Donaldson Tan / Photo courtesy of Boris Chan

Panellists – from left to right – Tony Tan, Hazel Poa, James Gomez, Justin Ong,
Kenneth Jeyaretnam, Peter Li, Jason Soh
Last Saturday, the Reform Party’s Seminar on Education attracted a crowd of 60 people that included teachers, working adults and students. This is the second seminar in the series of seminars organised by the Reform Party. The theme of the first seminar was the Singapore economy.

Education and the economy

In his opening speech, RP’s Secretary General Mr Kenneth Jeyaretnam remarked that Singapore’s current economic growth is due to the expansion of workforce instead of higher productivity. In fact, real income for Singaporeans have stagnated for the last 10 years. Singaporeans are working longer and harder for less wealth.

Kenneth proposed GDP per person or GDP per hour worked as new key performance indicators. “We see a direct link between productivity growth and the level of spending on education. Also, we have to spend more if Singapore wants to grow as a knowledge-based economy,” he told reporters.

Compound annual growth rates compiled by the Reform Party
He also said that Singapore spent too little on education – a mere 2.8% of the GDP compared to countries such as the USA (7.0%) and South Korea (4.0%). Rising productivity and increasing national spending on education are key to improve the living standard of Singaporeans. This figure should be increased to 4.0%.

Mr Tan Kin Lian, former CEO of NTUC Income, could not attend the seminar. However, according to a written circular for the education seminar, he said the lack of minimum wage led to inadequate wages being paid to occupations that involves interaction with people, such as jobs in health care, education and social service sectors. The education system also does not provide adequate opportunities to hone social skillls required in the previously mentioned jobs.

Education policy should not be foreign policy

Mr Justin Ong, president of the Young Reformers, expressed his disapproval on the sheer number of foreigners on the Singapore government’s scholarship. These scholarships are modelled after the Fulbright scholarship in the USA. They are designed to expand the outreach of the Singapore-based intelligentia to the international community.

“Developing foreign talent in Singapore’s universities is at most a gamble,” said Justin. As a result, Singaporeans are deprived of spaces. This is not an acceptable situation as top Singaporean students who further their studies abroad are being replaced by second-rate foreign talents on campus. Influx of foreign talents at all levels is an abomination to Singapore’s education policy.

Preschool to university education

During the seminar, Mr Tony Tan of the Reform Party, emphasised that one should not address issues by only looking at their symptons. Together with his wife Ms Hazel Poa, they outlined the education policy proposals of the Reform Party that cover pre-school to university education.

Among them was a through-train program from primary to secondary level education. Ms Hazel Poa said without PSLE, students would be able to focus on character building, creativity and entrepreneurship. Hazel also proposed MOE to regulate the pre-school sector and assist the pre-school sector in developing curriculum while ensuring pre-school teachers are well-trained.

While the Ministry of Education provides for underprivilleged children through the Financial Assistance Scheme, Tony found publicly available statistics are lacking in area on how money has been given out and how many families actually benefited from the scheme. The impact of such schemes are particularly important for measuring the success of Singapore education system in promoting social mobility. Interest-free loans for tertiary education should be made available to lower income families. A funding source for such a loan can come from savings accrued from the Government’s departmental budgets.

Floor participant Norvin Chan blamed the National Examination Board for promoting rote-learning. In 2006, the then Minister of Education Tharman Shanmugaratnam recognised that Singapore is an examination meritocracy, not a talent meritocracy, during a PAP Policy Forum. Rote-learning rewards specific behavior such as doing well in mathematics and natural sciences. As a result, parents tend to emphasise a lot in these areas.

According to Tony, for every 10 students in each cohort leaving secondary school, 2 go to ITE, 4 go to polytechnics, 3 go to pre-university institutions offering A levels and 1 leaves the education system. Dr James Gomez, one of the external speakers, proposed that the education system should provide access points for drop-outs to return to higher education.

In response to a floor participant on the teaching competency of foreign academics in local institutions, James revealed that he had to pass a Graduate Certificate in Tertiary Teaching before he was accepted to teach at Monash University in Australia. Spoken and written competency of the English language is a key component of the program. Local tertiary institutions should consider a similar program.

Academic freedom

James also called for equal renumeration among Singaporean and foreign academics. This should be reflected in pay scales and fringe benefits such as housing allowance and relocation packages from overseas to Singapore. There should be more transparency in terms of promotion, appointment into leadership positions, awarding of tenure, recruitment of academics and termination of contracts.

Academics critical of the Singapore government face the risk of non-renewal of their employment contract. Academic freedom is instrumental in fostering the intellectual vibrancy of Singapore. James suggested academics should have privilege of immunity. He also added that the recent amendment to the Statistics Act, which makes available micro-array of anonymised data available to researchers in public agencies, is no substitute for a Freedom of Information Act.

Academic freedom was cited to justify the pull-out of University of Warwick to establish a campus in Singapore. NUS Professor Thio Li-Ann was hired to advise the university in August 2005 on how constraints on freedom of expression in Singapore might affect teaching and research activities. Professor Thio’s bottom-line was, “Speech is permissible as long as it does not threaten real political change or alter the status quo.”

For disabled / special need children

The final speakers Mr Peter Li and Mr Jason Soh covered on education for the disabled. The curriculum for disabled children should be one that prepare them to be independent and contribute to society. While allowing special need children to enrol at mainstream schools is ideal, constraints such as the lack of qualified special need educators and special facilities make it difficult for mainstream schools to accept special need children.

A small number of mainstream schools are currently available to children with dyslexia, autism, physical and sensory disabilities. As of 2010, children diagnosed with dyslexia are allowed into all mainstream schools as long as there is available support. Only 10% of school teachers in Singapore are trained to provide support to special need children.

Early detection and intervention is extremely important in the bringing up of disabled children. Non-physical and non-sensory disabilities are difficult to detect during a child’s early years. In a recent study, Singapore scored very low in the area assessing the ability of pre-school teachers to identify disability among their students.

Read also: Dr James Gomez’s speech at the RP Seminar on Education

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