Fast and big changes catch many by surprise

  • Letters
  • Sunday, 21 Mar 2004

CATCHING most citizens by surprise, the Singapore government has speedily moved, in just two weeks, to erase some of its underlining principles for a generation. 

This burst of activity comes at a time when the city-state is facing a new crisis of birth-rate decline, brain drain and rising economic competition from the region. 

The changes came just as people were beginning to think that the government was having second thoughts about its once-frenzied attempt to remake the city to survive in a changed world. 

After a committee had submitted its report following a two-year nationwide discussion and the government promised to make a decision, nothing more had been heard of it. 

Some analysts concluded that, with the economy recovering, the government was less enthusiastic about restructuring. Others reckoned the government found the proposals too radical. 

They have been proven wrong. 

During the past fortnight, the government has announced so many major changes – almost on a daily basis – that Singaporeans have difficulty keeping up. Some of them involved long-established principles followed by the People’s Action Party (PAP) since inception. 

Quite a few were enunciated by Lee Kuan Yew when he was Prime Minister and had worked well in the past. Others were started after Goh Chok Tong took over in 1990. 

They are considered to have outlived their usefulness as Singapore struggles with new problems, including a procreation decline and lack of a creative workforce to compete in the developed world. 

The public is quite happy with the new measures. The biggest cheers have come from parents over dramatic educational changes.  

They include the following: 

·Academic achievements and rankings are to be de-emphasised or cancelled. Admission to universities, junior colleges and secondary schools will no longer be based only on grades.  

They are allowed to take in a portion of new students based on their non-academic abilities (such as music, sports and leadership). 

·The schools’ ranking system has been dropped. Rating will be broadened to include non-academic achievements like character building and physical and aesthetic skills. 

·Most surprising of all: Mother tongue grades are no longer mandatory for university admission. As expected, it has raised the unhappiness of some of the Chinese-educated, who fear it will undermine their language. 

·The American SATS exam, adopted a year ago to test a varsity applicant’s IQ here, has been dropped.  

Since Singapore is coming up with its own admission criteria for creative skills, SATS is considered added pressure for students. 

Outside education, other changes are: 

1. A casino for Sentosa. The idea, which first surfaced in the 60s and was repeatedly rejected, now looks set to see daylight. 

At the time, Stanley Ho, the Macau gambling tycoon, came up with a blueprint. But worried about the social impact, the PAP said: “Yes, but only for foreigners. Singaporeans cannot play.” 

Ho took the next plane home, saying it wasn’t feasible. 

With so many casinos in the region drawing thousands of Singaporeans to gamble there today, officials say it doesn’t make sense to continue with the ban. 

The Minister of Trade and Industry, George Yeo, gave a hint of how the authorities hope to reduce the negative impact. 

Unless they were of a certain economic class, Yeo said, Singaporeans should avoid going to the proposed casino and “stick to 4D, Toto and horse-racing”. It implies some cut-off point that bars the lower-income from gambling there. 

2. Street hawkers. In a reversal of history, the government is giving out licences to the unemployed to operate as cart or mobile hawkers selling anything from ice-cream to kacang puteh

Some 30 years ago, street hawkers were banished to make way for today’s hawker centres. Many of the 40-somethings who were retrenched do not have the qualifications to find work. 

3. Foreign talent. Foreigners will be allowed to buy landed property at Sentosa. Until now, they can only buy flats in blocks higher than four storeys. 

4. More babies. Citizenship will automatically be granted to children born to Singaporean women abroad. There is a rising trend of women marrying foreigners and Singapore doesn’t want to lose their offspring through an inflexible law. 

There’s a growing belief that abortion, which was approved during the 70s, may be banned because, contrary to popular belief, it is increasingly becoming a lifestyle choice for married couples, not singles outside wedlock. 

Married women make up half of the estimated 13,000 abortions a year. With a shortfall in births, this appears to be a terrible loss. 

Put together, all these new measures represent a substantial change to the way Singapore will live in the 21st century. 

They are what many young professionals had wanted to see for some time and the decision to adopt them has eased disquiet that the government is insensitive to public demands. 

Most are welcomed as a refreshing development, raising the esteem of the government in their eyes. 

However, there is criticism from the elderly, Chinese-speaking citizenry over the dilution in Singapore’s bilingual education system.  

The energetic burst has also increased the people’s confidence in the performance of the government – after it had suffered as a result of the economic downturn and record unemployment. The initiatives have come from various ministries; some involved older ministers who had assumed their posts in the early 90s. 

But it is clear that much of the fresh thinking has come from among the seven new acting or potential ministers appointed to take over when Lee Hsien Loong becomes prime minister. 

With Singapore’s fertility rate plummeting to a historic low of 1.26 children per woman last year, the government is facing a population crisis. 

The figure works out to only 36,000 babies, well below the 50,000 that Singapore needs to replenish itself. This means Singapore would have to attract more skilled foreigners. 

Lee Hsien Loong has said in Parliament that Singapore needs to move closer to the populations of Hong Kong (7.4 million) and Switzerland (7.3 million) in order to drive its growth. 

That partly explains the urgency for all these changes. 


  • Seah Chiang Nee is a veteran journalist and editor of the information website  

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