Socio-political activist Gilbert Goh is organising a forum to discuss the Ministry of Education’s (MOE) policy of withholding original exam results slips over unpaid school fees. The event is set to take place on 21 Dec (Saturday) from 2pm to 5pm at Mahota Singapore.
The MOE practice came to light two weeks ago, on 25 Nov, when Mr Gilbert Goh described the plight of a needy student who was not able to collect her PSLE result slip due to unpaid school fees, in a Facebook post that went viral.
Revealing that the student had only been given a photocopy of her PSLE results slip since she had a backlog of unpaid school fees amounting to S$156 due to her family’s financial situation, Mr Goh said that the student would need the PSLE “certificate” to apply for secondary school admission.
Asserting that some students “fall through the cracks” despite MOE doing its “level best to assist all needy students,” Mr Goh said that withholding the original PSLE results slips rubs “salt into the wound of poverty” and added that the “shame” in getting a photocopy of the results slip “weighed heavily on the shoulders of those who are poor and needy.”
Defending the practice of withholding original results slips due to fee arrears as one that is “long-standing”, MOE responded the next day and said that the student can still progress to secondary school using the photocopy of the results slip.
Asserting that the issue was “not about recovering the money,” MOE explained that the funding for each primary school student amounts to about S$12,000 each year and that students are expected to co-pay S$13 of miscellaneous fees every month.
Pointing out that it would be easier to reduce subsidies and financial assistance if the issue was about money, the ministry instead said: “MOE’s consideration stems from the underlying principle that notwithstanding the fact that the cost of education is almost entirely publicly funded, we should still play our part in paying a small fee, and it is not right to ignore that obligation, however small it is. We hope parents support us in reinforcing this message.”
Claiming that “the authors of the viral posts are trying to call into question the intention and values of MOE,” the ministry concluded: “Our educators, parents and members of (the) public will have to decide whether MOE’s action is fair and educationally sound, and what the lesson of this teachable moment for our children is.”
Although MOE seemed to suggest that Mr Goh may not have honorable intentions in exposing this issue on social media, the activist has actually been raising money to help needy students pay off their fee arrears and get their exam results slips. Mr Goh has also helped many needy families share their own experiences with MOE’s policy.
While some netizens sided with MOE and blamed the students’ parents for falling behind on school payments, many asserted that children should not be penalised and humiliated for their parents’ financial circumstances.
On Monday (9 Dec), Mr Goh announced that he is organising a forum that he hopes will spur MOE to delink unpaid school fees from the release of exam results slips. While the event is free to attend, seating is limited.
The activist said that the forum will discuss the reasons why families could not pay the school fees despite the availability of financial welfare schemes and how such vulnerable families together can be assisted. Parents who have first-hand experience with the MOE policy and other community leaders are expected to speak at the forum.
Explaining why this issue is so important to him in the Facebook event page, where netizens can register their interest in attending the forum, Mr Goh called the MOE policy “cruel” as well as “unethical and uncivil” and suggested that the policy does have to do with money, contrary to MOE’s explanation. He wrote:
“Many Singaporeans I am sure do not know nor comprehend the longstanding practice that PSLE and GCE N/O level exam certificate will be withheld for unpaid school fees from our innocent children…God knows how many students are being affected and how long this archaic practice has being going on and more significantly how many young lives have been broken in the process – all in the name of money.
“We are informed by the authorities that the practice is used to teach Singaporeans responsibility and accountability and that there are many financial schemes available – if the family could not afford to even pay the $13 monthly miscellaneous fees for a primary school-going child or $25 for a secondary school-going student ($5 for school fees and $20 for miscellaneous fee) then they are not worthy to be responsible parents.
“However, for those needy families who are already struggling with all kinds of bills and household expenses in the most expensive country of the world, the school fee does not teach moral responsibility but it is an additional burden on the poor’s tired shoulder. To those who can afford to pay off $13 every month through the GIRO auto-deduction system it is nothing but a plate of steamy fried rice serves out of a restaurant but to the poor they have to budget that small amount in their already-inadequate financial resources.
“Moreover, until now, nobody really knows what the miscellaneous fees are collected for and it is also puzzling why the fees are priced so much higher than the school fees charged – $0 for primary schools and $5 for secondary schools.
“When I came to know about this issue from the affected family, I was shocked, disappointed and angry that this can happen in our first-world modern country whereby billions are poured yearly into a first-class sterling educational system whereby many modern countries can only gasp in awe. I am sure many Singaporeans shared my sentiment.
“After hearing the unbelievable news, I began to search the internet and could not really find much information on the issue and began to approach a donor to pay off the owed school fees of $156. I have known this family for quite a long while and they wouldn’t spread fake news just for $156. The following day after the news broke on social media, many families approached us to help them pay off the backlogged school fees so that their children can get hold of their original exam certificate.
“Armed only with a photostated copy of the PSLE exam certificate, the family must have felt ashamed, embarrassed and disenchanted when the occasion is usually one of pride, celebration and gaiety. The family later told me that they immediately went back to the school the next day to collect the original PSLE certificate when we forwarded the receipt to them.
“”The form teacher was kind enough to give the photostated copy of my daughter’s result quietly and we were the last to be called,” the father told me later. I told him that the school has a very kind-hearted teacher who could understand the feelings of her vulnerable children.
“Knowing how this embarrassing episode could destroy many poor families’ fragile esteem, I am sure that many educators will break the shocking news to affected families gently and with much understanding – when they could not hand out the original PSLE certificate to the 12-year-old child because the record still shows unpaid school fees.
“I am sure the young child will feel ashamed, embarrassed, disappointed, angry, frustrated, alienated, disturbed, discouraged and often all at once.
“The affected family whose news went viral overnight has experienced a circumstantial crisis in their lives whereby they have to rely on one income in order to survive for the past one year. Moreover, there were many many other regular bills to pay and the MOE school fee one seems unimportant until D-Day arrives during result collection.
“Many have blamed the family for not approaching the school for financial assistance through FAS (financial assistance scheme) and why they allowed the bill to accumulate for so long despite monthly reminder. The amount owed of $156 indicated that they have fail to pay the school fees for a whole straight year – $13 X 12 months. This also reflected the fact that they have religiously paid off their bills for the past five years of their daughter’s miscellaneous fees and may have struggled recently during a difficult crucial year when she just turned primary six.
“According to our experience, there were many who also missed the FAS criteria of $2750 per household income or $690 per capita income. It is not difficult to miss out as when both parents work and earn a gross monthly income of $1500 each they will automatically be disqualified from the welfare scheme.
“Tell me, after the mandatory CPF’s deduction of 20%, how can you survive earning $1200 a month? Unless someone has stepped into the person’s shoe and walk the same journey as him, he has no right to condemn the parenting responsibility of the needy person.
“The whole school fee saga also reveals a more critical systemic problem within our country – the lack of a minimum wage for the low-income earners and that our salaries have lagged far behind the rise in cost of living here. Around 5% of our population earns a salary of $1500 and below and it is not difficult to imagine that a fraction of this low-income families will fall through the social welfare crack and default on their children’s school fees.
“Moreover, with the impending rise in GST for the coming future to 9%, I am sure that many needy families will find the going much tougher than before.”