June 28, 2017

Authors Posts by Jin Yao Kwan

Jin Yao Kwan

Jin Yao Kwan
24. More affectionately known as guanyinmiao, who muses at http://guanyinmiao.wordpress.com/. Blogger, runner, volunteer, reader, and writer.

by Kwan Jin Yao

THIS week, MPs will debate recommendations to improve parliamentary procedures, such as increasing the minimum amount of time between the introduction of a Bill and when it comes up for debate, and doubling the notice period for an amendment from two to four clear days. But the 10-member Standing Orders Committee – tasked to periodically review the Parliament’s Standing Orders, or the rules which guide parliamentary procedure – rejected the suggestion to lengthen Question Time.

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Question Time allows MPs to ask questions of government ministers, usually on issues or agencies for which the ministers are responsible for. Yet the one-and-a-half hours currently allocated – at the start of each sitting – may not be sufficient for all the questions tabled. Aggregating the parliamentary sittings from October 10, 2016 to April 4, 2017 (and excluding the Committee of Supply debates on March 6 and 7, when no questions for oral answer were tabled), TMG found that on average, of the 33 questions for oral answer at each sitting (the median is 27), only 13 were answered during Question Time (the median is 15). 66 oral questions were unanswered on November 7, 2016, the highest within the aforementioned range of dates.

In other words, on average, about 39 per cent of oral questions are answered during each Question Time. Questions for oral answer which are not answered during the one-and-a-half hours will be postponed or dealt with as questions for written answer.

MP Louis Ng Kok Kwang and nominated MP Kok Heng Leun had mooted the proposal to increase the duration of Question Time, with more time given for timely and important issues, and also for MPs to ask further questions (TODAY, Apr. 26). Because only about one-third of the oral questions are cleared in each parliamentary sitting, Mr Ng – speaking to TMG – said that Question Time should be doubled to three hours, since the Standing Orders Committee noted that the government had previously, on an ad hoc basis, extended the time limit to three hours. “The number of questions per sitting is already limited, so debate itself should not be limited,” he added. “Oral questions dealt with as questions for written answer lack debate, and the biggest benefit [of having a longer Question Time] is that more or follow-up questions can then be replied to by the office-holder.”

Associate Professor of Law Eugene Tan Kheng Boon, who served as nominated MP from 2012 to 2014, agreed with the proposal to increase the duration of Question Time. “Typically, in 90 minutes of Question Time, Parliament seldom gets beyond the first 20 questions, leaving 50 to 70 questions filed for oral answers unanswered,” Prof Tan told TMG. While his suggestion of two hours “would still not enable Parliament to get through all the questions”, he added that a longer Question Time “will allow for more questions to be answered, and for more time to be allocated to questions, for a more thorough discussion of the issues.”

And in response to the proposal by Mr Kok and Mr Ng, Leader of the House, Grace Fu – who is part of the Standing Orders Committee – first acknowledged the importance of Question Time, before pointing out that the government had previously extended the time limit to three hours, albeit on an ad hoc basis. The most recent instance was on October 10, 2016, when Question Time was extended by an hour to 4pm for discussions on the rise in cases of online gambling addiction, rewards for Paralympic medallists, as well as the likelihood of an economic recession in Singapore. The committee, furthermore, added that it was prepared “to continue to extend Question Time on an ad hoc basis due to the number of questions and volume of public business” (The Straits Times, Apr. 25)

It is not clear, however, how the government decides when and whether an extension is in order. Based on the importance or timeliness of the issues? Or the number of questions tabled?

Not much can be discerned from the numbers that TMG has aggregated. The last time Question Time was extended – on October 10, 2016 – there were 91 questions for oral answer, and 62 went unanswered. But on November 7, 2016, when 74 per cent of questions for oral answer were not answered (89 questions tabled), and on February 6, 2017, when 79 per cent of the questions for oral answer were not answered (out of 80 questions labeled), Question Time was not extended on both dates.

Along this tangent are the related questions about how the order of the questions is decided, and whether the Parliament – instead of the government – should decide the length of Question Time and how it might be extended.

With more questions than answers, both during and about Question Time, perhaps a broader debate – involving more MPs and their experiences – should be in order.



Featured image by Flickr user Xiquinho Silva. CC BY 2.0

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by Kwan Jin Yao

THE rate of volunteerism in Singapore almost doubled from 2014 to 2016, rising from 18 to 35 per cent. And this trend – according to the Individual Giving Survey 2016, conducted by the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre (NVPC) – “could be related to the resurgence in informal volunteerism” (emphasis mine), through which Singaporeans volunteer directly without going through an organisation. In its press release, NVPC then detailed examples of social and ground-up movements in Singapore, to illustrate a second point that the number of volunteers who serve informally has increased from 25 to 51 per cent, over the same time period.

Straits Times christened this “a resurgence of the kampung spirit” (Mar 16). TODAY quoted NVPC director for knowledge and advocacy, Jeffrey Tan on this “giving revolution”, “where people are volunteering and donating informally, directly with beneficiaries, without going through the formal routes” (Mar 16). Notwithstanding the questionable hyperbole, everyone seems to take for granted this causal relationship between the rise in the volunteerism rate and the increase in informal volunteerism. Correlation is not causation. In fact, we still appear to know little about what exactly drives volunteerism in Singapore, and how it can be sustained in the long-term. NVPC said it could be informal volunteerism, but we do not know for sure.

And in its current incarnation, the NVPC’s Individual Giving Survey provides few useful answers.

Volunteer rate and sample size

In the 2012 survey, when it was found that 32 per cent of Singaporeans volunteered – the previous high – the cited reason was also informal volunteering. In the 2010 survey, when the rate increased to 23 per cent from the previous high of 17 per cent in 2008, no explicit reasons were offered. And likewise nothing insightful was offered in 2014, when the volunteerism rate fell by almost half from 32 per cent in 2012 to 18 per cent. The accompanying media release in 2014 briefly mentioned the lack of time as a top reason for non-volunteers, as if it was a new finding, yet this concern was already established from the very first edition of the survey in 2000, when 74 per cent of the respondents said that “no time” was their main reason for not volunteering.

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Just knowing how the national volunteerism rate has changed from survey to survey is not enough. If the intent is to encourage more Singaporeans to volunteer – and to make sure they keep volunteering – then the NVPC needs to better understand the needs and the motivations of volunteers and non-volunteers alike, and to shape endeavours accordingly. Suppose the NVPC is absolutely convinced that informal volunteerism does cause higher volunteerism rates. It should therefore channel its resources to more financial grants for these community groups, for instance, to facilitate capacity-building and to reach out to more in Singapore.

Such causal findings will be productive for government agencies too. The Ministry of Education can ascertain whether learning experiences through Values in Action – in different permutations, such as within-school or community activities – increase the likelihood of volunteerism in the future. The National Council of Social Service, with similar information, can better advise the volunteer-management units of charities, in terms of how they can appeal to and retain long-term volunteers.

Comparisons of the findings across the past eight editions reveal something more troubling about the sampling size. Only 389 respondents were interviewed for the 2016 survey compared to the 1,828 interviewed in 2014. The mean or average across the eight biennial surveys from 2000 to 2014 was 1,698 (the median was 1,752), and so the sample size for 2016 is barely one-quarter of that. The disparity raises obvious questions about the sampling method, the representativeness of the findings and if it can be generalised for the whole population, and whether comparisons can be fairly made across demographic or socio-economic indicators.

Further doubts emerge when the 2016 is compared with the World Giving Index 2016 – released by Britain-based Charities Aid Foundation – which found that only 20 per cent of Singaporeans volunteered their time and efforts for a cause in the past year. In this particular area Singapore ranked 54th out of 140 countries, compared to its ranking of 19th for donating money to charity. The World Giving Index collected questionnaires, face-to-face, from exactly 1,000 Singaporean respondents. But like the Individual Giving Survey, it provided no additional details on the potential factors which will prompt more to volunteer.

So in addition to the woeful sample size, what changes can be made to the Individual Giving Survey? Or what more can it do?

Three related proposals. First, having determined the reasons for non-volunteerism – from the lack of time to the difficulty of balancing work and family commitments, for example – focus group discussions with existing volunteers will allow for the aggregation of practical perspectives or good practices, on how to overcome these challenges. Second, with these perspectives and practices, the NVPC can better design interventions for Singaporeans of different age-groups, in different industries, and for different beneficiaries, and use the survey as an instrument to measure the effectiveness of these implementations. In other words, did a new volunteer programme or an awareness campaign drive more Singaporeans to actually volunteer? And for how long?

And finally, a longitudinal component to the Individual Giving Survey could yield valuable information too. In an experimental set-up like this, having identified a representative sample, NVPC will track the same group of respondents over two, four, or even six years, measuring their rates of volunteerism and how they respond to volunteer programmes or awareness campaigns. If implemented effectively, the NVPC could even track the impact of nation-wide policies – such as the inception of the Youth Corps and the changes the MOE made to the community involvement programme in schools – over the same time-frame.

The Individual Giving Survey and its top-line figures may have sufficed in the past 16 years. Much more is desired – and needed – if we want to turn Singapore into a more compassionate nation of regular and committed volunteers.


Featured image by Sean Chong. 

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by Kwan Jin Yao

WHAT were some of the most memorable quotes from the 17 first-time MPs? Let’s take a look.


1. Dennis Tan Lip Fong (WP, NCMP) 


Image from the Workers’ Party website.

“If our children are afraid to fail, they are less likely to be adventurous. We can forget about Singapore having the next Sim Wong Hoo, not to mention Steve Jobs.”

During the Budget debate, Mr Tan dedicated the third part of his speech to policies for children and young people, emphasising the need for “latitude” in the education system and for more to not fear failure, so that more young Singaporeans will, for instance, appreciate innovation and entrepreneurship.

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2. Leon Perera (WP, NCMP)


Image from the Workers’ Party website.

“Singing with one voice is neither proof of unity nor is it conducive to real unity.”

Starting his speech at the debate on the President’s Address by referencing the results of and the reaction to the general elections of 2015, Mr Perera first argued that “casting the election result as a badge of national unity is deeply unhelpful for our nation-building”, and later stressed the importance of diversity.


3. Assoc Prof Daniel Goh Pei Siong (WP, NCMP)


Image from the Workers’ Party website.

“Innovation is not an aspiration, it is a survival imperative.”

Policies related to innovation, research, and education have been central to Prof Goh’s parliamentary contributions throughout his first year. During the Budget debate, he highlighted Singapore’s emphasis on innovation, further raising the issues of accountability, the Singaporean core, and the innovation enclave.


4. Yee Chia Hsing (PAP, Chua Chu Kang GRC)


Image from Yee Chia Hsing’s Facebook page

“Are we going to be like a pack of cards with just four aces? Are we going to be faced with slower growth?”

Singapore has had, historically, four engines of growth: its location as a trade hub, the development of manufacturing, Singapore’s growth as a regional financial and wealth management centre, and tourism. Mr Yee then highlighted the common threads of globalisation and connectivity, but provided little insight for the future.


5. Dr Tan Wu Meng (PAP, Jurong GRC)


Image from Dr Tan Wu Meng’s Facebook page

“Sometimes, you can see a universe in a raindrop, or sometimes, you see a world in a grain of sand. But it is in the little details that we see deep lessons about the broader firmament.”

Dr Tan received applause for both his speeches at the debate on the President’s Address and at the Budget debate, but he was only one of two first-time MPs to move a motion. His motion on “ensuring people-centric design in pedestrian linkway planning” was a neat synthesis of on-the-ground municipal concerns and broader policy considerations, bringing attention to the importance of policy implementation. “Whether in the public or private sectors,” he added, “policy and implementation are about the big and the small.”


6. Saktiandi Supaat (PAP, Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC)


Image from Saktiandi Supaat’s Facebook page

“I see it as a call to action… to take action to further enhance the talent pool or capability of future minority candidates, and encourage them to step forward.”

Of the proposed changes to the Elected Presidency, the issue regarding safeguards for racial representation was touched on by many MPs, including Mr Saktiandi. For him, ensuring an available pool of suitable talent was of utmost importance. This call to action, moreover, is for talents from the minority races “to gain relevant experience from their careers and when they are in influential positions within the corporate world.”


7. Sun Xueling (PAP, Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC)


Image from Sun Xueling’s Facebook page.

Can we continue to keep that openness and generosity of spirit so that Singapore can continue to achieve success as a hub for people and ideas and help to power and shape the region and the world?

Turning her attention to geopolitics and Singapore’s role on the international stage, and further referencing China and Taiwan’s first historic leadership talks in Singapore as well as Singapore’s history as a free trade harbour, Ms Sun urged Singaporeans – at the debate on the President’s Address – to remain open and open-minded.


8. Rahayu Mahzam (PAP, Jurong GRC)


Image from Rahayu Mahzam’s Facebook page.

“We do not want the selection to be a symbolic one only.”

In a maiden speech which drew applause, Ms Rahayu – at the debate on the President’s Address – said that although the Malay community wanted to see representation, a Malay representative should be selected because he or she is the best person, not because he or she is Malay.

During the debate on the proposed changes to the Elected Presidency, she conceded that although she was apprehensive when the review was first announced by the prime minister earlier in the year, she came to support the bill after discussions and conversations.


9. Melvin Yong Yik Chye (PAP, Tanjong Pagar GRC)


Image from Melvin Yong’s Facebook page.

“Tripartism has served us well. It is a powerful weapon in our economic defence.”

The director of industrial relations at the National Trade Union Congress (NTUC), Mr Yong devoted much of his speech at the debate on the President’s Address on the importance of tripartism, and how it should be shared with young Singaporeans. “I would urge for tripartism to be included in our national education,” he said.


10. Louis Ng Kok Kwang (PAP, Nee Soon GRC)


Image from Louis Ng’s Facebook page.

“I have stories to share about the journey my wife and I have embarked on and personally, I will walk to the talk. I will help increase the TFR by having another child soon, I hope.”

Mr Ng first shared at the debate on the President’s Address that he will help to increase the total fertility rate in Singapore by having another child soon, and later during the debate on changes to the Child Development Co-Savings Act, he announced that his wife was expecting a set of twins. He drew applause on both occasions.


11. Kwek Hian Chuan Henry (PAP, Nee Soon GRC)


Image from Henry Kwek’s Facebook page.

“Without opportunity, our society will be one of permanent class and stifling glass ceiling.”

In his maiden speech, at the debate on the President’s Address, Mr Kwek – latching onto President Tony Tan’s remarks that Singapore had to upgrade its economy so as to sustain growth, and the need to restructure in the face of global competition – focused on the need for both inclusive growth and social justice. “Without growth,” he explained, “our society’s wealth will be more commonly inherited, and less commonly created.”


12. Joan Pereira (PAP, Tanjong Pagar GRC)


Image from Joan Pereira’s Facebook page.

“Volunteering for a common cause is the best way to get people of different backgrounds to realise that beneath the labels of race and religion, we have a lot more in common as Singaporeans.”

In addition to funding, Ms Pereira – at the Budget debate – called for active volunteering among seniors, for them to be more actively involved in the community. “While these initiatives may, sometimes, feel unnatural or contrived, we must persevere and resist retreating into our own cliques,” she added.


13. Darryl David (PAP, Ang Mo Kio GRC)


Image from Darryl David’s Facebook page.

“It would be useful to explore how we can make it mandatory for potential new citizens to attain a basic level of English language proficiency before they are given Singaporean citizenship.”

A core part of his speech at the debate on the President’s Address was the recommendation for a basic level of English-language proficiency and compulsory community service hours for new citizens. Mr David said this was a challenge of integration between Singaporeans and new citizens, having observed at a community event that “there were quite a few new citizens who had trouble communicating because of their inability to speak basic English.”


14. Cheng Li Hui (PAP, Tampines GRC)


Image from TMG file. 

“To our seniors, I say, ‘You can retire from work but please do not retire from our community’.”

With an ageing population in Singapore, Ms Cheng drew examples at the Budget debate from her own constituency, bringing attention to the importance of healthcare and social care for the elderly. Through different policy initiatives and recommendations, she also called for older Singaporeans to stay active in their communities.


15. Chong Kee Hiong (PAP, Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC)


Image from Chong Kee Hiong’s Facebook page

“If you want to take on projects in unchartered grounds, ‘Do not ask for permission, ask for forgiveness afterwards’.”

“Is it possible for us,” Mr Chong asked rhetorically at the Budget debate “with a rapidly ageing population and a workforce better known for reliability and efficiency, to become creative and innovative?” Elaborating that creative ventures and entrepreneurship require guts, he called for a change in culture in Singapore.


16. Desmond Choo (PAP, Tampines GRC)


Image from Desmond Choo’s Facebook page.

“Perhaps what is most critical, beyond good school-to-work preparation and apprenticeship systems, we need our millennials and generation Z to have that sense of adventure and gumption to take on the world.”

The focus on millennials and young Singaporeans is consistent across Mr Choo’s speeches and questions in Parliament, and in both speeches – during the debate on the President’s Address and the Budget debate – he not only called for more support from the G, but also for young Singaporeans to seize opportunities, especially since talent and conscientiousness will be vital in the “Fourth Industrial Revolution”.


17. Cheryl Chan Wei Ling (PAP, Fengshan SMC)


Image from Cheryl Chan’s Facebook page.

“To ensure that social support will be sustainable, it needs like a balloon to have more than one party adding their lung capacity to keep it afloat.”

In the face of rising costs of living, families cannot rely on the G for support. During her speech at the Budget debate, Ms Chan spoke about the importance of early planning and community involvement.


Featured image by Sean Chong.

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by Kwan Jin Yao

HOW should one evaluate the performance of Members of Parliament (MPs) in Singapore?

One way is to look at their parliamentary record: the number of times they spoke or the number of questions they asked, the quality of these speeches and questions, and the substantive impact of their participation.

That’s what we did, by going through Hansard and focusing on the parliamentary records of the first-time MPs. We then totalled the number of oral and written questions, speeches, questions or speeches during the reading of bills, and cuts during the committee of supply debates.

Related: The moral KPI for MPs

We also looked at recurring themes throughout these contributions, whether they moved any motions, and how their speeches were received in Parliament.

Here’s what we found: The first-time MP, on average, spoke 41 times (median of 33). All three Workers’ Party (WP) non-constituency MPs (NCMPs) – with Daniel Goh Pei Siong, Dennis Tan Lip Fong, and Leon Perera, speaking 58, 71, and 96 times respectively – outperformed the overall average.

The WP average of 75 times (median of 71) is more than two times the People’s Action Party (PAP) average of 34 times (median of 31).

The WP average of 75 times is more than twice the PAP’s average of 34 times.

And of the 14 PAP MPs, 11 spoke fewer than 41 times in the past year, the overall average of this sample.

MPs Desmond Choo, Louis Ng Kok Kwang, and Dr Tan Wu Meng, however, delivered standout performances, with a high number of questions and speeches, often well-received by their colleagues.

Here is a summary of how the first-time parliamentarians did:

PartyMember of ParliamentGRC/SMCTotal number of times spoken
WPDennis TanNCMP71
WPLeon PereraNCMP96
WPDaniel GohNCMP58
PAPYee Chia HsingChua Chu Kang14
PAPTan Wu MengJurong53
PAPSaktiandi SupaatBishan-Toa Payoh33
PAPSun XuelingPasir Ris-Punggol31
PAPRahayu MahzamJurong24
PAPMelvin YongTanjong Pagar31
PAPLouis NgNee Soon90
PAPHenry KwekNee Soon11
PAPJoan PereiraTanjong Pagar37
PAPDarryl DavidAng Mo Kio31
PAPCheng Li HuiTampines38
PAPChong Kee HiongBishan-Toa Payoh14
PAPDesmond ChooTampines51
PAPCheryl ChanFengshan22


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Evaluating the performance of MPs

Of course, that’s not the only way to evaluate the performance of MPs. In Parliament, parliamentary records matter. In constituencies, MPs take charge of town councils and tend to municipal issues, and each year the Ministry of National Development assesses these town councils in a management report across four indicators: estate cleanliness, estate maintenance, lift performance, and S&CC arrears management. Click here for the 2015 report.

And in straddling between constituencies and Parliament, MPs help to keep the G in check.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made this clear during his speech at the parliamentary debate on the President’s Address in January this year. “Our political system must foster accountability, [and] government’s actions have to be scrutinised and debated in Parliament,” he said.

“If an MP, whether it is an opposition MP or a government MP, argues a case against the government’s proposal, then either the government has to be able to rebut it and explain convincingly what it is doing and why, or if the MP makes a good case, then you have to acknowledge that and policies have to be changed.”

New MPs are not exempt from these responsibilities. In fact, many of the 22 first-time parliamentarians – 19 MPs from the PAP and three NCMPs from the WP – were sworn on January 15 this year mooting ambitious agendas.

PAP’s Mr Ng, as an extension of his General Election campaign last year, prioritised issues related to parenthood and the environment. WP’s Mr Perera explained that even though MPs from his party will not limit themselves to one particular area, he will contribute more on economic and socio-political issues.

The five office-holders – Ministers for Education Ng Chee Meng and Ong Ye Kung, Ministers of State Chee Hong Tat and Koh Poh Koon, and Parliamentary Secretary Amrin Amin – were included in this analysis.


By the numbers: The “duckweeds” top the class

Earlier this year in January, WP Secretary-General Low Thia Khiang had characterised an NCMP as “just duckweed on the water of a pond”. “You don’t have roots, unlike elected MPs where you have a constituency, you run a town council, you are in close touch with your residents, and you can sink roots there,” he added.

But based on the numbers, these WP “duckweeds” – with an average of 75 times, compared to the PAP average of 34 times – it would appear, have flourished.

Top performer Mr Perera, for instance, has consistently emphasised in his speeches and questions the importance of new industries, the potential of entrepreneurship, and the need for productivity improvements.

PAP MPs are likely to lament that NCMPs do not have the same duties in the constituencies, and hence have more time to prepare parliamentary speeches and questions, but three of their colleagues – Mr Choo (51 times), Dr Tan (53 times), and Mr Ng (90 times) – prove otherwise.

On two separate occasions, moreover, Dr Tan and Mr Ng received applause for their speeches: Dr Tan, during the debate on the President’s Address when he warned of “an exceptional Perfect Storm” in Singapore, and during the debate on proposed changes to the Elected Presidency.

Then, for Mr Ng, when he first shared at the debate on the President’s Address that he “will help increase the TFR [total fertility rate] by having another child soon”, and later during the debate on changes to the Child Development Co-Savings Act, when he announced that his wife was expecting a set of twins.

And the MPs who spoke the least?

PAP MPs Kwek Hian Chuan Henry (11 times), Chong Kee Hiong (14 times), and Yee Chia Hsing (14 times). All three hold executive positions in the finance industry: Mr Kwek is executive director of an investment company, Mr Chong the CEO of a REIT, and Mr Yee the head of a corporate finance team.

Who spoke the least? PAP MPs Kwek Hian Chuan Henry (11 times), Chong Kee Hiong (14 times), and Yee Chia Hsing (14 times).

Of the 17 first-time MPs, only two – Mr Perera and Dr Tan – introduced motions.

On March 1, Mr Perera suggested “a more aggressive approach to better exploit rooftop and water-borne opportunities for solar power generation, together with investments in research and development in areas such as electricity storage”. In response, the Ministry of Trade and Industry affirmed that such new and emerging industries would be reviewed by the Committee on the Future Economy.

Two weeks later on March 14, Dr Tan delivered a strong speech about the importance of a “design language” in Singapore, to “help pedestrians navigate new towns and redeveloped mature town centres”. The motion stemmed from his observations in his constituency of Clementi, neatly reflecting how ground concerns can inform policymaking at a broader, national level.


Setting their parliamentary agenda

Yet, quantity is but one performance indicator. Delivering a large number of speeches and questions in Parliament is critical, though a well-defined personal agenda – with a few complementary themes or topics – is equally important.

In this vein, MPs are rightfully scrutinised for their maiden speeches, either at the debates on the President’s Address or at the Budget debate, which they could use to articulate their parliamentary agendas from the get-go. MPs would, thereafter, be expected to take advantage of their professional expertise, occupation, and interactions on the ground to make useful contributions.

Mr Choo, for instance, made family issues, mothers and women, and the young his core focuses. In his maiden Parliament speech, he was committed to “help our millennials and young workers succeed at work, at home, and in society”, and also asked the G to give new mothers additional eight weeks for flexi-work arrangements, in addition to the 16-week maternity leave.

Across his subsequent cuts, speeches, and questions, Mr Choo spoke on paternity and childcare leave, workplace support for families, family-centric workplaces, affordable childcare, and subsidy for student care places.

MP Rahayu Mahzam, a lawyer by profession, only spoke 24 times – 17 fewer than the overall average of 41, and 10 fewer than the PAP average of 34 – yet drew applause for her speech during the debate on the President’s Address.

Speaking on the threat of Islamophobia and the strengths of diversity in Singapore, she also alluded to the proposed changes to the eligibility criteria for the Elected President.

“We will definitely like to see representation from our community but we would like our Malays to be chosen because he or she is the best, and not because of his or her race,” she said.

“We do not want the selection to be a symbolic one only.” These themes were continued, during the debate on proposed changes to the Elected Presidency, and when she spoke of encouraging youths to embrace diversity, and of building an open and cohesive society.

And Prof Goh, as a sociologist at the National University of Singapore, spoke about the retention of qualified teachers and the teacher-student ratio in schools, and about research with its outcomes and accountability.


Keeping score for the future

In the past two years, TMG has published articles about parliamentary records, of MP attendance and participation, and of the performance of nominated MPs. (The three nominated MPs identified as the top performers – President of the Society of the Physically Disabled Chia Yong Yong, co-founder of social enterprise group Thought Collective Kuik Shiao-Yin, and labour economist Randolph Tan Gee Kwang – were later nominated for a second term in Parliament.)

These quantitative and qualitative gauges of parliamentary performance are good starts, for Singaporeans to gauge how active and productive their MPs are.

A constructive next step, perhaps, would be for MPs to hold themselves accountable by keeping track of their own performance in Parliament. Not only should they publish their speeches or questions online – which some already do, though oftentimes with little or no context – but they should also state their agenda or strategy from the beginning, and to explain how speeches and questions are designed.

Above all, by keeping score, responses from the G or any policy changes can then be detailed, so as to track the substantive impact of their participation.

And pragmatically, when the next General Election comes around, their campaigns can be rooted in empirics and evidence, not just airy-fairy notions of progress.

For the first-time MPs, there is still time to do more, in the few years ahead. If – in the words of the prime minister – the political system is to foster accountability, it starts with the work of the MPs in the Parliament.


Featured image by Sean Chong.

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by Kwan Jin Yao

GRADES aren’t everything, as nearly everyone is saying in the aftermath of PSLE results. But they do count for something when it comes to comparing how our young people fare worldwide. Because how else can you tell who’s ahead or not unless there’s a uniform test?

Singapore students are still Number One in the Timss or Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study released last Tuesday (Nov 29). Previously, Primary 4 students held the top spot three times in math and two times in science, in the past four Timss, while Secondary 2 students held the top spot three times in math and four times in science, in the past five Timss.

Nobody is talking about how our students are being pushed to excel in math and science, but there would be an outcry if they had slipped to second place. Or would people still say “rankings aren’t everything”?

Primary 4 students in Singapore topped the rankings with mean scores of 618 for math and 590 for science, while Secondary 2 students did the same with mean scores of 621 for math and 597 for science.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the Timss result is an “assurance to us and to our people that we can look after ourselves, [that] we have the skills and knowledge to be competitive”. Speaking at the People’s Action Party (PAP) Conference yesterday (Dec 4), he added that Singapore is ready to meet future economic and employment challenges. “It is different in Europe, or even in other Asian countries… where youth unemployment is high. We do not have a youth unemployment problem.”

So rather than berate parents who want even higher scores for their children, let’s take some comfort in the accolades our education system has garnered over the past week.

In Australia, The Sydney Morning Herald said that Singapore outperformed the country “because they placed a huge importance on education, particularly science and mathematics, [which] is crucial to the attitude and culture that comes through with the students.” Both The Daily Telegraph and Business Insider Australia cited the importance of educators, noting respectively that “teachers are among the most respected members of the community”, and that “teachers [are recruited] from the top-third of high school graduates,” with additional time set aside for mentoring and self-reflection.

In math, Australia’s fourth- and eighth-graders were 28th and 17th, and in science the fourth and eighth-graders were 25th and 17th. These were all drops since the 2011 Timss.

In Israel, The Jerusalem Post reported that the country’s average score in mathematics was 110 points below Singapore, while its average score in science was 21 points below. Emphasising the importance of STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett said that the Timss result was proof of the urgent need for reform.

“For the future of this country and for the Nobel Prize and the next Waze [a GPS-based geographical navigation application programme founded in Israel, acquired by Google in 2013] developers, we will continue to act to double the number of students taking five units [the highest level] in mathematics, even if there is criticism of some sort or another,” he said.

Israel’s eighth-graders were 16th in math, and 19th in science. They were 7th and 13th in 2011.

In the United Kingdom, the BBC highlighted the performance of the East Asian countries, though perhaps in a backhanded fashion. “A focused, conformist culture, a sense of collective purpose, or even an old-fashioned one-party state are often features of the highest achievers [in the Timss],” the commentary read.

It did note that Singapore has made education a priority and has therefore invested in good, quality teachers, especially in a more competitive regional and global landscape, though qualifying that “there have been concerns about young people [in Singapore] feeling under too much pressure.”

Scores have improved in England. Its fourth-graders were 10th in math and 15th in science, while its eighth-graders were 11th in math and 8th in science.

Besides Timss, there is Pisa or Programme for International Student Assessment of which the results of the 2015 round of testing would be released tomorrow (Dec 6). Secondary 3 or 15-year-olds are tested in Pisa on mathematics, science, and reading. In 2012, there was also an optional computer-based assessment of problem-solving, in which Singaporean students were the best performers.

In the 2012 version of Pisa, Singapore ranked second in mathematics (mean score of 573), and third in both science (551) and reading (542). Students from Shanghai, China, were the best performers across all three domains, and in the upcoming Pisa the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development – which runs the tests – announced that Beijing, Jiangsu, and Guangdong will also be taking part.

Now, after going rah-rah over the rankings, it’s time to come down to earth a little.

A few caveats are in order. Comparisons between countries are sometimes limited, because of the dissimilar countries and populations involved. Even with reasonable sampling, the variations for larger countries or populations tend to be larger. In this vein, Timss and Pisa are often more useful for assessments within the same country, across different years. Attention should be paid to the raw scores, not just the rankings.

Furthermore, strong performance in tests is not a guarantee of future prospects or the readiness of students for higher education or professional careers, especially in an increasingly uncertain future. The ultimate test of skills, knowledge, and competencies happens at the workplace, not just in the classroom.

This notion of uncertainty featured throughout Mr Lee’s speech at the PAP conference – the uncertainty for Britain and for Europe after Brexit and the increasingly protectionist stance of developed countries. While young Singaporeans may be on relatively firm standing, complacency or arrogance are not the answers. “Our growth has slowed, our outlook is uncertain, restructuring, and people are worried about jobs,” PM Lee said. “But given the significant difficulties ahead, we have to strive even harder.”

And it appears that just being Number One on tests, in this future, will not be enough.

It does, however, give everyone a very nice feeling.



Featured image math by Flickr user Akash Kataruka(CC BY-ND 2.0)

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by Kwan Jin Yao

FOR a Prime Minister who has always preferred to discuss local social policies throughout his past 12 National Day Rally speeches, Mr Lee Hsien Loong’s focus on globalisation and the developments around the world may signal a blind spot many Singaporeans have.

Mr Lee started his English speech by talking about the economy, and in his next section detailed geopolitical concerns too. In fact, his two references to globalisation were related to economic and (geo)political considerations: first, on the influence of technological disruption, threatening traditional businesses and jobs; second, the events which led to Britain’s referendum and exit from the European Union – or Brexit – and the lessons for Singapore.

Singapore may have benefited from globalisation, but not only have the benefits been taken for granted, the country in general seems oblivious to movements to de-globalise. And yet, because Singapore is so reliant on trade and migration flows – trade as a percentage of gross domestic product was 326 per cent in 2015 (just behind Hong Kong and Luxembourg), and non-residents now make up almost 30 per cent of Singapore’s total population – it has to play a more proactive role to preserve the status quo.

“If something goes wrong with globalisation, the most vulnerable country in the world, by far, is Singapore,” Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP) Kishore Mahbubani said, at the first of three public lectures on the challenges to globalisation, organised by the postgraduate school between August 30 and September 2 this year. “And ask yourself, when you go to any hawker stall, or when you go to eat char kway teow, is anybody worrying about this? Here we are, when the global system is under a major threat, and the most exposed country in the world thinks everything is fine,” he added.


The Brexit and Trump challenges

That the global system is under threat – especially in Western societies – is epitomised by Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump in the United States presidential election. Professor Danny Quah, Li Ka Shing Professor of Economics at the LKYSPP, argued at the first lecture (Aug 30) that this phenomenon is peculiar, “because the West is the one that has gained greatly from efficient production, from lower-priced goods available in bewildering variety, from the fresh ideas, cultural transfusion, and entrepreneurial energy, from immigrants into the West.” He added: “The grand divide in Western politics now… is no longer between right and left, between conservative and liberal. Instead, it is between the camp that is closed, and the camp, small and diminishing, that is open to globalisation.”

Both Professor Mahbubani and Professor Quah agreed that many governments in the West did not adequately prepare their populations for the implications of trade and migration, and have therefore contributed to the rising tide of populist politics. Globalisation, in the view of the pro-Brexit camp and Trump supporters who demand national protectionism, has only facilitated the outflow of job opportunities and companies from Britain and the United States. So even if it is true that overall wealth and productivity have increased, persisting socio-economic inequalities have only widened.

It is also no coincidence that many who oppose globalisation are often low-skilled or low-income workers, who have either lost jobs through outsourcing, or seen their wages stagnate for years. Professor Quah summarised these conceptions: “The Trump-Brexit rhetoric, while inchoate and illogical, has struck a chord. And it has struck a chord with people who feel that they are now powerless. And this powerlessness has transmitted to an illogic in their own thinking. The well-off in British and American societies are the ones who have benefited disproportionately from globalisation, but it is poor migrants, not the very rich, who have attracted the ire of the Trump-Brexit supporters.”

So if globalisation is now under threat in the West, and if Western governments are incapable of assisting the displaced and the disenfranchised, should the world – including Singapore – look to the East for new champions of globalisation? And how should governments manage its pros and cons?


The rise of China and India

Could China provide leadership in this regard? While new endeavours such as the One Belt, One Road initiative and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank may signal progress, China as the biggest beneficiary of globalisation has been reluctant. “The Chinese are reluctant to do so, partly for cultural reasons,” Professor Mahbubani remarked. “At the same time, the Chinese have a larger geopolitical concern, [to not] wake up the United States too early to the rise of China, by seizing leadership that would frighten America, and therefore lead to an American containment policy in China.”

Perhaps India then, in the future? Dr Shashi Tharoor – a second-term Indian parliamentarian and former Under-Secretary General of the United Nations – spoke at the LKYSPP (Aug 31) on the role of India within a cooperative, networked, and multi-polar world order.

“Today, to be a young person in India,” Dr Tharoor mused, illustrating the every-day experience of globalisation, he would “be waking up to an alarm clock made in Taiwan perhaps, China maybe; downing a cup of tea from leaves first planted by the British; donning jeans designed in America; taking a Japanese scooter, or a Korean car; getting to a corporate office, or a university like [the LKYSPP], where your official reports may be printed with German-invented technology, on paper first pulped in Sweden; calling friends on a Finnish mobile phone, or a Chinese one, to invite them to an Italian pizza, or even what you think of as an Indian meal, featuring naan, that came to us from Persia, tandoori chicken, taught to us by rulers in Uzbekistan, or potatoes and green chilis, that first came to India 400 years ago from Latin America.”

In other words, to thrive in a networked and interdependent world, there is no escaping globalisation. And governments would have to seize the opportunities of the twenty-first century, while managing the threats.

In other words, to thrive in a networked and interdependent world, there is no escaping globalisation. And governments would have to seize the opportunities of the twenty-first century, while managing the threats. India will no doubt continue to cooperate and to engage with key players, to shape an emerging global network, though it may have to attend to domestic concerns first. Citing his own words from a previous forum, Dr. Tharoor asked: “How can [India] be a superpower, if we are still super poor?”


Singapore as a champion of globalisation

In late August this year, Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic and Social Policies Tharman Shanmugaratnam – at the invitation of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi – delivered a 46-minute lecture titled “Fulfilling India’s Potential in the Global Economy” in capital New Delhi, to the entire Indian Cabinet, senior government officials, state chief ministers, and public intellectuals.

The lecture was a frank assessment of a country now seeking rapid economic transformation. “India’s potential is still unfulfilled,” Mr Shanmugaratnam said. “India needs to grow by eight to 10 per cent over the next 20 years, if it is to create jobs for a youthful population, if it is to reduce the tremendous under-employment of its population, and if it is to achieve inclusive growth, including a significant shift of people from the lower-income group to the middle-income group.” When explaining India’s four challenges – the lack of an export orientation, the large numbers still in low-productivity agriculture, the little growth in formal jobs, and very few large firms – the Deputy Prime Minister stressed the importance of globalisation too, and how India should take advantage of it.

This invitation to India reflects both Mr Shanmugaratnam’s reputation, and also the decades-long success of Singaporean policies and institutions, which – to a large extent – benefited from international integration. If success is to be sustained, then globalisation has to remain a feature.

And as the government champions globalisation and its benefits, it too remains cognisant of the costs, to avoid the events unfolding in Britain and the United States. At the third public event of the week (Sept 2), celebrating LKYSPP’s twelfth anniversary, Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin said: “Singapore is not immune to the forces that drive Britain’s exit, that fuels Trump’s incredible rise, and agitates Hillary Clinton’s vacillation on the [Trans-Pacific Partnership].”

“So what if our unemployment is three per cent. To the person affected, it is 100 per cent ,” the minister added, as he explained the need to provide social assistance to workers who may be disadvantaged by globalisation, while at the same time keeping Singapore’s economy open for competition.

Striking a balance between threats and opportunities – and furthermore between the political, economic, and social spheres – will remain a challenge for governments. That Mr Lee and others have brought greater attention to the challenge is a good start, but the discourse has to continue.


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by Kwan Jin Yao

IF YOU’RE enlisting for National Service (NS) next year, and will therefore get to pick your vocation, don’t be too happy yet.

You’re likely to be disappointed – both during and after you’re assigned your vocation.

During, because your choice is just an indication of interest that’s just one of the many factors used for deployment.

After – even if you get one of your chosen vocations – because there is only so much that the online videos and handbook can reveal about training, roles, and responsibilities.

Starting in November this year, pre-enlistees entering NS from November 2017 will get to choose from 33 different vocations across the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF), and the Singapore Police Force (SPF).

But this is just a stated preference; in fact, the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) has already stressed that “operational requirements to keep Singapore safe and secure will remain the primary consideration in the deployment of servicemen.”

Yes, giving pre-enlistees a way to communicate their desired vocation is a good move. After all, it’s one of the most complained about things about NS – that people are thrown into roles they have little interest or aptitude for.

But at the same time, it is also a little odd that pre-enlistees are asked to make this decision before they have actually served, instead of making a decision after they have gone through some basic training.

Right now, to help pre-enlistees make more informed decisions, videos and a handbook have been published on the website of the Central Manpower Base (CMPB).

Across the 33 vocations, the explanation for each vocation in the handbook follows the same format: an introduction, the training involved, a typical day in a unit, the skills and qualities needed, and quotes from full-time national servicemen (NSFs). The complementary videos – presented and narrated by the same NSFs who provided the quotes – are very well-produced, offering valuable glimpses of the vocations pre-enlistees can choose from.

I was a infantry reconnaissance trooper during my 2009 to 2011 NS stint (the “Intelligence” vocation, under the SAF), and the information provided did not differ too much from my experiences. The combat intelligence skills in survival and navigation, we did pick up. And across months of training we also learnt to operate in small-unit reconnaissance missions.

Yet it is hard to explain how gruelling training and operations can be through an online video and handbook – especially since pre-enlistees have different physical attributes and preparedness – and how hard some tasks may be.

In other words, it may be difficult to ascertain the actual demands of each vocation – and by extension, whether one is suited for it – until he experiences military training for the first time.  

In other words, it may be difficult to ascertain the actual demands of each vocation – and by extension, whether one is suited for it – until he experiences military training for the first time.

After pre-enlistees go through the online information, they will indicate interest in vocations on the day of their medical screening at the CMPB. The 33 vocations are divided into seven categories – three from the SAF, two from the SCDF, and two from the SPF – and pre-enlistees may indicate interest in two or more vocations in each category. They may also indicate that they have no specific interest, though it is not clear whether this means pre-enlistees would be able to leave a few categories blank, or whether they can only leave all seven categories blank. As it stands, options will not be ranked.

Some background: This recommendation for pre-enlistees to indicate their NS vocation interest emerged through the Committee to Strengthen NS endeavour in March 2013, when it was observed that many NSFs found no meaning in their deployments, and that – based on a person’s skills, specialisations, or education backgrounds – there might have been mismatches.

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, moreover, pointed to conscription systems in Finland and Switzerland, where soldiers were given some freedom to choose units so as to optimise their contributions. Yet an expression of vocation interest, as MINDEF noted, should “[encourage] servicemen to take greater ownership of their roles and responsibilities.”

NSFs are informed of their postings a week after the end of their basic military training. In general, vocation choices are not offered, except for a survey which allows them to indicate whether there is interest to enter command school: the Specialist Cadet School (SCS), or the Officer Cadet School (OCS). Within the SCS and the OCS, at predetermined stages, the to-be sergeants and officers can indicate vocation preferences, though choices are not guaranteed.

Mindef did not explain why it is getting pre-enlistees to indicate their interests at CMPB – even before they start their NS stint – instead of doing so after they have gone through basic military training. Administrative reasons seem to be the most plausible explanation at the moment, but there is also a sizeable number of pre-enlistees who are not channelled first to Pulau Tekong for basic training, and instead are posted directly to units within military camps.

The announced changes, I think, are going to largely benefit those with applicable skill-sets: those with an engineering background to the combat engineers vocation, or those with a nursing or medical background to the medical or the emergency medical services vocations.

This is an important development, in the context of making NS more meaningful or productive for servicemen, and improving the operational effectiveness of units in the SAF, the SCDF, and the SPF. Yet for most, before more tweaks with each iteration, the deployment experience is not likely to change much – for now.


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by Kwan Jin Yao

IT WAS a wobble that shook a nation.

For a few brief seconds, when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong took a stumble onstage during the National Day Rally speech tonight (Aug 21), it was a scary reminder that our leaders are mortal – and that it wasn’t so long ago that another leader – Mr Heng Swee Keat – had taken a tumble during a Cabinet meeting.

Thankfully, Mr Lee is fine – and so is Mr Heng, as Mr Lee himself said in his speech earlier. In fact, Mr Heng seems to have made a great recovery from his stroke in May earlier this year. A “miracle”, as PM Lee put it. After six weeks in hospital, Mr Heng was discharged and will be returning to the Cabinet, but not yet to his community and grassroots work, because he has to avoid contact with crowds to minimise the risk of infection.

Mr Heng’s sudden collapse and absence from his duties was a point raised by PM Lee at the rally after suddenly taking ill himself.

Health issues have plagued some members of the present Cabinet. Such as when PM Lee had his prostate gland removed after being diagnosed with prostate cancer in February last year. In the same month, Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin was diagnosed with pleural tuberculosis, which infected the area between his lungs and ribcage, before he made a full recovery in October. Then there was what happened six years ago in May 2010, when the Minister for Transport, Mr Khaw Boon Wan – then the Health Minister – underwent a heart bypass operation.

With these concerns in mind, PM Lee stressed the importance of building up leadership and preparing for succession. “Nothing that has happened has changed my timetable, or my resolve to press on with succession,” he said. “In the next [General Election], we will reinforce the team again, and soon after the next GE, my successor must be ready to take over from me.”

“岁月不留人” (time waits for no man), he added.

With what happened tonight, the question of the prime minister’s health will be the talk of the town tomorrow, but succession and the question of Singapore’s fourth Prime Minister have always featured prominently in the past two election cycles in 2011 and 2015.

Ahead of the elections in 2011, at the Kent Ridge Ministerial Forum in the National University of Singapore, Mr Lee then also stressed the need for leadership succession, “so that by 2020, we will have a younger team ready.”

And after the victory of his People’s Action Party (PAP) last year, Mr Lee assembled a new Cabinet with the aim of developing and readying a team for the next GE and beyond. He wanted his ministers tested, developed, and exposed and known to the public, he added, “so that within the team, they know who can do what, how they can work together, and who can emerge as a leader of the team”.

Mr Lee will turn 65 in February next year, and will be 69 in 2020. During a parliamentary debate on civil service salary revisions in April 2007, he had said that “Singapore should not have a 70-year-old Prime Minister”. Founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew stepped down at 67 (32 years as prime minister). Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong at 63 (14 years as prime minister).

Mr Lee is also the oldest individual in the Cabinet, which has an average age of 55 (a median of 56). Of the 20 ministers, five are under 50, nine in their 50s, and the remaining six are 60 years and above.

Together, they will continue to set Singapore’s direction in education, economic restructuring, and social policies, and at the same time they will also have the task of convincing Singaporeans to enter politics. Or to join the PAP. It seems a hard task.

Whether Mr Heng is still in the running to be Singapore’s next prime minister will depend on how he recuperates, and how he performs when he resumes full operational responsibilities as Finance Minister. Four years is a long time in politics. But will it be enough time for Singapore to find its fourth prime minister?


Featured image a screenshot of the National Day Rally live stream from Toggle

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by Kwan Jin Yao

WHAT started back in 1966 as a private meeting between founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and a select group of community leaders is now a public speech with sleek videos or presentation slides, and in his past 12 years – amidst even more fanfare, to much larger audiences – Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has had to address a wide range of themes and issues.

This year, expect mentions of the Committee on the Future Economy (CFE), the improvements to the Elected Presidency (EP) scheme, and the need for resilience in light of growing radicalisation and terrorism. Like an annual performance review, Mr Lee will use his National Day Rally (NDR) speech to also evaluate progress and suggest changes to government policies, before setting the agenda for the year ahead.

But which themes and issues have featured most prominently, and how have they differed across these 12 years? Ahead of Mr Lee’s 13th NDR speech tomorrow, The Middle Ground took a closer look at his 12 past speeches through simple content analysis, paying attention to frequency (the total number of times a key-word was used throughout the 12 years) and number of cases (in how many of the 12 years a key-word was used). This gives us an idea of the most common key-words used by Mr Lee at the NDR, the most common topics he mentioned each year, and therefore how these key-words or topics compare across the 12 years.

Word cloud of the most popular key-words (Image by Jin Yao Kwan).

The Prime Minister delivered his first address in 2004, and at 21,500 words, it was also his longest NDR speech. His second-longest was 14,700 words in 2008, the year of the global financial crisis. While one may expect longer pitches during election years, Mr Lee’s speeches in 2006 (12,600 words), in 2011 (12,600 words), and in 2015 (11,700 words) were all shorter than the average of 14,100 words (13,500 words, if his first address in 2004 is excluded).

Four observations can be made:

+ Social policies – those related to education, immigration, housing, healthcare, and the CPF, in particular – have traditionally been the focus;

+ There has been less emphasis on foreign affairs and the economy, especially after the first few years;

+ Some NDR speeches are devoted to single issues;

+ The PM enjoys using key phrases to indicate a collective sense of belonging, when proposing something new.


1. The focus on local social policies – “education”, “competition”, “healthcare”, “babies”

Education – and by extension, “students”, “school(s)”, and the “young” – is one of the most popular key-words. After all, the notion of “teach less, learn more” and cutting down the syllabus was mooted by the prime minister in 2004, so that there would be “less pressure on the kids, a bit less rote learning, more space for them to explore and discover their talents and also more space for the teachers to think, to reflect, to find ways to bring out the best in their students and to deliver quality results.”

Almost a decade later in the 2013 NDR, Mr Lee announced that the G would score PSLE differently, with wider bands and more flexibility in secondary schools.

Yet references to pre-school education are scant. In 2012 – and only in 2012 – did the PM minister acknowledge the need to improve the quality and affordability of pre-school education. In comparison, the key-words “university” or “universities” have appeared in all 12 NDR speeches.

Immigration is another hot-button issue, and related key-words include “foreign(ers)”, “talent”, and “competition”.

The Citizenship and Population Unit – which attracted foreigners and promoted Singapore’s immigration programme – was announced and housed under the Prime Minister’s Office in the 2006 address. Subsequently, large segments of Mr Lee’s NDR speeches in 2010 and 2011 were spent, on the one hand, rationalising the need for foreigners and immigrants, and on the other acknowledging that Singapore had to moderate and manage the inflow, “putting Singaporeans first”.

There has also been a slew of tweaks to social policies throughout the years. Housing grants were introduced or income ceilings were raised in 2007, 2011, and 2013, and in the past two years in 2014 and 2015 – with the key-word “flat” mentioned 21 times in each speech – changes were made to improve the affordability and accessibility of HDB flats.

In the 2007 NDR, CPF returns were raised and the minimum sum was pushed back (“CPF” was used 53 times), and in 2013 the basic health insurance plan MediShield Life was announced (“healthcare” and “MediShield” were used 21 and 18 times respectively). Along this tangent, “retirement” was a key-word in 2007 (18 times) and in 2014 (20 times).

And finally, even though it may feel like the G has been harping on about marriage and parenthood, the number of references have actually come down. The genesis was in 2008, featuring key-words such as “women” (27 times) and “baby” or “babies” (28).  Last year, there were just 13 mentions for “babies”, following enhancements to the Baby Bonus and the introduction of paternity leave.

Most Popular Key-Words (2004 to 2015)
The most popular key-words, 2004 to 2015 (Image by Jin Yao Kwan).


2. Less emphasis on foreign affairs and the economy – “income”, “jobs”, “innovation”, “ASEAN”

Whereas social policies have been a mainstay of the NDR speeches, economic and geopolitical issues seem to have taken a backseat. In general, the frequency of economic key-words – “income”, “jobs” or “job”, and “economy” – are not high, and “China” is the only country used in all 12 speeches.

Notwithstanding his speech in 2008, when Mr Lee had to reassure Singaporeans in the midst of the global financial crisis, more attention was paid to economic concerns in his earlier speeches. In fact, almost 50 per cent of references to the “economy” key-word were made in the three speeches from 2004 to 2006 (30 of 65 times, or 46.2 per cent).

In 2004, restructuring through wage reform and increasing labour productivity were explicit themes. In 2005 (“innovation”, “enterprise”, and “research” were amongst the top key-words of the year too), the Research, Innovation, and Enterprise Council and the National Research Foundation were set up to promote innovation as well as research and development, so as to “gain a competitive edge which will put (Singapore) ahead for 15 or 20 years to come.” And in 2006, it was about jobs and employment across the board.

There has also been fewer segments on regional developments. “ASEAN” (9 times) and “Indonesia” (8 times) were amongst the top key-words in the 2006 speech, when Mr Lee gave a primer to geopolitical problems: oil prices because of the Middle East, terrorism, and the challenges within ASEAN. Two years earlier during his first address – where “Taiwan” or “Taiwanese” (59 times) and “relations” (19 times) were top key-words – the prime minister explained the strategic context surrounding Taiwan, after a private visit strained relations with China. Against the background of the rise of China, he also urged Chinese Singaporeans to develop interest and proficiency in their mother tongue.

Most Popular Key-Words (Year by Year)
The most popular key-words, year by year (Image by Jin Yao Kwan).


3. Single-issue NDR speeches – “religion”, “speaker’s corner”, “conversation”

While most rallies in the past 12 years touch on a range of issues, the 2009 speech highlighted the “visceral and dangerous fault-lines” of race and religion, as Mr Lee stressed the importance of maintaining racial and religious harmony. “Religious” or “religion” was mentioned 60 times, with further references to “Muslim”, “Muslims”, or “Malay” (42 times), “Christian” or “Christians” (25 times), and “faiths” (13 times). The background to this narrative, as the PM said, was the Aware saga and the related controversies over civil spaces and sexuality education in schools.

He outlined four basic principles, if racial and religious harmony were to be maintained in Singapore: the exercise of tolerance and restraint by all groups, to keep religion separate from politics, the continued secularity of the government, as well as the need to maintain common spaces shared by Singaporeans. He said: “Otherwise whatever the rules, there will be no end of possible causes of friction, noise, auctions, seventh moon, parking because of the mosque or because of the church, joss sticks because the stray ashes will blow somewhere, dog hair.”

Key issues have also been raised in other NDR speeches. Cognisant of the potential social problems, the PM had a case for the casinos, or integrated resorts, in 2004. In the same year he opened up the Speakers’ Corner for speeches and other forms of expression, and four years later in 2008 public demonstrations at the location were made permissible, and NParks took over its management from the police – a move Mr Lee described as “a light touch”.

More recently, in 2012, he introduced national conversation initiative – “Our Singapore Conversation”, which eventually reached close to 50,000 participants – and a year later some of the findings were shared in the 2013 NDR.


4. Indicating a collective sense of belonging – “we”, “the government has”, “I think we can”

In addition to key-words, how he used key phrases was also interesting.

In at least 75 per cent of his NDR speeches, or eight out of 12, some of his favourite expressions include “we are going to” (62 times), “we have to be” (32 times), “we have got to” (23 times), “I think we should / can / have” (35, 31, and 26 times). “We” in general indicates a collective sense of belonging, and the “we are going to” expression often precedes a policy announcement, or more specifically a new construction. Both “we have to be” and “we have got to” tend to be more aspirational, in the context of educational advancement or the future in general, whereas “I think we should / can / have” – on the other hand – tends to be more cautious and instructional.

Two other phrases also stood out: “the government has” (21 times, in 11 speeches), and “we are building” (19 times, also in 11 speeches) which usually refers to physical projects such as industrial areas, schools, and infrastructure.

Earlier usage of “the government has” used to be more affirmative and declaratory – for instance in 2004, the prime minister said “the government has a solution for everything” – describing what the government has already done. In more recent years, however, the phrase is used as a call to action, on what the government has to do, or has to change.

So when Mr Lee takes the stage for his English speech at 8pm tomorrow, keep tabs not only on the frequency of these key phrases, but also how issues and themes this year compare with those in the past 12 years. In addition to the new discussion about the EP, references to the CFE signals a much-needed focus back to the economy, beyond the socio-political.


Click the links below to read our past reports on the 2015 National Day Rally:

  1. Dear PM
  2. 生活费 – Cost of living
  3. A home to call our own
  4. Where are you, baby?
  5. Space EduCity 2020


Featured image by Jin Yao Kwan.

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PSLE Curriculum

by Kwan Jin Yao

IF THE aim of the new PSLE changes – replacing the T-score with wider scoring bands and introducing choice order as a tie-breaker – is to reduce the stress of excessive competition and the over-emphasis on results, then the changes should be somewhat successful.

Because within new “achievement levels” – unlike the old T-score or transformed score, which ranked student’s performance relative to other PSLE-takers – students will not be differentiated that finely or comparatively, and how they rank their secondary school choices will allow the more academically-inclined students to be distributed across a wider range of schools. This is aligned to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s vision that “every school is a good school”, and at the 2013 National Day Rally it was also the first time the G announced its plan to use wider bands for grades.

But what if education stress in Singapore results from different causes? The stress which stems from getting up to speed with curriculum content in the first place? Or the stress which stems from our continued reliance on examinations as an assessment format? And in the bigger picture, are the new PSLE changes even consistent with the broader national movement away from academics and grades, to a focus on aptitude and skills?

“… the focus of our education system should go beyond test scores. Currently, despite our efforts to move towards a holistic education, there is still a narrow emphasis on academics and paper qualifications.”

Acting Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng seems to think so. At the Committee of Supply debates in Parliament in April this year, he first spoke of the need for better balance in Singapore’s education system, a system which he said places “narrow emphasis on academics and paper qualifications”.

“Some broad level of differentiation [at the PSLE] is still needed,” Mr Ng added, “to guide students to academic programmes that best suit their interests and strengths. But the scoring will be blunted to a large extent.”

And a month later in May, during an interview with current affairs programme Talking Point, the education minister repeated talking points about how wider scoring bands will “temper unhealthy competition” which has arisen from the T-score system of ranking students relative to their peers. Again, the focus is on the stress created by competition, and not necessarily the stress created by content or curriculum.

Yet, when Mr Ng was asked if “the school curriculum was a key source of stress that drove some to seek tuition for their children”, his response was far from convincing. “I don’t have a really good answer for you in that because it’s such a multiplex issue,” he said, before listing piecemeal changes by the Ministry of Education (MOE) in recent years, such as not naming top PSLE students and the de-emphasis of rankings between schools. “Multiplex” was the word he used to describe how many players, such parents, students, educators, and employers, must contribute to mind-set shifts.

Effecting such change may be beyond the control of the MOE, though surely some progress can be made with its curriculum and examination design, beyond the new PSLE changes? To first determine whether existing content is reasonable – if it creates pressure for those who fall behind, for instance – and then to determine whether examinations are the best way to assess skills and knowledge.

There may well be anxious parents who send their young ones to tuition, chasing that one or two extra marks – a phenomenon which should ease when the new changes come into effect in 2021 – but there are also those with children struggling to simply catch up, and for whom tuition is the only way to keep up with homework or assignments. In this vein, how much do we know about the difficulty of school content or curriculum, and the extent to which primary school students are coping? Would these students necessarily lose out if, for example, some content is removed?

Examinations, such as the PSLE, are billed by the MOE as a checkpoint to “gauge understanding of concepts and strengths” so that secondary school programmes can be better tailored to the needs of students, but how much do we know about their efficacy? And are we open to other modes of assessment?

Remember in 2010, when 16 prototype schools did away with their end-of-semester examinations for primary one pupils? This was after the MOE’s Primary Education Review and Implementation Committee in 2009 proposed to replace examinations with “bite-sized assessments” at the primary one and two levels. So what emerged from these trials? How have these primary one and two students performed since then, after two years of no examinations? Have their subject proficiencies or skills suffered as a consequence?

Examinations like the PSLE are laden with so many interpretations and experiences that parents and students have different expectations of what it should be. Given this, the MOE might want to be more explicit about the problems its policies seek to solve, moving beyond anecdote-driven conclusions. This lack of clarity between policies and problems is why many argue that the recent PSLE changes feel like no change at all and, besides levelling the secondary-school playing field, may do little to facilitate the desired mind-set shifts.

Even the anticipated success of reducing minute comparisons between scores and of making every secondary school a good school cannot be assumed. Already some are saying that the G should instead provide all secondary schools with better equipment, facilities, and teachers, when in fact it might be a chicken-and-egg problem. Since talented students – be it scholastically, or in a particular field – are central to any programme that a school or teacher wishes to run, then a critical mass of these students is needed within each school.

Outstanding concerns about the Direct School Admission or DSA scheme must be addressed too. When Mr Ng first announced the PSLE changes in Parliament, he added that a review of the scheme was underway. Students will be provided with more options, he said, and at the same time the talents or achievements identified will also be more specific. There are, nevertheless, worries that the DSA has actually created more stress and that the scheme benefits students from the more affluent families, and therefore have access to more opportunities.

In the next six years before 2021, in addition to the necessary changes to the DSA scheme, the MOE might want to set up a transparent appeal system to resist pressures from parents and alumni to stretch admission boundaries. The MOE must also be more explicit about the “distinctive strengths” and “niche programmes” of secondary schools, for parents and students to make more informed decisions. You can read our story here.

The inevitable implication, unfortunately, is that competition would now shift from academia to areas of specialisation. Perhaps, competition is something that will never quite go away, in Singapore. But at the very least, we can make it a little fairer.


Unsure of what the PSLE changes are about? Read our coverage here:

  1. 6 years is too long for longed-for PSLE change
  2. PSLE changes: Broader bands and psychological games
  3. How the new PSLE game is going to be played
  4. DSA: Don’t Study Anymore; play sports 


Featured image by Sean Chong. 

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