March 23, 2017


Using Chinese software can be tricky
Using Chinese software can be tricky

In November, a few hundred students will be sitting part of their Chinese Mother Tongue exams using a laptop – the first time computers are being used in a national examination, the Education Ministry said yesterday.

Instead of writing their answers on traditional gao zhi (Chinese foolscap), the 300 junior college students will have to type an e-mail or blog entry by using romanised hanyu pinyin, then selecting the right characters when prompted by the input software. This “functional writing” part of the test makes up 20 per cent of the whole exam.

Media reports said the exam is the A-level Mother Tongue “B” exam, introduced in 2003 to help students who aren’t so good in Chinese.

The thinking behind this new e-component is that it will make learning Chinese more current since no one really writes in script anymore – certainly not students who are poor in the language to begin with.

Or as MOE deputy-general of education Wong Siew Hoong put it to ST: These students were selected to have the e-exam because they “are the ones who will require a lot more authenticity in their learning”.

TODAY said such computer-based writing “has become the norm not only in the workplace but also in social communication”.

Surprisingly, the Chinese daily Zaobao did not have a conniption fit about the news – after all, the concern most traditional Chinese-speakers will have is that such a move may compromise the learning of Chinese characters at a time when already more and more Chinese Singaporeans are using English at home and at work.

The paper reported the story straight – though, expect its Forum pages to be flooded by similar concerns over the next few days.

This was an issue addressed by the director of assessment research at the Singapore Examinations and Assessment Board yesterday.

Mr Yue Lip Sin said “recognising the characters is as important as knowing how to write them,” ST reported, adding: “What is important is whether they are able to communicate the idea and the feeling in the functional writing.”

by Bertha Henson 

When there are so many ministers talking down a diploma or degree, something’s amiss (or afoot), methinks. Mr Heng Swee Keat makes it minister No. 4 to have weighed in on how a paper qualification is not the only route to success. Now… the minisers were mainly speaking to polytechnic graduates, practically telling them to get a job (there are plenty, so it has been asserted) instead of automatically heading to the universities.

What will they say if the audience were university graduates? Not to go chasing yet another paper? Post-graduate qualifications? What’s for sure, the mantra that learning is a lifelong process will be heard.

This is all so odd. When university places were opened up, one reason was to give more good poly students a shot at a degree locally instead of spending money on an overseas education. It was universally applauded. Then there was all that projection about the proportion of university graduates making up the labour force in the future. So many universities, autonomous and private, brand-name and otherwise, are sited here, nay, wooed over. And now we are saying that poly students might want to think about getting a job first?

You can’t blame anyone for wondering about the ministerial chorus.

Why do people want a degree? First, entry-level pay is differentiated for diploma and degree holders, as it should be, given the longer investment in a university education. Second, a degree is more prestigious than a diploma. Third, a degree is what our parents would prefer us to have. Fourth, a degree is needed if you want to be a “professional’’, say, lawyer, doctor or accountant.

In fact, a degree is now perceived as not good enough in the eyes of some people. Is it a “good’’ degree? From a “good’’ university? In fact, a Bachelors degree is not as good as a post-graduate degree. An MA or a Phd is better, that’s why it’s printed on business cards.

But I would be the first to say that work experience is valuable – but do employers think so too? When I left university, the difference between a general degree and an honours degree was $200 a month, a large sum in those days. Can a general degree holder surpass the pay of the new honours graduate in one year or two or three? Or will they forever be lagging behind? What about a diploma versus degree holder? Much would depend on how much effort the employee puts in. The other question would be whether this is recognised by employers or would employers be dazzled by the academic credentials of a fresh recruit that they automatically make arrangements for their career “progression’’?

I have another worry. Is the ministerial chorus being sounded because our polytechnic students are not good enough to fill university places, especially with the expansion of poly places over the years? And their aspirations will have to be dampened or there will be a political problem on our hands? To accommodate so many, university entry levels will have to be lowered to meet the higher demand. (I have always wondered about whether the Integrated Programme has siphoned off the best students at age 12, preparing them for university. Do the best of the rest head to the junior colleges or to the polys?)

It will take more than a ministerial chorus to turn people away from a degree and take their chances in the job market or set up their own business. The education route has been so ingrained in the minds of the people here. Sure, there are plenty of people who have made it good in life without a degree (and the media is celebrating them like crazy these days). But how many did so because they didn’t have a choice, like too few uni places here so they only go to the cream of the crop, too expensive elsewhere or family circumstances that require them to earn a living?

Another thought: With so many foreign workers sent packing with the tightened work permit system, is this one way to make sure a labour crunch is averted? Perhaps, work opportunities and space for career progression really abound. We need workers, to replace the workers who have to go home.

Ministers are weighing in on the worth of a degree, with the latest one being Acting Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing who urged poly students to get some work experience.

Two young BN writers say what they think.

Which weighs of greater importance? A college degree or workplace experience, especially when one has just graduated? (Illustration by Melissa Lim)
Which weighs of greater importance? A college degree or workplace experience, especially when one has just graduated? (Illustration by Melissa Lim)

by Kwan Jin Yao, 21, “studying” Business, who believes that we should embrace individuals who disagree with your perspectives

Stories of top polytechnic graduates like Tan Junhong’s are great, but they are “rare”. Despite leaving school with a perfect score, the aeronautical engineering graduate intends to work for aircraft-engine makers before university. The vast majority, it seems, prefer to further their studies in the universities (although the diploma proves that they are work-ready, in comparison to their junior college counterparts). Some might argue they lack foresight: a few years in the workplace or preferred industry will allow them to develop skill-sets and experiences that cannot be gained while at college.

While the reality on-the-ground is quite different, everyone in the administration appears to be harping on this same message. The ST report noted SP principal Tan Choon Shian advising his students, that “while conventional wisdom suggests pursuing a degree right away, it is also wise to work for a few years”. Minister Khaw Boon Wan said that a university degree is “not vital for success”. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong added his voice too, insisting that “getting a degree is not the only option for polytechnic students”. 

So where do we go from here? 

Perhaps one of the ways is to reaffirm the longstanding belief that junior college graduates do get an edge when they apply to enter a local university. At first glance, the representative grade profiles for A-level and polytechnic applicants are equally competitive (the NUS Business Administration programmes – for instance – requires A level students to score AAA/B to AAA/A, and poly students to score between 3.82 and 3.97). However, beyond the number of applicants, it would be interesting to know how many polytechnic graduates do make it to the local universities, and how this rate compares to the junior college graduates.

Even though the Government’s conception of the polytechnic as a vocational institution might not have changed, there is a sense that the perspectives of the students are changing. Are there more graduates applying to the universities than before? Will the new schools allow for more polytechnic admissions? 

The Government might find itself in a pickle: revealing the statistical status quo might show that it is indeed extremely difficult for polytechnic graduates to enter the local universities. This could incur the wrath of parents and students. Just ask Acting Minister Lawrence Wong, who received tremendous flak last year when he contended that “we do not want the polytechnics to become pre-universities”. 

Already, anecdotal discontent is surfacing because of this perceived discrimination. Polytechnic graduates believe that a degree promises greater prospects and more competitive incomes, and so university aspirations have become more ubiquitous. And this trend is not going to abate with bureaucrats or policy-makers telling them otherwise.


by Augustin Chiam, 24, Political Science Major, Yr 3 NUS undergraduate. He believes that people should have the courage to be wrong.

So much talk recently about whether a university degree is a must-have. And now polytechnic graduates are being assured that there are jobs waiting for them, should they decide to forgo a degree and forge ahead with a diploma. The more important lesson, according to the latest minister to weigh in on the topic, Mr Chan Chun Sing, is to cultivate a mind that is willing and able to learn, for all times.

Let’s just take the first point: that there are jobs awaiting polytechnic graduates.

As it so happens, the five polytechnics (NYP, Ngee Ann, RP, SP and TP) conducted a Graduate Employment Survey 2012. The results showed that the full time employment rate for polytechnic graduates is only 65.4 per cent for fresh graduates and 77.8 per cent for post-NS graduates. When those doing part-time non-contractual work is included, the figure is significantly higher at 91 per cent for fresh graduates and 93 per cent for post-NS graduates. 

Compared to the Graduate Employment Survey 2012 conducted by the universities, these figures make the choice of whether to get out to work or move on to university less complicated.

Using the NUS results as an example, 65 per cent is the lowest percentage for full time employment and even that is an anomaly because it is for the graduates with a degree in Music. The full time employment rate for most of the other courses hover in the mid-80 percentage range. When the number of graduates working part-time non-contractual work is included, the lowest is 82.6 per cent for the graduates with a degree in Science without honours.

If the question is simply whether the polytechnic graduates have a better chance of finding employment, the statistics affirm that applying for university is a no-brainer. The 65.4 per cent full-employment figure hardly reassures polytechnic graduates of their chances in the job market. One suspects that the overall employment rates are inflated by polytechnic graduates who might not even be working in a career related to the diploma which they have just earned.

So is there an advantage in going out into the job market with just a diploma? Entrepreneurs like Peter Thiel think so. He is willing to fork out $100,000 to get young people to not go to a university and start a business instead.

Gaining industrial experience is the reason some polytechnic graduates are choosing to follow the unconventional path of working first. It might even even confer them an advantage whilst applying and studying in a university because the course materials are seen in a different light.

Furthermore, the polytechnic graduate who is willing to persevere through this longer academic route to a degree is probably more likely to have the kind of work-ethic and passion for his field of choice than his peers from junior college.

In fact, a poly graduate who does the work first and study later route might well end up in a far better position in the job market than those who went straight from junior college into university. Perhaps, a survey on this special breed should be conducted to see if employers do or do not put a premium on them.


by Bertha Henson

Media reports said today that the polytechnics are on target to enrol 45 per cent of the Primary One cohort by 2015, up from 43 per cent. Well and good. Now, here’s a question: Are they getting the best students, given that the Integrated Programme have locked in the best students for six years and their next step is university? Recall the fuss made when top O level students picked a poly over JC. It was a feather in the cap for polytechnic education in Singapore.

Now those IP students have graduated, and at least two batches are now in university. Is Singapore’s cream of the crop evenly distributed among the tertiary institutions? It would be a pity if the polytechnics, which have tried so hard over the years to burnish their credentials, are deprived of good students who want a “hands on’’ route but find themselves locked in from age 12 or 14 in another school system that might not be catering to their strengths.

ST reported that  initiatives such as the Polytechnic Foundation Programme and the Direct Entry Scheme to Polytechnic Programme were introduced this year to help more students get into polytechnics. The response has been described as “good’’. How good? In terms of numbers or quality of students?


by Kwan Jin Yao

Whether you are a dog person or a cat person, you are no doubt cheering news that animal welfare will be included in the Character and Citizenship Education (CCE) framework.

Illustration by Melissa Lim

The horrific cases of animal abuse, cruelty, and abandonment in Singapore, albeit anecdotal, signals the need for us to have greater respect for animals – and it’s best to start them young.

It is not uncommon to see children shy away from animals, big and small. Sometimes this is not helped by the attitude of parents. What about bringing children to an animal farm? The concern will be whether the chickens can transmit bird flu to the young ones. So a child’s exposure to chicken is via frozen poultry on supermarket shelves.

Get them a dog? Wait. Fur can trigger asthmas. Get them a small dog and they run away from big dogs because their bark is louder – even though some big dogs are among the gentlest creatures on earth. What about a cat? Wait, they scratch. Fish? Guess who will end up cleaning the tank. Best to get them an iPad. Or take them to a zoo where the animals are safely behind bars or in cages. 

In fact, some parents might lament that this new syllabus would not be beneficial for students who might not have interacted with animals before, especially if their families do not own pets. What about concerns over allergies? Physical discomfort, like smells? Maybe, animal welfare will have to be taught in a classroom context, via a text book.

Yet learning to be kind to animals can build a sense of responsibility, as the young impressionable child becomes more empathetic as he or she expresses concern for others. Compassion can be nurtured, as they learn how to behave and co-exist with it.

Pet corners, which may require manpower or resource investments, can nonetheless be a good complement if the schoolchildren are sufficiently engaged and committed. Even an-adopt-pet scheme, where a class of children take it upon themselves to look after animals who are not “dangerous’’ to their health or well-being. Rabbits? Terrapins? Hamsters?

Of course, there can be trips to the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and animal shelters. Perhaps, day trips with the 30 or so animal welfare groups who have taken it upon themselves to round up strays or sterilise them. 

There are so many opportunities for teaching and education: young children can be called upon to think about pet ownership; those with household pets can share their experiences of grooming and caring for them. This could potentially be the springboard for greater student involvement through volunteerism or community service as well. They would be giving voice to the voiceless and paying attention to one of the most disregarded groups in Singapore – animals.

More intriguingly, how far will this springboard take participating schoolchildren? How should educators or schools react – for instance – if a passionate group of students decide to campaign against or communicate with corporations that trap animals in enclosures?

Besides brief sessions with domestic pets or animals, will schools and the MOE be open to having organisations like the Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (ACRES) conduct seminars on seemingly controversial issues? Will students get the opportunity to articulate these concerns on a public platform, or to protest against perceived animal injustices? The inclusion of animal welfare in formal syllabus, it is presumed, would open up opportunities for students to challenge the status quo. Will we be receptive to these activities?

Furthermore, on a broader scale, beyond the focus on pets per se, it would be meaningful if these initial classroom lessons and pet interactions can segue into ethical discussions about animal rights and treatment. Why preclude ethical engagement, if the students are ready for it? There is tremendous academic value in these exchanges, as conventional practices are challenged: the ethics of keeping animals in observatories for different purposes, whether punitive measures against abuses are adequate, and the many issues with raising livestock. The details will come, but it is worth pondering how teachers or schools can support the endeavours organised by the students.

For all we know, this might herald an era of animal activism, something that is already on the rise. The next question is: are we genuinely ready for it?