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National Day must remain a day of pride

Ravi Philemon

It is the season to celebrate the 45 years of independence Singapore has enjoyed.  Being almost as old as Singapore, I have lived through the transformation of this city-state.

I remember sitting on my father’s shoulders to catch the march-pass along Tanglin Halt Road in the ‘70s. I have never missed watching a single National Day parade on TV from as far back as I can remember (except for the years that I was away in the USA).

This is the season to be proud of being a Singaporean.

I pay tribute to my mother this National Day, for she is the type of resilient, selfless Singaporean, who built the Singapore we have today.  When we were rendered homeless through a series of unfortunate events, my mother held down three jobs, to put us three children through school.  She knew that education will provide the chance for her children - her future - to claw back from the misery we were in.

This National Day, the more I ponder about the kind of future we will have the more unsure I become of Singapore’s tomorrow.

For one, there is the growing income gap - the gap between the 'haves' and the 'have-nots'. The root cause of this problem I feel is the Singapore education system which has disadvantaged the 'have-nots'.

Even though students in Singapore do exceptionally well in Maths and Science tests internationally, there are just a handful of them who turn out to be 'world-beaters'. To remedy this, we must move from being an 'exam meritocracy' to being a 'talent meritocracy'.

We must move from the culture of "Work hard! Memorise! Test-well!' to a culture of learning that challenges conventional wisdom, even if it means challenging authority. Only this shift in the learning culture will enable our students, who are the future of Singapore, to be creative, curious, and to have a sense of adventure and ambition.  Streaming which happens at a very early stage of education in Singapore is a major culprit which impedes this shift in the culture of learning.

Streaming is a form of social class stratification, where those in the Gifted Education  Programme would go on to be leaders in whatever fields they might enter, be it government, medicine, science or anything, the Special students would go on to earn university degrees and seek well-paid soft collar jobs, and the Express students would go on to Polytechnics and serve as associate professionals and clerical workers, and the Normal stream students would end up as technicians, hawkers, and road sweepers.

And this segregation by way of streaming happens at a very young age, based on who is the most 'exams-smart'. Even those that are smart, but cannot test well despite trying to rote-learn, are streamed down. Those without the 'right' paper qualifications are labelled as 'failures'.

According to the year 2000 census, there were 116300 such ‘failure’ families in Singapore, who earn below $1000 per month. Six in ten of these households are headed by someone with only primary school education or less. And they work as cleaners, labourers or as service workers.

The government’s policy of excessively streaming the students at a very young age and causing unnecessary stress not only to the students but also to their parents, right from primary school to secondary school to places of tertiary education, must be re-looked.

And re-look this policy of streaming we must so that we can go daringly into the future Singapore, knowing that we have given the younger generation the gift of being lifelong learners, so that they can adapt and overcome challenges the future may throw at them.

Another reason why I look at the National Days of the future with uncertainty is because of those that are over 40 and are (or become) unemployed.  Unlike the time of my mother, it may be more difficult for these to get jobs, so that they could be self-reliant.  I personally know some people who despite going for WSQ courses have not been able to get a job.

Although this problem is found in the unskilled workforce, it especially impedes the skilled labour force.  Ironically, it is but the skilled workforce that not only has the right education and skill-sets but also the experience; but there seem to be a prejudice by the employers in hiring skilled workers who are over 40.

Those that are in the 40s are in their prime and have many more years of being able to contribute to the growth and well-being of Singapore. We cannot just expect them to take any job that comes by their way; a job which may not pay them sufficiently to meet their burden of living costs and commitments as sons, daughters, fathers and mothers and becomes a cost of opportunity.

Besides the relevant ministries embarking on campaigns to educate employers to forgo prejudices of hiring older workers, the older workers themselves must be given time to search for appropriate jobs.

Although we see good GDP growth today and seem to have rebounded from the deep economic crisis, as we go into the future, nobody can guarantee that there will not be another economic crisis and no one can guarantee that there will not be another round of lay-offs. The welfare of the workers must be protected when the next down-turn strikes.

The government must use part of the CPF restoration exercise for a national employment insurance scheme, where every worker will be insured against job-loss or retrenchment.  The mechanisms of such an insurance scheme to benefit every worker, including the duration and amount of payouts, can be further studied once the scheme is given approval in principal.

This will be the best National Day gift to the workers in Singapore, without whom we will not have the Singapore that we have today.

Happy National Day Singapore!

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Picture from jamcansing.com.