Thursday, June 17, 2004

Don't leave our soldiers out to dry

Recently, four military officers were charged for the death of another military serviceman. It is alleged that they had abused their powers in carrying out their duties.

We wasted no time in splashing the photographs of these four officers in Singapore's news media.

When I saw the photographs of these four officers, I felt a sense of shame. Have we become such a merciless and hateful society?

At one time, these officers would have been the elite of our military services. How can we forget the years of good service these men have given to our country?

In our haste to seek retribution, let us not forget the positive contributions of these men.

In holding these officers accountable for their actions, let us not forget that all of us - including the Chief of Army, Chief of Defence Forces, Minister for Defence, Prime Minister and President - have a share of the blame. We left unchecked an unwritten training practice that ended up becoming a part of the culture of our military elite.

I am not defending these officers for what they have done. I am merely suggesting that we should consider their actions in the context of their total military service.

We cannot leave our soldiers out to dry like that. Otherwise, we fail as a nation; we will be no different from the terror groups who send their terrorists out to die.

Dharmendra Yadav

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Regulate Private Schools In Singapore


If a Singaporean Shakespeare were to write Hamlet today, Marcellus would say: "Something is rotten in the state of private schools in Singapore!"

A few private schools here have been in the news for the wrong reasons.

For example, Nanyang Institute of Management (NIM) was stripped of its trust mark last month, the Singapore Quality Class for Private Education Organisations (SQC-PEO) status given to it by Spring Singapore.

According to Mr Raymond Lim, Minister of State for Trade and Industry: "NIM is alleged to have forged students' signatures on student pass applications, made students sign on blank forms and entered false information to enable students to come here for courses not approved by the relevant authorities. NIM was also alleged to have charged students for items like school uniforms, which are not needed, and guardianship fee when no guardian was made available to the student."

NIM is now under investigation by the Commercial Affairs Department.

Incidents such as these can affect the public perception of private schools.

One wonders what the past and present students in private schools are feeling. How will such incidents affect their employment prospects?

Indeed, a social stigma already exists. Recently, I learnt of two companies which have become wary of recruiting those from private schools. This is a real worry for someone with a private school background like me.

Furthermore, complaints against private schools show an increasing trend.

The Consumers Association of Singapore (Case) received 486 complaints against private schools last year, up from 460 in 2002.

Two years ago, my family wasted about $10,000 on an external University of London degree programme that my sister signed up for at a private school here. One year into the three-year programme, my sister was told that it would be stopped. She was told that if she wanted to continue the course, she would be expected to self-study.

There was no one my family could turn to for redress. Eventually, my family had to dip into our savings to send her to England to re-start her undergraduate course at the University of Leicester. The university was sympathetic to her plight and gave her a place, even though she applied well after the admissions deadline.

Such developments will not help Singapore's aspirations to be a "Global Schoolhouse", which the Economic Development Board (EDB) describes as "a world-class education hub internationally renowned for its intellectual capital and creative energy".

Most developed countries have regulators to ensure that the quality of higher education is of an acceptable standard. For example, the Higher Education Funding Council for England ensures "that all higher education students benefit from a high-quality learning experience" to meet their needs and the needs of society.

It was reported that here, the Government prefers the industry to self-regulate. If self-regulation is indeed the way to go, why is the country not moving to do away with its present control over public schools?

The Government's obvious unwillingness to do the same with public schools suggests that self-regulation may not be the best approach. After all, education happens to be a key pillar of our small, open economy.

Moreover, the industry's attempts to self-regulate via the Association of Private Schools and Singapore Education International have so far proved inadequate. The two bodies are due to meet Case, EDB, the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) and the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises next week — after a scheduled meeting on Monday was postponed — to discuss such regulatory issues.

The Ministry of Education, together with relevant government agencies, should look into introducing a statutory body to encourage a high quality of private education in Singapore. Such a body will be the equivalent of what the Monetary Authority of Singapore is to the financial services industry.

As in the financial services sector, confidence and stability are fundamental to a sound and progressive education system. Singapore, as a young country, has successfully achieved this through both its public and private schools.

In 1999, I secured a place in one of the top 10 British law schools. The university I applied to placed a premium value on a diploma I acquired at a private school, IBMEC, and the rest of my Singapore education.

We should act decisively before others emulate the practices of private schools such as NIM. Let's restore the necessary confidence and stability in our private schools. The Government should introduce a private education regulator with teeth.

We must not allow this rot to evolve into a plague that afflicts our economy.

Dharmendra Yadav

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Finding out if future PM Lee is up to his job


Thank you, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and PAP. Finally, coffee-shop talk in Singapore can move away from who should succeed PM Goh!

Last week, PAP MPs gave PM Goh's choice of successor a unanimous thumbs-up; Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong can now become the third Prime Minister of the Republic of Singapore. The mandate is hardly surprising. It has been overdue since last year's National Day Rally, when PM Goh had announced that DPM Lee would succeed him.

During the rally, PM Goh had provided a detailed explanation for his choice of successor, having "taken quiet soundings from Ministers and MPs on whom they would choose".

Following the announcement, the Government's public relations machinery went into full-steam mode. Tomes of news reports featured DPM Lee in a variety of local, regional and international media.

Almost every day after the announcement, the man in the street got to know something positive about DPM Lee, his family, his background, his achievements or accomplishments and his trials and tribulations; including his choice in clothes. Since he is Singaporean, red and white, naturally, were his choice colours!

The climax to this exercise came when PM Goh announced that PAP MPs would be asked to consider who the next PM (and his own successor) should be. He explained on various occasions the rationale for consulting PAP MPs: The choice had to be made transparently and openly.

In February, his office informed a newspaper: "The PM must command the confidence of his fellow MPs (from the same party)." In an interview with CNN in January, PM Goh had emphasised: "Lee Hsien Loong, who will be my successor — his promotion or his appointment, his selection, will be done on a transparent basis. He will be selected, not by his father, not even by me. He has to be selected by his colleagues, the Members of Parliament."

Nevertheless, some political commentators saw this as a key attempt to assimilate those reasonable individuals who disagree with PM Goh's choice into the camp that supports the choice.

These commentators described the move as no more than a legitimisation process, akin to the President's Assent after Parliament passes a piece of legislation. Others thought it was part of a greater scheme to boost DPM Lee's moral authority to be PM.

Constitutional law experts argued there was nothing wrong, legally,with the move since Article 25 of the Constitution provides: "The President shall appoint as Prime Minister, a Member of Parliament who, in his judgment, is likely to command the confidence of the majority of the Members of Parliament and shall, acting in accordance with the advice of the Prime Minister, appoint other Ministers from among the Members of Parliament."

PM Goh essentially wanted to move beyond taking "quiet soundings". So, here arose a golden opportunity for a PAP MP to make known his or her reservations, if any, about DPM Lee. But really, could any PAP MP have argued credibly against the PM's choice? Perhaps.

However, many political observers felt otherwise. Any MP would have found it difficult to argue credibly against all that positive information available about DPM Lee; even if such an MP had a valid point to make; since the current leadership does welcome constructive criticism.

This is amplified further by there being no better alternative to DPM Lee.The Singaporean chief executive of a British company best put it when he told me: "DPM Lee is, to me, a leader who can and will charge up the (most) arduous of mountains with an unwavering resolve. I don't see any other leader in Singapore, apart from SM Lee (Kuan Yew) and PM Goh, with the ability and will to do the same."

Additionally, the way the PAP has run itself in the last three decades means there has always been one clear leader. Unlike the Malaysian ruling party, key executive positions in Singapore's ruling party are rarely a point of contention. Resultantly, SM Lee, among our Old Guard, was the natural choice.

Then, PM Goh stepped in. And next change will be DPM Lee. One can perhaps qualify that SM Lee had other "leaders-in-waiting" to PM Goh: DPM Tony Tan and the late President Ong Teng Cheong were two possible alternatives.

Similarly, PM Goh could have considered grooming other possible successors. But he had less time than SM Lee had, since the latter was PM for a longer period. In any case, these arguments are all purely academic now. History will now be the best judge of PM Goh's choice of successor. Meanwhile, the "quiet soundings" have evolved into "loud cheers", whose echoes will soon reverberate through the corridors of our legislature.

DPM Lee's mandate to run Singapore as its next PM is now entrenched. The people of Singapore should respect the choice of our legislators. We will, no doubt, miss the political hero of my generation: PM Goh.

Most importantly, it is now time to ask what our expectations, hopes and aspirations are from a Government led by the future PM Lee. After all, at a community event recently, DPM Lee said transition was not simply about one person taking over the political leadership of a country. It represents "a generational succession".

He has also emphasised: "I am myself. I am not my father. I'm not the Senior Minister. I'm not Mr Goh Chok Tong. I am myself and people will have to take me for what I am and for what I am able to do for them … It's the Singaporeans' opinions that count and if they think I'm up to the job, then it's my duty to show that I will be able to do it."

Singaporeans should thus ask what we would like from our next generation of leaders; this will decide if the future PM Lee is really up to the job.

Dharmendra Yadav