Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Parliament Speech - Education and Changes to the Political System

I rise to support the motion to thank the Honourable President.

Many members of this House have called for a review of our economic and business model and I add my voice to that. I will not repeat the same arguments. Instead, I would like to make specific suggestions on two issues the President spoke on – education and changes to the political system.

First Education. Everyone knows and accepts the importance of education. Singapore’s success is due to and dependent on Singaporeans. Our people are our most valuable resource, and the government must continue to invest in them. We must put in place the necessary infrastructure and software to enable all Singaporeans to be educated and trained to their highest potential. A good education does not guarantee success, but those who do not have it will find it hard going, particularly in this knowledge-based economy.

Our education system has done well. It is not perfect but it has done a good job in raising standards. It recognizes that different people have different abilities and tries to help each one realise their potential. New programs and systems are regularly being introduced to enable our students to step up to the next level. Such changes often cause stress to students, and even more to their parents. But change is inevitable if we want to compete with others around the world.

There are however two areas where I believe we can do better.

First, we need to encourage further and continuing education. Our primary & secondary schools, junior colleges and polytechnics are great institutions for learning foundation subjects. But that is clearly not enough today. Even a university education is fast losing its luster and significance. Students in major economies such as the US, China and Europe are obtaining second degrees, Masters, doctorates and professional and specialist qualifications. There are now many Americans and Europeans studying in China because they recognize the shift in power and are getting ready for it. In short, they are investing heavily for the future. We must too.

We need to inculcate in Singaporeans the virtues of life-long learning. More and more, we need Singaporeans to understand that education does not stop once we leave school. We must continue learning beyond our diplomas and degrees if we want to enter or develop the highly specialized industries that will help us make the next lap of our development.

I believe many are willing to do so. But one major obstacle is cost. The cost of obtaining degrees and professional qualifications is high. Not all schools and training institutes offer scholarships or bursaries, and even those are in limited numbers. Our limited public university places, and their high standards of admission, mean that many have to turn to private universities or institutions, and they are expensive. While some financial institutions offer student loans, their terms can be difficult to meet. They charge fairly high interest rates; require the borrower to have a certain minimum annual income or to get a guarantor, and require the loan to be serviced immediately. This can be a big deterrent, especially to those from lower income families. Even if you meet the criteria, the banks may still refuse to extend credit. I have met a fair number of people at MPS who tell me that they do not go further in their studies because they simply cannot afford it. We must find a way to help them.

I therefore urge the government to step in and offer a comprehensive program of student loans, on terms which will encourage and facilitate Singaporeans to improve themselves and acquire new skills. This is a loan, not a handout, so no one will think they are getting an easy ride. The downside risks are low. Some may default, but I am confident that the vast majority are responsible and will meet their obligations. More importantly, this will be a real investment in Singaporeans, on which we will receive an immeasurable and meaningful return.

Second, for all the excellent schools and programs we have, there will be a good number who will not cope and fall out. I have in my MPS sessions encountered many who have done poorly in schools and who now face difficulties getting decent jobs. Some accept that they should have tried harder in school, but now feel that the die has already been cast for their future. So much of what we are today turn on decisions made when in school, and some are suffering the consequences of the lack of guidance in their youth.

We seek different peaks of excellence from our students. We have also introduced schools like Northlight to help those who do less well academically prepare for the future. However, despite these varied opportunities, there will still be a good number who, for different reasons, will cross into adulthood without the education and skills they need to cope in an increasingly difficult environment. Once they leave our institutions, it will be difficult to get them back into the classroom.

We must try and help them as well. There is one other institution we could involve to address this issue – National Service. I am not for a moment suggesting that we compromise our training or do anything to adversely affect our national security. That must be the paramount aim of NS. However, we have a valuable two-year window, which we should capitalize on to teach and train those with low education and little skills, which they can use to get a job and manage their lives after they leave NS. The enlistees would be older and hopefully more sober about the future they face. The discipline which the army brings means fewer distractions. Appropriate incentives can be given to those who are willing to apply themselves. In this way, we can continue working towards the promise of not leaving anyone behind.

Let me now deal with political reform. The President alluded to possible changes. I would like to offer a suggestion.

Ask anyone why Singapore has been successful since independence, and the list of reasons will run long. Top or near top of that list will be the strong leadership we have had. I believe even the member of the opposition acknowledged this in his speech on Monday. There are too many examples around the world of democratic countries crippled by short-term thinking; where leaders are afraid to make necessary but unpopular decisions because they fear losing the next election.

We have always functioned on a different principle. We have never shirked from making unpopular decisions we believe to be in the interests of Singapore, even if it comes at some political cost. In my short time as MP, I have faced many questions from irate residents: why do you raise GST, why do you have COEs or ERP; why so many ERP gantries; why are government salaries so high; why do we have so many foreigners working here taking away jobs from Singaporeans; why have means testing; why can we not give more welfare; why have GRCs; why raise bus and train fares? Why not let people withdraw their CPF Funds when they like?

Critics say that we are able to make these decisions because of we have too much power and that makes us arrogant and not caring on the impact on the man in the street. But that does not make sense because it is easier to make popular decisions. It is also far easier to tell people what they want to hear, never mind the consequences. It is much harder work implementing tough policies and explaining to the electorate why they are necessary. With one stroke of the pen, this Government can lower GST; get rid of COEs or ERP; allow people to withdraw their CPF when they like etc. But at what cost to the country and to future generations of Singaporeans?

It is easy to take the path of least resistance. To stay on the right path takes intelligence, character and guts. In short, strong leadership. But will we continue to attract the best into politics and to run our Ministries? We have a small citizen population, and growing smaller by the generation. It is difficult attracting good people into politics. But we can ill afford a situation where we do not have the best team possible to lead our country.

While we currently have a solid team heading the government, there is no guarantee that will always be the case. Should we not do something now to address this? I do not think anyone will argue that our system is perfect or cannot be improved upon. As the opposition member also acknowledged on Monday, while we inherited a parliamentary system from the British, ours has developed and is now different from theirs and others in many ways. We now guarantee minority representation; we have Nominated MPs to bring greater depth to debates and allow the best losing opposition members to sit as Non-constituency MPs. No other government I know willingly gives people outside its party a platform in Parliament; but we do and I think we are better for these changes.

So how can we increase the talent pool? Today, a Minister must be appointed from the ranks of elected MPs. But it is not easy getting good people to run for office. Standing for elections is not everyone’s cup of tea; neither is running a constituency or serving residents on the ground. An MP is judged by what he does for his constituency and how serves his residents. It may sound sacrilegious in a democracy to say so, but a person who is popular on the ground may not necessarily be the best person to run a Ministry or vice versa.

Why not give the Prime Minister the option to appoint outstanding individuals from outside the rank of elected MPs to his cabinet? The pool of talent available to the PM will increase substantially and we can draw on the experience of many capable individuals. For example, who better to look into improving entrepreneurship in Singapore than a successful businessman and successful entrepreneur? During critical periods like this, Ministers in critical posts like Finance can focus 100% on their jobs, and not have to divide their time with grassroots duties.

This is not a novel concept. It has been done in Commonwealth countries, such as the UK and Canada, where they have similar parliamentary systems. In the US, reputedly the world’s most advanced democracy, the entire cabinet is appointed by the President; they in fact cannot be elected members of Congress. Other democracies like Germany and Spain have that facility as well. And these are countries far larger and with longer histories than us.

It will also not offend our democratic principles. As the PM said in the by-elections debate last year, our Parliamentary system has evolved and places more weight on the party instead of the individual. But this does not mean that elections are not important. They are still critical. Parliamentarians must still win the support from the ground and ultimately, the PM and the ruling party will still be answerable to the electorate at elections. They will be at risk if they fail to perform or deliver on their promises.

I believe there are merits in introducing some flexibility into our system to improve the abilities of the government. The critics may cry that this will dilute democracy. But it really does not, and the fact that larger, more established Western democracies have taken this route demonstrates that.

Our political system is not cast in stone, and it is our obligation to keep improving it. And as we have done in the past, I hope we will not shy away from doing what is right and what is good for Singapore.

1 comment:

  1. So what happens then if a non-PAP government takes power?

    Someone not being in a mould of 'strong leadership' with 'intelligence, charater and guts' will appoint friends/associates to these posts.

    Do we want a Singapore like that?

    And this comment is made on the assumption that a PAP-lead government is not inclined to do the same. How do we know this won't happen?