Socio-political activist Gilbert Goh has pleaded with Education Minister Ong Ye Kung to reverse the Ministry of Education’s (MOE) policy of withholding original exam results slips from needy students over unpaid school fees.
The MOE policy came to light on 25 Nov when a Facebook post Mr Goh published, describing the plight of a needy student who was not able to collect her PSLE result slip due to unpaid school fees amounting to S$156, went viral. Responding to the post on 26 Nov, MOE defended the practice of withholding original results slips due to fee arrears as one that is “longstanding”.
Asserting that the issue was “not about recovering the money,” MOE claimed that the policy symbolises the principle that Singaporeans must not ignore their duty to pay a small fee since the cost of education is almost entirely publicly funded. Pointing out that it would be easier to reduce subsidies and financial assistance if the issue was about money, MOE 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.”
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.”
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 and pointed out that a policy may not be fair just because it is a “longstanding” one.
Mr Goh, who has helped raise funds to pay off the fee arrears of about 15 needy pupils since late last month, has since written an open letter to Mr Ong asking him to reconsider the MOE policy and possibly waive off the fee arrears of needy pupils.
He added that he and his team of volunteers are willing to work together with MOE to pay off outstanding fees through crowdfunding if it is not possible to reverse the policy or waive the fees.
In the open letter, which was emailed to Mr Ong on 28 Nov, Mr Goh thanked Mr Ong for his work with MOE in providing low cost quality education to Singaporeans and for providing “the laudable financial assistance scheme (FAS)” to needy students.
Revealing that some students still fall through the cracks in spite of the welfare scheme, Mr Goh pointed out:
“However, it came to our attention that some students may fall through the crack when it comes to the application of FAS due to various unique reasons – incomplete filling of forms due to a missing family member, sudden loss of a breadwinner through retrenchment or just missing out on the FAS criteria mark of $2750 gross income per household or $690 per capita income.
“Many also feel embarrassed to apply for financial assistance due to their ego and prefer to tough it out often worsening the problem for the innocent child.”
Pointing out that it may be beyond some needy families to apply for FAS since they could be “lowly-educated or swamped with their own personal issues,” Mr Goh said these disadvantaged folks “need a gentle nudge, a loving compassionate touch to show that the school is also caring and reaching out than the current institutional trend of coldness and aloofness when it comes to handling families living in poverty.”
He added: “I also remembered how a school teacher came to my home to speak with my family as I was missing out on school alot. Her visit not only provided me the assurance that the school is a loving place but that humanity is also very much alive.”
Asserting that withholding exam certificates over unpaid fees is not the right approach to resolve the issue of fee arrears, Mr Goh appealed:
“Let us not tie the two issues together as it sends forth a mixed signal to the young child who feels that he is being marginalised and punished for his parent’s fault when he is being denied of the original result slip.
“It will also stir up anger and shame within the child who is still too young to comprehend the whole matter properly. Often, the child may feel that he is at fault lapsing into adverse emotional backlash or he may lay the blame squarely on his family which is also unhealthy.
“Thus, we urge the ministry to consider waiving off these unpaid fees in a special compassionate goodwill gesture so that our needy children could finally receive their educational certificates.”
On why this issue is so important to him, Mr Goh revealed that he can understand the circumstances the needy children face since he too comes from a disadvantaged family. He recounted:
“The reason why I am so passionate about this matter Mr Ong is because I too grew up in a very poor family environment and could not attend kindergarten sessions as we couldn’t pay the school fees then. Every morning, I would run to the school and peep in from outside the gate entrance gawking in envy at those who could attend the sessions.
“From a very young age, I was also fostered out for a long ten years due to the fact that my parents have to work very long hours to make ends meet. I felt abandoned and could never understand why we have to leave our parents and stay with strangers.
“My childhood experience has scarred me for life but it has also toughened me up alot as I always feel much for the underdogs and try to speak up for them whenever possible.
“I am writing this with tears streaming down my cheeks as it is never easy to come to terms with any childhood scars often embedded deep within our memory and any healing is a life-long struggle.”
Pointing out that the practice of withholding results certificates from needy pupils is “not only cruel but psychologically damaging to any young child’s esteem,” Mr Goh said that he is willing to meet with Mr Ong face to face to discuss this matter openly and cordially.
Mr Ong has yet to respond to Mr Goh’s email or make a public statement on MOE’s longstanding policy. Read Mr Goh’s open letter in full HERE.