Public mindset yet to catch up to policymaking

Public mindset yet to catch up to policymaking

Of the 20 Institute of Technical Education (ITE) students that Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC) polled recently, only one was open to heading straight to work after he graduated, and giving a proposed place-and-train programme a shot.

The rest preferred to study for a diploma next, believing that was a surer route to success.

With that one anecdote, Mr Zaqy illustrated the gulf between what non-degree holders on the ground have in mind and what members of the Aspire Committee were reaching for in their report released two weeks ago, and aimed at enhancing opportunities for polytechnic and ITE graduates.

The thrust of the report - which the Government has accepted and adopted as policy - is that all Singaporeans, regardless of their qualifications, should enjoy full opportunities to upgrade and progress during their working lives.

It also sets the stage for a cultural shift away from decades of over-emphasising paper qualifications to giving due weight to skills and performance.

All eight MPs who joined the first day of debate on Senior Minister of State Indranee Rajah's call for the House to endorse the Aspire report cheered its lofty goals but pointed to real issues on the ground that needed to be addressed before students, parents and workers would buy into it.

Ms Denise Phua (Moulmein-Kallang GRC) said she was worried about what the report left unsaid. "There appears to be an underlying assumption that all things will fall in place if we only strengthen the vocational track. And we will miraculously achieve what we would like to see in systems in, say, Germany, Switzerland, Norway or Finland, where there is a greater balance between the vocational and academic tracks."

Ms Indranee herself acknowledged that many people were not even clear what was meant by skills, with some youngsters informing their parents that since the emphasis was now on things they could do with their hands, they no longer needed to study.

She sought to set the record straight by explaining that skills refer to relevant knowledge and being able to apply it, as well as the experience of having done so.

From yesterday's debate, which continues today, it would seem that while almost nobody disagrees with the new direction set out by Aspire, few are clear about what it will mean in practice.

That too was the upshot of a lively exchange between four MPs and National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan on the Lease Buyback Scheme.

The scheme, which helps retirees monetise their flats by selling part of the remaining lease to the HDB in exchange for income, will be extended to four-room flats from next April.

Ms Foo Mee Har (West Coast GRC) asked Mr Khaw how the HDB determined the value of the lease that it buys back from flat owners. She said people were puzzled that when the duration of the lease sold to the HDB was equal to that retained by owners, the owners received less than 50 per cent of the flat's market value.

Mr Khaw explained that because a dollar today is worth more than a dollar in say, 30 years' time, the value of the lease retained by the flat owners is worth more than that sold to the HDB. He said the split would be roughly 60-40.

But he later revised that figure when asked by opposition MP Png Eng Huat (Hougang) about the restrictions imposed on those who sign up for the Lease Buyback Scheme, and who are not allowed to sublet the whole flat or resell it.

Mr Khaw then revealed that without such restrictions, and if HDB adopted a strict computation of the value of the lease, the split in value would be 75-25 rather than 60-40, rendering the scheme unattractive.

With the restrictions, however, the HDB is able to make adjustments that enhance the payouts to owners.

Yet, when Mr Hri Kumar Nair (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) asked for MND to publish both the methodology and the figures used in the computations, Mr Khaw demurred.

Mr Nair said he was asking because "one can discount on a different basis and apply different percentages and their results could be quite different. So if the MND can publish the workings and the methodology, that may help explain things".

In not taking up Mr Nair's suggestion, Mr Khaw lost an opportunity to educate the public on a new scheme that many seniors, and even MPs, are struggling to understand.

It would seem that on both Lease Buyback and the Aspire report, policymaking and messaging may be running ahead of public understanding and acceptance.

This article was first published on September 9, 2014.
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