(Delivered in Parliament on 16 May 2018)
Mr Speaker, one of the key priorities the President set in her maiden address was for Singaporeans to live in a fair and just society, based on meritocracy, and at the same time, to strive to leave no one behind. This aspiration of building an inclusive society is a familiar refrain in this chamber. At each change of leadership or milestone in our political calendar, it is prudent for this government to take stock of the well-being of Singaporeans from all strata of society to ensure no one gets left behind.
But beyond such periodic refrain, I certainly welcome the challenge put forth by the President for this government to go for bold changes this time, and not to content with marginal tweaks in the next phase of our nationhood.
While we can choose to live in awe and respect of what our pioneer generation had achieved, we certainly should not be tempted to dwell in the shadow of the past just to avoid rocking the boat. We also should not be tempted to just apply a patchwork of measures to fix any system that is out of sync with the changing times, in the hope that some of the problems would go away. The lack of resolve to look into certain problems from a fresh angle can have serious consequences because lives are impacted by policies and we cannot turn back time. Sir, the call by the President for the new leadership to tackle inequality vigorously is a timely reminder for a rapidly changing world.
Mr Speaker, despite the attention, rhetoric, and measures given to address the issue of building an inclusive society, a new study released by the Institute of Policy Studies’ (IPS) on social capital in Singapore late last year seemed to indicate a class divide has descended on our society. It was reported in the news that one of the researchers of the study said Singapore has shifted from a society based on race to one that is based on class as well. We just heard from the minister yesterday that social stratification is fast becoming entrenched here. Although this government has acknowledged its concern over the lack of diversity in our schools and housing estates, it is somewhat not as alarmed by the findings as explained by Minister Grace Fu early this year.
Nevertheless, we can certainly agree that if this class divide is left unchecked, our aspiration of building a nation undivided by race, language, or religion, would be tainted by the ugly reality of a class based society.
Equality and Diversity in Schools
The lack of diversity in our schools is one issue we need to address to tackle the problem of social inequality. This is important because this government views education as a key pillar of social mobility, and I do support that wholeheartedly.
Long before the release of the IPS study on this issue, the principal of Raffles Institution in 2015 proclaimed that the school had become a middle-class school catering largely to affluent families and was no longer truly representative of Singapore. He said, “A long period of conditioning means that we often fail to see elitism even when it is staring at us in the face.” Although what he said then was not something new, such frank admission by an insider from one of the oldest schools in Singapore is certainly noteworthy. But what struck me most in that speech was the challenge he put forth. He went on to say what really matters more now is what we want to do with this reality and knowledge.
So how can we address this inequality and the lack of diversity in our schools to prevent a class divide from taking root in our society?
From the addendum to the President’s Address, MOE intends to tackle the inequality in our education system by setting up more MOE Kindergartens to improve quality, affordability, and accessibility in the pre-school sector. The ministry also wants to build more school-based Student Care Centres to cater to the holistic needs of students, especially those from disadvantaged families.
MOE also intends to tackle the lack of diversity in our schools by reserving more places for students with no affiliation priority for admission into affiliated secondary schools. It also wishes to actively promote interaction among students of all backgrounds through applied learning, Co-Curricular Activities, and Outward Bound School camps.
Sir, for a long while already, parents who can afford will not depend solely on the national school system to prep their children for education, PSLE, or the Gifted Education Programme (GEP). They will send their children to expensive tuition and enrichment classes. And there is no shortage of firm believers in such classes to deliver the high T-scores and distinctions for their children. This will perpetuate the message that if you have the money, your child will stand a better chance of getting good grades. The lack of diversity in our schools will only grow.
As for the proposed initiatives to promote interaction among students of all backgrounds, I must say those interactions are rather fleeting in nature and confined to a small group of students each time. Such interactions, I am afraid, are rather piecemeal in nature and they will not even put a dent on the class divide issue.
Does MOE know how many students in GEP had undergone test-preparation even though MOE had stated in its website that parents should not enrol their children for such activities? MOE said such GEP preparation activities could inflate pupils’ scores and not reflect their actual potential. Such acknowledgment by MOE offers ample proof that parents can give their children a head start, if they can afford it. What will the profile of GEP and SAP students tell us about race and income then?
Does MOE know whether students from elite schools are spending more time on tuition and enrichment classes than their counterparts from the neighbourhood schools? Does MOE know whether the tuition culture here had a hand in helping our students achieved that impressive test results in the PISA 2015 chart that was presented in this Chamber yesterday?
I am sure MOE would agree that knowing these numbers is important. Any measure formulated to address social inequality or lack of diversity in our schools must take into consideration the entire education ecosystem. Without this information, any formulated measure would be, as in the words of the President, tweaking things at the margins.
Two years ago, in the Committee of Supply debate in 2016, I said that all schools are created not equal because the funding per school is different to begin with. Based on per capita funding per student, popular schools with large student enrolment will always have more funding by default while shrinking neighbourhood schools will always struggle to find money to run extra enrichment programmes. It is also a known fact that popular schools will have less problem raising additional funds from their well-connected alumni while neighbourhood schools will struggle in this area.
Does the Minister not agree that it makes a world of difference when smaller neighbourhood schools are resourced with the same amount of funding as the popular schools? Is the Minister willing to do something bold in the area of equitable funding for all schools?
In the same COS debate, I also propose a fundamental change to the Secondary One posting exercise to address the lack of diversity in our popular schools. I shall not repeat the details here but in a nutshell, I propose that students finishing in the top tier of their primary schools based on PSLE results be given direct admission to a secondary school of their choice. This move will ensure a good mix and spread of students from all spectrum of primary schools going into the popular secondary schools. This will definitely introduce diversity into the so called elite schools. This will also prevent elitism from entrenching itself in any of the popular schools. For parents who want their children to attend a popular secondary school, every primary school is now a good school to start the journey.
Some may question that this is not meritocratic. I beg to differ because these students, even if their T-scores are lower than the cut-off points for the popular secondary schools, are high achievers in their own rights. They have certainly earn their place for direct admission to a school of their choice by finishing top in their respective primary schools. This proposal is still based on meritocracy but at the local level.
Meritocracy is never a fair game. If you have the resources, the money, the proper nutrition, the proper training, the proper technique, you will stand a better chance coming up top in whatever you do. Can we honestly say every student is starting from the same base because every school is a good school, so may the best student win?
Sir, our future lies in the hands of our children. What we want them to learn and experience in schools now will determine what the future holds for the next generation. We can either teach them about the importance of equality and diversity or let them live it and experience it first hand, in a fair and just society that leaves no one behind as set out by the President.
The late Encik Yusof Ishak, in his first President’s Address to a newly elected Parliament in 1968, outlined three objectives to achieve for Singapore. The first two objectives were to build an effective defence capability and to achieve greater economic growth. These two objectives would be brought up, time and again, in one form or another, by subsequent Presidents, and for good reason. We live in a world that is constantly changing and evolving. These objectives would need to move with the times.
The third point highlighted by Encik Yusof was about the need to enhance our national consciousness of the problems that would besiege a young nation in time to come. Specifically, he said Singaporeans must learn to place national interests above personal or sectional interests. Now that we are conscious of the issue of social inequality in a society that is gravitating towards a class divide, what more can we do with this reality and knowledge? The minister has stated yesterday that we all have an unfinished business to tackle inequality, and I welcome his commitment that this government will continue to improve its policies and not stop at the proposed measures.