Sunday, 20 March 2011

Answering the question you wish had been asked

Former US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara once said: “Never answer the question that is asked of you. Answer the question that you wish had been asked of you.” I was somewhat amused at just how blatantly this rule was used in two recent letters to the Straits Times Forum, to completely ignore what the questions that had actually been asked.

Why preschool funding is extended only to PCF kindergartens

On Thursday 10 March, ST Forum published two letters asking if, and why, the S$290 million in funding announced by the Government would go only to preschools operated by the PAP Community Foundation (PCF) and the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC).

In one letter, Yee Jenn Jong said:

"In my 15-year involvement in the industry, I have not known of any government funding for upgrading the facilities of privately owned centres, so I cannot see how this can lower the cost of preschool education in such centres.

There is also no reason for the Government to fund the upgrading of centres run by NTUC and PCF as they have their own fund sources and are usually already paying rent that is below market rates."

In the other letter, Ms Yvonne Lee shared her elation upon learning that the Kindergarten Financial Assistance Scheme (KiFAS) will be extended to grant financial relief to families whose monthly incomes do not exceed S$3500, but was then told by the Ministry of Education that only pupils in PCF kindergartens would be eligible.

Both letter-writers queried why government funding should be extended (or limited) to PCF kindergartens, and also called for the funding to be extended to privately-run preschools as well.

On Wednesday (16 March), ST Forum published a joint reply from MCYS and MOE. These are the pertinent paragraphs from the letter (the rest was pretty much just corporate PR boilerplate):

"The Kindergarten Financial Assistance Scheme, disbursed by the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS), aims to ensure that children are not deprived of a preschool education because of the family's financial circumstances.

The increase in the eligible monthly household income criterion from $1,800 to $3,500 from April 1 will let more families benefit from the scheme's subsidies.

Eligibility requires kindergartens to be registered with the Ministry of Education (MOE), be non-profit, secular and in a good financial position to provide quality preschool education.

These criteria serve to ensure that assistance is targeted at kindergartens which serve lower- and middle- income households. There are about 240 eligible kindergartens which are well-distributed across Singapore."

Nothing at all about PCF kindergartens, and nothing at all about why the funding did not extend to privately-run preschools. Probably not coincidentally, the PCF states on its website that it runs 247 kindergartens located across Singapore. A cynic would wonder why MCYS and MOE chose to cite the "about 240 eligible kindergartens" statistic, without addressing the question of whether all of these are run by PCF, and if so why.

NTUC's "symbiotic relationship" with the PAP

A letter from Ang Miah Boon was published on Wednesday 9 March, noting the recent reports about a number of potential PAP candidates from the civil service resigning to join NTUC and asking the following questions (quoted verbatim from the letter):

"- How is NTUC able to absorb these people? In any corporation, positions are based on needs. Were the positions specially created for these candidates?

- Why is NTUC providing candidates only for the PAP? Can senior executives of NTUC stand as opposition candidates? Can one be part of the NTUC leadership and remain an opposition party member? Can we separate these jobs from politics?

- Do MPs who work for NTUC take directions from NTUC secretary-general Lim Swee Say, who is Minister in the Prime Minister's Office, in Parliament?

- Finally, how many MPs should come from the NTUC? While I acknowledge that the voices of the union members should be heard, I am less certain about the number who should represent the congress in the House."

NTUC's reply, signed by NTUC President John De Payva and Sec-Gen (and Minister in the Prime Minister's Office) Lim Swee Say, was published on Tuesday 15 March. It essentially repeated the well-known (and frankly, tired) statements about why it is good for workers for NTUC to be so close to PAP.

It also completely ignored and disregarded the questions posed in the letter -- to the extent that it addressed any of the concerns raised in the letter, it would be the implied conclusion that NTUC, being a symbiotic partner of the PAP, would never, ever allow its members to stand as opposition candidates.

Let's just have a honest debate

I personally found the responses tremendously disappointing. The letter-writers felt strongly enough to take the trouble to write in to ST Forum, posing very pointed and direct questions. The replies did not do justice to, and to my mind did not respect, the letter-writers. These are valid questions that deserve answers -- but it seems that the answers will not be forthcoming.

This outcome does nobody, least of all Singapore, any good. People will speculate about why MOE, MCYS and NTUC deliberately chose not to engage directly, and they will draw adverse inferences. The outcome? A more cynical and disillusioned public, which is understandable but certainly not desirable.


Yee said...

Thanks for highlighting this. Yes, my question was not fully answered. I had also asked in my original letter to ST Forum for Minister of State to give a breakdown of how the $290 million will be used but it did not appear in the published version. Even if the funding do all go to a specific organisation or certain organisations, how they are used and how it can lower preschool costs should be clearly stated.

Yee Jenn Jong

sgcynic said...

"The replies did not do justice to, and to my mind did not respect, the letter-writers. These are valid questions that deserve answers -- but it seems that the answers will not be forthcoming."

This is the modus operandi of the PAP - it is evident in the way Parliamentary queries are "addressed" by the PAP ministers and MPs and in the way public concerns and questions are side-stepped or simply brushed aside in often contemptuous and condescending manner.

And 'they' have the gall to say that they are engaging in frank and honest 'dialogue' with the citizenry.

Parka said...

Unlike you, Mr Siew Kum Hong, I found the responses tremendously insulting.

Not answering a question directing is not different from not acknowledging the existence of that person.

That's one of the things that really piss me off about politicians.

Let's see what comes from these ambiguous rubbish talk at the general election.

Dag said...

Dear Yee,

Please do write in to ST forum again and press for a direct reply from MOE/MCYS.

I read the ST forum regularly and have seen the ST publish such "follow-up" letters before when private companies failed to satisfactorily respond to questions asked of them. It might not be as willing to do so for government ministries, but it is worth a shot.

Silent Night said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Pariah said...

Sigh ... What else is new?

The Art of Non-Reply -
I reckon there must be a training course on this topic run by the Civil Service College!

The Pariah

Steve Wu said...

If indeed the $290m has been disbursed entirely or mostly to NTUC and PCF pre-schools, then it is a clear sign of favoritism and ILLEGAL.

We should recall that all ministers take an oath of office, as required by the Constitution, to discharge their duties fairly. The ministers for both MCYS and MOE must be taken to task to account this is allowed to happen under the rule of law.

sgcynic said...

How about another blog entry: Publishing the letter you wish had been written.

Our internationally ranked Straits Times fully deserves its world ranking...

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Soodo said...

Dear Mr Siew
I am a concerned citizen who is doing his best to educate himself on the issues that face our troubled nation today.

May I seek your help in clarifying the following points;

Mr Hri Kumar said;
"I prefer our current system which directs help to those who need it, rather than one which purports to give universal and unconditional aid."

May I ask respectfully;
When Minister Khaw Bonn Wan paid $8 for his heart surgery:

a)Was Mr Khaw's surgery subsidised with public money?

b)If public money was used, were any means testing applied?

c)Did Mr Khaw really need the public assistance OR was he given "universal and unconditional aid."

Yours Respectfully

Siew Kum Hong said...

@Soodo I'm not in a position to answer. Perhaps you could ask Mr Khaw at his blog

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