May 26, 2017

Authors Posts by Jin Yao Kwan

Jin Yao Kwan

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

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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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SAF Court-Martial Centre
SAF Court-Martial Centre

by Kwan Jin Yao

GUYS who have watched JAG or NCIS or even A Few Good Men will know that the military justice system here isn’t anything like on television or in the movies. Of course, the military courts here probably deal with fewer cases of the explosive kind, and more with the disappearing acts of going AWOL.

Still, justice is justice and any accused has a right to a defence. But what kind of defence, even for going absent without leave? At the lowest level, your commanding officer can conduct a summary trial in your unit, who then metes out your punishment.  But let’s say you thought the conviction and punishment did not take into account personal circumstances at home or the many times your direct commander denied your leave requests. What’s next? You could ask for a review by the Ministry of Defence’s (Mindef) Director of Manpower, or elect to be tried by a court martial.

If you opt for a court martial, you can choose to be represented by your own lawyer or have one assigned to you FOC in the form of a defending officer (DO). You go before a Panel Courts Martial. This is the same case too if your offence hasn’t got to do contravening military discipline but say for drug-taking or theft, except that you will be streamed into a Judges Court Martial.

But you’re just a poor full-time NSman, so you opt for a DO from the SAF.

The Sunday Times yesterday highlighted the training of a DO, and it would be a surprise if any man in green, white or blue finds it heartening. Started in 2005, the legal training was revised in July last year “with more of the curriculum focused on the practical aspects of lawyering”. Now get this: it is only a day-long legal training course. ST quoted a lawyer who noted that “the DO, being a non-lawyer, will be at a disadvantage because he will be arguing against a prosecutor who is legally trained and has access to materials for research and support”.

And even so, not all DOs go through this day-long course too.

So, this is the man who will be defending you, a commissioned SAF officer who has graduated from the Officer Cadet School, hothoused in a day and put up against an experienced prosecutor. You could say this is better than having to defend yourself because they are at least trained in court protocol. But what sort of other guidance do they get? How much time do they have to prepare for their cases? What if the case was more complex than a matter of going AWOL.

Now it may be true that many military court cases are simple or straightforward. In a parliamentary reply to Member of Parliament Indranee Rajah on representation during court martial proceedings in February 2007, then Defence Minister Teo Chee Hean said: “Many of our court-martial cases (about 75 per cent) are straightforward where the facts are clear and undisputed, and the servicemen has elected to plead guilty. This is not different from the civil courts in straightforward cases such as speeding or littering.”

What about the 25 per cent of the more complex cases, in which the facts are not as clear and undisputed? Are there enough DOs – with the requisite training and bandwidth, given their many operational responsibilities – to handle these cases, or to craft cogent mitigation statements? In an environment where the legal training may not be adequate and where manpower could be tight, charged servicemen may feel compelled to plead guilty without a thorough understanding of their case or the justice system in general.

Access to proper recourse is important whether in the military or outside. Like any other organisation the SAF is characterised by a bureaucratic system, yet with the rank structure of the military lower-ranked servicemen could find it difficult to seek redress for transgressions by their direct commanders. One’s experience through National Service (NS), as a consequence, is very much dependent on the quality and ethics of the commanders.

Besides intensifying the training of DOs, the SAF could think about educating servicemen – even when they begin their NS journey at the Basic Military Training Centre – on the military justice system. Simple information on the informal and formal punishment systems, the GCM and its functions, as well as the avenues servicemen can seek redress when punishments are meted out should be shared. What, for example, are the standard operating procedures that should kick in when a serviceman is charged?

Empowering servicemen with such information has the added benefit of holding officers to a higher standard, since they know that their juniors are aware of their rights. Greater awareness and clarity of offences and corresponding punishments could even stem misinformation perpetuated by individuals and online forums, and even serve as deterrence.

In fact, why not give an accounting of how many cases go through the Military Justice System, the types of offences and punishments so that that charged servicemen can try to help themselves rather than just depend on DOs. Unless, of course, they can afford a lawyer.


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by Kwan Jin Yao

I TURN 25 in April this year. And along with 2.5 million Singaporeans aged 25 and above, I just received my SkillsFuture Credit account activation letter from the Singapore Workforce Development Agency (WDA), informing me of my account – with an opening balance of $500 in credit – to be used for training needs.

A brief letter signed off by WDA Chief Executive Ng Cher Pong emphasises that the credit “will not expire and can be used throughout [one’s] lifetime”, and the letter also comes with a glossy booklet detailing the steps for a career development plan, how others intend to use their SkillsFuture credit, as well as the assistance platforms available. Usage of the credit is a three-step process, through which Singaporeans are encouraged to first find approved courses through the online directory, then submit claims, before attending the courses.

Yet given their diverse aspirations and preferences, Singaporeans are left to decide the courses they are best suited for. Acting Education Minister for Higher Education Ong Ye Kung described the SkillsFuture initiative as one valuing what he or she already knows, and adding more value to it, but what does that actually mean for course-seeking individuals? And as a business and public policy student on track to graduate within the next two years, what are my choices?

Perhaps tracing my work experience will yield insights. And having interned in a bank and for a tech startup in 2014 and 2015 respectively, the importance of programming and coding was stressed by my colleagues, who were cognisant of technological changes in the industries. High school lessons in basic HTML and C++ have been helpful, though technology has – for instance – increased demand for interactive online databases and more complex modelling capabilities to handle big data. Even here at The Middle Ground, the crew has been experimenting with visualisation and analytic tools to report the news more innovatively.

“A complete amateur who wants to learn how to code and build stuff should start with [the programming languages] Ruby or Javascript, because the communities around these two are the largest and most active,” according to 26-year-old software engineer from PayPal, Laurence Putra Franslay, whom I spoke to. He recommends C for more serious learners, and adds that “Learning to code is beneficial not only for the building of applications, but also for problem-solving too.”

Both Ruby and Javascript courses are listed in the SkillsFuture course directory.

A friend in the National University of Singapore (NUS), fourth-year economics undergraduate Clement Wee, 24, noted that programming is the skillset which would complement training in his discipline, allowing him to run useful simulations. “Although in school we can do analysis with [statistical software package] Stata and Microsoft Excel, general programming skills and concepts are lacking,” he said.

“This is slowly changing with new modules and shifts in modular content, but these changes will not be implemented in time for my batch.”

Beyond practical abilities in academia or at the workplace, what about the soft skills? Years of volunteerism in the community and of co-curricular activities in the school may have been filled with learning opportunities, but can these experiences be built upon through formal courses?

In addition to financial literacy and management, my classmate at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy Fan Chi Fung, 28, would prefer to use his SkillsFuture credit on courses about reading body language, presentation skills, and neuro-linguistic programming, or NLP. “At my age,” he adds, “I need more soft skills than hard skills.”

Some of these soft skills may be perceived to be more recreational, even if they may be useful in daily routines. Baking and cooking appear to be popular options. Also my classmate at the public policy school, Shahira A. Aziz, 28, has tried nutrition courses on Coursera – an education technology company which offers massive open online courses, a number of which are available on the online directory – to prepare healthier meals for her two children.

She said: “The fact that [the SkillsFuture credit] can be used for online courses is a huge plus. Unlike in the past when I had to take courses related to my career, I now have greater ownership over the courses I want to take.”

She is interested in the psychology and language courses too.

Likewise, 24-year-old NUS economics undergraduate Tek Yong Jian said French cooking – or cooking in general – are his most likely choices. Schools such as the Asian Culinary Institute of Singapore, At-Sunrice GlobalChef Academy, and Shatec Institutes, and are offering certificates or diplomas in culinary arts, though they are mainly for Singaporeans who wish to pursue more long-term employment or career progression. Others looking to pick up more elementary skills can instead attend cooking lessons at the community centres or clubs, where sessions are arranged by the People’s Association.

So what now? What should I make of these options, even if they have been filtered from the over 10,000 courses in the online directory? And – as Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam penned in his foreword in the booklet which came with the account activation letter – maybe “there is no need to rush to use [one’s] SkillsFuture credit”. After all, having ascertained the importance of education and career guidance as well as the functions of career centres in Singapore, the first step should be to craft a trajectory for the future.

And no matter the ambition, it seems that decisions will continue to be pragmatic. Premised upon their careers or personal circumstances, Singaporeans like myself will spend our SkillsFuture credit to better ourselves – whether it is coding or programme, personal development, or the culinary arts – provided we have the stamina to complete courses we sign up for.

This series is in collaboration with Singapore Workforce Development Agency (WDA).


Featured image old-MIT-classroom by Flickr user Ryan Tyler SmithCC-BY 2.0 .

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Photo By Shawn Danker
Singapore Parliament.

by Kwan Jin Yao

A NEW batch of Nominated MPs (NMPs) will soon be selected, with the opening of the 13th Parliament, and ST (Jan 6) reported that “some from the previous batch of nine want to seek a second term”. The paper also spoke to National University of Singapore professor Tan Tai Yong and president of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry Thomas Chua Kee Seng, both of whom wish to serve again.

But how did this batch of nine NMPs fare? And to what extent will – or should – their performance influence the nomination and selection of the new members?

Now a permanent feature of Parliament, NMPs are appointed to bring in more independent and diverse voices. With the appointment of the first two NMPs – cardiologist Dr Maurice Choo and businessman Leong Chee Whye – in the 7th Parliament in November 1990, there has since been 74 members, 14 of whom were appointed for two terms and three (businessman Tay Beng Chuan, NUS law professor Simon Tay, and then-chief executive of KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital Dr Jennifer Lee Gek Choo) serving for three. In particular, two-term NMP Walter Woon, an NUS law professor, was the first MP since 1965 to pass a Private Member’s Bill in 1995. It was the Maintenance of Parents Act.

The odds, however, of serving another term in the 13th Parliament seem low for the previous batch of nine in the 12th Parliament. 12 of the 15 NMPs who were in the 9th Parliament served at least two terms, though it should be noted that the eight appointed in 2001 only served for 17 days, when Parliament was dissolved for the general elections. Still, all eight had served, or went on to serve, at least one more term in Parliament. In comparison, only three of the 35 NMPs who were in the 11th and 12th Parliaments served at least two terms, and none for three.

The nine outgoing NMPs in the 12th Parliament, who began their one-year stint in August 2014, spoke or raised questions an average of 20 times. Speeches here also refer to “cuts” for the Committee of Supply debate or the tabling of motions, while questions include oral or written parliamentary questions or supplementary questions. If multiple questions or clarifications are raised in the same sitting – as published on Hansard – they are counted as one question.

Professor Tan Tai Yong, image from Yale NUS College website.
Professor Tan Tai Yong, image from Yale NUS College website.

Professor Tan, whom ST interviewed, made five speeches and raised seven questions. He is one of the three NMPs with below-average numbers. Banker Mohd. Ismail bin Hussein spoke 10 times (six speeches and four questions), and Singapore Board of Architects president Rita Soh Siow Lan – with the lowest numbers – spoke seven times (five speeches and two questions). The average number of speeches was 7.44, while the number of questions was 12.78.

In their few moments, these NMPs did not necessarily impress too. Because members are selected from a pool of applications by a Special Select Committee, which invites the general public and functional groups to submit names for consideration, there are expectations for both activity and quality of the speeches made or questions raised in Parliament. Ms Soh did make a “cut” about broadening art and craft curriculum during the Ministry of Education Committee of Supply debate, but her two questions concerned “carpark provisions for religious institutions” and a generic one about “[increasing] productivity in our workforce”.

On the other hand, 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 made strong showings. Representing the social service, youth, and higher education as well as economic sectors respectively, they did not speak the most – 23 times for Ms Chia, 27 for Ms Kuik, and 24 for Mr Tan – yet most of their speeches or questions were characterised by common themes. And given their professions or areas of expertise in these themes, they could therefore add value to the parliamentary debates.

Ms Kuik Shiao-Yin, screenshot from CNA video.
Ms Kuik Shiao-Yin, co-founder of The Thought Collective, screenshot from CNA video.

The trio has, at one point or another, received applause in Parliament – indicated by the clapping of hands or rapping on the sides of seats – for their speeches. During the debate on the Annual Budget Statement in March 2015, Ms Kuik spoke of the importance of rewarding innovation, the potential of the SkillsFuture initiative as a “big game-changer”, and the need to help the children of single mothers. Four months later, during the reading of the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (Amendment) Bill in July 2015, Mr Tan highlighted the notion of fiscal conservatism, expressing concern with “the inexorable shift towards large spending increases”. Besides applause, both speeches also encouraged discourse among Singaporeans when excerpts or broadcast clips were disseminated through news platforms.

In addition to her two speeches during the debate on the Annual Budget Statement and the tribute to the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Ms Chia received a special mention from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong after she questioned the amount of time spent debating the issue of memorials. “I agree fully with Ms Chia Yong Yong on her very sensible views,” Mr Lee said in April 2015. “It is the ideals and the way we live our lives which is much more important than any physical thing you build.”

Both Mr Chua Kee Seng (who spoke 24 times) and former national sailor Dr Benedict Tan Chi’-Loong (22 times) raised relevant perspectives about small and medium enterprises as well as skills development and the promotion of sports respectively, but did not achieve the same resonance as the earlier trio.

In this vein, the number of speeches or questions should not be the only indicator. Vice-President of the National Trades Union Congress Karthikeyan s/o R. Krishnamurthy spoke 33 times (five were speeches and the other 28 were questions), the most in the outgoing batch of nine, yet his questions – from a “dedicated ambulance for Jurong Island” to “Basic Theory and Practical Driving Tests for Foreign Drivers” – seem haphazard, and do not necessarily add value to broader socio-economic policies.

Whether these details will be considered in the selection process – in itself worthy of scrutiny, especially on matters of the functional groups and eventual representation – is unclear, though evaluating the performance of NMPs in this manner is perhaps even more important than evaluation of the MPs, who contest in elections every five years. Right from the get-go when the Bill to allow NMPs in Parliament was tabled in 1990, members objected to the seemingly undemocratic arrangement, and as a consequence questions will continue to be asked of the competence of NMPs.

And future NMPs should hence expect more challenges to their performance – in addition to their supposed independence and diversity, notwithstanding the different proposal panels to nominate representatives of functional groups – and even greater scrutiny of how active they are in Parliament, as well as the quality of their speeches and questions. No longer will it suffice for NMPs to deliver regurgitative speeches or submit questions with straightforward answers, and they should also, in the future, be called upon to defend their own stints, especially if they seek a return to Parliament.


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Photo By Shawn Danker
AIA Singapore.

by Kwan Jin Yao

CAREER centres can do many things for job-seekers. And for former taxi-driver Mr Tan*, tired of the irregular income and worried about health problems after long, sedentary hours driving behind the wheel, career centres could – through self-assessment tools, one-on-one consultations, and review of his work experience or preferences – narrow his occupation or industry options.

Friends have told Mr Tan that the remuneration and benefits as a security officer are reasonable – and that the occasional patrols will get him some physical activity – so career counsellors would first explain requirements such as the Security Singapore Workforce Skills Qualifications. After attending these basic training modules, career centres can further provide assistance with the writing of résumés or cover letters, or arrange interview workshops or mock sessions for the practice of skills.

But visits to these centres are often made too late, with unrealistic expectations of a quick-fix. Some university undergraduates, according to Ms Carmen Wee, Director of Career Services at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School, “only approach us in the final semesters of their four-year study for help, just before their graduation.” In other words there may be no urgency, even though career planning and guidance are long-term processes.

Mr Sim Cher Young, Director of the Dato’ Kho Hui Meng Career Centre at the Singapore Management University (SMU), agreed. “There is a small but increasing percentage of students in every cohort who are really serious about career planning. Many wait till the eleventh hour before applications, and I have witnessed students rushing into snap decisions about academic majors, internships, or full-time jobs which may not necessarily be aligned with their career interests”, he said.

“There is a disconnect and a lack of ownership about one’s own career planning and development. Possibly, undergraduates feel that they will have no trouble securing a job upon graduation, even though they should be planning for a career as early as possible during their four years in the university. Success in careers favours those who plan.”

Working professionals can be afflicted by such lethargy too. “People tend not to think about career planning and guidance until they run into some trouble,” said Mr Gary Goh, Deputy CEO at the Employment and Employability Institute, or e2i. “For instance, there are many who come to e2i only just before their retrenchment, resignation, or career switch, with greater desperation if they run into financial difficulties and hence need an instant solution. You need time to prepare and be ready for career changes, rather than worry about career planning only when troubles arise.”

And furthermore, as effective as career centres may be for job searches, the onus remains with the individual to take advantage of opportunities in the first place. After all, opportunities are more ubiquitous these days.

One of these career centres for working professionals is e2i. Since its formation in 2008, the organisation has helped more than 400,000 through job-matching, training and development, as well as improving the productivity of companies, and every day its career counsellors see 30 to 50 workers for coaching services in its centre at Jurong East. Mr Goh explained the four-step “GROW” process: to establish a career goal, ascertaining where the job-seeker wishes to head to; to match these aspirations with reality, asking what barriers or gaps might be stopping the job-seeker; to explore and review options to bridge these gaps; and finally to execute an action plan for the way forward.

In recent years, e2i has also worked with the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) and the polytechnics to offer career talks and fairs. This focus on the institutes of higher learning appears warranted, since it is the last stage before most enter the workforce. “Two or three years ago, we realised there were quite a number of younger people coming in [for coaching services] who did not want to pursue careers in the field they had studied in,” Mr Goh added. “Career guidance should be implemented as early as practicable, because if one leaves it until entry into the workforce, it may be too late.”

Each student in SMU is permanently assigned to one of 12 career coaches, who are trained as Career Development Facilitators. “Because there are so many career permutations, our career coaches should have the requisite skills, knowledge, and abilities to engage both employers, who hire our students, and students, who use our services.”

Undergraduates at the first and second year go through a seven-module job and career preparedness programme – spanning from self-awareness and discovery workshops to sessions on personal branding and networking – and in their third and fourth year, the preparedness is augmented via specific electives such as “Assessment Centres” and “Case Studies Preparation”, which are selection methodologies typically used by larger companies to shortlist hires.

A similar, methodical approach is used in the NUS Business School. In their first year, all business students enrol in the flagship “Personal Development and Career Management” programme, to explore their own strengths and ambitions as well as to acquire career skills such as résumé writing, interviewing, and networking techniques. Thereafter, students can make counselling appointments in the career resource centre, participate in recruitment activities or networking sessions, and apply for jobs or internships through the online TalentEDGE Portal.

“We help students to discover the right match,” Ms Wee said. “Some may have a set of expectations even before starting work, and so besides instilling a sense of realism we emphasise the risk-return trade-off when making career decisions.”

And if career guidance seems to be the best strategy for both graduates and working professionals, should it be moved even earlier? To the primary and secondary schools? So that eventually job-seekers will not be “too late,” and also think about their course options in these schools? It was the same question we posed to Acting Education Minister for Higher Education Mr Ong Ye Kung in an earlier interview, who acknowledged that although education and career guidance can encourage thinking processes, it should not become just another subject.

“I am not sure about the effectiveness of taking the same approach to upstream beyond the ITEs, polytechnics, and the universities. Instead of sitting a young child down to discuss career options, career guidance at the early stages could be more geared towards raising awareness of career interest and industry information,” Mr Goh added.

In addition to its existing pedagogies at the primary, secondary, and post-secondary levels, the Ministry of Education (MOE) announced in October this year that it had deployed 50 education and career guidance counsellors to schools, with additional services at its Grange Road Campus. Moreover, one of the key recommendations of the Applied Study in Polytechnics and ITE Review Committee in 2014 was to strengthen education and career guidance, with the commitment of more resources from the government.

“It is meaningful – as indicative in the MOE’s national curriculum relating to early career planning and development – to help students in their primary and secondary schools to visualise likely careers as early as possible,” Mr Sim, who is also a father of two daughters aged 9 and 14, said. “Parents also have to play their part, to have conversations with their children to understand their potential and individual preferences, and to nurture them to realise their dreams.”

These endeavours ultimately point to the importance of lifelong learning, and the subsequent need for training and development. Career centres may help to narrow options or link job-seekers to opportunities, yet aspirations are only realistic with the requisite skills and experience. It is the reason the career services at the NUS Business School – before crafting action steps with the students – seek to understand the strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities for the students. As Ms Wee stressed: “Ambitions must be grounded in reality. While taking a forward-looking view, students need to stay abreast of market developments, and to do enough research to understand what they could achieve in the future.”

In this vein, career centres and initiatives such as the national SkillsFuture movement are but tools. Mind-sets about lifelong learning and Singaporeans upgrading themselves must change. “Workers must have the relevant skills for the future, and we encourage them to go for ‘upskilling’ and ‘reskilling’ if they intend to stay in the same sector or switch careers respectively,” Mr Goh said. “Business environment and job requirements continuously undergo change. If job-seekers still rely on the skills or knowledge they had learnt in school twenty, ten, even five years ago, they risk skills obsolescence at some stage.”

*Name has been changed.

This series is in collaboration with Singapore Workforce Development Agency (WDA).

Read our other stories in this series here:

Of Course, say 50 workers to training 

TMG Exclusive: Ong Ye Kung on SkillsFuture: Value what you know – and add

More work needed to improve SkillsFuture directory


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collage of 50 faces.

by Kwan Jin Yao

WHAT if lawyers and financial consultants use the new SkillsFuture Credit to study baking and cooking? Or if academics pick up acrylic painting instead? Because if deeper skills mastery and master craftsmanship are the objectives, is the G worried that the SkillsFuture would be used – with the further assumption that Singaporeans will sign up and complete their courses in the first place – for personal interests which may be perceived to be more frivolous than constructive?

And when we spoke to Acting Minister for Higher Education Ong Ye Kung, his rhetorical reply – “Who is to say that learning a particular skill, including a general manager deciding to learn art and gaining a sense of the aesthetics, is not relevant?” – seems to reflect a new approach to promoting lifelong learning. One which prioritises skills over academic knowledge in a competitive global landscape. What is more important, Mr Ong added, is a capacity to never stop learning, as well as to develop mastery in any field or sector chosen.

Therefore, the SkillsFuture Credit – through which every Singaporean aged 25 and above will be able to choose from over 10,000 skills-based courses from an online directory – should spur Singaporeans to take greater ownership of their own training and development. Enrolment into courses would not only empower broad-based learning if a person ventures into new fields, but also sharpen mastery of specific skills.

We spoke to 50 workers and asked them two questions: if they had all the time and money in the world, what training course would you like to go for, and why?

Culinary arts and computing or computer skills – such as coding and Microsoft applications – featured the most in these conversations. These courses are not necessarily taught in the schools, and many chose cooking or baking out of their personal interest. On the other hand, computing or computer skills were perceived to be useful in the future, especially with rapid technological development.

But there were also many who focused on skills development in a specific field they have been working in, or intended to specialise in. sales officer Sim Tiam Lai wanted to build on his engineering diploma and experience as a technician through a course in the PSB Academy, while security manager Ravi Arumugan wishes to get a certification in workplace safety management. “A course involving high technology key making” was the answer from key maker Dalphine Tan, while “profession-negotiating skills tactics” should be useful for sales manager Benjamin Chen, who is now working for a German chemical company.



Ms Ang Ah Kuok, 52, quality control officer.

“I want to learn computer skills in Powerpoint and Word Document. I have learned before but I am not good at it. I never practice so I forget also.”



Mr Desmond Kwa, 23, sales officer.

“If I were old enough to receive the fund, I might go further my interest in poker cards. If there are courses for that.”



Mr Sim Tiam Lai, 30, sales officer

“I will go for a course in engineering in the PSB Academy. I have a diploma in engineering so I want to earn more. I was previously a technician. If I do further studies I will probably go back to the engineering line.”



Madam Tee Ah Chu, 57, shop assistant.

“I will go for English lessons. Now my English is only basic so sometimes I have difficulty dealing with customers. I have to ask my colleagues to help me. So I want to better communicate.”



Madam Neo Geok Lau, 46, salesperson.

“I have been taking care of my mum, who has diabetics and Alzheimers. But a few times a week there would be a nurse who comes over to the house to change her dressing, take her blood pressure and to check her nutrition. If I took up a nursing course then I can do all this myself. I might even change my job after I learn it.”



Mr Teng Theng Dar, 64, business consultant

“I’m already 64 so I’ve done a lot of courses already. I can’t go back to school, but I think if I had the chance I would want to learn more about people skills. More specifically people from other countries. With that knowledge I can build on my business, and use those contacts for my business.”


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Mr Chua Teck Sheng, 25, SAF regular

“Coding. It’s not something taught in school, but it’s something that I can use in the future. I think coding can help improve our way of life; I can help create applications that can help other people.”



Mr David Teo, 70, retiree.

“Even though I have retired, if I could learn new skills I would definitely take classes then go back to the workforce. I think computer skills would be most practical, like learning how to use Microsoft.”


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Mr Jonathan Lew, 24, self-employed.

“I would take up cooking. I need to take it because I’m obviously bad.”



Mr Chew Seow Phuang, 60, ceramic artist.

“I would take more pottery classes to further my skills. But the $500 from SkillsFuture won’t be enough though because I want to go overseas to learn from the other masters. I’ve been to China, Australia and Taiwan. Maybe I’ll go to Bali. Each country has their own unique techniques whether it’s sculptures, pots or filing.”


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Ms Vanessa Yeo, 49, financial consultant.

“I am too busy working so I’ve never cultivated the passion for cooking. So maybe if I had the time, I would go learn how to cook. Currently at home, I have a maid so she does the cooking. I’ve been a working woman all my life. Perhaps after I learn cooking then I will cook for my children.”


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Madam Aisha Yassim, 51, travel agent

“I want to take culinary courses to upgrade my passion. I don’t want it to be a profession though. I want to learn how to use different temperatures, how to take care of food. I like to watch Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson on television. I especially want to learn how to make pastries and cakes. Something more relevant to my job will be to learn Japanese as my company is based in Japan. I’ve learnt the basics before so I might go for a higher level.”



Ms Lee Le Yi, 41, paediatrician

“I think for PMEs (Professionals, Managers and Executives), it depends on whether it is a skill I would like to develop outside your job. A law course might be something I might be interested in, which would develop my career. But a craft like pottery is a hobby I already have, but something more academic would be more helpful, like law.”


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Mr Richard Goh, 57, IT business owner.

“I want to learn cooking. Now I have no time, but if I do, I want to help my wife cook. Now I only do scrambled eggs. If there is something I can learn that is pertaining to my job, it will be new computer programmes such as WordPress.”



Mr Aw Haw Sin, 55, driver and store keeper

“I’m very old already so learning anything new won’t help with my career as such. I just drive and manage the store here and I think the skills I have right now are enough for that.”



Ms Suraiyah Parveen, 25, police officer.

“I want to take a course in basic understanding of Law. It will definitely help in my line of work. Either that or I will do further studies in tourism management.”


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Mr Ravi Arumugan, 52, security manager at Orchid Hotel.

“I will want to take a course related to my current job, like fire safety. I’ve been waiting to take it for a long time but each time I apply there is no vacancy. The course is for part-time over three months in the evening and I will get a certification in safety management. I’ve actually got knowledge about it already, but I want to enhance it. I’ve been putting it off for 20 years as I didn’t have the means or time to attend then. I’ve already taken courses in workplace safety and crisis management.”


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Ms Rachel Tay, 27, programmer

“I would do a diploma in events management, or dancing such as popping or hip hop. It’s something I always wanted to learn but never had the time or money.”



Mr Eugene Lim, 25, co-founder of tech start-up

“I want to learn coding because then I can make so many things come alive, happen or work. And it is relevant to my work. i.e. I’d be able to design my own website, or code an app by myself, or even just write a script to make using Excel easier.”


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Mr Timothy Lee, 25, systems adviser.

“My passion is in communications and aviation so I would take a course in communication studies. I’m not concerned about the level, whether it’s diploma or degree but the skill. I am most interested in the psychology of communications – why is info delivered a certain way. I’ve stored up practical knowledge so now I want the theoretical knowledge. As for aviation, I know how to do it theoretically but I never had a practical course. I didn’t take it up at first as I wasn’t prepared for a pilot’s roster lifestyle.”




Mr Desmond Lim, 41, rental coordinator

“I want to get a taxi license as a practical backup plan. I think the cost is about $500. Now I have no time to learn anything else because I have a family.”



Mr Koh Eng Seng, 61, taxi driver

“I will learn the guitar. I used to be in a band when I was 16 and we played in a studio. Now I have forgotten how to tune or play already. Or else I will go and learn skydiving.”



Ms Shermin Tham, 22, freelance worker at a community centre

“I would like to take courses related to music – perhaps guitar lessons. I’m interested in playing instruments but time seems to be tight.”



Mr Steven Goh, 60, volunteer at a community centre

“At my age, skills don’t really concern me. I am more interested in leisure courses like yoga, tai chi, qigong – activities for the older generation.”



Mr Daly, 31, driver

“I’ve never heard about SkillsFuture. But if I could take a course, it would have to be something related to sports. Training up my soccer skills, bike racing or perhaps sepak takraw. These are my passions.”


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Madam Lisa Lee, 58, homemaker

“I have always loved the fine arts since I was young. I would like to take up pottery courses or something that helps me train my skills in the fine arts.”



Ms Dalphine Tan, 62, key maker

“I would love to take up a course related to my career as a key maker – perhaps a course involving high technology key making. I have been in key making for 40 years but I have not had time to go for the latest courses in the industry since I have many other responsibilities.”



Mr Benjamin Chen, 28, sales manager

“Something towards profession-negotiating skills tactics. I work for a German chemical company and do managerial sales, so courses like that will help me develop and do better in the profession.”



Mr Andy Fong, 35, salesperson

“I want to take up investing courses. This has nothing to do with my own job at the moment, but I want to take these up for my own financial gain.”



Mr Ng Tiak Seng, 62, part-time factory worker

“Whatever course I take has to be related to my job, and I must have some prior need or expertise in the course I take up. Age is a matter too.”


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Mr Ang Chua Yong, 64, optician

“Could I spend all my money to travel? When it comes to courses, I would like to take up cooking courses – to learn how to make more cakes and kueh. Obviously, I can’t take a PhD now. You need to understand what kind of a course each individual needs.”



Mr Elvis Pereira, 43, shipyard worker

“I don’t need the money as my company already sponsors me to take up other courses. $500 is not much anyway.”


Ms Bernice Lim, 24, NIE postgraduate

“I would pick up sports related hobbies, like diving, rock climbing or bungee jumping. I wouldn’t pick up anything related to my studies.”


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Mr Alfred Ng, 28, ice-cream parlour owner

“I recently picked up a gelato making course. I would like to take up a course related to dessert and pastry making because I’d like to open more ice-cream shops in the future. ”



Mr Dennis Ang, 43, hawker

“I would go for more cooking classes to learn more diverse cuisines. For practicality, I would also learn new computer skills such as Microsoft. I currently don’t know how to use them. It is very different from what I do now so I never had the chance to learn.”



Madam Mami Joy, 60, shop owner

“I love the business I am doing. I earn just about enough, but I’d like to take up a course related to online business or e-commerce. I am not good with the computer, you see! But I’ve had this shop for six years.”



Ms Melliza Quibuyen, 54, self-employed handicraft maker

“I would love to take up a baking course. I want to learn how to make cake towers with cupcakes – those three-tier kind of towers.”



Mr Chee Kim Boon, 47, traditional Chinese medicine practitioner

“I always wanted to learn the piano and guitar as it is my childhood dream. I’ve finished all my professional courses in Chinese and Western medicine already, those took six to seven years. If I had the money and time, I would learn Indian medicine also.”



Mr Jason Chua, 23. undergraduate and part-time call center worker

“I would either learn a language – Spanish, or learn an instrument – the guitar. It isn’t related to work but more for self-improvement. I’ve always thought about it but I have no money. I study psychology but I want to work in the social work industry, so if I had to pick a work-related course I would pick counselling. I would pick a work-related course if I had to choose between work and hobbies – because it’s more pragmatic.”



Ms Nur Rabiyah, 27, dispatch officer

“I would like to learn physiotherapy courses. It’s not related to my current job, but more for interest. However I would switch jobs if I get to learn physiotherapy because it’s a meaningful job and I want to help people to recover from accidents.”



Mr Chai Kong Meng, 52, incense shop owner

“I’m interested to learn more business related courses, like management. I think that any course that I take should be related to my work and help my business, and not out of interest or hobby.”



Mr Aaron Lim, 25, software engineer

“I would like to take a language course like Malay, because we are surrounded by Malay-speaking countries. It’s for personal interest. As for courses related to work, I would pick programming or coding courses. But if I were to choose one, I would prioritise work-related courses because it would help in my promotion.”



Mr Chris Tan, 50, travel agent sales officer

“I think I would take up something out of my work, for example, floral arrangement or hairstyling, because I used to be an army camp barber.”



Mdm Cheng Siew Lian, 55, provision shop worker

“I would like to take courses related to Western or Chinese-style cooking. I don’t have any interest in taking any courses related to my business or work.”



Ms Ong Siyu Kim, 33, software consultant

“I would want to do self-enrichment courses, especially communication and writing courses to help me at work, as well as project management courses. For hobbies, I would take singing, painting or drawing courses.”



Dr Yip Yeng Yoong, 57, pediatrician

“I would learn photography. I have a professional camera and the basic skills but I’ve never learned in depth. Professionally, I would just go for conferences.”


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Mr Muhammad Hussein, 34, supervisor at Costa Coffee

“I want to do F&B training at the management level because it is in line with my current job. Right now I am just a supervisor.”


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Mr Yoong Shu Chuang, 28, accountant.
“I might do financial courses to keep up with accounting standards. For my passion, I will take an advanced course in diving since I have basic certification already. But $500 is not enough.”



Ms Linna Tan, 48, branch manager

“I would like to take culinary courses – I’ve never taken it before because I never had time. I was an air stewardess for SIA for 20 years so I was never really around to do anything.”



Mr Muhammad Ridzuan, 24, IT engineer

“I’d probably take up IT courses like the CCIE course offered by Cisco that costs thousands of dollars. We live in a country that’s all about money.”


This series is in collaboration with Singapore Workforce Development Agency (WDA).

Additional reporting by Sharmeel Sidhu, Wan Ting Koh, Rohini Samtani, Clarabelle Gerard, Gillian Lim, Joshua Lim and Steven Gunawan.

Featured image by Najeer Yusof.

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by Kwan Jin Yao

TWO years ago in July 2013, nearing the end of the Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) endeavour, the organising committee brought four of us – participants and facilitators – together to share our experiences and thoughts on continuing these conversations into the future.

During this sharing session, which was also published in the OSC reflections report, three suggestions were teased out:

1. Reaching out to more individuals – the marginalised communities or those active on the Internet, for instance – beyond the 47,000 participants

2. Striking a better balance between broader conversations on aspirations and more focused ones on policy recommendations

3. Detailing useful perspectives from these conversations, so as to engender further discourse or even criticisms online. I suggested that the ideal is to have discussions run by citizens. “We come together, and once we produce a report, we can just submit it to a government agency,” I concluded.

Reviewing these suggestions seems like a good starting point to evaluate the new SGfuture initiative. After all, Minister for Culture, Community, and Youth Grace Fu acknowledged that the year-long OSC in 2012 and 2013 provided a “very good idea” of the aspirations of Singaporeans, and SGfuture could hence galvanise them “to step forward to put the values that they have envisioned in the OSC into action.”

Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Chan Chun Sing also added that the initiative can “build consensus about the future [Singaporeans] wish to have, and to commit these aspirations to action.”

Yet – beyond such ambitious rhetoric – how different will SGfuture be from its predecessor, and will the shortcomings be addressed? Details are scant right now. When asked by TODAY for the timeline and scope of the series, Ms Fu said more time was needed, and that it was “a bit early” to talk about “concrete numbers” for now.

On the contrary, one would think that this initial phase is perhaps the best opportunity for the government to explain – more specifically – how the OSC exercise segues into SGfuture, and even to describe how the OSC might have benefited the civil service or the policymaking process. Otherwise, why bother with these undertakings? In fact, without a coherent strategy for the SGfuture sessions, which will be held until mid-next year, how will the facilitators be briefed, and what end-goals should the participants work towards?

It might be good to look at the three suggestions listed above to make the SGfuture exercise a more fruitful one.

1. How will more Singaporeans – not only in terms of the the numbers, but also their diversity, be engaged, or would SGfuture end up involving the same OSC participants, rehashing familiar refrains? The OSC was organised by a secretariat with the support of community groups and G agencies, and it is not clear if SGfuture intends to broaden the target audience. Is it, for example, only for “young” people? To accommodate those with familial or work obligations, changes to the format and availability of the sessions should also be made.

It is one thing to talk about marginalised communities, and another to involve them in discourse.

And will opposition parties – who were not part of the OSC two years ago – be involved this time, assuming they are keen to get on board in the first place? “We will take views from the opposition, we will take views from civil society, we will take views from people from different walks of life,” was the commitment made by Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam in September this year, following his party’s landslide victory in the general elections. Political hustings in that period – from substantive manifestos to rousing rally speeches – generated insights which have translated into nothing meaningful since then.

2. Is this a series premised upon grander aspirations for the future, specific policy recommendations, or both? And for which socio-economic or political areas of interest? The present dialogues lined up – from “The Future of Collaboration” to “Matchbox Mayhem: The Social Canvas” and “Community Building through the Arts” – appear haphazard, unanchored by an overarching vision for the national initiative.

One of the main weaknesses of the OSC series, which the Secretariat conceded, was that initial contributions in the first phase were too broad. This was rectified, somewhat, in the second phase which included the ministries, though even facilitators at the sessions organised by the Ministry of Education – which I attended – found it difficult to zoom in on specific topics or pathways. On the other hand, I thought the Committee to Strengthen National Service (NS) in 2014 was so fixated on crafting implementable recommendations, that it did not give participants the chance to challenge the premises for NS, or to think deeper about the corresponding principles of defence and deterrence.

Different ministries or issues, in this vein, would require sessions to be organised differently.

3. What is expected of participants, and how will the organising committee of SGfuture consolidate perspectives from these dialogues? Throughout the next six or seven months, will they also leverage upon the Internet and its communities? Because if the outcomes from the first dialogue series organised by the National Youth Council is any indication, more has to be done to ensure that outcome of SGfuture is not a hotch-potch of proposals which may lack rigour or feasibility.

While well-intentioned, discussions on how to encourage less consumerism will yield little unless they are matched by commitments or community projects. A new volunteer hub sounds great in an SGfuture setting, yet in the past few years the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre as well as the Youthbank online community, for example, have already implemented such a proposal in Singapore. In this regard, assessing their effectiveness and areas for improvement will be far more fruitful.

And as the G provides a more coherent vision for SGfuture, perhaps like-minded Singaporeans – besides the convenience of the ubiquitous petition – should find ways to initiate their own conversations too. Feedback may not necessarily be considered, but most will agree that questioning and sceptical mind-sets are necessary to keep the G constructively in check.


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by Kwan Jin Yao

DO YOU always use a secure password online? Do you share passwords to your email, social media, and even bank accounts? Do you feel completely in control over your online security? And do you know what to do if you become a victim of online crime?

If not, you are a potential victim of cybercrime – and likely to be one of the 594 million affected by cybercrime around the world, according to cyber-security firm Symantec – such as hacked accounts or data breaches, online scams and fraud, as well as stolen identities. Moreover, according to the Norton Cybersecurity Insights which surveyed 1,009 Singaporeans with at least one mobile device as part of its 17-country research, one in five were victims who spent 20 hours on average to deal with the impact of the online crime.

Besides the loss of time, monetary loss for the average victim of cybercrime in Singapore was $545, higher than the global average of $510. Singaporean respondents of the survey also fared worse than their global counterparts in most categories. For instance:

  • 29 per cent used a secure password, compared to the global average of 38 per cent.
  • 59 per cent shared their passwords to their email accounts.
  • 11 per cent feel completely in control over their online security, compared to 15 per cent across the 17 countries surveyed.
  • Only 19 per cent feel confident they know what to do if they become a victim.

Some scepticism over the findings is warranted. After all, little is known about the exact questions asked, and whether the sample of 1,009 Singaporeans is necessarily representative of the population. Most importantly, cyber-security firm Symantec is in the business of producing software and offering professional solutions for consumers, so highlighting these vulnerabilities could therefore influence the demand for their goods and services.

The concern over cybercrime in Singapore, nevertheless, remains relevant. In its mid-year crime brief earlier this year, the Singapore Police Force (SPF) noted that the number of cases involving commercial crimes had increased by 1,387, from 2,506 cases between January and June last year to 3,893 cases in the same period this year. Of this 55.3 per cent increase within the crime class, “cheating involving e-commerce”, “credit-for-sex”, and “Internet love” were main contributors. In this vein, combating online crime will continue to be a focus of the SPF.

Growing broadband and mobile connectivity in Singapore, together with the wealth of its households, means the country will remain attractive to cyber-criminals across the globe too.

Against this background, personal responsibility matters. Wherever possible, apply a two-factor authentication – wherein codes are sent to a mobile device or token in the event of security changes, and is more ubiquitous these days – and use a combination of letters, numbers, and symbols for a secure password. Avoid commonly-used passwords or those which may be easy to guess, and avoid sharing them. And to give yourself even greater control of your online activities, monitor your social media and financial accounts on a regular basis, acquaint yourself with trends such as phishing scams, and always be wary if a deal or offer appears too good to be true.

And, for crying out loud, don’t share your passwords!


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by Kwan Jin Yao

A DIRECTORY, listing courses which would be eligible for the SkillsFuture Credit, may feature a wide range of options – over 10,000 skills-based courses, from arts and entertainment to pharmaceutical and biotechnology – but details are scant for some courses, and even if information is provided it is not standardised. As a result, those browsing for courses will most likely have to send queries to the training providers about the duration of a course, the commitment required in terms of contact hours or assignments, as well as the total costs involved, for example.

After all, every Singaporean aged 25 and above will receive S$500 worth of credit, and even with additional subsidies one would have to check the affordability of the remaining fees. Moreover, if lessons are held on the weekdays, those with work or familial obligations would not be able to attend, even if they wish to “upgrade their skills and progress in their career path,” in the words of Mr Francis Yeo, general manager at NTUC Learning Hub.

Courses are approved or offered through four channels: the Singapore Workforce Development Agency (WDA), institutions funded by the Ministry of Education (MOE), public agencies, or the People’s Association (PA). Courses subsidised by the WDA will have to be accredited, and there are evaluation frameworks or application procedures for those supported by public agencies. These processes do provide some assurance of the courses and their quality.

At the moment, the straightforward directory filters these courses by modes of training, course languages, minimum qualifications required, job levels, and the areas of training. Searches can be made for course titles and training providers, though users will be directed to the websites of the training providers, which should provide more information about the courses.

Information, however, is not always as accessible. For instance, Singaporeans interested in more specialised courses such as Airworthiness Administration or Apply Autonomous Maintenance Techniques will spend more time going through the websites of providers Mil-Com Aerospace Training Centre and Electronics Industries Training Centre respectively. Degree programmes such as BA (Hons) English Language and Literature by Singapore Institute of Management University (SIM) are also offered, yet it is less clear how financially significant the $500 SkillsFuture Credit would be in this regard, and whether there are entry requirements.

What might be more useful is standardised factsheets with key information for each course. Across its 298 courses on the directory, provider Coursera – for example – provides a description, syllabus, recommended background, course format, eligibility for certification, and course duration. Other course providers should be encouraged to do the same, or be given templates for these factsheets. At a glance, Singaporeans can therefore evaluate prospective courses based on their own preferences and qualifications, and in this vein make better decisions too.

The government may be right to say that Singaporeans should take ownership of their own learning, but as a portal the SkillsFuture Credit Course Directory should be improved.

Persistence of these shortcomings could limit the number who eventually use their credits, and will have implications on the frequency of the top-ups, which the government has said will be periodic. At the same time, the government should be explicit with its targets. What is the expected take-up rate for the courses, with a few expected to be more popular? Thereafter, how many are expected to complete their courses, and at what level of proficiency? And how will employers be involved, to identify courses more relevant for their employees?

In terms of complementarity, there are more questions about how the courses in the directory – besides the incentive of the SkillsFuture credit – on how they compare to those in other companies or organisations. What about the e-PREP courses offered by the Ministry of Defence to full-time national servicemen, which provides subsidised online preparatory or refresher courses one year before their operationally ready date? Addressing these doubts will only secure greater buy-in when the programme starts next year.


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Laptop with Internet Explorer logo and a chain and lock on it. Image composited from Flickr user: Alejandro Pinto

by Kwan Jin Yao

AN INTERNET freedom report has given Singapore a “partly free” status, acknowledging that even though digital connectivity has grown, the government “remains wary of the technology’s potential for liberalising political debate and enhancing democratic participation”.

In reaching these conclusions, the findings – which considered the obstacles to access, limits on content, as well as violations of user rights – are premised upon a good summary of socio-political developments between June 2014 and May 2015.

However, beyond observations detailed in this Freedom on the Net report by United States-based organisation Freedom House (which also administers the “Freedom of the Press” report, determining that the level of press freedom in Singapore to be “not free”), perceptions of Internet freedom are important too.

In taking a more objective view of “freedom”, the present index may take into account instances of transgressions in its conclusions, but overlooks potential disparities between the perspectives of different stakeholders.

The comprehensiveness of the country report on Singapore should come as no surprise.

In administering its checklist of methodology questions across the 65 representative countries, Freedom House worked with in-country researchers to verify incidents which might merit concern. The author and adviser for Singapore was Associate Professor Cherian George of the Hong Kong Baptist University, who is known for his research in journalism and advocacy for the freedom of expression in Singapore. In this vein, the country report focused on:

  • Obstacles to access (such as barriers to access and independence of regulatory bodies): penetration rates of Internet and mobile phone subscriptions are high in Singapore, with no restrictions on connectivity. The Smart Nation initiative has also boosted digital technologies and applications, with a “whole-of-government, whole of nation approach”.
  • Limits on content (such as regulations on content and the state of online news media): although political content has not been blocked or filtered, a licensing framework for online news site – including this website – has raised eyebrows over the lack of transparency. The Class License for “The Real Singapore” was also suspended in May this year, the first time such action has been taken. Further concerns over the strict laws on the contempt of court and the freedom for online activism in Singapore were raised.
  • Violations of user rights (such as surveillance, privacy, and extra-legal harassment): the use of the Sedition Act and a number of defamation lawsuits against bloggers, it is argued, shows that “the [Singapore] government places a premium on order and stability at the expense of civil liberties and political opposition”. It was noted that the Protection from Harassment Act, which came into force in April 2014, has been wielded against critics.

Tallying scores from the three categories, the total score for Singapore was 41, with zero indicating absolute freedom and 100 indicating the complete absence of it. It scored six (zero the best, 25 the worst) for its obstacles to access, followed by a score of 14 (35 the worst) for limits on content, and 21 (40 the worst) for violations of user rights.

Another survey conducted in 2007 by the OpenNet Initiative – an academic project which monitored Internet filtering and surveillance practices – found no evidence for the filtering of political content, conflict or security content, or Internet tools, yet researchers found selective filtering for social content.

They concluded that the “threats of lawsuits, fines, and criminal prosecution inhibit more open discourse in an otherwise vibrant Internet community”. Through technical tests for filtering, the OpenNet Initiative does not test for Internet freedom per se, and is similar to the “Limits on content” category of the “Freedom on the Net” report.

In addition to this informative discourse – and with the right resources – the methodology questions used for these reports could be adapted and disseminated to a wider audience, to ascertain the perceptions of various groups in a country.

For instance, the question on whether “online journalists, commentators, and ordinary users practise self-censorship” can be extended to these individuals, with further elaboration on the extent of self-censorship. The availability of robust “sources of information [and a] diversity of viewpoints…despite government efforts to limit access to certain content” can also be corroborated.

In other words beyond the rich academic accounts, aggregating viewpoints from ordinary readers, websites, and aggregators for instance would be useful. Meaningful comparisons – in this regard – can be drawn, perhaps even mooting policy recommendations in the process too.


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