Something is “very seriously wrong” about the Ministry of Education (MOE) policy of withholding a student’s exam results certificate because their parents have unpaid outstanding fees, said a speaker at the forum organised by activist Gilbert Goh.
The forum, held on 21 December at Mahota Studio, welcomed a group of about 30 people including parents affected by this policy and kind donor who have contributed to Mr Goh’s crowdfunding campaign to help pay off outstanding fees so students can collect their results.
This comes on the heels of the public debate about this particular MOE policy which was spotlighted when Mr Goh shared a story about a student who was not given the original copy of her PSLE results because her parent hadn’t paid some outstanding school fees.
Though a kind donor stepped up to pay the outstanding fees so that the student could get her original results certificate, Mr Goh called the denial by MOE an act of “rubbing salt into the wound of poverty” and he wondered “how many poor Singaporean students could not get hold of their actual PSLE report card when they owed school fees due to their adverse family situation”.
MOE responded that this was a “long-standing” practice.
A petition was then started urging the MOE to review this policy. It garnered over 1,236 signatories from people within and outside of Singapore as of 10 December 2019, which was then sent to MOE. Responding to the petition, Minister of Education Ong Ye Kung stated that he “doesn’t agree with the views of some people that schools and teachers are uncaring and unfeeling” or that applying for financial assistance is “difficult and demeaning”. He also said that he does “not have the sense that children who did not get the original results slip were humiliated”.
Even so, the Minister agreed to review the policy and bring up the matter in parliament next year.
From the perspective of mothers
At the forum, one of the speakers was as pre-school teacher and mother of three who shared her personal experience with this policy back in 1994 when she was a 12-year-old collecting her PSLE results. Ms Tharuga said that due to some hiccups, the giro payments her parents had made for her fees didn’t go through for a few months.
On results collection day, she was redirected to a special counter where she was told that she had outstanding fees and needed to pay it up before collecting her results. Ms Tharuga recalled crying on the spot and said that she “barely understood” what was happening. She ran to her mother and told her what happened. Her mother promptly made the payment on the spot and scolded the woman at the counter.
This illustrates that this MOE policy has been around for at least 25 years.
Ms Tharuga then talked about how she didn’t want her daughter to go through the same thing. Though the mother of three was able to stay home with her children and rely on her husband’s income before this he started to suffer some medical problems and had been hospitalised for a few months. The family faced financial constraints having to pay the husband’s hospital bills, raising an 18-month old, expecting a newborn, and caring for a sick mother.
Ms Tharuga also gave birth via an emergency c-section just three days before her eldest daughter’s PSLE results day. She dragged herself out of the hospital just days after major surgery to be there at the school with her daughter.
Unable to pay off the full amount, Ms Tharuga said she paid S$50. The school then asked when she could pay the rest and she said she would do it by the end of the year. At that point, Ms Tharuga asked if they would still withhold her daughter’s results and they said no.
Frustrated, she asked then why did they send her a letter two weeks ago prompting her to pay the fees because the results would soon be out. The school had also, sometime during the term, took her daughter out of class and handed her a letter, telling her to ask her parents to pay the outstanding fees.
Ms Tharuga said to the crowd at the forum, “why are you putting her through such a situation?” She added that most parents would also prefer to protect their kids from knowing about any problems they might be facing, especially at such a young age.
Another woman, a mother of two – one child in Standard 4 and another in Secondary 1 – spoke about her worry for when her younger daughter takes the PSLE in two years. Her younger daughter has about S$170 in outstanding fees while her older daughter had none.
She reached out to the school to ask what the fees were for and why only one daughter had outstanding fees but not the other. Unfortunately, the school administrators could not provide her with an answer.
When asked why she did not approach the Majlis Ugama Islam Singapore for help, she said that she had heard that people receive a lot of negativity from that organisation and others like it.
Both these mothers eventually reached out to Mr Goh when they saw the news articles online about this whole PSLE issue, not for help but to share their experience and to get clarity on the policy. Even so, Mr Goh helped to pay off the outstanding fees for both these families.
Those who can help, should
Others who spoke at the forum included those who had donated to crowdfunding effort by Mr Goh. One Mr Ariva said plainly that the fees are what the parents owe, not the children. He said, “What name on the certificate is the child’s name, you don’t see the parents’ name. So why do we want to penalise the child? Something is very seriously wrong.”
Touching on MOE’s so-called long-standing practice, he noted that education is technically supposed to be free in Singapore, with parents paying only a nominal fee. As such, if education is free, then the results certificate should also be free.
“But I don’t see anything that not supposed to be in that manner,” said Mr Ariva.
Another donor, Mr Roger Poh, said that when he was with his child in school this year to collect PSLE results, he saw noticed asking people to make sure their outstanding fees are settled.
The principle had even come out to make an announcement to that effect, saying that it is “MOE policy”.
Mr Poh hadn’t realised it was an issue until that moment. So when he saw Mr Gilbert’s fundraising efforts, he was the first to jump in.
Mr Poh explained that he wanted to help because he felt that children shouldn’t be penalised. “It’s between the adults, MOE, the system,” he said, adding that this “faceless” system aims to serve the underprivileged but looks at people as numbers.
“What I’m concerned is it’s slowly building an underclass. Why is that? Why in this so-called prosperous Singapore do we have this underclass?”
He elaborated, “The PSLE issue I guess this is just a symptom of a larger problem. The larger problem is… the underclass feel too overwhelmed…not enough resources.”
He then explained that those are fortunately enough to have plenty, like him, can do more.
“Where the system can’t be charitable, I think we all should be,” said Mr Poh.