March 23, 2017

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by Bertha Henson

I HAVE been swimming four times a week for the past four years. Okay, I’m lying. I have bouts of down time which usually last a couple of weeks. The last bout lasted two months, until the middle of February.

I suppose I can trot out the usual excuses like no time, crowded pool, rain etcetera to justify my sloth. Truth is, as anyone who exercises regularly knows, it’s so hard to get back into the groove if you’re out of it so long. So during the two months of inactivity, I did what I’m sure no doctor would recommend: I ate less. I figured that less exercise should be accompanied by less calorific intake. After all, my mantra is, I exercise so that I can eat whatever I want.

People say that even if the rain was pouring down or the pool filled with screaming kids, there’s always the gymnasium or other exercises that are weather and child-proof. I agree. Except I think swimming is the least disruptive of all exercises both pre-and post-wise. At least for me.

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I just change into my costume, drape a towel around myself and my feet in flip flops and take the lift to the ground-floor to the condo swimming pool. I do so in the mornings, when children are already in school and tai tais haven’t readied themselves for public exposure. Neighbours always ask me the same question when they see me in the pool: “Isn’t it cold?” I tell them it’s cold only if you decide to stay put in the pool, which is surely not the point of the activity.

I am no swimmer, frankly. I’ve always feared water and won’t get into a pool where my feet can’t feel the floor. I swim breast-stroke only and keep my head above water all the time. I do not wear goggles or a swimming cap. I find them “fussy”.

While I don’t know how to tread water, I am very good at walking, jogging and doing a whole bunch of exercises in the pool. I don’t know if they qualify as aqua-aerobics but they are, believe me, tiring.

When I am done, usually in 40 minutes, I get out of the pool, drape a towel and proceed home for a bath. It’s so much easier than getting into jogging gear with socks and the right shoes. And then having to get out of them.

How did I get myself back in the groove? By that most mundane of methods: looking in the mirror. People who exercise look healthier. I look thinner but unhealthy. Then there’s the other big difference between people who exercise and those who don’t: watch the way they walk. The fitter person seems to float on air while the sloth drags his weary body. I was starting to “feel’’ heavy.

Then there are the eight sets of swimming costumes that lie un-used in my wardrobe. I hesitate to get into them because I’m worried about looking flabby. Yet I know I will get flabbier if I don’t get into them. I did the next best thing: I bought myself another swimming costume. Now…if you buy something, you will use it. I don’t regret paying for the new costume because of what I have been able to receive in terms of healthier skin and lighter feet.

It also means I can eat more.

 

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by Ryan Ong

EMPLOYMENT regulations have come a long way in Singapore. Earlier in our history, this was a country with a strict “no-strike” policy and a lot of power vested in employers; all part of an early-days survival method. But with the step into first world status, Singapore’s employment scene has become more progressive by the year:

 

1. TAFEP and the Fair Consideration Framework

In 2006, the Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices (TAFEP) was set up to promote responsible employment practices. The “tripartite” element refers to co-operation between employers, unions, and the Singapore government to further this goal.

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One result of having TAFEP is the Fair Consideration Framework (FCF). The FCF ensures that hirers stick to merit-based hiring, using competence as the deciding factor instead of elements such as age, gender, and nationality.

One example of this is the Jobs Bank. Before hiring an Employment Pass (EP) holder, a company must* advertise the job on Jobs Bank for at least 14 days, making it available to Singaporeans. Only after this period can the company apply for an EP.

This ensures that companies cannot show an unfair preference for hiring foreigners. They must show they tried to hire a Singaporean first.

(*Some exceptions exist, such as if the company has fewer than 25 employees, or only needs to fill a temporary position for no more than one month. You can see the list of exceptions here.)

In addition, anyone can report to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) if they see a discriminatory job advertisement. An example would be an ad that says “only foreigners”, or imposes restrictions irrelevant to the job (e.g. requiring a worker to have certain religious beliefs, for an accounting position).

Furthermore, TAFEP has an online system for complaints about workplace discrimination. Employees who feel they are treated poorly, or penalised for non-work related issues (e.g. age, gender, religion, political views, sexuality) can raise a complaint (their confidentiality is protected).

 

2. The Human Capital Partnership Programme, to encourage good workplace practices

The Human Capital Partnership (HCP) programme is an initiative open to companies with a good track record in employment and workplace practices. Companies that are part of the HCP (called Human Capital Partners) commit to investing in the development of Singaporean employees across all levels.

In return, Human Capital Partners enjoy priority access when having work passes processed, and have a dedicated hotline for transactions with MOM. Human Capital Partners will have privileged access to government support and resources, and have the right to display the “Human Capital Partner” mark, which helps to attract needed employees.

Human Capital Partners, for example, have account managers assigned to them from HCP to cultivate good workplace practices. This ensures that the concept of fair employment cannot just be a temporary front.

This is in stark contrast with old-school methods; traditional systems of employee protection just use penalties and fines as threats, which places the burden of fair employment on government regulators.

HCP instead provides positive incentives for companies, to encourage the hirers themselves to maintain good practices.

 

3. Skills Transfer Initiatives

One of the HCP’s goals is to turn foreign workers into a complement to our workforce, instead of competition. The formula is:

1/3 + 2/3 > 1.

That refers to how one-third of our workforce is composed of foreigners, and two-thirds are Singaporeans. By having the two complement each other, we develop synergy and results that are greater than the sum of our parts.

One example of this is skill transfer programmes that HCP encourages. 3M, the manufacturer of the famous Post-It notes, is engaged with this initiative. The manufacturer has several programmes in which foreign workers can teach or transfer skills to local employees (and vice versa). This ensures that each worker is more versatile, and can be moved into new roles quickly. The result is a more nimble and adaptable company.

Endorsing skills transfers is a progressive take; rather than set up an adversarial relationship between locals and foreigners (the old “they’ll eat our lunch” argument), Singaporean employers are instead encouraged to merge the two, to make our companies more competitive.

A more competitive company means better wages, more room for career advancement, and greater job security.

 

Building the workforce for the new era
The Singaporean worker today is, by and large, no longer an easily replaced resource. As we see more talented programmers, engineers, managers, and salespeople, it is clear the dynamics of the workplace will change.

No longer are employees wholly dependent on the whims of their employer; rather, the reverse is often true. Many companies are now dependent on the skills and talents of their workers, who have no shortage of options when it comes to finding work elsewhere.

In light of this, any adversarial relationship between employer and employee will be a tremendous disruption to local business (and by extension, the wider economy). It’s time we discard outmoded notions of “worker versus employer”, lest all of us fall behind.

The simplest way to do that is not with over-regulation and fines, but to ensure that companies themselves see the value of treating employees right.

 

This article is part of a series on employment in partnership with the Ministry of Manpower.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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by Lee Chin Wee

THE Labour Market Report 2016 released today (Mar 15) revealed that the annual average resident unemployment rate rose to 3.0 in 2016, after holding steady at 2.8 per cent for the last four years. This is the highest figure since 2010, when the resident unemployment rate was 3.1 per cent.

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Compared to data from 2015, residents aged 30 – 39 (2.3 per cent unemployed, up from 1.9 per cent), and 50 & over (2.7 per cent unemployed, up from 2.4 per cent) were particularly affected, while those aged 29 & below saw the unemployment rate decrease from 5.1 per cent to 5.0 per cent.

 

Taken from Labour Market Report 2016, Ministry of Manpower

 

Part of the high unemployment rate can be explained by seasonal and frictional unemployment due to the cyclical nature of the global economy. Singapore tends to be buffeted by forces outside our control. The manufacturing sector, for instance, shed 15,500 jobs in 2016 because of flagging global demand for products. This figure would have been far worse, had it not been for the manufacturing sector unexpectedly expanding by 6.4 per cent in Q4 2016. Plunging oil prices have also badly affected the offshore marine industry, with retrenchments picking up in 2015-16. One would expect unemployment figures to improve as the global economy recovers.

However, the unemployment rate can also be attributed to structural unemployment: As Singapore adjusts to the disruptive impacts of new technology on traditional businesses, people’s skills no longer match up to market demand. Singapore’s continued economic transformation, therefore, may lead to underskilled or wrongly-skilled workers left by the wayside. As firms reorganise and restructure to become manpower-lean, longstanding jobs like accounting and secretarial work may be cut, while new business interests – financial technologies, for instance – are developed.

There are now 17,000 long-term resident unemployed (refers to those unemployed for more than 25 weeks), compared to 12,700 in 2015. This figure is the highest since 2009, when the 2008 Financial Crisis led to thousands of Singaporeans losing their jobs.

 

Taken from Labour Market Report 2016, Ministry of Manpower

 

Most worryingly, the long-term unemployment rate for degree holders rose to 1.0 per cent in 2016, the highest since 2004. Does this mean that more university graduates now hold paper qualifications that are ill-suited for the modern economy? Possibly. A bachelor’s degree in programming or software engineering received 10 years ago, for instance, may bear little relevance to the sought-after skills of today. Without a constant push for skills upgrading and on-the-job training, many graduates will find themselves either underemployed, or out of work.

As the economy becomes more complex, the need for specialised skills has soared. This has challenged the traditional view that higher education guarantees a stable career, as demand for specialised skills can change overnight with the introduction of new technology or sudden industry transformation. Professionals, Managers, Executives and Technicians (PMETs) formed 75 per cent of all residents made redundant in 4Q 2016 – a disproportionate figure.

Statistics seem to suggest that there is a growing mismatch between employee skills and job requirements; especially at white-collar managerial and technical levels. And even when tertiary-level education does meet market demand, the rapidly-evolving jobs landscape means that employees must be willing to continually upgrade themselves. Given this context, policies to help workers gain new skills or encourage businesses to leverage new technology are extremely important.

Whether Singapore will be able to bounce back stronger from this period of slowing growth and higher unemployment depends on how well we can react to technological disruption. If our workers and businesses do not stay ahead of the curve, one should be prepared for more grim news ahead.

 

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by Bertha Henson

WHO would have thought civil servants would feature so much in the Budget debate? You have MPs who think the system (not civil servants) lack heart and more can be done to improve empathy levels. This, coming after several luminaries, including the Prime Minister, talking about the need for naysayers in the public service rather than people who respond with “three bags full”.

This time, they feature prominently in the debate on the Town Council Amendment Bill, with opposition MPs suggesting that G officials in the Ministry of National Development will be less than neutral over the operations of town councils.

I suppose the mental image that the Workers’ Party has is this: A bunch of civil servants barging into Aljunied-Hougang town council office, rifling through cabinets and accessing computer records because of some suspected wrong-doing on the town council’s part. Or entangling the town council in reams of red tape by asking endless questions because they have oversight powers. And leaving the wards of Ministers alone because, as civil servants, they wouldn’t want to get into the bad books of their political masters.

WP’s Pritam Singh said : “The MND risks becoming a tool of the ruling party of the day to fix the opposition.”

With MND oversight, allegations of partisanship would naturally arise given that a PAP minister is overall in charge. The perception of bias will always be there despite the PAP’s efforts to deny it.

His fellow WP MP Sylvia Lim said: “It is not possible to argue that the ministry is a politically neutral body as recent history unfortunately belies that claim.”

She gave the example of the General Election campaign in 2015, when the Ministry was “an active campaigner against the Workers’ Party, issuing statements practically daily on the alleged misconduct of AHPETC”.

She also said, without elaborating: “To take another example: we have also seen past records of how the Ministry advised a PAP TC how to make good a breach of the Town Councils Financial Rules, quietly behind closed doors, without any media release on the same.”

That is so intriguing.

Of course, the People’s Action Party side came out hammer and tongs accusing the WP of impugning the integrity of the civil service. Senior Minister of State for National Development Desmond Lee had a wonderful quote about how Ms Lim seemed to think that civil servants are “timorous souls” who would “kowtow” to their boss’ bidding.

AHPETC signboard
Aljunied Hougang Punggol East Town Council

No one would dispute that the Act needed updating. The still on-going saga over the finances of the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East town council showed up the loopholes on conflict of interest and corporate governance. The G suddenly realised that it couldn’t move on certain things, like order a TC to yield up records and submit information. There was also no “stick” it could wield.

Mr Lee made an interesting point about how AHPETC broke the “unspoken compact” which began when town councils were formed in 1989: That town councillors and elected MPs would proactively fix problems that arise or report suspected misdeeds to the police or Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau.

In other words, that TCs would “ownself check ownself” just like Ang Mo Kio town council did when it reported its general manager to the police. So if the WP’s finances had been in fine shape, there would be no need for more oversight measures? Hmm.

At the heart of the debate is whether town councils are political bodies. Taken to the bitter political end, MND shouldn’t intervene in a TC’s affairs at all and let residents live with the consequences of their choice. But the G realises that people think it is an administrative issue and expect the G to deal with problems everywhere, including opposition areas.

It’s a tricky balancing act. With MND oversight, allegations of partisanship would naturally arise given that a PAP minister is overall in charge. The perception of bias will always be there despite the PAP’s efforts to deny it.

In fact, it might add fuel to the view that the management of housing estates should go back to the way it was.

According to the feedback given to REACH which had a public consultation process on the Bill, some people had suggested that HDB or MND take over the functions. Or if there must be a regulator, the role could be given to the HDB “so that regulatory decision are one-step removed from political office holders”.

There was also an interesting suggestion that TCs be merged with HDB branch office with chairmen appointed by MND. The elected MPs could form separate committees to guide the work of the new set up to implement infrastructure projects. “This would ensure that the towns are managed fairly, regardless of the party in power.”

Such suggestions, however, would mean unpicking the whole town council structure. It’s like making the elected presidency an appointed office.

I wish that there was a direct response to Ms Lim’s proposal that Auditor-General’s Office could be tasked with auditing town councils on a rotational basis as a substitute for MND’s oversight. There is also her suggestion that an independent Housing Tribunal, chaired by a judge and experts in housing matters, be authorised to mediate and adjudicate disputes relating to the management of public housing.

These are political approaches, of course, to safeguard the independence and autonomy of town councils. They might well be cumbersome and there’s no guarantee that “bias” charge will be overcome.

Do voters really care though?

It’s clear that the WP was tardy and less than transparent about its finances. This might have led to its loss of Punggol East and its shaved margins for Aljunied and Hougang in the 2015 general election. But it can be also argued that if its offences were so egregious as the G makes them out to be, then voters would be moved to eject it altogether. They didn’t.

The amendment Bill actually gives voters less reason to care about who runs their town council. That’s because the law gives the G more powers to supervise, provide oversight and pick up the pieces. Even lift upgrading and replacement are penciled in

HDB residents can really have their cake – and eat it.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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by Abraham Lee

THE G has emphasised that workers have to upgrade and pick up new skills to keep up with the changing economy.

At a Marsiling job fair two weeks ago (Feb 24 and Feb 25), Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob exhorted job seekers to learn new skills. Last Tuesday (Feb 28), Minister for Trade and Industry (Industry) S. Iswaran said in Parliament that “a key focus of the Government’s efforts” would be to “support the development of deep skills in workers”.

Yet, while there is a call for workers to better themselves, it can be an uphill battle without supportive employers. Companies can help develop their employees through mentorship programmes, opportunities to pursue further education, funds and other credits to attend courses, and providing paid time off to attend them. To see how employers help their employees maximise their potential, we talked to two companies about employer best practices and their employees on how they benefited from these skills development initiatives.


1. Funds and in-house credits

DBS Bank provides avenues for skills upgrading by pursuing a “Triple E” approach, “providing staff with experience, exposure, and education”. DBS has conducted digital mastery classes and hackathons to better prepare its employees for the move towards digital in the industry and to gear their mindsets to adopt a “more nimble and digital approach” to problem-solving.

DBS also plans to use hackathons to identify top talent skilled in disruptive technology such as machine learning and Big Data. On Feb 20, the company announced they would hire 100 top coders through a two-part coding and hackathon challenge. DBS hopes to gauge technical ability and problem-solving capabilities through the challenge, to “attract the right talent” and to boost its “digital transformation efforts”.

Bolstering this vision is DBS SkillsFlex, a programme set up in 2015 to complement the nationwide SkillsFuture movement. Employees can use another $500 DBS SkillsFlex credit annually on top of their existing SkillsFuture credit to apply for 90 courses customised to be relevant specifically for DBS employees, and the thousands of courses that employees can use SkillsFuture credit for.

Parenting products retailer Mothercare also supports its employees with further skills training by sending them for various service courses and supervisors for advanced certification courses run by Singapore Institute of Retail Studies (SIRS). Employees are also encouraged to use their SkillsFuture credits while time spent in courses are also counted toward working hours. Mothercare helps to cover course fees for its foreign staff by subsidising half and allowing the rest of the fee to be paid in instalments, over a year.


2. Company courses and programmes

DBS has in place structured training programmes for entry level staff all the way to senior management. Managing Director of Group Human Resources Khoo Teng Cheong said, “…we believe in developing our people from the ground up. Building a succession pipeline across the organisation from fresh university graduates to senior leaders is one of our key priorities.”

Of these programmes, Senior Vice President Tan Tsze Shin most notably benefited from was DBS’ Strategic Talent Assignment and Rotation (STAR) programme in which participants spend two years in a cross-country assignment, working in a different role. Prior to the programme, Mr Tan was a business director in the wealth management department but was sent to attend sales courses and trained to better understand DBS products like equities, derivatives and insurance. In preparation to be based in Hong Kong for his new role in the risk management group, Mr Tan also took technical courses in credit management and regulatory requirement. “These courses were largely subsidised by the bank and I was given paid time off work to focus on these courses,” said Mr Tan.

Mr Tan also highlighted the bank’s mentorship programme for its “extremely approachable” senior management team who are “willing to spend time to guide and mentor employees”. He is still in contact with a few managing directors who have guided him in the past few years.

These courses were largely subsidised by the bank and I was given paid time off work to focus on these courses

Mothercare has also conducted coaching programmes. It ran one for its mid-management team last year and is planning to extend another to its store supervisors and assistant supervisors for operations, to equip them with team building and managing skills.


3. Opportunities for further education

Apart from its own courses and programmes, DBS also offers sponsorship for further education in the form of the DBS Group Education Sponsorship Programme (GESP) to those who wish to take up diplomas, degree courses and postgraduate programmes.

At Mothercare, employees with at least one year experience and good performance and attendance records are supported to pursue further education. The company nominated Mr Wilson Ke, an assistant store manager at the time, for the MasterCard scholarship for Diploma in Retail Management with The Retail Academy. He has since graduated and was promoted to store manager upon the completion of his diploma, with his time spent in class counting toward his working hours.

Another employee to benefit from Mothercare’s commitment to developing its staff is Ms Gloria Loh who joined the company as an entry level sales assistant in 2011 while she was still taking a certificate course on retail supervision at SIRS. She continued to study in the subsequent advanced course and eventually graduated with a diploma in retail management in 2013. During this time, Ms Loh attended her classes two days per week and worked full-time during the other five days. She highlighted that the company encouraged her to go for training, provided her with “good managers” and allowed her fixed off days during this time. Ms Loh has since been promoted four times, to her current position as senior supervisor.

Ms Loh said that it was “most important” that her company and family gave her “moral support” when asked how she persevered through working five days and studying two days a week.

When asked whether courses and other skills training impact employee promotions and pay raises, both companies said that the two do not directly correlate and that performance remains a key factor. Mothercare HR Director Pang Shu Xin said that going for courses helps employees to upgrade skills and develop new ones and that they “have better chances for promotion or salary adjustments as their job scope changes”.

And there is recognition, albeit non-monetary, for employers that have “made significant efforts in investing in their employees” in the form of SkillsFuture Employer Awards. The award is open to all Singapore registered entities that show strong support for SkillsFuture and other national manpower objectives, and acknowledge skills and mastery in hiring and employee development. Up to 10 awards will be given out in 2017 and up to 30 awards in the future.

Applications for SkillsFuture Employer Awards 2017 will close on April 30 and can be made here.

 

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

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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by Daniel Yap

IT’S been a bit of a day of thanks and accomplishment for me, when Second Minister for Transport Ng Chee Meng announced in Parliament this morning that open strollers would be allowed on buses from Apr 2. I’ve been campaigning for this change for years, alongside other parents and groups like Young NTUC.

As soon as news broke of the new rule, a mixed response of praise for the decision and anger over it erupted online. Critics of the move cited a variety of reasons, which deserve a response.

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  1. Lack of space: strollers don’t fit in the door/aisles, and some are bigger than others

Response: The idea is for strollers to board buses the way wheelchair users do. They aren’t meant to go down the narrow aisles. The Ministry has said that bus captains will make the final call on when strollers have to be folded to make space for others.
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  1. Fear of abuse

Response: Inconsiderate people are a feature of life but their existence doesn’t mean that the rule is a bad one. Call inconsiderate parents out and ask them (nicely) not to abuse the system. Support others who are publicly calling out anti-social behaviour.
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  1. Demand for segregation

Response: The whole reason why this rule is being changed is so that parents can feel more integrated into society. It takes compassion and maturity to welcome and cater to others whose needs differ from our own.
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  1. In my day…


Response: Parents have suffered in the past, but we need to see that it is a good thing that they should no longer suffer needlessly. If a new rule comes along that benefits others, we should be compassionate and be happy for them.
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  1. It is unsafe

Response: Bus companies used to cite safety reasons for forbidding open strollers, but there is no solid data to back this up, or explain why other cities in Europe, North America and Japan allow it. Perhaps the status quo was from a time before wheelchair-accessible buses, but times have changed.
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It’s heartening to see the change that you fought hard for come to fruition, and to know that it points towards a more inclusive, more family-friendly future for Singapore. And it’s good to see compassion and thankfulness reign in the online comments, even though there will always be a few who disagree.

 

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by Bertha Henson

SO THE Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) have decided not to appeal against the four-year jail sentence for Joshua Robinson. It has put out a statement to say why: Robinson pleaded guilty which spared the girls the ordeal of going through a trial, the two girls were above 14 which means he did not commit statutory rape, and they had consented to sex.

Not rape. Not outrage of modesty. So the charge against Robinson was sexual penetration of a minor under 16 years of age, which is punishable under section 376A(2) of the Penal Code. The AGC said that this was the most serious charge that the prosecution could have brought on the case. And no, there’s no caning under this clause but a maximum of 10 years jail.

It looks like we weren’t right to say that the girls were sexually assaulted since what he did was not rape nor molest, even though one of them had a mental breakdown after her intimate encounter with Robinson. I suppose the girls were seduced by the American mixed martial arts instructor into consensual sex. Or at least some sexual grooming took place.

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The AGC’s decision isn’t going to please the 26,000 or so people who signed a petition to put Robinson away for longer. It would be quite a wonder, however, if the AGC did appeal. As I said in an earlier column, the AGC would have to concede that it was somehow wrong to ask for a jail-term of four to five years especially since it said it had looked at precedents. Changing its mind and asking for a higher sentence for Robinson means that past offenders had an easier time of it. Recall, for example, the 51 men who charged with having sex with an under-aged prostitute. They were jailed for between four and 20 weeks each.

More importantly, I doubt if the AGC wants to be shown as bowing to popular opinion or “public disquiet”, as Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam put it.

After all, this would make a mockery of the Administration of Justice Act because outside forces have caused a change of heart. (What’s pretty amazing is that no one in authority has said that it’s wrong to comment on the case given that the appeal limit is not up.)

What would the AGC do the next time there is a public outcry over a punishment that the layman finds inadequate for the crime?

Don’t get me wrong. As far as I’m concerned, Robinson should be castrated whether the girls consented to sex or not. He’s 39, they’re 15. The age gap should have nailed him, as well as filming of the sexual acts. It seems that there are gaps in the law. The AGC said it would be reviewing the law with the Law ministry.

Commenting on this latest announcement, Mr Shanmugam said: “If we don’t think the sentences, based on precedents, are adequate, then we consider what can be done. I do think that the sentences for such offences committed by Robinson need to be relooked at. That is why I have asked my Ministries to study this.”

Well, at least that’s something. It’s good that the AGC did some explaining of the law although I wished it would have said why it agreed to the sentences being run concurrently instead of consecutively.

Maybe, that’s for the judge to decide and written grounds have yet to be made public. It would make for interesting reading.

 

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by Bertha Henson

THE Direct School Admission (DSA) programme is doing away with its general academic ability tests.

People are going hurrah because it means that their non-Gifted kid can make it into their school of choice because they have another talent that is not exam-smarts.

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That is, if they clear the talent competition for entry. That is, if the school nurturing the specific talent pool is not on the other side of the island. That is, if the school nurturing said talent and achieving non-academic awards do not ignore Ah Boy’s academic work in the process.

That is, if Ah Boy clears his PSLE in the first place. If he doesn’t make the DSA cut-off point, will he be booted out?

Parents of Gifted children have been told their kid will always get a place based on their results. But the DSA isn’t about getting a secondary school place but a guaranteed, booked-in-advance, choped-already programme. That means, no need to worry about how PSLE results turn out, got place already. So, they will still go for the DSA route.

Parents of “ordinary kids’’ will be looking at the niche programmes and wondering if their kids have the requisite talent for, say, robotics or soccer. If not, they will think about sending the kid to enrichment programmes or a sports academy so they can ace whatever interview or competitive process. It’s a different kind of tuition.

Principals of ordinary schools will be wondering if they can even fill the 20 per cent DSA quota space. They’re not top in any sport or talent but merely struggling to bring all its students up to speed. These would be the garden-variety type of schools which, by the way, is still a good school although not the best. So shy if they can’t fill the space…

Parents and principals will be wondering if schools really have the teachers for these niche programmes. Are they experts or have at least mastered some aspects of the programme or are they themselves learning along with the kids? Does the National Institute of Education prepare teachers for such programmes? If principals decide to bring in outside experts, can these experts actually teach?

This is not to pour cold water on the Education Ministry’s changes to the DSA. It’s to show that people, especially parents, will view changes differently depending on their perspective and their knowledge of their childrens’ abilities. Change always leads to more questions.

We just have to be careful about not starting a different kind of rat race.

 

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by Wan Ting Koh

MORE pathways are opening up for students who want to get through the education system via talent rather than grades, but with kiasu and kiasi attitudes still largely driving the education system here, will mindsets change?

In the debate on his ministry’s budget today (Mar 7), Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng outlined several enhancements to existing schemes that show the G’s efforts to shift away from a grade-centric education system.

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First up is the Subject-Based Banding (SBB) initiative that was first implemented in 12 prototype secondary schools in 2014 for lower secondary students. SBB lets students from the Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) streams take subjects that they are stronger in at a higher academic level. For example, a student who is in the Normal (Academic) stream, but scored an A for Mathematics in his Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), can take Mathematics at the Express level under SBB.

By 2018, the G aims to roll out SBB to all schools which are offering Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) courses at the lower secondary level. The SBB has been in place for upper secondary school students since 2003.

Mr Ng said that this approach would help students “deepen their learning in areas of strengths”, build their confidence and “opens up new post-secondary possibilities for them”.

Through an enhancement in the DSA scheme, the G will also be increasing opportunities for primary school students to get into secondary schools through their strengths and achievements rather than academic aptitude.

From 2018, all secondary schools will be able to admit up to 20 per cent of their Secondary 1 intake through the Direct School Admission (DSA) scheme. First introduced in 2004, DSA is meant to recognise students’ achievements in non-academic areas, such as sports and the arts. It offers Primary 6 pupils places in secondary schools before they sit for PSLE.

Currently, only Independent schools have a 20 per cent allowance on students they accept through DSA. Autonomous schools have a 10 per cent cap while schools with distinctive programmes can admit up to 5 per cent of its students through DSA. The general academic tests that students have to sit for as part of the DSA selection criteria will also be scrapped by 2018. While these tests allow for a comparison of students’ abilities, they “inadvertently put undue focus on general academic abilities”, said Mr Ng.

In any case, students with strong general academic abilities would already be able to qualify for secondary schools with the PSLE results, he added.

On what secondary schools could use to assess entrants, Mr Ng said: “Schools can conduct their selection via a range of assessment tools including interviews, trials, auditions and subject tests. They will also consider the applicant’s overall portfolio and achievements.”

One other change applies to the tertiary front. Polytechnics will be increasing their intake allowance for students who go in through the Early Admissions Exercise (EAE) scheme, which, similar to DSA, admits students based on their interest and aptitude, rather than academic performance.

This scheme was introduced in 2016 for Academic Year 2017, and allowed polytechnics up to 12.5 per cent intake through EAE. However, from Academic Year 2018, the allowance would be increased to 15 per cent.

What’s new is also the expansion of the scheme to Institute of Technical Education (ITE) so that ITEs will be able to admit up to 15 per cent of their Academic Year intake through the ITE EAE.

While the G is taking tangible steps to expand the education system’s focus beyond academics, mindsets will take a longer time to catch up. This problem was flagged by Member of Parliament (MP) Denise Phua, who asked what could be done to change mindsets that are geared towards grades.

Mr Ng said that while academic excellence is “a key strength of our system, it should not be over-emphasised, at the expense of other meaningful activities”.

But whether the G’s push towards a more holistic education can genuinely change mindsets remains to be seen.

 

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by Bertha Henson

IT’S a reflection of how powerful the G is when it gets whacked even for stuff that’s not under its purview. I’m talking about the uproar over the four-year jail sentence for American Joshua Robinson, probably the most high-profile sexual offender in Singapore.

Clearly, people don’t see the line between the executive and judiciary. Or maybe they are too afraid to slam the judge in the case because that might put them in contempt of court. If there’s anything you want to fault the G over, it’s how the Attorney-General’s Chambers had originally asked for a four to five year jail sentence. Even that, however, is debatable since the G maintains that everything is up to the discretion of the AGC.

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Asked about the matter, Law and Home Affairs K Shanmugam said: “The decisions on which charges to proceed is a matter within AGC’s discretion. AGC makes the decisions based on precedents, and what kind of sentence is meted out depends on previous cases… Having said that, my understanding is that AGC is looking into this.’’

Robinson, 39, pleaded guilty to nine charges: Three for sexually assaulting the girls, five for making and possessing obscene films and one for showing an obscene film to a six-year-old girl. Another 20 charges were taken into consideration during sentencing. Among the 20 are four more counts of having sex with the minors and 12 for making obscene films.

For the first charge, the maximum penalty is 10 years jail and fine. For possession of obscene films, he could have been jailed up to six months or fined $500 for each film, up to a maximum of up to $20,000. Statutory rapists in the past have gotten sentences that ranged from five to 20.5 years.

Of course, each case is different. The heaviest sentence was 20.5 years jail time and 24 strokes of the cane.

So can we whack the AGC then?

The case is a volatile mix. A foreigner who is muscular and trained in the martial arts. Who deals with children. Who takes pictures of sexual acts and keeps the largest stash of porn police have ever seized from an individual – 5,902 obscene films, including 321 films of child pornography.

Who, despite being arrested, continued his deviant behaviour while on bail. Who even preyed on a six-year-old while her father was in close proximity.

What utter brazenness!

It’s no wonder that people are calling for his head. An online petition calling for a higher sentence said: “Is this the message our Singapore Government People’s Action Party is intending to send worldwide: “Spray paint our city or slander our government officials and you get it worse off than if you rape and sexually abuse our children”?

Threaded through the statement is a certain an animus against foreigners here: That they can’t get away with dirtying our city (think Michael Fay and the European graffiti artists) or saying bad things (think foreign journalists and authors), but they can do what they like otherwise. It doesn’t help that some foreigners have been in the news, like Yang Yin, who, on the other hand, got his jail term increased to 11 years in all, instead of six. (Please don’t speculate on whether there are different rules for “white’’ people; that’s unworthy.)

Given the public outrage, should the AGC appeal for a higher sentence even though it more or less got what it wanted? Would bowing to popular opinion be a case of mob justice? Or would it concede that it should have asked for more? Then again, it’s really up to the judge to impose the sentence, whatever the AGC might say.

Gasp! Are we interfering with the administration of justice given that the case is not yet over because there’s still a week to go before the appeal time limit is up? Mr Shanmugam, while conceding that there was “public disquiet’’, said that this wasn’t an appropriate time for him to comment on the case. And probably for the rest of us too.

The AGC has 14 days from the date of sentencing (Mar 2) to appeal. By then, we should know whether it has appealed, as well as why it did so – or didn’t.

 

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