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Lee Hsien Loong at the National Day Rally 2017. Photograph: Prime Minister's Office.

National Day Rally ignores root problems and alternative solutions

Many have criticised PM Lee's decision to focus on pre-schooling, diabetes, and Smart Nation. I disagree with the notion that these are unimportant matters.

These three issues profoundly affect socioeconomic equality and have the potential to improve our lives in very real and tangible ways. It is just a pity that we seem to be obsessed with doing more rather than figuring out what's wrong in the first place; and we don’t seem to see any problem with handing over ever greater control of our society to the state.

Pre-schools

Providing greater access to pre-schools is one way to level the playing field. Another way is to stop tailoring the curriculum at the Primary 1 level by assuming that all children would have gone through pre-school.

“The Singaporean education system officially starts in Primary 1, when children are aged seven, but it effectively starts in Kindergarten 1, when children are aged five,” wrote Michael D. Barr (2005) in a paper criticising the myth of Singapore’s meritocracy and multiracialism. “Today, children on the first day of Primary 1 are expected to already have a basic level of English, mathematics and their mother tongue. Kindergartens therefore teach these subjects, set exams and give grades.”

With the current expansion of pre-schooling, parents now no longer have a choice of whether to send their toddlers to kindergarten. Although pre-school education is not mandated by the state, as primary education is, the de facto result of this trend is to take away the choice from parents. It is not that levelling the playing field is wrong. It is simply that we haven’t really explored alternative solutions. Is this incessant push towards ever earlier formal education beneficial towards future generations? Or does it merely reflect a bias towards academic talent—measured through standardised testing and directed towards national goals.

In that same paper, Barr wrote:

PCF [People's Action Party Community Foundation] kindergartens socialise children into an academic and examination-oriented education system at the expense of social skills. It may be re-running a stereotype to assert that Malays place a high value on family, motherhood, social skills, inter-personal relations and personal virtues like generosity, but there is no escaping that there is a large amount of truth in this particular stereotype. Whether in casual conversation, in a formal interview or conducting a business transaction with a Malay Singaporean, one is usually struck by the gentleness and sophistication of the conversational skills, the reluctance to press a point or articulate a criticism, the comfortable sense of self-composure and friendly serenity. It reflects a rather generous spirituality and humanism that is commonplace within this community, but which is not in step with the dominant ethos of Singapore.

Diabetes

Diabetes is an important problem. One way to tackle it is by declaring war and obtaining public support for things like sugar taxes and exercise programs. But that would be to fix the symptoms without finding the cure.

Is the problem a lack of understanding of the problem of diabetes? If so, public education campaigns are great. But if the problem is not so much a lack of understanding, or a desire to tackle the problem, but an inability to do so, then the solution must be to help those who can't help themselves.

I am, of course, speaking of those who cannot afford expensive brown rice; who do not have the time to exercise because they are working two jobs; who consume sugary drinks as a kind of comfort food to deal with the stress they face, and so on.

Studies show that poverty and a lack of social capital are statistically associated with higher diabetes incidence. There are, of course, also studies that dispute the connection between poverty and diabetes. But the issue here cannot be simply ignored. To tackle diabetes effectively, its root causes must be identified and dealt with.

Associate Professor of Sociology at NTU, Teo You Yenn, wrote in The Straits Times:

[Low-income parents’] devotion to their children is more difficult and requires more of them than my devotion to mine. Many have long, inflexible work hours in physically taxing jobs. They have multiple dependants, heavy burdens of housework, and additional labour due to being low-income (for example, going to the post office weekly to top up their utilities credit). Parents face great financial stress, worrying about food, clothes and shelter.

Thus, poverty and stressful lifestyles are as much a cause of diabetes as the high sugar content in sweet drinks. If we declare war on diabetes, we must make sure to hit the right targets.

Smart Nation

Smart Nation is a slightly different issue. Our motivations are noble: more jobs, better security, ensuring that the elderly are safe, and convenience for commuters and consumers.

But the risks and trade-offs need to be addressed. Who gains jobs and who loses jobs? Will there be a net gain or a net loss? With so much data being collected, how do we prevent malicious actors from gaining access to this data and using it for nefarious ends? What about informed consent and public buy-in? And how do we ensure that the government doesn’t turn into an Orwellian Big Brother?

These concerns are very real. Just take the resignalling project as an example. Train delays caused by trials of the new signalling system show just how underdeveloped the underlying technology is. Automation is a good end-goal to strive towards but the road will surely be bumpy.

As for the view that we must catch up because we are lagging behind Japan and China, I do not think our failure to go cashless as they have is in itself a bad thing. We should adopt technologies to enjoy the benefits they confer, not in order to be ranked number one.

Conclusion

These are important issues, if only because they haven’t been turned into partisan ones yet. If the government can get this right, it may yet succeed in restoring public confidence. But I am not the only one raising these issues. Many have done so for a long time. So will the government listen this time?