April 29, 2017


by Suhaile Md

TEN years ago, a cloud was just a cloud. Today, the word is used as part of a skill set employers can’t do without. Cloud-computing, along with search engine optimisation, marketing campaign management, data mining, and information security were among the skills most sought after by employers, said LinkedIn. The professional networking platform analysed recruitment activities on its portal and published the results on Oct 19.

It’s a foregone conclusion these days that workers need to adapt and upgrade. And displaced workers need to “let old jobs go and get into new jobs”, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at a labour movement leaders dialogue on Tuesday (Nov 1). That’s because “technology and markets are moving fast and Singapore cannot fight this change”. The dialogue was held at the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) headquarters.

But if you’re unsure about which skills to develop, you may want to consider those identified by LinkedIn.

No one becomes an expert in a few days, but the introductory courses listed below give a head start. You can then decide if it’s something you wish to pursue further.

And the good news: You can use your SkillsFuture credits. If a course is subsidised, the credits can be used on top of the subsidy.


1. Cloud and distributed computing

Simply put, cloud computing is about storing your data and computer programmes online. Storing your pictures on sites like Flickr, documents on Google Drive or Office Online by Microsoft, the Apple iCloud, Dropbox, and so on, are examples of cloud computing services.

It’s a growing field. According to PC Magazine, an American computer magazine, the global market for cloud computing was US$100 billion ($122 billion) in 2012. By 2020, it’s expected to be worth US$270 billion.


Cloud computing concepts, Coursera.
Duration: 32.5 hours, part-time, online.
Cost: $49.

Legal and Regulatory consideration in Cloud computing, National University of Singapore.
Duration: three days, full time.
Cost: $3,000. $900 after subsidy.


2. SEO marketing

In 1994, there were 3,000 websites. By 2014, there were over a billion websites. That’s a 33 million per cent increase. If you have a business, how do you make it visible to customers online?

That’s where search engine optimisation, or SEO, comes in. It makes websites more visible on search engines like Google. You may sell the cutest pet clothing online for example. But if someone googles “pet clothing” and your website does not appear on the search results, he’s not going to see what you have to offer. Much less buy them. SEO skills will help surmount that challenge.


SEO marketing training, Marketing Institute of Singapore.
Duration: two days, full-time.
Cost: $1,200.

Essential SEO training for successful web marketing, Udemy.
Duration: nine hours, part-time, online.
Cost: $60.


3. Statistical analysis and data mining

What do people buy and when do they do so? Is there a pattern to when most people come down with the flu? What do people surf online at eight in the morning? How different is that to eight at night?

Every time the cashier scans what you bought, or when you register at the polyclinic, or clicked that link on Facebook, data is captured. Data mining and statistical analysis is about organising and analysing that data. This can reveal useful patterns and relationships which help to answer questions like those above.


Business intelligence analytics, National University of Singapore.
Duration: three days, full time.
Cost: $3,000. $900 after subsidy.

Fundamentals of data mining, SIM University.
Duration: 36 hours, part-time.
Cost: $1,180.


4. Marketing campaign management

Marketeers help businesses win over and retain customers. And a marketing campaign is a series of activities that help a marketeer do just that. It requires an understanding of how customers behave, the needs that you’re trying to fulfil, the features that would attract them and so on.


Develop digital marketing campaign, Singapore Institute of Retail Studies.
Duration: three days, full time.
Cost: $2,150. $645 after subsidy.

Marketing management, SIM University.
Duration: 36 hours, part-time.
Cost: $1,180.


5. Network and information security

The private information of over half a million people were leaked online thanks to a security breach at the Australian Red Cross. The leak came to light last Friday (Oct 28). Besides addresses, the information breached also included personal details like whether or not someone had engaged in sex work, gay sex or had taken drugs.

Closer to home, karaoke company, K Box, was hacked two years ago. Over 300,000 customers had their identification numbers, addresses and mobile numbers published online. The role of an information security expert is to guard against such attacks and keep data safe from prying eyes.


Learning network technology and security, Udemy.
Duration: Nine hours, part-time, online.
Cost: $60.

Information security management, SIM University.
Duration: 36 hours, part-time.
Cost: $1,180.


This article is part of a series on SkillsFuture, in collaboration with MOE and SSG. Read the other pieces here:

1. Poly vs Private degrees: It’s not the money that matters

2. Private degrees: data needs to tell a fuller skills story 

3. 5 new jobs that didn’t exist a decade ago

4. SMACK IN THE MIDDLE: Keys to success

6. Don’t underestimate ‘soft skills’ in your career

7. 50 Faces: What is success to you?



Featured image Central Business District by Flickr user Jan. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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by Natassya Siregar

HAVING good grades isn’t the only way to success – explore different life skills which can then unlock different paths to success.


This article is part of a series on SkillsFuture, in collaboration with MOE and SSG. Read the other pieces here:

1. Poly vs Private degrees: It’s not the money that matters

2. Private degrees: data needs to tell a fuller skills story 

3. 5 new jobs that didn’t exist a decade ago

5. 5 skills employers want you to have in tomorrow’s job market

6. Don’t underestimate ‘soft skills’ in your career

7. 50 Faces: What is success to you?


Featured image by Natassya Siregar.

If you like this article, Like The Middle Ground‘s Facebook Page as well!

For breaking news, you can talk to us via email.

by Felix Cheong

This week, a fictitious young man, Jack Leo, is confused by smoke signals fanned by the G. Is he supposed to study engineering to please the economy? Or maybe he’s supposed to step up as a cyber security expert? Or a criminal lawyer? You’d need to be chameleon to satisfy the G’s aspirations for you.

CAN the Government please make up its mind what exactly it wants me to study? Stop sending so many crossed signals, like the train fault screwing up the East-West Line four times this week.

In July, in a Youth Day message, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told young people to follow their dreams. “Your dreams today can become your passions tomorrow,” he said.

Inspired, I signed up immediately for a workshop on clowning, which involved eight hours of watching Rodrigo Duterte and Donald Trump speeches, played simultaneously on a split-screen.

But then, in the same week, Mr Lee also said, at the 50th anniversary of the Institute of Engineers, the country is in dire need of engineers. “One can argue that Singapore was built on the backs of engineers,” he said.

I knew he was hinting, in no uncertain terms, for me to take up engineering. So I retooled my passion by sending out applications to the engineering schools of NUS, NTU, SIT and UniSIM. It didn’t matter if I was intellectually suited for the field. If my country needed my humble cog well-oiled for the economy, I’d roll with it.

But then, at the end of July, an article in The Straits Times, which I read more religiously than the Bible, said that Singapore needs more R & D scientists “to study cutting-edge tech to make a difference”.

Something clicked and everything, even my Mom, fell into place. This was my dream at last, what I was meant to do for my “One People, One Nation, One Singapore”. Even though I had no idea what biotechnology is – I figured I’d know soon enough when classes start – I immediately sent out applications to NUS, NTU, SIT and UniSIM.

But what has detoured my pursuit of my country’s dreams for me, are various newspaper reports this month pointing out shortfalls in the job market. First, UniSIM said its new law school – Singapore’s third – will produce much-needed lawyers in family and criminal law.

Even though applications have already closed for the upcoming academic year, I decided my dream was really to make it as a criminal lawyer. Engineering and R & D could wait.

So, with encouragement from my Dad, a lifelong learner who’s never worked a day in his life because he’s too busy attending courses, I put in an application to study law next year.

But then, an ST article on Sun (Oct 23) reported that Singapore needs more cyber security professionals. Fearing I’d miss the boat if I didn’t act soon, I sent out applications to the usual suspects to study IT.

This was before I read another article in the same edition that the social service sector also faces a shortfall of about 500 people a year.

Ah, I could be of some use here. Or so I thought. Before I could put in another application to study social work at NUS, yet another ST article, on Monday (Oct 24), talked about a manpower shortfall in the community care sector.

By now, you’d be as bewildered as me. What does my country want of me? What does it want me to study? What kind of passion should I have? And what – or whose – dreams should I follow?

A clown can only juggle so many balls.

Jack Leo


Featured image by Guet Ghee Pang.

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by Bertha Henson

WE DON’T talk about suicides because there’s plenty of evidence that this will invite copycats. But sometimes we have to. So Mainstream Media (MSM) broke some editorial guidelines on reporting suicides when it covered the case of an 11-year-old student who fell 17 stories to his death in Sengkang.

MSM did the right thing – and kudos to The New Paper (TNP) for covering the coroner’s inquiry earlier this week. It’s too heartbreaking for words but I’ll attempt to re-cap what happened in May to the boy and his family. They can’t be named because of his age. Nor can his school.

Before you ask, he didn’t leave a note. His father, 47, a customer service engineer, wanted to believe that he fell out his bedroom window at first. In other words, an accident. Although why the boy would be leaning out of the window while he was getting ready to go to school isn’t answered. But the immediate reaction of his mother, a housewife, on finding their son’s body at the foot of the block was illuminating. A police officer on the scene recalled that she was lamenting that she “only asked for 70 marks” and that she didn’t ask for 80 marks. That, plus the fact that he would be going to school to collect his results slips to show his parents.

The boy already knew how he fared for his mid-year Primary Five examination even before he received his result slips. He had failed two subjects, getting 12 marks for Higher Chinese and 20.5 marks for Mathematics. He scraped through English (50), Chinese (53.8) and Science (57.5). His teacher noticed how upset he was at failing two subjects. This isn’t surprising given that he used to score 70 marks and above in the previous four years.

So what happened?

The school said that students at Primary Five usually see a dip in results because of changes to the examination format to prepare them for the Primary School Leaving Examination the next year. There was a parents’ briefing earlier in the year for teachers to tell parents about their expectations. It seemed the boy’s parents did attend the briefing or other parent-teacher meetings.

You wonder about how drastic the changes were to let an average student move 70 marks to a mere 12 as the boy did for Higher Chinese. You wonder if his classmates fared in the same way or whether he was unique. You wonder if he had asked about his other classmates’ results and discovered that he was not alone. If he did, perhaps he wouldn’t have felt so bad.

All these questions are moot because the fact remained that he killed himself. It’s tempting to point fingers at the mother, who kept a hawk eye on his results and employed a carrot and stick approach. How many parents do the same? Obtain marks beyond a certain grade and you get an iPhone or bicycle; go below and get caned for every mark that was missed.

The coroner’s inquiry was told that she was “flexible” in this regard and would take into account the level of difficulty of the examination papers. You wonder if she had known that the format was different.

Every parent who has read this sad story would probably be examining their own attitudes to their children’s education. And it would be difficult for any parent to accept that it could be their own attitudes that have pushed their child to take such an extreme step.

Although she didn’t refer to the suicide Nominated MP Kuik Shiao-Yin wrote in her Facebook yesterday: “We were all children once. We all do remember what it was like to open a result slip and see that glaring red mark or to hear that passing comment ‘You could have/should have done better’.”

“In that horrible moment, that result doesn’t feel like it’s just a result, it feels more like a judgment of who you are. And if that moment is not dealt with, not openly talked about, it can become a part of your identity.”

When I was 10, I failed two subjects. It was Chinese and History, which was being taught in the mother tongue as an experiment then. From being a top student to actually failing not one subject but two was so traumatic that I started crying even before I got home. I lived through the blasting from my mother. At age 10, the idea of killing yourself simply doesn’t cross your mind. Rather you’re thinking about ways to lessen the impact that will come, even wishing that there was some way to forge your parent’s signature.

But statistics on teen suicides today are alarming. Last year, 27 children aged between 10 and 19 killed themselves, according to the Samaritans of Singapore. Two years before, it was 13. I can only imagine how hard it is for investigators to probe a family on the probable cause of a child’s suicide. Imagine asking: “Did you scold him earlier in the day?”

TNP reported that a questionnaire will be developed for such investigators. They will have to look into salient factors such as depression, schizophrenia, autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, impulse control and rage issues.

Some many theories have put forward for the surge with the usual scapegoat being the education system. Parents will say that they pressure their children because that’s the way to succeed academically. They find it hard to believe teachers and officials who say that they’ve already changed enough of the system to reduce the stress to be “exam-smart”.

No parent wants to drive their children to death. They want their children to succeed. They want children to fear failure, forgetting they too have had failures in their past – and that they are still on their feet.

I like what Ms Kuik said in her note:

“The uncomfortable truth is that the only way we can teach our children such emotional resilience in the face of failure is to ensure we ourselves have dealt with our story about failing and feeling like a failure. If we are uncomfortable dealing with failure in our own lives, the chances of passing on those self-destructive stories to our children is much higher.

“If your child brings you a terrible report card or shows you a shocking grade for some spelling test, emotionally centre yourself before you say anything. Take your time to figure out what to say. If you can’t speak it, write it. Writing forces you to be more careful.

“The words of a parent are profoundly powerful. Somehow they always impact identity. That’s why it’s worth measuring out, weighing out, calibrating our words thoughtfully for good effect. Remember words once said, can never ever really be taken back.”

“Remember words once said, can never ever really be taken back.”

Yup, the words of a parent are powerful.

They can raise you up – or cut you to the quick.

It remains for me to offer my condolences to the family – father, mother and 16-year-old daughter. May your son rest in peace.


Featured image Look At All My Designs by Flickr user Daniel Lee. (CC BY-ND 2.0)

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PSB's new city campus at Marina Square, which will host more than 6,000 students.
PSB's new city campus at Marina Square, which will host more than 6,000 students.

by Daniel Yap

DEGREES from private education institutions (PEIs) are inferior to those conferred by “local” universities. At least that’s what a recent Graduate Employability Survey commissioned by the Council for Private Education (CPE) seemed to suggest: PEI grads had lower employment numbers and lower median salaries compared to NTU, NUS and SMU grads.

But the survey has provoked protests and probing questions. What the survey didn’t take into account and didn’t mention is as important as what it headlined.

For example, no other figures were announced, meaning that there was very little context. CPE said that it did have a breakdown of figures for the nine schools it surveyed, but would leave it up to the schools to announce them. Will they ever see the light of day?

Even if those numbers eventually get published, what remains missing is the very simple question of how prospective students should approach the decision to further their studies.

Is it just for the attraction of a higher salary? Is it to simply have that cert on the wall so that you don’t lose face? Or did you really want to learn something and challenge yourself? Or embark on a career that contributes to society?

Then maybe median graduate salary is not the best measure (it is certainly not the only one). Not all PEI students are holding a fresh A-level certificate or diploma, and not everyone is doing it for a fatter pay package. About half of the students at PSB Academy, for example, are studying part-time while working. CPE’s survey only covered full-time students.

PSB Academy was not one of the institutions covered by the CPE survey, which was released last week.

Its own graduate and employment survey last year found that about nine in 10 students found employment within six months of graduation, while six in 10 students enjoyed pay increments and/or improved prospects in their careers.

“Students need to be equipped with industry-ready skill-sets to thrive in our future economy,” said Marcus Loh, who is Vice President, Corporate Communications at the PSB Academy. He also said that the reputation of the institution and university, depth and relevance of the course and “practical, not just theoretical experience” that they can transfer to their jobs are key criteria for deciding whether and where to pursue a degree.

Mr Ravi Mehndiratta, who is Assistant Director of Sales & Front Office Operations at the London School of Business and Finance (LSBF) in Singaporesaid that industry recognition, robust curriculum, programme management and faculty are the most important factors when considering private education. The school also values industrial attachments for real-world learning.

In other words, if you don’t know exactly what you will be learning, and how it will develop your skills, then there’s a high chance you will not be benefiting fully from your course.

If you have a diploma from a good polytechnic course, then you have to look for further education that really upgrades your skills and knowledge, not one that, at great expense, simply upgrades your “last attained educational level”. You may end up wasting time and money, as two years in your industry may be more relevant and valuable, as long as your employer values your skills (and not merely your paper qualification).

As employers are forced to reckon with productivity challenges, the future seems to lie with skills-based learning, which is an area that PEIs can add value in. One good example is the professional development pathway offered by the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA). Modular, skills-based frameworks like these allow students to get a focused education on industry skills that they can choose depending on their personal development needs (and the needs of their employers).

Prospective students would enrol in an ACCA accredited school such as LSBF in Singapore and take the certificates or papers they need (and are qualified for). These would be recognised by other educational institutions and employers. Could similar frameworks be developed for other professions and be updated frequently enough to match technological change?

Prospective students need more data and they need better data. Judging what CPE’s “better employment outcomes” really means needs deeper metrics than mere salary levels and employment figures, especially in the move towards recognising skills.

Sometimes, employers, the biases they hold and the red tape they have to deal with, are as much a part of the problem to a lack of recognition for skills-based learning as students and educational institutions are, so employment-side metrics will never be sufficient.

But until we can sort out how best to measure how well students have learnt skills, it is ultimately up to the learner to prove that he or she possesses them – industry-specific skills that make a candidate a productive part of a team, as well as soft skills like negotiating with and convincing employers to give you a job or a bigger pay check.


This article is part of a series on SkillsFuture, in collaboration with MOE and SSG. Read the other pieces here:

1. Poly vs Private degrees: It’s not the money that matters

3. 5 new jobs that didn’t exist a decade ago

4. SMACK IN THE MIDDLE: Keys to success

5. 5 skills employers want you to have in tomorrow’s job market

6. Don’t underestimate ‘soft skills’ in your career

7. 50 Faces: What is success to you?


Featured image courtesy of PSB Academy. PSB’s new city campus at Marina Square will host more than 6,000 students.

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For breaking news, you can talk to us via email.

by Joshua Ip

IN 2020 all the schools agreed to fight a crisis:
A monstrous insurgency more virulent than ISIS
A pedagogical distraction from the goals they’re reaching
The number one obstruction to good schooling is GOOD TEACHING.

It’s too labor-intensive. Doesn’t meet clear KPIs.
Technology is not exploited in this enterprise.
One staff for forty students, can you multiply the cost?
Spend so much time with children, then who spends time with the boss?

If you’re standing in the classrooms, who will sit on all the comms?
If you try to teach them lessons, who will fill in all the forms?
You look at all these teachers – where are their priorities?
How can schoolwork be more crucial than school anniversaries?

Experiments have proven if you take a Sec 4 class
And fire all their teachers – teaching will not help them pass –
Play tuition centre advertisements five hours a day
Their grades will drastically improve, hip hip hip hip hooray!

No need for any marking. Work life balance will improve!
Co-curriculars excel when the curriculum is removed!
Don’t worry about scaffolding, leave each student to each –
every school’s a good school when it doesn’t have to teach!

The School just has to make them Think, no need to make them Learn
The Nation will help out (depending what the parents earn)
We’ll mould our students’ minds like pots, well-rounded as they spin,
And empty in the middle. Someone else can fill them in.


Joshua Ip is a poet and founder of Sing Lit Station, a literary non-profit that organises Singapore Poetry Writing Month, Manuscript Bootcamp, poetry.sg and other activities to promote writing in Singapore.


Featured image by Natassya Diana.

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by Li Shan Teo 

PARENTS no longer think that good grades are as important as before, a recent survey revealed.

But does that mean an easier time at school for kids? Well, it might be worse – for now, at least, says a National University of Singapore sociologist.

The survey, released on Sept 22, was conducted by the United Overseas Bank (UOB) in May. It gathered responses from 447 parents with children aged 12 and below, on their attitudes toward their children’s future success.

The results were, simply put, interesting:

As many as four in 10 parents believe that today’s employers focus mainly on good grades when hiring. But when asked about job hiring in the future, this number drops to only one in 10 parents.

This means parents foresee what are seen as “softer skills”, such as creativity and problem solving, to take priority when trying to clinch a good job.

However, while almost all parents polled recognised the importance of their children’s natural talents for future success, only half were aware of their children’s talents.

The reduced emphasis on good grades is surprising because just last year, parents were hiring tutors to complete their children’s homework. Many parents have also confessed to being the “main cause” of studies-related stress in kids, acknowledging that the Singapore school system is “competitive and demanding”.


So why the change in mindset?

For one, the G is attempting to move away from academics and wants students to develop their aptitudes and interests. In April, it was announced that the National Arts Council and Early Childhood Development Agency would expand their arts education programme to a total of 55 pre-schools, up from the current 19.

If you’re wondering why the G is doing this, it’s because the global economy is evolving.

According to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2016, the top five skills needed by 2020 are: complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, people management and coordinating with others. Social skills such as persuasion and emotional intelligence will be in higher demand in the future, compared to narrow technical skills.

Mr Dennis Khoo, Head of Personal Financial Services Singapore, UOB, said parents have to “reassess their traditional notions of what defines career success” because good grades won’t be the sole determining factor of success.

The global shift has made parents more eager to nurture their children in non-academic areas. According to the UOB survey, the top three areas are: music, sports, and speech and drama.

The Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) Arts Kindergarten only had 60 students when it opened in 2004 – it now has a full capacity of 300 students, and its waiting list runs up to three years. The recent Olympic gold medal win of Joseph Schooling has also spurred some parents to support their children’s sporting dreams.

And parents are willing to go all out: The UOB survey reveals that nine in 10 parents have already begun a savings plan for their child. Of these, 75 per cent are starting saving as early as at the child-planning stage and before their child’s first birthday.


Is the shift permanent? 

While it’s too early to tell, it certainly seems to be heading that way. Some educators have expressed the importance of looking beyond good grades to develop important values – Mr Edmund Lim, a former primary school teacher, told ST that grades should be seen as “only a milestone in a person’s life journey”.

The G has also stressed this fact in recent years, revamping the Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE) grading system. A new system that focuses on “achievement levels” is set for 2021. The Ministry of Education implemented these changes to encourage students to “focus more on their own learning, instead of scoring higher than their peers”.

But the changing mindset among parents may not be a blessing – at least not immediately.

In an interview with TMG, Dr Tan Ern Ser, a survey specialist and sociologist from the National University of Singapore, said that before employers show that good grades aren’t everything, “parents would see the need to excel in CCAs and other qualities as additional requirements to be fulfilled”. Parents may also “find themselves stretched to source for additional funds to enrol their children for enrichment courses”, he added.

“This would likely add stress to parents and their children.”


Featured image Swimming at the 2010 Summer Youth Olympics, Singapore Sports School by Flickr user Jack at Wikipedia. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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by Glenn Ong

WHAT can $7.16 million get you in Singapore?

A 5,000 sq ft bungalow in Bukit Timah, for starters. What about four brand new Ferraris – COE included – with change to spare?

Well, that’s the amount – $7.16 million – that “may be unrecoverable” from outstanding students loans from all higher education institutions, the Ministry of Education (MOE) said. This was in response to the Workers’ Party’s statement on the lapses stated in the Auditor-General’s report for financial year 2015/2016.

The WP’s statement included a claim that more than “half of the scholars selected by the AGO for test-checks failed to fulfil their scholarship obligations”, which MOE has clarified is “incorrect”.



The WP intends to ask a number of questions relating to the report in Parliament after the Auditor-General’s Office (AGO) called the MOE out for failing to “ensure that tuition fee loans and study loans due were promptly recovered and prompt follow-up actions were taken on long outstanding loans“.

Taken in context, however, MOE said that the sum that it may not get back is “only 1.4 per cent” of all student loans, which, in total, amounts to $511.49 million.


Here’s a breakdown of who said what, and when:

In its audit report, the AGO said that out of 30 scholars it checked who were not serving their bonds, there were 14 cases in which MOE delayed sending letters of reminder/demand. This is probably where the WP got their statistic that “half” of the scholars the AGO checked had defaulted, which, again, MOE says is “incorrect”.

In addition, the AGO said that MOE still has $511.49 million of student loans from all Institutes of Higher Learning combined to collect, of which $228.04 million were owed by former students of NUS and NTU. This is the part which needs clarification: Scholarships are not the same as student loans. Scholarships come with bond obligations that are repaid with employment in the ministry after graduation, while loans are repaid in cash and do not bond the student to any form of employment post-graduation.

The AGO report made no reference to anyone – whether scholars or borrowers – defaulting. The focus of the report was on whether MOE had done its due diligence to recover its loans and ensure its scholars served their bonds.

MOE, however, did talk about defaulters in response to the WP, but what the ministry referred to was loan defaults, not scholarship defaults. It said that those student loans that “may be unrecoverable” account for “only 1.4 per cent” of $511.49 million, which as we have seen, is $7.16 million – still a huge sum.

MOE had also previously argued that study loans are different from other commercial loans, and that the “compassion” it exercised towards borrowers with financial difficulties justified the delays. However, economist Donald Low has called this “very bad and confused (economic) reasoning”.



Loan defaults in context

So how does the 1.4 per cent default rate, as stated by MOE, compare to others?

In comparison to car loans, the latest available data by Credit Bureau Singapore shows that car loan delinquency across all age groups ranged from 2.69 per cent to 4.79 per cent between 2003 and 2012.

What about student loan defaults in other countries? In the United States, the default rate is often in the double digits – the national rate was almost 12 per cent at the end of last year, with some schools facing a default rate as high as 26 per cent.

In the United Kingdom, about 24.5 per cent of student loans belong to British students residing outside the UK whose contact details are unverifiable. While this figure is not the default rate, it highlights the grave problem the UK has with unpaid student loans, which is so serious it could cripple their education budget.


Featured image by Natassya Diana.

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by Wan Ting Koh

IF YOU live in a posh area, you’ll be more successful – in our school system, at least.

A study focusing on how the distance between school and home affects income inequality across generations has found that children from less privileged backgrounds are generally hindered from succeeding in the education system.

Why? Main reason: “Better” schools tend to be located in expensive neighbourhoods.

Results of the study show that the best-performing primary schools tend to be concentrated in areas with high property prices. For example, the study observed that six “elite” primary schools, namely Nanyang Primary, Henry Park Primary, Anglo-Chinese School (Primary), Methodist Girls’ School (Primary), Singapore Chinese Girls’ School (Primary) and Raffles Girls’ Primary School, were all located in the affluent Bukit Timah neighbourhood.

The study, conducted by Mr Deepak Warrier, 21, who is entering New York University next month to read economics, and Mr Pu Liang, 21, who is studying computer science and machine learning at Carnegie Mellon University in the United States, was done over the space of a few months last year. It was submitted to the Singapore Policy Journal last September and published earlier this year.

Its objective was to research how giving priority to applicants who stay closer to the schools worsens inequality across generations by preventing poorer students from gaining entry to good schools, which tend to be located in wealthier neighbourhoods.

Elite schools which are located in wealthier neighbourhoods tend to favour applicants from wealthier families.

Competition for places in these schools is intense due to the multiple phases through which applicants are admitted. At the earlier stages of admission, applicants who have connections with the school, such as siblings who are studying in the school, or are children of alumni, are admitted first. And within these phases, if the number of applicants exceeds the available number of places, Singapore citizens who reside within 1km of the school are admitted first. So, elite schools which are located in wealthier neighbourhoods tend to favour applicants from wealthier families and reject students from less-advantaged families who stay further away.

Study: “In this manner, the status quo erects an obstacle to equality of opportunity and social mobility.”

Applicants from wealthier families will have the chance to attend a good primary school, likely do better in school, and eventually earn higher wages when they enter the workforce, the study said. Though the researchers acknowledged that the pathway might be overly simplistic, they added that there is a basis for arguing that school choice is likely to affect future wages. So the converse might be true for a student who enters a non-elite school. They may “plausibly be less motivated and meet with poorer academic outcomes”, the study said.


The link to property prices

The study divided the schools into three clusters based on the prices of the properties within a 1km radius. Schools in the first cluster had nearby properties with the highest prices, most of which tended to be condominiums and private property. The average weighted price for these ranged between $902.40 per sq ft and $1765.30 per sq ft.

The second cluster had schools in neighbourhoods with intermediate property prices, ranging from a weighted average price of $389.80 per sq ft to $891 per sq ft, while the third cluster represented schools situated in relatively inexpensive neighborhoods with a weighted average price of $322 per sq ft to $642 per sq ft.

Cluster one had 33 schools, while cluster two had 100 schools. The rest of the 57 primary schools studied fell under cluster three.

Apart from the six schools named earlier, cluster one includes other “brand names” like Anderson Primary School, CHIJ St Nicholas Girls’ School, Maris Stella High School, and Tao Nan School.

However, some renowned primary schools were still situated in neighbourhoods with inexpensive housing. Of the 15 schools that were picked by the two researchers for their Gifted Education Programme – and their prominent brand names due to their celebrated histories of being set up by Christian missionaries or Chinese philanthropists – two were located in cluster three, including Ai Tong School, which is situated in Bishan.

Schools with rich histories and scores of alumni, affiliated churches and Chinese clans are able to attract private donations that may mean an “increase in educational quality arising from their brand names”, hence making them attractive to parents. The schools’ affiliation to secondary schools of quality also make them more appealing. Getting into prestigious primary schools facilitates entrance into “branded” secondary schools through alumni ties, lowered admission criteria, and CCA programmes, further entrenching inequality.

If you’re interested, we’ve mapped out the “elite” schools in the wider Bukit Timah area here:

primary school location
Eight “elite” schools are located in the wider Bukit Timah area. Image from Google Maps.


Featured image by Natassya Diana.

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Educational Inequality

by Yong Sheng Wong

I GRADUATED this week. I read PPE at Oxford. A lot of my graduating peers, British or otherwise, may not have found their education here particularly spectacular. It is increasingly likely that their parents went to university; to them, graduating is a momentous but nevertheless well-defined life course.

Growing up, my family was solidly working class. My mum’s parents saw very little value in a female’s education, and quite literally threw the public secondary school fee – a tiny sum even for the 60s – at her. Needless to say she stopped at GCE A-levels and was obliged to start working to support the family. My dad did the then-equivalent of ITE, and then, only after a decade of work, finished a part-time diploma and BBA. My parents chose to delay marriage and childbirth to save up enough for a HDB public flat.

Things took a turn when my dad was retrenched during the Asian financial crisis in 1997 but secured a more stable managerial role after, allowing my mum to stay at home and care for the house and our education. As I grew up, we gradually became more middle class, but my parents’ ethos on our education and austere household spending did not change.

What worries me is that my experience is increasingly unique among children growing up in households with working class or ethnic minority origins. Singapore has a growing problem of class and race inequality in its public education.

I came from a ‘neighbourhood’ primary school, and grew up under my mum’s strict supervision with the richly stereotyped “Singaporean” formulation. Like so many other “tiger mums”, she pushed me hard – a solid daily regimen of homework, extracurriculars, and so on. This helped me succeed academically beyond what my social class background would usually suggest.

What worries me is that my experience is increasingly unique among children growing up in households with working class or ethnic minority origins. Singapore has a growing problem of class and race inequality in its public education. A lot of the latter disparity can be explained by the former, like many other postindustrial societies. We see this in the income disparity across and within schools, and also in the geographical dispersion of “elite” schools.


Types of inequality

These inequalities take three main forms.

First, inequality in grades. Children from poorer class backgrounds tend to have lower academic performance – whether in alphabetical grades or the new PSLE “Achievement Levels”. Parents in service classes have more resources to provide direct cognitive benefits like intellectual stimulation from books at home, nutrition, and coaching. Or they can pay others to do it for them, explaining the booming demand for the tuition and childcare industry. More indirectly, service-class parents can afford a home environment conducive to developing their child’s non-cognitive advantages, from motivational support to guidance on how to behave toward teachers and peers in school.

Seeing education as a collective family mobilisation effort, they increase their children’s admission chances by relocating near competitive schools or volunteering in school.

Second, the inequality of progression: keeping grades constant, how much more likely are children from higher income families to progress to the next level than their lower-income counterparts? Directly, parents who are better off are also more networked and successful, and pass these benefits to their children by the ‘old school tie’, connections to internships and graduate positions. They also tend to have higher academic and career ambitions of their children. Seeing education as a collective family mobilisation effort, they increase their children’s admission chances by relocating near competitive schools or volunteering in school.

More indirectly, children from more privileged households do not need to contribute to the family’s income and so have a lower opportunity cost of lost income from higher levels of education. Finally, there is a perceptual element to all this: children raised in service-class households are more confident of their success in future education stages. They also share a prevailing view that higher education yields proportionate benefits, given an implicit belief that tertiary education is increasingly decisive of salariat access.

Finally, inequality of status. As Singaporeans are (almost) universally completing secondary education and thus demanding more tertiary education, its supply has accordingly increased in number of providers and courses. We now have five public universities like SMU and SUTD, and a substantial diversity of private institutions likes UniSIM and Kaplan. On one hand, I think it very positive that more secondary school students are eligible and enrolled into tertiary courses, providing opportunity for upward mobility. My dad’s post-secondary education in 6 years of part-time private university is a case in point.

Our education systems sort students into clearly differentiated milieux – academic and more “prestigious” tracks with similarly privileged classmates, versus vocational or more industrially focused ones. Singaporean children born today face destinies more divergent than ever before.

But the growing abundance of options has an insidious effect of society ranking institutions and courses based on reputation and ‘performance’, not necessarily connected to the actual school culture or courses offered. This reinforces a ‘prestige gap’ between institutions like NUS and some overseas universities like Oxbridge and the Ivy League, and others like locally offered private university courses. Our education systems sort students into clearly differentiated milieux – academic and more “prestigious” tracks with similarly privileged classmates, versus vocational or more industrially focused ones. Singaporean children born today face destinies more divergent than ever before.

The result of these three inequalities, as I see it, is that the initially small advantages of a child in kindergarten snowballs into large differences by the time he reaches tertiary level. In Singapore’s system, it is hard to catch up once you fall behind. So yes we are meritocratic, but in a narrow sense: a student’s one-off poor performance makes it near impossible to change ‘track’ if he/she performs better in the future. A N-level student has an abysmally low chance of entering university.

I found this true from my (limited, 18-month) experience as a student coach in a Children’s Society care centre. It provided after-school care for ‘at risk’ children from families facing financial or other difficulty. A close friend found the same when volunteering for the Muhammadiyah Welfare Home. When tutoring, learning, and playing with a whole diversity of children, I understood that most did not have a home environment conducive to further education, almost by default expecting to finish at ITE. This is not bad in itself; rather it is the fact that education attainment is so stratified by household income that is.


What can we do about it?

First, to target grade disparity, we should level the playing field. If the government is as committed to educational equality across classes as it says it is, it should minimise initial disparities before the child steps into his primary school, and not after. This is important given how price-dependent the quality of kindergartens has become. From the start, the Ministry of Education should provide broad standards and monitoring in kindergarten curriculum and delivery, especially in linguistic and numeracy skills.

To its credit, it has very recently focused on two broad types of programs: financial and developmental support to preschool children from poorer neighbourhoods like KIFAS and KidSTART, and direct English language support like Focused Language Assistance in Reading (FLAiR). The latter two programs, barely in their test phase, are too little and too late. As of 2016, just 400 children benefit from FLAiR – hardly substantial enough to make any real difference. The government would have a much easier time reducing class inequalities in education if it preempted and prevented them.

Naturally, parents may not always see the value in sending children to enrichment programs like Children’s Society activities or Mendaki’s math workshops. So centres have a critical role in bringing parents onboard: overcoming cynicism and convincing them of the program’s value. Further, research robustly suggests that educators subconsciously discriminate against children of disadvantaged class or race backgrounds in assessment. Thus, routine training in unconscious bias for teachers, especially on race and class, will encourage patience and additional supervision for less capable students.

Next, in targeting inequality of progression, Singapore has begun diversifying its academic offering. For instance, pupils now get much greater diversity of academic and non-academic options at each level of education, as well as broader criteria for admissions. We have selectively adapted practices from Nordic countries, a byword for education that is of both high quality and high equality. But this is not enough – for instance, the popular early admissions programmes (DSA in junior colleges or EAE in polytechnics) encourage students with non-academic talents to enter, but these talents are often nurtured by parents who can actually afford to develop these talents in their children.

We can do more. Structurally, the ministry should postpone or provide more “decision points” in the tracking process. Education streams, from Normal-Technical to the GEP, should not be hermetically sealed from one another. Students should be given multiple chances to explore their different and evolving intelligences and aspirations – vocational or academic. Psychologically, we should ensure that JCs and polytechnics extend their access and outreach programs to all secondary schools. Secondary (and even primary) teachers play an important role in developing their students’ aspirations, by organising trips to target schools or having freedom to arrange attendance to a tutorial in a course of interest.

If less-privileged but deserving students are not aware of opportunities available to them, then we must make opportunity go to them.

These changes are important to equality because they transform a student’s ‘opportunity set’ – particularly what lower-income students believe is possible to attain. If less-privileged but deserving students are not aware of opportunities available to them, then we must make opportunity go to them. This is what I mean by meritocracy in a broad, generous sense. It has to extend over time. When a primary school child does not have the same language skills because he did not attend kindergarten, or when a secondary school doesn’t perform well in one exam, he should have the opportunity to more rise up if he performs better later on.

Finally, existing changes in educational policy, not least the reforms I propose here, require capacity reforms to the Education Service.

Plainly, we need to first resolve teacher deficits, particularly striking in certain subjects like the humanities and in some neighbourhood schools. These are either due to teaching losing its sheen as a key profession, or the anecdotal ‘brain drain’ of MOE teachers to private tuition centres. Now the MOE may not fully control teacher attrition to the tuition industry, but it can certainly sweeten its deal to attract more to the Education Service. On compensation, it has recently raised the starting pay of teachers by up to 10%, but it could consider linking some proportion of pay to 360° reviews and grades to incentivise teachers who outperform in dedication or use ‘best practices’ in teaching.

Besides compensation, the Ministry should also consider ‘experience recruitment’, by training and supporting fresh graduates to become new teachers for a “trial” period of time. This is similar to UK’s Teach First program, which has successfully channelled many teachers to work in primary and secondary schools in low-income communities. Many of the largest UK firms, like PwC, have schemes which allow their recruited graduates to teach for a year or two, safe in the knowledge that they still have the option of joining the firm if they wish to stop teaching. It is fiddly to negotiate with private firms, but the UK experience shows it can be done.

Moving forward, teachers deserve a career development scheme that allows flexibility of transfer across leadership, specialist, and teaching roles. Educators are not mere transmitters of content; they understand how the cogs come holistically together. They have taught in neighbourhood and elite schools alike and are able to interact with all way of students.

Capping all of this is the regular collection of data on inequality – not just on basis of racial disparity in attainment (which does not usually yield a direct policy solution), but also of income. The recent NUS-Melbourne panel study is a start. The Ministry of Education should have a dedicated, consultative board on inequality that actively protects the interests of children from less affluent backgrounds.


What next?

I had origins humbler than my peers. I remember when I told my mother that I hoped to go to a good secondary school and to university. Her face changed, and she was hopeful but hesitant in supporting that dream. I now realise she wanted to manage my expectations, especially if I didn’t get to go. I write about our education system not as an educator, but as that child.

Of course policy changes have their limits. The government can only do so much. Inequality in education is a complex beast and often interacts with other inequalities, like income and race. No single policy or solution exists. But by making the system more equal, the government changes the structure of incentives that parents, teachers, and students face. In the short run, this alters how all actors behave. And in the long run, children raised in the rental flats of Jalan Kukoh have the same educational aspirations as those from Sixth Avenue.

Singapore has many inequalities, no doubt, but the very first that its citizens encounter are those in education. A nation’s education speaks directly to its character – what defines us as a nation, and what kind of society do we want to be? If our education system cannot give an equal opportunity to each child, then what else will?


Mr Yong is a recent graduate of the University of Oxford, where he read Philosophy, Politics and Economics. His post was first published here on his blog, https://yongsheng.wordpress.com/, on July 18.


Featured image by Sean Chong. 

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