MOE takes offence at Prof Koh’s column
Professor Tommy Koh, former ambassador to the United Nations and current Special Advisor to the Institute of Policy Studies at NUS, has said that he is “unhappy that many of our children are growing up in poverty.” This sweeping statement was what prompted the Ministry of Education (MOE) to issue a reply to the unsubstantiated comment.
Round 1: Tommy Koh
Prof. Koh made the comment in a New Year column for The Straits Times on 3 January 2015. He also claimed in the same article that “about a third of our students go to school with no pocket money to buy lunch” and that “60 per cent of his [our] students need financial assistance.” These comments gave the impression that there were many “poor” students in Singapore.
Round 2: MOE
In a strongly worded reply issued today (9 January) to The Straits Times Forum, MOE rebutted that “we [they] know of no study that substantiates this”. MOE also said that Prof. Koh’s article had multiple inaccuracies that should have been checked and corrected beforehand.
According to MOE, having financial support is not equivalent to being “poor”. On the other hand, the Government had “deliberately” expanded the criteria for financial support in order to allow more students to qualify. This allowed for middle-income students to get support as well, making such schemes more accessible to the masses.
Final Round: MOE v Tommy Koh
The most recent development had Prof. Koh clarifying the content in his article. He commented that the information he used had been given by two individuals who have now declared the information as inaccurate. Prof. Koh agreed that his article may have had exaggerated the extent of student poverty in Singapore, and similarly acknowledged the efforts of the Government to help this group of students.
However, Prof. Koh also maintained the undeniable existence of student poverty in Singapore, citing as example the ever-increasing amount of funds needed to sustain the Straits Times School Pocket Money Fund. The fund has grown exponentially year on year since its inception in 2000, benefiting over 14,000 students in 2014. Monthly payouts to primary and secondary school students also increased by $5 from January 2014 in a bid to address the rising costs of living.
So what next?
Although Prof. Koh’s commentary may not have been completely accurate, it does bring out into public discourse bread-and-butter issues like high income inequality. Its presence is a glaring consequence of the rapid economic progress that has benefitted Singapore, yet left far too many Singaporeans behind.
Singapore does not have an official poverty line. However, as long as income remains an impediment to a decent standard of living, Prof. Koh’s point remains relevant.
“Singapore is, however, not perfect. There are areas in which we can and should do better.”