“We know of no study that substantiates this, nor does our teachers' experience bear out this alarming picture,” says Ms Ho Hwei Ling, Press Secretary to the Minister for Education, in a letter to the Straits Times forum page on Friday.
Ms Ho was responding to an article for the newspaper by Professor Tommy Koh last Saturday.
Prof Koh had said in his article, titled “Three wishes for the new year”, that he was “unhappy that many of our children are growing up in poverty.”
“About a third of our students go to school with no pocket money to buy lunch,” he wrote.
“As a trustee of two education trusts,” he added, “I am reminded each year of the large number of needy students in our schools and tertiary institutions. I was shocked when the president of one of our universities told us recently that 60 per cent of his students need financial assistance.”
In her letter, Ms Ho disputed the accuracy of Prof Koh’s information, and said the article “contained glaring assertions that should have been fact-checked before publication.”
“Prof Koh may have confused the number of financially needy students with the fact that the Government has deliberately extended bursary support to both poor and middle-income students at our universities,” Ms Ho explained.
She said that the Government has “broadened financial support in both our schools and universities beyond lower-income families to cover the middle-income group” as part of its aim to promote social mobility.
This was announced by Finance Minister, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, in his Budget speech last year.
“For example,” Ms Ho said, “the Ministry of Education's Financial Assistance Scheme in schools has been extended to households with income of $2,500 per month, from $1,500 previously. The Edusave Merit Bursary, which was raised from $4,000 to $5,000 per month, and the Independent School Bursary, which covers up to $7,200, provide for up to middle-income families.”
She added, “It is hence by design that many lower- and middle-income students in both schools and tertiary institutions now qualify for financial support, as we strive to ensure equal opportunities regardless of home backgrounds.”
“One would have expected Prof Koh to welcome this greater progressivity in the Government's policies, and not mistake it as meaning that ‘many of our children are growing up in poverty’.”
In his response to Ms Ho’s letter, Proh Koh clarified that the information was given to him “by two knowledgeable individuals who have since told me the information was inaccurate.”
“My article may thus have over-represented the extent of student poverty,” he said. “I acknowledge, too, that the Government has acted on this front.”
However, Prof Koh said that “one cannot deny that student poverty exists.”
He cited how the Straits Times School Pocket Money Fund, for example, helps more than 10,000 students each year.
The fund, set up in 2000 and which provides pocket money to children from low-income families, has seen a steady increase of recipients over the years.
In 2011 it disbursed financial help to 8,700 families.
In 2014, this rose to more than 14,000.
“It expects to disburse close to $8 million this year , a 60 per cent increase as compared to two years ago,” My Paper reported in October.
Prof Koh also pointed to his own experience as a trustee of two charitable and education trusts.
“I am a trustee of the Lee Wee Kheng Charitable Trust. Each year, we donate about $1 million to help needy students in our schools. The Ministry of Education helps identify the 100 schools with the highest number of needy students, and we give $10,000 to each of the schools.
“I am also a trustee of the Tan Chay Bing Education Trust. We give bursaries and scholarships to needy students in the universities, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, LaSalle, Shatec, the Intercultural Institute and others. The bursaries are a lifeline to some. Without our help, they would most likely have to abandon their studies or work part-time. The needs exceed our ability to help.”
The Government has thus far rejected calls to define an official poverty line.
“A single official poverty line to identify the ‘poor’ or to assess the efficacy of our schemes is one-dimensional,” the Minister for Social and Family Development said in a written reply to a parliamentary question in November 2013.
“It has limitations in informing policies as it does not take into account the differing nature of needs such as housing, health, employment, family issues. Neither does it provide useful information on the depth or intensity of needs of low income families.”
“’Working poor’ is defined as a working person whose income per household member is less than half of the national median per capita household income of Singapore, which now stands at S$1,920,” newspaper TODAY said.
“It has been reported that there are more than 300,000 Singaporeans and permanent residents who earn less than S$1,500 a month (excluding employer CPF contributions) despite working full-time.”