Trump: stop moping, take stock, and look ahead

I was traumatised by Trump’s victory today. Despite the fact that I am not American, I am a proud Hillary supporter because of what she stands for – she is experienced, practical, qualified. And her most undersold trait is that she is rarely ideological.

She is “the best person for the job” – and many people our generation and most people worldwide would vote for her, if they could. But the United States is not the rest of the world.

But it is pointless to mope. We can fill our Facebook newsfeeds with fury and regret, but Trump is still the President-Elect. We have two options: mope behind, or move forward.

I say we take stock of what we’ve learnt from this American experiment, and set our expectations on what to expect from President Trump.

Key lessons

The biggest reason why we’re so shaken by Trump’s victory is because our fundamental beliefs are tested. But when the facts change, we should adjust our beliefs accordingly.

First, America is like every other elected democracy. It is not some “shining beacon on a hill”. Elected democracy is predicated on peaceful evolution, it does exceptionally poorly when tested by violently revolutionary campaigns. This was true for the French Fourth Republic and Germany’s Weimar Republic. And it is still true today across the Atlantic, whether the revolution comes from the political right or left, from the Far Right or Radical Left. Democratic competition, of the free and fair variety, carries the seeds of division, in the form of economic inequality, different races and religions, and so on. In short, a democratic America is an America is predisposed to revolution.

The question is, who waters these seeds? The political class – those holding offices of power – have great incentive to emphasise difference and create “tribal loyalties” across race, sex, religion for their survival. The media class encourage bubbles of opinion to form, while the business and military elite pursue their own agendas in a political battleground. Events like Trump or Sanders will happen where people are disaffected. We shouldn’t be surprised.

Second, America is unlike every other elected democracy. Its politics is revolutionary – it is spoken in a language of change rather than continuity, and its logic is conflict rather than consensus. Its leaders promise visions and not policy, and they invariably under-deliver, which leads to a vicious circle that reinforces itself – more change is needed, more conflict, more vision. Events like Trump and Sanders are likelier in revolutionary-type democracies than in more evolutionary ones.

Third, the social liberal is quite dead. Trump’s election is solid proof that this model of uncompromising social liberalism will work. Shouting “Black Lives Matter” (and they do) clearly hasn’t convinced the white majority in this election – quite the opposite. Just so, it won’t work when we replace “Black” with women, LGBTs, racial minorities, immigrants, against the “majority” social group etc. When we scream some liberal trope, we distance people of the opposite view. We never convince them.

It worries me because young people like us, who are consistently more socially liberal or “post-material”, are bumping against the hard reality of the generations before them who believed they could change society with their political advocacy. We are setting ourselves up for disappointment and defeat.

The social changes that we desire – more equality, basic freedoms, social protection, and others – operate in a slow, weak, and diffuse way. A “better world” does not come from a political election or supreme court nomination. These give fast and clear results, with the problem that they can be easily overturned or may not last. The real and most lasting changes are made over time, with patient advocacy and consistent communication. Civil rights in America, for instance, became a lived reality not just because the white men in Congress signed off a 1965 legislation (even if that was symbolic and important), but because of the important collective work of generations upon generations of black Americans – community solidarity, individual hard work, and long-suffering advocacy.

What to watch out for

Our most cherished expectations are now dashed. What kind of America can we reasonably expect next? And what should we watch out for?

First, the next 2-4 years will be a unique experiment on whether the “balance of powers” continue to function with one party. Republicans hold a majority in the executive, legislature, and (soon enough) judiciary branches. This test is even more special when we consider that this is a party that is fragmented as never before, and has prided itself on being the “Party of No”. The Republican Party has many constituents who disagree, and disagree violently – Trumpist anti-establishment figures, neoconservatives, nativists, the religious right, military lobby, and business interests. This means that the next 2-4 years will hugely transform this party – whether this transformation means it is destroyed from within, or successfully reinvents itself as a party of the political Centre. (Somewhat like how Britain’s Labour and Conservative parties have.)

Second, Trump will renege on many of his most outlandish proposals – in particular, the Muslim ban, the Mexican wall, a balanced budget, and all minority rights protections. It will either be because they were impossible to start with, or Congress won’t let him. Given how fragmented the Republicans in government are, Congress may play both a helping and hindering role to Trump’s ambitions. He will be tamed by it, unless he decides to play Hitler, which remains a very real and present danger.

The most obvious failed promise Trump has made is to restore relations with Russia. He will fail dismally, stepping in the proud tradition of Kennedy, Nixon, and Reagan. It invariably starts with soppy, grand initial rhetoric in a peace summit with China and Russia. Then, an inevitable smallish conflict that takes a symbolic us-vs-them dimension will throw this initial summit diplomacy off. The firewood is a ready mix of South China Sea, currency manipulation allegations, and ISIS. And, because of Trump’s uniquely weak constitution, this is likely to combust into another trade war, proxy war, Cold war, and (dare I say) a nuclear war.

But where will President Trump succeed? Probably in many of his most aggressive legislative challenges, if Congress allows. The most likely victims are Obamacare, Planned Parenthood, and the waterboarding ban. These are Trump’s priorities, and they are likely to happen. Also on the cards is his Bush-style tax cut, which will result in a massive budget deficit by the end of 2020.

Looking ahead

Democracy is fragile. The American version is especially so. And like any political system, there is no natural guarantee for its continued existence as a democracy.

Most elections focus our attention on how we structure our society, creating and emphasising social divisions. But in the aftermath of this damaging one, we should remember that democracy is much more than vote counts, ‘scientific’ polling, and upsetting results. When we claim ourselves to be “socially liberal”, we will be no better off than our conservative counterparts if we stay close minded.

The important elections or campaigns of our age make us question who we are as people, and what kind of society we want to become. If there is one lesson I will take from the past year of American elections, it is that I am a liberal, but perhaps not in the way I once thought I was.

I’ve come to find that there are two ‘types’ of liberals. Obviously, there is the conventional meaning: social liberals who support and advocate a certain progressive stance on some key issues, eg. economic equality, minority rights, the environment.

But then there is another: a civic liberal – liberal in the sense of being open-minded and tolerant of others and other views; liberal in the sense of holding everyone equally to the same law; liberal in the sense of being generous and forgiving to political upsets. This is the exact opposite of everything humans are born as: we are inherently close-minded, prejudiced, and selfish.

If democracy is a learned art of civic association, then we should aim to learn it well. President Trump will be an education for America and young liberals worldwide.


Why should I care? 5 Myths about Singapore’s president reforms

Much has been said and written about how the Government plans to “reform” the Elected Presidency. It is a debate that pah buay si – it has gone for a long time, and it won’t die.

I believe those of us who support the PAP government also want a say in how we take part in our government. Singaporeans are not stupid; we’d appreciate if the government told us its long-term goals for the President.

Ever since we began electing our President in 1991, the Government has consistently cut the office’s powers or narrowed its scope. This year, PM Lee argued for 3 things – tighter selection criteria, minority racial representation, and greater Council advisory over the President. This is not new, but another step in the long, calculated path to limit the office of the President.

Because the discussion on president reforms is so one-sided and opaque, I hoped to shed light on it. I debunk five myths about Singapore’s president and its “reforms”:

Myth #1: The “equality” myth

Singapore is a racially harmonious society. So our racial minorities need systemic guarantees to feel “assured”.

This raises a whole package of inconsistencies. First, why the sudden need for racial guarantees on the President? The timing may seem political: given how close the results were in 2011 with the runner-up Dr Tan Cheng Bock, and how close the date is to the next election in 2017.

Let’s say it’s an entirely non-political decision. Now if the PAP is so concerned about racial harmony, why doesn’t its administration pass important anti-discrimination laws? Alfian Sa’at, a local playwright, lists a slew of policies that discriminate against the Malay community, including military manpower, top-tier cabinet roles, and tudung uniforms. Why specially pick the symbolic office of President – an office that the new reforms will only weaken – for this ‘symbolic guarantee’?

Also, if the PAP is concerned about guaranteeing equality in the President, why stop at race? Surely other forms of equality like religion, class, and gender are important in Singapore? It does not help that the Straits Times’ pick of “6 men to watch” for the top job are all Chinese and male, especially when half of the population is female.

Now some say that the minority guarantees are not tokenistic. Then how would the electoral system work practically? Mr Dhanabalan, a former Cabinet member under Lee Kuan Yew, has quite seriously suggested a GRC-type system  that sends creates a multi-person ticket, say, one candidate of the majority and another of a minority race. Another possibility is a multi-term guarantee; for instance, out of every 6 elections, at least one must be a minority.

If these ideas become law, it will be the second time the PAP uses a story of “racial harmony” to force through electoral changes in Parliament. Without a referendum, this system will remain controversial if it is not seen as legitimate. Like the GRC system has done for Parliament, this new guaranteed  system will do the same for the President. It entrenches the PAP because the Opposition simply cannot produce a well-known two-person ticket.

In short, by applying the same racial formula to the President, the party is making the same mistake twice. It hurts the respect we have for the office.

Myth #2: The “wise men” myth

Singapore succeeded with our wise men. A democratic system with divided powers is not necessary

“Having a good government is better than having a good President to check on a bad government. Singaporeans are fortunate to have a clean and able government for the last 35 years.”

– Ong Teng Cheong, 1999

I suspect this is the most convincing argument for many Singaporean baby-boomers. We have an unusually high trust in institutions and government. We are taught to believe in the benevolence of the ruling political class. This is an admirable but underestimated ethos.

The PAP model of “good government” is ownself check ownself. Khaw Boon Wan, transport minister, wrote that long-term “leadership cohesion” was key to Singapore’s political success.

But what happens to us when our wise men in power go bad or do bad? Who will stop them then? What if the PAP is taken over, or stops producing the wise men? The PAP elite relies on heroic faith in its own leaders, and its own internal party process of selection and election. Surely Singapore’s democracy was built of sterner stuff.

Many good, promising people lack the “establishment credentials” needed to enter the PAP or qualify for Presidency. Why should one party screen them out of politics because it does not fit their internal criteria? Wisdom comes from many places, not just PAP HQ.

Worse, what if we have a freak election result for parliament? There is no stopping its path of destruction then. In Singapore, the President exercises his powers only if Parliament grants it to him. Our President has no military and security veto (since 1994), no emergency powers, no constitutional powers, and no judicial powers. If he wants to exercise the few legislative powers he has, he must get approval from a government body; for instance, he must consult the Attorney-General for powers of pardon.

If we were to have a president, he must have independent powers apart from Parliament. Only a free and fair referendum can decide how our President is nominated, selected, elected, and exerts his power – not a constitutional amendment with one party setting the agenda.

Myth #3: The “freak president” myth

We need a stable political system with a sovereign parliament. If a president is a freak result, we must be able to control him

This argument has become more popular since 1993, after disagreements between Ong Teng Cheong and the Government became public knowledge.

“If a president goes rogue, we must check him.”

Our President has very few powers he can exercise on his own. To exercise all his major powers of financial oversight and appointment, he must consult and rely upon on his Council of Presidential Advisors. In this legal context, “consult” means “obliged to follow” more than merely “asking for advice”.

Who is in this Council of eight men? The President only selects two – the other six are appointed by the PM, Chief Justice, and PSC Chairman. No Singaporean elected them, yet it monopolises control over the President’s key powers and keeps him well in check. Thus, when PM Lee talks about ‘strengthening the team’, he really means to limit the President’s discretionary powers.

Furthermore, this council is staffed by members of the establishment bedrock – businessmen, civil servants, and executives of state-run companies. These men are esteemed, surely, but for a body that advises an independent President, they seem to have inordinately strong past ties with the Government.

I worry that should the unelected president’s advisors prove unwise or corrupt, there is no way to remove them. We can’t vote them away. I also wonder why the Government’s argument for guaranteeing racial equality do not extend to the Council.

“We must QC all president candidates.”

The second line is that we must ‘QC’ (quality control) the President. Broadly, I agree – we need a person of “integrity, good character and reputation”. Donald Trump, the Republican ticket for this year’s US election, is the ultimate warning.

Since the beginning of the Elected Presidency 1991, Parliament has tried to achieve this by a ‘neutral’ committee screening candidates on a set of extremely stringent criteria. The Presidential Elections Committee (PEC) comprises three “wise men” of the establishment.

Again, we do not choose the PEC, rather, the Government simply appoints them as office-holders. In other words, the PEC is accountable to no one but itself. Why are we only allowed to choose our President from their pre-selection of people?

Their decisions on who can or cannot run for President are final. This made the 2005 pre-election season ugly, when the PEC decided to not issue Andrew Kuan, then CFO of JTC, a certificate to run for president.

High-profile constitutional jurists like Thio Li-Ann have criticised this as “patriarchal” and compromising “democratic accountability”. Prof Thio argues that this system “contravenes the rule of law and standards of procedural fairness”.

Even if we accept that nominees should have good character, surely we can ‘choose the choosers’ in the PEC. If the PAP trusts the people of Singapore to elect them into power in a free and fair general election, why does the government feel like it needs to guide us when we choose our President?

Furthermore, we do not get to select the criteria. PM Lee has argued that we should tighten the criteria further: the corporate executives must lead firms with a much larger ‘paid-up capital’ to be eligible to run for president. The Prime Minister’s Office once estimated a tiny pool of 800 people would qualify for selection.

Unsurprisingly, the bulk of these 800 eligible candidates will be drawn from the ranks of government-owned/linked companies, which tend to be the largest. And 2 (if not all 3) non-PAP candidates in the 2011 presidential elections are unlikely to qualify either. One can only wonder about the political consequences of this new criteria.

Myth #4: The “it’s not important” myth

The president is powerless, so this debate is useless. Why should I care?

Since we know the Parliament is sovereign, why should we care about the President’s office? Especially since the Ong Teng Cheong case seemed to show how hopeless it was to run against a undefeatable PAP government.

Are we making a big silly fuss over a small matter? No, because this is important.

The President has very weighty powers that affect us and our government. When PM Lee propose more limits to the office of President, he is saying the government does not need institutional checks because the PAP can ownself check ownself. It may have done it for 50 years; it may not for the next 50.

The President has 3 main roles in our government: first, he/she has power of oversight. He supervises the government’s financial management (reserves, CPF money, and budget) and its keeping of public order (civil service, religious harmony, the Internal Security Act and Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau).

Second, he has power of appointment. With ‘advice’ from the government and his Council of Presidential Advisors, he can confirm or deny the appointments of our chiefs of military/security, legal, and civil services. Finally, he has power of representation. Because of his direct election by popular vote, he can lay claim to the popular mandate.

We may believe that the presidency is not important per se. But I still think the discussion we are having now is profoundly important for a slowly maturing democracy like ours. Even if we don’t see it yet, it affects you and me profoundly in three ways:

One, where partisan politics is absent, systemic politics becomes the only means by which public views can be heard – in this case the presidential office. If the president is elected, he provides a legitimate moral voice which may occasionally dissent from government opinion on matters of public importance. This includes decisions on war, race relations, and finance. That is valuable in the absence of alternative parties in Parliament.

Two, this “debate” shows a classic pattern of a lack of public consultation by the ruling administration. Just as it did with the Integrated Resort or GRC reforms, the Government deems the decision at hand either “too important” for us to make, “too urgent” for us to understand the changes, or “too sensitive” for us to debate. Same with this presidential reforms. Singaporeans are excluded from changes that directly structure how we ourselves participate in the political process. When the way we elect our representatives change, we have every right to be consulted.

Three, we must hear our own voice. We are not alone in calling for more powers for the president. Let’s not forget that the 3 non-PAP candidates in the 2011 election commanded a combined 65% of the vote. All 3 ran on a platform of more, not less, executive powers for the president – and 65% of the electorate thought so too.

Even though the PAP will surely get its way with these Presidential reforms, we should learn from this incident. We must learn to hear ourselves, and must sometimes raise our voices so that the Government hears us too.

Myth #5: The “soft power” myth

The president champions good causes. His soft power means he doesn’t need formal powers

Law Minister Shanmugam once compared the Singapore president to a British Monarch. He is wrong. Our President is different – we elected him. Whereas Her Majesty is not elected by vote or merit. She is tabloid gossip for some, a tourist attraction for others, and a non-issue for others. Her advice can be freely ignored by the British parliament.

Ho Kwok Ping, a dean, has compared our President to the Irish President – with a “moral and ceremonial role”. Indeed, as a directly elected individual, the president can legitimately claim to possess the people’s moral voice, and can represent the people’s conscience in important decisions.

We may consider SR Nathan’s outstanding record of supporting and fundraising for charities, what Mr Ho calls “soft power”. But where were our Presidents, especially SR Nathan and Tony Tan, during formative social debates in the past decade – like the Integrated Resorts, role of money in church, or the population White Paper? Even if they may have personally supported the Government’s stance, playing a “moral role” would demand that they show more awareness and build consensus between opposing divides of Singapore’s moral contests. Our recent Presidents have played a disappointingly sub-par moral role.

Furthermore, if the president is to play a moral role in government, he needs legal power to underwrite it, not just a “moral voice”. We elected him to oversee the honesty of government finance. Where necessary, the President needs to contradict or criticise the government if there is wrongdoing. That is moral voice – dissenting but valid. Former President Ong Teng Cheong complained that was never given access to government finances. If he cannot even do this one job, how can we call the presidency moral? And what is the point of us electing an office without real power?

The Government cannot have its cake and eat it. Naturally, it wants a responsible custodian of financial reserves and public order, and a person of conscience too. But it also wants someone who is unlikely to ‘rock the boat’. What happens should Parliament fall into irresponsible hands and the President has no powers left to exercise that can restrain it?

What should the government do?

1. Involve the people.

This disappointed me the most, and I suspect the same for many Singaporeans. We were not consulted on any changes. Yes, there has been a limited public feedback exercise. Cabinet members like Grace Fu are only now conducting “youth dialogues”.

But all of this was all done after PM Lee announced in his National Day Rally that his government would change the law. Of course it has established a “Constitutional Commission” that gives a nominally independent opinion, but yet again its composition comprises 9 people with close ties to the political establishment. No alternative view outside the establishment was heard.

This after-the-fact public consultation seems very action (putting on a display). It follows the SG50-style of a sanitized “national conversation” – a carefully controlled dialogue to make sure it gets the “right outcome” of “public agreement”.

The Government can do better for future debates of national importance. It can consult other views beside its usual suspects. A non-establishment view is not the same as a violently anti-system protest. Public views add value and validity to its decision.

2. A president is not necessary for good governance

There are many views on what the powers of president should be. Some don’t want it at all, others prefer greater powers independent of the Cabinet. It seems the PAP prefers something in the middle – weak custodial powers to be used only occasionally.

The fact is, there are many systems of government, and a sovereign legislature like our Parliament has served us well. There is no evidence that executive systems are more politically stable, or give more economic growth, than legislative ones. France is a good case in point: it combines a powerful executive with disappointing politics and dismal economics.

PM Lee says we need a president to keep government spending in check, and have a “mandate” to exercise those custodial powers. He indirectly linked Australia’s unchecked government spending to the lack of a custodian president. 

Unfortunately, having a president alone does not magically guarantee good government budgeting. Nations with presidents – including France and Latin American nations – are models of shocking profligacy.

Our Parliament already has a democratic mandate, and it has done a largely decent job at responsible budgeting. In most other economies, this isn’t always the case. But the UK’s sovereign parliament has had periods of both shocking profligacy and Thatcherite austerity. Also, austerity and tight spending can be surprisingly popular with the electorate, as post-recession Germany and Austria showed.

If PM Lee were as serious about having external accountability on government finances, then he might consider well-established macroeconomic alternatives instead of the presidency. For instance, the government should accord the MAS greater independence in monetary policy. In place of a president, it may consider a professional body that provides comprehensive and independent fiscal advisory. (Models include the Congressional Budget Office in the US, or Government Debt Committee in Austria.)

3. Be clear and honest about what it wants.

The Government should just be honest about what its long-term vision for the president. It should not chut pattern.

Many countries have parliaments with absolute sovereignty – just so, our parliament should not be ashamed to admit its obvious dominance over state affairs. If left to a referendum today, I suspect Singaporeans will side with whatever the PAP says and be fine without a president.

Instead of maintaining an expensive display of “meritocratic selection”, “racial guarantees”, and “public mandate” for an increasingly powerless president, Cabinet might as well select the President as it did before Ong Teng Cheong.

Selecting a president is a clean solution, and it is the right thing to do if Parliament wants to keep its sovereignty. Selected Presidents include notables like Wee Kim Wee. This way, it can keep the President as a Commissioner for corruption control and charities without the political risk.

But if Cabinet chooses to keep the President office, then it should make the selection process transparent and democratic. It should give the President real, irrevocable, and discretionary powers – with obligations only to the people, and not to a Council of unelected advisors. This will help preserve trust in our institutions.

What next?

Let us decide if we want a president. Let us decide how we choose a president. And let us decide who it should be.

Ultimately, the government still has the choice to select its own president or abolish the office altogether. In that case, it should just say so.



Special thanks to: Nicholas, Nabillah, Jing

Selected sources: Singapore Constitution; Thio 2007, Singapore: (S)electing the president—diluting democracy?; Tan 2011, Constitutional Law in Singapore; ST; CNA; Istana

Photo credit: ST file photo


Unequal and excluded: Singapore’s first inequality

I graduated this week. I read PPE at Oxford. A lot of my graduating peers, British or otherwise, may not have found their education here particularly spectacular. It is increasingly likely that their parents went to university; to them, graduating is a momentous but nevertheless well-defined life course.

Growing up, my family was solidly working class. My mum’s parents saw very little value in a female’s education, and quite literally threw the public secondary school fee – a tiny sum even for the 60s – at her. Needless to say she stopped at GCE A-levels and was obliged to start working to support the family. My dad did the then-equivalent of ITE, and then, only after a decade of work, finished a part-time diploma and BBA. My parents chose to delay marriage and childbirth to save up enough for a HDB public flat.

Things took a turn when my dad was retrenched during the Asian financial crisis in 1997 but secured a more stable managerial role after, allowing my mum to stay at home and care for the house and our education. As I grew up, we gradually became more middle class, but my parents’ ethos on our education and austere household spending did not change.

I came from a ‘neighbourhood’ primary school, and grew up under my mum’s strict supervision with the richly stereotyped “Singaporean” formulation. Like so many other “tiger mums”, she pushed me hard – a solid daily regimen of homework, extracurriculars, and so on. This helped me succeed academically beyond what my social class background would usually suggest.

What worries me is that my experience is increasingly unique among children growing up in households with working class or ethnic minority origins. Singapore has a growing problem of class and race inequality in its public education. A lot of the latter disparity can be explained by the former, like many other postindustrial societies. We see this in the income disparity across and within schools, and also in the geographical dispersion of “elite” schools.

educational inequality singapore

Types of inequality

These inequalities take three main forms. First, inequality in grades. Children from poorer class backgrounds tend to have lower academic performance – whether in alphabetical grades or the new PSLE “Achievement Levels”. Parents in service classes have more resources to provide direct cognitive benefits like intellectual stimulation from books at home, nutrition, and coaching. Or they can pay others to do it for them, explaining the booming demand for the tuition and childcare industry. More indirectly, service-class parents can afford a home environment conducive to developing their child’s non-cognitive advantages, from motivational support to guidance on how to behave toward teachers and peers in school.

Second, the inequality of progression: keeping grades constant, how much more likely are children from higher income families to progress to the next level than their lower-income counterparts? Directly, parents who are better off are also more networked and successful, and pass these benefits to their children by the ‘old school tie’, connections to internships and graduate positions. They also tend to have higher academic and career ambitions of their children. Seeing education as a collective family mobilisation effort, they increase their children’s admission chances by relocating near competitive schools or volunteering in school.

More indirectly, children from more privileged households do not need to contribute to the family’s income and so have a lower opportunity cost of lost income from higher levels of education. Finally, there is a perceptual element to all this: children raised in service-class households are more confident of their success in future education stages. They also share a prevailing view that higher education yields proportionate benefits, given an implicit belief that tertiary education is increasingly decisive of salariat access.

Finally, inequality of status. As Singaporeans are (almost) universally completing secondary education and thus demanding more tertiary education, its supply has accordingly increased in number of providers and courses. We now have five public universities like SMU and SUTD, and a substantial diversity of private institutions likes UniSIM and Kaplan. On one hand, I think it very positive that more secondary school students are eligible and enrolled into tertiary courses, providing opportunity for upward mobility. My dad’s post-secondary education in 6 years of part-time private university is a case in point.

But the growing abundance of options has an insidious effect of society ranking institutions and courses based on reputation and ‘performance’, not necessarily connected to the actual school culture or courses offered. This reinforces a ‘prestige gap’ between institutions like NUS and some overseas universities like Oxbridge and the Ivy League, and others like locally offered private university courses. Our education systems sorts students into clearly differentiated milieux – academic and more “prestigious” tracks with similarly privileged classmates, versus vocational or more industrially focused ones. Singaporean children born today face destinies more divergent than ever before.

The result of these three inequalities, as I see it, is that the initially small advantages of a child in kindergarten snowballs into large differences by the time he reaches tertiary level. In Singapore’s system, it is hard to catch up once you fall behind. So yes we are meritocratic, but in a narrow sense: a student’s one-off poor performance makes it near impossible to change ‘track’ if he/she performs better in the future. A N-level student has an abysmally low chance of entering university.

I found this true from my (limited, 18-month) experience as a student coach in a Children’s Society care centre. It provided after-school care for ‘at risk’ children from families facing financial or other difficulty. A close friend found the same when volunteering for the Muhammadiyah Welfare Home. When tutoring, learning, and playing with a whole diversity of children, I understood that most did not have a home environment conducive to further education, almost by default expecting to finish at ITE. This is not bad in itself; rather it is the fact that education attainment is so stratified by household income that is.

What can we do about it?

First, to target grade disparity, we should level the playing field. If the government is as committed to educational equality across classes as it says it is, it should minimise initial disparities before the child steps into his primary school, and not after. This is important given how price-dependent the quality of kindergartens has become. From the start, the Ministry of Education should provide broad standards and monitoring in kindergarten curriculum and delivery, especially in linguistic and numeracy skills.

To its credit, it has very recently focused on two broad types of programs: financial and developmental support to preschool children from poorer neighbourhoods like KIFAS and KidSTART, and direct English language support like Focused Language Assistance in Reading (FLAiR). The latter two programs, barely in their test phase, are too little and too late. As of 2016, just 400 children benefit from FLAiR – hardly substantial enough to make any real difference. The government would have a much easier time reducing class inequalities in education if it preempted and prevented them.

Naturally, parents may not always see the value in sending children to enrichment programs like Children’s Society activities or Mendaki’s math workshops. So centres have a critical role in bringing parents onboard: overcoming cynicism and convincing them of the program’s value. Further, research robustly suggests that educators subconsciously discriminate against children of disadvantaged class or race backgrounds in assessment. Thus, routine training in unconscious bias for teachers, especially on race and class, will encourage patience and additional supervision for less capable students.

Next, in targeting inequality of progression, Singapore has begun diversifying its academic offering. For instance, pupils now get much greater diversity of academic and non-academic options at each level of education, as well as broader criteria for admissions. We have selectively adapted practices from Nordic countries, a byword for education that is of both high quality and high equality. But this is not enough – for instance, the popular early admissions programmes (DSA in junior colleges or EAE in polytechnics) encourage students with non-academic talents to enter, but these talents are often nurtured by parents who can actually afford to develop these talents in their children.

We can do more. Structurally, the ministry should postpone or provide more “decision points” in the tracking process. Education streams, from Normal-Technical to the GEP, should not be hermetically sealed from one another. Students should be given multiple chances to explore their different and evolving intelligences and aspirations – vocational or academic. Psychologically, we should ensure that JCs and polytechnics extend their access and outreach programs to all secondary schools. Secondary (and even primary) teachers play an important role in developing their students’ aspirations, by organising trips to target schools or having freedom to arrange attendance to a tutorial in a course of interest.

These changes are important to equality because they transform a student’s ‘opportunity set’ – particularly what lower-income students believe is possible to attain. If less-privileged but deserving students are not aware of opportunities available to them, then we must make opportunity go to them. This is what I mean by meritocracy in a broad, generous sense. It has to extend over time. When a primary school child does not have the same language skills because he did not attend kindergarten, or when a secondary school doesn’t perform well in one exam, he should have the opportunity to more rise up if he performs better later on.

Finally, existing changes in educational policy, not least the reforms I propose here, require capacity reforms to the Education Service.

Plainly, we need to first resolve teacher deficits, particularly striking in certain subjects like the humanities and in some neighbourhood schools. These are either due to teaching losing its sheen as a key profession, or the anecdotal ‘brain drain’ of MOE teachers to private tuition centres.  Now the MOE may not fully control teacher attrition to the tuition industry, but it can certainly sweeten its deal to attract more to the Education Service. On compensation, it has recently raised the starting pay of teachers by up to 10%, but it could consider linking some proportion of pay to 360° reviews and grades to incentivise teachers who outperform in dedication or use ‘best practices’ in teaching.

Besides compensation, the Ministry should also consider ‘experience recruitment’, by training and supporting fresh graduates to become new teachers for a “trial” period of time. This is similar to UK’s Teach First program, which has successfully channelled many teachers to work in primary and secondary schools in low-income communities. Many of the largest UK firms, like PwC, have schemes which allow their recruited graduates to teach for a year or two, safe in the knowledge that they still have the option of joining the firm if they wish to stop teaching. It is fiddly to negotiate with private firms, but the UK experience shows it can be done.

Moving forward, teachers deserve a career development scheme that allows flexibility of transfer across leadership, specialist, and teaching roles. Educators are not mere transmitters of content; they understand how the cogs come holistically together. They have taught in neighbourhood and elite schools alike and are able to interact with all way of students.

Capping all of this is the regular collection of data on inequality – not just on basis of racial disparity in attainment (which does not usually yield a direct policy solution), but also of income. The recent NUS-Melbourne panel study is a start. The Ministry of Education should have a dedicated, consultative board on inequality that actively protects the interests of children from less affluent backgrounds.

What next?

I had origins humbler than my peers. I remember when I told my mother that I hoped to go to a good secondary school and to university. Her face changed, and she was hopeful but hesitant in supporting that dream. I now realise she wanted to manage my expectations, especially if I didn’t get to go. I write about our education system not as an educator, but as that child.

Of course policy changes have its limits. The government can only do so much. Inequality in education is a complex beast and often interact with other inequalities, like income and race. No singular policy or solution exists. But by making the system more equal, the government changes the structure of incentives that parents, teachers, and students face. In the short run, this alters how all actors behave. And in the long run, children raised in the rental flats of Jalan Kukoh have the same educational aspirations as those from Sixth Avenue.

Singapore has many inequalities, no doubt, but the very first that its citizens encounter are those in education. A nation’s education speaks directly to its character – what defines us as a nation, and what kind of society do we want to be? If our education system cannot give an equal opportunity to each child, then what else will?



Special thanks to: Nicholas, Joel, Nabillah

Selected sources: MOE, NUS, Breen, Erikson, Jonnson, Lucas, Hout, Raftery, Shavit, Gamoran

Photo credit: ST file photo

Three bargains

Three bargains:

1. Because a nation or society will never be a fully secular thing, religious people and practitioners should provide clear public reasons for a public viewpoint, not private religious ones. A mature civil society acknowledges a group’s public viewpoint – religious or secular – and condemns any private biases.

2. Religious people should recognise that just as they have a public viewpoint, others have their own too. Secular folk should recognise the unique contributions that religion makes to people’s lives and society. I am no longer a Christian, but I know its value personally and it can be immensely important to people.

3. Finally, each person has the right to live his/her life as he/she sees fit. Any discrimination is wrong; just so, keeping laws or changing policy that promote discrimination is wrong.

Never give in

Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never — in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense.

– Winston Churchill

The death of a man is the future of a nation.

“Rest on laurels? I wish I could do that. No, you rest when you’re dead.”
– Lee Kuan Yew, 1978

Mr Lee, 2011. (ST PHOTO: Stephanie Yeow)

Mr Lee, 2011. (ST PHOTO: Stephanie Yeow)

The past month has been difficult and tense – for both the man and our nation. We pay our respects, because Mr Lee deserves it.

Now we are at an inflection. Mr Lee has built up an institution so much like himself: resilient and dominating. His influence permeates the political, bureaucratic and corporate life of this nation.

But the past two decades have seen Singaporeans crawling out of increasingly generous norms of authority, and beginning to understand, question, and criticise. The final symbolic shell has now expired. We are unfortunate to exist without its guidance, but we are also no longer subject to its constraints.

As the man would have asked himself, what holds next for Singapore? After his retirement, Mr Lee grew explicitly concerned about the nation’s future: especially its political and social challenges.

This tedious “SG50” PR campaign is unwittingly, a call to action. There is time always to reminiscence, to grief, to look back into a past. But we do not live in this past, for we have stopped recognising ourselves there.

Now is time to imagine a future without Mr Lee’s person, policy, and philosophy. The Lee institution has worked astoundingly well for the past fifty years. But the next fifty years demand responsive politics, more civil and tolerant discourse, and better civic norms.

“SG50” is not about the past fifty years, it’s really about the next fifty. Mr Lee and his tribe birthed a nation – now the real work of building an adult nation begins. His passing is Singapore’s first real step into nationhood. Let’s be brave, not timid. It’s our time to look forward, and not seek eternal solace in some “golden age”.