Sunday, 10 April 2016

Committee of Supply Debate 2016: MOE, MOM, MTI

Committee of Supply debate: Ministry of Education

PSLE grading system set to change amid broad reforms; T-score to be removed from 2021
Move to shift focus away from grades to shepherd students towards areas of interest
By Sandra Davie, Senior Education Correspondent, The Straits Times, 9 Apr 2016

Two significant policies in education - the way pupils are graded in the Primary School Leaving Examination and how students are admitted into secondary schools, post-secondary institutions and universities - are set to change, as the Ministry of Education (MOE) attempts to shift the focus from grades to building aptitude and skills.

PSLE T-score to be replaced with wider scoring bands in 2021
What you need to know about upcoming changes to the PSLE T-score:
Posted by Channel NewsAsia on Friday, April 8, 2016

Yesterday, Acting Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng announced during the debate on his ministry's budget that the new PSLE scoring system will come into effect in 2021. Those who entered Primary 1 this year will be the first cohort to be graded under the new system, where they will be given letter grades and placed in "wider bands" - the way O- and A-level examinations are marked.

With the change in the scoring system, admissions into secondary schools will also be reviewed.

Mr Ng agreed with Ms Denise Phua (Jalan Besar GRC) who said that the current PSLE scoring system grades pupils too finely.

Said Mr Ng: "What is measurable may not be what is most important in the long run. Chasing after that last point in an exam could come at a cost to other aspects of our children's overall development."

Schools would develop their distinctive strengths and niche programmes, he said, so that when the broader PSLE scoring bands take effect, students will be able to pick options that match their interests.

The changes will also apply further up the education chain. Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung, who announced the expansion of the discretionary admission scheme for polytechnics and universities, said the changes align with the objectives of the SkillsFuture movement to harness collective interests and aspirations.

He said the SkillsFuture movement starts with schools laying the foundation for students. The Institute of Technical Education, polytechnics and universities then help young Singaporeans discover their interests and hone their skills.

He said, currently, up to 7.5 per cent of the students who enter the polytechnics every year are admitted based on their interest and aptitude in a particular field. From next year, up to 12.5 per cent of polytechnic students will be admitted through the scheme. If the intake is 20,000, then this translates to 2,500 students. For universities, the proportion of students admitted through discretionary admissions will be raised from the current 10 per cent to 15 per cent. If the yearly intake is 15,000, this will benefit another 750 students.

He said MOE's studies have shown that for students with similar O-level aggregate scores, those who are admitted to polytechnics through the discretionary scheme do better in their studies.

He said: "This confirms what may have been intuitive to us all along - when you are able to choose and enter a course you are interested in or feel passionate about, you... will likely do better."

MOE, alone, cannot bring about this change, said Mr Ng. "Parents and the community have to make the shift too."

Polys, unis to take more with talents and interests
They will expand their existing aptitude-based admissions for next year
By Calvin Yang, The Straits Times, 9 Apr 2016

Polytechnics and universities will admit more students based on their talents and interests as they widen the focus from academic grades alone.

All five polytechnics, as well as three of the autonomous universities - Nanyang Technological University (NTU), National University of Singapore (NUS) and Singapore Management University (SMU) - will expand their existing aptitude-based admissions. The changes will be implemented for students entering the polytechnics and universities next year.

These admission schemes cater to students with abilities and interests in a specific course, as well as those with talents in other areas, such as sports and community service.

"If we are learning something we are interested in, we are more likely to stay curious and engaged," Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung said in Parliament yesterday. "And if we can stay curious, we are likely to make that subject a lifetime pursuit. If we make it a lifetime pursuit, we achieve mastery."

The polytechnics already take in such students through the Direct Polytechnic Admissions exercise (DPA) and the Joint Polytechnic Special Admissions Exercise (JPSAE), which can admit up to 2.5 per cent and 5 per cent of the polytechnic intake respectively each year.

Now, a new Early Admissions Exercise (EAE) will replace the DPA. The JPSAE, which covers a small segment of students applying based on achievements like community work and sports, will also be wound down and folded into this new exercise.

The EAE, which will begin in the middle of this year, can admit up to 12.5 per cent of the intake. It will allow students to secure a place in a diploma course of their choice even before they sit the O-level exams.

The mode of assessment under the EAE may vary across courses, and can include interviews, portfolio submissions and aptitude tests.

From next year, a similar exercise will be put in place for students progressing from ITE to polytechnic.

At the course level, about one-third of polytechnic courses - such as those in health sciences, design and media - will raise their limits on students admitted via the aptitude-based admissions, from 30 per cent to 50 per cent.

The universities too are expanding their discretionary admissions intake. From next year, NTU, NUS and SMU can admit up to 15 per cent of their annual intake under the discretionary admissions scheme, up from the current 10 per cent.

Under this scheme, applicants who do not meet the cut-off point for the course of their choice but display aptitude and meet minimum academic requirements to cope with the rigours of the course may be considered.

Mr Eng De Sheng, 24, a third-year NUS computer engineering student, was admitted via the scheme for his interest in computers. He has been running his own business offering diagnostics and repairs for computers and smartphones since secondary school.

He said: "This scheme gives those who are already pursuing their interests (a chance) to learn more in the universities."

But Mr Ong cautioned against "pushing the young to rush into declaring their interests prematurely".

When aptitude scores over grades
By Calvin Yang, The Straits Times, 9 Apr 2016

Wanting to start a circus arts company after having been involved in the scene since he was 10, 20-year-old Jonathan Goh decided he first needed a diploma in arts business management at Ngee Ann Polytechnic. It would help him gain exposure to the local creative arts scene and learn more about managing events such as art festivals.

But to qualify for the programme, one of the poly's more popular courses, he needed a total O-level score for English and four other subjects of nine or fewer points. Mr Goh scored 19 after sitting his O levels in 2014.

But the former Montfort Secondary School student still got a place through the Direct Polytechnic Admissions (DPA) exercise, which considers students' aptitudes and interests beyond their academic grades.

He had to prepare a write-up justifying why he should get a place in the course, put together a portfolio of his achievements, including his co-curricular activities, and have an interview with course lecturers, who asked him about his average grades.

Soon, the DPA will be replaced by an Early Admissions Exercise. In Parliament yesterday, Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung said such aptitude-based admissions schemes are not as straightforward and efficient as allocating places by grades.

"When you introduce other measures of student ability, it calls for an exercise of judgment. Between a 12-pointer who is not interested in a course, and a 16-pointer who is very interested, who would you choose?" he added.

"This goes beyond making decisions based on one metric, but making a judgment call. This requires wiser minds."

Mr Goh, who enjoys entertaining crowds, hopes what he learns from the diploma programme will help him grow the circus arts community here.

"I want to change the misconception that the circus is for clowns," he said. "It takes perseverance to learn skills, and there is a lot of work that goes into each performance."

Picking the right school helped him excel in sports
By Amelia Teng, The Straits Times, 9 Apr 2016

With an aggregate score of 240 at the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), Chua Qi Wei could have picked a traditionally more popular school. Instead, he went to Jurong Secondary School (JSS), driven by a love for basketball. The school is the first with the sport as a niche, and offers sports scholarships.

Now in Secondary 4, Qi Wei said of his choice: "Training is enjoyable with my teammates around me, and the school helps me to balance my studies and basketball."

Secondary schools offering such specialities, whether it be a sport, an art, or a science such as robotics or information technology, will become the norm in the education scene here. Schools will spend the next few years building up their strengths in such areas.

This goes hand in hand with the removal of aggregate scores from the PSLE in 2021, and will help primary school leavers pick secondary schools which cater to their interests and abilities, and can help develop them instead of relying on academic cut-off scores alone.

Said Acting Minister for Education (Schools) Ng Chee Meng yesterday at the debate on his ministry's budget: "We want to give all schools time to develop their distinctive strengths and niche programmes, towards the vision of every school a good school."

The effort has already begun. In 2013, then Education Minister Heng Swee Keat said that all secondary schools will offer two distinctive programmes by 2017 to develop students beyond academics.

One is an applied learning programme to help students see the relevance of what they learn and the second, a "learning for life" programme to develop character and skills such as teamwork through activities like a school expedition. JSS' basketball is part of its learning for life scheme.

Qi Wei started playing the sport at Primary 4 in Lianhua Primary School and heard about JSS' basketball programme from a senior.

He was also given the JSS Sports Scholarship - which is awarded each year to about 10 students who are among the top players in their school teams.

"If you are doing something you like, it's not a hassle and you'll enjoy your school years more," said Qi Wei, who is now captain of the boys' basketball team.

Some question why PSLE changes will take so long
By Amelia Teng, The Straits Times, 9 Apr 2016

Many parents said it is about time that the often-debated Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) aggregate score be consigned to history, but some asked why it will be implemented only in 2021.

Another key question is how the new system of grading - using wider bands like A, B, C and D instead of the aggregate score - will affect secondary school admission.

In announcing the major shift in how the PSLE will be assessed, Acting Education Minister Ng Chee Meng (Schools) made it clear the new system will no longer depend on how pupils do relative to each other. He said the current system may have "created unhealthy competition among our young children".

Most parents agreed that the changes are for the better, but if so, "why can't it be done faster?", asked housewife Adeline Low, 43, whose son is now in Primary 1.

"Five years is kind of a long time to wait." Her child will be among the first batch to take the new PSLE.

But 39-year-old Sim Hsin Dee's son, who is in Primary 2, misses out by a year. The housewife said: "Other policy announcements, for instance involving the Central Provident Fund or housing, are usually implemented quite fast."

Some parents also pointed out that it was in 2013 when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong first revealed that the major revamp of PSLE grading was on the cards.

But Mr Ng yesterday explained that his ministry will spend the next few years working through the changes carefully, developing and testing the new exam and secondary school posting systems.

This will also give parents and pupils the chance to understand and adjust to the new system. In the process, secondary schools will develop strengths and specialised programmes .

This will allow students to choose a school that is a good fit for them, said Mr Ng.

Mrs D. Fong, 40, who works in the finance industry and has two children in Primary 1 and 2, asked about transparency in school admissions. "How will MOE allocate places to students? If a lot of students get As, how will schools choose? The aggregate score is more clear-cut," she said.

Several MPs also spoke on the topic of PSLE and school entry, emphasising the need to make it a less stressful process.

Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC) asked if school admissions will be based more on a pupil's aptitudes and interests rather than academic grades. Ms Denise Phua (Jalan Besar GRC) said the PSLE revamp is an improvement, but more may have to be done to change the habit of chasing grades.

While calling the changes a good step, education policy expert Jason Tan of the National Institute of Education said there will still be parents bent on getting their children into popular secondary schools.

Said army regular Terry Ng, 38, who has a four-year-old daughter and another in Primary 2: "This perception that the school you go to matters is so ingrained in our society. Look at the number of leaders and scholarship holders from the top schools.

"I don't think the demand for popular schools will change."

Added service manager Spencer Lee, 44, who has a son in Primary 1: "Being a kiasu society, parents will still try to compare grades."

But housewife Dhalia Abdul Rahman, 37, whose sons are in Primary 1 and 4, believes the wider grade bands and the move away from comparing how a pupil does in relation to the rest of the cohort will help cut unnecessary competition and stress. "I hope parents will have less conversations about marks," she said.

A not-so-tidy PSLE system? Maybe, but consider the gains too
By Sandra Davie, Senior Education Correspondent, The Straits Times, 9 Apr 2016

It may kick in only five years from now, but the Ministry of Education has at last decided that the PSLE aggregate score will have to go.

Acting Minister for Education (Schools) Ng Chee Meng revealed yesterday that pupils will be given letter grades and placed in "wider bands" - the way O- and A-level examinations are marked.

And with it, came the acknowledgement that the current system in which a child is marked and ranked relative to peers down to the single point, grades pupils too finely and adds to exam stress.

Along with the scoring system, how primary school leavers are sorted into secondary schools will also have to change. Schools will have to pick from a wider pool of students with the same grades.

Mr Ng did not say how this will be done, just that more details will be announced in two to three months.

Most parents interviewed welcomed the change to the scoring system, saying that it will help reduce the rat race in which more and more tuition is piled onto some pupils in the chase for that final mark.

But there was also a worry over how the new grading system will be used in the secondary school posting exercise.

The concern is that if schools are allowed to pick students from a wider pool of applicants through less tangible measures such as character, community work and how they do in interviews, then it could lead to a more subjective and less transparent admission system.

However, it is unlikely that the ministry will leave it to schools to choose from a wider pool of applicants.

It is more likely to use a computerised balloting system to sort students. It already uses computerised balloting when two or more students with exactly the same grades vie for a place in a secondary school or junior college. It also uses computerised balloting for Primary 1 registration when there are more applicants than places in a school.

There will be those who will rail against a system that depends on simple luck, and those who believe that it is an efficient and far less subjective system. But are we missing out on a good opportunity to inject more diversity into the top secondary schools here?

I am not calling for top schools to lower entry scores or not base their admissions on merit.

Just that with a wider pool of applicants to choose from - all with the same grades, say 4As - schools can choose students from different races and socio-economic backgrounds.

There has been much discussion in recent years on the urgent need to fix the social stratification happening in some elite schools.

As sociologists have warned, students in these schools form exclusive circles and hoard opportunities. They can grow up unable to empathise with those who are different or less fortunate.

Here is an opportunity to give more children access to top schools, and let those schools become more diverse. Yes, we may end up with a not-so-tidy and less transparent system. But we should consider the gains. Our children, and society as a whole, will be better for it.

OBS camp for all Sec 3 students from 2020
Under new masterplan, students will take part in 3 cohort camps during their school years
By Calvin Yang, The Straits Times, 9 Apr 2016

All Secondary 3 students will have to undergo a new, five-day Outward Bound Singapore (OBS) expedition-based camp from 2020 onwards.

This is being introduced as part of a new National Outdoor Adventure Education Masterplan, which provides students here with more opportunities to benefit from outdoor education. Under the masterplan, students will get to participate in three cohort camps during their school years.

"School camps are a way of immersing our students in authentic and often challenging situations, where they need to work in teams and learn to take responsibility for decisions they make," Acting Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng said in Parliament yesterday.

Currently, students participate in at least two such camps - one in upper primary and another in secondary school - where they learn to prepare simple meals, set up shelters and assess risks in the outdoors.

To be held at the OBS campuses in Pualu Ubin and Coney Island, the new Secondary 3 cohort camp, unlike the other two, will bring together students from various schools.

This camp, which will be piloted with some schools next year, will be rolled out across all schools from 2020, when the Coney Island campus is expected to be ready.

The Ministry of Education (MOE) will work with OBS to design the camp programme to ensure it supports the school curriculum.

What do flying fox, lighting a match stick and pitching a tent have in common? They all help our students develop...
Posted by Ng Chee Meng 黄志明 on Saturday, April 9, 2016

Under a physical education syllabus introduced in 2014, 10 to 20 per cent of curriculum time in primary and secondary schools is set aside for outdoor education.

Last year, the facilities at the four MOE Outdoor Adventure Learning Centres, such as the ones at Labrador and Jalan Bahtera, were rejuvenated to cut down waiting time for students to try various stations.

For instance, at the centre in Dairy Farm, a continuous belay system has been put in place to allow up to 30 students to attempt the rope course at any one time. Previously, only eight students could do so.

These centres, which have been used to conduct cohort camps for 60 per cent of primary and secondary schools here, will be further upgraded over the next few years to provide enough places for all upper primary and lower secondary school cohort camps.

Mr Ng stressed that the safety of students "remains paramount even as we enhance and expand outdoor education". A panel has been set up to advise the ministry on the quality and safety of outdoor programmes, both locally and overseas.

Currently, some of the vendors who run such camps for schools rely on freelancers and temporary staff, who may not have the right skills.

The ministry has also put together a group of full-time outdoor adventure educators to conduct cohort camps for schools at the learning centres. These educators would have undergone three months of training and will design and facilitate activities for students..

Former allied educator Melvin Lee, 28, one of the 16 adventure educators selected under this pilot programme, said: "Through camping, students will not only have fun, but will also learn about themselves and their strengths."

18,000 use SkillsFuture Credit in 3 months
By Calvin Yang and Pearl Lee, The Straits Times, 9 Apr 2016

A government programme that gives every Singaporean aged 25 and older $500 credit to pay for skills courses has got off to a "healthy'' start, said Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung yesterday.

He disclosed that more than 18,000 people have tapped it the first three months of this year, using about $5.2 million.

"This is a healthy number - not a mad rush, yet a good response," he said in his parliamentary reply to Mr Baey Yam Keng (Tampines GRC) and Mr Desmond Choo (Tampines GRC).

The SkillsFuture Credit scheme, for Singaporeans to improve themselves, was introduced in January for more than two million people. It is part of the Government's plan to get Singaporeans thinking about lifelong learning.

Mr Ong said it sends an important message that "each of us is in charge of our own pursuit of mastery and learning throughout our lives".

About 51.5 per cent of the people who have used their credits are aged 40 and older, according to the Ministry of Education (MOE).

Mr Ong said the list of courses eligible for SkillsFuture Credit will be expanded. Currently, it has more than 12,500 courses, about 2,500 more than in January. They range from baking to financial literacy.

He also said the MOE and Ministry of Social and Family Development will jointly review the scheme to see how it can help people with disabilities learn skills, said Mr Ong.

The MOE is also ramping up the Earn and Learn Programme, a dual-track approach in which polytechnic and Institute of Technical Education (ITE) students work while they study.

Mr Ong said the ministry will introduce a path this year for ITE graduates on the programme to get a part-time polytechnic diploma. This will apply to those studying air transport.

"With this pathway, ITE graduates... can focus on upgrading their skills to do a better job, without rushing to get a paper qualification for its own sake," he said.

Currently, they will get an industry-recognised certificate like the Singapore Workforce Skills Qualifications when they complete the work-study programme.

MOE said in a statement that new Earn and Learn programmes will be launched this year in areas such as healthcare and maritime, to give polytechnic and ITE graduates more choices.

At the same time, a credit exemption scheme will start for some Earn and Learn graduates of two polytechnics to pursue a degree.

Committee of Supply debate: Ministry of Manpower

Stricter rules for Employment Pass approval
In stick-and-carrot approach, firms which hire foreign professionals for no good reason will have a hard time
By Toh Yong Chuan, Manpower Correspondent, The Straits Times, 9 Apr 2016

The Manpower Ministry is adopting a stick-and-carrot approach in dealing with the issue of hiring foreign professionals.

Employers who persist in hiring them for no good reason and fail to have concrete plans to nurture their Singaporean staff will find it harder to operate and expand in Singapore.

The ministry is going to be more demanding before giving the nod for an Employment Pass (EP).

The criteria for approval will be changed to include such factors as the proportion of foreigners in a company and whether it tried to recruit Singaporeans for the job.

Also, it will examine the extent of the company's contribution to the economy and society.

Those deemed weak in all three areas will face difficulties in renewing the EPs of existing foreigners and getting new ones for fresh hires.

"The curtailment of work pass privilege will have serious consequences on (the companies') continued operation and growth in Singapore," Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say said in his strongest words yet on recurring complaints that foreigners are snatching professional jobs from Singaporeans.

He said: "(It is) not because we are anti-foreigner, but because (such companies') behaviour has added to the deepening of 'local-foreign' divide in our Singapore workforce."

On the other hand, companies that develop their Singaporean workforce will find it easier to bring in foreign experts who will transfer their expertise to local professionals, managers and executives, said Mr Lim. He was speaking during the debate on his ministry's budget in Parliament yesterday.

His ministry considers only the foreigners' background, such as qualifications, experience and salaries, when assessing EP applications.

The importance of preserving a Singaporean core in the workforce was highlighted during the debate by MPs like Mr Patrick Tay (West Coast GRC), Mr Lim Biow Chuan (Mountbatten) and Mr Chong Kee Hiong (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC).

The minister assured them building a strong Singaporean core is one of his ministry's three key priorities.

He also said employment watchdog Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (Tafep) will be given a bigger role to investigate and recommend to the ministry employers who should be put on a black-sheep watch list.

About 100 firms are now on it. Over half of their jobs that pay above $3,300 a month are filled by foreigners, the minister disclosed, without naming the firms or their sectors.

Mr Lim also produced numbers to correct the perception that foreigners outnumber Singaporeans in professional, managerial, executive and technical jobs. About 79 per cent of jobs with a monthly pay of more than $3,300 are held by Singaporeans, he said, revealing the proportion for the first time.

Even in the infocomm and food and beverage sectors, where the proportion of foreigners is higher, it is 37 per cent to 38 per cent, he added.

But he acknowledged there are "pockets" of businesses where foreign professionals outnumber Singaporeans. "This is highly undesirable," he said.

He warned that these employers might already have broken the law by not making "reasonable efforts to provide fair employment opportunities" to Singapore citizens.

The tough move worries Nominated MP Randolph Tan, who asked: "Are we going too far in the opposite direction?"

Mr Lim replied: "I'm very mindful of this and I'll always make sure that the interest of pro-business, pro- worker will always be harmonised and, hopefully, always strike the right balance."

More help for laid-off PMETs to get new jobs
By Joanna Seow, The Straits Times, 9 Apr 2016

Professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) will be given more support in securing new jobs, after making up the bulk of retrenched workers last year.

Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say yesterday announced enhancements to three programmes aimed at helping higher-skilled workers adapt to a more dynamic economy.

From next month, all Singaporean PMETs who lose their jobs and are unemployed for at least six months will be able to make use of the Career Support Programme, which previously only helped long-term unemployed Singaporeans aged 40 and above. It encourages employers to hire eligible job seekers for positions paying at least $4,000 and give them on-the-job training.

Currently, the Government foots 40 per cent of the wage bill for the first six months for those aged 50 and above, and 20 per cent for those aged 40 to 49, capped at $2,800 and $1,400 respectively. This funding is then halved for the next six months.

Older PMETs aged 40 and up will now also be eligible for the programme as soon as they are made redundant. Those who are jobless for at least six months will still qualify.

The new groups get 20 per cent of their wage covered for the first six months and half the funding for the next six.

Since the scheme was introduced last October, around half of the 200 older and long-term unemployed PMETs who participated in it have found new jobs, mostly in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), Mr Lim said during the debate on his ministry's budget.

Redundancies may go up as the pace of industry transformation picks up and Mr Lim said he was concerned that the longer workers are out of work after being made redundant, the harder it will be for them to get back into jobs.

"Our priority is to help them to get back to work quickly. We are unable to promise no pay cut, or guarantee job offers, but what we do promise is our best efforts to help with a variety of options and a diversity of opportunities," he said. "We need them to do their best to help themselves, be prepared to adapt to different jobs - if necessary, in different sectors and even at different pay, so that they can grow again."

To help workers switch jobs within and across sectors, a career conversion programme will be expanded to sectors like pharmaceuticals, logistics and retail.

Finally, under the P-Max programme, more partnerships with trade associations should also help find work for over 1,000 PMETs in SMEs each year, up from 800 who were placed over the first year.

The programme was started last year to help SMEs improve human resource practices and recruit, manage and retain newly hired PMETs.

Mr Lim also assured rank-and-file workers they will not be neglected.

More sectors will have Place and Train programmes, which provide salary support and course fee subsidies for employers, while their workers pick up new skills. Some 1,200 workers were placed last year. New roles will include guest services officers, and communication and network associates.

The Work-Trial attachment programme will also be enhanced, with higher training allowances for Singaporeans at $7.50 per hour capped at 80 hours, up from $4.50 per hour. The retention bonus for workers who stay beyond three months will be raised from $300 to $500.

As for workers with salary-related claims, all workers should be able to use the Employment Claims Tribunal from early next year.

"The tripartite feels strongly about doing what we can to help retrenched employees": A special taskforce and better job matching among re-employment strategies shared by Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say in #Parliament.
Posted by Channel NewsAsia on Friday, April 8, 2016

Still jobless after a year, ex-IT exec open to learning new skills
By Jeremy Koh, The Straits Times, 9 Apr 2016

For about 1 1/2 years, audiovisual and IT executive Lee Shu Yuan would give his parents about $500 each month from his $2,600 salary.

In March last year, he stopped. His work contract with a secondary school was not renewed.

Today, the 30-year-old, who holds a diploma in technology (logistics), is still without a job.

"It's not because I did not look for work." Showing this reporter his JobStreet account, he said he had applied for more than 150 jobs in IT, logistics and other areas.

Fewer than 20 employers interviewed him and none offered him a job. "Most of the employers do not tell you whether you've been rejected, they just keep you waiting," he said.

The closest he came to landing a job was last year, as a senior officer for technology training and support at the Singapore Institute of Management. He did not get past the second round, when he was asked to give a simulated lesson. "It was a crushing blow."

While he prefers to be paid about $2,600 a month, he is prepared to accept $2,300.

He is also prepared to work in other areas in the technology industry like IT project management, or even in another sector.

Meanwhile, he is open to considering the Government's Professional Conversion Programme, which helps job seekers learn new skills for new careers.

The Manpower Ministry said yesterday the programme would be expanded to help PMETs make a career switch in the same industry, but in a different job.

Under the programme, the Government will subsidise the salaries of new employees by up to 90 per cent when they undergo training, capped at $4,000.

In the past month, Mr Lee has had two job interviews. He has also applied to IT products firm Challenger Technologies for a retail associate post.

"I am not giving up hope," he said. "I want to start giving my parents a monthly sum again. I can't let them keep supporting me." His father is a cabby and his mother, a housewife. Both are in their 60s.

Workers can be re-employed till age 67; law letting firms cut pay of 60-year-olds to be scrapped
By Olivia Ho, The Straits Times, 9 Apr 2016

From July 1 next year, workers will get to be re-employed up to the age of 67 years.

The announcement of the date for raising the re-employment age ceiling has been a long-awaited one, and comes 23 years after the Government first made clear that it wanted Singaporeans to be able to work until 67.

From the date, employers will be obliged to offer re-employment to eligible workers up to the age of 67. This is two years older than what is legally required today.

And those who want to be re-employed can also work with a different company if they agree to it.

Separately, a legal provision allowing companies to cut the wage of employees who turn 60 will be removed.

Minister of State for Manpower Sam Tan announced these changes yesterday during the debate on the Manpower Ministry's budget.

He said that until the law is changed, the Government will continue to support companies which voluntarily re-employ workers older than 65. These companies get a subsidy equivalent to 3 per cent of the employee's wages.

Since 2012, employers have been required to offer re-employment to eligible workers when they retire at 62, or give them one-off payments if they cannot be re-hired.

Mr Tan said that in future, older workers can be re-employed by a different company, provided the worker agrees to the transfer and the new employer fully embraces the re-employment obligations.

"We have received feedback that, sometimes, employers are unable to find suitable jobs in their own companies, but can help the worker secure re-employment in a related or subsidiary company," he added.

On the removal of the legal provision to cut employees' wages by up to 10 per cent when they turn 60, Mr Tan said it was "no longer relevant" as more than 98 per cent of companies here do not make such cuts.

The provision was needed in the early days when wages were more closely tied to seniority, to make older workers more attractive to companies, he added.

In recent years, more than 98 per cent of local employees who wanted to keep working beyond the age of 62 got their wish.

Said Mr Tan: "Going forward, pay should be reflective of workers' job scope and value, regardless of age."

During the debate, Ms Jessica Tan (East Coast GRC) noting how "MOM is committed to letting workers work longer and as long as they can and they're willing to", suggested raising or removing the retirement age.

But Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say said that doing so could result in less protection for workers as companies are then free to terminate their employment even earlier.

Labour MP Heng Chee How (Jalan Besar GRC) pointed out that some companies, such as ComfortDelGro, have set retirement ages that are higher than what is legally required.

Mr Heng, who is also Senior Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office, asked if MOM could work with the labour movement to encourage more firms to follow suit.

Mr Lim praised the "progressive" behaviour of such companies and suggested that the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (Tafep) should spearhead these efforts.

Raising the age cap is a relief for production planner
By Olivia Ho, The Straits Times, 9 Apr 2016

For Mr Ho Tzong Ming, 64, the raising of the re-employment age cap from July 1 next year will be an early birthday present.

Mr Ho, a production planner at packaging company TCG Rengo, was born on July 19, 1952 - making him eligible for re-hiring for two more years.

"It is a relief," he tells The Straits Times. "It makes me happy to hear this confirmed."

He has worked at TCG Rengo, where he oversees the production of cardboard packaging, for over 30 years. He hopes to continue doing so for "as long as my body says yes".

He added: "A man must work to be useful. I don't want to be a burden to my children."

He has two sons, one, 27, working in marketing, and the other, 24, still in university.

He is one of 17 re-employed workers at TCG Rengo, which has been investing in equipment such as automatic stacking machines and devices to push paper rolls weighing a tonne or more.

He is now undergoing a two-week training programme to get up to speed with a new software that renders the process of putting in job orders paperless.

"I have no idea what I would do if I had to retire from this job.

"I am Cantonese, and we have this saying - it is better to do what you are familiar with than to do what you are fresh at," he added.

"I would still try to do something - but I wouldn't be happy if it was not my work here."

More checks, stiffer penalties to curb rise in workplace deaths
By Aw Cheng Wei, The Straits Times, 9 Apr 2016

More safety checks will be carried out at workplaces and harsher penalties imposed on errant employers to curb the rising number of on-the-job deaths.

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) will also be stepping up efforts to help small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) improve on workplace safety, and to raise awareness on the dangers of unsafe workplaces.

These measures were announced by Minister of State for Manpower Sam Tan in Parliament yesterday during the debate on MOM's spending plans.

This follows a spate of workplace deaths since the start of the year - 22 people have died so far. In the same period last year, 18 people died.The workplace fatality rate last year, at 1.9 per 100,000 employed persons, was up from 1.8 in 2014.

Expressing concern about these rising numbers, Mr Tan said: "Every fatality is one too many."

He added that the MOM will focus its efforts on work-at-height, traffic, and crane accidents. These have contributed most to the fatality rate.

He promised to increase the number of checks on workplaces, saying that around 16,000 inspections are carried out each year for now. The MOM will also be "taking tougher actions against recalcitrant employers", said Mr Tan, noting that workplace safety "needs to be driven from the top".

He urged companies to incorporate safety measures when they are designing worksites so as to prevent and reduce workplace accidents and deaths.

Programmes to help SMEs build safer workplaces will be launched later this year. "For those who need help to improve, we will assist them," said Mr Tan.

He added that the MOM has planned public education and media publicity programmes to highlight the growing workplace safety problem. It also intends to ramp up training and education for employers and employees. But if things do not improve, he said, the ministry will impose harsher penalties.

Clear shift in Government's stance on education, manpower policies
By Aaron Low, Deputy Business Editor, The Straits Times, 9 Apr 2016

Two key ministries - Education and Manpower - took centre stage in Parliament yesterday and the questions from MPs flew fast and furious.

It is not surprising to see why.

Both deal with issues that directly impact people's lives: from the schools our children attend, to the jobs that sustain our lifestyles.

Both ministries also play a crucial role in the national push to transform Singapore's economy for the future - a major theme of this year's Budget.

By the end of the debate on the plans and policies of these ministries, it was evident that a clear shift has taken place in the Government's stance on education and manpower policies.

Acting Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng used the word "shift" 11 times and the phrase "paradigm shift" five times during his speech, further underlining the significance of the changes to the education system that he and his colleague, Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung, were outlining.

To be sure, they are.

The biggest news was in de-emphasising the aggregate scores at the major Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE). From 2021 onwards, the numerical T-score will be replaced with wider scoring bands similar to those for the O and A levels.

At the same time, students need no longer be inclined to compare individual scores with their peers'. As long as someone shows that he has met a certain standard, he will get the grade.

Both these will take away an aspect of the PSLE system that created much stress for children, and at a young age.

"The way that the T-score is calculated may have also created unhealthy competition among our young children," Mr Ng said.

It is not uncommon to hear of parents putting children through an inordinate number of tuition classes just to boost scores by a handful of marks in a bid to secure a place in what they perceive to be a top school.

A Straits Times and Nexus Link survey last year found eight in 10 parents send their primary school children for private tuition lessons.

Apart from the money that's spent - it is estimated to be a $1 billion industry - the more damaging effect is on the child's mental health and stress levels.

By doing away with the T-score - an obsession for many a kiasu parent - the Education Ministry is signalling that exam scores are really not the determining factors, and is making clear that education is more than just about getting good grades.

But as Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC) and Ms Denise Phua (Jalan Besar GRC) said during the debate, the question is whether such moves will really lead to an education system that is less focused on exams and grades.

The answer from Mr Ng was, yes, if everyone from parents and teachers to employers decide that this is the right direction for the education system to head towards.

I agree. For someone who has two school-going children, the temptation is always there to fall back on old ways and demand that they put in and show me a solid academic performance.

Therein lies the reality.

For any of this to work, it is really the parents who must decide whether a life outside the classroom is more important for their children than spending hours on assessment books and drilling them on maths and spelling.

If they decide to continue to push children to get perfect scores and ignore the long-term damage this could cause, then no amount of policy change - short of scrapping exams altogether - is going to make a difference.

There was also another shift during the debate on the budget for the Manpower Ministry.

And this time, it is likely to make a big difference.

Recognising that the labour market is likely to be under some stress, Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say said that a wage subsidy scheme to help retrenched workers get back into jobs will be expanded beyond just older workers to include all professionals, managers and executives if they have been unemployed for six months or more.

The programme will support up to 20 per cent of these workers' gross salaries, capped at $1,400 for the first six months. This will step down to 10 per cent of gross salary, capped at $700. Workers need to be paid a minimum of $4,000.

This move will help reduce the level of structural unemployment in the economy - always a tricky problem for any policymaker.

But more importantly, the move marks a fundamental shift in the Government's attitude towards the labour market. Previously, such wage subsidies were aimed mostly at helping older workers, who have difficulties getting jobs because of their age and skills. Younger workers have had less trouble picking up a job if they were laid off.

But by spreading the subsidies to a wider group, the Government is sending a strong message that it is prepared to help everyone, young or old, provided they help themselves first.

Committee of Supply debate: Ministry of Trade and Industry

More targeted help to spur manufacturing: Iswaran
Sector-focused strategy needed, and not just enterprise-level response: Iswaran
By Jacqueline Woo, The Straits Times, 8 Apr 2016

More targeted help will be given to ensure that the crucial manufacturing sector is well-positioned for the future, Minister for Trade and Industry (Industry) S. Iswaran told Parliament yesterday.

His remarks came as the Government rolls out measures aimed at specific sectors to help sustain the growth of local industries.

Mr Iswaran said during the debate on the Ministry of Trade and Industry's (MTI) budget that changes in the global economic environment, such as China's in-sourcing of goods and services and new technologies, are affecting various sectors here differently.

"An enterprise-level response, while necessary, is not sufficient, given the nature and scale of these challenges," he said. "We need a broader sector-focused strategy - that systematically harnesses innovation, talent development and partnerships - to sustain the competitiveness and growth of our industries."

Ms Iswaran said the manufacturing sector continues to contribute significantly to Singapore's economy, accounting for nearly 20 per cent of nominal gross domestic product last year. While this was lower than the 21.4 per cent in 2010, the sector's real value-added rose $4.6 billion over the same period.

He added: "Based on MTI's estimates, a $1 billion increase in manufacturing value-added through final demand increase will generate about $300 million of value-added and 2,400 jobs in the rest of the economy."

Mr Iswaran said the Government will also continue to invest in and promote manufacturing technologies such as additive manufacturing and robotics.

More than $450 million will go into the National Robotics Programme, which will include public- private partnerships between research institutions, companies and public agencies.

More infrastructure will be put in place to encourage greater interaction among enterprises, solution providers and researchers that could spark novel ideas and create new products and solutions.

Mr Iswaran pointed to the upcoming 600ha Jurong Innovation District (JID), which can help the manufacturing sector by housing several new growth areas, such as advanced manufacturing, robotics, urban solutions, cleantech and smart logistics.

The JID, which will have access to Nanyang Technological Univer- sity's research and engineering capabilities, can host the entire value chain, including research and development, design, prototyping, production and supply chain management. The JTC LaunchPad@JIDnext year will also support start- ups, incubators and accelerators.

The development planning and engineering work for the first phase of the JID project is already in progress and is slated to be completed around 2022.

To scale up for the next phase of restructuring, Mr Iswaran said the Government will introduce targeted efforts at the enterprise level to help businesses adopt technology and accelerate the pace of transformation for enterprises across industries.

The Automation Support Package, where $400 million will be available for more than 300 automation projects over the next three years, is key to this.

Beyond transforming industries, Mr Iswaran said it is also critical to fuel growth and value creation by generating new ideas, products, services and business models.

One way the Government will do this is to strengthen the start-up ecosystem by helping small firms scale up overseas, form partnerships with larger enterprises and nurture talent.

MTI-COS Highlights: Positioning Singapore for the future and seizing opportunities to achieve sustainable economic growth and create good jobs for Singaporeans. Visit our website:
Posted by Ministry of Trade & Industry on Thursday, April 7, 2016

Singapore firms have many benefits to reap from trade groupings
By Joyce Lim, The Straits Times, 8 Apr 2016

Being part of larger trade groupings like the Asean Economic Community (AEC) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is beneficial to Singapore, Minister for Trade and Industry (Trade) Lim Hng Kiang told Parliament yesterday.

Singapore companies can have better access and opportunities to sell their goods and services across the region without having to pay duties, he said. This regional integration is critical to strengthening Singapore's value proposition as a gateway to South-east Asia.

Several MPs had asked about the benefits of the AEC and TPP for Singaporeans, citing how some of them fear losing their jobs to workers from neighbouring countries with lower wages.

And with United States President Barack Obama describing the TPP as a trade deal "that puts American workers first", Mr Cedric Foo (Pioneer) asked if the TPP was in deed weighted in favour of the US with less benefit to Singapore.

Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) urged the Government to identify how Singaporeans with a passion for enterprise and business can align their career and skills upgrading plans to reap the benefits of these trade agreements.

Mr Lim replied that both the AEC and TPP provide opportunities for Singapore firms to expand overseas, and help create good jobs for Singaporeans.

The rise of the middle class and urbanisation in regional economies could also raise demand for Singapore services. Under the AEC, restrictions have been eased in at least 80 services sectors, allowing majority foreign ownership in many areas in Asean countries.

For example, Singapore firms can now own a 100 per cent stake in Indonesia's engineering design and advisory services, and in Myanmar's engineering and construction services sectors.

"Ongoing negotiations on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) will further complement the AEC by driving deeper regional economic integration," Mr Lim added.

Being part of the TPP and RCEP allows Singapore "to influence the rules of engagement and, where possible, enable us to enhance demand of manufactured goods and services from Singapore", he said. The TPP gives Singapore access to markets "beyond what we already have under bilateral agreements".

Mr Liang Eng Hwa (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) asked whether Mr Lim was hopeful of the TPP being ratified under a new US administration, and if Singapore should bet on the RCEP instead.

"It is quite obvious that when TPP was concluded, there was greater pressure on RCEP participants to get RCEP also concluded," Mr Lim replied. "So if we don't ratify the TPP, I'm very concerned this pressure on RCEP may be lifted and RCEP participants may not feel the same pressure to get it concluded.

"Our trade policy must be inclusionary. We should not be left out because we want access to as many markets as possible," he added.

$2.3b kitty for transformation of local firms
By Janice Heng, The Straits Times, 8 Apr 2016

A total of $2.3 billion will be available for local firms to transform themselves in the next five years.

The amount is part of the fifth tranche of the Enterprise Development Fund and is an increase over the $1.4 billion approved in the previous tranche.

Minister of State for Trade and Industry Koh Poh Koon announced the sum yesterday when he outlined in Parliament how the Government is helping small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) as Singapore restructures its economy. The money will support existing Spring and IE Singapore schemes, such as the Market Readiness Assistance (MRA) and Global Company Partnership (GCP) programmes.

Last year, IE Singapore supported 34,000 companies in their internationalisation efforts and more than 80 per cent of them were SMEs, said Dr Koh.

The MRA helped more than 30,700 companies and the GCP, more than 3,800.

Even as more funds are set aside to help develop local firms, the Government is also sharpening its assistance schemes, said Dr Koh.

The $500 million Infocomm for Productivity and Growth scheme, introduced in Budget 2014 to help SMEs adopt infocomm technology, will be expanded to support costs such as retrofitting and business consultancy.

SMEs will also get help for upgrades even if they had already tapped the scheme earlier. And the support will be given across all branches of a business.

A new industrial hub, the Metals, Machinery and Timber Hub in Kranji, is also being developed by the JTC and will benefit SMEs in these trades, said Dr Koh.

Set to be completed in 2020, the multi-storey hub can accommodate heavy automation machinery and products.

It will also let companies use overhead cranes, for instance, which can reduce their reliance on forklifts.

In stressing that Singapore must press on with its productivity drive, Dr Koh noted that domestically oriented sectors have fared poorly compared with outward- oriented sectors such as finance and insurance.

He said a change in mindsets is needed for the productivity drive to succeed.

Citing a positive example, he said retailers have gone into e-commerce to boost sales and that consumers, too, can help, for instance, by using self-checkout counters in supermarkets.

Trade associations and chambers also play a critical role, he added. They understand their sectors' challenges and their networks help the Government reach more SMEs than would otherwise be possible.

To help prepare the workforce for the new economy, more students will get help to go abroad.

The Young Talent Programme-Market Immersion, which gives students opportunities for overseas internships and work-study programmes, will be extended to Institute of Technical Education colleges later this year, said Parliamentary Secretary for Trade and Industry Low Yen Ling.

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