Unpaid school fees – What are the teachable moments?

The incident reminded me of a case I took when helping at a Meet-People-Session in Aljunied GRC a few years back.

It was almost 9.30 pm then, which was the closing time for residents to register to meet the MP over issues. I had just completed a case and I was about to leave as there were no further cases needing a case writer. Then, a young lady rushed to the counter and registered. I popped over to check and decided to take her case. It turned out that she was a 2nd year diploma student at a government supported non-profit college. She had unpaid fees and was told by the college that unless she paid up, she would not get her official results and she needed the results to register for her courses for the third and final year. She was very distressed because the last date to register for her courses was like that next day or very soon after that. She was sobbing as she told her story. She is the eldest with only her uneducated mum working part time to support the family. The family was constantly in debt, borrowing from relatives. Her previous year fees had been paid by an aunt who was not able to give her another loan so soon. She worked part time but that was only enough for her own living expenses and not for her fees. She believed she would be kicked out of college because of her unpaid fees. She did not even know what her 2nd year results were because the school’s policy was that they could not release the results without payment of fees.

I happened to have a friend working in the school. I called him. He was kind enough to set up a rushed meeting the next morning with the finance manager. I called the young lady to come along. The school did not know of her financial situation. The finance manager was very kind and revealed that she had passed and may register for the third year courses and asked her to apply for a bursary. The school also gave her time to pay up for the previous fees, which she eventually borrowed from her relatives. She got a bursary for her final year of studies. As she had the relevant skills, I engaged her on a part-time basis for my art company that year as well.

She graduated, found a job in a MNC as a web designer and I last heard she was still working there. Hers is a happy story that could have turned out badly. I asked why she did not try to apply for any financial assistance before then. She said she was not aware (even though the school had schemes and were indeed kind and fast to act when her situation surfaced). It is hard to blame her as she was not yet an adult then and the family already had so much problems. Relatives were afraid of them requesting for more financial assistance. She only came to the MPS because she shared her problems at a church meeting and her friend suggested going to meet her MP, which she promptly rushed to because the MPS happened to be that evening.

Back to the MOE case. Like MOE, the college the lady was in had to have some policies over unpaid fees. So I do not fault these organisations for needing to have rules to go by. MOE said it is a teachable moment for the parents. The problem often is that when there are persistent unpaid fees, there are often some deep issues or dysfunctional family situations. I am not sure if the family would be in a good situation to talk to the child about the learning points of having to pay their dues if they had many other daily stresses or were dysfunctional. I do not know the exact situation for the PSLE student as to why financial assistance was not applied for. I know schools have lots of ways to help low income family pay for fees and even get pocket money allowances because I have been involved in helping to raise such funds for schools. The young lady I had helped could have raised her problems to the school much earlier and she would likely have gotten a bursary from day 1 but she said she was not aware of support schemes and did not know that she would have qualified.

I will end with another story. A principal of a faith-based kindergarten told me recently that she and the form teacher of a class made a surprise visit to a family whose child had not paid the third term fees nor fees for the school bus. The boy had stopped attending school without a formal withdrawal. The bus had refused to pick him as well. The purpose of the visit was to understand what happened and to try to get the child to be back so he can finished his final few weeks of preschool with friends he has made over the past couple of years before going on to primary school.

They reached the home of the family just as the father and son were stepping out. The father was apologetic and promised to pay up the fees. He thought that the school had come to chase for the debts. The school explained that they were not there for the fees as they had already asked the Board for permission to waive off the fees. They just wanted to ask the child to go back to school as they did not want him to miss out the memorable final weeks. They even asked the bus company if they could sponsor the bus trips for the final period for the family.

What are the teachable moments? It can be to tell the family and child that they need to pay for all financial obligations. It can also be to tell them that there’s grace in the society if there are truly situations that call for it. I hope the young preschool boy will grow up well and one day remember that the school he attended reached out because they did not want him to fall behind no matter what the family circumstances were; that if he is financially capable one day, he can pay it back to others.

I do not think many families like to owe money especially over education. It is embarrassing to the child. With persistent unpaid fees, there are often stories behind these which can only be known if we probe further. Probing needs time. I do not know enough of the situation with the PSLE student as to how the school may have previously reached out to the family. Teachers and principals are often stressed out because our schools run large operations and class sizes are big. There are daily fires to fight when school is operational. Digging into problems such as persistent unpaid fees and trying to resolve them require lots of time and patience. As much as there are teachable moments to the families, there are also engagement opportunities by the schools and by social welfare organisations to use these as trigger points to dig further and to help families work a way out of problems.

#Correction: The earlier post stated the Principal and Vice Principal of the faith-based kindergarten. It should be Principal and form teacher of the class the boy was in.

Storm over PMDs – Reflections of a motorist, cyclist, pedestrian cum PMD user

Personal Mobility Devices (PMDs) have grabbed the headlines recently for all the wrong reasons. PMDs started in a small way in the past but ownership grew with LTA’s masterplan in 2013 to better facilitate first and last mile legs of commuting through better connectivity for walking and cycling, and exploded in 2017 with the Active Mobility Act that allowed PMDs onto footpaths albeit with a speed limit of 15 km/hr and with food delivery companies tapping on PMD users. Along the way up till the sudden ban announced on 4 Nov, effective the next day, there had been fatalities and many injuries, many happening on footpaths. There had also been several flip-flops by the government along the way.

You can read more of the short and explosive history of PMDs here: why-are-pmds-banned-from-footpaths/.

Let me share my thoughts as a motorist, cyclist,, pedestrian and PMD user.

I use PMD only casually because my daughter owns one which she use for commuting to her workplace under 1 km from her house. She will of course be surrendering her machine for cash incentive soon as the PMD will effectively be useless as the route is not connected by cycling tracks. A pity because it was indeed her most feasible and fastest way of commuting daily. In the few times that I used her PMD for convenient short commutes, the ride has been smooth, fast and incident free.

I am also a cyclist since I was young, both for exercise and for commute for specific purposes. I had long been concerned about the safety of cyclists because our roads are generally not friendly to cyclists and motorists tend to be impatient. I am concerned because I had a bad accident when I was young. I was in college or varsity at that time, cycling around my house in the Siglap / Bedok area. A lorry carrying workers sped past me very fast and knocked the side of my bike handle. The impact flung me onto the pavement. I distinctly heard a worker at the back of the lorry saying in Hokkien, “Hit already, run quick.” Yes, it was hit and run. I did not see the number plate as I was thrown suddenly onto the pavement. The handle was damaged and I had bruises and cuts but thankfully no broken bones. I composed myself after a while, pushed back the handle as best as I could and pushed the bike home. Since then, I am very wary of our roads even though I still do cycle. As much as possible, I avoid using the roads when cycling even if it meant the ride would be slower.

When I entered parliament, I made a few calls for more cycling paths and better sharing on the roads with motorists. I remember after one of my speeches, then MP Irene Ng spoke to me and said it was a relief that more have started speaking in parliament for cyclists. She had been a lone voice for some time advocating for this. Tampines Town where she was an MP for, was chosen to be Singapore’s first cycling town with more cycling tracks provided for.

The response from the government to her call, my call and those of a couple of other MPs had been the usual that we do have a Park Connector Network that now runs across most of the country. Yeah, it is good for leisure but for serious daily commute for work, shopping or to fetch kids? Nah, most of the time it will not get you to where you want and it is still bad and dangerous to cycle on the roads. So every time I see MND allocating generous monies at estate upgrading in the private estates, I wonder why they do not look at putting more budget for cycling paths. Frankel Estate, right next to my place is going for upgrading soon. I doubt it will improve my cycling experience much. I hope I am wrong.

I deliberately tried riding bicycles in other big cities and was impressed with my day-long experience at San Francisco. There, people can literally depend on biking to and fro work, even for long distances, and many do. They do not have cycling tracks all over the city but where there are roads, provisions are made for sharing of the road with bikes. And even when there were no special markings or provisions on the road for cyclists in San Francisco such as in the suburbs, cars were very disciplined to let us cycle past first. I rarely get motorists in Singapore giving way to me when I am cycling. For my safety and to be on guard, I always assume they will be aggressive and they usually are. After my accident years ago, I constantly watch over my back wondering if some speeding vehicles will squeeze too close to me. I have cycled in cities in Japan too and generally, the experience have been much better than Singapore. Here is a link to some cities we can learn from.

With PMDs now confined only to cycling routes (no footpaths and no roads), the spotlight is now on the bicycle infrastructure. Some improvements have been made by the government especially since 2013 but the infrastructure is still grossly insufficient. And it will be a long time before it will even be meaningful, so some other measures such as how some roads can be marked for sharing be implemented and motorists and cyclists better educated on sharing the roads. There are many cities we can learn from, if we are determined to truly make riding safer and more useful. With bicycles, there is not a lot of pressure on the government to act because it is still a small group and most do not rely on cycling daily. However with PMDs, it is now so widespread because the government had previously made it friendly to own and use and suddenly it has to solve a problem that it had helped to create.

As a pedestrian, of course I welcome the ban on footpaths because our footpaths are generally quite narrow, and Singapore is becoming more crowded. People have said that if we ban PMDs on footpaths because of injuries and deaths, must we also ban cars on roads because there are even more deaths and injuries due to vehicles? Well, roads are meant for usage by cars and pedestrians are supposed to use the roads safely at junctions and crossings and to use with care when crossing in other segments, according to safety rules. Footpaths are meant for pedestrians, which include vulnerable ones like old folks and kids. If we allow automated machines and unfortunately some do not control their speed well, then footpaths will forever be dangerous.

As a motorist, I have experienced PMD users dashing across road junctions or zipping in and out between vehicles. PMDs users have to understand that at road junctions, motorists are conditioned to look out for users with the speed of walking. I have witnessed a couple of near nasty accidents where a PMD user dashed out of some paths or buildings onto a zebra crossing or traffic light. No doubt they have the right of way because it is a designated crossing but motorists have to look left and right at junctions. So when PMDs travel at a fast speed dash onto a crossing, the motorist may have already checked that it was clear on the left and looked to the right and suddenly the PMD appeared in front on him / her as the car started to move.

I know some motorists will be unhappy reading this post and question why I am advocating for ‘road hogging’ bicycles and potentially even PMD users to share some segments of the roads (as it is in some cities). It will take more studies but I think that until we have enough bicycling infrastructure, we will need to think about sharing on the roads. Motorists will need to understand that there are other users on the roads and the slower lane of some roads may be used by others.

Lastly, I hope in considering what to do with PMDs, we can actively explore the use of technology. Technology can help us track speed real-time and determine the location of PMDs. It can determine whether the user is registered or licensed (assuming if we move to a path of having users to buy insurance or pass a test). Right now, the explosiveness of the use of PMDs and the frequency of accidents have caused several sudden policy announcements. Many are understandable frustrated because they followed what the government said, traded their non-UL2272 compliant PMDs to compliant ones recently only to find their investments have been made practically useless other than for leisure.  Allocating $7 million for trade-in grants for food delivery users will only solve the issue for a small segment and even so, it is a poor solution that may not work for some of those doing food delivery. It will push more fast vehicles onto the road when our motorists are not so understanding of sharing the roads with other vehicles. We can explore how technology can be used to enforce regulations real-time. We also need to figure what regulations we will need to allow PMDs to start using more of our infrastructure again, and which part of our infrastructure can be opened up for use in a safer way.


Note: These are my personal opinions and not necessarily that of the Party’s.