MP Png Eng Huat: Education solutions needed to solve inequality and lack of diversity

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MP Png Eng Huat, in a speech in Parliament yesterday, May 16, addressed the issue of social inequality and lack of diversity and said that the answers to these pressing problems begin with Singapore’s educational system, as this would address them at the root. 

The MP began his speech by saying that he welcomes “the challenge put forth by the President for the government to go for bold changes and not be content with marginal tweaks in the next phase of our nationhood,” noting that a hodgepodge of irrelevant measures would bring no solutions at all. He hailed the President’s call for the country’s leaders to “tackle inequality vigorously” as “a timely reminder for our rapidly changing world.” 

However, Mr. Png also expressed his concern that current measures to build a society that is inclusive is insufficient, citing a 2017 Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) study on social capital showing evidence of stratification in Singaporean society and quoting one of the researchers who said, “Singapore has shifted from a society based on race the one that’s based on class as well.”

He then went on to address education as key in formulating solutions to these problems, saying, “The lack of diversity in our school is one issue we need to address to tackle the problem of social inequality. This is important because this Government views education as a key pillar of social mobility, and I support that wholeheartedly.”

Mr. Png then quoted the Principal of Raffles Institution saying in 2015 that the school had become a “middle class school catering largely to affluent families and was no longer truly representative of Singapore.” But what matters, he said, is the challenge the Principal set: knowing this, what matters the most is action taken.

He addressed the different solutions the Ministry of Education (MOE) offers in tackling the lack of diversity and the class divide in schools, saying that the MOE’s solution of advocating more interaction between students is by nature a fleeting occurrence that would ultimately have little impact on the class divide. 

He also mentioned that a big part of the inequality stems from wealthier families sending their children to test preparation and enrichment classes, thereby ensuring them places in the more popular, and well-funded secondary schools.

Although the MOE discourages this practice on its website, it is still being largely practiced. And thus, more affluent families have better educational advantages, which leave families with less money lacking, hence only strengthening the educational divide.

Furthermore, Mr. Png brought up the vital point that not all schools are given equal funding. 

“Two years ago in a committee of supply debate in 2016, I said that all schools are created not equal because the funding per schools is different to begin with. Based on per capita funding per student, popular schools with large student enrollment will always have more funds by default while shrinking neighborhood schools will always struggle to find money for extra enrichment programs. It is also a known fact that popular schools will have less problem raising enough funds from their well-connected alumni while neighborhood schools will struggle in this area.” 

He then challenged the MOE, saying, “Is the minister still willing to do something bold in the area of equitable funding for all schools?”

The MP brought up the solution he had proposed two years before, for the top tier students from all primary schools, based on PSLE results, to be allowed to enter any popular secondary school that they choose. This would create a diverse mixture of students from all primary schools going into the secondary level, and help schools to avoid becoming elitist institutions.

“For parents who want their children to attend a popular secondary, school every primary school is now a good school to start the journey. Some may question this is not meritocratic. I beg to differ because these students, even if their T scores are lower than the cut-off points for the popular secondary schools, are high achievers in their own rights. They have certainly earned their place with the direct admission in the school of their choice by my finishing in the top of their respective primary schools.  The proposal is still based on meritocracy but at a local level. Meritocracy is never fair game if you have the resources, the money, the proper nutrition, the proper training, the proper technique, you will stand a better chance of coming up top in anything you do.” 

At the end of his speech, Mr. Png quoted President Yusuf Ishak, who told Parliament in 1968 the three objectives he had for the country. The first two are concern with national security and growing the economy, which will always be vital to any leadership.

The third point is what Mr. Png highlighted, which is “about the need to enhance our national consciousness of the problems that would besiege young nation and times to come. Specifically he said Singaporeans must learn to place national interest above personal or sectional interests. Now that we are conscious of the issue of social inequality in a society that is gravitating toward the class divide, what more can we do with this reality and knowledge?”