Ministry of Education Committee of Supply 2020 – Cuts by WP MPs and NCMPs

(Delivered on 3 March 2020)

Learning the National Language – Chen Show Mao

I’d like to renew my call for the learning of basic conversational Bahasa Melayu to be included in the regular curriculum for all our primary schoolchildren who do not otherwise learn it.

I understand that our schoolchildren have a great deal to learn already and we are concerned about their wellbeing: But perhaps they could learn the National Language without the pressure of exams?  I also understand the school curriculum needs to reflect a balance of many different priorities: But it is precisely because of this that I call for its inclusion.  And I do so in different years at our Budget discussions– because teaching all our schoolchildren Bahasa Melayu speaks to many of our enduring values and hopes that are reflected in successive Budgets — economic development through regional cooperation, building a strong and united Singapore.

To begin with, learning Bahasa Melayu will be good for the cognitive and intellectual development of our children who learn it as a third language.  It will also protect and preserve our multiculturalism, and promote national integration and a sense of identity rooted in our geography and history.


Teaching of Thinking Skills in Schools – Leon Perera

Sir, aside from teaching our students content, and of course developing soft skills, character and values, I would argue that nurturing critical thinking skills are of paramount importance.

This is particularly so in light of how the world economy is changing and how more basic types of intellectual work are increasingly going to be handled by technology.

In fact, as I referred to in my Budget speech, the authors of the World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report 2019 commented that Singapore has room for improvement in developing skills like critical thinking among its workforce.

Going forward, clarity about the sources of knowledge and higher-level thinking are going to be key.

One aspect of critical thinking which I want to focus on for this Cut is conscious reflection on thinking, thought processes, the rules of logic and the principles of knowledge – how we know something is true and the various categories of knowledge.

It is important that our students are encouraged to think about thinking itself.

For example they should know how to reduce an argument to its basic form, to separate the premises from the conclusion, to understand what a tautological statement is, to understand the difference between causation and correlation and to be familiar with the various forms of reasoning like deductive and inductive.

The International Baccalaureate program includes a Theory of Knowledge or TOK module. On the IB website this is described as aiming to “make students aware of the interpretative nature of knowledge, including personal ideological biases….to reflect critically on diverse ways of knowing and on areas of knowledge…. [to] be aware of themselves as thinkers, encouraging them to become more acquainted with the complexity of knowledge.”

The most central question the TOK addresses is “How do we know?”, while other questions include:

What counts as evidence for X?

How do we judge which is the best model of Y?

What does theory Z mean in the real world?”

Some of this is covered in the upper secondary English curriculum but not all, as this goes beyond language or media literacy and is really about the philosophy of knowledge.

As most of our students are not on the IB program, I would like to ask if this is currently being addressed in our secondary school curriculum and if so in what ways; and if MOE has examined modules like the IB’s TOK to explore how we might enhance our teaching approaches in this regard.


Online Learning – Chen Show Mao

The CoVid19 outbreak will likely give a critical lift to the growth of technological applications that seem ripe for wider adoption even now and in all likelihood will remain more widely-adopted POST CoVid19, such as videoconferencing.

May I ask for an update of the Ministry’s views on how online learning fits into the education of our schoolchildren and the Ministry’s plans relating to its development.


Mental Well-being – Daniel Goh Pei Siong

Chairman Sir, youth suicides seem to be on the rise. In 2018, the figure spiked to 94 youths between the ages of 10 and 29. MOE and MSF were very concerned with the spike, though both ministries noted that it was not a trend yet. Obviously, we do not want this to become a trend, as lives are at stake here. We need to do more than to closely monitor the issue. At the same time that youth suicides are on the rise, we see more young people talking about mental illness and turning to mental health services for help. IMH has reported that young people seeking help has jumped by 190 percent from 2015 to 2017.

I am aware that there are initiatives such as the Youth Corps’ programme to mobilise volunteers to provide peer support. There are also many community initiatives responding to the impending youth mental health crisis. The government can and must do more. We need to tackle mental health issues upstream, and this is why I am bringing this up under the MOE heading, because our schools and institutes of higher learning are the headwaters of this issue. It is not just the stress of schoolwork creating anxieties and problems with self-worth, but young people are also caught up in social relationships and the search for identity in the setting of schools.

A lot of the initiatives on the ground now are oriented towards creating awareness of the issue. This is important, as we need to correct persistent prejudices and ignorance. Singapore is specially equipped to tackle this issue because we have a centralized education system and MOE can do so much more.

Firstly, mental health education should be a top priority and made mandatory. It should not just be a topic in character and citizenship education or during the form teacher guidance period, but a subject in its own right in secondary schools, in which basic psychological knowledge can also be imparted, so that young people can have the tools to understand what they might be going through.

Secondly, we would benefit from input from young people themselves. One of the reasons for the jump in young people seeking help is that they are starting to open up on mental health issues. It is time for us to listen to young people. We could learn from other jurisdictions such as Scotland, which has established a Youth Commission on Mental Health comprised of young people from ages 16 to 25 to make recommendations to government.


Post-secondary Education Account – Sylvia Lim

The Post-Secondary Education Account (PSEA) is a useful mechanism for young individuals to help defray the cost of their education. However, I am perplexed by the strict limitations placed on PSEA usage.

In a recent Parliamentary Answer, MOE has said that the Ministry was concerned about the quality of the courses, the relevance to the industry and the outcomes to the graduates. Although this is fair enough, it should be remembered that we are talking here about an individual’s account balances and not about subsidies.

I recently came across a resident who needed to use his PSEA funds for a course in an aeronautical university that has collaborations with the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore, Air Force and Singapore Airlines.  With such extensive local industry partnerships, quality and industry relevance should be less of a concern.  The resident was in the final year of his course when his father, the sponsor of his studies, died suddenly.  As his father had re-married, the funding for his studies was abruptly cut off after his death.  His mother was of limited means.  He had hoped that MOE would enable him to tap on more than $3,000 balance in his PSEA to pay his remaining course fees, but this was turned down.

Monies that are left un-utilised in the PSEA when the account-holder turns 31 will be transferred to his CPF Ordinary Account.  MOE confirmed in January that over the past three years, about 90% of PSEA accounts had balances transferred to the CPF.  Although the amount of the balances transferred appears modest, tapping on these sums to complete tertiary studies would be welcome, especially for those less well-off.  It seems a waste to channel the balances for housing and retirement when its primary purpose was post-secondary education while the account holder is young.  I hope MOE will at least look at case by case applications and appeals.


Lifelong Learning for a Gig Economy – Png Eng Huat

Some of the workers in the gig economy today are former professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs).  Some of them are mature workers who could not get back into the workforce after losing their day jobs.

In a survey reported in the Straits Times last November, nine in 10 full time gig workers were looking for other jobs, and six in 10 were undergoing training or skills upgrading.  Seven in 10 were worried about losing their gig jobs.  Thus, the concerns of workers are relatively the same, whichever economy they are in.

So while we are advocating lifelong learning for our salaried workers to remain relevant in a changing world, we should do likewise for workers in the gig economy, in particular the mature workers, so that they too, can have a decent shot at moving up the value chain while earning their keep as freelancers.

I am particularly concerned about mature gig workers because ageism would have compounded their struggle to get back into a 9 to 5 routine.  Staying in the gig economy could be their only option to make a living for a while.  And the reality is, the longer they remain in the gig economy, the harder it will be for them to find a day job.  So having the right certifications may open doors to better paying gigs, which in turn, may help these mature workers find meaning in life in the gig economy.

Recently I came across a freelance trainer who wanted to upgrade himself to become a master trainer.  But to get there, this person would need advance certification, and subsidies for those expensive courses are only made available for sponsored employees.  That would mean he would need to work for a company or find a company that is willing to sponsor him.  This resident is in his early sixties and was running a regional outfit before he was retrenched.  What are the chances of him getting either one of the funding options?

Since gig workers are on their own, can the ministry look into introducing a surrogate scheme so that these mature workers in the gig economy can take up specialized courses under similar funding model that sponsored employees are currently given?

MP Mr Patrick Tay has made a call for the surrogate scheme to be brought back and I second that.


Social Impact Bond (SIB) for Retraining – Leon Perera

Sir, I have argued previously in this House for exploring Social Impact Bonds or SIBs as a policy tools to ensure that public spending achieves reasonably successful policy outcomes, reducing the risk of wasted public spending.

SIBs, well-implemented, enhance results-oriented public spending.

By one estimate, as of July 2019, 132 SIBs have been launched in 25 countries, raising more than $420m in investment to address social challenges.

A few SIBs have been launched in the UK and one in Colombia to target skills training towards those who are unemployed, vulnerable or not in education, employment or training.

With this cut, I would like to suggest exploration of SIBs as a tool that could be used to direct training towards Singaporeans facing employability issues.


National Internship Framework – Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap

At the moment, the process of securing internship and apprenticeship positions is largely decentralized, relying primarily on either the hiring entity, or a small number of private jobs clearinghouses. Moreover, most programs tend to focus on high-skilled disciplines, such as finance or technology.

These two facts mean that the benefits of internship and apprenticeship training tend to accrue only to a select segment of the workforce. In particular, many beneficiaries of such programs tend to be highly educated students or graduates, majoring in STEM-related courses, and who possess the means to seek, identify, and apply to such opportunities.

There is substantial evidence that internships and apprenticeships not only contribute to enhanced knowledge transfer and more efficient production but can also play a role in reducing the extent of labor market polarization, which is becoming a growing concern in Singapore. However, such systems tend to be most successful when operating within the rubric of a larger institutional framework. Such national-level institutions help establish the standard rules behind each party’s commitments, promote worker-firm matching, and encourages the movement of journeymen to other firms once they have completed their formal training.

The Government has already started in this direction with the Asia-Ready exposure programme being introduced at this Budget, I would like to go further and advance the idea of a National Internship Framework that can be built off the mycareersfuture job portal.

Importantly, by taking the lead in establishing such a nationally-recognized internship framework, it not only enables voluntary, progressive acquisition of certifications for future PMETs but also enables the government to codify an apprenticeship culture that opens up the substantial benefits of such experiences to a much wider range of candidates, such as nonacademic pursuits such as the culinary arts, music, and sport; artisanal practices such as horology, furniture-making, or other skilled crafts; and professions that rely on experience and on-the-job training, rather than book smarts alone.

This allows the government to be a stronger advocate for Singaporeans that have ambitions to contribute to traditionally underserved sectors of the economy, that nevertheless are paths to meaningful, middle-class, secure jobs.


MOE’s Financial Assistance Scheme and Edusave Awards – Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap

Currently Singaporean students in the six full-time Madrasahs are not eligible for MOE’s Edusave awards as well as its Financial Assistance Scheme (FAS).

At this juncture, I would like to declare that I have a child who is studying in a full-time Madrasah.

In 2015, I asked MOE through a parliamentary question to consider extending Edusave Awards to Madrasah’s students. The ministry responded that ‘Edusave Awards recognise secular academic and non-academic achievements in the context of MOE-funded school. It would not be appropriate to extend the awards to private schools including those in the six-full time Madrasahs that offer a total curriculum that comprises both compulsory religious and secular subjects’.

During 2012 COS’s debate, I and another member requested to have Edusave account and contribution to be extended to Singaporean students who are studying in non-public schools. MOE declined these requests and explained that |the ministry’s policy is to encourage all Singaporean children, as far as possible, to enrolled in national school with the objective to forge social cohesion and common national identity.

Nonetheless, Prime Minister in his 2013 National Day rally speech announced that Edusave accounts and contribution would be given to all students of school-going age which includes full-time madrasah students. PM mentioned ‘This is a signal that we value every child, and will help build a sense of solidarity among the next generation’.

Sir, on the very basis of valuing every child and sense of solidarity as mentioned by PM, MOE should consider to extend the Edusave awards and its Financial Assistance Scheme to Singaporean full-time Madrasah students.

On MOE’s considerations of not awarding Edusave award to Madrasah’s student due to Madrasah offering a total curriculum that comprises both compulsory religious and secular subjects, this can be addressed by only granting the Edusave award for secular subjects.