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Senior government officials should do better

By Andrew Loh

Four recent issues need a closer look.

Minister of State for Education Lui Tuck Yew’s remarks about the Alfian Saat case.

Minister of State for Education and Manpower Gan Kim Yong’s expected clarification in Parliament about foreign students in our universities.

NTUC Assistant Secretary General Mdm Halimah Yacob’s reported claim that Ministers no longer receive pensions.

Minister of State for Law and Home Affairs Ho Peng Kee’s remarks about the Workers’ Party application to conduct a cycling event and his remarks about WP MP Low Thia Khiang’s hearing aid.

Alfian Saat

Minister of State Lui Tuck Yew was reported by Channelnewsasia to have said the following, when he was asked by NMP Siew Kum Hong specifically about Saat’s case:

"Teachers are in a unique position of authority and have great influence over the children they teach, engaging hearts and minds and shaping their attitudes and perspectives.

"Whether permanent or relief, teachers are expected to conduct themselves in a manner which befits this role and to uphold the integrity of the profession, both in a personal and professional capacity. The values they hold are also an important consideration as they are role models for our children."

CNA also reported him as saying the following:

“Rear Admiral Lui said it was inappropriate to discuss individual cases of teachers or relief teachers in the House.”

The transcript provided by NMP Siew on his blog quotes MOS Lui :

“On Mr Sa'at's case, like I have said, I think the most appropriate thing to do would be for him to engage MOE directly and we can deal with the case on an individual basis.”

I will come later to the values which Minister of State Lui referred to – the values which teachers must have.

First, MOS Lui’s claims that it is inappropriate to discuss individual cases in Parliament seem to be misplaced. Just last year, PAP MP Sin Boon Ann brought up the case of Wee Shu Min in Parliament, which was reported by The New Paper. (link)

No one, not even MOS Lui, had said then that it was inappropriate for Mr Sin to bring up the “individual case” of Ms Wee Shu Min.

But even if raising individual cases in Parliament is “inappropriate”, one would have to ask why, especially if that individual case is of public concern and which may affect other Singaporeans as well – for example, the other 100 cases of teachers or relief teachers, mentioned by MOS Lui himself, who are rejected by MOE every year who may not be given any explanation for their termination as well.

Second, MOS Lui’s invitation to Mr Saat to “engage MOE directly” perhaps betrays his lack of knowledge about the case itself. Anyone who has followed the case would know that Mr Saat had indeed written to the MOE for an explanation about his service being terminated.

It was the MOE which had refused to explain or clarify why they obviously regarded Mr Saat as being unfit to teach.

(See Mr Saat's exchange of letters with the MOE here. It includes the MOE referring Mr Saat to its "HR Online" website which is inaccessible to Mr Saat. Read also Yawning Bread's commentary on the issue here.)

Thus, one would have to question if the minister of state for education knows anything about the case in the first place, before he gave his reply.

Third, the values which the minister listed down, the integrity of the profession. Indeed, integrity is something which we should and must demand from our teachers.

But what is even more important is that officials of the Ministry which demand such values from its employees also have them, themselves. That is, senior ministry officials must conduct themselves in a manner which befits this role and to uphold the integrity of the profession, both in a personal and professional capacity. The values they hold are also an important consideration as they are role models for our children and our young people, to paraphrase the minister himself.

I may add that these values, besides integrity, are: humility and transparency in their dealings, and courtesy and respect for those whose service they terminate without the slightest explanation.

And that before they comment or attempt to give answers to questions, ministers should acquaint themselves with the facts of the case first.

Foreign students numbers

In the Parliament website, there is a parenthesis (or notice) in the transcript of Minister Of State for Education and Manpower Gan Kim Yong’s answer to questions about foreign students in our universities. (Click screenshot to enlarge, right)

The notice (in brackets) asked the public to "please see clarification during sitting on… August 2007.”

The August sitting of Parliament has taken place and has ended.

There have been no news reports about any such clarification, or indication from our news media that the minister has indeed made such clarification.

One can only wonder why a notice was given in the Parliament transcript (which itself is somewhat unusual), and yet such clarification did not take place – as far as I can tell.

Perhaps the minister himself would clarify if he had clarified the numbers in the August sitting of parliament.

Read TOC’s earlier articles : University places – numbers don’t add up and MOE’s reply – Numbers still don’t add up.

Ministers’ Pension

In a radio programme on 93.8FM, NTUC assistant secretary general Mdm Halimah Yacob was heard by my colleague Leong Sze Hian to have said that ministers no longer receive pensions. (link)

If this is true, one would have to question if Mdm Yacob has got her facts right. As have been pointed out in an earlier article, ministers do still receive pensions.

We await the podcast on 93.8FM’s website to ascertain exactly what Mdm Yacob said. We hope that 93.8FM will broadcast the podcast.

Cycling and hearing aid

Minister of State for Law and Home Affairs Ho Peng Kee’s reply when asked by The Workers’ Party’s MPs about the police rejection of their application to hold a cycling event is most revealing.

One is amazed at the vague and unconvincing answer given. This is because the reply could be used to reject almost any event organized by anyone.

Here is what Associate Professor Ho said:

“It is an open area where there is potential for breach of peace, public disorder, and unruly behaviour.

“You may be well behaving, but there may be other people whom you come across when you cycle who may stop you, may want to debate with you and that may attract a crowd, therefore will result in problems the police want to avoid.”

Substitute the word “cycle” and the reply would apply to any outdoor event.

It is thus logical to conclude that the minister disdains all outdoor events – because any event, whether it is political in nature or not, has the potential to cause “public disturbance” if what minister Ho himself says is true – that people “may come up to you to debate, attract a crowd and problems may occur.”

There are and always will be people who will be against any one issue – whether they are political, social, cultural or even economic. Thus, there will always be opponents to any one issue.

To say that because there is a possibility that such outdoor events may cause “public disorder” and “public disturbance” and thus should be banned, is to effectively say that all outdoor events should be banned – because all outdoor activities have the potential to cause “public disorder”, do they not - including those organised by the PAP or even the government!

But I think Minister Ho should have more faith in Singaporeans who, throughout Singapore’s 42 years as a nation, have shown themselves to be peaceful and peace-loving and sensible.

Minister Ho should also trust the capabilities of our police force, which has shown itself capable of “containing” large crowds in public, during National Days, international meetings, and during general elections where crowds of tens of thousands thronged opposition parties' rallies every night for a consecutive 9-day period without the police having to deal with any "problems".

Ironically, Minister Ho is also the Minister of State for Home Affairs, of which the police force is under. I am sure Minister Ho has great faith in the force’s capabilities.

As for MOS Ho’s remarks about The Workers’ Party MP Mr Low Thia Khiang’s hearing aid, I think everyone can see the unnecessary reference made by MOS Ho.

It is rather ironic that it is his fellow minister of state, Mr Lui Tuck Yew, who preached about “values” in the same parliament sitting.

Perhaps MOS Ho should take MOS Lui’s words to heart and reflect on them.

What is regrettable, from the above incidents, is that ministers seem unable to engage the issues in a more thorough and well-informed manner. MOS Lui and MOS Ho gave unconvincing answers. MOS Gan did not clarify what he was reported to be clarifying and Ms Halimah Yacob seem to have gotten her facts wrong.

It is also interesting to note that the ministers from the Ministry Of Education seem to avoid giving straight answers to the two questions - one, what is the exact number of foreign students in our tertiary institutions and two, why was Mr Saat's service as a relief teacher terminated?

I think ministers (and senior members of the government) in Parliament should do better than giving vague, ambiguous and unhelpful answers.

On another note, why are there 3 ministers in MOE?