Reformers at a Jurong Walkabout – from left to right – James Teo, Justin Ong, Tony Tan
One can be forgiven for believing that there is somewhat a connection between high-flying scholars and the ruling party. This can be attributed to the number of former scholars who are serving in Parliament and the Cabinet under the ruling party. Mr Tony Tan (TT), however, took an alternative path vis-à-vis his other illustrious colleagues.
A recipient of the SAF Merit Scholarship, he earned a Bachelor of Engineering with Honours from the University of Cambridge. He also earned a MBA and Biomedical degrees from the University of Leicester and Central Queensland University respectively. He left SAF to found an educational provider, achieving success that earned him the Spirit of Enterprise award. He has remained within the educational sector ever since.
Joining the Reform Party, he became a member of the Central Executive Committee in 2009. The Online Citizen was fortunate to be able to catch up with Tony, soliciting his views on various issues, and even managed to catch a slight glimpse into the upcoming educational seminar organised by the Reform Party.
In this exclusive interview, Tony Tan shares his perspective on the economy, national service and education. To find out more about Tony Tan and the Reform Party, why not pop over at the Reform Party’s Seminar on Education? It will be held on 130pm, 23rd January at Berkshire School Pte Ltd, 100 Beach Road #02-19A, Shaw Towers, Singapore 189702. The facebook page for the event is accessible at http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=231270716589&index=1
TOC: Why did you join politics?
TT: There are numerous reasons, but with one purpose – the hope of being able to make a difference to the people in the street however small it is. I am concerned what the government’s vision for Singapore is. I am also concerned with what ordinary Singaporeans want Singapore to be? Forty-four years ago, we achieved independence by circumstances. We were then at a crossroad – to be swallowed up by a bigger nation, or to trail blaze and succeed. The latter happened. We made it because the people in the street understood the vision and united with the leaders.
After 44 years, do we still have these successful ingredients in place to ride out the impact of globalisation and increasing competition from neighbouring countries? Do the people and the leaders still share the same vision? The vision appears to be developing Singapore to be a world-class city with Swiss standard of living. And the yardstick with which this “standard of living” is to be measured by what seems to be our Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Some Singaporeans have started questioning the quality of living standards despite the high GDP growth we have attained. Should we be afraid or excited about the vision of a world-class city with Swiss standards of living?
Being raised by a single mom with 3 brothers and 3 sisters, I understand poverty and the importance of social mobility and social safety nets. They make the society more inclusive and compassionate. According to MOM website and the Department of Statistics, more than 50% of the labour force earned S$2,000 or less monthly in 2006. Rising cost of living erodes their quality of life substantially. In 2007, the government argues the need for a higher GST to help the poor. Today there are families living in the parks after losing their HDB flats. The government has made a promise to help the poor. Can they convince Singaporeans why they cannot keep their promise?
I disagree that the performance of the ministers and the government should be measured by merely one factor – the percentage increase in GDP of Singapore. If that is the only focus, all issues would be studied with only 1 key consideration: what is the economic cost or value to Singapore? How can we build an inclusive society with such a one-dimensional approach?
The first group of members that formed the PAP many years ago included Union leaders, postmen and teachers. They formed the old guards and they fought hard on issues for the men in the street. We may need people from all strata of the society to be represented in the Parliament. If the issues for ordinary Singaporeans are not given priority and accorded attention in the Parliament, then we need to send in ordinary Singaporeans into Parliament to bring those issues across to the government.
Each of us has 1 vote. Singaporeans are the custodians of this country. Not any political parties. We need to get the message out to as many Singaporeans as possible to support or join any opposition parties.
TOC: You initially carved a career in SAF. Having been there and done that, what kind of reforms do you think our military can implement that will improve the lives of our servicemen?
TT: Many areas come to mind. The one area that will be of significance is the duration of National Service and the number of NSmen in-camp trainings. To continue to enjoy the support from NSmen, the ministry needs to seriously review the operational demands on NSmen. How we can achieve that will be elaborated in the subsequent question.
During those call-ups, are NS men gainfully employed? Do they feel they have contributed? National Service is the best and the single largest platform to engage our citizens. Are we making the most of this opportunity to make our citizens feel that they are making a meaningful contribution to the nation and be proud of it? Emphasis must be given to engage the NSmen, apart from ensuring that they clock their number of “high key” and pass their IPPTs. In short, win the support and win the “heart” of the NSmen.
From 2001-09, on average, there are 3 deaths per year. Since 2005, the Republic of Singapore Air Force had maintained an outstanding record of zero fatality for pilots. Why can’t the SAF as a whole strive for zero death? This should be one of the Key Performance Indicators for a peacetime armed force. Any loss of life is one too many. The Reform Party believes that an explicit target zero deaths arising from military training is needed.
TOC: Your party colleagues have advocated a decrease in defense budget. Based on your experience, how can our military reduce its spending?
TT: According to military and strategic analysts, such as Tim Huxley (author of Defending the Lion City), Singapore is using a forward-defence military doctrine . Our current investments in new weapons systems and technologies are to develop 3G SAF which seeks to dominate terrain by precision strikes, unmanned warfare and integrated knowledge command and control.
In the long run, the SAF will have to rely on Navy, Airforce and selected Army troops, while focusing the bulk of NSmen for defense. When that happens, there would be significantly fewer operational skills for NS men to be trained and honed. The duration of full-time NS can be reduced to 12 months. Duration of in-camp training may be over the weekends with minimum or no disruption to their jobs.
This change may mean that instead of putting 5 people on the ground supported by 1 who uses high-end technologies to achieve the military objective, we may just need 1 on the ground supported by 2. Although expenditure and investment on technologies and its enablers will increase, a sizeable saving in defence budget can be achieved by reshaping the Army. The need for a strong defence to protect our independence and sovereignty must still be maintained.
We need to start thinking about this, and how we can achieve this. In subsequent seminars of the Reform Party that will focus on defence and security threats, we will discuss this in greater detail.
TOC: There are who servicemen embark on educational pursuits during their national service term and have complained that they are either too tired or do not have enough time for their studies. How can such servicemen be assisted in their educational pursuits?
TT: For those who wish to repeat their GCE “O” or “A” level exams, MINDEF should grant them deferment. Later enlistment does not mean enlistees serve shorter duration.
For the others, with reduced duration of full-time NS to 12-18 months, servicemen should commit their energy and time fully on meeting training requirements. They can continue their education after NS full time.
TOC: While you have been an exception, other regulars who left the military after years of service have found it difficult in re-adjust to the demands of the working world. Thus, how can the social mobility and employability of former regular servicemen be enhanced?
TT: I believe the statement does not just apply to military servicemen. It also applies to professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) and anyone who has lost their jobs and forced to seek employment in other industries. Change is one of the constant realities of Singapore’s economy. The future workforce will need to learn to accept faster pace of changes to the employment needs of the economy.
Currently, there are quotas for polytechnics and universities, and the subjects on offer are designed to meet the manpower needs of industries. When the manpower requirements change, people lose their jobs, and their option is to get re-trained/skilled for other employment opportunities.
So what can we do to prepare our young ones for the globalised world? We would be discussing this issue and some of our proposals at the upcoming Seminar on Education.
TOC: Can the current education system equip students with necessary skills to deal with challenges in this knowledge-based economy? Why?
TT: To make our future workforce more resilient to economic changes, students should be empowered. They should be allowed to pursue their interests and develop their potentials, apart from academic pursuits. Students should take charge of their education and decide for themselves how they want to progress and set the pace at which they want to achieve it. There should be equal opportunities for all Singaporeans since young, regardless of abilities and disabilities.
Our students need to be confident, outspoken, multi-skilled, and be prepared to unlearn what they learnt and to learn like an unlearnt. The learning environment should change. From one where students are asked to accept what is taught to one where students will challenge what is taught. Like a forest, we need to breed new varieties that will add biodiversity to the current. The learning environment should also be representative of the society where different people with varying strengths fulfill different roles.
The future of Singapore also depends on whether the students of today are engaged to stay committed and rooted to Singapore. The students should be engaged to understand the various government policies and how they affect the lives of Singaporeans. They should be engaged to think and understand what are the alternatives, and how these can make a difference to the present system. Change is the only constant reality. Participating in change allows students to be engaged and to want to contribute to nation building. In short, the Reform Party believes in the importance of political education, which will bring about inclusivity.
TOC: Do you think our education system is suffering from an asymmetric distribution of teaching and learning resources, i.e. the best teachers and learning facilities going to the better schools? Why? If yes, what can be done to address this asymmetry?
TT: To answer that question, we need statistics from Ministry of Education (MOE). Numerous like-minded individuals have also asked whether children from the lower social economic strata of our society have performed more poorly in national examinations. Currently those data are not available.
Apart from that, some parents have highlighted that relief teachers, who are non-NIE trained, are teaching their children. MOE and each school should make public the percentage of relief/untrained teachers, adjunct teachers, trained teachers and experienced teachers (>3 years).
The Reform Party believes in Transparency. Information that is of interest to the public should be made available.
TOC: What is your opinion of the integrated programme that allows selected students to skip “O” levels?
TT: In one of the TOC articles on education , it was penned:
The former president of Japanese multinational Matsushita remarked some years ago to the then-Economic Development Board (EDB) Chairman Ngiam Tong Dow that our educational structure had some brilliant individuals perched like eagles on high peaks, but the average education level of the rest was not high. He advised that Singapore should concentrate on educating the masses to raise the average level and not just focus on the top scholars. He said that to advance as a nation, we need “high broad plateaus, not solitary peaks”.
We need to challenge all students to ensure that their potentials are developed to the fullest. Mr Ngiam has clearly pinpointed that our education system had helped the brightest to be “perched like eagles on high peaks” and the integrated programme is another such example.
During the Seminar on Education, we will share some of our proposals to improve education for the masses. As for the brighter students, we also have proposals to allow them to pursue wider spectrum of subjects and easing on the age restriction as to when they can do GCE O/A level examinations.
TOC: Do you think our current education system favors the early bloomers and sidelines the late ones? What improvements can be made to make the system more inclusive so that adequate attention is paid to both groups to allow them to realise their potential?
TT: Currently about 1 in 3 students are in the “Normal” stream. Students who are in “Normal” stream feel abnormal and at that young age, they may lack the maturity to understand the need to group them in accordance to learning abilities. This would have a negative psychological effect on their confidence in learning and may hinder the development of their potentials in other areas.
Should we avoid the creation of a “sure-fail” formula by placing slower or less interested academic learners or late bloomers together, and labelling them as “Normal” when they know it is not normal to be in such a grouping?
Parents are anxious that their children may be streamed to Normal. It is perceived that the future of Normal students is less bright as they are at the bottom of the academic ranking in PSLE. But is this academic ranking necessary? Why must the PSLE consist of English, 2nd Language, Math and Science? What are the possible tradeoffs that we have in focusing our future generation countrywide on PSLE during their formative years?
This is also one of the issues we will be discussing at our Seminar on Education. Please join us at the seminar and give us your feedback on our proposals on how to avoid streaming students of different abilities too early and yet still allow each to learn and develop at their own pace.
A few other pertinent questions have been put across to Tony. They are listed below and they will be discussed during the Seminar On Education. Interested to know more and have other burning questions or issues to raise? Do make a trip down to Shaw Centre and participate in the seminar cum workshop on 23rd January.
- Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew recently admitted that our method of bilingual education is flawed. Should Singapore continue with bilingual education, and if yes, how we should go about administering it, bearing in mind the past failures?
- Is there an endemic problem with regards to stigmatisation based on academic achievements within certain facets of our society? Why? And what can be done if there was such a problem?
- What is your opinion of the government’s decision to implement the primary school fees hike?
- What is your opinion of the current system of primary school admissions?
- Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek commented that although Singaporeans score high in standardised tests for maths and sciences, however, rarely do Singaporeans go on to be world-beaters in the corporate (entrepreneurs) or academic world (top-notch researchers). Why is there such a huge gulf between the math and science achievements up to high school (Junior college) level and that beyond?
- What kind of reforms should our tertiary institutions consider implementing so that our undergraduates will enjoy a quality education that will enable them to take on challenges in their careers?
- What hindering factors are stopping Singaporeans from pursuing advanced degrees, and what reforms can be made to enable those who wish (especially working adults) to pursue a further an advanced degree achieve their goals with peace of mind?
- What is your opinion on the current system pertaining to the dissemination of government scholarships?