Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Singapore's good guide to learning

What is it about Singapore's school system that it aces world rankings and yet is always striving to do better? The Economist homes in on its key features and the lessons it can offer to others.
The Sunday Times, 16 Sep 2018

When Singapore became an independent country in 1965, it had few friends and even fewer natural resources. How did it become one of the world's great trading and financial centres? The strategy, explained Mr Lee Kuan Yew, its first prime minister, was "to develop Singapore's only available natural resource: its people".

Today, Singapore's education system is considered the best in the world. It consistently ranks at the top of the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a triennial test of 15-year-olds in the main three categories of mathematics, reading and science.

Singaporeans are roughly three years ahead of their American peers in maths. Singapore does similarly well in exams of younger children, and the graduates of its best schools can be found scattered around the world's finest universities.

The island-state has much to teach the world. But other countries are reluctant pupils. One reason is that Singapore favours traditional pedagogy, with teachers leading the class. That contrasts with many reformers' preference for looser, more "progressive" teaching intended to encourage children to learn for themselves.

Although international studies suggest that direct instruction is indeed a good way of conveying knowledge, critics contend that Singapore has a "drill and kill" model that produces uncreative, miserable maths whizzes. Parents worry about the stress the system puts on their children (and on them, even as they ferry kids to extra classes).

Yet Singapore shows that academic brilliance need not come at the expense of personal skills. In 2015, Singaporean students also came first in a new PISA ranking designed to look at collaborative problem-solving, scoring even better than they did in reading and science. They also reported themselves to be happy - more so than children in Finland, for instance, a country that educationalists regard as an example of how to achieve exceptional results with cuddlier methods of teaching.


Not content with its achievements, Singapore is introducing reforms to improve creativity and reduce stress. This is not a sign of failure, but rather of a gradual, evidence-led approach to education reform - the first of three lessons Singapore offers the rest of the world.

Where other countries often enact piecemeal and uncoordinated reforms, Singapore tries to look at the system as a whole. It invests heavily in education research. All reforms are tested, with the outcomes diligently monitored, before being rolled out. Close attention is paid to how new ideas and results should be applied in schools.

Carefully developed textbooks, worksheets and worked examples - practices often seen as outdated in the West - are used to inject expertise into the classroom. The result is good alignment between assessments, accountability and teaching styles.

Monday, 17 September 2018

Stuck with a smoking neighbour: When neighbours' amity goes up in smoke

MPs say more can be done to help residents enduring smoke from neighbouring flats
By Hariz Baharudin, The Sunday Times, 16 Sep 2018

IT supervisor Azfar keeps a can of scented insecticide in his flat, but it is not for cockroaches or mosquitoes. It is for another kind of pest.

Whenever pesky cigarette smoke from a neighbouring unit wafts into his living room, he will go to the window and start spraying in the culprit's direction.

"That is how I send a message that their smoking is inconsiderate," said the 37-year-old who, perhaps unsurprisingly, declined to give his full name for this report. "If they can blow smoke into my house, then they would not mind some nice-smelling insecticide."

The windows in the living room of his five-room HDB flat in the northern part of Singapore are usually kept closed, even though he, his wife and their four-year-old son spend most of their time there when they are at home.

"Upstairs, left, right, all around me, there are smokers," said Mr Azfar, who lives on the fourth floor. "My wife is asthmatic and the smoke makes her and my son sick."

He stops short of confronting his neighbours because he does not want to risk offending them. "What if they pick a fight and make life difficult for my family?"

He is one of many who want the authorities to do something.

Last Monday in Parliament, several MPs urged the Government to take action against smokers whose second-hand smoke affects their neighbours.

They were speaking during the debate on amendments to the Smoking (Prohibition in Certain Places) Act, which empowers National Environment Agency (NEA) officers to enter places where smoking is prohibited without warrants to investigate violations. On banning smoking at home, Senior Minister of State for Health Amy Khor said: "Such an intrusive regulatory approach to tackling neighbourly issues could ultimately be even more detrimental to community harmony."

Following the debate, several people wrote to The Straits Times' Forum page to lament about their neighbours' cigarette smoke.

Video producer Alice Chong, 26, lives on the fourth floor of a condominium in Bukit Timah where smoking is banned in common areas, but not in residential units.

The smoke from her neighbour's unit on the floor below sometimes wafts into her home, forcing her to close her unit's windows. She said: "I don't want to confront them so I just close my windows, but I do wish they would not blow the smoke out of their windows."

Under current laws, smoking is banned in most indoor locations, including entertainment outlets. Smokers also cannot take a puff in the common area of any residential premises or building, including common corridors and void decks.

They can only light up at designated smoking areas and approved smoking rooms or corners, and certain open areas such as beaches, uncovered walkways and on the top deck of multi-storey carpark buildings. They can also smoke at home.

MPs say they get many complaints from residents about second-hand smoke wafting into their homes. Nee Soon GRC MP Louis Ng, who had spoken in Parliament on this, said such complaints are a "weekly occurrence".

While he is not calling for a total ban on smoking at home, he does hope that more can be done.

"It is ironic that people who smoke do so at the window or balcony because they do not want the smoke to get into their own homes, but in doing so, it goes into the homes of others," he said.

Walk2Ride: LTA completes 200km worth of sheltered walkways under $300 million initiative

New covered walkways to hit 200km mark
Last 150m stretch of added pathways under Walk2Ride scheme to be completed on Wednesday, Sept 19
By Rachel Au-Yong, Housing Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 16 Sep 2018

An ambitious programme to provide more covered walkways here will achieve a major milestone on Wednesday with the completion of 200km worth of new paths.

These pathways, which cost $300 million to build, are more than four times the 46km worth of walkways built before the launch of the Walk2Ride programme in 2013.

The last 150m stretch of the 200km of added walkways will be completed outside Tekka Centre in Little India on Wednesday. A ceremony to be attended by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will be held to mark the occasion.



In a Facebook post yesterday, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan said: "We know that safe, comfortable walkways are necessary to get Singaporeans to #WalkCycleRide and make Singapore car-lite. And in our tropical weather, they have to be sheltered too."


Launched in 2013, Walk2Ride sought to link commuters from MRT stations to residences and amenities such as schools and healthcare facilities within a 400m radius, as well as to bus interchanges, LRT stations and some bus stops within a 200m radius.

Before this, sheltered walkways were provided from transport nodes to schools and healthcare facilities only within a 200m radius. They were also provided within residential estates by town councils.

The Land Transport Authority (LTA) said it will continue to add to the network of sheltered walkways.


To minimise inconvenience to residents, as well as ensure the durability of the walkways, the LTA had prefabricated all materials off-site to speed up the installation process.

The walkways were also standardised to allow modifications later. They were made with galvanised steel and aluminium, which the LTA said are more durable and cheaper to maintain.

In addition, the walkways are supported on one post - as opposed to two - to maximise the space for commuters.

For Fajar Secondary School vice-principal Guinieve Yeo, the sheltered walkways put up at the start of the year near the school in Bukit Panjang have had a noticeable impact on her students: fewer are late now. "Even when it's rainy, they can come to school on time," she said. "They don't have to wait out a storm at an HDB void deck or MRT station."

In addition to connected walkways in the neighbourhood, the LTA "filled in" a 6m-gap between an existing walkway and the school's.

Another beneficiary is full-time national serviceman Ferdinand Ezekial Francis, 21, who can now make his way to South View LRT station from his Bukit Panjang Housing Board flat come rain or shine.

"I don't carry an umbrella, so the walkway has been good."



Asked about the Walk2Ride programme, Nee Soon GRC MP Lee Bee Wah, who had in March last year raised in Parliament the case of a walkway ending 10m short of Khatib MRT station, said: "All gao dim (taken care of) already."

But she hoped the authorities can move on to a second phase of the programme.

"If we want to encourage residents to walk more, the Government can consider a Walk2Ride extension beyond the 400m radius to even 1km, for some areas."

Singapore one of first countries I will visit as Prime Minister: Anwar Ibrahim at Singapore Summit 2018

Singapore-Malaysia ties have been historically strong but need constant care, he says
By Lim Ai Leen, Assistant Foreign Editor, The Sunday Times, 16 Sep 2018

Malaysian politician Anwar Ibrahim said yesterday that Singapore will be one of the first countries he visits when he becomes prime minister, stressing that the two countries need to forge strong bonds.

The de facto leader of the ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition was asked to comment on bilateral relations between the neighbouring nations at a conference here.

"Singapore-Malaysia relations... Ada problem ke? (Is there a problem?)," he remarked, drawing laughter from hundreds of business and thought leaders at the Singapore Summit 2018.

Datuk Seri Anwar, who was released from prison in May after receiving a royal pardon, is set to succeed Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in two years, as agreed by the PH leadership before May's general election.



Last week, Mr Anwar's Parti Keadilan Rakyat announced he would contest a by-election in Port Dickson, paving the way for him to return to Parliament. "If and when I assume the premiership, then I will make sure that one of the first countries I visit will be Singapore," he declared at the dialogue yesterday.

Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong posted a photo on Facebook of his meeting with Mr Anwar yesterday. "Glad he is spending some time with our academic institutions, meeting Singaporeans, building bridges, and strengthening ties between our countries," said PM Lee. He also wished Mr Anwar well for the upcoming by-election.



In the four months since PH's historic win at the ballot box, Malaysia has deferred the Singapore-Kuala Lumpur High-Speed Rail project and raised the prickly issue of how much it charges to supply water to Singapore, indicating the price should be raised tenfold.

Mr Anwar noted yesterday that it was not sensible to create problems between the two countries.

He said that while Tun Dr Mahathir was firm on some of these contracts, "it was confined to that particular problem and we try to resolve it on a bilateral basis, proceed with negotiations..."

In his first public appearance in Singapore since his release from jail, the seasoned statesman played to the crowd with his trademark mix of fiery rhetoric, literary quotes and jokey asides. He even apologised for stumbling over some words in his speech, explaining: "In prison, I only spoke Malay."



He recalled that on one of his visits to Singapore - before he was sacked as deputy prime minister by Dr Mahathir in 1998 - he told Singapore's Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, who was then prime minister, that Singaporean leaders were too serious.

"You know, Singapore and Singapore leaders are too serious and business-like. We (Malaysians) tend to, you know, cultural sikit (a little)... relax sikit, give and take sikit. Singapore - (it's) dollars and cents," he said.

A month later, he said Mr Goh invited him to a performance by renowned tenor Luciano Pavarotti.

"He took my words seriously," Mr Anwar exclaimed as Mr Goh, who was in the audience, laughed.

Mr Anwar also stressed that relations between Singapore and Malaysia have been historically strong but need constant care.

He singled out, as an example, PM Lee's visit to Putrajaya soon after PH won the election. "It was very cordial and it was a very (good) gesture for the PM to be the first to come and visit. I think these signals are important because this goes beyond just diplomatic encounters or business deals."

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Singapore must take a long-term perspective to survive in a changing world: Ong Ye Kung at Singapore Summit 2018

Long-term decisions key to Singapore's survival: Education Minister Ong Ye Kung
He lists 4 areas in which Govt is making them, including bringing about new era in education
By Seow Bei Yi, The Straits Times, 15 Sep 2018

Even as politics elsewhere becomes more short-term and populist, Singapore will have to remain committed to taking long-term decisions if it is to survive as a small state, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said yesterday.

He set out four areas in which it is doing so: Continuing to develop the country's infrastructure, finding new economic engines such as venturing out of Singapore, supporting the ageing population, and bringing about a "new era" in education that emphasises applied learning and cultivating creativity.

Speaking at the opening of the Singapore Summit, he said the business forum is taking place in "tumultuous times". "The tone is quite clear: The world is going to be fundamentally different - we need to understand and, more importantly, need to be able to respond to these trends," he said in his address to about 400 global business and thought leaders attending the two-day meeting.

In the coming decades, competition is less likely to be between countries, but more likely between cities, and Singapore needs to step up to remain at the forefront.

Singapore is doubling its airport and seaport capacities, and developing three business districts outside the Central Business District to better spread activities across the island - Woodlands in the north, Punggol in the north-east and Jurong in the west.

The Government has committed to upgrade homes every 30 years at highly subsidised rates, he said. When flats are around 70 years old, the Government will offer residents an option to buy their units and redevelop the entire estate.

"Housing is a core compact between the people and the Government," he said. "We will not allow an entire residential town to become old and rundown."

To grow the economy, Singapore needs to go beyond foreign direct investment, which has been a major part of Singapore's growth model.

"For our next phase of economic development, we must embrace innovation, develop new products and services, and nurture Singapore-based companies to venture out to the region, bring those products and services to the world and the region, and tap into the vast markets around us," said Mr Ong.

"So, from making things to creating things... this is a major shift in economic strategy," he said.

Mr Ong also said Singapore - which has free trade pacts with ASEAN, the United States, China and others - is investing in research and development as a priority. Other aspects of its value proposition include offering a conducive living environment and a well-regulated yet enterprise-friendly environment.

To tackle the challenge of an ageing population, the Government is introducing policies such as raising the retirement age and new legislation on re-employment to help people work longer if they wish.

Still, Singapore must ensure fiscal sustainability. To fund the expected rise in healthcare costs, the goods and services tax will be hiked from 7 per cent to 9 per cent after 2020.

Finally, Singapore is making changes to its education system.

With technological advancements and industry disruptions, learning is now a lifelong process, he said. Increasingly, it is "human skills", including soft skills, that carry a premium, he added.

In a panel discussion after his speech, Mr Ong discussed the role of fourth-generation leaders, of which he is one, in helping today's youth.

With the younger generation being more entrepreneurial, he hopes Singapore can be a "living laboratory" as well to test ideas that can also be implemented in other cities.

Boys' Town still a place where lives are transformed

New exec director says its work has grown to include outreach but its key motto remains
By Cara Wong, The Straits Times, 15 Sep 2018

Walking through the Boys' Town home's dining hall, Dr Roland Yeow commands respect from the home's residents as the charity's new executive director.

But to Dr Yeow, it does not seem so long ago that he was getting into trouble in the same dining hall - as a resident.

"It was some time during lunchtime," said Dr Yeow, 41, who stayed at the home from 1992 to 1994. "There were about 80 of us in the dining hall and someone shouted out that there was going to be a fight, so we all rushed down, wanting to support the fighters."

The group ended up in detention for trying to fuel a brawl.

"Boys' Town was a mini world on its own," he laughed.

Things have changed a lot since then, for both Dr Yeow and for Boys' Town, which is celebrating its 70th anniversary with an Open House today (Sept 15) at its premises in Upper Bukit Timah Road.

Dr Yeow entered the home as an aimless, unmotivated child after being placed there by his parents when he dropped out of school.

Through the home's structured environment and leadership programmes, and with the help of the home's staff, Dr Yeow said, Boys' Town turned his life around and helped him to find a purpose in life.

He now hopes to help the next generation of beneficiaries to transform their lives too.

"The key is realising you have the potential to do better," said Dr Yeow, who assumed his new position on Sept 1. "We can't undo their past - I can't even guarantee that what we're doing now will make a difference - but we're committed to help the children and youth of today become better adults and parents tomorrow."

The Boys' Town of today has also expanded beyond the residential service it was in Dr Yeow's day.

The charity has started offering more programmes for troubled young people and their families.

They include an outreach programme for youth at risk, fostering services and a programme to prepare families and children to be reunited.

These programmes have helped to redirect children and youths away from its residential services, said Dr Yeow.

Today, only about 40 to 50 boys reside in its premises at any given time, compared with about 100 when Dr Yeow was a resident.

He puts this down to the growth in other programmes available to young people in need of help, and to a smaller population of young people.

The charity has also widened its focus to help more children who suffer from trauma, abuse or neglect.

In the past, it focused more on teenagers who had dropped out of school, were delinquents or came from underprivileged backgrounds.

But even though the charity has expanded its purpose, its key motto remains very much relevant in its new work - it is still a place for the transformation of children and young people.

"Without Boys' Town as an institution for character transformation, where would I be?" said Dr Yeow. "I hope I can help the staff to continue to create this space for transformation."

Friday, 14 September 2018

NETS appointed to run unified e-payment system at hawker centres, canteens and coffee shops; Singapore launches SGQR, world's first unified nationwide QR code

By Irene Tham, Senior Tech Correspondent, The Straits Times, 13 Sep 2018

Singapore took its most significant step in its cashless drive by appointing NETS yesterday to bring e-payments to all 12,000 stalls at hawker centres, canteens and coffee shops with a single, unified system.

As the country's first "master acquirer", e-payment firm NETS will supply hawkers with hardware that can accept e-payments from 20 sources for a start, including e-wallets like Singtel Dash and GrabPay, transport cards ez-link and NETS FlashPay, and credit cards such as Visa and Mastercard. NETS will settle accounts with the hawkers, which means they no longer need to put up with the hassle of dealing with different e-payment firms.

The all-in-one e-payment terminals, which can read contactless and chip-based cards, and process QR code payments, will also be rented to hawkers for no charge for the first three years after they sign up with NETS. Transaction fees of 0.5 per cent will be borne by the Government during the period. Stalls have until August 2020 to apply for the fee waivers.

NETS said that it has not decided what the charges would be after the three years.

By addressing most of the obstacles cited by hawkers, including high transaction fees and having to deal with different firms to receive payments, the Government hopes to convince more hawkers to take the cashless leap. In Singapore, about 40 per cent of dining occasions take place at coffee shops, hawker centres and canteens.

NETS' appointment comes after Enterprise Singapore, the National Environment Agency and the Housing Board jointly called for bids from the industry in May.

Mr Ted Tan, deputy chief executive officer of Enterprise Singapore, said in a statement yesterday: "The Government is enhancing the dining experience by providing customers with a unified e-payment solution where transactions can be made easily, quickly and securely."

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

Who is legally responsible if patient overdoses due to wrongly labelled medicine?

I refer to the report on mislabelled medicine (800 patients given mislabelled drug dosages, double the earlier estimate; Sept 6).

According to the report, labelling mistakes occurred on Sept 1.

When a doctor complained about the glitch, the system operator told him it was his clinic's fault for not checking.

Integrated Health Information Systems (IHiS), the government IT company that runs GPConnect, eventually admitted the error and informed most of the affected clinics by Sept 2. By then, more than 800 patients were affected.

IHiS is the company that will eventually run the National Electronic Health Records (NEHR) system, when it is enacted into law.

IHiS should take this mistake seriously and make adjustments for the future.

First, prompt action can only be taken if IHiS takes all feedback and complaints from clinics seriously.

Dismissing a complaint from a clinic will lead to the propagation of an error.

Second, rather than waiting for clinics to point out errors, IHiS should do regular audits on their programs to discover unknown bugs.

Third, the Ministry of Health (MOH) ought to spell out the legal responsibilities of all parties involved in the NEHR.

If a patient overdoses on medication due to a software error like this, the patient could take legal action against the clinic for negligence.

Will IHiS or MOH shoulder part of the blame if the primary error occurs due to IHiS?

Also, if affected clinics have to call all their patients and inform them of errors, will IHiS provide resources like manpower to help with the process?

Last, no clinic management system, including NEHR, is flawless.

Clinic staff, medical doctors, pharmacists and patients should all be vigilant about potential mistakes.

Important documents like prescriptions, medical certificates and medicine labels should be manually checked too.

Desmond Wai (Dr)
ST Forum, 11 Sep 2018