Sunday 26 January 2014

Denise Phua: She wants to end segregation in schools

She's been called the People's Action Party's conscience, and a "lone voice in the wilderness" on topics like the casinos, which she opposes for economic and moral reasons. Known as an advocate for people with disabilities, Moulmein-Kallang GRC MP Denise Phua, 54, took on the whole education system this week by proposing a pilot scheme of 10-year through-train schools with no streaming or high-stakes exams. She talks to Rachel Chang about the importance of taking a stand.
The Straits Times, 25 Jan 2014

You made a speech in Parliament this week about your vision for a new type of education in Singapore. But wouldn't stripping away all streaming and high-stakes exams come with the trade-off of lower achievement of the brightest?

I am not advocating a "let's- cruise" no-assessment, no-rigour type of system at all.

But the different needs of students can be met without putting them geographically in different places for years, (but) by programme-based solutions.

If I am gifted, I don't have to go to a gifted school where I mix only with other gifted students. I go where there are other types of learners and I benefit from a gifted programme during certain hours. But during other hours, I wouldn't catch any disease by being with people who learn in different ways.

After the 10-year through train, they can rejoin the typical system. Those who are more academically inclined go in with an O level or International Baccalaureate qualification; those who are more vocationally inclined can exit into other pathways.

The best thing is to pilot this, and then scale it. If not for this generation, then for the next.

I really hope I can see this in my lifetime. Sure, it's utopian, but the school I helped create, Pathlight (in 2003, the first autism-focused mainstream school) was created out of nothing. And today, it is the largest autism school in the world. We have over 900 students, with applications of 200 a year.

I do believe that if we are able to assemble a team of right people with the right vision, things can happen. I've yet to have full discussions with the ministry, but I think this is a minister (Mr Heng Swee Keat) who has been steadfast in the right direction.

But the Government believes that it should only move as fast as the people want?

Yes, hear from citizens what kind of society we want to be and move towards that. But people are not the same in what they want. I do think leaders need to take a consistent stand. For example, ban sites like Ashley Madison (a dating site for married people) because we don't support adultery. And also totally ban online gambling if we know it is very bad.

You seem to be moving beyond education here and referring to areas of moral judgment, where many feel Singaporeans should be left to make their own decisions.

I believe that there are some positions that we need to take as a people and a society. If we don't take a stand, then that is itself a stand, that you are free to choose whatever you want to choose. Then we might as well make marijuana available over the counter.

You've continued to speak out strongly against things like the casinos, about which you were once described as "a lone voice in the wilderness". Now we are considering having some controlled online gaming sites.

I feel strongly about it, for different reasons. We are a small country. Human resources are our most important asset. Therefore, I feel protective over them and want to build and develop those resources as much as possible. I feel that learning to run casinos well, even if it provides many jobs in the interim, is not expertise that I want my country to have.

An online gambling site is as good as creating a personal casino in one's bedroom. You can gamble in your pyjamas. That's not a direction I'm comfortable with.

Of course, those for it bring up practical reasons: "Oh, if we don't, other people will do it. We can't control it totally, and this way we can use the money for social services." But I think we have to make a stand.

You've advocated for many things that have been realised, like more social assistance, even that ministerial pay should be lower. But what are some areas that you feel are shifting away from what you hope?

One thing is the Administrative Service (the fast track for elite civil servants).

In the private sector, we look at people who perform well, then we raise them up. But they are not identified right from the start and groomed that way.

I think the way by which we select and nurture the top people in the public service has to be modified and made more porous to allow for people who are late developers, who may not have the strength of academic accolades, to join that pool.

I'm not saying, discard the whole system, but we should modify it. There are different types of intelligence, people who can contribute in different ways.

I know a fellow who decided not to go to university. He's a creative director now. And every time I work with him, I just think he's one of the best I've ever worked with. And someone like him probably has no chance to be close to power, or to join the public service near the top. Which is a waste, because he has an intelligence that's really different from the others, and would be an addition to the team.

And the other thing is that our focus is always on thinkers, policymakers, versus the other group who are the implementers and executors. In a day and age where ideas are a dime a dozen, the key people who are going to make a difference are the ones who turn them into reality. The task of execution is, to me, really underestimated in our country.

You've been a staunch advocate for the disabled sector for many years, and run two special needs schools. How do you feel about recent boosts to help those with disabilities, like the introduction last week of a $60 public transport concession pass?

I'm very, very heartened about it. They are more generous than I expected. I thought there would be the usual means-testing applied, as it's a scheme for adults. It was a really strong statement and I applaud it.

Over the last seven to eight years, a lot more attention has been given to the disability sector.

Early intervention programmes and special needs schools are much better funded now. In the adult space, it's also much improved. For example, there are now three job centres to help those with disabilities.

Much more can be done still. For example, beyond formal education, there ought to be continuing education and training for adults as well, so that their skills won't become obsolete, and more support in tertiary institutions like sign-language interpreters and note-taking services.

But in many areas, the pace of improvement has gone beyond my imagination.

Any areas of disappointment?

Not disappointment per se but after we get some of the basics done, I would like our country to think a bit deeper about the kind of society, schools and work environment we would like.

I am not very much for segregating. My ideal model would still be inclusive schools where you have different programmes for different students of different abilities and learning styles - all under one roof. They do non-academic things like physical education together, socialise together. Then when they need differentiation in learning styles, they go into different classrooms - no compromise.

That's my ideal scenario. A school system that is a microcosm of society - where the place I grow up is reflective of what society actually is.

I've seen systems like that, such as in the Darlington education village (in Britain). It takes a bit more work, but the benefits of growing up with people unlike yourself just make a better person, and even a better leader. That, to me, is true character-building, true inclusiveness.

Fifteen years ago, you once considered emigrating to meet the needs of your son, who is autistic. When we (she and husband Roland Tay, 58) found that he had special needs and looked at the help available, we thought about Australia, where the support level was much better. We started some therapy for him here. I was blessed, I could get a good one, an expat, because I could pay.

But as I got to know more families in the same plight, I just felt something is not right. It cannot be that I have access to resources so I can help my son. I felt a sense of injustice, and that we needed to do something before we give up and migrate.

I was heading an autism voluntary welfare organisation at the time, and I used to write papers to send to the Ministry of Education. I was not sure anyone paid attention. Then one day, Tharman (Shanmugaratnam, then Education Minister, now Deputy Prime Minister) called me in and said, "I've read what you wrote. What is it you want?"

I wrote on a napkin what the state needed to do for those with special needs, and said, "Minister, if you were me and you know what I know, what would you do?" And he said, "I would do exactly what you are doing".

That sealed it for me. I said, okay, I'm staying. I mean, I didn't tell him that, he didn't know I wanted to migrate. But I felt, in that moment, there was hope.

Do you think that today, a parent of a child with special needs would still be forced to think about migrating?

Actually, we have parents who migrated here to go to our school. And some (Singaporeans) who have returned here. Of course, not everything is ideal. There are still challenges.

What's for supper

Professor Brawn Cafe 10 Circular Road
(Professor Brawn is a restaurant chain run by Ms Phua's husband Roland Tay which hires people with autism)
- Mushroom soup: $6.90
- Pumpkin soup: $5.90
- Brownie: $4.90
- Special lemonade x 2: $7.80
- Total: $25.50


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