PM's National Day Rally: A speech of contradictions?

Quick Summary

Housing: Is $20,000 “not so small” or “not much more”? PM used both phrases to describe the same amount, when he acted as the “housing agent” for all Singaporeans.

Health: MediShield Life to cover all Singaporeans regardless of pre-existing illnesses for life, but premiums will go up leaving existential questions of healthcare affordability unanswered.

Education: “Every school is a good school”, he repeated MOE's mantra, while adding “it is also good that we have top schools nationally”, leaving doubts whether the scramble for “top schools” will continue.

When Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong gave his widely anticipated and most important speech of the year, on August 18 at National Day Rally, his fellow citizens saw the humane side of their leader. While supporting Senior Minister and former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong's call for building a “compassionate meritocracy”, Lee was overwhelmed with emotions as he gave the example of Dr Yeo Sze Ling, who is a research scientist at A*STAR and an adjunct assistant professor at NTU. Dr Yeo who became blind at the age of four, overcame her disability with sheer determination and hard work and graduated with three degrees, including a PhD in Mathematics. “Well done, Sze Ling!” exclaimed Lee. The PM also announced “significant shifts” in the education, housing and healthcare policies of the government. But a closer look reveals the contradictions  in his speech indicating the challenges his government faces in implementing these “shifts”.

When Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong gave his widely anticipated and most important speech of the year, on August 18 at National Day Rally, his fellow citizens saw the humane side of their leader. While supporting Senior Minister and former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong's call for building a “compassionate meritocracy”, Lee was overwhelmed with emotions as he gave the example of Dr Yeo Sze Ling, who is a research scientist at A*STAR and an adjunct assistant professor at NTU. Dr Yeo who became blind at the age of four, overcame her disability with sheer determination and hard work and graduated with three degrees, including a PhD in Mathematics. “Well done, Sze Ling!” exclaimed Lee.

The PM also announced “significant shifts” in the education, housing and healthcare policies of the government. But a closer look reveals the contradictions  in his speech indicating the challenges his government faces in implementing these “shifts”.

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Is $20,000 “not so small” or “not much more”?

While announcing the extension of the Step-up Housing Grants to middle-income households vying to buy a 4-room flat, the PM said, “So what it means, net-net, is a middle-income household buying a 4-room flat can get a saving of up to $20,000, which is not so small. $20,000 more than what they are getting today which is already not so small.”

Further in his speech, when acting as the “housing agent” for all Singaporeans, Lee gave the example of a 3-room flat at HDB's Fernvale Riverwalk BTO project in Sengkang. Informing the audience that the cheapest such flat costs $150,00, he added,” So a typical Fernvale 3-room flat BTO price is a bit more than $150,000 but not much more; it is $170,000.”

This left many wondering how $20,000 is “not so small” when government gives a grant and the same amount becomes “not much more” when people complain of rising home prices. 

3M framework revamped; premiums up; healthcare affordable?

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The Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) for health led by Dr Lam Pin Min, which submitted it's report to the Ministry of Health (MOH) few days prior to PM's speech took a “person-centric perspective” and suggested ways of improving healthcare affordability for Singaporeans. [For a detailed story on this, please read our Majulah Singapura! Section]

The GPC had noted that “the Consumer Price Index for healthcare services in particular rose by about 5.5% in 2012. For many Singaporeans, healthcare costs have been perceived as spiralling out of control and it is becoming increasingly expensive to see a doctor, least to say, to fall ill”. To mitigate this, the committee suggested “Medisave limits should be raised across the board and subsequently pegged to medical inflation rates” and “the government step in to guarantee the continuity of MediShield coverage for those Singaporeans who cannot afford to pay”.

The PM agreed with the GPC in parts and announced extending Medisave funds to be used for outpatient treatments as well as relaunching MediShield as MediShield Life providing universal coverage to all Singaporeans even for chronic illnesses.

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But, as government subsidies are going up, individuals have to contribute too by taking responsibility for their health. Thus, Medisave rates would also have to go up over time and  MediShield Life’s premiums will have to be higher, Lee added.

This when the GPC had this to say about the existing MediShield premiums, “Feedback that the GPC has gathered showed that there is a portion of Singaporeans who have allowed their MediShield coverage to lapse. There are several reasons. The first of which is that MediShield premiums have risen so high during their old age, it has become impossible for Singaporeans to maintain their coverage. Even periodic top-ups by the government to the Medisave meant as payment for MediShield premiums, were in vain as these were utilised for hospital bill payments. The negligible Medisave accounts meant that the years of paying for MediShield have effectively been wiped out. Even medical professionals like doctors shared that they would deliberately advise elderly patients to allow their MediShield coverage to lapse as the premiums were too high.”

If the existing premiums are unaffordable, how will the government subsidise even higher premiums remains to be seen.

Every school is a good school” but “it is also good that we have top schools nationally”

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To his credit, the PM acknowledged problems associated with Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) T-scores. “One point difference in the PSLE T-scores, 230 versus 231, may make all the difference in your secondary school posting. But at the age of 12, one examination, four papers and you want to measure the child to so many decimal points and say well, this one got one point better than that child? It is a distinction which is meaningless and too fine to make,” he said. Why did it take so long for his government to realise this is another matter? It was 1982 when the policy of issuing T-scores to the students was implemented.

It is this fascination with T-scores that has led to preferential treatment of schools by parents in Singapore. This year's Primary 1 (P1) registration exercise is a classic example. After the first two phases – for siblings of children studying in the same school and for children whose parents are members of the school's alumni association – about two-thirds of the places were taken up in popular schools such as St Nicholas Girls', Henry Park and Nanyang Primary. In contrast, lesser-known so called “heart-land” schools had more than 300 seats to be filled after these phases.

© Suravid | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images

© Suravid | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images

Thus even though the PM, in his speech, reiterated the government's commitment and progress made in ensuring every school is a good school by giving them resources and good teachers, the reality is that parents prefer few schools more than the others. And these are invariably the “top schools”.

For that, the PM said, “I think it is also good that we have top schools nationally, schools which are acknowledged as outstanding, so long as we keep our system open.” This openness will be achieved from next year, when every primary school will be setting aside 40 places, at least, for children who have no prior connection with the school in P1, he added.

Now, as acknowledged by the PM himself, the key education milestones of a child – P1 or PSLE – are high stress moments for the entire family as it is a scramble to get into the “top schools”. How will his government reconciles the ministry of education perspective of “Every school is a good school” while at the same time maintaining a hierarchy of schools is anybody's guess.