Friday, November 23, 2012

Why I disagree with Tan Jee Say

I have just read Tan Jee Say's facebook post, "Is Every School a Good School?" and I must say I disagree with him in two major areas.  First, this is what he says:

The widening gap between the top and other schools mirrors the increasing income disparity in Singapore. When wealth is concentrated in the hands of the few, it reflects an unequal society that is harmful to its long term development. Similarly when talent is retained in just one or two top schools rather than spread among many schools, the development of our young becomes lop-sided and works against a balanced and holistic development of society.

He then goes on to say this:

The first step for the education minister to take is not to pretend that every school is a good school.  He will then re-discover what his school teachers used to tell him and what teachers everywhere tell their pupils, that honesty is the best policy.

In his post, Tan says that some traditionally good schools have become second tier or even third tier.  He implies that something should be done by the education minister to stop the increasing disparity between schools.

The two major areas I disagree with him are:

1.  The income gap - that a widening income gap must necessarily mean a bad thing and
2.  The disparity in talent between schools (ie. all the talent seems to be concentrated in one or two schools) is "harmful to [Singapore's] long term development".

I will deal with the income gap first.  I don't see how a widening income gap can necessarily mean that something is amiss and the government has to take active steps.  There is no denying that the rich are getting much richer but the proper question to ask is are the poor getting poorer?  In other words,  is the standard of living of the poor in Singapore worse than it used to be 30 years ago or even 40 years ago?

I don't have hard statistics but I'm willing to bet that the poor in Singapore are now far better off than they used to be.  Almost every household now has a tv set and a computer.  Just look around you and you will be amazed to see cleaners and construction workers with iPhones.  Let's not even talk about luxury goods.  Malnutrition used to be a major problem among the poor in the past.  Today, nobody is malnourished in Singapore.  It would be ridiculous to pretend that the poor in Singapore are worse off now than they used to be 30 years ago.  That just simply doesn't square with our daily observation.

But what if the rich are getting richer?  Frankly, I don't see a problem with that.  If I were the kind of person who would allow the green-eyed monster to grow within me, of course I would be furious that the rich are getting richer.  But I'm not the jealous sort and I'm happy to see my neighbour zooming by in his Ferrari while I ride my trusty bicycle so long as he doesn't run into a puddle and splash water on me!

Let me give a simple example.

Assuming Mr Chan is a poor man in the 60's or 70's and he earns $200.00  a month.  I have increased the earnings of the poor in the 60's to take into account inflation.  The poor probably earned much less in those days but then things were cheaper so the figure of $200 would be about right after taking into account inflation.  The sum of $200 represents his purchasing power in today's terms.

Now, let's assume Mr Wong is a rich man in the 60's or 70's and he earns $3000.00 a month.  Again, I have increased the sum to take into account subsequent inflation.

The income disparity between Mr Chan and Mr Wong is only $2800.00 a month.  But Mr Chan is probably malnourished and is very much deprived of all the comforts of life.  Mr Wong has a good life but still, it isn't what we today would consider a luxurious lifestyle.  In other words, people in those days generally were worse off irrespective of whether they were rich or poor.

Let's say the government does nothing in terms of investment and development.  The income disparity between Mr Chan and Mr Wong probably wouldn't differ very much even today.

Now, let's turn to today's world and look at what Mr Goh (a poor man) and Mr Sim (a wealthy man) earn today.  Mr Goh earns $1,000.00 a month (which is what would be considered poor by Singapore standards today).  But Mr Goh has an iPhone, an iPad, a computer, a lovely tv set and he goes on a holiday once a year.  His lifestyle has improved tremendously.

Mr Sim, the rich man of today, earns $300,000.00 a month.  Of course his lifestyle exceeds the wildest imagination of average folks.  He's the typical chap who zooms past my bicycle in his Ferrari.

The income disparity between Mr Goh and Mr Sim now stands at $299,000.00.  It's a huge income gap but what does it tell us?  It tells us that the country has undergone a huge development and both men are happy and well.  It tells us that the government has done a great job and the country enjoys a plump and healthy economy.

But you may say that Mr Goh has every right to complain about the huge disparity between his income and that of Mr Sim.  But has Mr Goh the right to begrudge Mr Sim his wealth?  Let's assume that Mr Sim is one of the deserving rich who earns his money legally.  He has worked hard all his life.  He had excellent PSLE results, went to the top school, then to a top faculty in a top university.  He's got a high IQ too and he has business acumen and he knows how to invest his money.  Should Mr Sim's income be reduced so that we can have a smaller income gap?  Of course not.

The income gap is really a red herring when we are looking for clues of a mismanaged society or a society that is unjust in its distribution of income.  The income gap is not a good indicator of these things.  Rather, the proper question we should ask is whether the poor are taken care of.  If the poor aren't better off today than they used to be before, then I agree that something ought to be done.  But that is not the case in Singapore.

The same applies to schools.  I have spoken at great length in other posts on this blog about the PSLE and schools in Singapore and I won't repeat myself.  What I want to say is the Minister of Education is honest when he says all schools are good.  It all boils down to the definition of "good".  If your idea of a good school is a school that wins top international awards, has more than half its students with straight As in the A-levels and beats all other schools in the world when it comes to getting places in Ivy-League universities and Oxbridge, then yes, RI is the ONLY really good school in Singapore.  But that is not how we should determine if a school is good.

The wonderful thing about the Singapore government is its belief in meritocracy.  That's what makes Singapore such an enviable country internationally and it's what makes Singapore such a great nation.  I have listed the many achievements of RI on the international stage and it's very hard for me to think of any school in other countries achieving that sort of greatness and this is an indictment on the other countries.  Imagine an RI in Malaysia.  Can there possibly be an RI in Malaysia?  Of course not.  The bumiputra policy will ensure that a large percentage of the students are admitted on the basis of race and not merit.  Within a year, the Malaysian RI will probably do worse than our worst Secondary School.

For me, a school is good if the right students are in it.  RI is only a good school if top students are enrolled in it.  Average students should go to schools that are catered for their needs.  Viewed this way, every school in Singapore is a good school, even a school for students with mental impairment because such a school is good for such students.  Each school is tailored to the needs of different segments of society and no one school is better than the rest.  In that sense, all schools in Singapore are good.  It is when we want RI to take in mediocre students as well that we are trying to ruin RI and turn it into a bad school because that's not what RI is meant for.  I have explained elsewhere in my other blog posts that nothing hampers teaching as much as having students with a hugely diversified intellectual capacity.  Teachers will have to pitch their lessons somewhere at the average level and still, good students will be held back by the slower pace of learning and they will be bored while slow students will find the lessons too difficult.  That is why I have said elsewhere that the PSLE is a time-tested gauge of which secondary school a student should rightly go to.  It redounds to the credit of the Singapore government that it could come up with an school-placement examination that is so impartial and incorruptible.  I really hope the government will re-consider any plan to shelve or revamp such an excellent and fair gauge that has served the nation well for decades.

If we are honest about it, it's really jealousy that makes us rebel against a system that has worked so well for Singapore.  Whether it's the question of the income gap or the differences in schools, we should be honest and ask ourselves what it is that we really want.  Do I want RI to admit mediocre students only because I know my kid will do badly and yet I want him to be in RI?  But is it fair to put my kid in RI and displace a student with a better PSLE score?   Some parents have suggested that we look at education in a holistic way and we should value "other" aspects of education and not just academia.  But we know that's being hazy and unclear.  How does one have a fair test that measures the "holistic" and non-academic part of education?   Of course it's impossible and in the end, the selection of a student becomes arbitrary.  It will be open to corruption and abuse.  The PSLE is the only fair and impartial test that we can possibly have.  Nothing else will do.

The same questions should be asked when we clamour for a reduction in the income gap.  Do I want the deserving rich to be deprived of some of their wealth because I haven't got it?  Do I want his Ferrari to be taken away because it's so much faster than my bicycle?

We'll never be happy if we are always consumed by jealousy and envy.  We really should just take it easy and enjoy life.  Life can be pretty good when you get around on a bike.  Besides, cycling greatly reduces your carbon footprint and it increases your cardiovascular health too!

 Photo taken in Utrecht, Holland.


  1. Let us assume Mr Chan and Mr Wong work in the same company in the 70s. Mr Chan is a delivery man and Mr Wong is the CEO. In your example, Mr Wong ($3000) earns 15x more than Mr Chan ($200).

    Then let us conjecture that Mr Chan and Mr Wong both have sons, who end up working for the same company in exactly the same functions 40 years later. Mr Chan Jr is a delivery man and earns $1000, which is the same as his father after adjusting for 5x inflation. Mr Wong Jr is the CEO and earns $300,000, which is 20x more than his father after adjusting for 5x inflation, and 300x more than Mr Chan Jr.

    I am a believer in free markets. But looking at the above example, I would ask if this is a desirable state of affairs for society, and if this trend should continue unabated. I would also question whether Mr Chan Jr truly had a level playing field with Mr Wong Jr in terms of social and educational opportunities. These are issues I think Singaporeans should debate.

    1. Thanks for your comment. The figures I gave are arbitrary figures plucked from thin air. The important question we should ask ourselves is whether the poor today are worse off than the poor of the past. I think the answer is obvious. If the CEO earns so much more, that's market forces. He's probably quite indispensable. But the amount the CEO gets should not affect how the delivery man lives. The fact remains that the delivery man is better off today and really, if I were the delivery man, that would be all that matters.

      As for your point on level playing field, this is unavoidable. Of course parents who were themselves good students would probably be able to raise kids with better educational opportunities. That's something you can't change and it wouldn't be fair to change that. You can't take away the rewards to a child just because his family is more concerned about his education and provides him with better opportunities. Singapore's approach to this problem is really the best way of tackling it. Help is given to students from poor families. Bursaries are given all the time, free text books, etc. Ultimately, meritocracy must still prevail. That's the only fair approach to take and at the same time it benefits the nation because a country can only thrive when reward is only given to those who deserve it.