March 30, 2017

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Authors Posts by Jin Yao Kwan

Jin Yao Kwan

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

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by Kwan Jin Yao

The Singlish term Chinese helicopter has made it into the Oxford English Dictionary. No one would argue that it is not derogatory, like the term “banana” (香蕉人).

The fruit – white flesh covered by yellow skin – is used to characterise someone with Chinese features, but who is more familiar with the languages and cultures of the West (皮黄肉白).

My first encounter with the term was as a secondary one student in 2004, in the then Chinese High School, a Special Assistance Plan School which has now become part of Hwa Chong Institution. While Chinese language instruction in the classroom was rigorous, allowing bananas like myself to build firm linguistic foundations, inactive usage of the language since my graduation in 2007 means my proficiency has plunged. This was the same school which Professor Aw Guat Poh, who penned a widely circulated article on being a Chinese helicopter attended. You can read the translation here.

Her perspectives resonated with many Chinese helicopters of her generation, including a Facebook user who told of how an English teacher headed to the washroom in the middle of an English examination after proclaiming that it was all right for students to cheat, since “the class was of the same standard”.

But while English was the language of concern for Prof Aw, Chinese is the problem for Chinese Singaporeans today. Her experience of learning English was hellish and some Chinese Singaporeans might say the same too for the Chinese lessons they had to endure. While Singapore might be lauded for its bilingualism policy, there are longstanding fears that both proficiency and usage levels of Chinese are headed South.

The proportion of Singaporeans who spoke Mandarin most frequently at home may have inched up from 35 per cent in 2000 to 35.6 per cent in 2010, though anecdotally, both parents and teachers have acknowledged that student interest is hard to sustain, and that many shun the language.

The Ministry of Education (MOE) may point to statistics on rising enrolment numbers in Higher Chinese, even if little is known about the outcomes. Or, are outcomes – beyond grades – actually measured? What is clearer, however, is that Chinese Singaporeans are split. In April 2010 when then Education Minister Ng Eng Hen mooted the possibility of reducing the weight of mother-tongue language examinations in the Primary School Leaving Examination, the ensuing debate revealed deep disagreements over the standards and abilities of students taking language lessons.

So what is the state of Chinese language education here, and what should be changed to ensure its continued use?

Institutionally, teachers and their pedagogies – as Prof Aw alluded to in her reflection – matter. Her best English teachers were patient and encouraging and who never mocked their students for their lack of linguistic mastery. Through small-group discussions and active references to current affairs, these teachers allayed fears and built the confidence of their students.

Decades later in Hwa Chong Institution, my Chinese teachers were strict, sometimes intimidating, yet lessons were productive. Fumbling through my oral summary of a newspaper article as a secondary one student, in a speech marked by awkward stutters of “ahs” and “ums”, I was then tasked to do a daily summary for the rest of the term, “until I got it right”. It was tough, maybe embarrassing in the beginning, though the pressure meant I paid more attention to the periodicals during the morning reading period – Zaobao on Tuesdays, Yazhou Zhoukan on Thursdays – and even more attention to my rehearsals.

Functional aspects of the language, to write formal letters or newspaper articles, were increasingly the focus as we advanced from one secondary level to the next, and at the same time some elements of pop culture were introduced as we strengthened skills in listening, speaking, reading, and writing (听说读写). Alongside classical texts and Tang poetry, we analysed the lyrics of Mandopop singer Jay Chou.

But with more households speaking English, rather than Chinese or dialects in the past, what will motivate a person to embrace Chinese and use it all his or her life?

In my opinion, with more inter-ethnic unions and the increasingly fluid concepts of heritage, culture, and identity, framing the Chinese language as a “mother tongue” and hence appealing to the “roots” of Singaporean Chinese may not necessarily be as productive.

In this vein, on a personal level, could and should motivations to master a language be anchored by pragmatism?

Pragmatism was why someone like me – who grew up in a Chinese-speaking household – turned out to be a banana. Because my Chinese-educated parents were disadvantaged at their workplaces, prompting them to also take English night classes years after graduation, my childhood years were marked by trips to enrichment centres Lorna Whiston and Morris Allen, and weekly visits to the public library in Ang Mo Kio.

Privileged as I was, household conversations became a mix of English and Chinese, and English became the language of choice outside of it.

As rigorous as the 10 years of Chinese education were in primary and secondary school, my usage of the language – limited to causal conversations, interactions with Chinese clients during internships, or occasional scans of Zaobao – has dipped since I sat for the GCE O-Level Higher Chinese examination in 2007.

Realising that language competencies can only be sustained through active usage, at various points in the past nine years I made half-hearted commitments to use Chinese more frequently. Yet in the words of Professor Aw, “it is easier said than done”. Unless a job or business opportunity opens up in the near future, the pile of rummaged newspaper clippings and Chinese word banks from my secondary school days will remain in the corner of my bookshelf.

Think now about children in English-speaking households, with no background nor motivation to learn Chinese. Their first encounter of the language could be in pre-school or nursery and would probably involving the “drilling” and “explicit instruction” that Prof Aw was exposed to in her English lessons. Competent enough to clear examinations but not enough to instil confidence.

In addition to straightforward policy proposals to improve access to and the quality of pre-school education – since it has been scientifically postulated that children between the ages of zero and five pick up speech and language lessons more expediently – the issue of motivation must also be addressed by the MOE.

Prof Aw and I are a generation apart. Circumstances may have differed, but the experiences of the Chinese helicopters and bananas – brought together – could enrich the discourse surrounding the teaching and learning of languages today. If progress for the future is desired, then the lessons of the past cannot be forgotten.

 

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To attract young employees

by Kwan Jin Yao

IMMEDIATE responses to the remark by Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, that “there is less hunger” among younger Singaporeans compared with 20, 40, or 50 years ago, were either affirmative or defensive. Those who agreed with the assessment listed oft-cited deficiencies of the strawberry generation: An unwillingness to work hard, unrealistic expectations of salaries or work-life balance, and unhealthy tendencies to job-hop. On the other hand, members of this much-aligned generation decried the unfair characterisations, detailing instances of young entrepreneurs or young workers who have distinguished themselves around the world.

Yet beyond the headlines, few paid attention to the comments that the Deputy Prime Minister had directed to enterprises and employers. At the inaugural Teochew Entrepreneur Award dinner held at the Ritz Carlton Hotel last Friday night, Mr Shanmugaratnam also said:

“[Enterprises and employers in Singapore] must spend time to develop our people, individually, and give everyone a sense of opportunity if they work hard in their careers, no matter where they start from. We must also develop a less hierarchical culture – one that empowers every individual, and helps them to see how their ideas, their experiments and their efforts to do the job well contribute to the whole enterprise.” Beyond the necessary investments in technology, he added, developing an organisational culture is important too.

So how many companies and bosses have actually done so?

When elaborating on the observation that there is less hunger among the younger generation, Mr Shanmugaratnam noted that this was “not something we have hard data on, but the qualitative feedback is common and widespread.”

That’s true. But data on developing a less hierarchical culture and empowering individuals shouldn’t be too difficult.  Financial expenditures or human resource arrangements should reveal, for instance,  how much companies spend on training and development. In addition to informal mentorship, are there skills-building opportunities for employees, and are employees given time-off to participate in such programmes? Do bosses communicate with their subordinates regularly, to ascertain performance and satisfaction?

In the bigger picture, despite grants such as the Productivity and Innovation Credit Scheme, the Innovation & Capability Voucher as well as the grand SkillsFuture initiative, productivity growth has remained sluggish, and furthermore the buy-in of employers is not clear.

The DPM was also critical of low employee motivation. He asked: “How many (employees) feel that they matter individually, each man and woman, to the enterprise and organisation? Why is employee motivation relatively low in Singapore?”

A 2014 survey of 5,670 Singaporean workers by recruitment firm Randstad found that 46 per cent did not like their jobs, and 75 per cent viewed their jobs as nothing more than a way to make a living. Levels of career motivation are low and varied, and in the Asia-Pacific region, Singapore ranked second behind Japan, where 56 per cent of Japanese workers did not like their jobs. A year later, Randstad released its 2015 employer branding survey, which revealed that 30 per cent of the 7,103 respondents were planning to leave their jobs. They cited the lack of career growth opportunities, low salary, and lack of recognition as reasons for resignation.

Should blame for the dearth of young hardworking employees, that “fewer believe in learning the ropes, taking time to develop skills on the job and working their way up,” in the words of Mr Shanmugaratnam, then be pinned on inflexible or demanding employers?

Obviously not.

To develop the desired traits of perseverance, hard work and even innovation, to-be graduates like myself must be proactive, make the necessary contributions and prove ourselves, before talking about advancement. Expectations of our starting salaries must be tempered by realism, instead of demands for $4,000 per month, which one in five undergraduates expect, according to an STJobs poll.

Changes in the way we educate students in school through to the tertiary level, with less focus on examinations and more on education and career guidance, will to some extent be helpful. Yet in the more immediate future, there needs to be more frank discourse between employees and employers, such that aspirations and expectations can be properly aligned, and also allow the G to glean insights for policymaking. Otherwise Singaporeans – with arguments anchored by flimsy anecdotes or generalisations – will only continue to talk over one another’s heads.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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by Kwan Jin Yao

FLIPPING through the news in the past week, the idea that Singapore may be entering an “Age of Decadence” may not be surprising.

First, a survey commissioned by philanthropic house Lien Foundation found that while Singaporeans supported the idea of inclusion, they did not walk the talk. Then, an attitude survey released three days later on June 2 by the National Council of Social Service revealed that only 3 per cent of the 1,400 respondents would be comfortable marrying a person with a disability. Only 36 per cent said they would be comfortable with being close friends with a disabled person.

Add to the mix a viral video showing the archetype of the ugliest of the “ugly Singaporean”: a 37-year-old female executive who berated a deaf and mute cleaner, after he accidentally cleared her tray at a food-court table.

So even though Singaporeans may have one of the highest per-capita incomes in the world, a social-capital deficit appears glaring. Are we so caught up with the chase for wealth and power, that we have become more selfish and less aware of our duty to others?

Mooted by British soldier and scholar Sir John Bagot Glubb, the notion of an “Age of Decadence” featured in his study of 11 empires over 3,000 years. “The stages of the rise and fall of great nations seem to be,” Sir Glubb wrote, begin with the Ages of Pioneers, Conquests, Commerce, and Affluence wherein great nations rise, before they fall through the Ages of Intellect and Decadence.

In particular, this “Age of Decadence” is marked by “defensiveness, pessimism, materialism, frivolity, an influx of foreigners, the welfare state, and a weakening of religion”. In a commentary for The Straits Times on June 2, the former head of the Singapore Civil Service, Mr Lim Siong Guan, cautioned against emergent decadence among Singaporeans.

And his solution? Honour.

“We start by establishing a culture of honour, moving deliberately from me-centredness to other-centredness, intent on enhancing the collective long-term well-being of both current and future generations of Singaporeans,” Mr Lim said. He and his daughter Joanne have recently published a book – Winning With Honour In Relationships, Family, Organisations, Leadership, And Life – which argues for the importance of honour in order for one to succeed in life.

“We have to be a people who honour our word, so that there may be no doubt about our individual trustworthiness, and who honour each other, so that there may be no doubt about our consideration for others. Care and concern, trust and respect have to define who we are.”

“A culture of honour”

Notwithstanding the ambiguity over what “honour” actually entails, there is perhaps even greater ambiguity over whether such empty platitudes are constructive in the first place.

Expectations for more to move from “me-centredness to other-centredness” or to “be a people who honour our word”, for instance, mean little if there is scant discussion on how to actually do so. And these tendencies to fault inadequacies of the individual – that Singaporeans may not be doing enough – also ignore institutional or structural factors which may be related to the related problems of disenfranchisement, inequality, as well as apathy and lethargy.

In fact, the theoretical underpinnings of Mr Lim’s commentary should also be challenged.

He said there are “incipient signs” of defensiveness, pessimism, materialism, frivolity, and influx of foreigners, but he does not quite situate the definitions of these terms in the Singapore context, or provide any evidence of these signs. Anecdotes from the well-to-do households may support observations of deeper materialism and frivolity, even though these observations are unlikely to resonate across all socio-economic backgrounds.

In addition, Sir Glubb posited that the difference of foreigners means they “thus tend to introduce cracks and divisions”, even though the flow of immigrants has been decided and moderated by the Singapore government.

And why is the welfare state and weakening of religion necessarily deleterious? Mr Lim points to New York, London, Tokyo, and Shanghai as possible benchmarks “worthy of Singapore’s emulation”, yet overlooks the Scandinavian countries with their egalitarian and dynamic societies.

Far too often, the concept of the welfare state is dismissed for the lack of fiscal sustainability, for the unfairness of redistribution, and for the supposed removal of incentives. Surely no one is calling for a wholesale emulation of the models in Denmark, Finland, Norway, or Sweden. At the same time, however, discourse about an ideal Singapore is increasingly centred the principles of equality and equity, and the role of the government in these arrangements.

What is even less convincing is the presupposition that a decline in religion is undesirable. Sir Glubb defined religion in a very broad sense, arguing that “the noblest and most spiritual of the devotees of all religions seem to reach the conclusion that love is the key to human life.”

But that conclusion could still be reached, even without a religion. Given that the proportion of Singaporeans, especially young Singaporeans, with no religious affiliation has only increased from 1980 – from 13 per cent to 14.1 per cent (1990), 14.8 per cent (2000), 17 per cent (2010), and 18.5 per cent (2015) – I am not sure if many will agree with such an assessment.

When action speaks louder than “honour”

In this vein, what I think matters more than the mere allusion to an illusory concept of “honour” is a willingness to challenge the status quo, and to translate these perspectives into actionable projects. Both Sir Glubb and Mr Lim emphasise a “sense of duty”, implying that Singaporeans have to fulfil specific obligations to the state. Yet this emphasis should not distract us from the very premises of these obligations, or to proactively question them.

Take National Service (NS) as an example. Two years ago in 2014, I participated in dialogues organised by the Committee to Strengthen NS, where I found – to my disappointment – that there were no discussions of whether conscription remained relevant for Singapore. Many of us may be convinced by the principles of defence and deterrence, but are other servicemen in agreement too? Is there no value in questioning the assumptions which undergird such obligations, and in the process develop stronger comprehension? 

Action matters too. In his piece, Mr Lim included a curious quote about philanthropy from Sir Glubb, “that the decline of a nation is often preceded by a tendency for philanthropy and sympathy, exemplified by the welfare state.”

If philanthropy is defined as mere relief to alleviate human suffering, then its limitations are obvious.

Yet if the definition of philanthropy is broadened – as American writers Elizabeth Lynn and Susan Wisely did – to further include improvement (maximise human potential), social reform (solve social problems), and civic engagement (build community), then to the contrary a nation could benefit from more philanthropy.

Signs of such contributions in Singapore can be seen in the national volunteerism rate reported by the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre (NVPC). With the exception of 2014, the rate has increased from 9.3 per cent in 2000 to a high of 32.3 per cent in 2012.

And it is the young who has been more active, coalescing around diverse social causes. There has been an abundant flow of information and therefore greater cognisance of socio-economic problems in Singapore and around the world, and the mobility of young Singaporeans have imbued them with useful lessons and experiences. In the NVPC surveys from 2000 to 2014, those between 15 and 24 years old have always had the highest rate of volunteerism across the age groups, and hence are well-poised to play more active community roles in the future.

From the armchair, platitudes painting decadent scenarios and then calling for change or more honour will achieve little. Already Singaporeans – especially the much-maligned young – are committed to do more. Socio-political conversations are no longer taboo, and the barriers to starting projects are now lower too.

If more space and freedoms are given, and a greater willingness to challenge the status quo is encouraged, then the accumulation of social capital may actually speed up.

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by Kwan Jin Yao

WE NEED apprenticeships that let students study and work at the same time. They not only get students ready for the workforce, they also let businesses shape what students are learning, so that they graduate with skills that are immediately relevant to their industries.

But to keep such apprenticeships going, companies must be willing to put money in them. If they don’t, it’s up to the G to persuade them such programmes are worthwhile investments.

So for now, the G is working with universities and selected companies to launch pilots of these work-study apprenticeships. These plans were revealed by Acting Minister of Education Ong Ye Kung in an interview with The Straits Times on Monday (May 16), who added that in the 21st century, “businesses do not just offer internships, but step into the university to shape the curriculum”. In his interview, the minister also touched on the educational aspirations of Singaporeans, and his vision for the SkillsFuture movement.

In fact, the G has already started pushing for such work-study schemes, calling for educational institutions to work with industries. As recently as in March last year, the G introduced the SkillsFuture Earn and Learn Programme. Where the new work-study apprenticeships revealed by Mr Ong are geared towards university students, the Earn and Learn is for fresh ITE and polytechnic graduates.

The German and Swiss standards

Two countries known for their apprenticeships are Germany and Switzerland. In these countries, students who are vocational apprentices shuttle between the classroom and the workplace, and what they learn in classrooms are applied directly to operations in their respective workplaces, said Mr Ong. He added that future work-study programmes here would be modelled after the German and Swiss systems.

These systems are built on the strong involvement of the companies. The companies invest in their apprentices, help build school programmes, and in many instances, actively seek out partners such as local colleges. Here’s a snapshot of what they’ve achieved:

  • The governments and companies – usually with the help of researchers – have sought to further quantify the net gains or losses of these investments, and therefore in the process, allow the government to also track macro-effects on labour productivity.

Are Singaporean companies convinced?

Whether Singaporean companies will display such strong involvement is less clear. Take the Earn and Learn programme for instance. Employers can recruit graduates from the ITE and polytechnics, putting them through structured on-the-job training and eventually benefiting from their expertise, yet the Workforce Development Agency revealed in December last year that there were 150 trainees across eight sector-specific programmes. No further information on targets was given, but the figure of 150 is minuscule compared to the tens of thousands who graduate from the ITE and polytechnics every year.

Similarly, a Creative Craftsman Apprenticeship Programme – designed for those who want to pursue a career in the furniture or carpentry industry through a structured apprenticeship – aimed to attract 180 graduates over two years when the programme was launched in February 2014. In May last year, however, only 43 students had signed up for the programme, and little has been said about why take-up rates fell below expectations. Were students apprehensive? Or was it the lack of interest in the industry?

In this vein too, the G can be more explicit with its targets, specifying the number of individuals and companies it would like to bring on board for these programmes.

Because if the abilities of Singaporean ITE and polytechnic graduates – most of whom have a strong foundation in technical and vocational education and training, or TVET – are considered, I think responsibility for work-study apprenticeships should fall on the companies, which have the most to gain in the long run. Yes, the G can provide initial incentives – such as subsidies for university tuition fees or allowances to the apprentices – but after doling out the initial incentives, the role of the G would be one of facilitation and coordination between schools and businesses. It will, for instance, ensure that university curriculum is adequately broad-based to mitigate the threat of obsolescence, and the G will continue to aggregate data and information from the companies to ascertain progress.

Eventually though, the private sector has to take the lead instead of relying on governmental carrots before offering apprenticeship programmes.

Apprenticeships for the future

Another question for Mr Ong would be the difference between the new work-study apprenticeships for university students, and the degree programmes at the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT). Even before the Education Minister revealed his plans, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had announced in his 2015 National Day Rally last year that the new SIT campus in Punggol would be integrated with a creative industry cluster, highlighting the integration of study and work endeavours.

A popular choice for polytechnic graduates, the SIT has – since its establishment in 2009 – also collaborated with industry partners, who provide attachment stints and input in the structure or content of courses. In this vein, will the other universities be asked to emulate these arrangements?

And again, since companies are central to these arrangements, their present reticence must be addressed. Under the Earn and Learn Programme and the Creative Craftsman Apprenticeship Programme, were companies or industry partners receptive? Did they have any reservations, or did they face difficulties in the recruitment or management of their apprentices? Without government subsidies, will companies still remain enthusiastic about work-study apprenticeships?

Securing company buy-in is important in the long term, if Singapore is keen to boost labour productivity and promote the desired cultures of skills mastery and lifelong learning. In the even longer term, there could also be a wider culture shift, addressing entrenched prejudice towards blue-collared occupations and TVET in general, as apprentices who have benefited from these work-study programmes go on to distinguish themselves in their workplace – and beyond.

 

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by Kwan Jin Yao

EDUCATION and foreigners are potent subjects in any conversation. Put them in a rally speech and you can surely expect them to get a crowd fired up.

That’s what happened during a recent rally held by the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) on May 1, when Dr Chee Soon Juan, the party’s candidate for the Bukit Batok by-election, spoke of how young Singaporeans have been told by the G not to get their university degrees, while helping university graduates from other countries get jobs in Singaporean companies based abroad.

“The question I have is why is our foreign minister going to another country and helping to come up with a scheme to help the graduates of that country?” asked Dr Chee, 53, to applause from the crowd of supporters. “Why can’t our government spend its energy on our companies, in our own country, to create jobs for our own graduates, instead of discouraging our young people from pursuing university education?”

The SDP secretary-general and recent contender for Holland-Bukit Timah GRC in the last General Election cited a proposal made by Minister of Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan to help Singaporean companies recruit Indonesian university graduates, and recent messages from the G targeting students from polytechnics and the Institute of Education that a university degree isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Said Tampines GRC MP Irene Ng, who is a member of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Education, back in 2014: “It is part of (PM Lee’s) vision for Singapore to create a more equal society with opportunities for all… In such a society, a university degree is not a must-have to advance in life and do well.”

Dr Chee said in his speech that more job and higher education opportunities must be created for young Singaporeans: “It is not the place of the G to tell the people what kind of degree they should pursue. Worse, it should not be doing this because it fears there will be too many graduates without jobs.

“Rather, the G’s responsibility is to ensure that it facilitates an economy that will provide maximum number of jobs for the talent our schools and universities produce.”

Dr Chee has a point, even if the issues are not new. In fact, a variety of tangential issues from his speech could be addressed, but he doesn’t go quite as far.

These issues include:

  • Updated numbers of foreign students in autonomous universities (the proportion of international students has ranged from 16 to 18 per cent, while the distribution varies across the different schools and faculties);
  • Benefits and costs of foreign students in Singapore, details of the university or government scholarships awarded to foreign students, and whether foreign scholars fulfil terms of meeting academic requirements or serving out their bonds;
  • Extent to which there may be a disconnect between the aspirations of students and the availability of university or course places, and consequently the students who choose to further their studies in private institutions; as well as
  • Profile of university undergraduates and whether the distribution is representative, based on their socio-economic and education backgrounds.

Actually, Dr Chee might have mentioned too, that in fact, more young Singaporeans, in general, are entering universities. Based on aggregated student intake data from the six local universities, about 34 per cent of students admitted last year were diploma-holders, which is almost a 10-percentage point increase from the 24.7 per cent in 2011, according to figures from the Ministry of Education.

A cohort participation rate or CPR of 26 per cent in 2011 means 26 per cent of locals in a primary one cohort matriculated into the publicly-funded universities. Back in 2011, the CPR was then projected to hit 30 per cent in 2015 and 40 per cent in 2020. So it seems we are well on track.

But Dr Chee has a broader argument: that the G should “provide maximum number of jobs for the talent our schools and universities produce” – though, this is a macroeconomic issue, and one perhaps better suited for the People’s Action Party (PAP) ministers, rather than his opponent Murali Pillai. After all, they are the ones who hold the most data and information about this and the other above-mentioned issues.

Arguments about a graduate glut have been raised in the past.

“The relentless pursuit of paper qualifications resulted in a glut of graduates [in South Korea and Taiwan],” then Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin said in Parliament in 2014, before pointing to the potential danger of producing too many graduates. The minister also added then that help would be given so that Singaporeans could make “informed educational choices”, though it is less clear if efforts in education and career development has kept up.

Even with new initiatives such as SkillsFuture, can the G really discourage people from pursuing degrees with tough economic times ahead, with higher unemployment and slower wage growth expected?

And how will the G manage expectations of Singaporeans, especially those who believe they are disadvantaged vis-à-vis their foreign counterparts?

These are bigger questions about the economy which may feel out-of-place in the context of a by-election, which tend to focus on local issues such as estate upgrades and who can run a town council. Yet throughout the General Election in September last year, little about the economy was said too. Is it any wonder, then, that so few paid attention to the Budget debate this year?

If now is still not the time to discuss these issues, then when?

 

Other BE issues by TMG:

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Sg Meritocracy
Illustration by Sean Chong

by Kwan Jin Yao

SUGGESTIONS that Singapore is fixing its meritocracy – mooted in an commentary by Professor Kenneth Paul Tan of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore – implies that something must be broken.

“The Singaporean idea of meritocracy,” wrote the professor in a commentary published in The Washington Post on April 16, is now criticised “for entrenching structural limits on mobility; for its overly narrow idea of merit and success; and for an increasingly self-regarding elite that seems too interested in staying in power and that citizens perceive as arrogant and unresponsive to their needs.”

Through small changes to the education system, continued affordability of national universities, and the new SkillsFuture movement, the G may be making Singapore’s meritocracy more “compassionate”, “inclusive”, and “lifelong”. Yet beyond these “tweaks”, a more “radical overhaul” – in the words of Prof Tan – is perhaps necessary: first, with evidence-informed evaluations of socio-economic mobility, wherein data and information on low-income households are also provided; and second, a broader discourse on egalitarian considerations and their policy implications.

The political philosophy of meritocracy holds that individuals get ahead based on their abilities, effort, and achievement, and that they – best-placed to maximise the performance of an organisation or the G – would therefore assume positions of power. This philosophy only holds, however, if there are equal opportunities. In fact, in an earlier academic paper published in 2008, Prof Tan highlighted what he saw as an “inherent contradiction” of meritocracy:

“Meritocracy, in trying to ‘isolate’ merit by treating people with fundamentally unequal backgrounds as superficially the same, can be a practice that ignores and even conceals the real advantages and disadvantages that are unevenly distributed to different segments of an inherently unequal society, a practice that in fact perpetuates this fundamental inequality. In this way, those who are picked by meritocracy as having merit may already have enjoyed unfair advantages from the very beginning, ignored according to the principle of nondiscrimination.”

In other words, meritocracy in an unequal society could reward those who are already ahead. The oft-cited running-track analogy comes to mind: under meritocracy, a distributive system which rewards abilities, effort, and achievement, the fastest runners should win the race, because it is assumed that they have worked hard for their success.

But besides the obvious problem of defining “merit” – that not all individuals may be suited to running – meritocracy is blind to income and wealth differences, which means these runners are not at the same starting line. Maybe the runner on the left has had training with a coach, the runner in the centre has athletic parents pushing him every day, while the runner on the right is just struggling to make ends meet.

Indicators such as the Gini coefficient – a figure which shows the income distribution within a country – could be used to quantify these disparities. Yet to fix Singapore’s meritocracy, first, more empirical observations in the form of research data and information on the extent of socio-economic mobility should be used to evaluate the equality of opportunities.

“With full equality of opportunity,” former World Bank Chief Economist and recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences Joseph Stiglitz wrote in his 2012 book The Price of Inequality, “20 per cent of those in the bottom fifth [of a country] would see their children in the bottom fifth … So too, with full equality of opportunity, 20 per cent of the bottom would make it all the way to the top fifth.”

Citing a 2012 research which compared inter-generational income mobility in the Nordic countries, the United Kingdom, and the United States, Mr Stiglitz noted that chances of moving up are smaller for American households, and that the disadvantageous positions of poor households can also be observed through education opportunities and outcomes.

In Singapore, 14 per cent of those in their mid-20s to early-30s who started out in households in the bottom fifth moved into the top fifth. This is almost three percentage points higher than Denmark (11.7 per cent) and almost seven percentage points higher than the United States (7.5 per cent), and hence reflecting “a more fluid society”, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said when he revealed these figures in Parliament in March last year.

These trends were stressed in a paper published by the Ministry of Finance in August 2015, which also noted that low-income households saw faster real wage growth from 2009 to 2014, and that in terms of inter-generational income mobility Singaporeans in their thirties have seen higher mobility compared to other countries.

But “it gets more difficult as society gets more settled,” Mr Shanmugaratnam conceded, and inequality may not show up in these mobility figures. And beyond figures on income and earnings, understanding the distribution of wealth would also be helpful, along with data on the following:

  • Composition of university undergraduates and graduates, based on income groups, and whether more students from the bottom fifth have secured admissions in recent years;
  • Composition of students, again based on income groups, who receive publicly funded scholarships (in 2008 the Public Service Commission revealed that 47 per cent of its scholarship holders live in public housing apartments, and any changes to this statistic would be interesting);
  • Adequacy of financial grants and assistance schemes in the universities – even if they are “made readily available to students who are unable to bear the full costs of their education”, as Professor Tan wrote in his commentary – especially in comparison to rising tuition fees; as well as
  • Correlations between standardised test scores of students – such as the Primary School Leaving Examination and the O or A level examinations – and the wealth or education of their parents.

In addition to these evidence-informed evaluations of socio-economic mobility, on the second note to fix meritocracy, what about a broader conversation about egalitarianism in Singapore? Or even just problematising assumptions or features of our meritocratic system?

In its Reflections report at the end of the Our Singapore Conversation process, opportunities was one of the five core aspirations that citizens feel should guide our society. They said: “We need to re-calibrate how we define merit today [because] our system rewards too narrow a selection of abilities,” and that as a society “we should ensure that opportunities do not stay entrenched among the more privileged”.

Professor Michael Sandel of Harvard University, in his “Justice” course which was made into a 12-episode television series, summarised in an episode three different theories of distributive justice: libertarianism (a “free market system”), the meritocratic system (“fair equality of opportunity”), and the egalitarian theory (in which “people may gain, may benefit from their good fortune, but only on terms that work to the advantage of the least well-off”).

Egalitarianism in this regard is not necessarily a call for guaranteed equality of outcomes, and the recognition that personal abilities, effort, and achievement cannot be solely attributed to personal endeavours means that the socio-economic gains should be shared with the society.

Not all may concur with this theory of distributive justice. In a ST letter on April 12, I warned of the opportunity gap between different households – “that students from more well-to-do families would have been privileged with more resources and options to pursue [abilities and interests]” – and how those from less well-to-do families may thus be disadvantaged at aptitude-based admissions in the universities and at the workplace.

In response, letter-writer Ms Qu Aohan wrote on April 18 that “we cannot penalise the well-off ones just because they have more opportunities to succeed… rather, more effort should be put into levelling the playing field.”

Her argument that penalising those who are more well-off would create new inequalities, especially on the notion of “penalising”, is puzzling to me (does she, for instance, perceive taxation as a form of a penalty?), yet our conceptions of socio-economic mobility may stem from dissimilar beliefs and backgrounds.

Understanding and talking about these differences – I believe – are important. With the aforementioned data and information, is our society truly fluid? To what extent do we agree in the equality of opportunities? And do policies reflect our beliefs – or the beliefs of the G?

At the end of his commentary Prof Tan said that recent policies – the “tweaks” to the education system, in the universities, and with SkillsFuture – “may start to free up the institutional rigidities that hinder social mobility and restore a public sphere disenchanted by elitism, mistrust and envy.”

The reference to “institutional rigidities” implies the need for action by the G. But if a more “radical overhaul” is to happen, Singaporeans must reflect – using research information and the perspectives of other Singaporeans – more deeply about meritocracy and its implications.

 

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Engineer the Future in the G
Illustration by Sean Chong

by Kwan Jin Yao

THE G is again luring university graduates with engineering or information and communications and technology (ICT) degrees into its ranks, except with bigger carrots: higher salaries and potential leadership opportunities in a “strong engineering core”. Yet would the government be able to meet its target of 1,000 new public-sector engineers this year, and would jobs in the private sector – as a consequence – appear less attractive?

High starting salaries in the public sector should be a huge draw: $3,800 for engineering graduates and $4,000 for ICT graduates, announced by Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean in Parliament last Wednesday on April 13. Based on the median gross monthly salaries of those in the five publicly funded universities, reported in the Graduate Employment Survey (GES), the G has matched the starting salaries of all but two degrees. In the National University of Singapore (NUS), the median graduate with a Bachelor of Engineering (Computer Engineering) degree can expect to earn $4,000 upon graduation, while the median graduate with a Bachelor of Engineering (Engineering Science) degree can expect to earn $3,800 upon graduation.

Median monthly salaries of graduates from the Nanyang Technological University (in its College of Engineering), the Singapore Institute of Technology (across all its overseas university partners), as well as the Singapore Management University (in its School of Information Systems) are lower than the starting salaries offered by the G.

When the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) released its first GES last month on March 28, it found that the median gross monthly salary for its pioneer batch of fresh graduates was S$3,600, compared to $3,300 for graduates from the other universities. The median gross monthly salaries of SUTD graduates – ranging from $3,500 to $3,950 – may be higher than their counterparts in the other universities, but they are still lower than the pay offered by the G.

Expectations for these higher salaries and more opportunities were set two years ago in 2014, when the Public Service Division announced that it was reviewing pay and career progression for its engineers. Public-sector engineers make up around 10 per cent of the 122,500 engineering professionals in Singapore, and organisations such as the Institute of Engineers have flagged concerns on declining interest in engineering among the young. Over the years, fewer undergraduates have been taking up engineering or ICT specialisations, compared to the high of engineering undergraduates constituting 40 per cent of all university places in Singapore.

In fact when it was announced last year that one of four recipients of the President’s Scholarship was going to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering abroad, it was noted in The Straits Times that she was the first to opt for engineering in nine years, “amid a declining interest in engineering and science subjects.”

Another way to lure more engineering and ICT graduates is the promise of technical leadership and advancement opportunities. And a desire to be part of Singapore’s long-term engineering developments should also matter, maybe even more than starting salaries.

A final-year civil engineering undergraduate at NUS, Kee Kia Weng, 24, plans to work in a transportation-related sector upon his graduation later this year. “Money was never one of my initial considerations when I applied for jobs in the public agencies, even though pay – along with the nature of the job and working conditions – is very important for many of my friends,” he said.

“Instead, it was the possibility of long-term employment for me. I applied for positions related to the building of new MRT lines, and since the Land Transport Master Plan was planned until 2030, I felt it was a viable option,” Mr Kee added.

Career opportunities and interest are important for 23-year-old Tsang Jun Wen, a third-year information systems major at NUS, and in this vein the new focus of the government may prove to be more appealing. His father’s work in e-supply chain management influenced Mr Tsang’s decision to take up his degree, and he will work in cyber-security with a government agency when he graduates next year.

Not all engineering and ICT graduates, however, will join the government, and the broader challenges of increasing the pool of Singaporean engineers and creating opportunities – not just in the public sector – must be addressed. Singapore wants to be a Smart Nation, wants to ride ahead technological trends, and wants to have a vibrant startup ecosystem. These wants can only be achieved with a ready pool of trained and passionate professionals.

And even if engineering and ICT graduates do not intend to work for the government, they could work independently with the government, through funding schemes provided by the National Research Foundation, for instance. A final-year information systems technology and design major in SUTD, 23-year-old Agrim Singh will be working on his startup that he co-founded after graduation.

“Creative freedom is key to contributing in such domains”, Mr Singh explained, “and computer science – in today’s day and age – gives you power to influence any industry for the better and I want to be in a position to do so.” Startups turn to government agencies such as SPRING Singapore, which offers a range of grants and schemes.

In the bigger picture the government should have no trouble getting the engineering and ICT talents it needs. Instead the pressure will fall on private companies to meet expectations of potential applicants. The winners, it appears, are the to-be graduates who enter a workplace in need of their skills and knowledge.

 

 

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by Kwan Jin Yao

THERE is no “standard” or “official” account of Singapore’s history imposed on visitors of National Heritage Board (NHB) exhibitions, Minister of Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu said in Parliament on Thursday, adding that the NHB “takes an objective approach in its curation invites visitors to examine different perspectives and engage in critical thinking.”

She was responding to Workers’ Party Secretary-General Low Thia Khiang, who had a day earlier called for these NHB exhibitions to present different interpretations of history, and these moves will also “reduce students’ and parents’ perceptions of using history as government propaganda.”

Could Ms Fu’s remarks then be applied to historical narratives, even those which may provide counter-balances to ‘The Singapore Story’?

Launched earlier this year on February 13, Living In A Time Of Deception offers one of these perspectives. Penned by ex-political detainee Poh Soo Kai, he offers a first-hand account of his involvement during the anti-colonial movement in the 1950s and 60s, premised upon archival materials and newspapers, memoirs of the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, as well as his own memory. Using these documentary references is “necessary” – in the words of historian, Hong Lysa, one of two editors of the book, in the introductory chapter – because “[Dr Poh] is practically overturning the received wisdoms of the [People’s Action Party (PAP)] Story.”

Comet In Our Sky: Lim Chin Siong In History was published in 2001, and it is one of the many books about the events of the 1950s and 1960s which Dr Poh referred to in his 408-page political memoir. In addition, he was also an editor for The 1963 Operation Coldstore In Singapore: Commemorating 50 Years, a book documenting the joint Malaya-Singapore operation which saw the arrest of 113 Barisan Sosialis party and labour union leaders, including Mr Lim and Dr Poh.

Dr Poh – a former Assistant Secretary General of the Barisan Sosialis – disputed the official report which stated that those who were arrested were “hard core organisers [or] collaborators of the Communist conspiracy,” with “armed struggle” remaining a threat.

The maternal grandson of businessman and philanthropist Tan Kah Kee, he presented a chronological account to challenge the “monolithic PAP story”. In this regard, I thought the most poignant chapters came towards the end of his book, when Dr Poh detailed his 17 years of detention – from February 1963 to December 1973 (11 years) and June 1976 to August 1982 (six years) – and its impact on his personal life.

And his emotional reflections highlighted concerns over “solitary confinement, detention without trial without any recourse for effective review, and the importance of having lawyers willing and able to argue their client’s case without concern for extra-legal constraints”, all in relation to the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance (PPSO), which is now the Internal Security Act (ISA).

Besides his addition to the criticisms of the PPSO and the ISA, there were two further instances in which Dr Poh challenged the prevailing narrative.

The first was when Mr Lim, then a trade union leader, was detained in 1956 under the PPSO as a suspected Communist subversive. Then Minister of education Chew Swee Kee condemned then PAP politician, Mr Lim – during a PAP rally in Beauty World – for calling upon those in attendance to pah mata, or to beat up the police. But historian Thum Ping Tjin has uncovered a transcript of the speech delivered in Hokkien in the United Kingdom Archives, which found that Mr Lim had actually “called the crowd which was hostile to the authorities not to pah mata.”

“Lee did not expose Chew Swee Kee’s lie when it was uttered in the legislature,” Dr Poh wrote. “It is obvious that he was not going to stop Lim Chin Siong from being imprisoned on false charges.”

The second challenge was Dr Poh’s alleged visit to Masai in Johor to treat an injured bomber, which was cited as the reason for his second arrest in 1976. “We were supposed to have driven across the two immigration checks at the Causeway in two separate cars, one following the other, stealthily and dramatically, in the middle of the night,” he said at the speech last month. “Evidence from immigration records could easily have proven whether we did go or not. But the evidence was never produced.” This whole story is “pure fabrication”, he added.

Besides these disputes with ‘The Singapore Story’, Dr Poh documented his foray into activism through the University Socialist Club of the University of Malaya. He described the undergraduate paper, Fajar, as reflecting “an important strand of left-wing political thinking”, and how an publication of its editorial Aggression in Asia – which criticised the formation of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation – led to the arrest of eight editorial board members, including Dr Poh. It was also his first encounter with Mr Lee, who offered to be counsel pro bono for the editorial board.

Dr Poh went on to become a founding member of the PAP.

To complement these narratives, perhaps a broader explanation of his socialism – as “a natural extension of being anti-colonial” – would have been enlightening. How has it influenced his socio-political perspectives, and have they shifted over time? Dr Poh conceded that Marxism “does not supply ready textbook answers for how to resist it or overcome the capitalist system”.  For me, it would have been interesting to hear how he has made sense of Singapore’s development over the years. Does he agree with the progress made, or the contributions of Mr Lee? What have we lost in the process of capitalistic modernisation?

There is a brilliant chapter in The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye titled “Days of August”, which imagines a Singapore under Mr Lim. What would Dr Poh make of it, and has he imagined a Singapore under Mr Lim? These musings of mine are – to be fair – beyond the context of a historical memoir, yet for a young Singaporean thinking about the past and the future, views like these can help shape the trajectory for our next 50 years.

The contents of Living In A Time Of Deception will be disputed, as previous publications have been, by the G. But the declassification of previously confidential and secret records of the British colonial authorities, revisionist historical accounts, as well as demands for more primary documents to be made available, would encourage greater discourse about our collective past – and not necessarily in a disruptive manner.

One of Dr Poh’s reasons for writing the book was because he felt he owed “the younger generation [of Singaporeans] a duty to leave a record of our country’s history.” If so, his endeavour has encouraged at least one young Singaporean to pay greater attention to the oft-conflicting claims from different sides, thereby ensuring that his understanding of the past will be more nuanced, and a little more complete.

LKY in Dr Poh Soo Kai’s Living In A Time Of Deception

In his political memoir, Living In A Time Of Deception, ex-political detainee Poh Soo Kai characterised the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew as “more than a political pimp” and described his alleged “betrayal and treachery”. Here are seven excerpts from the book:

1. Dr Poh first met Mr Lee when the former – along with eight editorial board members of Fajar, a publication by the University Socialist Club (USC) of the University of Malaya – was charged with sedition in 1954. Like Dr Poh, Sandrasegaran (Sidney) Woodhull, who is referred to in the excerpt, was a founding member of the USC.

“We then turned to the club’s honorary legal advisor, Lee Kuan Yew … Harry, as Lee was known in those days, had earlier offered to be an honorary legal adviser to the USC through Woodhull, who was his drinking partner. I told Woodhull that we could not afford to pay, and Harry’s service came gratis. Lee remained a name on paper as, until then, we did not have legal issues that needed his advice.

After the face-off with [David Marshall], we contacted him. Harry was practically pacing up and down his office, waiting for our call. He was prepared to act pro bono for not just the ‘Fajar’ editorial board but subsequently for the seven Chinese middle school students who had been found guilty of obstruction of the police from performing their duties as well. He was keen to present himself as an anti-colonialist, for he had political ambitions and was aware of the sentiments from the ground; he had to connect with the energy of a potential mass movement to make any headway.”

2. On February 2, 1963, Dr Poh was arrested in Operation Coldstore. He would spend a total of 17 years in prison without trial.

“When I was detained in Operation Coldstore, involvement in the USC was one of the allegations stated in the order of detention served on me. It specified that the USC was a pro-communist organisation, and that I was chairman of the editorial board of ‘Fajar’, a pro-communist journal.

I retorted at my representation to the ISA Advisory Board in 1965 that sedition charges against me were thrown out by the court, and that Lee Kuan Yew was then my defence lawyer. It was indeed a farcical situation. But it was no laughing matter.”

3. Then Minister of Education Chew Swee Kee, in 1956, condemned then People’s Action Party (PAP) politician Lim Chin Siong – during a PAP rally in Beauty World – for calling upon those in attendance to pah mata, or to beat up the police. But historian Thum Ping Tjin has uncovered a transcript of the speech delivered in Hokkien in the United Kingdom Archives.

“[Historian Thum Ping Tjin’s] find has exposed the duplicity of the Lim Yew Hock government, but also the betrayal of Lee Kuan Yew, who with Toh Chin Chye and Devan Nair, was on the same stage when Lim Chin Siong made the speech. Moreover, Lee did not expose Chew Swee Kee’s lie when it was uttered in the legislature. It is obvious that he was not going to stop Lim Chin Siong from being imprisoned on false charges.

But that is not all. Chew Swee Kee would not have dared to make the statement in the Legislative Assembly that Lim called for the crowd to beat up the police had he not been certain that Lee Kuan Yew could not challenge the statement. Lee thus must have been in a plot with Chew Swee Kee and Lim Yew Hock to remove Lim Chin Siong from the political stage and the constitutional talks, and in a larger context, to cripple the left-wing movement through the mass arrests that begun on 18 September 1956.”

4. After the Second Constitutional Talks in March 1957, where delegates accepted an internal security council and Clause 30 – which banned political detainees from standing for elections – Mr Lee was challenged by David Marshall to a by-election on the proposed constitution.

Mr Lee’s centrepiece during the Tanjong Pagar by-election campaign was firm opposition to Clause 30. But Dr Poh contended that the British archives reveal “irrefutably that [Mr Lee] had come up with the anti-subversion clause.” 

“The wise and worldly would quip that ‘politics is dirty’ and Lee’s ‘tricks up his sleeve’ are just typical of what politicians do to get and stay in power as their political opponents are not above such moves themselves. However, Lee’s ‘tricks up his sleeves’ were played, no less, on his own party members. As a former member of the PAP, I see it as nothing short of a betrayal and a treachery.

Most despicable of Lee’s ‘tricks up his sleeves’ is his betrayal of the trust of the people of Tanjong Pagar who returned Lee Kuan Yew in the by-election on the platform of ‘accept[ing] the constitution and reject[ing] the clause’ as Lee himself put it in his campaign. He had been the person most ostentatiously critical of the draft constitutions.

Yet even Lee himself knew that such sophistry made his Tanjong Pagar by-election campaign and his abetting with the Lim Yew Hock government to arrest the left, in particular the fabrication of a ‘Pah Mata‘ speech, a display of his utter contempt for the people, which was unacceptable. Otherwise, he would not have had to keep covering up his ‘tricks’ all his life, a job that his successors have continued to do.”

5. In a reply in the Legislative Assembly in 1962, Mr Lee made reference to Mr Lim’s attire of a polka-dotted silken scarf and a coat imputing, in words of Dr Poh, “that the unionists were communists, who were passing themselves off as defenders of democracy”. The attire, according to Mr Lee, was “not becoming of a representative of the workers, students, rural dwellers, and professional organisations.”

“Aside from Chin Siong himself, I am likely to be the only person who knows what was behind Chin Siong’s unusual attire that day. At the time, Chin Siong was staying with me as he had found that intruders had broken into his rented room without leaving any trace of their visit. We were afraid that they might plant false evidence the next time.

One morning as he was setting off for a meeting at the Legislative Assembly, my wife Grace commented that he and his friends should take a break from their routine white shirt and pants. She handed him one of my cravats. Without hesitating, Chin Siong put it on. He and I immediately realised that it worked as a political statement: that he was not just the leader of peasants and proletariat, but could also appeal to middle classes. Not many of his comrades would have been as open and confident as Chin Siong was in readily putting on an item of dress which marked the English-speaking upper middle class circles. This message was evidently not lost on Lee.”

6. Dr Poh was critical of merger, how the referendum was conducted, as well as the moves towards separation. He said Tunku Abdul Rahman – Malaya’s first Prime Minister – best summarised Mr Lee’s role in “rushing in and out of Malaysia” when the Tunku wrote in his memoir, Looking Back: Monday Musings and Memories, published in 1977: “Mr Lee Kuan Yew: The friend who had worked so hard to found Malaysia and even harder to break it up.” 

“Lee Kuan Yew’s television broadcast breaking the news of Separation to the people of Singapore, complete with tears, has been replayed ad nauseam to emphasise the profound trauma he suffered at Singapore’s ‘expulsion’ from Malaysia. He declared with emotion:

‘For me it is a moment of anguish because all my life … I have believed in merger and the unity of these two territories.’

Yet nothing in either the path towards merger, or Singapore’s Malaysia years indicated that he had even remotely cherished a concept of unity of Singapore and Malaya. The tears he shed were at best tears of relief. He had managed to rush out of Malaysia with British support intact, and his political opponents locked away.”

7. Dr Poh’s wife, Grace, was arrested and interrogated following the ‘Masai episode’. It was reported then that the couple had travelled to Masai in Johor to treat an injured bomber, an account which Dr Poh described as “pure fabrication”. 

“The buck stops at Lee Kuan Yew. I had called him a political pimp in our 1973 joint press statement for his pro-Western policy. I was attacking his politics. But he was more than a political pimp when he attacked me through my wife.

Grace and I were both too badly hurt for our marriage to survive.

Our divorce was finalised in 1992, after the requisite period of three years of separation.

I cannot pretend that it no longer hurts. It still does very much.

But I do not feel humiliated.

I refuse to be destroyed.

It is the pimp who should have been ashamed and made accountable. And so should those who sat at his feet, and who continue to repeat his lies, defending the use of the Internal Security Act.”

 

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by Kwan Jin Yao

FROM concrete planters to prevent vehicle bombs, force-resistant building materials with bullet and blast-proof glass, to closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras and checkpoints, Singapore is on red alert against terrorism, described by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) as the country’s “most significant” security threat.

The ministry’s plan to review security guidelines for buildings is but one of its many recent endeavours, especially since the terror attacks in Paris, France; in Jakarta, Indonesia; and in Brussels, Belgium.

Expect more of such efforts to come this year. A preview was given in yesterday’s Budget debate: even more CCTV surveillance and boosted protection of infrastructure, the use of traffic cameras and information from Electronic Road Pricing systems to track suspicious travel patterns, and a new community response movement. All this, to a tune of $5.3 billion – or about 10 per cent more than what the MHA spent last year.

The problems with cost aside – with a concession from the MHA in 2010 that “comprehensive protection against every possible threat is too expensive” – how ready or prepared are Singaporeans against an attack?

An attack, we are reminded, will eventually strike. In an editorial following the Brussels attack, The Economist criticised European under-investments in security services to penetrate jihadist networks as well as the need for better policing to stem radicalisation of petty criminals. However, in Singapore, getting individuals used to “a long campaign of terror” appears to be a much taller task.

Warnings from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong have been forthcoming.

Echoing remarks by Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam – that “we face a severe threat in South East Asia, [and] it is not a matter of if, but when a terrorist attack will take place here” – Mr Lee, in a Facebook note on March 22, stressed “the serious and continuing threat of terrorism” and the importance of “getting [the message of vigilance] through to all Singaporeans.”

The terror threat has worsened, the Prime Minister said during a meeting with the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, since the Islamic State “has proved far better at recruiting from [South East Asia] than al Qaeda every was”. “Self-radicalised” Indonesians, Malaysians, and Singaporeans have even formed a battalion of fighters called the Katibah Nusantara, or the Malay Archipelago Combat Unit.

Days later at the Nuclear Energy Summit an the United Nations, the Prime Minister also highlighted the “very plausible and believable” threat of nuclear terrorism. In a recent issue of its English magazine the Islamic State has shown intent of procuring nuclear weapons, Mr Lee added, and “I hope this summit will see countries committing to reduce their nuclear material stockpiles further.”

Even with these ministerial warnings in the past week, whether Singaporeans will consequently be shaken from our apathy towards terrorism – and our insouciance in response to a potential attack – is another question altogether.

Three in four Singaporeans, according to a recent Straits Times poll of 500 people, agreed with Mr Shanmugam that Singapore will face a terror attack, but three in 10 from the same poll also thought Singapore was not prepared for an attack. Interestingly, the five in 10 who said that the country was prepared for an attack pointed to “security forces”, “armed patrols they see at key nodes such as the airport and train stations”, and recent government remarks on stepped-up measures.

These cited reasons are interesting, because they point to the broader readiness of the state and its apparatus against terrorism, and not necessarily to the readiness of the average Singaporean. In the event of an attack how many of us are prepared to react? Should a bomb go off in a train station, do we know what to do, or how to act? And how can we be sure, in the first place?

Action speaks louder than words too. Remember Exercise Times Square? The notion of public vigilance and its importance are often bandied around these days, yet in 2010 when the MHA placed suspicious-looking cars emitting smoke in nine locations across Singapore, just 260 of the 7,200 people who walked within 10 metres of the vehicles took notice (3.61 per cent), and only 52 contacted the authorities (0.72 per cent). With the string of recent terror attacks around the world such lax attitudes may have improved, though any increase in alertness in similar simulations is likely to be marginal.

Such complacency of our perceived security was also emphasised by the Institute of Policy Studies in 2015, when it found “broad indifference” among Singaporeans towards past terrorist incidents: 22 per cent of the 1,516 respondents knew about the 1974 Laju hostage incident, 61 per cent were aware of the 1991 hijacking of SQ117, and 67 per cent knew about the 2002 Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist plot. This disconnect could lead to – or in fact reflect – perceptions that terrorist threats, as recent as they may be, are geographically-distant, or that the country is adequately safe and secure.

That we are victims of our own success is perhaps an understatement, in this regard.

So the new normal has been with us for some time already. In Singapore, however, we are so accustomed to the government taking care of affairs – bomb-proofing buildings, for instance – and as a consequence seem to have forgotten our vulnerability and corresponding responsibilities. Even community programmes can only do that much. A terrorist attack is going to be painful, especially for those who lose their loved ones, but it will be the real test of our preparedness when it actually strikes.

 

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SkillsFuture Credit
SkillsFuture Credit illustration by Sean Chong
SkillsFuture Credit
SkillsFuture Credit illustration by Sean Chong

by Kwan Jin Yao

ENCOURAGING employees to go for training may boost productivity, but small and medium enterprises (SME) – it would appear – should not be using the SkillsFuture credit for this purpose. Last Saturday assistant secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) Cham Hui Fong called on companies to allow their workers to use the credit for courses which may not be directly relevant to their jobs (TODAY, Jan. 23). “We hope to get more like-minded employers to also allow the employees to make full use of their SkillsFuture credit and go for courses,” Ms Cham said. And if employees are to expand skills “then I think we should allow them to pick up new skills.”

Yet, if there is no training culture in these companies, could the SkillsFuture credit first spur individual learning, and subsequently stress the value of training?

The aims of the $500 credit, to strengthen individual ownership of skills development and lifelong learning, have also been emphasised by the Workforce Development Agency (WDA). Deciding how to spend the $500 should be left to the employee. In its list of frequently asked questions, the WDA further notes subsidies of 90 or 95 per cent for training courses under the Enhanced Training Support Scheme for SMEs as well as the Workfare Training Support scheme for companies in Singapore.

“Employees who are sponsored by their employers to go for training should not have to tap on their own SkillsFuture credit to pay for course fees, as their course fees are already paid by their employers,” the WDA added.

But in the first place, how many of the 189,000 SMEs in Singapore have used these subsidy or assistance schemes? Or how many have even made any provisions for the training and development of their workers? A common lament is the lack of manpower and resources for human resource functions – especially for startups just looking to grow or gain traction – and in February last year then-NMP Thomas Chua argued that smaller SMEs such as micro-enterprises do not have adequate human resource capabilities or professional human resource managers. “Many of them are facing tight manpower constraints, so it is not possible to send their staff for training,” he said. Mr Chua is also the president of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCCI).

SMEs are enterprises with operating receipts not more than $100 million or employment not more than 200 workers. And in a survey in September last year, the SCCCI found that there was a 6.8 per cent drop – from 92.1 per cent – in SMEs adopting programmes to improve productivity. Most productivity efforts were focused on IT and automation equipment, so further information on indicators such as the People Development Standard, a mark conferred by SPRING Singapore to recognise organisations which invest and develop its people, could provide more evidence of staff development in Singapore.

In this vein, it may not be a bad idea for SMEs without the capacity to provide or sponsor training to encourage employees to use their SkillsFuture credit, especially if the courses are relevant to work or responsibilities. Unfortunately, present awareness is limited. In the same SCCCI survey, 56 per cent of respondents were unaware of the SkillsFuture movement, and of the others who were aware, 48 per cent said they were only slightly interested or not at all interested in it. In other words, SkillsFuture – including the credit – could resolve manpower challenges, but many employers are not cognisant.

Working through the SMEs in this regard can also be useful to workers, for a few reasons. If encouragement is given by the employer, who explains how training courses may be relevant for the company or sector, completion rates may end up higher. At the moment, for instance, the completion rates for massive open online courses – some of which are listed on the SkillsFuture directory, offered by providers such as Coursera and Udemy – hover around 10 per cent.

Related to completion rates is participation, which could be hard for employees juggling work, family, and other commitments or responsibilities. It is not clear how many SMEs allow employees to take leave for these courses. Figures from NTUC show that of its 900 active collective agreements signed with employers, 320 “stipulate the provision of allowing employees to take five days of leave on average for examination or training for courses relevant to their work and approved by the company.” With the SkillsFuture credit, if employees in other SMEs can prove that – likewise – their courses are relevant to their work or development, should relevant provisions be made?

It also speaks to the flexibility of the SkillsFuture credit, since Singaporeans can pick and mix different courses they may prefer. $500 is not necessarily a small sum, and with top-ups in the horizon, perhaps the ideal would be for Singaporeans to take on courses for both personal and professional development throughout their lives. As such, the concern by MP Chia Shi-Lu – expressed in Parliament last year – over a possible mushrooming of courses of “widely varying merit” may not be as pertinent. Variety of the courses seems to be the intent, for individuals to make informed decisions on their own.

Ultimately the SkillsFuture credit could spur individual endeavour, and in turn galvanise SMEs to invest more in their employees. In the long run it should, therefore, be impressed upon SMEs that training and development is necessary for both productivity and human resource management, and securing their active participation in SkillsFuture and the SkillsFuture credit could be a constructive start for the government.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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