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.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Primary Colours Part 3 : 49 Shades of Grey

A number of people who commented on my post on PSLE (Primary Colours 2: The PSLE Dilemma) appear to have mis-read it. They said I wanted to scrap the PSLE. Let me break down what I actually said:
(a) It matters a great deal which secondary school a child goes to;
(b) The PSLE determines which secondary school a child goes to;
(c) PSLE has therefore become more a competition, forcing parents to take measures which (they think) will help their child outscore their peers. This is at the expense of a proper childhood and possibly even a good education;
(d) I am in favour of scrapping PSLE PROVIDED there is a better way to determine secondary school placement;
(e) I considered several alternatives, and ultimately advocated a system which offers parents more choices. This includes having non-government primary schools, affiliated primary and secondary schools and a common exam for entry to "better" schools.
I am glad that my post has generated some debate. I think it is good that we have a full and frank conversation about such serious issues. What is clear is that very few like the current system. But it is equally telling that no particular solution has garnered any general support or consensus.
One alternative was proposed by the Managing Editor of ST, Mr Han Fook Kwang. Writing in today's Sunday Times, Mr Han said he was against scrapping PSLE, and instead suggested sending better teachers to under- performing schools. His intention is clearly noble. But the necessary consequence is that we will also send "less good" teachers to better performing schools.
The problem with this and other similar suggestions is that it mis-states the Government's role in education. When we say that education is the great leveller in society, we mean that it should enable every child to reach his potential and not be deprived of opportunities because of his background or circumstances. It does NOT mean that we should cause all children to come to the same level by lifting up the lower performers and dragging down the better ones.
Mr Han also said that he is not in favour of scrapping the PSLE because "it represents, for the families in the heartlands, that one chance of a lifetime for their children to have a shot at academic stardom and that coveted place in a top secondary school". This underscores the problem with the arguments in favour of keeping the current system. First, no one is suggesting that any new system should take away the opportunity to advance. On the contrary, the fear is that the current system is weighed against those who are less well off, because they cannot afford (good) tuition and therefore cannot compete. Second, and more importantly, the fact that PSLE is seen as a "once in a lifetime" chance IS the problem. Children should not have their futures determined by a single exam when they are only 12years old. That particularly prejudices children who are less well off who, because if they fall behind early in the race, they have a more difficult route to attaining tertiary education.
But Mr Han does raise one more "myth" which the MOE should address: do better teachers end up in better schools? Schools with better resources will be able to offer better terms, and therefore have their pick of teachers. That is one reason for the intense competition to get into them. While I am not in favour of a policy which sends better teachers to lower performing schools, I am equally against the reverse happening, by design or otherwise.
It would therefore be good if the MOE could inform the public how it ensures a fair distribution of teaching talent and resources. And I hope the answer will not be that every teacher is a good teacher.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Primary Colours Part 2: The PSLE Dilemma

There is an old joke about two hunters who are charged at by a bear. One reacts by putting on his running shoes. "What are you doing?" asks the other. "You'll never out-run a bear!" The other responds: "I know. I just need to out- run you."

That, I think, describes how most feel about PSLE - the concern is less about whether our children are receiving a good education, but more about whether they will out-do other kids. The reaction of parents to the recent announcement on changes to the PSLE English syllabus bears this out. The ST reported one parent welcoming the change because it will give her daughter "a competitive advantage", while another was concerned that his son "will lose out". The issue was not about whether the changes would give a better grounding in English - it was all about how their child’s PSLE scores will be affected relative to others’.

MOE puts in considerable effort and resources to ensure that every school in Singapore is able to give its students a good education. And its recent move to remove banding, de-emphasise exams and promote non-academic aspects of a child’s development is laudable. However, many believe that nothing will change until we change PSLE.

But PSLE by itself is not the real issue. It is irrelevant to career choices, job prospects or polytechnic/university admissions. It serves no purpose other than to determine which secondary school you go to. But the secondary school you go to matters a great deal. It is not just about whether the school has good facilities or teachers. Other factors are important as well. These include peer influence, tradition and environmental factors. Going to a good school may not guarantee success, but it can make a difference for the child to be in a setting where fellow students are motivated and have the drive to excel.

The reality therefore is that so long as a child's PSLE scores determines which secondary school he goes to, and so long as places in “better” schools are limited, two things are inevitable - (1) there will be competition - and therefore stress – to get into those schools (2) parents will do what they can to help their kids out-score their peers. To most, that means tuition.

Why do parents do this? Because we all want the same things for our children - to succeed in life and to be happy. We do not consider these to be mutually exclusive pursuits. Indeed, we believe that the more successful our child, the more likely he will be happy. But we have no crystal ball or magic wand, and cannot know for sure what we should or should not do. All we can do is to give our child opportunities. If that means sending him to a “better” school, we will aim for that. And if that entails sending him to tuition (or abacus or Kumon, etc), we will do it. If we have to take no pay leave six months before exams, so be it. If it means cooking special food or giving herbal concoctions to boost energy, bring out the recipe book. What makes parents most insecure is the thought of their child not succeeding because of something they did not do. So, some of us will end up over-doing and over-compensating. Nothing the MOE does or says will change that.

I am all for slaying the PSLE sacred cow. But we need to first agree on an alternative way of deciding who goes to which secondary school, other than by way of a common exam. What are the options?

Option 1: Leave it entirely to the discretion of the secondary school principals? I can already hear complaints of unfair or preferential treatment, based on wealth or connections.

Option 2: Making all secondary schools identical to remove any perception of privilege or superiority? Or assigning places by ballot? Most will object to this and it does not make sense.

Option 3: Change the testing at PSLE such that it more accurately measures talent, instead of hard work? But that is easier said than done, the parents’ insecurities will remain and tuition centres will still say they can make a difference. More importantly, why down play hard work? It is a virtue worth inculcating and rewarding. It is something we have to do all our lives. As a lawyer, I have found that there is no substitute for preparation – and that involves spending hours poring over documents, making sure you know your facts and the law, and being able to answer questions the Court throws at you. Exams are no different.

Option 4: Give parents the choice to opt out of the PSLE altogether? We can have more "through-train" schools, where students gain entry to affiliated secondary schools without a common exam. Those who wish to compete for a place in the “better” secondary schools can sit for the PSLE. We could also allow private, independent primary schools to be set up, with graduates eligible to go to private or international secondary schools. But there will be no MOE funding and therefore higher fees, and this option may not be available to all.

So, different solutions lend themselves to different issues. I would prefer a system that gives parents more choices. We are not likely to find absolute consensus on any system as we have different circumstances, different aspirations and different expectations of Government. More importantly, the role of education today must be to prepare the child for opportunities (and challenges) the world, and not just Singapore, will offer. It is unrealistic to expect that a single, universal model can achieve this. We need to move away from a one-size fits all model, and let parents decide the trade-offs they want to make for their children.

The Government should think about loosening its grip on education, so that Singaporeans can choose for themselves what they want for their own children. Perhaps, this will be explored in our National Conversation.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Primary Colours – Dispelling Myths About Primary Education

While the system of pre-school education featured heavily at the National Day Rally, the message which resonated most was a simple one: PM's urging that pre-school should be more about developing social skills and that kids should be allowed to enjoy their childhood. Every parent I know wants that.

But the tail that wags the dog is primary school. We regard pre-school as a preparatory step to primary school. Mandating that pre-schools focus on soft skills may make more parents turn to private centres to coach their kids on the hard skills they think are necessary for primary school. That would make the problem worse.

I think there is a more fundamental question of what we want our primary school system to be, and whether we should allow more choices in the system. Minister Heng spoke of two different parents: one did not want to his child to have homework during the holidays, while the other questioned why his child was not given any. Perhaps the solution is for the two children to swap schools – in other words, allow parents to choose the kind of education which best suits their child. When government runs schools, it tends to result in a one-size-fits-all approach. This is not a criticism – it is a natural consequence of efficiency and fair distribution.

But so long as we maintain the current system, MOE can and should deal with parents’ concerns about Primary One education. They should start by addressing directly and clearly a number of questions which keep surfacing.
Myth or Fact 1: It is not clear what literacy and numeracy skills children are expected to have when entering Primary One.

Parents I have spoken to are not clear about what level of skills their child should have when they start Primary One. The consequence is clear: if parents do not know, they will over-prepare their child. The MOE should simply make this clear, and remove the anxiety.

Myth or Fact 2: Teachers do not teach the curriculum if the majority of the class already knows their stuff.

There is much anecdotal evidence that this happens. If it is true, MOE should put a stop to it. It only rewards over-preparation and forces others to over-prepare as well. That just means more homework and tuition. If teachers want to teach beyond the curriculum, fine, but it should not be at the expense of their responsibility to ensure that all their students are taught the curriculum. If parents want their child to get ahead, that’s their prerogative, but they must accept that their child may get bored having to do the same thing twice.

Myth or Fact 3: Teachers encourage parents to send kids who are behind for tuition.

Again, one hears of this happening. It would be particularly egregious if the child is considered “behind” simply because his classmates are ahead of the curriculum and the teacher is therefore not prepared to teach it.

More fundamentally, it should be the obligation of the school to help those who are behind or have difficulty coping. The problem should not be out-sourced to a tuition centre. With primary schools going full day, there is more scope to offer weaker students extra lessons.

Myth or Fact 4: Pupils are “streamed” according to abilities in Primary One and the better teachers are assigned to the “better” classes

If this is true, MOE should put a stop to it. This only encourages parents to over-prepare their child to get into the "better" classes. Putting all the “better” students in the same class also lends to the impression that children will not be taught equally. Teachers should be assigned randomly. Also, if teachers ensure that all their students are taught the curriculum, there will be no need for such “streaming”. Besides, if you want pre-school to be more about social skills and play, it makes no sense to group kids according to their literacy and numeracy skills the minute they enter Primary schools. The only assessment the school should be concerned with is to identify the kids who have not achieved the minimum skills (Myth 1) and to give them extra attention (Myth 3). Given that more than 99% of our children go to pre-school, this will likely be a small group in each school.

Even with these changes, will some parents still send their kids for tuition? Of course they will. Parents will do what they believe will give their kids an advantage. That has been, and will always be, the case. And we should not stop that - it is their prerogative how they wish to raise their children. But what we can and should do is to address features in our system which compel such conduct.

Some have said that any changes at pre-school or lower primary level will have little or no effect unless we also deal with GEP and PSLE. I do not think that is necessarily true, although we do need to address some issues with them as well. I will share my thoughts in a later post.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

After note - Crime and Punishment

It has been drawn to my attention that Woffles Wu did not pay the person whose particulars were furnished. The first sentence of my post is therefore incorrect. The thrust of my post, that the courts should have greater flexibility in sentencing, nonetheless remains.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Crime and Punishment

[Note: This is a revised version of my initial post. I had stated in that post that Dr Wu had paid someone to take the rap. I have been informed this is incorrect, and no payment was made. I am sorry for the error and have corrected it in this post.]

I must admit I was surprised by the fine of $1,000 imposed on Woffles Wu.

Such offences are undoubtedly serious, as they seek to undermine the course of justice. Others who have committed similar offences have been jailed. I do not know what the Judge took into account in making his decision, and I accept that no two cases are the same. However, I hope there will be an opportunity for the court to explain its reasons and how other cases where jail terms were imposed were distinguished. That will promote transparency and confidence in our legal system, and deal with allegations of unfair treatment, which have already appeared on the net.

I believe that part of the problem is that most times, the law gives judges very little discretion in sentencing - it is usually a fine or jail or both. There may be occasions where a fine is too lenient, while jail may be too harsh. Further, if an offender cannot pay a fine, jail is the default. That creates two problems - it discriminates between those can pay and those who cannot; and it converts a light punishment to a heavy one.

I would prefer if the court had more flexibility in sentencing so that the punishment truly fits the crime. For example, where a person gets another to take the rap for a traffic offence to preserve his driving licence, wouldn't a more appropriate punishment be to suspend his licence? Inflict on the offender what he was trying by criminal means to avoid. Likewise for less serious cases of vandalism, get the offender to clean up more than he has damaged.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

'Sticker' Lady

It has been interesting to read the many pieces on the net about the arrest of the Sticker Lady, both for and against her and what she did. People should be free to debate issues which affect them, and persuade others, through logic and reasonable arguments, to support their cause. That is a sign of a healthy society.

But is not clear what the particular movement - to excuse the Sticker Lady from punishment - is saying.

There is no doubt that what was done was criminal – an act of vandalism or nuisance. Is the object then to repeal the law altogether? That would make it legal for anyone to draw on or otherwise decorate public property? I don’t think that is what the vast majority wants.

Is what was done acceptable because it was creative or considered “art”? That gives rise to real difficulties as one man’s art is another’s poison. So what do we expect the police to do? Should they be art critics as well, and decide what is acceptable? I don’t think many would favour that. Or perhaps that should be for the judge? Would that not mean that the same work may be considered criminal by one judge and not by another? I rather more certainty, and less arbitrariness, in our criminal laws. The judge can always take into account the context, reasons behind and extent of the “art” in mitigation and sentencing. And sentencing does not have to mean jail.

Others have offered solutions, such as setting aside public space for those who want to exhibit their works. That sounds fair, although it would not have worked for the Sticker Lady’s “art”, which requires a context an exhibition area would not have. “My Grandfather Space” does not quite have the same ring. Still, we have to grapple with what constitutes acceptable art. I stumbled upon a statement in my Parliamentary colleague, Yee Jenn Jong’s blog. He said: “My suggestion is for the spaces that we set aside, set some simple rules like no profanity, no attack on race / religion, and then let whoever is in the approval committee decide with a liberal view when proposals come in.” "Proposals", “Approval Committee”? So, we need more committees to decide and approve such matters? Interesting.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

NYP Student Racist remark

My initial reaction to the report Ms Shimun Lai’s offensive post was of anger, disgust and exasperation. She has rightly apologised and withdrawn the remark. This will be a tough learning experience for her, and I hope she emerges the better for it. But the heat she and others like undergraduate Sun Xu have generated with their thoughtless remarks will not dissipate so easily.

Racism will not go away, however many apologies are uttered. It has been part of society since, well, society began. Man has a long history of being suspicious, and speaking ill, of people who look, speak, dress or even eat differently from him. The only difference today is that the social media allows a person to vent to thousands what used to be said in smaller, private circles.

I have seen or experienced racism myself, whether it is rude remarks made by school mates, or stories related by relatives and friends that so-and-so did not get a job or promotion because of the colour of his skin. Several minority residents have approached me as an MP complaining of discrimination at the work place or in job opportunities.

Is Singapore different from other countries? Not in the least. Almost everyone I have spoken to who has spent time abroad has encountered racism in one form or another. My nephew studying abroad even had an egg thrown at him from a passing car while he was walking down the street.

No society or group should be judged by how some of its members behave. That is unfair. The real test is how society reacts in the face of such provocation. Look at our reaction. Singaporeans were quick to vigorously condemn Ms Li for her remarks, and to remind her that they were out of place in our society. That is the difference between us and some. In other societies, such utterances provoke violence and revenge or are defended on the grounds of free speech. I think we have a better sense of balance and perspective, and appreciate that there must be reasonable limits to individual liberties. It makes Singapore exceptional, and we must work hard to keep it that way.

We must continue to speak out against racism and discrimination when we encounter them. We should not simply shrug our shoulders and say that they are part of the landscape, an inevitability in a multi-cultural society. That would be admitting defeat and put us on the road to mediocrity.

And what to do about the likes of Shimun Lai and Sun Xu? I am reminded of one my favourite scenes in Attenborough’s movie “Gandhi”. Gandhi lies weak from fasting as a protest against the Hindu-Muslim riots. He is confronted by an angry Hindu man who demands that he eats. The man said that he killed Muslims in the riots because they killed his child. He was going to hell, but he did not want Gandhi’s death on his soul. Gandhi offered the man a way out of hell. He told him to find a Muslim boy orphaned by the killings, take care of him but to raise him as a Muslim. It was a powerful statement about salvation.

Ms Lai, Mr Sun and others who step over the line should not just apologise or simply accept whatever punishment comes their way. They should have an obligation to help in the healing process. And the best way to do that would be for them to get to know and befriend the very people they have condemned.

My initial reaction to the report Ms Shimun Lai’s offensive post was of anger, disgust and exasperation. She has rightly apologised and withdrawn the remark. This will be a tough learning experience for her, and I hope she emerges the better for it. But the heat she and others like undergraduate Sun Xu have generated with their thoughtless remarks will not dissipate so easily.

Racism will not go away, however many apologies are uttered. It has been part of society since, well, society began. Man has a long history of being suspicious, and speaking ill, of people who look, speak, dress or even eat differently from him. The only difference today is that the social media allows a person to vent to thousands what used to be said in smaller, private circles.

I have seen or experienced racism myself, whether it is rude remarks made by school mates, or stories related by relatives and friends that so-and-so did not get a job or promotion because of the colour of his skin. Several minority residents have approached me as an MP complaining of discrimination at the work place or in job opportunities.

Is Singapore different from other countries? Not in the least. Almost everyone I have spoken to who has spent time abroad has encountered racism in one form or another. My nephew studying abroad even had an egg thrown at him from a passing car while he was walking down the street.

No society or group should be judged by how some of its members behave. That is unfair. The real test is how society reacts in the face of such provocation. Look at our reaction. Singaporeans were quick to vigorously condemn Ms Li for her remarks, and to remind her that they were out of place in our society. That is the difference between us and some. In other societies, such utterances provoke violence and revenge or are defended on the grounds of free speech. I think we have a better sense of balance and perspective, and appreciate that there must be reasonable limits to individual liberties. It makes Singapore exceptional, and we must work hard to keep it that way.

We must continue to speak out against racism and discrimination when we encounter them. We should not simply shrug our shoulders and say that they are part of the landscape, an inevitability in a multi-cultural society. That would be admitting defeat and put us on the road to mediocrity.

And what to do about the likes of Shimun Lai and Sun Xu? I am reminded of one my favourite scenes in Attenborough’s movie “Gandhi”. Gandhi lies weak from fasting as a protest against the Hindu-Muslim riots. He is confronted by an angry Hindu man who demands that he eats. The man said that he killed Muslims in the riots because they killed his child. He was going to hell, but he did not want Gandhi’s death on his soul. Gandhi offered the man a way out of hell. He told him to find a Muslim boy orphaned by the killings, take care of him but to raise him as a Muslim. It was a powerful statement about salvation.

Ms Lai, Mr Sun and others who step over the line should not just apologise or simply accept whatever punishment comes their way. They should have an obligation to help in the healing process. And the best way to do that would be for them to get to know and befriend the very people they have condemned.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The $1.1 billion package to expand bus capacity – Who is the Government Subsidising?

Many people have asked about the Government’s decision to spend $1.1 billion to expand public bus capacity. One of the key questions is whether this is in fact a subsidy to SBST and SMRT, the two public transport operators (PTOs) . It is in fact a subsidy for commuters, and not a subsidy for the PTOs. This note explains why.

The Government considered its investment to expand public bus capacity very carefully. It is an important step, aimed at reducing waiting times and crowdedness that Singaporeans experience as they take public transport.

First, what are the PTOs themselves responsible for? The PTOs are required to expand their bus fleets to cater to growth in passenger numbers, as well as to ensure they meet the service levels mandated under existing regulatory requirements. Therefore, in addition to operating the existing bus fleet, they will have to buy 250 additional buses to achieve this. They will fund this on their own.

Why is the Government putting $1.1 billion into the bus system? We are doing this in order to step up bus service levels well beyond the current service standards required of the PTOs.

a. It will increase bus capacity on existing heavily-utilised routes making them less crowded and giving commuters a more pleasant journey.

b. Almost all feeder buses will run every 10 minutes or less - for two hours during morning and evening peak periods, instead of a one-hour peak under current service level requirements.

c. Commuters on existing routes will thus benefit both from shorter waiting times and less crowded bus journeys.

d. A number of new bus services will also be added in order to improve connectivity, and provide commuters with more public transport choices.

e. These improvements are what commuters have been hoping for.

As a condition for the Government’s investment, the PTOs will have to deliver these service level improvements.

We cannot simply mandate that the PTOs add these 550 buses to improve service levels. First, because it goes significantly beyond the service levels under the current regulatory framework. Second, the PTO’s bus operations are already running operating losses, and the 550 additional buses in particular are projected to be a loss-making operation. The cost of acquiring and running the 550 buses are beyond what can be recovered through revenues from these buses.

a. Take the example of improving the frequency of feeder bus services. Increasing the number of buses will shorten waiting times but will add little to the revenue, since the total number of passengers taking the service will remain largely the same.

Without the Government stepping in, these significant service levels improvements would only have been achievable if fares are raised sharply. The 550 additional buses mean significantly higher costs - not only to purchase the buses, but also because more than 1000 drivers would need to be hired and paid a good wage. Fare revenues of the PTOs would have to go up by about 12% - 13% - which translates to an increase in passenger fares of about 15 cents per journey - for the PTOs to achieve this on their own. In the 5 years from 2006, fare revenues went up by only 0.3%, cumulatively. So 12% - 13% is quite a significant increase compared to the last 5 years.

Hence the reality of the matter is that the $1.1 billion Government package, or $110 million each year, is a subsidy for public transport commuters, and not a subsidy for the PTOs. It will improve service levels for commuters, not the profits of the PTOs.

The $1.1 billion package is expected to cover the losses on the 550 buses - in other words, the additional costs net of revenues. Of the $1.1 billion package, $280 million is budgeted for the purchase of the 550 buses over the next five years, and $820 million to cover the net operating costs over 10 years. This is based on best estimates currently. However, we will be monitoring and scrutinising the PTOs’ actual costs for both the purchase and running of the buses. Should their losses turn out to be lower than expected, the Government funding will be reduced correspondingly. So one way or another, there will be no profits made from the 550 buses.

The $1.1 billion for additional buses complements the $60 billion we are putting into the expansion of the rail system. It will take several years for the new rail lines to all come on stream. That is why we are stepping in now to add bus capacity and quickly improve the daily experience of commuters. It is what commuters wanted, and we have assessed that it is worth the public investment.

Despite this Government package, regular and incremental fare increases will continue to be necessary in future, as wage and operating costs rise, so that the bus industry can stay financially viable. The Government will also continue to make sure that needy commuters get adequate assistance for their transport expenses.

Foreign Spouse

I am glad that the Government has answered the call of help from many Singaporeans who have married non-Singaporeans, who want the chance to start a family in Singapore.   See my speech in Parliament urging the Goverment to help them.

In 2010, there were a total of 24,363 marriages. Of these, 6,176 were between a citizen and a non-resident. This represents over a quarter of all marriages in Singapore. In most cases, the couple would naturally expect that the foreign spouse would be allowed to live in Singapore, and later, start a family here. But it does not always work out that way.
What happens in most cases is that the foreign spouse would be issued a social visit pass which can range from 30 days to a year. Some are even required to leave Singapore before their passes are renewed, or without assurance that it will be. Their applications for Permanent Residence will take a few years to be approved, if at all.

It is not a satisfactory situation. The problems are compounded because many of these marriages involve Singaporean men and women with low incomes. The new couple are uncertain about their future. Because ICA, for good reasons do not reveal its criteria for giving a visit pass or PR, the couple is never certain if or when it will be granted. While foreign spouses can work on a long-term visit pass, they find it difficult to be employed because of their uncertain status. When the spouse is asked to leave Singapore and return to renew their passes, it adds to the family’s expenses. The couple cannot buy a new flat from HDB because at least two people in the family nucleus must be citizens or permanent residents to qualify. As it will now take the foreign spouse longer to obtain PR, the situation will remain difficult for some time. If the foreign spouse is a lady, she will not enjoy subsidised medical care, and so it will be more expensive to plan and start a family.

Taken collectively, these factors create an imposing obstacle against such couples marrying, settling down and starting a family in Singapore. If we are encouraging Singaporeans to get married and have children, why make it difficult for them simply because they choose to marry a non-Singaporean? Foreign spouses belong to a very different category from the foreign workers the Government is trying to reduce our dependence on. In fact, they are quite the opposite because they are here not for commercial reasons and for the long term. They are also part of a national agenda we want to advance. We want more Singaporeans to marry and have children and deepen their roots in Singapore. The old norms are changing. More are marrying out of race, religion and nationalities. Singaporeans who marry foreigners have the same hopes and dreams as other Singaporeans. The Government should help them make this dream come true, particularly those with low incomes and who likely have more limited options. We also want to make it easier for Singaporeans who have married foreigners and living abroad to come home. It is in keeping with the “inclusive” theme of the Budget.

What are the reasons for our caution? Is it the fear of marriages of convenience? If so, then this must be the minority of marriages, and even if not, can surely be addressed differently. The approach appears to be to flush out marriages of convenience by making it as inconvenient as possible for Singaporeans with foreign spouses. Besides, putting the spouse on a renewable social visit pass does would really deter sham marriages.

I hope the Government will do something to help. I believe it can be done while addressing its concerns.

I suggest that instead of issuing social visit passes, we institute a more permanent pass for foreign spouses.
For convenience, I shall refer to this as a Marriage Pass (not a Pass or Marriage). Under a Marriage Pass, the foreign spouse should be allowed to live and work in Singapore so long as the couple remain married. The Marriage Pass should also allow the couple to purchase a new HDB flat, and entitle the spouse to subsidised medical care.

There are a number of advantages. It gives certainty to the couple. It makes it easier for them to own a home and start a family. And if administered properly, it will also enable the Government to grant fewer PR or citizenship and only to very deserving cases as the Marriage Pass is a viable alternative to foreign spouses in a genuine marriage.
The concerns about sham marriages may in fact be reduced as the spouse’s right to remain in Singapore will depend on the continuity of the marriage, and getting a PR is less assured.
As a check against abuse, there could be various conditions placed on the Marriage Pass. For example, it could be mandatory that children born under the marriage would have to apply to become Singapore citizens. Also, where the couple have purchased a HDB flat, they could be made to disgorge the profits from the sale should the Marriage Pass be terminated, and the flat sold, within a certain time period from the sale.
I hope the Government will consider the suggestion. If it is not viable, I hope the Government will share if it intends to make it easier for Singaporeans to marry foreigners and settle down in Singapore.

Internet Freedom

Newspapers, later the radio, then television, have been the main way of reporting news and information for many years. But while that has helped the advancement of society generally, there are serious risks which come with the easy dissemination of information. So, modern society has over time worked out sensible rules for the media to abide by so that it will be a tool for enlightenment and progress, and not one which divides and destroys.

These rules are not peculiar to Singapore, but have been developed in many other countries, including the Commonwealth of nations, from which we inherited much of our laws. So eg. we have rules of sub judice, where the media is not permitted to discuss and speculate on pending court actions or criminal charges as that may prejudice the fair trial of the action. We also have defamation rules, which protect the freedom to express an opinion honestly held, but not the propagation of lies. Responsible newspapers apologise or print clarifications when they get the facts wrong, or print responses to an opinion which is not shared. These rules advance the cause of accuracy, transparency and accountability, and provide a framework where people can live and prosper in a healthy environment.
The problem is that much of these rules and conventions were developed in the age before the internet. The internet represents a platform for everyone to share information with, and express their views to, many others. This facility is no longer the domain of traditional media. That is a good thing in many ways. However, today many people, particularly the younger generation, turn more to the internet for news and information, and not only from sites maintained by established news agencies or reputable journalists. The rules, convention and discipline which have been built up for many years do not apply or are difficult to enforce, and there are serious consequences to this.
I am not attacking the internet or people’s right to express their honest views. There is much good in this. But just as society had developed rules and norms for the traditional media, we need to think about doing the same for the internet.

Let me give a stark example. After the announcement of the investigation into the conduct of the former heads of CNB and SCDF, there was much discussion on the net about what they did. That is to be expected. However, what also happened was that people began speculating about the identity of the woman who was involved. Pictures and profiles of various women were circulated. Can you imagine the immense pain and distress of the women who had been wrongly identified? How would you feel if that was your mother, wife, sister or daughter being so freely discussed and dissected? What is their recourse? They can sue for defamation, but who do they sue? The messages and photos would have been circulated to many people, making it difficult to track down who is responsible. And if the posts are anonymous, as many of them are, how do you go about identifying the perpetrator? The woman would have to apply to Court to compel the different hosts of the sites or the Internet Service Provider to disclose the identity of the individual behind the post, but that may not yield meaningful results. And how many people have the resources to take such arduous, expensive action? It is unfair to the ordinary man in the street that his reputation, and sometimes his livelihood, can be destroyed by casual statements. It does not provide a healthy environment.

The concerns I have expressed are not new. Many others have expressed it before. At least one country, Japan has tried to do something about it. In 2001, Japan passed a very statute called the Act on the Limitation of Liability for Damages of Specified Telecommunications Service Providers and the Right to Demand Disclosure of Identification Information of the Senders. Probably sounds better in Japanese.

We need to develop our own laws to address these issues. Again, I stress that I am not attacking the internet or freedom of speech, in particular, the freedom to express an honest opinion. In fact, many proponents of free speech say that it is a necessary ingredient of transparency and accountability. And we all want that. But where is the transparency and accountability when a person can publish lies anonymously, and ruin the life of an ordinary individual. Why does it cost nothing to post an untruth, but much pain and financial resources for an innocent person to obtain justice?

All over the world, countries are grappling with this very same issue. It is a new paradigm. I propose that we develop a framework of laws which balances the right of an individual to express his views on the net, and the right of an individual to seek redress quickly and at low cost. It is also important that the laws must be clear enough to prevent abuse, and not used as a means to stifle legitimate speech. That is a difficult balance, but right now, where the net is concerned, there is complete imbalance. We may even have to set up a specialised agency to help members of the public who have legitimate grievances. I am stressing “public” because those with resources can better take care of themselves. My proposal is meant to benefit ordinary Singaporeans, so that they will not be left powerless.

The Internet is an important tool for advancement, and when used properly, provides a platform to do much good. But we should all want it to be used responsibly. I accept that the challenge will be to find an acceptable balance and it may well take some time to do so. I hope that conversation will begin soon.

Crisis Management

On 15 December 2011, there was a major disruption of the North-South MRT Line. Much has been said about the causes, and the matter is now the subject of an inquiry. We will in due time learn more about what happened and why, and so I will not dwell on these matters.

But the incident opened our eyes to another serious issue. There did not appear to have been an emergency response plan, and if there was one, it was inadequate, or executed poorly. I am sure many were particularly concerned by the chaos that ensued in the aftermath of the incident. Many people were stuck in pitch darkness in the tunnel with little ventilation. The electrical back-up which was supposed to work did not. The train drivers, who were best placed to take immediate action, were for some reason, not able to make announcements. The evacuation took a long time and there was great confusion. The public were still entering the station thinking that services were still running. People leaving the station were not sure what to do and where to go. The crowds spilled onto the streets, looking for alternative transport.

This was a simple train disruption. What would have happened if there had been a fire or it had been a terrorist attack? There is no doubt that it would have been horrific. We can have inquiries, meetings and discussions to determine who was responsible, but that is only part of the challenge we face.
We have long prided ourselves on our record on law and order. We are regarded as one of the safest countries in the world to live, play and work. But that is generally in the context of crime prevention and enforcement. The law and order challenges we face today are different. One of the greatest risks we face is terrorism. It has not disappeared with the elimination of Osama Bin Laden or other prominent terrorist leaders. It may not be as dramatic as airplanes flying into buildings or terrorists wielding Kalashnikovs running through our streets. But incidents of sabotage, such as bombs on buses, fires in confined places, derailment of trains will do as much damage. Not just the loss of life and property, but loss of confidence in our agencies and in Singapore.

Are we prepared for these threats? We have conducted a number of exercises to train our Home Team and military forces, but the SMRT incident has demonstrated starkly that there are other areas to address. Chief among these is whether public transport operators, owners of buildings and other organisations in charge of places where large numbers pass through or congregate, have adequate and workable plans to deal with emergencies, have trained their staff to execute these plans and, just as importantly, whether such plans are known to, and co-ordinated with, public agencies like the police and SCDF, which will at some stage be responding to the crisis as well? Is there even a plan or protocol as to when and what stage the private body should involve the government agencies?

Experts often say that the first response to the crisis will determine the extent of the damage or loss to human life. In this regard, it is critical that the organisation on the ground, whether the public transport operator or the building owner, responds effectively. Are we confident that they will be able to do so, or is it the case that we will only find out when a crisis occurs?

I therefore ask the Government whether it has plans to audit the emergency plans of private and government organizations to see if they are robust, not just on paper but in practice, and ensure that there will be effective co-ordination with public agencies. Does the Ministry of Home Affairs have a minimum standard for crisis management for significant institutions and if it does not, is MHA satisfied with allowing them to determine their own plans?

Even if there are plans in place, a theoretical plan can fail quite dramatically when put to the test. However, paper exercises and rehearsed plans are insufficient. For example, all buildings are required to conduct fire drills regularly, but people do not take them seriously. The drills are announced in advance, and many go for tea breaks or schedule meetings elsewhere before the alarm is sounded. It gives new meaning to the phrase: "you know the drill". I accept it is highly disruptive to conduct surprise drills or to inject greater reality into our security exercises. No one will be grateful for the inconvenience, and it may even be dangerous where the plans turn out to be inadequate.

But these things are too important to ignore or leave to public and private organisations to work out on their own. I believe that the Government should have a system to audit the plans of significant organizations to determine, not only that they have adequate and comprehensive safety and evacuation plans, but that there is proper co-ordination plan with public agencies, in particular, the police and the SCDF. It should include a proper communications plan - which is something we do particularly poorly. It will be impossible to audit everyone, but at the very least, high traffic areas, such as train stations, bus inter-changes, shopping malls, sports and performance venues. The comments by the auditors can then be integrated into the crisis plan such that any lapses can be rectified and improvements tested during the next audit. This would develop into a set of standard operating procedures where each party knows what they and others are expected to do.
The MRT disruption taught us a lesson in crisis management with relatively little cost. I hope that something concrete can be done to ensure that we are able to deal with a larger, more serious crisis efficiently and effectively. It is impossible to ensure that a crisis will not happen. But how we respond to it will be critical in ensuring that Singaporeans remain confident in our safety and security.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Ministerial Salaries

When this House discussed the issue of Ministerial salaries in 2007, I focused on the technicalities of the old formula, and what I thought was wrong with it.

But I had failed to appreciate a larger issue. Money changes how people look at things. Paying high salaries can be intellectually reasoned, but it affects the relationship between the Government and the people.
Government is not perfect. It has never been, and will never be. We have all, at one time or another, been critical of something the Government did or failed to do. But, as former American President Bill Clinton observed, a successful country needs both an effective government and a good economy. There are no exceptions. In Singapore, we have both. Other government leaders, international institutions and expert commentators agree that Singapore, and what we have achieved, is exceptional. This did not happen by chance. The people of Singapore deserve credit. And so does the Government.
Singaporeans know this, and are appreciative of what the Government has done. But the issue of political salaries has, more than any other, shaped and changed the tone of our national dialogue. When we pay top dollar, we expect top results, and are less forgiving of errors. And so it has become with the way people treat Government. Any mis-step is met with the response that mistakes are unacceptable from highly paid leaders. Things have now become more “transactional”. That emotional connection, that redoubtable bond, which Singaporeans have always had with the Government, and which has been the bedrock of Singapore’s success, is at risk of disappearing.

Will the new formula make a difference? Many Singaporeans have shared their thoughts on the subject, and there are as many opinions as there are people sharing them. But what I find interesting is that very few are willing to state precise figures or formula which they would be comfortable with, let alone one everyone will agree on. I met a group of about 30 bright, young undergraduates recently and asked them what they thought would be a reasonable sum for the PM to receive. Not one of them was able to propose a figure. They all agreed it was very difficult issue. At another discussion I had with working adults, the figure ranged from $500,000 to $3 million. There was no consensus.

Even opposition parties cannot agree on the formula or quantum. Some have declined to go into any specifics, obviously to avoid scrutiny. The Workers’ Party unfortunately has decided to indulge in a game of cat and mouse. NCMP Mr Giam yesterday said that they are not willing to reveal what they or he submitted to Mr Ee’s Committee, saying that it was private. Why? What is there to hide? There are only two inferences: that the Workers’ Party private and public positions are different; or they have changed their position after the Report was issued.

Then NCMP Mr Yee let the cat out of the bag. He made the extra-ordinary assertion that the Workers’ Party held back some proposals so that they could raise them in this debate. He tried to explain that today by saying that the Workers’ Party were still researching the issue and shared what they had. But that is not what he said yesterday. He said: “We do not feel that we have to give everything to the Committee and this is precisely what Parliament is for.” And later he said: “I believe Parliament is where we come up with another proposal to be decided upon.” So it is clear what the Workers’ Party is doing.

The point of this whole exercise was for the Committee to consider all ideas, and to propose what it considers the best one for Singapore. That is how I believe every Singaporean understood it. But the Workers’ Party decided to play politics. They held back what they considered to be meaningful proposals, so that they could come to this House and announce to Singaporeans that they have better ideas. In short, they put their Party’s interests before Singapore’s interests.

But playing politics is their prerogative. Playing games and fence sitting are the privileges of the opposition. Politics is about making decisions, and the Government has one to make.

Common Principles

Despite the many different arguments, I believe there is much common ground between Singaporeans on this issue, which is often ignored. I would like to talk about matters I think we can all agree on.

First, we can all agree that the Prime Minister and the Ministers have very important and difficult jobs. They affect almost every aspect of our lives. In fact, is there any other job which has a greater impact on the success of Singapore, and the well being of Singaporeans?

Second, we can all agree that we want first class public services. When the Former Chairman of the US Federal Reserve, Dr Paul Volker was in Singapore last year, he was asked what he thought of our policy on salaries. Dr Volker is a highly respected economist. He has been a public servant almost all his life. When introducing him to the audience, Dr Kishore Mahbubhani made the point that Dr Volker was content to earn a modest civil servant’s salary, although he could have earned much more in the private sector. That was why he was asked the question, and I expected him to talk about the privilege of service. He did not. Dr Volker’s response to the question was simple and astute. He said it was a good idea to pay public servants well as it was important to ensure good public services. He cited the US Government’s response to Hurricane Katrina and the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico as evidence that US public services were seriously lacking. In short, in his view, you need good, capable people to provide good services, and you should pay good people well. The logic is irrefutable.

Third, we can agree that not every capable person wants a life in politics. I dare say most do not. There are very good reasons for this, not the least of which is effect on their families. While we do not have an intrusive media, there is still a considerable loss of privacy, and a significant impact on personal lives. That includes having your spouses and children being openly discussed and their conduct scrutinised. Who wants that? Many will feel, quite understandably, that this is too high a price, whatever the pay.

Fourth, we can also agree that we do not want to set salaries so high as to make money the sole or main reason for seeking office. At the same time, we do not want it to be so low as to become a disincentive. NCMP Yee says we are fishing for talent in too small a pond. But if you create financial obstacles for good, capable people who are willing to step forward to serve, you are only making your pool smaller. No one wants to do that. Everyone wants to make public service open to all Singaporeans. Paying less does not make it more open, but more closed.


Now we come to the nub: what should you pay capable people who perform critical jobs? This brings us to the other “s” word, which tends to dominate this debate: Sacrifice. It has been said that public service is a privilege, and not a sacrifice. Again, no one disputes that, but that is not the argument. The argument is that leaders should make sacrifices because it demonstrates that they care about what they are doing. That is another thing we can all agree on – we want our leaders to care about Singapore. But why look at sacrifice only in money terms?

I think we are asking ourselves the wrong question. It is not how much our leaders should sacrifice, but we want from them. I don’t want someone who tells me that his best quality is that he loves his country or that money is not important to him. Because these are the easiest things to say, and there will be no shortage of people who will say them to get approval.

What do I want from our leaders? I don’t want them just to be smart and capable: I want them to be the smartest, most capable people in the room. I want them to be fair minded, hard working, compassionate and of unimpeachable character. I want leaders who will not be satisfied until every Singaporean has a home and the means to a better life. I want to know that if there is outbreak of a deadly disease like SARS, or a terrorist bomb goes off, or Singapore faces an economic crisis, we have leaders who have the courage, intelligence, experience and determination to do what is necessary for the good of Singapore and Singaporeans. I want leaders who understand that their job involves a sacred trust; a vow to devote every fibre, every moment, every thought, every everything, in service to our country. That is the true sacrifice I think every Singaporean should demand. If we get the quality of people right, the question of quantity of pay answers itself. I believe most Singaporeans will agree with that.

The New Formula

That leads to one more thing we can all agree on: it is impossible to answer the question of salaries in a manner which will satisfy everyone. Many have said so in this House. Even the Worker’s Party agrees that there is no right or wrong figure. I would however like to make two suggestions.

I suggest the proposed formula be tweaked to cap the salaries for the Government’s term of office, with an annual increment for inflation. In other words, salaries will not rise if the benchmark median salary rises. This would create more certainty and more importantly, put paid to arguments that the Government will pursue policies to favour the top earners to increase its own pay.

I also ask the Government to do more to keep Singaporeans informed and engaged on this issue. There is still much misunderstanding over salaries, and you cannot have a proper dialogue if people are working off different facts. For example, many Singaporeans still believe MPs will receive pensions, although that was discontinued years ago. Some even believe MP and Ministers’ salaries are tax free. They are not. Within days of the release of the Report, Mr Gerard Ee had to say publicly that some had mis-understood what it said. Despite the enormous publicity on the subject, some are still unclear about the details of the new package. Although some would prefer that we not keep raising this issue, I support the proposal for the formula be reviewed every five years. I believe we should welcome every opportunity to debate it so that there will be a wider and better understanding of the facts and the arguments. It will also help if we publish annually and in clear terms the average pay package of Ministers, so that we can demolish mischievous allegations that Ministers will secretly earn more through discretionary and undeclared payments. This is fertile ground for those who seek to breed discontent and cynicism. Let us not give them the opportunity to mislead and divide Singaporeans.

Conclusion – an exceptional Singapore

I end with a final proposition we can agree on. We want Singapore to remain an exceptional nation, for that really is the only thing that keeps us relevant. This exceptionalism should not only be in the performance of our economy or the efficiency of our public services. It should also be in the trust and the relationship between the Government and the people it serves. All around the world, politics and politicians are viewed with great cynicism. Cynicism weakens the government; it weakens democracy and it weakens our country. We cannot afford to let that happen to us.

I therefore support the revision of salaries. The new formula is more relevant and intuitive. It deals with some of the criticisms of the old formula and does away with inequities such as pensions. A 30+ % cut is on any view significant. The National Bonus better reflects performance. Even the Workers’ Party agrees with a monthly wage of $55,000/mth. And as Mr Vikram Nair pointed out yesterday, even the difference in bonus computations may not amount to something substantially different.

So we now have a sound basis for the Government to move forward: strengthen connections with Singaporeans, focus on the difficult problems we all know are around the corner, and deliver on its promise for a better life for all Singaporeans. Because in the final analysis, that is all that really counts. I think we can all agree on that.