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Answering the question you wish had been asked

The following article was first published on Siew Kum Hong's blog.

Siew Kum Hong/

Siew Kum Hong

Former US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara once said: “Never answer the question that is asked of you. Answer the question that you wish had been asked of you.” I was somewhat amused at just how blatantly this rule was used in two recent letters to the Straits Times Forum, to completely ignore what the questions that had actually been asked.

Why preschool funding is extended only to PCF kindergartens

On Thursday 10 March, ST Forum published two letters asking if, and why, the S$290 million in funding announced by the Government would go only to preschools operated by the PAP Community Foundation (PCF) and the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC).

In one letter, Yee Jenn Jong said:

"In my 15-year involvement in the industry, I have not known of any government funding for upgrading the facilities of privately owned centres, so I cannot see how this can lower the cost of preschool education in such centres.

There is also no reason for the Government to fund the upgrading of centres run by NTUC and PCF as they have their own fund sources and are usually already paying rent that is below market rates."

In the other letter, Ms Yvonne Lee shared her elation upon learning that the Kindergarten Financial Assistance Scheme (KiFAS) will be extended to grant financial relief to families whose monthly incomes do not exceed S$3500, but was then told by the Ministry of Education that only pupils in PCF kindergartens would be eligible.

Both letter-writers queried why government funding should be extended (or limited) to PCF kindergartens, and also called for the funding to be extended to privately-run preschools as well.

On Wednesday (16 March), ST Forum published a joint reply from MCYS and MOE. These are the pertinent paragraphs from the letter (the rest was pretty much just corporate PR boilerplate):

"The Kindergarten Financial Assistance Scheme, disbursed by the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS), aims to ensure that children are not deprived of a preschool education because of the family's financial circumstances.

The increase in the eligible monthly household income criterion from $1,800 to $3,500 from April 1 will let more families benefit from the scheme's subsidies.

Eligibility requires kindergartens to be registered with the Ministry of Education (MOE), be non-profit, secular and in a good financial position to provide quality preschool education.

These criteria serve to ensure that assistance is targeted at kindergartens which serve lower- and middle- income households. There are about 240 eligible kindergartens which are well-distributed across Singapore."

Nothing at all about PCF kindergartens, and nothing at all about why the funding did not extend to privately-run preschools. Probably not coincidentally, the PCF states on its website that it runs 247 kindergartens located across Singapore. A cynic would wonder why MCYS and MOE chose to cite the "about 240 eligible kindergartens" statistic, without addressing the question of whether all of these are run by PCF, and if so why.

NTUC's "symbiotic relationship" with the PAP

A letter from Ang Miah Boon was published on Wednesday 9 March, noting the recent reports about a number of potential PAP candidates from the civil service resigning to join NTUC and asking the following questions (quoted verbatim from the letter):

"- How is NTUC able to absorb these people? In any corporation, positions are based on needs. Were the positions specially created for these candidates?

- Why is NTUC providing candidates only for the PAP? Can senior executives of NTUC stand as opposition candidates? Can one be part of the NTUC leadership and remain an opposition party member? Can we separate these jobs from politics?

- Do MPs who work for NTUC take directions from NTUC secretary-general Lim Swee Say, who is Minister in the Prime Minister's Office, in Parliament?

- Finally, how many MPs should come from the NTUC? While I acknowledge that the voices of the union members should be heard, I am less certain about the number who should represent the congress in the House."

NTUC's reply, signed by NTUC President John De Payva and Sec-Gen (and Minister in the Prime Minister's Office) Lim Swee Say, was published on Tuesday 15 March. It essentially repeated the well-known (and frankly, tired) statements about why it is good for workers for NTUC to be so close to PAP.

It also completely ignored and disregarded the questions posed in the letter -- to the extent that it addressed any of the concerns raised in the letter, it would be the implied conclusion that NTUC, being a symbiotic partner of the PAP, would never, ever allow its members to stand as opposition candidates.

Let's just have a honest debate
I personally found the responses tremendously disappointing. The letter-writers felt strongly enough to take the trouble to write in to ST Forum, posing very pointed and direct questions. The replies did not do justice to, and to my mind did not respect, the letter-writers. These are valid questions that deserve answers -- but it seems that the answers will not be forthcoming.
This outcome does nobody, least of all Singapore, any good. People will speculate about why MOE, MCYS and NTUC deliberately chose not to engage directly, and they will draw adverse inferences. The outcome? A more cynical and disillusioned public, which is understandable but certainly not desirable.