Budget Speech 2014 – Honouring our pioneers, KiFAS and developing our SMEs

The following speech was delivered on 3 March 2014 during the debate on Budget 2014

Mdm Speaker, In Mandarin

议长女士, 我支持今年的财政预算案.

我很高兴这个财政预算案通过”建国一代”配套来对新加坡先驱一代表示尊敬。

我的父母都是在五十年代末期从马来西亚来到新加坡。他们在当时的师资训练学院认识,在新加坡独立前结了婚,成为华校的华文教师, 他们从此在新加坡居住,也成为了新加坡公民,当了三十多年的华文老师,一直到退休。

那是个动荡的时代, 尤其是在华校里, 那是思想斗争的战场,当时新加坡正极力排除共产党的影响。

我的父母自1960年以来一直居住在同一间屋子里, 就在如今的如切单选区内。那时面对我家后院的甘榜菜市还有很多农场。

我父母亲的故事和我在如切区内遇到的许多年长居民都差不多一样. 这些居民大多数在同一间屋子里住了四十,五十多年. 很多从事平凡的工作,从岗位上退休了几十年。他们最关心的问题一直是医药费。即使他们已经多年没有收入了, 但是因为他们居住在私人屋子,就一直没有获得很多政府在医药上的津贴。

这次”建国一代”配套发給每一个合格的新加坡人,不论所居住的房屋类型,也不看收入。

在国会里有许多的议员都是”建国一代”的子女。建国一代的新加坡人没有因为当时我国面对危险的环境和生活困苦而离开新加坡。虽然他们许多只是平凡的市井小民, 干的是平凡的工作, 但今日繁荣的新加坡是他们用心血建立起来的。我们应该尊重他们,也应该感激他们对新加坡的贡献。

接下来,我要谈谈两个课题:教育和中小型企业。我会用英语继续演讲。

[(English text for Chinese speech) Madam Speaker, I support Budget 2014. I am happy that we are honouring the pioneer generation of modern Singapore.

My parents both came to Singapore from Malaysia in the late 1950s. They met at the then-Teachers Training College, now NIE, got married and became teachers and Singapore citizens before our independence. They stayed put in Singapore and worked all their adult years in the same job, being Chinese teachers in our local schools. Those were turbulent years, especially teaching in Chinese schools at a time when Singapore had to fight the influence of the communists. Chinese schools were battlegrounds for mindshare. My parents had lived since 1960 in the same house in what is now classified as Joo Chiat SMC. Those days, Kampong Chai Chee facing our backyard was teeming with farms.

They are like many of the elderly residents I had met at Joo Chiat SMC, residents who have stayed in that one and only one house for the last 4-5 decades. These elderly residents have retired decades ago, many from humble jobs. Their biggest concern has been healthcare costs. They have not been able to enjoy many of the healthcare subsidies offered by the government because of their housing type, even though they have been without income for many years. I am happy that this package is given to all our pioneers, regardless of their housing time and how well they are doing currently. Many of us parliamentarians in this House are children of the pioneer generation of modern Singapore, children of people who stuck with this country when there was little and danger was all around us. Children of ordinary citizens no doubt, but citizens who build Singapore to what it is today. It is right for us to honour them.

Next, I will speak on two areas: Education and SMEs. I will continue my speech in English.]

Madam Speaker, in the area of education, the Minister has announced that KiFAS qualifying income level has been raised so that more families can benefit too. This is welcomed. KiFAS is now extended to all MOE kindergartens and those operated by the anchor operators. Previously, only PCF qualified for KiFAS.

I am puzzled why the extension announced by the Minister is to only these few operators. There are around 500 MOE registered kindergartens in Singapore. PCF operates 235 kindergartens. MOE has five, with up to another 10 being planned for the next few years. NTUC does not operate kindergartens. The 3 new anchors are childcare operators. I believe that they operate just 7 premium kindergartens between them. In any case, the anchor operator scheme is a childcare programme and not a kindergarten scheme. The commercial operators have to setup new operating entities to separate their current operations from the childcare centres that they will operate as anchor operators.

So in effect, parents still do not have many choices of which kindergartens they can send their children to. From my understanding of the kindergarten landscape and based on what the Minister has described, they may now choose between PCF and five MOE kindergartens.

Madam, I had spoken about this before. I find it strange that the CFAC, which is the equivalent scheme for childcare, can be used on all MSF registered childcare. However when it comes to kindergarten, MSF has imposed various conditions that had prevented others from qualifying. These include conditions such as the operators cannot have any religious or racial affiliations and cannot be private operators. None of these conditions are required for CFAC. I am not sure what will be announced at the COS, but I certainly hope the scheme can be extended to many more, if not all MOE registered kindergartens.

MOE has said that character and values education are important. Many of the kindergartens with religious and racial affiliations such as those run by Buddhist groups, Huay Kuans, Muslim groups, churches and other VWOs do take in children from the public and have strong character and values education. I wish to see them being included. I will speak on this again during the COS debate.

Next, SMEs. I wish to declare that I own and operate private companies classified as SMEs.

While Singapore enjoyed 4.1% economic growth last year, this economic growth had come about solely because of the growth in manpower. GDP growth is defined as workforce growth plus productivity growth. Productivity growth last year was zero. We cannot depend on economic growth through workforce increase. The government’s long-term goal is to reach 2-3% annual productivity growth by 2020.

At last year’s budget, I spoke of the need to encourage industry consolidation. The current schemes such as PIC and now PIC+, tend to benefit the larger companies. We have over 150,000 SMEs in Singapore. Many are micro enterprises that may not even employ the three non-shareholder staff required to qualify for PIC (cash grants). Even for small companies that qualify, they may not have the scale to benefit meaningful from investments in major automation.

Many of our smaller companies are struggling to stay afloat under the tight manpower and high rental cost environment. While raising their productivity and injecting innovation into their businesses should be the way to go, these companies need to scale up first. Last year, I had argued for the need to stimulate merger and acquisitions (M&A) so that enlarged companies can better take advantage of economies of scale.  I wish to repeat my desire to see changes to tax incentives to encourage M&A.

There is a Merger and Acquisition scheme, first introduced in 2010 and enhanced in 2012. As of May last year, only 42 companies have used this scheme. 34 were companies which MOF classified as SMEs with annual revenue of up to $100 million, which meant many could be fairly sizeable companies.  The average and median size of deals supported by the scheme was $25 million and $3 million respectively.[1] The scheme provides meaningful tax incentives for large and mid-sized deals but not for acquiring the small and micro enterprises.

I hope to see the government encourage consolidation amongst smaller companies through enhancing the M&A scheme. The M&A scheme could be graduated to allow higher tax allowances for smaller deal sizes of up to $1 million in value.

Also, the current scheme allows only for outright purchase of shares. Some acquirers prefer to buy over the operations and businesses of SMEs, but not the entire company as they prefer not to be entangled with liabilities that may be associated with the target company. We can loosen the definition of M&A to include such types of acquisitions.

We can also incentivise the acquirers to automate the operations of their acquired businesses to achieve greater productivity and to revamp old business models. We can look at allowing even higher than 400% tax allowances in PIC for investment in automation for merged entities to get them to speed up investments in productivity improvements for the acquired operations.

I noted that both the Singapore Business Federation and the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises (ASME) have also issued recent statements for the government to do more to promote M&A, including improving M&A tax allowances. They too cited the need for industry consolidation to create more breadth within industry clusters for better economies of scale and to reduce marginal costs.[2]

Besides tax allowances, the government could also look at how financing can be made more readily accessible for M&A. For example, the ASME had called for an equity financing scheme to help SMEs fund local and overseas M&As. Such a scheme would make available the option for companies to take on loans for acquisition through pledging equity in private companies. This can be done with risk-sharing collaboration between banks and the government. This will be a useful tool for deserving ambitious companies in our midst to grow rapidly through strategic acquisitions and take on the international markets.

Next, on the innovation mindset of our companies.

SMEs are grateful that PIC has been extended for 3 more years. The scheme has helped defrayed costs and many companies have only just started to use it. As of April last year, 97% of the claims were for purchases of IT and automation equipment and for employee training. The remaining 3% were for the other 4 categories, including R&D and acquisition of intellectual properties.

I believe innovation is important if we are to derive a lot more out of our companies. I hope we can encourage investments in creating breakthrough business models and technologies.

In their pre-budget survey[3], professional services firm KPMG found that 50.3% of 159 companies surveyed felt that the innovation measures in PIC have had no impact on raising innovation. The same survey found that only 1.6% of the respondents were focused on driving innovation.

The survey highlighted a worry finding that SMEs and even Singapore public-listed companies have not found benefits in innovation measures. Respondents in that survey commented that IRAS has been very strict in administering incentives for innovation, favouring revolutionary development at the expense of more market-driven evolutionary development. IRAS has a very strict definition of qualifying R&D activities. [4]

Indeed, this has been my personal experience too speaking with technology companies trying to develop the next killer App or a potentially industry game-changing software. They had not been successful in claiming PIC for their R&D manpower based on the strict PIC definition.

I hope IRAS and MTI can review the criteria and work on a more market-oriented definition of research and innovation and to drive more adoption by companies in this area.

Finally, in the area of SME financing, this budget provides for increased government risk-share on micro-loans to SMEs from 50% to 70%. In a reply to my PQ, MAS has said that it does not call for banks to require that SMEs meet a project track record or any specific requirement in order to get a loan. In evaluating loans, financial institutions all have their own criteria, some of which can make it rather difficult for companies, especially those with shorter track record to secure loans. This may be so even with government risk-sharing.

IFS loans cap has now been doubled to $30 million per company. I like to know from past evidences, if IFS and existing government-supported financing schemes had sufficiently met the overseas expansion needs of our companies. The total value of loans approved under IFS declined yearly from $378 million in 2010 to $121 million in 2012. Similarly, the Loan Insurance Scheme (LIS and LIS+), saw total value of loans approved fall from $2.3 billion in 2010 to $1.3 billion in 2012.[5]

The Economic Strategies Committee (ESC) had called for an EXIM bank in 2010, only to be deemed not feasible by MOF a year later. There were notable disappointments from the business community then at that decision.[6] Our companies are disadvantaged when compared with other countries like Taiwan, Japan and South Korea, where the percentage of total business credit going to SMEs range from 50%-76%, compared to 27% in Singapore.[7] Even with the increased government risk sharing, will financial institutions still be too conservative in their approach as they still need to bear some risks and there are less risky things for them to do?

I hope the financing situation for SMEs will be closely tracked. If the new measures are not sufficient to help meet our SME’s financing and overseas expansion needs, perhaps the government can relook again into whether it is necessary to create a SME Bank or an EXIM bank.

In conclusion, as we honour the pioneers of modern Singapore in this Budget, like the honourable member Mr Laurence Lien, I too like to think of each generation as pioneering for the next. As we approach the 50th year of our independence and soon the 200th anniversary of the founding of Singapore by Sir Stamford Raffles, my wish is to see a vibrant Singapore, with innovative home-grown companies and dynamic Singaporeans establishing a new Singapore in this 21th century, so as to ensure success for our future generation.

Thank you.


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The storm over adjustments to funding in schools

Much have been said about funding to schools since the Straits Times reported about funding cuts for top independent schools last week. It turned out that the report had inaccuracies that MOE corrected, with more reports subsequently published in the Straits Times, in TODAY , on ChannelNewsAsia and elsewhere. Nevertheless, MOE has a new funding formula of which details are not known to the public, but it will result in some funding cuts to 4 of the top schools.

Criticisms of MOE’s move include that by Dr Koh Poh Koon, grassroots advisor and PAP’s chairman-designate for Punggol East, who said that ‘telling schools to cut down on air-conditioned classrooms is akin to “removing air-conditioning in A-class (hospital) wards to keep the C-class patients less envious”‘.

I thought that was an inaccurate illustration to use because A-class patients pay a lot more than C-class patients. No one in Singapore really bothers about kids in international schools receiving top-end facilities because their parents paid for them. The funding adjustments are to public schools which are heavily paid for by taxpayers. Entry to public secondary schools and colleges is still mainly based on what the child has achieved academically and to some extent in co-curricula activities, regardless of social status. One cannot supposedly pay their way into a top public school. So the comparison cannot be about Class-A and Class-C wards.

Dr Koh had also said: “Instead of making it comfortable for all students, we have decided to make it equally uncomfortable for everyone… We must not be tempted to ensure equality in society by pulling down those at the top.” and that if the intent was about “making it a so-called level playing field, then it’s really creating equal misery.”

My concern in reading such statements is that they convey to readers that neighbourhood schools in Singapore with poorer resources are uncomfortable and miserable. They also create a sense of envy by those in neighbourhood schools of other educational institutions with better resources.

Two years ago, JC student Kwek Jian Qiang created a storm when he wrote to the forum pages of TODAY implying that the best school facilities must be reserved for those with the best academic results, because they had worked hard to get there. He bemoaned the poor facilities in junior colleges compared to the Institute of Technical Education campuses. I had written to share my concerns about such ways of thinking. My concerns then still apply to this funding debate, that (1) academically good students will feel they deserve and will demand the best facilities; (2) students become jealous if the facilities in their schools are worse that in another school, creating an endless cycle of envy; (3)  our youths become over-reliant on having good physical facilities that they lose the ability to improvise and overcome shortages in resources when we are faced with such situations.

(For the records, Kwek Jian Qiang made a quick online apology. I subsequently met him and was glad he has put the episode behind and is now active in serving the community.)

I like to support MOE’s broad direction to make resources more equitable across schools, except that there are not much details put out on what the new funding formula is and how it will improve resources in neighbourhood schools. More than just physical resources, what I feel is important is how learning programmes in neighbourhood schools can improve. Years of PRIME upgrading have already put our public schools’ infrastructure way above that of many other countries.

Improvement can come in many other ways, such as smaller class sizes which Gifted Education children now enjoy. It can also be in the way teachers are deployed to schools. Independent schools have a lot of autonomy in the selection of teachers which other schools do not have. I like to see the discussion moving on to how we can resource neighbourhood schools to improve the learning experience rather than about physical infrastructure.

Home-made taps out of plastic containers and wooden stopper. This school in Bhutan  encourages hand washing during recess but had shortage of taps. They made these gadgets and parent volunteers filled it with water before recess so kids can line up to open the wooden stopper to wash hands.

Innovation to overcome shortages through home-made taps out of plastic containers and wooden stoppers. This school in Bhutan encourages hand washing during recess but had a shortage of taps. They made these gadgets and parent volunteers filled it with water before recess so kids can line up to open the wooden stopper to wash hands.

 

Parent volunteers contribute vegetables and rice and prepare food for needy students in this Bhutanese school every day.

Involving the community for more resources. Parent volunteers contribute vegetables and rice and prepare food for needy students in this Bhutanese school every day. The school received top marks each year in its community involvement.

Happy Lunar New Year 2014

As we celebrate the Chinese New Year of the wooden horse, many of our Asian friends of other cultures are also celebrating their new year.

Vietnamese celebrate Tết, a shortened form of Tết Nguyên Đán (節元旦) , which is translates into “Feast of the First Morning of the First Day”. It takes place from the first day of the first month of the Vietnamese calendar until at least the third day. Vietnamese prepare for Tết by cooking special holiday foods and cleaning the house. They visit the homes of friends and relatives, perform ancestral worship, send New Year’s greetings and give lucky money to children and elderly people. Tết is also a time for family reunions. As Tết is on the first day of spring, it is often called Hội xuân (spring festival).

Singaporeans in Hanbok costume

Singaporeans in Hanbok costume

Koreans celebrate the Korean New Year or Seollal. Celebrations start on New Year’s Day and lasts for three days. Many would return to their hometowns to visit their parents and other relatives, where they perform an ancestral ritual. Traditionally, Koreans would dress up in their colourful hanbok, or traditional Korean clothing. Sebae (deep formal bow) is a traditionally observed activity on Seollal, and is filial piety oriented. Children wish their elders a happy new year by performing one deep traditional bow and say “saehae bok mani badeuseyo (새해 복 많이 받으세요)” which translates to “have a blessed New Year”. Parents give their children new year’s money in luck bags made with beautiful silk design and offering them words of wisdom.

Mongolians celebrate the Tsagaan Sar, or literally White Moon. It is the first day of the Mongolian lunar calendar. Around the New Year families burn candles at the altar symbolizing Buddhist enlightenment. Also people greet each other with holiday-specific greetings such as “Is there peace?”. Mongols visit friends and family to exchange gifts. A Mongol family will usually meet in the home of the eldest in the family. Many people will be dressed in full garment of national Mongol costumes. When greeting their elders during the White Moon festival, Mongols perform the zolgokh greeting, grasping them by their elbows to show support for them. The eldest receives greetings from each member of the family except for his/her spouse. During the greeting ceremony, family members hold long, typically blue, silk cloths called a khadag. After the ceremony, the extended family eats sheep’s tail, mutton, rice with curds, dairy products, and buuz (a grilled side of sheep and minced beef or minced mutton steamed inside pastry). It is also typical to drink airag (fermented horse milk) and exchange gifts.

The day before Tsagaan Sar is called Bituun (dark moon). On the Bituun day, people thoroughly clean around home, herders also clean the livestock barns and shades, to meet the New Year fresh. The Bituun ceremony also includes burning candles to symbolize enlightenment of the samsara and all sentient beings and putting three pieces of ice at the doorway so that the horse of the deity Palden Lhamo could drink. The deity is believed to visit every household on this day. In the evening, families gather together to see out the old year by eating dairy products and buuz. Traditionally, Mongolians settle all issues and repay all debts from the old year by this day.

Author in Bhutanese Gho at Bhutan's parliament house

Author in Bhutanese Gho at Bhutan’s parliament house

The Tibetans, Bhutanese and Nepalese celebrate Losar, the Tibetan word for “new year”. It is also celebrated by Tibetan Buddhists Worldwide. Before the Tibetan New Year, Nyi Shu Gu is celebrated on the eve of the last night of the year.

Losar is celebrated for 15 days, with the main celebrations on the first three days. On the first day of Losar, a beverage called changkol is made from chhaang (a beer-like drink). Losar occurs near or on the same day as the Chinese New Year, but the traditions of Losar are unique to Tibet, and predates both Indian and Chinese influences.  Losar this year is celebrated from 2 March. Originally, ancient celebrations of Losar occurred solely on the winter solstice, and was only moved to coincide with the Chinese and Mongolian New Year by a leader of the Gelug school of Buddhism. 31 Jan 2014 is the traditional day of offering in Bhutan, the 1st day of the 12th month of the Tibetian calendar. It was said to be the original new year day celebrated in Bhutan.

Losar celebrations in Bhutan include a traditional morning meal, as well as a midday meal and afternoon snack. Sugar cane and green bananas are considered auspicious foods, the presence of which helps to ensure the New Year will be a good one. Bhutanese hold archery competitions (archery is their national sport), and play darts and other games. Families picnic, people dance and sing, and offerings are made.

Archery competition in Bhutan

Archery competition in Bhutan

It is also the year of the horse (wooden horse for most) for these countries.

Japan used to celebrate new year on the same day as the Chinese, Koreans, Mongolians and Vietnamese. However, in 1873, five years after the Meiji Restoration, Japan adopted the Gregorian calendar and 1st January became the official and cultural New Year’s Day. In the Ryukyu Islands, a separate cultural New Year is still celebrated based on the Chinese lunar calendar. New year is still celebrated in Okinawa island based on the lunar calendar.

A common theme in all these new year celebrations is the strong tradition of family ties and respect for the elders, something we should strive to preserve even as we face the influences of new cultures through the media and the Internet.

Also, despite the differences that these great ancient cultures have with one another, there are also many similar practices. Sometimes when we see differences in others, it is also helpful to remember the many similarities that we share.

Happy Chinese New Year, happy Tết, happy Seollal, happy Tsagaan Sar and happy Losar. Hope I have not missed out others through my limited knowledge of the cultures around us.

Sources: Wikipedia and published holiday calendars.

Pioneering Visual Art with a Heart in Bhutan

On the Druk Air flight into Bhutan, I had read the inflight magazine about VAST (Voluntary Artists’ Studio) Bhutan, started in 1998 by a group of artists to provide opportunities to the Bhutanese youth to develop their potential as well as to share social responsibilities through art.

I chanced upon an art shop next to my hotel. By coincidence, the owner is the brother-in-law of the key founder of VAST, Kama Wangdi, or popularly known as Asha Kama. Asha means “uncle” in Bhutanese. Even His Majesty calls Kama Wangdi “Asha”. When I met Asha, he joked that even his mother calls him Asha.

Alaya Gallery, the painting and exhibition place for VAST

Alaya Gallery, the painting and exhibition place for VAST

I was told he conducts free art classes for children every Saturday at 2pm at the Tayarana Centre, which is near my hotel. So I decided to check VAST out today.

VAST is located in a space of approximately 2,000 sqf in the Alaya Gallery. Inside, there are a number of young artists at work or chatting with one another. Completed works adorn the walls while half completed canvasses are either on the floor leaning against the walls or on art easels.

Art Pieces on a wall of Alaya Gallery

Art Pieces on a wall of Alaya Gallery

A large completed piece depicting the 4 important animals in Buddhism and Buddha. Was told a piece like this would sell for around S$600-S$800.

A large completed piece depicting the 4 important animals in Buddhism and Buddha. Was told a piece like this would sell for around S$600-S$800.

Artist at work painting a Dzhong from a photo.

Artist at work painting a Dzhong from a photo.

Artist Chand working on his third piece of the series using oil pastel

Artist Chand working on his third piece of his current series using oil pastel, mostly in purple

Artist Dorji Wangchuk who was a pioneer student of VAST 15 years ago. He is a successful artist now, having held several art exhibitions, including one in Taiwan last year.

Artist Dorji Wangchuk who was a pioneer student of VAST 15 years ago. Today, he is a successful artist, having held several art exhibitions recently, including one in Taiwan last year. He has sold some 30-40 paintings so far.

Artist Zuki with a semi-completed painting. She has been with VAST for 11 years since she was young. She recently graduated with a degree in Graphics from a Pakistan university under a South Asian scholarship. She obtained her scholarship thanks to recommendation by VAST. She has also learnt computer art and animation as a student at VAST, taught by a volunteer. She now does contract work in graphics using computers since returning to Bhutan.

Artist Zuki with a semi-completed painting. She has been with VAST for 11 years since she was young. She graduated a year ago with a degree in Graphics from a Pakistan university under a South Asian scholarship. She obtained her scholarship thanks to recommendation by VAST. She has also learnt computer art and animation as a student at VAST, taught by a volunteer. She now does contract work in graphics using computers since returning to Bhutan.

Asha and Singaporean Ivan surveying the children painting by the river bank

Asha and Singaporean Ivan surveying the children painting by the river bank

The children were missing from the gallery. The artists directed me to the river bank across the road. There, I found some 20 children busy sketching away. Asha was there too, together with some of his artist disciples working with the children.

Today was outdoor art. Asha has set up a structure for the kids to sketch from, or they could sketch other things around the beautiful river bank. There were even an Australian child and two Indian girls there. They were here because their parents are working in Bhutan. Asha explained that usually, there are many more children but this being close to the final school and national examinations, the older children were busy preparing for their examinations. Lessons are totally free. Parents can donate to VAST if they wish to.

Children concentrating on sketching the structure Asha has created by the river bank.

Children concentrating on sketching the structure Asha had created by the river bank.

Young Australian girl who had accompanied her mother, a volunteer to Bhutan for 2 months.

Young Australian girl who had accompanied her mother, a volunteer to Bhutan for 2 months.

A Bhutanese girl sketching a stone bridge

A Bhutanese girl sketching a stone bridge

Bhutanese boy in full concentration

Bhutanese boy in full concentration

Pema, a volunteer artist giving tips to the boy

Pema, a volunteer artist giving tips to the boy

Pema guiding a group of boys to improve their sketches

Pema guiding a group of boys to improve their sketches

We adjourned for tea with Asha and his artists at the Alaya Gallery. Asha, 55, told his story. He started his career as a graphics staff with the government in 1976. For 10 years, he tried many ways to go abroad to study art. He finally received a scholarship to study art at the University of Kent in UK. Upon his return, he worked for another 2 years in the government until his department was closed down and he became a full time artist. It took him a long while to get his art accepted and to sell his pieces. He held his first solo exhibition only 2 years ago, in 2011.

VAST is a non-profit initiative. Rental for the premises is currently paid for by His Majesty. Artists pay a nominal 1,500 Nultrums (equivalent to S$30) a year for access to Alaya Gallery any time (except Sunday, a rest day). Asha explains that the amount is barely enough to pay for utilities and to keep things going.

Asha and 3 of his pioneer students, Pema, Dorji and Maiyess, all full time artists now

Asha and 3 of his pioneer students, Pema, Dorji and Maiyess, all full time artists now. Another pioneer student and full time artist, Dorji Wangchuk was sitting opposite this group and was hence not in the photo.

Sitting around with Asha and us for tea were 4 of his pioneer students. They all started when they were school students, back in 1998 with the formation of VAST. Today, all 4 are full-time artists and they give back their time to help train the next generation of artists.

It is hard to define Bhutanese visual art. Bhutan has a long history of handicraft, made for their many colourful cultural and traditional events. Visual art in the form of painting is new in Bhutan, with strong influence from western art styles. Glancing at the art pieces, I see each artist trying to evolve his or her style. The themes for most paintings were related to Bhutan – objects, religion, places and sceneries of Bhutan.

Being full time artist is an exception. Most of the other artists have day jobs and come to VAST only on Saturdays. Finding jobs related to their artistic skills is a challenge too. For example, Zuki the scholarship holder with her overseas graphics degree and IT skills, could only do occasional contract jobs after returning to Bhutan for a year. Chand is an animator. He recently started his studio with some partners but have yet to secure their first major contract. On Friday, I met the founder of an IT firm that hires seventeen 3D animators. He proudly showed me his 3D animated film and told me of his plan to make a more ambitious 3D animated film of a famous battle in Bhutan’s history. He has yet to figure how to make money out of this industry, funding his animation passion with profits from his software development and training businesses. His passion is to create animation and he has ploughed on for 3 years in this pursuit already.

Yet I see their passion to follow their artistic pursuits despite economic challenges. And even with their own challenges in making a living out of art, they found time to return back to society by volunteering each week to train the next generation.

Jurwa, a change in mindset for a better environment

Posing with Banners at Clock Tower Square before team set off for the streets

Posing with Banners at Clock Tower Square before team set off for the streets

Last Sunday morning, I observed a group of youths gathering outside my hotel in Thimphu, the capital of the Kingdom of Bhutan. Curious, I joined the crowd and found that they were volunteers from various youth groups gathered for the Clean Up Bhutan project, which coincided with the United Nations’ Clean The World Day (21-23 Sep).

Having a free Sunday, I decided to join the group and followed them on their trail around the streets of Thimphu.

Group posing for photo before setting off to clean the streets

Group posing for photo before setting off to clean the streets

The event was initiated by Mr Dorji Wangchuck from the Department of Youth and Sports in the Ministry of Education. He wanted to mobilise youths from various youth groups together to get them to make a change in their living environment. Mr Dorji was earlier working in a rural school and was the school’s scoutmaster. Frustrated that his school was often passed over for many activities because it was too remote to be allowed to participate, he jumped on the opportunity to be based in the capital to follow his passion of driving volunteerism and youth activity across the country when the post was opened up.

The event started late. Apparently, the truck from the municipal that was to deliver the collection bags, gloves and tools for the clean up did not show up. Undaunted, Mr Dorji gave a pep talk and managed to move the group to get supplies donated by nearby shops to get the event going.

It was already getting hot at around 10 am. The enthusiastic youths fanned out in two groups towards two parts of the town. I followed one group. A little later, I noticed some had gloves. I wasn’t sure if those were donated by a shop or the supplies did come later. We went through around 10 km of streets zig-zagging between alleys until we reached the collection bins in the Tourism Centre where the bags of garbage were emptied before piping hot food was delivered to them in Mr Dorji’s car.

Banner ladies carrying the message across town

Banner ladies carrying the message across town. I found that these two ladies are studying grade 12 (JC2) but are in their early 20s. They are working in the day and studying at night in community schools. When asked why, they said they realised it is important to be educated. Education is taken quite seriously by many young Bhutanese.

Picking up at all corners

Picking up at all corners

Carrying the message through the streets of Thimphu

Carrying the message through the streets of Thimphu

Leftover rubbish from someone's night drinking

Leftover rubbish from someone’s night drinking

A Finnish volunteer who also joined in

A Finnish volunteer who also joined in

Lugging the collected waste to the bins centre

Lugging the collected waste to the bins centre

Emptying the waste in the bins centre

Emptying the waste in the bins centre

Distributing snacks and drinks to hot and tired volunteers

Distributing snacks and drinks to hot and tired volunteers

After a hand wash, now for the food

After a hand wash, now for the food

Mr Dorji Wangchuck, organiser of the morning clean up event

Mr Dorji Wangchuck, organiser of the morning clean up event

Later, I realised that the food was paid for by Mr Dorji himself. A supposed sponsor for the event did not turn up and there was no refreshments. Not wanting to disappoint the youths which may discourage them from future volunteering, Mr Dorji went to buy his own food. I heard it cost around 3,000 nultrums (Bhutanese currency, which is about $60). As a civil service officer, I figured it would cost him around 15% of his monthly salary, a substantial investment for a day in his volunteerism work. His remarkable spirit in wanting to mobilise youths for change and to spread the message that we can all do our part in improving the world around us is admirable.

Later that afternoon, another group came out to the Clock Tower Square outside my hotel. I knew this group. I had met Mr Sagar Guring earlier at the Musk Restaurant in the Square where he and his friends frequent in the evenings. He had invited me to see their weekly Sunday cleaning routine for the Square using a group of volunteers.

Shifting misplaced pots and clearing the soil and dirt beneath

Shifting misplaced pots and clearing the soil and dirt beneath

Mr Tshering Yonten, a co-founder of the Jurwa Club. He was a former top civil servant and now runs a business

Mr Tshering Yonten, a co-founder of the Jurwa Club. He was a former top civil servant and now runs a business

Two months ago, the owner of Musk Ms Diki and her friend, Mr Tshering Yonten (a retired top government official now in private business) were musing about the amount of waste people were putting around town, and across the country. Being Green is something that is part of the Gross National Happiness (GNH) concept and even taught in schools. However, with increasing urbanisation and people forgetting what they were taught in school, garbage is being thrown indiscriminately. They decided they can do something, at least in the environment around them.

They mobilised a group of friends, numbering around 15 and started a Sunday cleaning campaign around the Clock Tower Square. Theirs was a little more serious, regular and organised than the morning youth group. They have invested in brooms, gloves, pails and even made name tags for themselves. They call their group the Jurwa Club. Jurwa is the Bhutanese word for Change. Change because they wanted people to change their mentality about garbage. Change because they believe people are capable of change to improve the environment around them.

Mr Sagar and friend dragging out large bags of collected garbage

Mr Sagar (in black) and friend dragging out large bags of collected garbage

This group is comprised of young adults to retired folks, all well spoken, mostly professionals and business people. After over 2 months, there is currently over 20 people turning up each week, depending on whoever is available. Most make it a point to keep this Sunday afternoon date. Being more experienced professionals, some with media background, they were able to mobilise the media to cover the event to drive home the message to the rest of Bhutan that each should initiate change to take care of the environment around themselves.

With better tools, they go about cleaning up the tougher dirt and garbage around the Square. An hour later, all hot and sweaty, they completed their task. Tools were returned, washed and stored up for next week’s cycle, and the group were rewarded with tea and cookies from Musk restaurant.

Jurwa Club members on 22 Sep afternoon

Jurwa Club members on 22 Sep afternoon

Returning the tools of the trade after the clean up

Returning the tools of the trade after the clean up

Ms Diki (wearing cap), co-founder of Jurwa Club washing gloves after the clean up

Ms Diki (wearing cap), co-founder of Jurwa Club washing gloves after the clean up

Jurwa Club with then-newly elected Prime Minister gracing the clean up in July

Jurwa Club with then-newly elected Prime Minister gracing the clean up in July

In observing these two clean-up events, I was reminded of the many “Use Your Hands” and cleaning campaigns I had gone through as a student in school decades ago. Our campaigns too were to drive home the message of the importance of cleanliness and to do our part (use our hands) to make things happen.

I recall once while in Junior College, some from our class initiated a night hike across Pulau Ubin island. We trekked through plantations and reached the northern end of the island when it was pitch dark and camped there for the night. The next day, we packed up to go. Some of us had left their rubbish behind in the deserted beach. One of the group members picked up the rubbish and carried these with him. The nearest dustbin must be at least 5 km away, back through the plantations we had trekked through. No one else would know we had put rubbish in the beach if we had done so. Yet this member reminded us that we should handle our waste properly. So everyone picked up every bit of waste that we had created on the beach and carried them till we came to the first dustbin miles away.

I can still remember this till today because it was a powerful message sent by one member to the rest in the group that we can take control of our environment. We can choose to keep it clean. We can choose to change and inspire others to change. Never underestimate the power of a few to inspire others to change by your simple actions. Jurwa – for a better world.

Many Stories, One Singapore – Happy 48th National Day

Two messages caught my attention this National Day.

The first was the Prime Minister’s National Day Message yesterday. He spoke of a new chapter to be written in the Singapore story, a chapter that will progress on a road different from that which we had travelled previously. He spoke of a Singapore where everyone will always have a stake in, one that will become possible when we stand as one united people, and not divided by race, social class, or political faction.

The second was at the national day parade. It was a message about a Singapore that is made up of many stories but all leading towards the story of one Singapore.

As I watched the many little stories that the performers put across, as well as the snippets of stories on the big screen, I was reminded of my own story.

Two and a half years ago, I decided to continue the story of my life from that point onwards in blue. I stepped out of my comfort zone and took the plunge into politics in GE2011. It was a step taken with the belief that there are different stories that each of us wants to write. It does not make one less Singaporean or less loyal to our country if our views differ from that of the government’s.

I recently visited a country that underwent an unexpected change of government. At last month’s general election, Bhutan’s former opposition went from 2 seats out of 47 previously to 32 out of 47. I had the chance to see the handover of power, with the swearing in of the new ministers and all MPs while I was there. What struck me was an orderly transition of power. The political parties and the people accepted the choices made at the ballot boxes and the handover was smooth. The new government could go about its business and write the next chapter of the country’s story the way they feel they must. Five years later, it will be for the people to judge the government’s performance and decide again.

I sincerely hope the National Day message of one united people, not divided by race, social class, or political faction will hold true. As it is, opposition MPs are not made into grassroots advisors. The People’s Association, which is given substantial ground resources and whose mission is “to build and bridge communities in achieving one people, one Singapore” works only with the ruling party. It certainly does not gel with the concept of unifying the country regardless of political faction nor does it respect the wishes of the constituents who had chosen their MPs. It leaves opposition MPs to form their alternative grassroots communities whilst deprived of government funding support to serve the community that elected them.

The Blue Team in red for the nation's 48th birthday

The Blue Team in red for the nation’s 48th birthday

The recent MDA regulatory framework had also caused an uproar amongst the blogging and internet communities. It has cast a shadow over earlier moves by the government to loosen up on its engagement with citizens.

Proudly wearing our age for Singapore's 48th National Day

With Chairman Sylvia Lim, proudly wearing our age for Singapore’s 48th National Day

We were told that Singapore is now embarking on a new chapter of her story. 48 years after our independence, we should be growing into a more matured society able to handle divergent views, more capable of handling people with their own stories to write, stories that may not necessary agree with the views of the government but are nevertheless part of the stories that can move Singapore forward.

My birthday wish for Singapore in this new chapter is therefore one in which regardless of political factions and views, we will be matured in moving forward as one united people, fairly respecting the wishes of the people. Happy 48th National Day.

COS 2013 – Restructuring the childcare sector

Committee of Supply Cuts by YJJ on Ministry of Social and Family Development
Restructuring the childcare sector
Madam, I declare my interest as a supplier of services to education institutions.
I have previously stated my concerns over the way the childcare industry is organised. The government has stated that Anchor Operators (or AOPs) must be non-profit, non-religious and non-racial based. I do not think these criteria are necessary as long as operators accept students of any race and religion and follow strict rules which I will elaborate. MSF can dictate outcomes. It can define fees and expected quality of services instead of being concerned if operators are race or religion based or are private entities. With appropriate rules, MOE and MOT have found it acceptable to work with such entities for schools and public transport respectively . The AOP scheme has caused serious imbalance in the industry by loading a few selected operators with huge operating advantages over others.
I repeat the proposal I made last year for MSF to revamp the AOP scheme and to make childcare as a public good, with open contest by all operators.
Firstly, available sites can be clustered as a package for open bidding. Each tender can be for around 10 centres, with rental cost tied to what non-profit operators currently pay. Bidders should prove their ability to operate centres well, such as having good track record and being SPARK-accredited. Operators can propose the style of programmes and fees to be charged, but fees should be within an acceptable guideline around existing price charged by current AOPs.
Once an operator is awarded, it cannot change fees without approval by MSF. To achieve investment payback, operating period can be for a period of say 10 years, with interim review every 3-4 years. This is to ensure operators will continue to innovate and provide quality services. After the operating period, the sites are re-opened for bidding again by all.
The key advantage of this over the existing AOP scheme is that it allows newer operators who have proven themselves in the market to join in continuously when sites are available. This provides greater diversity of choices. Competition spurs innovation. The current scheme kills competition and freezes AOP players to the few based on the time of selection. It limits choices for consumers requiring affordable fees. Ten centres per tender will allow sufficient economies of scale, and a good operator can win several clusters of sites over time.
To speed up more new sites, I repeat my earlier suggestion that the government can negotiate as main tenant with large landlords of malls and industrial sites with spaces suitable for childcare. It can then open these sites for bidding under this new scheme. It can also turn disused schools and old community centres into mega childcare sites with different operators under one roof.
The government is spending $3 billion in this sector. I believe this same amount can be used to achieve better outcomes in accessibility, quality and affordability and with greater diversity of choices if we organize childcare as a public good and allow regular open and fair competition by all.

A dynamic population for a sustainable Singapore: Sustaining the Singapore core

(Speech delivered on 6 Feb 2013 for the Population Debate)

A Singapore Core
Madam Speaker. I object the motion. The Workers’ Party is proposing an alternative model – one that is based on a dynamic population for a sustainable Singapore.

What is a sustainable Singapore?

Reading through the white paper, I get a sense that Singapore is a large factory. We need 2-5% annual economic growth. Our local workforce will shrink due to ageing and fertility issues. To achieve the targeted economic growth, the paper worked out that we need 1-2% yearly increases to our workforce. Based on that, Singapore will receive large number of immigrants. It could bring our population to 6.9 million within the next 17 years. There will be a population increase of up to 30% in an already congested Singapore. Most of us in this House will still be around 17 years from now. It will be a situation that we ourselves will face, not just our children and grandchildren.

If we are just Singapore Inc. a business that looks coldly at hard economic data and at the bottom line, the above sounds logical. However, we are not a business. We are a country, a nation.

I grew up learning to be proud of my country. Proud to be called a Singaporean. I was born here in the year of our independence, studied entirely in our local schools and went through national service like all Singaporean males. In school, we had programmes that made us feel proud of this little red dot, proud to be part of a free and independent nation. When I travel overseas, I am happy to identify myself as a Singaporean.

The first pillar of the white paper states that Singaporeans form the core of our society and the heart of our nation. I agree with this statement. But who is a Singaporean?

The paper projects that there will be 3.7 million Singaporeans in 2030, forming roughly 55% of the population. I have two problems with this.

My first objection is that 55% will cross the psychological 60% threshold of citizens forming our population. This is a line that is not crossed by the global cities we are comparing ourselves against, including New York and London. The percentage of citizens in our population has steadily declined from 74% in year 2000 to 62% today. It will further decline to 55% by 2030. Will it go below 50% soon?

My second objection is who the paper defines as the Singaporeans that will form our core. We had 77,000 new citizens added in the last 4 years alone, an average of over 19,000 a year. Already, many local-born citizens are uncomfortable with this pace. The paper provides for new citizens growth to be as high as 25,000 a year. With current annual citizen birth rate of 31,000, this means that up to 45% of citizens added to the population yearly will be foreign-born.

Madam Speaker, I am not against foreigners who wish to become Singaporean. Truly integrating them to become Singaporeans as we know Singaporeans to be, will be take time. To integrate, the foreigner has to spend substantial time here and should make genuine effort to understand our way of life and speak our language. How fast can we make that happen with adult immigrants?

We are already facing many integration issues in Singapore today. Various enclaves with majority of residents from specific countries of birth have sprung up. New citizens often bring their parents and families along, many of whom do not speak English. They live amongst us daily. We may have 3.7 million Singapore citizens, but just over 3 million will be local-born. This means that as low as only 45% of our population in 2030 could be local-born. True-blue Singaporeans will become the minority here. What would become of Singapore’s culture? Whose culture will influence whose?

Singapore only established the National Integration Council in 2009, four years ago. Our programmes for integration lag behind those of our countries and cities. In other multicultural immigrant countries like Australia, Canada, and the USA, immigrants have to show that they are integrated before they get citizenship. Ability to integrate should be a key consideration to grant citizenship and not as an afterthought, after giving citizenship.

Madam Speaker, I have a tale of two videos – two widely watched national day videos last year. The first is the government’s official video, showing beautiful buildings, magnificent skylines, luscious gardens and beautiful homes. The second is an informal video made by teachers and students of a college. It speaks of the heart of the people, what makes Singapore Singapore: HDB flats, children playing together in a humble playground, getting stuck in traffic jams, being packed in MRT trains, coffeeshop scenes and more.

The first showed beautiful hardware, like the infrastructure in this Land Use Plan. The second speaks to our hearts, loving Singapore in spite of the problems we face. It is getting Singaporeans to love Singapore for what it is, loving the mix of people in our midst, loving the common things that we do every day.

The white paper has proposed a lot of infrastructure. Yes, it is important to have good infrastructure. Beyond the hardware, we need to build a strong Singapore core that share common values, worldviews, culture and a sense of identity. These can only be cultivated over time. Taking in too many new citizens too fast will only give us a false sense of complacency that we have a Singaporean core when we actually do not have a strong one.

Before we open the floodgate for new citizens, we have to learn how to integrate new citizens properly. True integration is difficult. The pace needs to be more manageable. Anecdotally, a pace of around 10,000 a year, which was what Singapore had before 2005 is perhaps more sustainable.

Our immigration policy takes into account factors such as the individual’s family ties, economic contributions, qualifications, age, family profile, ability to contribute and integrate into our society, and commitment to Singapore. How exactly are these factors being computed? Can we have a more transparent point system like that in other countries? I ask this because all MPs must have seen many people during their Meet-The-People sessions to appeal for LTVP, LTVP+ and PR for their foreign spouses. Some have been married for years to Singaporeans and have Singaporean children, yet they continue to be denied PR and sometimes LTVP+. We were often not told why in the rejection letters.

Education and childcare
Next, I wish to touch on increasing TFR. Challenging as it may be, increasing our TFR is still the best way to sustain a Singaporean core. My party colleagues have made various suggestions earlier. I would like to focus on education and childcare. These can influence young couples in their decision to have children or have more children.

Yesterday, Minister Grace Fu said the National Population and Talent Division (NPTD) is working with MOE to reduce stress and provide holistic education for students. I am glad MOE wants every school to be a good school. However, MOE is struggling against many of their entrenched policies that have added unnecessary stress and cost to education. The primary 1 registration gives priority to alumni, to those living in the immediate vicinities of schools and to parent volunteers. Getting children into what parents perceive as good schools is a stressful process. And while MOE tells parents that every school is good, parents know which schools are better. From MOE’s data, we see that the results achieved by students at PSLE are vastly different across schools. Two days ago, we were told that median 2012 PSLE T-scores in schools range from 160 to 247, reflecting a wide difference in standards. So parents try very hard to get their children into what they perceive as better schools.

Unnecessary examinations such as for giftedness add to parents pushing their children hard right from entry into primary schools. Secondary school admission is almost entirely based on the T-score achieved at the PSLE. Today, secondary schools and academic streams are highly differentiated. Students are sorted into schools of different status and into different academic streams. Parents push children hard at high stake examinations to get them into desired schools or avoid certain academic streams. Often, they take work leave to coach their children. Even Minister Grace Fu has said that she took leave to coach her children for the PSLE. Some get so exhausted in the process that they decide not to have more children.

Many parents have deemed it necessary to get private tuition for their children. A Sunday Times poll 5 years ago of 100 students showed that 97 of them had tuition. The situation is no better today. Parents even send children for tuition to hope to enter gifted education, because GEP provides the Direct School Admission advantage into top secondary schools.

While some level of stress is healthy to keep students diligent, many parents have cited stress in our education system and the high cost of tuition as important factors for not having more children. We are often told that Singapore parents are kiasu. I believe the system has made them so.

I will elaborate on future occasions when I make proposals for the education system.

Next, infant and child care are important for young parents. Last month, the government announced a slew of goodies in this area. I welcome the fact that the government is willing to put more money into the industry. I had made various proposals in an adjournment motion on childcare last year. While a lot more money is now added, there is no change to the structure of the industry, which I consider is flawed. It is flawed because the industry is left to private market mechanisms. This is made worse by hugely disproportionate government support for a small number of anchor operators that gives them incredible advantages over other players in the industry.

I fear that the monies injected will inflate rents and fees. We had seen that before. In 2008, the government doubled monthly subsidies to working mothers. Fees quickly went up after that. Under this new subsidy framework, the situation will be worse for higher income families. Those with near to or above $7,500 in monthly family income will get little or no additional subsidies. Private market forces will escalate fees. These parents will end up paying more for child care. I hope MSF can consider making child care as a public good, with open competition for all and with fairer support for all operators. MSF is already spending a lot of money on infant and child care. Reforming the industry may be a smarter and more efficient way to achieve affordable fees and high quality services with the same money. It will take away the uncertainty of child care cost for young parents.

Impact to Businesses
Next, I like to deal with issues raised by some PAP MPs. Dr Amy Khor has said our proposal will hurt businesses. Ms Jessica Tan asked if we had read the new reports that businesses are planning to leave. Yes, the economy will go through some pains but it is simplistic to say slowing the manpower growth is what kills businesses. I know of businesses that have been killed not by lack of manpower, but by high rentals. The government’s policy on industrial land for example has caused huge spike in rents and land prices. Companies that need transport find it hard to afford vehicles due to high COE prices. The cost of many items has gone up. These are in part due to government policies and the overcrowding of Singapore. The government certainly has scope to re-examine its policies and to see how else it can help businesses restructure in times like this.

Mr Indeerjet Singh has called our proposal zero growth. Our proposal is not zero growth. Our GDP projections are just 0.5-1% lower than the government’s. GDP growth of 1.5 – 3.5% is decent by the standard of matured economies. We have a 1% increase in residents workforce.

PAP MPs have painted us as turning off the tap, as if leaving businesses to dry up. This is an incomplete picture. The tap leads into a plugged sink that is already filled with quite a lot of water. There are 2.1 million residents and 1.3 million non-residents in our workforce. We have 2 taps. As foreigners leave for whatever reasons, we turn on the non-resident tap to fill it back up. We try to get more out of the resident tap by increasing it at 1% per annum. If the resident tap cannot fulfil that, we turn up the non-resident tap. We are not leaving the sink dry. In contrast, the government needs to be reminded that the sink is quite full. Having the taps on too fast may flood Singapore with a population we will struggle to manage in the future.

We have studied the population data. You can see from our projections that by managing both taps, there could be an increase in population to 5.8 million in the worst case. This GDP trade-off will allow a more sustainable population growth of at most 500,000 people over the next 17 years.

Lastly, Mr Vikram Nair seems fascinated with the way we run our Aljunied-Hougang Town Council. He is welcomed to visit us. He said he is interested because he wants to know how the WP will run this country if we are in power. He wants to know how we use foreign manpower. I believe Mr Nair has forgotten that we are elected by the people to be in this House to establish policies and make laws, not to run businesses. This is precisely the problem I spoke about in my maiden speech in this House, that our government runs many big businesses across our economy. When the government is itself a big vested player, and in fact the single biggest player in the economy, it will itself take a lot of pain when the economy is restructured hard.

Mr Nair may like to know that the WP is interested to get policies right for the people of Singapore and not to run businesses, whether with foreign or local staff.

In conclusion, PAP MPs spoke of the pain to SMEs with our proposal. I should know. I have owned and run private companies for the last 13 years. Yet, I am also reminded that I am a father to three children. I think of what Singapore will be like for them and their children 17 years from now with 6.9 million people. I think of what Singapore will be like for all of us when we ramp up our population so fast, leaving just 4% of our land as reserved space. Would we reach a population cliff by 2030?

Singaporeans are told that there are trade-offs. We are told that a population of up to 6.9 million may be required because this government believes we need 2-5% economic growth yearly. Unlike the government, we present a model for sustainable growth, more consistent with fostering a strong Singapore core.

If there’s a trade-off, are Singaporeans given any choice? Perhaps there is an overwhelming majority of Singaporeans who do not wish to become the minority in their own country? Perhaps Singaporeans will rather make do with a more manageable growth to keep their birthrights?

We had already moved too fast in the past eight years. The decisions made today cannot be reversed. We will sooner or later face the constraint of our land size. If this government moves too fast again, what will be left to sustain future generations? I urge the government to reconsider its plan and opt for a more manageable growth that will allow us to keep Singapore as the Singapore we know.

Madam Speaker, I oppose the motion.

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.