Saturday, 23 March 2019

Every school must promote tolerance, openness: PM Lee Hsien Loong at Hwa Chong Institution’s 100th Anniversary Dinner

Maintaining multicultural exchanges essential for promoting societal cohesion, integration: PM Lee
He highlights Hwa Chong Institution's efforts to expose its students to different cultures
By Rachel Au-Yong, The Straits Times, 22 Mar 2019

Hwa Chong Institution may be steeped in Chinese history and language, but the school has taken steps to ensure its students are exposed to different cultures, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

He underlined the importance of having multicultural exchanges in a speech last evening to some 12,000 alumni, staff and students at the school's 100th anniversary gala dinner, held at its campus in Bukit Timah.

"Maintaining such multicultural exchanges is critical to promoting cohesion and integration in our society," PM Lee said in Mandarin.

Hwa Chong, a Special Assistance Plan (SAP) school, has few non-Chinese students. The school has, however, striven to give students the opportunity to mix with peers of different races and backgrounds through various activities, he noted.

For instance, the school partners ITE College West to organise a joint overseas community involvement programme trip, during which students from both schools work and live together.

Besides Hwa Chong, every school should promote the spirit of openness and tolerance because it helps preserve the foundation of Singapore's multiracial and multicultural society, PM Lee added.

"At the same time, we should also strengthen the teaching of mother tongues, enrich the heritage of our society, and further consolidate our country's multiracial, multicultural national identity."

Speaking in both Mandarin and English, he traced Hwa Chong's history, and said it is very much intertwined with Singapore's.

The school, which started with around 70 students in a small building in Niven Road in the Selegie area, has witnessed and participated in many pivotal events, he said, from World War II to the fight for independence from the British in the 1950s and separation from Malaysia in 1965.

For instance, many Chinese students - including those from Hwa Chong - joined anti-colonial protests after World War II.

On the one hand, they were inspired by a movement happening in the world, he noted. On the other, some felt they had been treated unfairly under the colonial system, and wished to rise up against it.

"In the turbulent 1950s and 1960s, Hwa Chong provided the back-drop for anti-colonial and anti-government struggles, and many students were affected by left-leaning thinking," PM Lee said. "It was a time of turbulence."

Enrolment in Chinese-language schools dwindled in the 1970s, as English schools grew in popularity. Nine SAP schools were thus introduced in 1979 to preserve the traditional Chinese school cultural environment.

Hwa Chong was one of the nine. Today, the school is recognised for its high academic performance and bilingual alumni, PM Lee said.

He added that the school has to make a concerted effort on three fronts to continue thriving as an educational institution.

First, it must uphold high academic achievements, even as it continues to emphasise all-rounded education and the cultivation of character and values.

Second, it has a "special responsibility" as a SAP school to promote Chinese traditional culture, values and heritage, and to help students to master their mother tongue.

"This was the reason Mr Lee Kuan Yew introduced SAP schools in 1979. He wanted to revive the spirit of the old Chinese middle schools," he said, adding these schools had "emphasised character development, seriousness of purpose and the spirit of community".

Third, Hwa Chong students must "understand the context of our society, and their own responsibilities within it", PM Lee said. "You must know how Singapore society works, identify with fellow Singaporeans of all races and religions and feel a responsibility for your fellow citizens.

"You need to feel a calling to participate in community and national affairs, to contribute to the society and system that has nurtured you, and to take on leadership roles to help take Singapore forward."

Concluding in Mandarin, PM Lee noted that Hwa Chong is celebrating its 100th anniversary and Singapore, its bicentennial.

The road ahead is full of trials and tribulations, he said.

But citing the school's motto for continuous improvement, he said the country will continue to flourish if it adopts that same approach.

Sunday, 17 March 2019

New Zealand terror attack: Societies must acknowledge rising Islamophobia, tackle right-wing hate ideology, says Shanmugam

Dealing with specific incidents not enough - you got to deal with the ideology, he says
By Charmaine Ng, The Sunday Times, 17 Mar 2019

Societies need to acknowledge that Islamophobia is increasing around the world and come down hard on these people, Singapore's Minister for Law and Home Affairs K. Shanmugam said yesterday.

Speaking to local media a day after the terrorist attacks in New Zealand mosques that left 49 people dead, Mr Shanmugam said: "When you see the face of the person who was alleged to have committed the crime, I think you see the face of evil."

He added that while people with right-wing hate ideology have carried out terror attacks for many years, the issue has not received "as much attention" as those said to be carried out on behalf of Islam.

Beyond having leaders speaking publicly to condemn the attacks and stepping up security, societies have to "face squarely the reality that Islamophobia is rising", said Mr Shanmugam, who was speaking on the sidelines of a grassroots event.

"Just as we come down hard on terrorists who say that they attack on behalf of Islam, you got to come down equally hard on Islamophobic people and also you got to deal with the ideology - it's not just dealing with specific incidents," he added.

"For that you got to start by acknowledging that it is there. When you do not acknowledge it, the problem just grows."

Societies need to figure out the boundaries between free speech and hate speech - a line which, in many places, is often blurred.

"We try and draw a line and a fairly strict line, whether it is in the form of entertainment or it is preaching... anything that interferes or attacks other peoples' religions, race," he noted.

Highlighting Queensland Senator Fraser Anning, Mr Shanmugam said of the controversial comments made by the far-right independent politician: "Attacking Islam, attacking the Prophet, saying that it is a savage religion. If he had been in Singapore, this would never have been allowed."

It was important for Singaporeans to understand that if people are allowed to attack other religions or races, over time this would spread as hate speech which results in a "culture of permissiveness", Mr Shanmugam added.

And that creates "a greater divide" and "a more permissive environment for violence... so we have to face up to these questions," he said.

When asked if security at religious sites will be stepped up in the light of the Christchurch attacks, Mr Shanmugam said that while Singapore remains on high alert, it has strict laws on gun control as well as on hate speech.

He also urged Singaporeans who have come across the video of the New Zealand shooting to not circulate it and delete the footage.

"Please delete it. And don't spread it. Because we are giving the gunman and the right-wing ideologists exactly what they want by spreading it," he said.

Saturday, 9 March 2019

Universal Basic Income: Why should Government give handouts to everyone?

Policies involving the application of universal basic income are instituted with a broad brush (It's time to talk about a universal basic income, March 6).

Yes, they are simple to administer, will help those displaced by disruptive technology and may even enable creative endeavours not otherwise possible.

But why give an unqualified windfall to all and sundry, regardless of need, circumstances or motivation to strive for a better life?

Indubitably, the less fortunate, deprived, sick, handicapped and lower-salaried workers must be given a helping hand by the state.

But such financial aid must be targeted to be meaningful and work effectively.

With a good social welfare infrastructure under the umbrella of the National Council of Social Service, its complex administration in our small and smart nation is manageable, unlike with sprawled out populations in large countries, where those who need the most help may find it inaccessible.

We can't possibly continually give handouts to the able-bodied displaced by disruptive technology as this indicates the unremitting theme of things to come.

But retraining those eager to start afresh, of which schemes are aplenty here, and teaching them to fish again, will give them an occupation to provide food for a lifetime.

Yik Keng Yeong (Dr)
ST Forum, 8 Mar 2019

Older HDB rental blocks to get better ventilation, natural lighting

By Shabana Begum, The Straits Times, 8 Mar 2019

In the 1980s and 1990s, housewife Leong Lye Chan, 57, would squint hard while walking along the dark and gloomy corridors of the HDB block where she rents a flat.

She would perspire as she waited in the muggy corridors for her son after school.

In 2004, both ventilation and lighting at Madam Leong's Block 217 in Ang Mo Kio Avenue 1 improved significantly following changes made by the HDB.

Another rental block that was improved under the pilot programme was Block 1 in Holland Close.

Following the pilot, HDB will do the same at other older rental blocks built in the 1960s and 1970s in areas such as Bukit Merah, Kallang and Bedok.

These places house most of the older rental blocks, and the refurbishment will start in 2020.

Despite the tenants' positive feedback about the 2004 pilot, the works were not extended to other blocks in view of the rental demand and supply situation at the time, said an HDB spokesman.

A rental block typically has one-or two-room flats along both sides of the central corridor. Save for sunlight and wind sneaking into the corridor through open spaces at the lift and staircase landings, the rest of the corridor is mostly unlit.

To improve ventilation, HDB will create more openings along the corridors by removing some flats on each floor of the rental blocks, Senior Parliamentary Secretary for National Development Sun Xueling said yesterday.

The tenants living in the affected units will be moved to similar units in the same building or nearby rental blocks. "HDB will work closely with local organisations and the relevant agencies to ensure a smooth transition," she added.

Nationwide, HDB manages about 230 rental blocks, but lighting and ventilation improvements will be for blocks built in the 1960s and 1970s that have long corridors with flats on both sides, she said.

"We are looking to start preparation for the improvement works later this year," she added.

For Madam Leong's block, two columns of one-room flats were removed near both ends of the wide 10-storey block. Before the pilot, only the centre of the building had openings for air and light to enter.

Now, each floor is lined with 24 units, with two 5m-wide open spaces near the ends to facilitate cross-ventilation.

CHAS subsidies for all Singaporeans with chronic illnesses from November 2019

New green CHAS card from November for all Singaporeans with chronic health conditions
By Rei Kurohi, The Straits Times, 7 Mar 2019

From Nov 1, all Singaporeans suffering from diabetes, hypertension or other chronic illnesses can tap the Community Health Assist Scheme (CHAS) for subsidies, and those who already qualify for it will receive bigger subsidies.

The introduction of the new CHAS Green tier is for households with a monthly per capita income of more than $1,800 or a home with an annual value of more than $21,000.

Its holder can get up to $112 in yearly subsidies for a simple chronic condition, or up to $160 for a complex condition - meaning someone with multiple chronic conditions or one with complications.

Details of the new health assistance programme were announced by Senior Minister of State for Health Edwin Tong in Parliament yesterday during the debate on his ministry's budget.

The CHAS Green tier is in addition to the existing CHAS Orange and CHAS Blue, which subsidise treatment for common illnesses, chronic health problems and selected dental issues for lower-to middle-income Singaporean households.

Last year, about 630,000 patients benefited from CHAS subsidies, Mr Tong said.

Singaporeans who were aged 16 and older in 1965, referred to as the Pioneer Generation, enjoy CHAS benefits regardless of income.

From Nov 1, members of the Merdeka Generation, who were born in the 1950s and are in their 60s now, will also qualify for CHAS benefits regardless of income.

Annual subsidies for the Merdeka Generation will be capped at $340 for simple conditions and $520 for complex conditions.

For common illnesses, the subsidy will be capped at $23.50 per visit. For dental services, the Merdeka Generation will get between $16 and $261.50 per procedure, depending on what it is.

This is higher than the CHAS Blue tier for households in the lowest income bracket with a per capita monthly household income of $1,100 or less, but not as high as what the Pioneer Generation receives.

Subsidies for current CHAS Orange and CHAS Blue cardholders will also be raised by $20 a year, from $300 to $320 a year for CHAS Orange and from $480 to $500 a year for CHAS Blue.

CHAS Orange cardholders can get a subsidy of up to $10 per visit for common illnesses from Nov 1. Currently, they do not get any subsidies for common illnesses.

"Collectively, we expect to pay out more than $200 million a year on CHAS subsidies," Mr Tong said.

He added that the Health Ministry is working on simplifying the CHAS application process to encourage more Singaporeans to sign up.

Online applications will be available from September this year.

Needy Singaporeans to get more financial aid with increase in ComCare Assistance from July 2019

By Theresa Tan, Senior Social Affairs Correspondent, The Straits Times, 6 Mar 2019

Needy Singaporeans will get more financial aid each month from the Government.

From July 1, a single person on the ComCare Long-Term Assistance scheme will get $600 a month, up from $500. Two-person households will get $1,000 a month, up from $870 now.

The scheme, also known as Public Assistance, provides a cash sum each month to destitute persons who cannot work permanently as a result of old age or illness, and have little or no family support.

Most are elderly Singaporeans, and recipients also get other help, such as with their medical bills. The increase in Long-Term Assistance quantums will benefit some 4,000 households.

Recipients of Long-Term Assistance will get help as long as they remain eligible for the scheme.

New beneficiaries of the ComCare Short-to-Medium-Term Assistance (SMTA) and those who have their SMTA aid renewed after July 1 can also expect more money.

Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee said in Parliament yesterday: "We also provide ComCare Short-to-Medium-Term Assistance to help families tide over difficult times and regain stability. For example, those whose breadwinners are temporarily unable to work, looking for jobs or earning a low income may receive temporary support.

"We have similarly reviewed ComCare SMTA to keep pace with living expenses and changes in expenditure patterns."

Mr Lee said the amounts given to SMTA recipients vary, depending on their needs and financial circumstances.

The Ministry of Social and Family Development's (MSF) spokesman gave an example of a family of two living in a one-room HDB rental flat with one person earning $500 from working part-time, and the family getting about $360 a month from the SMTA to supplement their income.

The household can expect an increase of about $200 in aid from July.

The length of monetary aid given also varies from case to case, but in a parliamentary reply last month, the MSF said a median sum of about $400 was given to families on the SMTA each month, and the median length of help received was about six months. From 2015 to 2017, between 14,000 and 16,000 households received the SMTA at any point in time.

Mr Lee announced the increases in ComCare quantums in response to questions from Dr Lily Neo (Jalan Besar GRC) and Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC), who asked about the efforts to strengthen the aid given to vulnerable families.

Mr Lee said that in the past decade, the MSF has reviewed and adjusted the ComCare rates every two to three years. The last review was in 2016.

Friday, 8 March 2019

Free cervical cancer vaccine for Secondary 1 female students from April 2019

Offer will be progressively extended to all girls currently studying in secondary schools
By Salma Khalik, Senior Health Correspondent, The Straits Times, 7 Mar 2019

All Secondary 1 girls in national schools, including madrasahs, will be offered free vaccination from next month to protect them against cervical cancer.

About 200 women get the cancer each year and 70 die from it, said Senior Minister of State for Health Amy Khor yesterday.

She added: "This cancer, which is caused by infection with the human papilloma virus (HPV), can be prevented with vaccination and screening."

The vaccine protects women against common HPV strains, which primarily cause cervical cancer, but can also cause vulva, vaginal and anal cancers.

As a one-time catch-up, the offer will be progressively extended to all girls currently studying in secondary schools. Those of similar age studying in private education institutes will also be offered free vaccination, if they are Singapore residents.

This is an opt-in scheme.

The Government has put aside $10 million for this year, and $2.5 million annually from next year.

Singapore has picked the second oldest of three HPV vaccines on the market, Cervarix, which protects against HPV strains 16 and 18, which account for 70 per cent of cervical cancers.

Wednesday, 6 March 2019

Streaming into Normal and Express in secondary schools to stop in 2024; to be replaced by full subject-based banding

Subject-Based Banding (SBB) to replace streaming in schools
Students can take up subjects at higher or lower levels, and graduate with common cert
By Sandra Davie, Senior Education Correspondent, The Straits Times, 6 Mar 2019

Forty years after streaming was introduced in secondary schools, the Ministry of Education has taken the momentous step to do away with the Normal (Technical), Normal (Academic) and Express streams.

In their place will be full subject-based banding, in which students take subjects, at a higher or lower level, based on their strengths.

The ministry will start full subject-based banding in about 25 schools next year, and apply it to all secondary schools by 2024.

All Secondary 1 students in the 2024 batch will take subjects at three levels - G1, G2 or G3, with G standing for "General". G1 will roughly correspond to today's N(T) standard, G2 to N(A) standard and G3 to Express standard.

Through their time in school, and as they further develop their strengths and interests, they will be able to take a combination of subjects across different bands.

When they reach Sec 4 in 2027, the students will take a common examination and graduate with a common secondary school certificate which will be co-branded by Singapore and Cambridge.

Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said: "With full subject-based banding implemented, form classes reorganised across the board and a combined secondary education certificate, we would have effectively merged Express, N(A) and N(T) streams into a single course. The Express, N(A) and N(T) streams, and their labels, will therefore be phased out.

"So, from three education streams, we will now have 'one secondary education, many subject bands'. We will no longer have fishes swimming down three separate streams, but one broad river, with each fish negotiating its own journey."

With students taking up subjects of varying combinations, the ministry hopes schools will group students in different ways and not just academic abilities. This will bring more social mixing and encourage students to help one another.

Explaining why the ministry was doing away with the Normal-Express divide, Mr Ong said that streaming was introduced 40 years ago during an "efficiency-driven phase" to cut down on student dropout rates.

Attrition rates have come down from about a third of every cohort in the 1970s to less than 1 per cent now. At the same time, the ministry recognises that there are downsides to streaming, said Mr Ong.

"Entering a stream that is considered 'lower' can carry a certain stigma that becomes fulfilling or self-limiting. Students can develop a mindset where they tell themselves, 'I am only a Normal stream student, so this is as good as I can be'," he said, pointing out how, over the years, several MPs have brought up these pernicious effects of streaming.

This point was also highlighted by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in a Facebook post yesterday, when he said that streaming has some drawbacks: "It lacks flexibility, and students in the slower streams may become demotivated. Banding overcomes these difficulties, while enabling each student to learn at the pace which suits their aptitude and level, depending on the subject."

Mr Ong said that while there are some students who are very strong in every academic subject, most have uneven strengths, and even specific weaknesses. "It is just the way humans are. The challenge of our education system is to cater to that."

But the move to do away with streams is not the culling of a sacred cow, but rather an incremental move, he added.

Over the years, subject-based banding was gradually extended, and Normal stream students who took higher-level subjects have performed comparably to their Express counterparts.

Mr Ong said the ministry has been grappling with this trade-off - between customisation and stigmatisation - adding that changes should be thought through in education.

He said: "We should never stay frozen for a long period, only to make sudden big changes years later. So, any change analogous to the slaughtering of any animal is most likely a bad idea."

He ended his speech by saying that in making this change, the ministry was guided by the belief "that no child's fate is fixed, and in an environment that encourages growth and development, and promotes holistic education, they will fulfil their potential to be sons and daughters of Singapore whom we are proud of".