Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Yee Jenn Jong on Singapore's education and economy

Yee Jenn Jong’s speech (Debate on President’s Address) (source)

Mr Speaker, Sir, before I touch on the President’s speech, I like to add to the references on Bhutan, as well as correct misconceptions that had surfaced in this House. I happen to visit Bhutan just before this year’s General Elections and am now involved in a non-profit education project for the country.
Mr Cedric Foo joked that Bhutanese are happy because they have only 2 elected opposition members. Bhutan’s concept of happiness was implemented by the 4th King in the 1970s, long before they had parliamentary democracy in 2008. On my flight into Bhutan, I picked up this In-Flight magazine of Druk Air, their national airline. This page listed the 4 most important persons in Bhutan: His Majesty the King, the Chief Abbot, the Prime Minister and … the Leader of the Opposition. Speaking with Bhutanese, I was amazed at the respect they accorded to the Opposition, as well as to the democracy process.

Just as Minister Khaw said that developing Bhutan wants to learn from Singapore, there are useful lessons from Bhutan. The concept of Gross National Happiness is not some fuzzy feel-good about individual happiness as some members alluded to, but about collective happiness and long term sustainability. It does measure economic indicators, like all other countries. It also measures three other important areas: Preservation of Culture, Preservation of the Environment and Good Governance. Bhutan chose to do so because it wanted to leave something for future generations, rather than mine natural resources for short term gains or destroy the culture that made them unique. We have seen measures to prop up the economy, like liberal immigration and the casinos, which may bring immediate benefits but can lead to long term problems. Are Singaporeans happy with headline-grabbing economic growth when it is their jobs that have been impacted; when they struggle with high cost of living; or if family members face chronic gambling problems?

Sir, I will now move on to my main speech. I thank the President for reminding us to do our very best for our country and to make it the best home for all Singaporeans. I grew up in an independent Singapore. I have seen the changes we went through. Doing my best for Singapore is an aspiration that I share. Singapore is my home and my family.

The President touched on many issues. I will focus on education and the economy.

First, I like to declare that I have vested interest in the education space as an owner of several private companies offering education services, mostly to schools.

Sir, the President said that we should have “a truly special Singapore, where our children can grow to be the best that they can be.”

The main form of our current mainstream education started with the bold 1979 Goh report by the late Dr Goh Keng Swee, then Minister for Education. It was to address the challenges of the day. Streaming was introduced. Singapore went for mass production to raise the overall level of students’ performance.

Schools were differentiated progressively from 1988. From 1992, they were ranked yearly by MOE and the ranking were published. Next, MOE published schools’ actual versus expected performances. Ranking was later replaced with banding schools of similar range of students’ academic performances together. Today, while schools are appraised in non-academic areas, they are still banded by academic results.

The changes have raised overall education levels, but they also created excessive anxieties for parents and students, and widened public’s perception of quality between top and lower ranked schools.

An educator friend blogged that she had asked parents in workshops to draw their impression of our education system. One drew prison bars! There were similar drawings by other parents expressing helplessness at being trapped in the system. They felt helpless over the many high stake examinations; and pressure to get children into good schools, failing which they deem the future of their children would be compromised.

In a recent 938Live radio talkshow, a caller whose daughter was taking PSLE this year described how her family relationship became strained while preparing for the exams. A friend shared that his daughter in a top school cries frequently just before exams. I feel terrible hearing of children having their confidence crushed and growing up in fear of education. A former civil servant I met online wrote that he had migrated to Finland because he did not want to subject his son to the unhealthy system here. He wanted his son to simply love learning.

Today there is over reliance on academic performance as a benchmark of success and meritocracy, a phenomenon I call hyper-meritocracy. Hyper-meritocracy has seen parents who could afford it, pack children’s schedule with tuition. A good paper qualification is seen as a guarantee to a successful career. The safe thing to do in Singapore is to score in exams, get a scholarship and land a secure good-paying job. This has led to a dearth of risk-taking and entrepreneurial spirit in Singapore.

I share Mr Teo Ser Luck’s observation that risk aversion will be a key challenge for him to promote entrepreneurship. The problem of lack of entrepreneurs begins in schools, where students are conditioned not to take risks and do not learn to handle ambiguity. In this aspect, I am happy to work with Mr Teo as I have been working with young entrepreneurs and students for quite some time now.

Sir, I am happy to note that MOE is looking into Character and Value-based education. Character and values are important guiding principles for life and must be imparted to students. However, schools are supposed to already have civics and moral education for years. MOE’s 21st Century Skills framework, already included character and values development. Schools, preoccupied with measurable indicators of success such as school ranking and academic grades, are known to have replaced civics periods with mainstream subjects. This sends wrong signals to children that values are not important.

Schools pile homework on students and drill them for major exams. I know of a top school which had three full-scale prelim exams in addition to mock exams using prelim papers of other schools, in order to prepare students for this year’s ‘O’ levels. Principals feel pressured into delivering academic results over other forms of holistic development.

We have had education policies with good intents before, but their effects were often muted because we did not address our examination culture.

At the heart of the issue is what good education should be about. Do we sieve out academic performers through a series of examinations so that we can concentrate them together? Is this so because we believe we need to identify the top 5% of each cohort who will run our country and our top companies in the future?

Today, we face a totally different world where what we know can quickly become obsolete. Nimbleness to change is essential for survival. We do not just churn out workers for the multinationals. We are competing against the world for investments, businesses and jobs. We need our people to be innovative and adaptable.

Mr Speaker, I hope two areas can be addressed:

1. Critically examine our intense examination culture. Can we cut down on streaming and do we need to start streaming so early?

Finland, a country with about the same population size as Singapore, went the opposite direction with their education reforms, equalizing resources in schools and spreading talents across the system. They stream students only at 15 years old. Finnish students do well in international assessment benchmark. Notably, it has the shortest school hours in OECD countries and the narrowest gap between the high and low scorers, indicating education equity. Students hardly go for tuition. I feel it is useful to study their approach.

2. Broaden learning and seriously infuse character and values development.

Already schools are reluctant to offer subjects that are important to broaden students’ thinking, such as literature and history, as these subjects are difficult to score well in. Yet they are important for students to appreciate diversity, handle ambiguity and to develop critical thinking.

We should further broaden learning to include political education so that students can grow up with a wider spectrum of thoughts. Perhaps, they can then develop the Digital Quotient that Dr Lam Pin Min spoke about and can become responsible participants in our evolving parliamentary democracy.

Today, we appear more educated. However, I am not sure if we are more learned and more innovative, or we are simply more exam-smart.

I like to share a story with this House. Recently, I met a Singaporean couple who run an international school in Bangkok. They shared the experience of their daughter. Jazlina retained a place in a Singapore school under overseas leave of absence. She returned in primary 6, took her PSLE and was admitted into an autonomous school. She spent her secondary two in Singapore.

Jazlina is a bright and self-motivated girl who had thrived in school while in Thailand. But under our system, she felt constrained trying to conform to a rigid regime expecting standard answers. With a class size of over 40 students, her mother had to put her through tuition to keep pace with the class. Jazlina started to lose self-confidence and told her mother that ‘maybe I am not so smart after all’. At secondary three, she was streamed into a subject combination that was not her passion. After fighting the system for a few more months, the family put her back into their own school in Thailand.

Jazlina blossomed again. She now represents Thailand in international debating competitions, where she has won prizes. At this year’s iGCSE exams, Jazlina aced all her subjects and scored 100% in two subjects, including for the subject of her passion which she was not selected to take in Singapore.

Her mother shared that had they not brought her back into a more nurturing environment, her confidence would have plunged further. She felt that Singapore’s system was not bringing out the best in Jazlina, but was instead drowning her.

Mr Speaker, Sir, the President’s call for our children to ‘grow to be the best that they can be’ is a great ideal. Like Mr Lawrence Wong, I believe that education should light up fires in children. We have to deal with many like Jazlina, who are talented and passionate, but constrained by the system. Instead of being obsessed with picking out winners, education should make winners out of the ordinary.

We may have done well in the past. Based on that, we entrench our processes further without critically considering the changing environment or the negative effects. It has been 32 years since the Goh Report. I believe it is time to make bolder evaluation of our mainstream education.

Sir, next, I like to talk about the economy. I feel the government has become small in areas it should be big in, and big in areas it should be small in.

In the last decade, Singapore has adopted a free market approach for many government services. Some areas like the provision of public housing, public transportation and health care, which are essential social responsibilities of the government, have gone this route too.

My colleague, Gerald Giam had touched extensively on the under-capacity of hospital beds, public transport and housing as a result of this policy. We outsource critical areas to the private sector and hence we had issues such as DBSS which had caused unhappiness due to public housing being pushed to unaffordable levels.

The government chose to play a smaller role in the provision of essential services. It passed these responsibilities to the free market. With a free market mindset, the government was not prepared to take risks. As a result, Singaporeans bore the cost of the under-provision.

On the other hand, in areas that the government should play a smaller role, it has instead grown bigger.

As our economy developed through the years, instead of letting private enterprises take more initiative in the economy, our government’s share of the economy has grown through its participation in Government Linked Companies or GLCs. This is in contrast to countries like South Korea and Taiwan whose governments also had helped pioneered some key businesses but progressively withdrew to let the private sector drive growth thereafter.

The NTUC group is a large cooperative with a stated US$3.5 billion annual turnover from its website. GLCs and cooperatives like NTUC inevitably compete with local enterprises, making the domestic market even smaller for them.

A Straits Times Forum writer wrote last week to share his experience as an entry-level entrepreneur in Chinatown Complex. In May this year, NEA engaged professional valuers to appraise the value of the complex. Rent went up by 71 to 100% as a result.

Keeping rental cost manageable is important to the survival of small enterprises. In the past few years, JTC divested many of its properties to Real Estate Investment Trusts. I noted that rental cost of former JTC spaces have gone up as a result, an observation shared by SME leaders in an article in the Straits Times today. Hence, SMEs today struggle with high rental cost on top of challenging manpower cost.

SMEs sometimes also suffer in tenders due to risk aversion by government officers who may shun smaller companies even if the solutions offered have met specifications at lower costs. To promote the growth of SMEs, the government could look at ways to allow GLCs to participate only in tenders above certain minimum values. Or GLCs and cooperatives should withdraw totally from non-essential market segments if SMEs are capable of fulfilling local demands.

I believe there’s merit in encouraging SMEs to develop themselves further with a mindset of professionalism, precision and perfection. In some developed economies like Germany and Switzerland, there are vibrant cottage industries comprising long established family-run businesses. They have generations of know-how that have allowed their products to be sought after despite competition from lower cost countries.

SMEs create jobs. Those that have succeeded locally could end up as global winners. In Singapore, we also have our cottage industries. I am happy to note that we have long established food brands like Tee Yih Jia, Sin Hwa Dee, Polar Puffs and others that have been able to scale globally. It is imperative that Singapore provides the conditions to develop more of such local enterprises.

As we move forward to strengthen our economy, I hope the government can consider right-sizing itself in the appropriate areas. I like to see it being big in providing essential social services. I like to see it become small in running domestic businesses and leave the space to grow our SMEs.

With that, Mr Speaker, I support the motion of thanks.

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