March 24, 2017

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by Daniel Yap

WHEN the G’s feedback unit Reach conducted a random, demographically-weighted phone survey of 1,111 Singaporeans over 20 to ask about public support for budget measures, it found that the 30 per cent water price hike was, unsurprisingly, unpopular.

The 52 per cent overall support level for the budget is the lowest by far since Reach started polling in 2010. The next most unpopular budget was in 2011 at 60 per cent, while the post-GE budget of 2012 garnered 93 per cent support.

But what is most intriguing is the serious gap between the support level for the overall budget and the 58 to 80 per cent support for individual measures (sans water price hike) polled. What gives? Did the water issue contribute so significantly towards the overall lack of support for the budget? Or is there something else out of whack?

Other highlights from the Reach press release were unusual as well. Questions asked seemed to try and measure agreement with statements of cause-and-effect rather than polling for support levels.

For example, the question “The enhancements to the Adapt & Grow initiative and other training support under the SkillsFuture initiative will help create better employment opportunities for Singaporeans” does not actually asks respondents whether they agree with the policy – only whether they agree with the stated effect.

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Seven out of the nine questions in the survey were of this nature, with the exceptions being “Overall, I support the initiatives announced in the Budget” (52 per cent agree) and “It is reasonable to increase water prices to fund the higher costs of water production and to encourage water conservation” (32 per cent agree).

That probably accounts for the vast difference between the overall support and the apparently positive results for individual policies. In other words, people agree that the policy will have the stated effect, but probably disagree that the policy should exist.

Reach surveys face problems as indicators of real ground sentiments. Academic Derek da Cunha said in a Facebook post that “public opinion polls conducted in Singapore by a government or government-affiliated agency are not worth much, if anything.” He said that a high percentage of “neutral” answers was an indication that respondents were fearful of articulating their real thoughts about G policies to someone who had identified as a representative of the G.

“Neutral” answers to questions asked ranged from 15 per cent to 35 per cent.

Policymakers, the G and the public will probably want to read the Reach poll results with a sceptical eye, and Reach will need to look for better ways to conduct its polls if it really wants to know what Singaporeans are really thinking.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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A VIDEO emerged of Westminster Bridge on Wednesday (March 22) showing the moment a car was driven into pedestrians earlier in the day in the worst attack in London since 2005.

Five people were killed and about 40 injured after a car ploughed into pedestrians and a suspected Islamist-inspired attacker stabbed a policeman close to Britain’s parliament.

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The dead, in what police called a “marauding terrorist attack,” included the assailant and the policeman he stabbed. The other three victims were among those hit by the car as it sped across Westminster Bridge before crashing into railings just outside parliament.

It was the deadliest attack in London since four British Islamists killed 52 commuters and themselves in suicide bombings on the city’s transport system in July 2005, in London’s worst peacetime attack.

-Reuters/BBC

 

Featured image is a screen grab from Youtube

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by Lee Chin Wee

SINGAPORE’S got talent – or so it seems, pipping Silicon Valley for top spot in the “talent” category in the Global Startup Ecosystem Report and Ranking by Startup Genome released last week (Mar 14).

That Singapore has snatched the top billing shows a changing startup environment here. Startup Genome, a research team which specialises in analysing the global startup landscape, said that Silicon Valley has “lost the edge… five to fifteen years ago” when it “enjoyed a quasi-monopoly on very experienced back-end engineers”.
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What does it mean to be top at “talent”?

How proud can Singapore be of this accolade? Does this mean Ayer Rajah Crescent is poised to be the next San Francisco Bay Area? Not quite.

Although we’ve achieved a top ranking for startup talent, it’s important to understand how this was assessed. “Talent” was evaluated using three criteria: 1. Access; 2. Cost; and 3. Quality of Talent.

Singapore was ranked third best in the world when it came to the accessibility of talent. It is easy for local startup founders to hire experienced engineers, and “obtain a visa for hires from abroad”. It is no surprise that Singapore did well on this metric – even in light of opposition to immigration; the political leadership wants to maintain a reasonably liberal immigration policy. This makes migrant talent far more accessible, compared to other countries.

Singapore was also ranked fourth best in the world for the cost of talent. This refers to “engineer salaries”, which is fairly straightforward: For comparison, the mean annual salary for a software engineer in Singapore is $49,381 whereas an equivalent software engineer in the United States would earn $80,745.

The only other startup ecosystems where talent was cheaper than in Singapore were Bangalore, Shanghai and Beijing. Unlike these cities, however, the cost of living in Singapore is far higher. According to the Worldwide Cost of Living Survey 2017 conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit, Singapore is the most expensive country to live in as an expatriate – for the fourth year running.

Why is engineering talent in Singapore so cheap? One reason is that startups employ cheaper local engineers or foreign talent because the more expensive local engineers (who command higher wages) are based overseas, or work for established companies back home. Mr Chia Zhe Min, 23, an NUS engineering student, shared that “the really talented and adventurous Singaporeans” tend to go to Silicon Valley due to the “more interesting and vibrant startup culture, and the higher pay.”

Mr Agrim Singh, 24, an SUTD graduate, agreed: “Singaporeans prefer to play it safe, and large companies provide a stable wage and contract benefits that (local) startups may be unable to match.” With startup ecosystems in Silicon Valley and Toronto offering far more competitive pay packages, few home-grown top engineers stay. And when they do, they work for large multi-nationals such as Google.

Many local engineers are also lured into mid-career switches, moving into more lucrative jobs in banking or consultancy. Mr Edwin Khew, President of the Institution of Engineers Singapore, said in an ST report last year: “Engineers, due to their versatile skill sets and problem-solving abilities, continue to be highly sought after by sectors such as business and finance.”

Foreign-born engineers, who are willing to accept lower wages, then take the place of local engineers in Singapore. This depresses wages, which in turn affects the number of promising students who want to study engineering in the first place.

In a Facebook post (which has since been made private) cited by media platform Tech in Asia, Mr Lam Keong Yeoh, former chief economist for the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC), blames Singapore’s overly-loose immigration policy: “We have been far too liberal in importing cheaper regional engineers and IT staff for over two decades. This has bid down the real wages and working conditions of such professions such that the return on investing in such a tertiary education and career is unattractive to locals.”

This explains why Singapore was placed 10th for the quality of talent. Even though we have easily accessible and affordable talent, it is questionable whether the startup employees here can rival their peers in America or Canada. If you could earn more and work alongside the best engineers in the business by going to Silicon Valley, why wouldn’t you?

It is important to note that Singapore only beat out Silicon Valley on talent because Silicon Valley ranked 20th on cost, while Singapore ranked fourth.

On the metrics of accessibility and quality of talent, Silicon Valley still topped the world. If the G truly wants our startup talent to be world-class, then we may end up slipping down the rankings – because the quality of talent is directly tied to the wages they can command.

 

Modified from the 2017 Global Startup Ecosystem Report.

 

Singapore: A world-class startup ecosystem?

Even if one were to accept that Singapore is a world-leader for startup talent, Singapore still fell two places to finish overall 12th in the global startup ecosystem rankings. Singapore ranked behind ecosystems such as Tel Aviv (6th) and Silicon Valley (1st).

The new inclusions of Beijing (2nd) and Shanghai (8th) in this year’s report are a sign that other cities in Asia have no problems catching up with, and surpassing Singapore in the startup scene.

 

Modified from the 2017 Global Startup Ecosystem Report.

Of the top 20 startup ecosystems, Singapore was dead last for startup experience. The report defined this as “the pool of knowledge and networks that startups can draw on”. As a relatively new player, Singapore lags behind other cities in the number of unicorns (startups valued at over US$1 billion) produced.

We also have the fewest experienced entrepreneurs. It was noted that startup founders based in Singapore were the “youngest in the world”, with a median age of 28 years.

For now, it remains to be seen whether nascent companies can replicate the success of homegrown startups like Lazada, which was sold for US$1 billion in 2016. As the G continues to invest in startups via the Startup SG umbrella, the hope is that it will only be a matter of time before the startup scene here matures. But how much time can Singapore afford in the frenetic race of global tech and entrepreneurship?

We need to look behind the headlines. Is startup talent in Singapore cheaper than that in Silicon Valley? Of course. Is it better than that in Silicon Valley? Hardly.

Is this the Singapore brand we want to present to the world?

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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by Lee Chin Wee

FEELING down recently? According to the World Happiness Report published by the United Nations (UN) on Monday (Mar 21), you may not be alone: Singapore has been ranked the world’s 26th happiest country, down four places from 22nd last year.

Respondents from each country were asked to evaluate the quality of their current lives on a scale of zero to 10. The figures from 2014 to 2016 were then averaged, to obtain a mean happiness score. Singapore’s score of 6.572 puts us one place higher than the South European nation of Malta (6.527), and one place lower than Mexico (6.578).

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While Singapore has indeed slipped down the happiness rankings, this doesn’t tell the full story. We remain the happiest country in all of Asia, with next-best Asian countries Thailand and Taiwan coming in 32nd and 33rd place respectively. Among other developed Asian economies, Japan ranked 51st while South Korea placed 56th.

So, relative to our regional counterparts, Singapore isn’t doing too badly. But should that be the only thing which counts? Why can’t we match up to our Nordic counterparts who consistently top the happiness rankings?

The answer lies in the way the UN calculates the happiness index. Each country’s score is derived from its own citizens’ perception of happiness, rather than objective metrics which measure for quality of life. A country with a comparatively worse education and healthcare system could perform better than its neighbours, so long as its citizens perceive their lives to be happy.

 

Modified from the UN World Happiness Report 2017

Take the chart above as an example. Singapore ranks below Mexico and Argentina on the index, yet a large portion of our happiness score can be attributed to positive standard of living indicators: Happiness can be explained by Singapore’s high GDP (Gross Domestic Product) per capita, healthy life expectancy, and low levels of government corruption.

Where we lose out to Mexico and Argentina, though, is the grey bar labelled “Dystopia (1.85) + residual”. The figure for “Dystopia (1.85)” is a constant across all countries due to the UN’s methodology when compiling the report, and can be ignored.

The component called “residual” is where it gets interesting. It “measures the extent to which life evaluations are higher or lower than predicted by (the UN’s) equation (earlier in the report). The residuals are as likely to be negative as positive.” In other words, it shows the difference between what the UN predicts a country’s happiness score should be based on available data, and what the actual happiness score is when residents are surveyed.

Singapore’s “residual” is low, and might even be negative (no breakdown was provided in the report). This indicates that our unhappiness is not the cause of endemic corruption or government failure, but rather based on residents’ perception of life in Singapore. The difference is even starker when we compare Singapore to the top-ranking country, Norway:

 

Modified from the UN World Happiness Report 2017

Singaporeans are actually happier than Norwegians, if we only consider the six quantifiable components the UN listed: GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and perceptions of corruptions. Where we lose out considerably is on our “residual” – Singaporeans just don’t feel happy.

I’m not saying we should ignore how people feel. The survey results could well mean that the G has failed to account for the non-quantifiable components of a happy life, such as our stress levels and non-career aspirations.

All I’m saying is that our ranking in this year’s World Happiness Report isn’t so bad. By all objective metrics, Singapore residents are richer, healthier, and less corrupt than our international counterparts (even more so when compared within Southeast Asia).

Our poor score in the “residual” component will serve as a reminder to the G that an obsession with Key Performance Indicators isn’t enough; sometimes there is a need to also focus on the softer aspects of life. Trade-offs between our pace of life and our GDP per capita may have to be made. Home is, after all, where the heart is.

 

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by Jason Tan

THE first quarter of 2017 is nearly behind us and the global economy seems to have also put its travails behind itself. The world economic outlook is indeed brightening and the world is set for a rosier rest-of-2017.

World trade flows, after a sluggish recovery since the financial crisis of 2008, are increasing steadily; the falls in commodity prices are also likely to be over, putting an end to fears that the world economy may be in deflation mode. Manufacturing in various large economies stands at multi-period highs, driven by rising exports.

This economic upswing on a global level is primarily supported by an accelerating American economy. The United States (US) has certainly taken its time to get back to its feet after the debilitating sub-prime mortgage crisis and its aftermath. The US Federal Reserve’s recent hiking of the Fed Funds Rate – the policy rate which is used as a reference for interest rates worldwide – by 0.25 percentage points in March reflects burgeoning confidence in the US economy.

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The American acceleration is ably supported by a nascent revival in the other large, advanced economies, namely, the Eurozone and Japan. China – a source of global uncertainty in 2015 and 2016 – has also embarked on a path of lower but more stable and high quality growth. This has had the effect of injecting impetus into the global economy through trade and investment flows.

East Asia, including Asean countries, has benefited from the export turnaround and will enjoy greater economic gains in the year ahead. Export-oriented economies such as Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam will be outsized winners from the resurgence of the G3 bloc and the consequent boost to global trade flows. Even Indonesia and the Philippines will stand to gain from the increased demand for raw materials and other commodities.

This will come as a relief for economies in general as we put behind us the unsettling episodes of the recent past such as the oil price collapse in late-2014, the Chinese stock market crash in mid-2015 and subsequent fears about dwindling foreign reserves as capital outflows fled from China, Brexit and the election of Mr Donald Trump to the presidency in the US.

However, there remain salient risks which could upset the applecart.

First, US President Trump’s fiscal policies remain largely unknown. He has mooted a trifecta of deregulation, corporate tax cuts and large-scale infrastructure development as the cornerstone of his fiscal plans. Yet this fiscal stimulus could cause an accelerating US economy into overheat and force the Fed to adopt a tighter monetary policy stance.

Second, US-China relations remain clouded by Mr Trump’s rhetoric of China being a currency manipulator and unfair trade partner. Any unilateral trade sanctions imposed by the US on China will have knock-on effects in Asia, given the interconnectedness in the region. Furthermore, it will darken the already dimming mood for globalisation and free trade – which Asia is so dependent on.

Third, North Korea is the most pertinent geopolitical risk that could derail the rosy economic outlook. The recent death of Mr Kim Jong Nam, brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, ostensibly at the hands of North Korean agents, brought the spotlight onto an increasingly unstable regime in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Any implosion in the Korean peninsula will definitely lead to financial market turmoil and currency fluctuations in the region.

The bottomline: The world will likely be a better place in 2017 as the global economy re-awakens on the back of strength from G3 and China. Rising world trade stemming from increasing global demand will feed into economic upswings in export-oriented economies in East Asia and Asean. However, some risks loom large. In particular, political spillovers from the Trump Administration in the US could lead to economic detriments as will a regime implosion in the DPRK.

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Jason Tan is an economist at Centennial Asia Advisors, focusing on macroeconomic and geopolitical developments in developing Asia. He delves into social, political and economic issues facing Singapore on the side.

 

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TECH, tapping, theft. It seems that progress has given humans more ways to steal information and more ways to screw up and leak information online, like the SAF did this week. Here are some of the incidents that occurred across the world this past week that stand as a testament to the need for better cyber security, whether it be from leaks within or threats without.

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.1. Washington, United States – WikiLeaks publishes trove of CIA documents

Image by user:Duffman from Wikimedia Commons

On Mar 7, WikiLeaks released a data trove of secret Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) documents, revealing the agency’s hacking operations and spying capabilities. Codenamed “Vault 7”, the release involved 8,761 classified documents. Most security experts agree that the information appears legitimate, but does not reveal any groundbreaking secrets.

If the leak is accurate, it means the CIA has the ability to hack into a variety of internet-enabled platforms – your phone, smart TV, computer, and router. In fact, it seems that the CIA can even read encrypted messages sent on otherwise secure apps like WhatsApp and Telegram. The CIA does this by exploiting iOS and Android vulnerabilities to hack into a user’s phone, allowing them to see what’s on screen, listen to the user typing or dictating words, and capture the original data before it is encrypted.

However, the documents only represent three years of alleged data. It is possible that technology companies have updated their firmware and other data protection measures to deal with these vulnerabilities. It is also possible that the CIA has developed new hacking tools beyond those described in the Vault 7 leaks.
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2. Taipei, Taiwan – University graduate arrested on charges of spying for China

Image from Pixabay

Last week, Taiwanese authorities arrested Chinese national Zhou Hongxu, a graduate of Taipei’s prestigious National Chengchi University (NCCU). Zhou has been accused of attempting to organise a spy ring inside the Taiwan government – he allegedly tried to recruit a foreign service officer by offering him a free trip to Japan in exchange for classified information. Prosecutors believe that Mr Zhou was instructed by China’s Taiwan Affairs Office to enrol at NCCU where he could make friends and develop a spy ring.

Beijing, meanwhile, has protested the detention. Mr Ma Xiaoguang, a spokesman for China’s Mainland Affairs Office, dismissed the allegation as “pure fabrication intended to stir up trouble.” Criticising the Taiwanese authorities, Mr Ma said the arrest has come at a time when Taiwanese independence forces have been hyping up a “serious infiltration by Chinese spies in Taiwan.”

Citing an anonymous government official, the Taipei Times reported that there are an estimated 5,000 individuals harvesting classified information in Taiwan for Beijing. Chinese nationals who go to Taiwan for business or to study may sometimes be of use to China’s intelligence apparatus.
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3. Washington D.C, United States of America – Accusations and allegations 

Image by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Marianique Santos from Wikimedia Commons

President of the US, Donald Trump accused former president Barack Obama of wiretapping him. Mr Trump tweeted early in March that Mr Obama wiretapped him towards the end of his presidential campaign but had no evidence to support. However, a spokesman for Mr Obama said that it was “simply false.”

Mr Andrew Napolitano, a Fox News analyst while on the Fox & Friends programme said that, instead of asking US agencies to spy on Mr Trump, Mr Obama obtained transcripts of Trump’s conversations from Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the equivalent of the US National Security Agency (NSA).

The Secret Intelligence Service commonly known as MI6 has denied the charge of eavesdropping on Donald Trump pre- and post-US presidential election. The charge was made on Tuesday by Fox News analyst Andrew Napolitano. A British official who is familiar with government policy and security operations described the charges to be “totally untrue and quite frankly absurd.” The US has since apologised to the UK for the statement and promised not to repeat such unfounded claims again.
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4. Ottawa, Canada – Sex-toy manufacturer pays C$4m (S$4.23m) to American users due to privacy concerns

Image from Pixabay 

Canadian sex-toy maker Standard Innovation has agreed to a collective payout up to a total of C$4m (S$4.23m) for users in the US, after it was accused of tracking data on the intimate habits of thousands of its customers. A class-action lawsuit was filed last year by American customers who alleged the company violated their privacy rights.

Users took issue with an app – called We-Connect, which connected to the company’s We-Vibe vibrator. The data collected was sent back to the company, including details on temperatures, settings, and usage. Standard Innovation claimed the data was for market-research purposes, but some users felt violated, due to the personal nature of the information. They also voiced concerns that the data could be linked to the email address they provided to the company.

The company has since claimed that there has been no breach of our customers’ personal information or data. Under the settlement agreement, those who used the We-Connect app will be paid up to C$10,000 (S$10,563) each. Customers who bought the toy, but did not activate the accompanying app, will receive up to US$199 (S$280) each.

 

Featured image by Flickr user geralt. CC0 1.0.

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police car, law and order

by Daniel Yap

THE Singapore Police Force has come under fire of late for how its officers followed Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and arrested a 74-year-old woman for her summons over a Town Council fine. The Singapore Prison Service (often and easily confused with the Police) then bound her hand-and-foot to transfer her from custody to a cell.

SOP again, and surely excessive for a geriatric with no criminal past, wanted for putting potted plants in the wrong place. But rules are rules.

But are SOPs rules? Not really. In the army, it is military law that governs us, and then every unit has its standing orders – formally given down the chain of command. An SOP, on the other hand, is simply a set of default reactions and decisions we use when faced with common situations.

Here’s where Robocop steps in to be the hero we deserve, but not the one we really need right now (or is that someone else?). The parable of the police-man-made-machine, and I’m talking about the glorious artistry of the 1987 film, is pit against not just all manner of criminality and pseudo-criminality, but held in contrast against ED-209, the completely robotic but massively powerful law enforcement droid.

ED-209 only reacts to rules and set-in-stone procedures, but Robocop, with the frailty and power of a human mind and emotion, is the hero that saves the day. Our everyday heroes at the Police need to be able to apply Robocop’s humanity, lest they be seen as the cold, marginally vile, by-the-book-only ED-209.

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An SOP is a great thing. Like Robocop’s “prime directives”, it saves us the trouble of having to hum and haw excessively over each case. Like Robocop’s targeting computer, it helps speed up our reaction time and decision-making. Like Robocop’s armour plating, it is something to fall back to when things get too complicated or too risky. But SOPs can’t possibly cover every contingency. Things can still go wrong.

Following SOPs does mitigate our actions when things go wrong, but it does not mean that what we did wasn’t wrong. It acts as a reasonable explanation for our chosen actions, but doesn’t absolve us from responsibility.

In other words, the thinking person is not slave to his or her SOPs, and commanders should not teach their charges to become slaves to an SOP. Everyone at all levels of an organisation should be told to think for themselves and then take responsibility for their own decisions.

An SOP is supposed to be a tool that enhances the thinking officer’s effectiveness, not a crutch for mindlessness or a machine to set in motion and forget about. That would make us no better than robots, and in today’s technological world, we really need to differentiate between man and machine, lest our jobs be on the line.

So henceforth let, “we followed procedures” never again be an excuse for not engaging the brain, or doing things with a heart. We’ve got to ask ourselves: what would Robocop do?

 

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by Ryan Ong

BUSINESS Times just published a report on how Singapore may be experiencing a two-speed economy. By that, it means our entire economy is not operating at the same pace; one side of it is doing very well, and the other side is about to grow its hair long and drop out of school. The divergence seems to be between export oriented businesses, which mainly make money from customers abroad, and domestic businesses that rely on a local customer base. Here’s what it all means:

by Lee Chin Wee

CAN you imagine a Singapore where students aren’t defined wholly by their grades?

ST ran a thought-provoking piece on Mar 16, calling on the G to be bold and take in all students through aptitude-based university admissions. The proposal runs completely against the grain of our grades-centred university admissions model, but that’s the entire point. If we are to be serious about transforming education and skills acquisition in Singapore, it’s time for some sacred cows to be slaughtered.

Many of the world’s top universities have already implemented a holistic, aptitude-based admissions model. Among employers, there is also a growing recognition that academic performance is an insufficient and inaccurate barometer for professional success – Google, for instance, has moved away from hiring based solely on GPAs and IQ tests.  As Senior Education Correspondent Sandra Davie points out in the ST article, “(Imagine) choosing our doctors based on grades alone. Considering how expensive medical training is in terms of taxpayers’ money, wouldn’t society want future doctors to be compassionate and caring?”

As the G seeks to prepare young Singaporeans to face the varied challenges of our future economy, it makes sense to distribute talent to where it can be best developed rather than sort students to universities based on test scores. Why, then, am I not optimistic about change?

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“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”

Our political and civil service leadership are the least likely to take issue with the current model. Why would they, if they have been (and will continue to be) the largest beneficiaries of a highly-intense, elite-tracked, grades-centred education system?

There exists a cognitive effect known as Survivorship Bias. It simply means that, when we are evaluating the success of a policy, there is a tendency to concentrate on the people or things that “survived” the process and inadvertently discount those who did not due to their lack of visibility. Mr Michael Shermer explains this effect in an article written for the Scientific American, where he discussed the public interest in Walter Isaacson’s 2011 best-selling biography of Steve Jobs:
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Want to be the next Steve Jobs and create the next Apple Computer? Drop out of college and start a business with your buddies in the garage of your parents’ home. How many people have followed the Jobs model and failed? Who knows? No one writes books about them and their unsuccessful companies.

.Similarly, no one listens to someone who failed to enter university under a grades-only system. The people who are heard are the survivors: the 21-year-old Public Service Commission scholars who scored perfect grades in their youth and went on to be Deputy Secretaries, Permanent Secretaries, and Ministers.

The simple fact is that there is a lack of educational and academic diversity within the ranks of our top leadership. How many of them studied in polytechnics, or barely made the cut for university? The homogeneity of their experiences may blind them to the harms of a grades-only admissions policy.

 

Parents, social attitudes and the politics of education

Miss Davie admits that she “can already hear the howls of protest from parents paying thousands of dollars to top tutors to ensure that their kids ace the A levels.” And she’s right – Singapore is not called the “Tuition Nation” for nothing. It is estimated that over S$1 billion is spent on tuition each year, with the figure steadily increasing.

Many parents have bought into the Confucian ethos that hard work and good grades will lead to a well-paying job. It is a mantra that the G has reinforced over the years, from aggressive academic streaming that began as early as in primary school (remember the now-discontinued EM1/2/3?) to public sector scholarships awarded to top exam performers at ages 18 and 19.

Particularly for the older generation of Singaporean parents, grades are a non-negotiable aspect of school life. Co-curricular training can be missed, enrichment activities can be skipped, but exams must be passed, if not aced.

It’s more than just the idea of shifting values. Many parents and families have been financially and personally investing into a future-by-the-grades for their children. If they realise that a grades-based future is no longer as good as it used to be, you can expect some outcry.

For the G to overturn this deeply-ingrained orthodoxy is to invite backlash and scepticism – parents want less stress for their children, but they also want a fair and meritocratic university admissions process. It is easy to see how an aptitude-based system, with its numerous interviews, focus on interviews and portfolios, and discretionary admissions policies could be seen as subjective and opaque, even though it need not be.

 

The irritating, but simple, cost argument

A final consideration is that of cost. A 100 per cent aptitude-based admissions system is not going to come cheap – it means expanding the university admissions office, more time spent interviewing prospective candidates, longer hours reviewing each application.

MOE statistics indicate that in 2015 alone, the six autonomous universities in Singapore received a combined 70,000 applications from A-level and polytechnic diploma holders. Assuming that an aptitude-based admissions system increases the time taken to assess each student by 15 minutes (a conservative estimate), that is 17,500 hours of additional work in total.

This subsequently gets priced into university application costs. American colleges, which recruit students on a holistic and broad-based set of criteria, are an example. As someone who applied to a number of American colleges in 2014, I know first-hand how expensive these costs can be – even as a domestic US student, applying for one college costs around US$60 (S$85). Imagine if you applied to six colleges! That’s S$510 down the drain before you even go for any interviews.

Application fees in Singapore are, on the comparative, very cheap. A local student applying to NUS, for example, only need to pay $10. It is entirely possible to apply for all six autonomous universities in Singapore for the price of applying to one or two US colleges.

 

Change is still worthwhile

Such considerations, however, should not prevent us from seeking real change to the university admissions process. While it may mean that change progresses at a slower rate – the quota for discretionary admissions could be gradually increased over a period of 10 years – it should not detract from the key points made by Miss Davie. The world will not wait for Singapore to change. If we continue to drag our heels instead of trying to find new ways to maximise our human capital, then prepare to be left behind.

 

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by Bertha Henson

WE’LL all be hearing more from Mr Peter Ho, the former head of Civil Service, because he’s been picked to give the Institute of Policy Studies series of lectures. TODAY ran an interview with him on aspects of the civil service. Perhaps, he could expand on some points he made in his interview when he gives his lectures.
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1. Mr Ho said that increasing complexity of policies and higher order needs of the populace means coming up with new ways, such as more risk management, to solve problems.

”It’s not that traditional tools are no longer important; tools like cost-benefit analysis are still relevant. But cost-benefit analysis in a complex environment, in and of itself, may not provide you with the complete answer. Cost-benefit analysis is quite linear, and traditional tools don’t help you get your arms completely around complex problems.”

(What traditional tools are less important then? Can he cite instances when the solution did not address the problem because traditional tools were used? Was there a moment of epiphany for him?)

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2. We don’t know when the interview was conducted, whether before or after the Prime Minister said that he didn’t want to be surrounded by naysayers. But clearly, he agrees that the rules-bound culture has to change, going by his message to the younger generation of civil servants.

”Your job is to find ways to improve Singapore’s position and the lot of Singaporeans in a period of accelerating change and uncertainty. Of course, you’re not going to be criticised for following the rules, but if you want to lift the quality of your policies and plans, and raise the level of good governance practised in Singapore, then it cannot be just about saying: “I followed the rules.” Instead, it should be that “I tried to make things better.” The basic misconception some younger civil servants may have is that what worked well in the past will be what propels you into the future successfully. Our civil servants must be able to keep up with the pace of change. You have to ask yourself if the rules, plans and policies still serve the purpose for which they were designed, or if we need to change them in order to do things better. ”

(There’s no point speaking in generalities. Can he enlighten with examples when sticking to the rules is to the detriment of policy outcomes? Or when rules work against the desire of the public service to be emphatic or to “have a heart’’. Can he also tell what rules have been changed because they are no longer relevant. Would policies on single mothers be one of them?)
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3. Mr Ho talked about the need to be bold which is more difficult now because the basics have been achieved and Singapore is now “competing at the top’’.

”Today, of course, you still want that spark — that ability to think boldly about the future. But the big challenge now is, how much risk are you prepared to take? These are serious risks because we’ve achieved so much, that a bad miscalculation can mean losing it all. The stakes are much higher.”

(Can he give examples of what areas require bold but risky changes? Would the report of the Committee of the Future Economy or the reserved Presidential Election be among them? If so, what are the risks involved? Also, the general perception is the G prefers to make “tweaks’’ rather than take bold steps – or is this the wrong perception?)
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4. Mr Ho talks about how many ingredients go into making a judgment call.

“…every major decision and every major policy are not an exercise to find the right answers. They are always an exercise in making the right judgment — not a hard right or hard wrong — but a balanced one that serves the best interests of the majority and the country. You cannot make everybody happy. Also, judgments always have to be revisited now and then — to go back to my point that things are changing. What seems to be sensible now may in a few years’ time no longer be sensible. You have to be prepared to constantly change.”

(Again, examples are needed. But there’s another point to consider: The public service shouldn’t think that a change is an acknowledgment of a mistake and therefore paper over the “change’’ as something that is a natural follow through of the old policy. When policies make a sharp turn, the people must be brought on board in understanding the changed circumstances or even objectives. Would he consider that enough explanation was given for the sudden announcement of the increase in the water price? Could Hong Kong’s seizure of the Singapore’s Terrexes be better explained to the people as an example of the changed geo-political realities that Singapore faces?)
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5. This wasn’t touched upon but hopefully, Mr Ho will pick up the subject in one of his lectures. The civil service has always been accused of “group think’’ with its top echelons being a closed circle of like-minded individuals. That so many top civil servants cross into the political sphere doesn’t add to people’s confidence that radical or bold ideas can surface from the G. One example is how the Committee for the Future Economy is stuffed with Old Economy members. Singapore’s Establishment seems to be a closed rank of people who went to the same schools and move in the same circles with very few gaps allowing for “mavericks’’. Please do not use the sole example of Mr Philip Yeo. He’s just one man.

 

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