On Thursday (28 November), activist and founder of Transitioning.org (a support site for the unemployed) Gilbert Goh sent an email to the Education Minister Ong Ye Kung urging his Ministry to waive off unpaid school fees and return students’ result slips.
In an earlier Facebook post on Monday (25 November), Mr Goh highlighted the plight of a student whose original Primary School Leaving Examination (PLSE) result slip was withheld by the Ministry of Education (MOE), as her parents had incurred S$156 in unpaid school fees. Eventually, a Good Samaritan paid the school fees for the student so that she can get her original PSLE result slip.
In response to this, MOE told Yahoo! News Singapore the next day (26 November) that the real aim of doing so “stems from the underlying principle that notwithstanding the fact that the cost of education is almost entirely publicly funded, we should still play our part in paying a small fee, and it is not right to ignore that obligation, however small it is”.
“Further, students from lower-income families can apply for financial assistance that covers their miscellaneous fees, uniforms, textbooks, transport and school meals. If it is about money then the easier solution would be to reduce subsidies and financial assistance,” it added.
Sharing the email following the previous exchanges on Transitioning.org, Mr Goh said that although he applauds the Ministry of Education’s (MOE) “laudable financial assistance scheme (FAS) which benefitted thousands of needy students each year”, but some students may not receive them due to many other reasons.
“However, it came to our attention that some students may fall through the crack when it comes to application of FAS due to various unique reasons – incomplete filling of forms due to a missing family member, sudden loss of a breadwinner through retrenchment or just missing out on the FAS criteria mark of S$2750 gross income per household or S$690 per capita income,” the activist wrote.
He added that some may even feel ashamed to apply for financial help “due to their ego and prefer to tough it out worsening the problem for the innocent child”.
Adopt a compassionate approach in dealing with needy families
As such, Mr Goh stated that the schools should be more proactive in identifying “vulnerable students who have a prolonged accumulation of school fees for more than six months”. This is because not paying their fees for such a long period of time is a clear sign that things may not be so good at home.
He suggested that “the school counsellor can attend to such cases to nip it in the bud before the situation deteriorates further”.
He added that to simply expect families to come forward and apply for FAS may not be possible with “some families who are either lowly-educated or swamped with their own personal issues”.
“They need a gentle nudge, a loving compassionate touch to show that the school is also caring out than the current institutional trend of coldness and aloofness when it comes to handling families living in poverty,” he wrote.
He continued, “Mr Ong, I hope that you will agree with me that we need to change our approach in handling those who could not pay their school fees as simply denying their original examination certificate is not the right solution to solve a longstanding problem.”
Therefore, Mr Goh urges MOE to “consider waving off these unpaid fees in a special compassionate goodwill gesture so that our needy children could finally receive their educational certificates”.
He also noted that by denying a child’s original result slip, it sends mixed signal to the child as he or she may feel “marginalised and punished for his parent’s fault”.
“It will also stir up anger and shame within the child who is still too young to comprehend the whole matter properly. Often, the child may feel that he is at fault lapsing into adverse emotional backlash or he may lay the blame squarely on his family which is also unhealthy,” Mr Goh explained.
If the Ministry can’t offer this special waiver, then Mr Goh said that his organisation will try collecting the funds through crowdfunding in order to pay back all the backlogged school fees over the years so the students can get their original certificate.
“We want to work hand in hand with the ministry to resolve a complicated long-standing matter and hopefully we can groom children to be responsible and compassionate despite their family situation,” he penned.
Faced similar situation in school
In the email, the activist said that he is passionate about this matter as he was raised in a poor environment himself, and could not attend kindergarten as his family could not afford the school fees.
“Every morning, I would run to the school and peep in from outside the gate entrance gawking in envy at those who could attend the sessions. From a very young age, I was also fostered out for a long ten years due to the fact that my parents have to work very long hours to make ends meet. I felt abandoned and could never understand why we have to leave our parents and stay with strangers,” he said.
He added, “My childhood experience has scarred me for life but it has also toughened me up a lot as I always feel much for the underdogs and try to speak up for them whenever possible. I am writing this with tears streaming down my cheeks as it is never easy to come to terms with any childhood scars often embedded deep within our memory and any healing is a life-long struggle.”
Given his personal struggle as a child, Mr Goh pleaded to the Education Ministry to rethink the Ministry’s decision to hold students’ result certificate until outstanding payments are made.
He said that it’s not only cruel but also “psychologically damaging” to a child’s esteem.
“I am also open to a face-to-face meeting with you so that we can discuss this matter openly and cordially,” he wrote at the end of his email.