Saturday, November 24, 2012

To name or not to name? (That is not the question)

MOE’s decision not to publish the names of top PSLE students and schools was deemed sufficiently important to warrant mention on the front page of the Strait Times. These days, it seems anything to do with PSLE does.

I must admit that the news did not overwhelm me. The move is obviously intended to downplay the importance PSLE. But will it ease the pressure? I doubt it. Parents, principals and teachers will still consider the PSLE to be a critical, high stakes exam. That will continue to dictate how they approach it, including the pressure they will place on our children to perform and the steps they will take (tuition) to ensure success.

The MOE has said that it will look at PSLE as part of a holistic review of the education system, and that this will take time. This is reasonable. We should avoid making hasty decisions and not lose sight of the larger picture. The real question is what is in the minds of our planners and what do they perceive the issues to be? Discouraging press reports of top performers gives very little insight on what is on the table.

Yes, every school is a good school - but some schools are better. It is not about facilities – MOE equips all schools with good facilities. It is about the school culture, tradition, teachers and peers. You will not convince anyone that it does not matter which secondary school a child goes to. While going to a particular school does not guarantee success, every parent wants to give their child the best opportunities possible. That means sending them to a school with the right environment and culture, which challenges students to work harder and do better. Schools with good track records will always attract more applicants.

So long as PSLE determines which school a child goes to, there will always be stiff competition, and therefore stress. This is unavoidable, and not always a bad thing. Our children should learn that getting what they want does not come easily and sometimes, things do not go according to plan. But if they do well, there is nothing wrong with letting the rest of us know about it. Perhaps others will learn and draw inspiration.

The question should therefore be about substance, not form. If it keeps PSLE, MOE should focus on ensuring a system of proper assessment and fair competition for places. There are some things they can do. For example:

(a) Ensure that teachers teach the syllabus properly and thoroughly, so that students are not forced to look to tuition to fill in the gaps. This unbalances the playing field;

(b) Have a robust system which properly assesses principals and teachers, and remove poor performers without delay;

(c) Look seriously into DPM Tharman’s point about how we draw such fine lines in our PSLE scoring system. I remain unconvinced that T-scores properly measure the ability of a student; and

(d) Get rid of direct school admissions for students in the GEP. If they are truly gifted, they can compete with everyone else at the PSLE.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Gambling with our future

We had a debate in Parliament last week on our casinos. The Government is enacting laws to further regulate gaming activities, including introducing visit limits. Not unexpectedly, MPs from different parties took the opportunity to express their concerns about problem gambling and to question whether we did the right thing in allowing the casinos into our country.
But I could not help thinking if we were avoiding the real issue. Don't get me wrong - I am no fan of gambling. I think it is completely irrational and unproductive, and said so in Parliament. The mathematicians will tell you that the games are calibrated such that the casino always wins. The casinos make hundreds of millions of dollars in profits every year. Where do you think these come from? Yet a gambler's ego (or delusion) tells him that it is somehow different for him - that he can outsmart the casino or that he is luckier than others. In my work as a litigator, I have come across a few cases where people have stolen from their employers or others to fuel their habit or pay for losses. Despite losing huge amounts of money (in four cases, millions), these individuals continued to believe, even after their arrest, that their luck would turn and they would win everything back, and some. It is a delusion.

But why my reservations about the debate? Because gambling was already pervasive before the IRs, and will continue to flourish even without them. Three of the four cases I referred to above where millions were stolen, pre-dated the IRs. I once read a report that illegal gambling was a larger business than legal gambling. And now with the internet, on-line gambling is likely to grow exponentially. Restricting access to the IRs will not address problem gambling - not even close.

More importantly, as MP after MP got up to express their concerns, I realized that none of us have livelihoods which depend on the IRs. If we shut down the IRs, what do we tell the thousands of Singaporeans who depend, directly or indirectly, on them for their next pay check? Have we asked them whether they think it is a good idea to have IRs in Singapore? Their views count too. I also recall that the IRs were built at the time when the world looked headed for the next great depression, and many in the business community spoke of how the IRs would create jobs and help Singapore ride the storm. And there is no doubt that they did help. It is fine now to talk about how well Singapore has done and that there are more jobs than workers. But that was not the case a few years ago, and will not likely be in the future.
Some talk about how we should not be dependent on IRs and that we should develop our economy in other areas. Everyone agrees with this. We should not put all, or even most of, our eggs in one basket. But we are not doing that. Further, while it is simple to say that we should develop other areas, it is altogether more difficult to identify what those other areas are or predict if they will be successful. And it is telling that such speeches are usually bereft of details.
There is another larger point. Gambling can be addictive and has ruined many lives and families. But so has alcohol. In cases of drunk driving, it has taken lives. Why isn't there an equally loud call to ban its consumption? How does one explain heavy government regulation on gambling, but not alcohol? How about smoking, which causes disease and death, even to non- smokers? If the answer is that people should exercise personal responsibility over drinking and smoking, why can't they be expected to do the same for gambling? Indeed, a much stronger case can be made for banning smoking entirely. But very few are asking for that.
I am not championing gambling - far from it. As I say above, it is an irrational, unproductive activity. And it is particularly objectionable as it exploits human weakness to make money for its promoters. But I think that it is also important for Government to be consistent, and have a clear and rational position on all such activities. The question is what the role of the Government should be in regulating gambling and other vices? If you want a ban on gambling, you must also accept that the Government can and should ban smoking, alcohol, prostitution, and all other activities it considers harmful to society. But this is the “Nanny State” we do not want. In any event, you will find it difficult to get consensus on what is harmful and what is not.

The current framework we have appears to be a reasoned one: allow free market forces, but set rules and restrictions to protect, and provide assistance to, vulnerable groups, and calibrate such regulations as circumstances may warrant. That is the same approach we have for smoking and alcohol. Government can only do so much - the rest will depend on family and individual responsibility.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Singapore Conversation - The Broken Window

Some weeks ago, a middle- aged lady came to see me at my MPS. She was not a resident in my constituency, but her mother was. She said that a group of boys playing football had broken her mother's window. She wanted the Town Council to pay for the repairs. It was a small sum, but I explained that the Town Council could only use its funds for common property. Where residents cannot afford to pay for their own personal repairs, I have arranged for contractors to help them. So I enquired about her family's circumstances. It turned out that they could afford to replace the window. So why the request? Her argument was simply that her family was already bearing the costs of her mother's medical bills, and she therefore believed that the government should help with other expenses.

Her request made me reflect on a larger point - what do we expect of Government? It is the same question other countries are asking. It was one of the major issues in the recent US elections. And in the UK, there has been a long debate over whether Government should do more, or less.
In Singapore, most of us will say we want Government to have a major role in making our lives better. But it gets more complicated when you get into specifics, simply because different people want different things, some of which are in direct conflict.
So what is Government's role? What are its (to use that horrid term) KPIs? How do we judge when a particular policy is good or poor, working or not?
That is an issue we should also be discussing in the Singapore Conversation. And when I say discuss, I mean with real specifics, because the previous debates on national issues have, in my view, been let down for lack of it.
For example, here are some areas which require more detailed discussion.
Most will say that it is Government’s role to provide affordable public housing. But:
  • Should public housing be available to every Singaporean, regardless of financial circumstances? If not, what should the threshold for eligibility be? 
  • How should affordability be defined? MND uses the international benchmark of not spending more than 30% of salary to service your mortgage. If not that, then what? Currently, over 80% of HDB owners service their mortgages entirely from their CPF – in other words, no monthly cash outlay. Is that a good measure of affordability?
  • Or is Government's role to ensure that everyone has a roof over their heads, whether owned or rented? If that is the KPI, it must follow that it is Government's responsibility to provide housing even for those who cannot live in their current homes because of conflicts with family members, or who cash out by selling their flats. These are two most common reasons given by my constituents who ask for rental flats. Should subsidised housing be provided to them on demand? If the answer is no, some will end up sleeping in public places. Do we accept that?
Most will agree that it is the government’s role to provide an efficient, affordable and extensive public transport and road network, and to ensure that traffic on our roads is reasonably smooth flowing. If so:
  • Is it also Government’s role to make cars affordable to meet the aspirations of those who want to own one?
  • If it is not, should it be concerned about the price of COEs for private cars or leave it to the market?
  • If Government must keep COE prices low, what is “low”? And how should it determine who gets a COE?
  • If Government should do away with COEs, how should it ensure smooth flowing traffic?
You can ask similar questions on other issues. The answer cannot be "it depends" or "case by case" - that is a cop-out. Government policies have to be clear and transparent, and applied properly and fairly. We should of course empower public servants to exercise discretion and make exceptions. But it is fundamental that the principle and policy are clear so that Singaporeans are able to make personal decisions which will affect their future.
Unless we get into specifics, we will not get anywhere. And part of that discussion must include what costs are we prepared to pay - not just financial, but social as well. Because there are consequences to every decision we make, and these cannot be left out of the equation.