriously. In terms of where the scholars come from, they come from the ASEAN countries as well as China and India. Basically, this has been the mix over the years. And over the years, we have been able to maintain certain standards in the quality of such students. In terms of the number of scholarships that has been suspended due to poor performance in school, I do not have the figures at hand, but, by and large, we monitor their performance very carefully. In terms of the quality, I can share with the Member that, for instance, in terms of the number of international scholars who have been awarded Second Upper and above in our universities, this has been around 45% [please see report on 28 February 2012], and this compares with about 32% for Singaporean citizens.

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Strangely, are scholars from China and India not foreign scholars? What do you think?

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