Pathways to success

Last month, my daughter came home from her holiday work with a story. The cleaning/cooking aunty at the preschool centre told the teachers that she was angry at her son who was studying in a polytechnic. She said that instead of studying hard, he was working every day till late at night at some events company. She showed my daughter the recent Whatsapp messages she had with her son.

From those messages, my daughter gathered that Aunty’s son was working because he wanted to be financially independent, so he had taken up a part time job managing sound systems at events. Events are typically held at night and hence he had to work late. He had also explained that he was still able to cope with the demands of his polytechnic studies.

My daughter and another teacher told Aunty that it was good that her son was being independent and working hard, and was not loafing or partying around or addicted to computer games, as some young adults his age may be. My daughter had friends who were good with sound systems and explained to Aunty that people often had to pay to learn how to manage those expensive sound equipment. She told Aunty that her son was now even being paid to learn how to be a sound engineer – a good skill to have. My daughter too started doing part-time work actively since she was 14 years old, so I guess she could speak with some assurances for Aunty.

I think my daughter and the other teacher managed to convince Aunty. She said she would go home later that day and talk to her son.

The Aunty’s concern is typical of the average Singaporean parents. We have been conditioned that the pathway to success in life is to score in exams. When you are studying, do not waste time on other things, even if these are useful skills to have or can help one to develop their character. If you are a student, just study. In many parents’ minds, grades are what matters.

Recently, I had a long conversation with a former high-flying government servant turned entrepreneur in a developing country. We all shared our concerns of Singaporeans being exams-smart but lacking the ability to cope in the new economy requiring innovation, creativity, resilience and many skills that one cannot train through the books. When I mentioned about us consistently scoring tops in PISA assessments, he remarked that our education advantage like those measured through PISA often disappear in tertiary studies when one has to go beyond knowledge. My former civil servant friend also shared his concern about high-flyers taking very safe paths. We will end up doing very safe things to meet short term KPIs, and not do things that are necessary for essential disruptive changes.

Several years ago, policy makers have said Singapore will embark on many pathways to success, beyond measuring by exam grades. That is highly necessary but the implementation will continue to be challenging. Mindsets of parents like Aunty need to change. Mindsets of employers, especially those in the civil service will need to change. Policy makers must dare to make bold changes where needed.

This is the year-end results period. We had the PSLE results released several weeks ago. O and A levels results will be out soon. As it is every year, parents will scramble to enrol their children in what they consider as good schools. Some will be disappointed that their children did not get the grades necessary for the targeted top schools.

We will need more young people to be like Aunty’s son. Some part-time work or active involvement in community work outside of school is good. It trains up resilience and time management. We will need our people to be more than exams smart if our economy is to do well in this new global economic climate.

When life throws curve balls at you

We just returned from our first trip to Myanmar. It was a packed trip, driving from Yangon to Mandalay immediately upon arrival and then back two days later via driving again, as we had several meetings in Mandalay, Naypidaw and Yangon.

It was a good first trip to this beautiful and resource-rich country. I had many good first impressions. One that impressed me deeply was our meeting with Ms A (not her real name).

Ms A returned to Myanmar 3 years ago after studying and working abroad for over 10 years. She explained that she had 2 young children with severe special needs and it was best to return home so that her retired parents could help look after the children. Having been trained as and worked as a preschool teacher abroad, she decided to start her own preschool centre back home.

She described the many challenges faced, as people initially did not believe in her centre’s style of learning through play in a country where people are used to having children learn from completing worksheets and mastering spelling lists. Nevertheless, she started with just three children in her centre. She had to cope with hiring teachers who were not used to the style of learning she wanted, and more so with her own young children with special needs. Both her children, sadly, passed away this year within months of each other.

She described their passing away so calmly that we thought we heard her wrongly the first time round. Their deaths were quite recent too. It must have really hurt. Yet we saw a vibrant centre filled with over 200 children enrolled there, a huge jump from just three customers when she started off three years ago. How could someone manage to put so much energy to running a start-up whilst struggling with the tragic circumstances at home?

As we toured the centre, she pointed to a class which she said were children with special needs. Given her own circumstances, she wanted to also provide for others with special needs. Those who could not pay were charged subsidised fees. I saw a teacher massaging the legs of a child. She explained that the child could not walk properly and they were trying to strengthen the muscles to help him to walk.

Towards the end of the visit, I could not help but asked how she could cope with the huge demands of the new business given her own personal circumstances. She said that she could choose to be depressed but there was nothing she could do to reverse the situation. She would rather overcome her sorrows by putting her energy into doing something that will make a positive difference in the lives of others.

It was a very powerful message that I will remember for a long time. Yes, life is sometimes unfair. Some people get the short end of the stick. Life throws difficult curve balls at you. One can choose to live in depression and sorrow, or one can choose to put in extra energy to overcome the sadness by doing something positive. Ms A chose the latter and we could see the huge impact it has already made in her society.

A story to warm your heart

We conducted our first house visit yesterday since the release of the EBRC report. As usual, it was a tiring affair, going door to door. People were noticeably more interested to engage with us now that the report is out. They were curious if we will be the ones that will contest in their constituency. As usual, we tried to cover as many houses as we could given that GE is imminent.

At this house, a lady in her mid 40s, Miss J, came to the door. We introduced ourselves. She opened the door and invited us in. Usually, we would just converse with residents at the door. This time, I saw an old lady sitting on a sofa gazing at us. Something made me want to go in and talk to the old lady, so we accepted the invitation to enter.

She was highly advanced in age, body deeply bent and her legs looked like they were too weak to support her. I spotted a wheelchair nearby, presumably used to transport her around the house and outside. Miss J went in to the kitchen to make drinks for us. It was extremely difficult making any conversation with the old lady. We used a mix of Chinese and Hokkien. Sometimes she seemed to understand, sometimes she would say something unintelligible to us. If not, she would gaze at us or at the television.

Miss J came out with the drinks and explained that her mother, aged 87, has dementia. It became very severe two years ago, so she quit her job to become a full-time caretaker. She said that her mother would get confused easily. Sometimes, she would think that Miss J was her daughter, sometimes her ah-ma, sometimes a maid, etc. At times, she seemed to understand and apologised to Miss J for causing her not to be able to work because of her poor health.

I told Miss J that she is very filial and that it must be really difficult for her to play the role of the sole caretaker. To my surprise, Miss J replied “No, it is my privilege that I have my mother to love and to care for”. Every night, she would hug and kiss her mother before she goes to bed. She said that whenever her brother’s children visit their grandmother, the grandchildren will do the same thing to their Ah-ma. She said that it is important for them to do this so that they will do the same thing for their own parents when their parents are old.

Miss J struggles with the finances. Her savings are mostly dried up. She tries not to ask for too much help from her siblings as they have their own family expenses. She has to buy adult diapers and to pay for all sorts of medicine that her mother requires. However, there was no trace of any bitterness in her. She said these as a matter of fact and ended by saying that this is what she wants to do as this is her mother. It is her privilege.

I was deeply moved and asked for permission to share her story. As she was narrating her story, the image of the recent viral video of a daughter beating up her mother and making her eat faeces and drink urine came to my mind. How did something go so wrong in that family, and how did Miss J find the strength to go through all these difficult daily duties with such a big heart?

May God bless people like Miss J for showing to the world what filial piety is.

Liquor Control (Supply and Consumption) Bill

I delivered the following speech in Parliament on 29 January 2015

Madam Speaker, I echo the position presented by my Party’s colleague Mr Pritam Singh.

While I welcome additional measures to better manage unwanted and rowdy behaviour caused by drunkenness especially in residential areas, I am concerned if some parts of the Bill are too far-reaching.

The Bill makes it an offence to consume alcohol across Singapore during the prescribed no-public drinking period, which is currently planned to be between 1030 pm and 7am. The exception would be to drink at licensed premises or if consumption permission has been applied for and granted to an event organizer prior to the event.

Madam, I am of the view that there are public spaces where the consumption of liquor can be permitted without disturbing residents. An example would be in areas popular for barbeques and gatherings such as the Changi Beach, East Coast and West Coast Parks. I live near one of these parks and would often go there in the evenings. The people at the parks, even those who have been drinking, are generally well behaved. Many are the occasional social drinkers. They are also far away from any residence so there is also no disturbance caused to households.

I believe we can relax the Bill to allow the Minister to designate areas where drinking can be allowed at all times. If there are frequent undesired incidents related to drinking in these areas, the Minister can publish an order in the Gazette to restrict the drinking period or totally ban drinking in that area, just as the Minister will be able to do so for liquour licence holders under this Bill.  In any case, under existing laws and also under section 14 of this Bill, we will have the powers to deal with drunkennesss in public places at all times and against behaviours that cause public nuisance, so we have the means to take action against drunkards and those behaving in unruly manners.

I believe this will lighten administrative load of having to approve consumption permission for events in areas where drinking is unlikely to cause problems. During weekends and on public holidays, it is common to find many of the barbeque pits in popular public spaces occupied. How responsive will the processing of permits be? Will we have enough security personnel to patrol these areas to enforce the no-drinking rule? Is it necessary to have the police patrol such public places to catch people drinking?

Already, we have heard during the Committee of Inquiry, or COI on Little India that our police force is understaffed and highly stretched. Paragraphs 196 to 198 of the COI report had called for more officers but this issue has barely been addressed. The then-Commissioner of Police Mr Ng Joo Hee closed his testimony before the COI with a plea for another 1,000 more officers to be added to the police’s ranks

Given this situation, how ready are we to enforce this no-drinking rule in all public places across Singapore? If enforcement of this Bill is weak, it will not reflect well on our law enforcement officers

Next, I like to seek some clarifications from the Minister on the Bill.

First, there is some public disquiet over what may seem to people as excessive powers to search individuals for any container of liquor and to search premises. I like to seek clarification that an individual who was consuming liquor in a licensed premises and who leaves the licensed premises with opened and unconsumed liquor in a container during the prescribed no-drinking period has not committed any offence under this Bill, i.e.  the presence of liquor with the person in a public place but who is not at that point consuming the liquor, is not an offence, if the liquor was purchased in a licensed premises or during the allowed sales period.

Second, I seek confirmation that while a foreign employee dormitory is deemed to be a public place, it is only for the purpose of being drunk as defined by section 14(1) of this Bill, i.e. it is not an offence to drink in a foreign employee dormitory after 1030 pm unless the person becomes drunk.

Finally, I like to seek an update from the Minister that with this Bill and the designation of Little India as a Liquor Control Zone, what will happen to the measures that had been earlier imposed on Little India in the aftermath of the riot and subsequently with the temporary public order bill on Little India? There are a couple more months before the expiry of the Temporary Public Order Bill. Will the restrictions be immediately superseded when this Bill takes effect? What were the key lessons learnt on the ground from the imposition of the restrictions on Little India?

Madam Speaker, in conclusion, while I support the principle of this Bill, I like to urge the Minister to review the scope of the regulations to leave more flexibility for the sales and consumption of liquor in areas that are away from private residence. Thank you.

Pawnbrokers Bill

I delivered the following speech in Parliament on 19 January 2015.

This Bill seeks to update the Pawnbrokers Act which was last amended in 1993. Amongst others, it removes the existing auction system, requires pawnbrokers to provide an indicative valuation of a pledge to a pawner at the point of pawning and at the end of the redemption period, and raises the minimum paid-up capital of pawnbrokers for their first outlet and for each subsequent branch.

Madam Speaker, I support the Bill. I am concerned though about the rise in the number of pawnshops and in the total value of pawnbrokering loans in recent years. The number of pawnshops has grown from 114 in 2008 to 217[1] as at June 2014. The value of pawnbrokering loans rose more than three times from S$2 billion in 2009 to a peak of S$7.1 billion in 2012[2]. Many of the pawnshops are in the HDB heartlands. In an earlier parliament reply, we are told that HDB does not generally limit the number of shops for each trade and leaves it to market forces to determine the trade mix of shops. Market forces have indeed led to the rise of the pawnbroking industry.

In our geographically small island state, with some 217 outlets, access to pawnshops for a quick loan is easy. This has prompted some journalists to cast the spotlight on our pawnbrokering industry which now has three publicly listed pawnbrokers as key players in the market. A Bloomberg report in June last year titled “Rolex for Casino Cash Fuels Singapore Pawnshop Growth”[3] highlighted stories and statements by industry players about the rise in pawnbrokering activities being driven by gambling. The report, as well as other reports[4] [5], also pointed to soaring living costs as another reason for Singaporeans to turn to easy credit sources such as pawnbrokers to cover their living expenses.

Madam Speaker, there is very little data available on the profile of pawners. The ministry has said that it does not track the reason for non-redemption of pledges[6]. While the overall percentage is small at 5%[7], 5% of 4 million valuables pawned in 2012 works out to around 200,000 items that were unredeemed and had to be sent for auction. We do not know how many of these 200,000 items were from pawners who repeatedly failed to redeem their valuables. We also do not know the reasons for these non-redemptions.

I’d like to call for a more detailed study on the profile of pawners and on the industry. In particular, we should look at those who do not redeem their valuables to understand the underlying reasons. Also, in order not to become a society with excessive pawning, the study can also look into the appropriate number of outlets in each neighbourhood and if the level and content of advertising should be subjected to some controls. I believe better data will be useful to help look into the underlying causes for the rapid rise in the pawnbrokering trade and how we can tweak the Pawnbrokers Bill in future to continue to keep pace with this industry’s changing landscape.

Thank you.

[1] http://business.asiaone.com/news/pawnshops-the-rise

[2] http://tablet.todayonline.com/singapore/removal-auction-system-among-proposed-pawnbrokers-act-changes

[3] http://mobile.bloomberg.com/news/2014-06-17/rolex-for-casino-cash-fuels-singapore-pawnshop-growth.html

[4] https://sg.finance.yahoo.com/news/singapore-cost-living-sees-pawnshops-043309125.html

[5] http://www.fool.sg/2013/11/04/the-battle-of-the-pawnbrokers/

[6] http://sprs.parl.gov.sg/search/topic.jsp?currentTopicID=00006308-WA&currentPubID=00006301-WA&topicKey=00006301-WA.00006308-WA_1%2Bid-da07f921-38d6-46fc-8a85-f7f746df8cfd%2B

[7] http://news.asiaone.com/print/News/Latest%2BNews/Singapore/Story/A1Story20130527-425418.html

 

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.

My thoughts on National Day Rally 2014

With NCMP Gerald Giam at NDR 2014, ITE College Central

With NCMP Gerald Giam at NDR 2014, ITE College Central

Yesterday, I attended the National Day Rally 2014 at ITE College Central. Amongst others, the Prime Minister touched on pathways to success, especially for non-graduates, retirement adequacy and making Singapore as an endearing home for all. My Parliamentary colleague NCMP Gerald Giam touched on issues related to changes that are to be made to the CPF scheme. I will be sharing my thought about shifting our mind-set to support different pathways to success.

The PM shared stories about the successful non-graduates from Keppel Corporation. Keppel’s positive attitude to create opportunities for all its employees is commendable. These stories, however, are actually common in the private sector. I know of many cases of those with vocational training or diploma climbing high in the corporate ladder, exceeding that achieved by their graduate peers. Amongst those that I had personally supervised in the course of my work, I had one who came through the now defunct Baharrudin Vocational Institute (later merged into ITE). We took him into our company even though he did not have a diploma which we generally expected of staff as we were running a technology business that required people trained in specific skills. He came through because he had the relevant work experience. He demonstrated great work attitude and initiative and eventually rose to head the software team, a very critical part of our business, with many graduates reporting to him. His skills were self-taught or through courses attended along the way. There are many other such examples.

The elephant in the room is actually in the government service. The structures are well defined and it is no secret that scholars and those identified early as having potential are fast tracked through the system. They are typically those with stellar academic achievements. The promotion pathways are fairly rigid, with paper qualifications being sometimes the barrier preventing someone from jumping into a new career track within the civil service. While the PM had said changes will be made to the public service to merge the career tracks of graduates and non-graduates, no details were yet given. The execution will be challenging. It is helpful though that they have acknowledged this problem. What ASPIRE wants to achieve in providing fulfilling opportunities for Polytechnics and ITE graduates will need a major mind-set shift across the country, especially in the Public Service Division. Putting DPM Tharman to head the tripartite committee to make this happen does send an appropriate signal that this needs attention at the highest level. 

In this globalised and highly connected 21st century, information becomes obsolete rapidly. The pace of change is rapid. Economies compete aggressively with one another. It is appropriate for Singapore to move away from a paper chase culture. It is useful to look at countries such as Germany and Switzerland that have placed strong emphasis on vocational training, and have ensured that those with the right skills are compensated competitively against their graduate peers. I had touched on this during the Parliament debate on the Singapore Institute of Technology bill.

The PM wants the current generation to be pioneers for the future generation, just as the first batch of pioneer generation had taken Singapore from third world to first world. We will need a culture of believing in our own people, developing them and giving them the opportunities to progress. We will need to move away from blind paper chase to chasing to equip ourselves with the skills to do the job well, and to do the job with pride. I certainly hope this mind-set shift will not be just lip service but will be pursued earnestly.

MSF – KiFAS and Student Care

I delivered the following two speeches today during the Committee of Supply debate on Ministry of Social and Family:

Sir, I refer the Minister to the KiFAS portion of my Budget speech. I am puzzled that after review, KiFAS can only be used on kindergartens operated by MOE and Anchor Operators. Those that qualify for KiFAS form less than half of the some 500 kindergartens here. More than 95% of qualifying centres belongs to just PCF. Other than PCF and MOE centres, are there actually any other existing centres that are KiFAS approved today?

There are many good kindergartens, some with long history, like the ones my siblings and I attended some 40 to 50 years ago. KiFAS should apply to all registered kindergartens, just like its sister scheme, CFAC. CFAC can be used on all childcare centres. MOE saw it fit to support aided schools with religious affiliations. This government has pride our recent Budgets for being inclusive. I believe we can be more inclusive to allow more, if not all kindergartens to be KiFAS-supported.
 
 
Student Care Centres

Sir, we have seen a huge rise in the demand for child care. Of late, the government has put a lot of resources in this area.

However, I do not see the same being done for student care.  The same young working parents that use childcare services will need student care for their children, at least for the first few years of school.

Commercial SCCs are unattractive to run given the high cost of rent and lack of government support, compared to childcare. MSF website listed 207 student care centres, of which a good number are tuition or childcare centres. These may take a very small number for student care, if at all, as their other operations are generally more profitable. Good student care services could eliminate the need for tuition. Is the current supply of student care places sufficient for our increasing needs?

Student care operations are also not subjected to the ministry’s supervision for quality, unlike childcare. SCCs are not required to be licensed and are not subjected to regular checks by MSF. Their staffs need not attain minimum qualifications and training.

I urge the government to extend better funding and resource support to this sector, create more places, work with MOE to have SCCs in all schools, and to provide closer supervision of the quality of operations.


MOE Debate – School-based Student Care Centres

I delivered the following speech during MOE COS Debate today.
Madam, there are now 80 School-based Student Care Centres (SSCs). While this is an increase since 2011, SSCs is available in just over 40% of primary schools here.
The number of student care places outside of SSCs will continue to reduce as operators find it commercially unattractive to run these due to high rental costs. Operators prefer to offer child care services which are better funded by the government or run tuition centres. The demand for student care services has increased just as it did for childcare services. The best place to run such centres 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 ultilised 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 children from disadvantaged families.
MOE did not provide figures for my PQ on the waitlist in SSCs. So I did a random check on 12 SSCs, both in new and in mature estates. I found that all, ALL have NO vacancies, with one having over 50 children on the waitlist! The demand is very strong. 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 savings on to parents. I hope MOE and MSF can make this into an urgent priority.

MOF Debate – Life Insurance Tax Relief and M&A Scheme

I delivered the following 2 speeches during the Ministry of Finance’s Committee of Supply debate today.

Life Insurance Tax Relief

Sir, currently taxpayers can claim tax relief on premiums paid for life insurance if their CPF contribution is less than $5,000. This $5,000 ceiling was last raised from $4,000 in 1979, 35 years ago. That increase was to ensure that the lower-middle income earners continue to benefit from the concession.

Income levels have changed a lot in 35 years. Many working Singaporeans are not able to enjoy this concession while their foreign counterparts can because they do not contribute to CPF.  I hope the minister can review this scheme to raise the ceiling to a more appropriate level so that the lower-middle income earners of today can benefit and will be encouraged to save more for their old age.

[Ref: 1979 Budget speech- http://sprs.parl.gov.sg/search/topic.jsp?currentTopicID=00057321-ZZ&currentPubID=00069377-ZZ&topicKey=00069377-ZZ.00057321-ZZ_1%2Bid037_19790305_S0004_T00171-budget%2B%5D

 

Merger and Acquisition Scheme

Sir, I refer the Minister to my Budget speech. I had spoken quite extensively about encouraging M&A as it can help raise our productivity and global competitiveness. The current M&A scheme has not been well utilised and is meaningful only for larger acquisitions.

I hope the Minister can review the provisions in the M&A Scheme to encourage more M&A activities amongst SMEs through targeted measures. This can include higher allowances for smaller M&A transactions. It can also cover purchase of operations and businesses of SMEs rather than outright share sales, as the acquirers may be wary of potential liability associated with small companies. Acquirers who invest in automation of their acquired businesses to achieve greater productivity and to change old business models could be rewarded with more generous PIC incentives or special grants.