By Choo Zheng Xi

Our writer Leong Sze Hian recently pointed out that numbers for the proportion of foreign students in local varsities given by Minister of State for Education Gan Kim Yong in Parliament did not add up.

Mr Gan had said in Parliament that of 23,000 foreign students who applied to local varsities, “only 987 or 4.3 percent were given places”.

Mr Leong was right.

The Ministry of Education today clarified that almost five times the number were in fact admitted. Out of the 23,000 foreign students who applied, the actual number admitted was 4,218.

However, even with this latest clarification from MOE, the numbers still do not stack up. (Link)

The most cursory glance at the figures involved shows that the gross disparity in the statistics delivered to Parliament and actual numbers should have cried out for an explanation.

As Mr Leong pointed out in his article, about 20% of the National University of Singapore’s 23,900 undergraduates come from overseas. For anyone curious about the issue of foreign talent, not to mention a Minister of State, this disparity should have been obvious.

It is worrying that a Minister of State would present statistics to parliament which later have to be corrected by officials from his ministry. This seems to defeat the purpose of having parliamentary debates in the first place.

More worrying is the weakness of political leadership this incident displays: what exactly is the role of the Minister of State if he is merely the Parliamentary mouthpiece for his civil servants?

MOE has been quick to put the actual statistics out in public view. This is commendable.

However, it is most regrettable that Parliamentarians have been temporarily deprived of the ability to ask the questions about our government’s foreign talent policy they otherwise could have were accurate statistics provided in this sitting. The debate must now carry on in the platforms in which it was first aired: in the old media and the new.

Mistake aside, unanswered questions still remain.

As Mr Leong has written, the government has so far not provided us with actual admission intake figures for Singaporeans, PRs and foreigners. Indeed, a back of the envelope calculation shows that the number of foreign students might actually exceed the 20% quota set by MOE.

The government has staked its reputation on good leadership. One Parliamentary misstep will hardly rattle its track record. However, this incident does put into question the importance the political leadership places on the question of foreign talent.

Unless the government wants to entrench an impression of laissez faire management of a laissez faire policy, it has to ensure that its ministers are properly briefed before the next Parliamentary sitting, and that Parliament and the people are given the correct answers – and figures.

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