Last month, the unwillingness of Singapore’s government to disclose the full salary of Singapore’s ministers caused much uproar. Singapore’s prime minister is estimated to earn as much as S$2.7 million from 2013 to 2017 but it could be more, because of a Special Variable Payment that the ministers can earn, which has no stated limit. In theory, the ministers can earn an infinite amount of salary.
Two weeks ago, I asked people how much they think the Singapore prime minister should earn. Here are the results.
[If you want to also take part in the survey, you can do so at the end of this article.]
More than 90% (93.84%) of respondents felt that the prime minister’s salary of an estimated S$2.7 million (or more) is too high.
On how much they think the prime minister should earn, more than 40% (42.37%) thought that the prime minister should only earn a salary similar to the average of how much the political leaders in other high-income countries earn (which would be about S$325,000), or similar to the average of the other top 10-ranking countries on the Corruption Perception Index (of about S$250,000).
The News Lens also pointed out that, “In fact, when you look at the other countries which rank similarly on the corruption perception index, their political leaders do not even earn close to the trendline – they earn lesser. It seems that the richer the country is, the less their political leaders need to earn to maintain a low-level of corruption.”
“Only the Singapore ministers have the fantasy that it is otherwise. Only the ministers in Singapore needs to earn so much more than their peers to be able to prevent corruption,” it added.
On whether there should be a limit as to how many times the Singapore prime minister should earn over minimum wage, again more than 90% (92.36%) of respondents agreed that there should be.
And when asked how much they think this limit should be, 65.64% felt that it should only be 5 to 10 times that of minimum wage, like in the Nordic countries or like the average in the other high-income countries, respectively. I met with two Norwegian friends recently, where their prime minister earns only about 5 times the lowest-wage worker. They were shocked to hear that Singapore’s prime minister earns more than 210 times more than how much a cleaner in Singapore earns.
In the previous article, I wrote: “It would take a cleaner more than 210 years to earn what the prime minister earns in a year, or more than 5 working lifetimes. The prime minister takes only less than an hour to earn what a cleaner earns.”
Also, “In the Nordic countries, a worker on a minimum rate wage only needs to take 5 years to earn what their prime ministers earn. However, in Singapore, a cleaner would need to work more than 5 lifetimes to earn what the prime minister earns. This means that low-income Singaporeans would never be able to earn even what the prime minister earns in a year.”
But do you know that Singapore still does not have a minimum wage, and is one of very few countries in the world not to have one? More than 90% of the countries in the world have a minimum wage. (Aside, Singapore is also one of very few countries in the world without unemployment benefits. When I was telling my Norwegian friend about this, he did a double-take and asked me again: “No unemployment benefits?” In most of the other developed countries, this is unheard of, and quite inhumane.)
So, I also asked people if they thought there needs to be a minimum wage in Singapore. Again, more than 90% (90.85%) thought that there should be one.
On how much they thought minimum wage should be in Singapore, more than half (57.46%) felt that Singapore’s minimum wage should be set at S$1,500 to S$2,000. Another close to 30% (29.11%) felt that minimum wage should be higher, at S$2,500 to S$3,000.
“In countries with a similar GDP per capita and cost of living, their minimum (rate) wages are as follows (rounded off to the nearest five hundred, for ease of comparison):
- S$5,000 (in Norway and Switzerland)
- S$4,000 (in Denmark and Sweden)
- S$3,500 (in Finland)
- S$3,000 (in Australia, Luxembourg and New Zealand)
- S$2,500 (in Germany and the Netherlands)
- S$2,000 (in Canada and Japan)”
Note that respondents had also voted that the prime minister should only be paid a limit of 5 to 10 times that of minimum wage. Oxfam pointed out that in Singapore, “there is no minimum wage, except for cleaners and security guards”. And for cleaners, this so-called “minimum wages” is only S$1,060.
Correspondingly, the prime minister should only earn S$65,000 or S$130,000, if his salary should be pegged to current “minimum wage”. This says two things: first, Singapore’s cleaners and low-wage workers are being paid much lower than how much they should earn corresponding to Singapore’s GDP per capita and cost of living. And second, Singapore’s prime minister is overpaid (quite obviously).
Thus, to sum up, Singaporeans believe that Singapore’s prime minister is overpaid. He should be paid a similar salary corresponding to the average salary of the political leaders in other high-income countries. His salary should also be capped at 5 to 10 times the minimum wage, as per that of the Nordic countries and the average of other high-income countries, respectively. Singaporeans also felt that a minimum wage should be set at a level of S$1,500 to S$2,000 (and perhaps to be later increased to S$2,500 to $3,000 – similar to that of other countries with a similar cost of living as Singapore).
Based on this poll, Singaporeans believe that the Singapore prime minister should earn only about S$250,000 to S$325,000. If minimum wage is increased to S$3,000, as Australia, Luxembourg, Switzerland and the Nordic countries already pay, if the prime minister were to earn 5 to 10 times this level, then the prime minister’s salary should be about S$180,000 to S$360,000, which will correspond to the limit that Singaporeans think the prime minister’s salary should be capped at – at 5 to 10 times minimum wage.
In Singapore, there are still currently 43% of residents who earn less than $3,000, and when including for the foreign workforce, as many as 60% of the total workforce in Singapore are earning less than S$3,000, or less than the minimum wage level in Australia, Luxembourg, Switzerland and the Nordic countries.
Clearly, the Singapore prime minister is overpaid. And Singaporeans are being severely underpaid. Ministerial salaries in Singapore need to be brought down by at least 8 times, and Singapore’s minimum salaries should be increased down the road by 3 times.
If you would also like to take the poll, you can take it below.
(Note: There is a short poll at the end of this article. Please take the poll too on the education system in Singapore.)
Four days ago, Oxfam released its second Commitment to Reducing Inequality Index which ranked Singapore “in the bottom 10 countries in the world in terms of reducing inequality”. Two days later, the World Bank released the Human Capital Index which ranked Singapore tops in terms of “the amount of human capital that a child born today can expect to achieve”.
So, which is right?
Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat said that Oxfam’s index is “a completely wrong analysis”.
He added: “As we know, what really matters to our people is the outcome. It’s the health outcome, it’s the educational outcome and those are fairly objective measures.”
Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee also refuted Oxfam’s report and said: “We think it is more important to look at the outcomes achieved, instead.
He added: “In education, our students consistently outperform others in international rankings. In the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), our 15-year-olds rank first for mathematics, science and reading, and our students from the poorest families perform significantly better than their counterparts in OECD countries.”
Commenting on the World Bank’s report at the Human Capital Summit dialogue, prime minister Lee Hsien Loong said: “We want to bring everybody to a good starting point as early as possible in life, regardless of whether you are rich or poor, whether your parents are advantaged or disadvantaged.”
So, who is right?
With all the talk about “outcomes”, let’s look at the outcomes.
It is true that Singapore “outperforms the rest of the world” in education – in science, reading and mathematics, and ranks top in human capital.
But it is also true that the education outcomes are also very unequal.
In Chart 1, you can see that at the easiest level of difficult (Level 1), both the richest and poorest students in Singapore perform well in reading, mathematics and science.
However, as the difficulty level increases (to Level 4), you can see that the achievement gap widens.
Next, let’s look at Singapore in comparison with the other high-income countries. I use science at the lower secondary level for illustration because the comparison is more distinct.
At Level 1 (easiest level of difficulty), you can see that Singapore’s students generally perform well, but even then, you can see that when compared with the top 13 performing countries, Singapore has the widest gap in performance between the richest and poorest students (Chart 2).
At Level 2 (Chart 3), Singapore’s students still perform well but the gap between the richest and poorest widens and is also the widest among the top 7 performing countries.
At Level 3 (Chart 4), Singapore has become the top performing country, and the gap between the richest and poorest has also widened.
You can see a pattern where at Level 1 (Chart 2) for the group of countries which did not perform as well at the Level 1, their gap between the richest and poorest was already wide (e.g. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar, etc.), but at a higher level of difficulty, at Level 2 (Chart 3), the group of countries at the next performing level would start to see their gap widen (e.g. United Arab Emirates, Cyprus and Italy, etc.). At an even higher level of difficulty, at Level 3 (Chart 4), countries like Canada, Sweden and the Netherlands saw their gaps widen.
By Level 4 (Chart 5 below), the gaps in most countries would have narrowed for the majority of the countries – at the level of difficulty where each country has attained its overall optimal potential, this is where the gap is the highest, where their richest students would still be able to outperform their poorest students. But beyond the level of difficulty where the overall student population would have difficulty in performing in, the gap between the richest and poorest would narrow.
At Level 4 thus, for most countries, the gap between the richest and poorest therefore narrowed because even among the richest students, they would have difficulty performing well at the highest level of difficulty. However, Singapore bucks the trend where the richest students are still performing fairly well.
But this is where the inequality becomes glaringly obvious. In fact, the poorest students perform behind the richest students in the top 20 countries. What this shows is that yes, Singapore’s overall education outcomes is good, but it is also true that the education outcomes are very unequal, where the gap between the richest and poorest is also very high.
The same story plays out in science at the primary level (Chart 6) and science at the upper secondary level (Chart 7), at the highest level of difficulty (Level 4) – at the upper secondary level, the poorest students in Singapore perform behind the top 35 countries, and even behind the middle-income students in the top 25 countries.
It is also interesting to note that because Singapore’s education system is unequal, that even at the lowest level of difficulty for science at the primary and upper secondary level, Singapore does not rank at the top, but at the 10th and 9th, respectively.
In mathematics at the primary (Chart 8) and lower secondary (Chart 9) levels, you see the same situation at the highest level of difficulty (Level 4) – the gap between the richest and poorest is also the widest in Singapore.
What these charts show are that the richest students in Singapore outperform students in the rest of the world, and are still able to perform fairly well at the highest levels of difficulty (Level 4). However, Singapore’s students do not perform equally well, and the gap between the richest and poorest widens as the difficulty level increases.
In other words, by looking at “outcomes”, as Heng Swee Keat and Desmond Lee purported, not every school is a good school.
Interestingly, when you look at Chart 10 – in the area of mathematics at the upper secondary level, again at the highest level of difficulty (Level 4), Singapore is still at the top but the other countries are quickly catching up, in spite of being much further behind at the primary (Chart 8) and lower secondary level (Chart 9), which suggests that too many examinations and streaming at too early the years of education might not be necessary, since students do catch up to perform similarly well in their later years – as Chart 10 below evidently shows, from the example in other countries.
The question therefore, is there a need to put our students through the stress of examinations and streaming at their earlier years?
Finally, in terms of reading, Singapore also performs the best at the primary level (Chart 11) at the highest level of difficulty (Level 4), but the gap between the richest and poorest is also the widest, with the poorest students performing behind the richest students in the top 25 countries.
For reading at the upper secondary level (Chart 12) at the highest level of difficulty (Level 4), Singapore’s students also come up tops but the gap between the richest and poorest is also the widest. In fact, the poorest students also perform behind the richest students in almost all the countries ranked.
In fact, at the lowest level of difficulty for reading at the primary and upper secondary level, again because of Singapore’s inequality, Singapore does not rank at the top, but at the 17th and 9th, respectively.
Also, Chart 12 shows again that by the upper secondary school level, the other countries are catching up, and not only that, they are able to do so without as wide a gap as Singapore.
This suggests that there is really no need for us to push our students to be streamed at such an early age when they would evidently be able to catch up in their later years – at least by the upper secondary level.
Also, what is clearly a concern in these comparisons is that even though Singapore provides a good basic foundation-level education, education outcomes at higher levels of difficulty is vastly unequal.
Looking at these charts, what Lee Hsien Loong said then made some sense, when he said: “We want to bring everybody to a good starting point as early as possible in life, regardless of whether you are rich or poor, whether your parents are advantaged or disadvantaged.”
But this raises some questions:
- After “bringing everybody to a good starting point”, does the government intent to help everyone move up together, or will the richest students have more access to better education, as is the case? In other words, is every school truly a good school?
- Second, the government might say that they are “bringing everybody to a good starting point as early as possible in life“, but if other countries have shown that by the upper secondary level, students will catch up anyway, is there a need to put that much stress on students at such an early age? Is there a need to stream them at age 10 (Primary 4), age 12 (Primary 6) and age 14 (Secondary 2) when an examination at age 16 should suffice?
- Finally, if students are only brought to a good starting point but they are not helped to perform well all the way (where the gap between the richest and poorest is the highest in Singapore for the highest level of difficulty), then does it help to narrow the gap between the “rich and poor”, and between the “advantaged and disadvantaged”, or is the education system therefore actually perpetuating inequality?
According to the OECD which conducted PISA, “Upper secondary students from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to perform well in PISA assessments.” The “outcomes” of Singapore’s inequality – which is the highest among the advanced economies – is therefore a threat to Singapore’s education system.
We really have to question if we want a more equal and less stressful education system for our children.
Below are five short polls on Singapore’s education system. After reading this article, how would you answer the questions below?
I have also previously written about the inequality in Singapore’s education system. You can read it here.
Between 2013 and 2017, Singapore’s prime minister earned as much as S$2.7 million a year, and possibly more.
However, Singapore’s cleaners still earn as little as S$1,060 a month, or less. There is a massive gap between how much the prime minister and Singapore’s workers earn.
QUESTION: Therefore, how much do you think Singapore’s prime minister and Singapore’s workers should earn?
In this short post, you can take 6 polls to find out what other Singaporeans think is a fair wage for the prime minister and Singapore’s workers.
Before each question, there will be brief statistics to provide some background information for you.
Questions 1/2: How Much Salary Do You Think Singapore’s Prime Minister Should Earn?
To give you a gauge, below is how much the other high-income countries pay their political leaders (rounded off to the nearest fives):
- Singapore’s prime minister earns more than 200 times what cleaners in Singapore earn.
- In comparison, in the other high-income countries, their political leaders only earn an average of about 10 times the minimum wage. In the Nordic countries, it is even fairer – their political leaders earn only an average of about 5 times the minimum rate wage.
- When comparing with median wage, political leaders in other high-income countries also only earn an average of about 5 times the median wage. In Singapore, the prime earns nearly 60 times more, than Singapore’s median wage of S$3,749 a month (not including CPF).
- Political leaders in other high-income countries also only earn an average of about 6 times their countries’ GDP per capita. In Singapore, the prime minister earns more than 35 times more, than Singapore’s GDP per capita of S$73,167 a year in 2016.
- When pegging the salaries of the political leaders to the average cost of living in these countries, they generally follow a trendline. But Singapore is way off the mark – Singapore’s prime minister and ministers earn several times more than what corresponds to Singapore’s average cost of living, when compared to the other high-income countries.
- In the top 10 ranking countries on the Corruption Perception Index or the other countries perceived to be the least corrupt in the world, their political leaders earn an average of about S$250,000. Singapore ranks 6th but its prime minister earns more than 10 times the salaries of the other political leaders.
- In fact, the political leaders in other high-income countries earn an average of S$325,000 but Singapore’s prime minister earns as much as S$2.7 million, or more. This is more than 8 times more than them.
With these facts as reference, how would you answer the following question?
For the question below, note that when the minimum and median wages changes, the prime ministers’ salary would change accordingly.
Questions 3/4: Should There Be A Limit As To How Many Times Singapore’s Prime Minister Earn More Than Minimum Wage?
As calculated, Singapore’s prime minister earns as much as S$2.7 million a year between 2013 and 2017, or even more. However, Singapore’s cleaners earn as little as only S$1,060 a month. The prime minister earns more than 210 times more than what a cleaner earns, and it would take more than 5 working lifetimes for the cleaner to earn the same amount.
Also, last year, there were still 7% of Singapore residents who earned less than S$1,000, and when you include the foreign workforce, 20% of workers were earning less than S$1,000 in Singapore.
Singapore’s prime minister also earns 100 times more than the starting salary of a polytechnic graduate of S$2,200 a month last year, and nearly 60 times more than Singapore’s median wage of S$3,749 a month last year.
In the other high-income countries, their political leaders earn only about 10 times more than minimum wage. And in the Nordic countries, their political leaders earn only about 5 times more than the minimum rate wage.
In the Nordic countries, a worker on a minimum rate wage only needs to take 5 years to earn what their prime ministers earn. However, in Singapore, a cleaner would need to work more than 5 lifetimes to earn what the prime minister earns. This means that low-income Singaporeans would never be able to earn even what the prime minister earns in a year.
As such, how would you answer the following questions?
Questions 5/6: How Much Do You Think Singapore’s Minimum Wage Should Be?
But do you know that Singapore still does not currently have a minimum wage, and is one of very few countries in the world to still not have one?
Cleaners earn a starting wage of only S$1,060 but there are still 7% of Singapore residents who earn less than S$1,000 (20% when including the foreign workforce).
In countries with a similar GDP per capita and cost of living, their minimum (rate) wages are as follows (rounded off to the nearest five hundred, for ease of comparison):
- S$5,000 (in Norway and Switzerland)
- S$4,000 (in Denmark and Sweden)
- S$3,500 (in Finland)
- S$3,000 (in Australia, Luxembourg and New Zealand)
- S$2,500 (in Germany and the Netherlands)
- S$2,000 (in Canada and Japan)
Mind you, Singapore’s GDP per capita and cost of living is among the top 10 highest in the world, but it does not even have a minimum wage and 20% of the total workforce still earn less than S$1,000.
In other words, 20% of Singapore’s workers earn only half the minimum wage of Canada and Japan, or less, and only one-third that of Australia, Luxembourg and New Zealand, or less. In fact, half of Singaporeans earn less than the minimum rate wage in the Nordic countries and Switzerland, and nearly 70% of Singaporeans earn less than the minimum rate wage in Norway and Switzerland.
Given the above information, how would you answer the question below?
Have you finished taking the polls?
But here’s more information for you.
In the other high-income countries, their political leaders earn about 6 times more than their GDP per capita. Their political leaders also earn about 5 times more than median wage and 10 times more than minimum wage. This means that there isn’t that big a disparity between minimum wage, median wage and the salaries of the political leaders.
But in Singapore, the prime minister earns more than 35 times more than the GDP per capita, nearly 60 times more than median wage, 100 times more than the starting salaries of polytechnic graduates and more than 210 times more than cleaners. This not only shows that there is a massive disparity between the wages of ordinary citizens like you and I, and with the prime minister and ministers, but also that when compared with the GDP per capita, Singaporeans are not adequately compensated.
Whereas citizens in the other high-income countries are properly compensated in wages from what they have helped to contribute in GDP, Singaporeans are not returned the GDP that they have helped to contribute.
This is why even though Singapore’s cost of living has grown with the GDP per capita, the majority of Singaporeans cannot catch up with the cost of living, because their wage growth has fallen way behind the growth in GDP.
Meanwhile, the Singapore prime minister and ministers pay themselves way more than is necessary for the cost of living in Singapore. So while PAP’s ministers can enjoy the comforts of life, the rest of Singaporeans have to slog, some until their deaths.
Have you ever questioned why you are working so hard for the people who are making your lives so difficult? Why don’t you put in people in government who will actually work for you?
Singapore has actually earned enough to ensure that all Singaporeans will be able to enjoy a comfortable life, but instead the PAP government has allowed themselves to live a good life, while the rest of you struggle.
Why do you make it so hard for yourself?
Over the last few years, the Singapore government has never been fully transparent with Singaporeans on how much salaries the Singapore prime minister and ministers are earning.
A month ago, on 10 September 2018, the Worker’s Party asked in parliament how much bonuses Singapore’s ministers are earning. However, the prime minister chose not to give a complete answer. On 17 September 2018, the Singapore government then accused Singaporeans of making false estimates but still refused to provide full transparent and open figures on how much the ministerial salaries are. Finally, on 1 October 2018, facing mounting pressure the deputy prime minister provided some further figures which allowed Singaporeans to make better estimates. However, the government still refused to provide the figures of the total salaries of the prime minister and ministers. Worse still, there is a special bonus that the prime minister and ministers get to earn, which has no stated limit, which means that theoretically, there is no limit as to how much the prime minister and ministers can earn. Read on to learn more.
Below, I have compiled the Facebook posts I have made on this issue (in chronological order), with the closest estimates we have on the prime minister’s and ministers’ salaries, and what the People’s Action Party (PAP) ruling regime still has not been transparent with Singaporean’s about.
On 10 September, the Worker’s Party asked a question on how much total bonuses the ministers are getting.
Below is a calculation of the total salary of the Singapore deputy prime minister (DPM), based on the DPM’s response on 10 September:
- The stated Annual Salary of the Singapore DPM is S$1.87 million (including a 13th-month bonus, 1 month AVC, 3 months PB & 3 months NB).
- Assuming that he got the average performance bonus of 4.1 months in 2017, this means that his performance bonus was S$383,350 in 2017.
- All the ministers get a National Bonus (NB) of up to 6 months. Based on the formula to calculate the National Bonus (NB), they would have gotten 4.5 months of NB last year. The DPM would have gotten S$420,750. His NB bonus is enough to buy a HDB flat (see formula here).
- All the ministers also get a 13th-month annual allowance. This is an additional S$187,000 for the DPM.
- All the ministers also get an annual variable component of 0 to 1.5 months. Under the Stated Salaries, they get 1 month, which would give the DPM another S$187,000.
- In total, the DPM (and the other ministers) received a total bonus/allowance/AVC of at least 9.6 months.
In total, the Singapore DPM would have earned at least S$2.02 million last year. This is nearly 2 times his base salary.
For the prime minister, he does not get a performance bonus because it is claimed that “there is no one to assess his individual performance”. (Shouldn’t his performance be assessed by you – his boss?)
So, what does he get? He gets 2 times the National Bonus (up to 12 months). Here’s the breakdown.
- The stated Annual Salary of the Singapore prime minister is S$2.2 million (including a 13th-month bonus, 1 month AVC, 3 months PB & 3 months NB).
- His 13th-month annual allowance is S$220,000.
- His AVC of 1 month under the stated Annual Salaries would be another S$220,000.
- The prime minister’s NB is twice as high as the other ministers, so he would have gotten 9 months of NB bonus last year. This would be S$990,000. His NB bonus alone is nearly 2 times the salary of the president of the United States.
- In total, the prime minister received a total bonus/allowance/AVC of at least 11 months.
In total, the Singapore prime minister would have earned at least S$2.53 million.
But this is not even it.
All the ministers also can get an additional Special Variable Payment. There is no stated limit to this payment.
The prime minister earns at least 11 months of bonus.
The Singapore prime minister earns 202 times what they earn.
In fact, the prime minister gets to earn S$1,000 in just less an hour.
If you earn S$2,000 a month, the prime minister just takes less than 2 hours to earn what you earn. 26.5% of Singapore resident workers earn less than this (43.7% when including the foreign workforce).
If you earn S$3,000 a month, the prime minister just takes less than 3 hours to earn what you earn. 43.1% of Singapore resident workers earn less than this (as many as 50% when including the foreign workforce).
And yet, the prime minister asks you to cut down on your expenses during his speech at the National Day Rally.
In one month, the prime minister would earn S$210,833 a month. The prime minister earns enough to buy a HDB public housing flat in one to two months.
How many years do you have to work to pay for a HDB flat? Do you get any CPF pension savings left after that?
The prime minister earns enough every two months to buy a HDB flat. But your HDB flat will have zero value at the end of 99-years.
Who did you vote for?
(The above’s original post on Facebook can be read here.)
But does the Singapore prime minister not know how to give a straight answer?
A week later, on 17 September, the Singapore government posted an accusation against Singaporeans on its Factually website.
But isn’t this what we have been asking all along? What is the prime minister’s national bonus? What is his AVC? Also, what is his special variable payment? Why didn’t the government talk about the special variable payment (SVC) in its latest article? This SVC component is also stated in the 2011 White Paper they talked about.
The Factually website ended by saying that the prime minister “does receive the National Bonus” (emphasis mine). But it does not want to reveal how much the prime minister’s exact national bonus is. If so, isn’t the government “not upfront about how ministerial salaries are calculated”, which was what the government’s article claimed to want to clarify?
Why claim to “clarify” without providing the actual breakdown and calculations?
Also, the Factually website only said that, “The Prime Minister’s norm salary is set at two times that of an MR4 Minister. His $2.2 million annual salary includes bonuses.” But do you know what the government does not say in this latest article? This “norm” salary is actually only “the mid-point of the range of bonuses payable and describes a situation where individual performance is good and targets for the National Bonus indicators are met”. This is stated inside the White Paper too. So why doesn’t the government explicitly say this in the latest article?
So, this S$2.2 million is the so-called “norm salary”. We do not just want to know how much his “norm” salary is. How much is his total salary exactly every year, after accounting for the (1) national bonus, (2) AVC, and (3) SVC? This is what we want to know. And do you know there is actually no stated limit as to how high the SVC can be?
When you are paid a salary, do you ask to be paid a “norm” salary, or do you want to know your full salary, including the bonuses?
Some online news sites have calculated this to be between S$2.5 million and S$3 million, based on how much they estimate the national bonus to be, based on the formula, as also stated in the White Paper (and not the S$2.2 million “norm” salary, whatever that means anyway). I have estimated it to be about S$2.53 million, and this is not yet including the special variable payment on the years they are paid.
Similarly, it has been estimated that the prime minister earns a total of 10 to 11 months of bonuses/AVC/SVP, at least. Why can’t the Factually website just state exactly how much the prime minister’s bonus is, instead of only saying that he is paid a national bonus, without saying how much it is?
Why can’t the government be upfront about it on the Factually website? Why put up information to claim to clarify without providing actual facts to clarify?
The government has zero right to deride other websites when it itself is not completely upfront and fully transparent about this information.
Tell us how much the prime minister’s (1) national bonus, (2) AVC, and (3) SVC is.
Tell us how much his total salary is for all the years he has been paid. Do not give half-baked answers.
Why does the Singapore PAP government not want to be completely upfront? Why does the Singapore PAP government choose to be non-transparent, like how it deals with Singaporean’s CPF pension and HDB public housing?
Does the Singapore PAP government take Singaporeans for fools?
(The above’s original post on Facebook can be read here.)
In summary, the following chart shows the important facts that the Singapore government chose to leave out in its “clarifications” on the ministerial salaries on the Factually website.
Can the PAP not answer a simple question? Or do they not want to answer? Is it that hard to be transparent?
Instead of chastising others for trying to work out estimates, the PAP government should come clean with the actual total salary that the Singapore prime minister and other ministers are earning. Why try to defend itself without without telling the truth?
It is not difficult to answer. Question is, why does the government beat around the bush? Is it very embarrassing if Singaporeans were to know?
Ministerial salaries are public information, which the government should provide plainly. What is the prime minister’s actual total salary, and that of the other ministers?
On 1 October, Singapore’s deputy prime minister Teo Chee Hean said in parliament: “all the components [of the salary for entry-level ministers] are within the framework of the S$1.1 million that was put in place in 2012.”
Chee Hean also said: “The salary structure is totally transparent. There are no hidden salary components or perks.”
Now, the S$1.1 million salary is calculated based on the following components:
- Fixed component I: 12 months salary
- Fixed component II: 13th-month bonus
- Variable component I: 3 months Performance Bonus (PB)
- Variable component II: 3 months National Bonus (NB)
- Variable component III: 1 month Annual Variable Component (AVC)
- TOTAL: 20 MONTHS (13 months fixed component + 7 months variable component)
But note, the above is only for illustration purposes, because the total number of bonuses that the ministers can receive are higher:
- Performance Bonus (PB): up to 6 months
- National Bonus (NB): up to 6 months
- Annual Variable Component (AVC): up to 1.5 month
- Special Variable Payment (SVC): no stated limit
- TOTAL APPLICABLE BONUSES:
- not including SVC: up to 13.5 months
- including SVC: unlimited*
- TOTAL APPLICABLE SALARY:
- not including SVC: up to 26.5 months
- including SVC: unlimited*
*There is no limit to the SVC based on the current publicly available information, unless the government is willing to provide more information.
Chee Hean also revealed that from 2013 to 2017:
- The Singapore ministers earned National Bonuses (NB) of 3.4 to 4.9 months, with an average of 4.1 months over the 5-year period.
- On 10 September, Singapore’s prime minister Hsien Loong also revealed that between 2013 and 2017, the ministers earned Performance Bonuses (PB) of 3 to 6 months, with an average of 4.3, 4.2, 4.4, 4.3 and 4.1 months in 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017, respectively. The average is 4.3 months over the 5-year period.
- On 1 October, Chee Hean also revealed that from 2013 to 2017, the ministers earned an AVC of 0.95 to 1.5 months, with an average of 1.3 months over the 5-years period.
- But how much exactly is the average National Bonus (NB) for each year? It is not known, or if it was shared in parliament on 1 October, it was not reported.
- Also, how much has been the total salaries of each of the ministers since 1959, and what were the exact breakdowns?
Using the lower limit, average and upper limit bonuses/AVC of each of the components, the total salary for an entry-level minister is estimated as according:
(i) Lower Limit: 13 months (fixed component) + 3.4 months (NB) + 3 months (PB) + 0.95 months (AVC) (TOTAL: 20.35 months)
==> S$1.11925 MILLION
(ii) Average: 13 months (fixed component) + 4.1 months (NB) + 4.3 months (PB) + 1.3 months (AVC) (TOTAL: 22.7 months)
==> S$1.2485 MILLION
(iii) Upper Limit: 13 months (fixed component) + 4.9 months (NB) + 6 months (PB) + 1.5 months (AVC) (TOTAL: 25.4 months)
==> S$1.397 MILLION
As such, from 2013 to 2017, an entry-level minister never earns just only S$1.1 million, he or she always earns higher than S$1.1 million. From 2013 to 2017, the salary of an entry-level minister ranges from an estimated S$1.12 million to S$1.40 million.
Similarly, for the deputy prime ministers, the total salary is estimated as according:
(i) Lower Limit: 13 months (fixed component) + 3.4 months (NB) + 3 months (PB) + 0.95 months (AVC) (TOTAL: 20.35 months)
==> S$1.902725 MILLION
(ii) Average: 13 months (fixed component) + 4.1 months (NB) + 4.3 months (PB) + 1.3 months (AVC) (TOTAL: 22.7 months)
==> S$2.12245 MILLION
(iii) Upper Limit: 13 months (fixed component) + 4.9 months (NB) + 6 months (PB) + 1.5 months (AVC) (TOTAL: 25.4 months)
==> S$2.3749 MILLION
As such, from 2013 to 2017, the deputy prime ministers never earn just only S$1.87 million, they always earn higher than S$1.87 million. From 2013 to 2017, the salaries of the deputy prime ministers range from an estimated S$1.90 million to S$2.37 million.
The Singapore prime minister does not get a Performance Bonus (PB), but he gets twice the National Bonus (NB). As such, again based on the lower limit, average and upper limit bonuses/AVC of each of the component, the total salary for the prime minister is estimated as according:
(i) Lower Limit: 13 months (fixed component) + 6.8 months (NB) + 0.95 months (AVC) (TOTAL: 20.75 months)
==> S$2.2825 MILLION
(ii) Average: 13 months (fixed component) + 8.2 months (NB) + 1.3 months (AVC) (TOTAL: 22.5 months)
==> S$2.475 MILLION
(iii) Upper Limit: 13 months (fixed component) + 9.8 months (NB) + 1.5 months (AVC) (TOTAL: 24.3 months)
==> S$2.673 MILLION
As such, from 2013 to 2017, the prime minister never earns just only S$2.2 million, he has always earned higher than S$2.2 million. From 2013 to 2017, the salary of the prime minister ranges from an estimated S$2.28 million to S$2.67 million.
Without the exact breakdowns according to each year, these are the best estimates that we can come out with.
Why does Chee Hean insists on using S$1.1 million for illustration when from 2013 to 2017, an entry-level minister clearly earns more than that? Why does the Singapore government insists on saying that the prime minister earns S$2.2 million when from 2013 to 2017, he clearly earns more than that?
Chee Hean also said: “The salary structure is totally transparent. There are no hidden salary components or perks.”
But do you see the problem? Until now, we still do not know exactly how much the prime minister and ministers were paid in TOTAL. Why does the PAP government insists on not being “totally transparent” with this information?
And if Singaporeans are forced to estimate the total salaries based on the incomplete information that is given, does the PAP government have a right to say that Singaporeans are spreading falsehoods, when it is the PAP that has been non-transparent?
But here is one last thing: do you know that there is a Special Variable Payment (SVC) which the ministers can earn, which has no stated limit, which in theory can be an infinite amount?
This SVC has never been disclosed.
WP should ask this question in parliament.
Now, look back at what Chee Hean said (which I quoted at the start of this Facebook post on 1 October). Knowing all these now, in Chee Hean’s words, “what do you think” of what he said?
Chee Hean called the Worker’s Party disingenuous. But who is the one being disingenuous?
(The above’s original post on Facebook can be read here.)
In summary, from 2013 to 2017, Singapore’s ministers earned an average of 9.7 months of bonuses. Over the same period, the Singapore prime minister earned as much as more than 12 months in bonuses, or more. In one year, the prime minister can earn as much as S$2.7 million, or more than two years worth of salary (but this is still not including his Special Variable Payment (SVP), and no one knows how much this is as there is no stated limit as to how many months the SVP is).
The prime minister earns an average of as much as S$220,000 a month (or more) but a cleaner earns only as low as S$1,060 a month. The average starting salary of a polytechnic graduate is only S$2,200 a month, and Singapore’s median wage is only S$3,749 a month (not including CPF). The prime minister earns nearly 60 times what a median wage earner earns, 100 times more than a polytechnic graduate and nearly 210 times more than a cleaner. It would take a cleaner more than 210 years to earn what the prime minister earns in a year, or more than 5 working lifetimes. The prime minister takes only less than an hour to earn what a cleaner earns.
A cleaner in Singapore will only earn 2 weeks of bonus (starting 2020). The Singapore prime minister earns as much as more than 12 months of bonuses (or 1 whole year) between 2013 and 2017.
Is this acceptable?
Figure: 2011 White Paper
Finally, Singapore deputy prime minister Teo Chee Hean said: “The salary structure is totally transparent. There are no hidden salary components or perks.”
Then, what is the Special Variable Payment? And why is there no stated limit on how many months the Special Variable Payment is?
Note that the Singapore PAP ruling regime has not disclosed what the TOTAL salaries for the Singapore prime minister and the ministers are.
This is because of a Special Variable Payment (SVC). The PAP has not revealed how many months of this SVC bonus the ministers can get. In fact, there is no stated limit on the number of months the SVC can go up to.
This means that in theory, the SVC has no limit and the prime minister and each minister can earn even possibly tens of millions of dollars per person.
In fact, when the PAP tried to “clarify” on its Factually website, it was only willing to say that the prime minister’s “norm” salary is S$2.2 million, without saying that when including the other bonuses, that it could be as high as S$2.7 million between 2013 and 2017, and even more when including the SVC. In fact, Factually only said that it is not true that the prime minister gets paid “up to $4.5 million a year”. So does it mean that it could be true that he gets paid up to S$4.4 million or up to S$10 million, or more?
The only way for the PAP to account to Singaporeans is to be fully transparent and disclose how much the total salaries are for the prime minister and minsters, including the complete breakdown. If not, it has zero right to shame Singaporeans who try to come out with estimates, when it is the one who obviously feels too ashamed to tell Singaporeans the exact figures.
It has been one month since The Worker’s Party asked this question in parliament and to date, we still have no complete answer. Is the PAP so ashamed that it cannot come clean with this information, which should be public information in the first place?
Deputy prime minister Chee Hean called The Worker’s Party disingenuous, but it is the PAP which has been disingenuous by not being completely upfront. Whoever wrote the Factually website is also complicit.
What is the total salary of the prime minister and ministers, and what are the complete breakdowns? How much SVC did the prime minister and each minister get every year since the SVC started?
(The above’s original post on Facebook can be read here.)
This is the third part of a series of articles that I have written on healthcare financing over the past one month, which compares how much Singaporeans are paying into healthcare with other countries and how much they are getting back.
In the first article, I wrote about how the Singapore government puts a cap on how much Singaporeans get to claim from what they pay into national health insurance (Medisave and MediShield) but in the Asian Tigers and Japan, their governments do not put a cap. Instead, they do the opposite – they put a cap on what their citizens have to pay out-of-pocket, and protect their citizens.
This leads on the second article which showed that of the national health insurance premiums that the citizens of the Asian Tigers, Japan and Germany pay, they get back fully the national health insurance premiums that they pay in a year. However, Singaporeans only get back 8.5% of the amount that they pay into national health insurance (Medisave) premiums.
In the third part – which is this article, I show how citizens of the Asian Tigers (Taiwan and South Korea), Japan and Germany pay between 5% and 15% of their wages into national health insurance which then pays for about 50% of the total health expenditure.
But guess how much national health insurance pays into total health expenditure in Singapore?
Well, read on.
In Taiwan, citizens pay 4.69% of their wages into national health insurance.
And in Taiwan, the national health insurance that citizens pay, pays for 52.6% of total health expenditure.
In South Korea, citizens pay 6.12% of their wages into national health insurance.
And in South Korea, the national health insurance that citizens pay, pays for 42.8% of total health expenditure.
In Japan, citizens pay a base 10% of their wages into national health insurance.
And in Japan, the national health insurance that citizens pay, pays for 48.6% of total health expenditure.
In Germany, citizens pay 14.6% of their wages into national health insurance.
And in Germany, the national health insurance that citizens pay, pays for 58.5% of total health expenditure.
So, you can see that in these other countries, citizens pay between 5% and 15% of their wages into national health insurance and the national health insurance pays for about half of total health expenditure.
How about Singapore?
It is ugly.
In Singapore, citizens pay between 8% and 10.5% of their wages into national health insurance (Medisave) – which is one of the highest among the countries compared and actually, in the world.
But in Singapore, the Medisave that Singaporeans pay, pays for ONLY 5.5% of total health expenditure – which would be among the lowest proportionate returns for national health insurance in the world, or possibly the lowest.
Isn’t this shocking?
In other countries, the national health insurance that citizens pay, pays for about 50% of total health expenditure.
But in Singapore, it is ONLY 5.5% – or ONLY about one-tenth that of the other countries.
Maybe it is clearer when we put it all in a chart.
Below, you can see that as citizens in a country pay more of their wages into national health insurance, the national health insurance would pay for a higher proportion of total health expenditure.
Taiwan is an exception where healthcare costs are managed so efficiently that national health insurance gives even higher proportionate returns on total health expenditure than the other countries.
However, Singapore bucks the trend on the other extreme – Singaporeans pay one of the highest proportion of their wages into national health insurance (Medisave) in the world but actually get back possibly the lowest proportionate returns, out of total health expenditure.
In fact, based on the benchmark of other countries, Singaporeans should by right actually be getting back 50% that their Medisave should pay for total health expenditure!
And as I had written in part two, where the citizens of these other countries get back fully what they pay into national health insurance premiums every year, and if Singaporeans also get back fully what they pay into Mediave premiums, then based on this benchmark, Singaporeans should be getting back 65% that their Medisave should pay for total health expenditure!
(Explanation: (1) Out of the Medisave premiums that Singaporeans pay, they only get to claim back 8.5% of what they pay in a year. If Singaporeans are able to claim back in full what they pay into Medisave premiums in a year, they would be able to claim back about another 11.8 times more. (2) Therefore, if Medisave only pays for 5.5% of total health expenditure now, then when this is multiplied by 11.8 times, Medisave should actually pay for 65% of total health expenditure.)
But instead, what is happening?
Instead of how Medisave should rightfully be paying for 65% of total health expenditure, it is Singaporeans who have to fork out another 61% out of their own pockets to pay for the total health expenditure instead! (after deducting for government expenditure (and Medifund which is part of government expenditure), Medisave withdrawals and MediShield claims)
So where the other countries would take the national health insurance premiums paid by their citizens and return fully to fund about 50% of total health expenditure, the Singapore government instead keeps more than 90% of what they collect from Medisave and make Singaporeans pay another 61% of total health expenditure!
Can you see now how Singaporeans are actually DOUBLE-PAYING for healthcare?
The Medisave that we pay should pay for 65% of total health expenditure, but we only get back 5.5%. What about the balance of 59.5%? (65% – 5.5% = 59.5%)
Instead, the government makes Singaporeans pay in cash out-of-pocket for the balance of 59.5% from Medisave that they should return – we have to pay out-of-pocket another 61%!
Can you see now how Singaporeans are DOUBLE-PAYING?
I have been saying this many times before. But can you see now how it actually works out?
Does this look clearer now? Singaporeans are paying double an amount what they should rightfully be able to get back from Medisave claims.
Now, if you thought that Medisave is bad.
Look at how much MediShield pays.
And do you know, by right, how much should Singaporeans actually need to pay out-of-pocket?
- The government expenditure on health is only 31%.
- MediShield pays for 2.14%. But remember, over the last few years, Singaporeans only get back about 50% of what their pay into MediShield premiums. So, if Singaporeans also get back fully what they pay into MediShield premiums, then MediShield should cover about 4.3% of total health expenditure.
- And if you add on that Medisave should pay for 65% of total health expenditure, how much should Singaporeans pay out-of-pocket?
Singaporeans should be paying S$0 – ZERO – out-of-pocket!
However, this is what is happening today:
- Government health expenditure takes up 31.1% of total health expenditure.
- Medisave covers only 5.5 of total health expenditure.
- MediShield covers only 2.1% of total health expenditure.
- Singaporeans have to pay 61.3% out-of-pocket.
But this is what should be happening:
- Government health expenditure takes up 31% of total health expenditure.
- Medisave should cover 65% of total health expenditure.
- MediShield should cover 4.3% of total health expenditure.
- All these should cover 100.3% of total health expenditure.
In short, Singaporeans are paying enough in taxes and national health insurance to get FREE HEALTHCARE today!
We should not even be paying anything out-of-pocket!
In fact, we should get back 0.3% in return. In Germany, this would be returned to citizens as bonuses.
Additionally, seeing now how the Singapore government profits from Medisave and MediShield, then how much does the government profits from the revenue we pay to them? (It is already known that the government has S$20 to $S40 billion in cash surplus every year that it does not declare to Singaporeans as budget surplus, which therefore is not spent back for Singaporeans.)
And so, what is the net effect with how the Singapore government is profitting from what Singaporeans pay?
Singaporeans pay one of the highest proportion of our wages into national health insurance (Medisave) in the world, and by right the Medisave that we pay should pay for 65% of total health expenditure.
But instead, the government turns it around and makes Singaporeans pay the highest out-of-pocket expenditure among the developed countries – 61%.
In comparison, citizens from Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and Germany only need to pay between 10% and 35% out-of-pocket.
And thus Singaporeans actually pay the most dollar amount for out-of-pocket expenditure (after accounting for purchasing power parity) in the world!
Sources: National Health Insurance Administration, Ministry of Health and Welfare (Taiwan), KOrean Statistical Information Service – National Health Care Expenditure by Suppliers and Financial Resources (National Medical Expenses) (South Korea), Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare – Overview of Medical Service Regime in Japan Financial Situation of Health Insurance (Japan), Statistisches Bundesamt – Health expenditure (Germany), Ministry of Health, Singapore – Healthcare financing sources (Singapore)
So, all in, this means that whatever Singaporeans pay in taxes, Medisave and MediShield should pay fully for the total health expenditure in Singapore.
Singaporeans should not have to pay a single cent for healthcare!
So why is the People’s Action Party (PAP) ruling government making Singaporeans double-pay on healthcare and profitting from the monies that Singaporeans pay into national health insurance?
Do you think this is ethical?
Do you think that whenever the PAP threatens that Singaporeans have to pay higher taxes in order to get higher subsidies for healthcare, this is fair?
Then what should be done?
The Worker’s Party ‘s Ms Sylvia Lim had already flagged this issue out in parliament in 2012, and asked why the Singapore government’s expenditure is not following international standards.
Mr Inderjit Singh before me shared how Singapore’s total expenditure on healthcare as a % of GDP was far lower than international standards. More importantly, the government or public expenditure on healthcare is also far lower than elsewhere.
In addition, the Singapore government’s contribution to total health care expenditure has fallen from 51% in 1995 to 41% in 2009. This is much lower than over 60% in many other middle and high income countries.
The Worker’s Party’s Gerald Giam also said in parliament in 2013:
In Singapore, less than one-third of all healthcare costs are paid by the Government. More than 60% of costs are paid by patients out-of-pocket, which includes cash and Medisave. This is much higher than the average of 14% in high income countries, according to data from the World Health Organization.
Both Ms Lim and Mr Giam asked why the Singapore government is underpaying and why Singaporeans are overpaying for health.
Since Singaporeans are already overpaying into Medisave and MediShield today, the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) wants to reduce the payments that Singaporeans pay into national health insurance.
And it also proposes that Singaporeans should only have to pay out-of-pocket 17% of total health expenditure.
The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) also proposes that Singaporeans should pay only 10% for medical services that they are charged for.
And that there should be a cap of S$2,000 that Singaporeans need to pay on healthcare in a year – Singaporeans should not pay more out-of-pocket beyond that.
So you see, the Worker’s Party has pointed out the issues with the PAP government’s discrepancy in the health expenditure financing in Singapore.
And the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) has also spelt out clearly what the solutions are.
But my dear Singaporeans, why did you choose to hurt yourself?
The CPF Advisory Panel’s Part Two of their recommendations to “enhance” the CPF system was released yesterday.
For readers who are not in the know, the CPF is the Central Provident Fund which is the public pension system in Singapore. Below is a quick chronology of events before we proceed to discuss the recommendations (if you are aware of the background, please skip on):
- In May 2014, I was sued by the Singapore prime minister in relation to an article that I had written on the CPF, the lack of transparency in its management and the inadequate pension funds that Singaporeans were receiving – an OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) report at that time ranked Singapore’s pension funds as being the least adequate among Asian and European pension funds compared. I have since been ordered to pay the prime minister S$180,000 which I have to pay until 2033.
- Prior to that, I wrote several articles that revealed that the CPF funds are being channelled into the Singapore reserves and then into the GIC and Temasek Holdings – the two government investment firms, where these investment firms were earning high returns of between 6.5% to 16% (at that time) but the CPF pension funds were only earning 2.5% to 4% – said to be the lowest returns on pension funds in the world.
- Before I was sued, the Singapore government did not publicly inform Singaporeans of the channelling of the CPF funds into GIC and Temasek Holdings. I had to trace on different government websites to locate the information to put them together.
- It was only at the end of May 2014, after I was sued did the government finally admit that the CPF funds are indeed being funnelled into GIC.
- For the next 4 months, from June to September 2014, I organised and/or took part in monthly protests to demand for transparency on the government’s management on the CPF. The first two protests were attended by 6,000 and 5,000 people, respectively – one of the biggest protest attendances since Singapore’s independence. After the 4th protest, the police interrogated about 20 of us and charged 6 of us – to stop the protests. I was fined S$1,900.
- In August 2014, during his National Day Rally speech, the prime minister said that he would appoint a CPF Advisory Panel to study making enhancements to the CPF system.
- The CPF Advisory Panel was appointed in September 2014 – the same month that the last protest was held and then squashed.
- The panel released the first part of its report in February last year, before the general election in September. The second report was released yesterday.
In this article, I outline the summary of the second part of the report, and give my views on it.
There are two main components to the recommendations. In the first – the panel introduced a ‘new’ CPF payout plan:
- Under the current CPF Standard Plan payout, a person receives a constant payout until he or she passes on.
- The panel came out with a ‘new’ CPF plan which it said will offer increasing payouts. On first thought, you might think it looks good – until you look at the details.
- The panel gave the following illustration: If under the Standard Plan, an individual receives a constant payout of S$720 every month from 65 years old.
- But if an individual wants to get increasing payouts (under the ‘new’ plan), the individual will instead have to accept getting a lower S$560 a month in the first year (or about 20% lower), which will then see a 2% increase every year after that. So, you will only get increasing payouts if you are willing to accept lower payouts at the start.
But that’s not all.
Strangely I cannot find the following information in the panel’s report, but look at what the Channel NewsAsia reported:
Starting from a full calendar year at age 65, the cumulative payout for both individuals roughly evens out at age 90, which means to say, both would get a cumulative payout of about S$218,000 in the fourth month of their ninetieth year.
What this means is that if you go onto the ‘new’ plan, you will only get back the same cumulative amount as the Standard plan when you reach the age of 90.
More importantly, what does this mean?
First, look at the life expectancy of Singaporeans in the chart below. Men have a life expectancy of 80 years old, for women it is 85 years old.
This is really how you should look at the panel’s recommendations and what it really means:
- Under the current CPF Standard Plan, you get to take out higher payouts at the start. But under the ‘new’ plan, you only get lower payouts at the start.
- Since the ‘new’ plan would only let you take out the same cumulative amount as the Standard plan when you reach 90, this means that before age 90, you will always be getting lesser in total under the ‘new’ plan than the Standard plan.
- However, as the life expectancy of men is 80 years old and for women is 85 years old, if someone opts for the ‘new’ plan, he or she will get back lesser cumulative payouts in total, as compared with the Standard (older) plan before he or she is likely to pass on.
So is the ‘new’ plan that the panel just recommended good? Some people would think that it is actually worse – this plan becomes yet another way for the government to lock up your CPF for their other uses (other than for your pension).
But look at how the panel used several strategies to spin the recommendations to try to make them sound good.
You saw above how the panel tried to sell that you could get ‘increasing’ payouts – but only to find out that you would have to accept lower starting payouts.
The panel also said that, “payouts under the two LIFE plans offered today are not designed to increase over time, and hence the purchasing power of the payouts will decrease as members get older.” Their proposed ‘new’ plan is supposed to mitigate that.
But the reality is that the purchasing power under the current Standard plan is already low, so by making the starting payout lower, it means purchasing power will become even lower and remain low over the years, then what’s the point? – we will get to this a bit later.
The panel also said: “The rate of increase of payouts should be set at 2% for the escalating CPF LIFE plan”, which means that under the ‘new’ plan, payouts would increase by 2% every year.
But this is just marketing speak – to give you the impression that payouts are increasing, but in reality, you are still getting back the same amount of money in total at age 90. In fact, you get back lesser in total before age 90. So does 2% increments matter? It does not.
Also, why just 2%? Knowing that the life expectancy for men is 80 years old and that for women, it is 85 years old, why did the panel not propose to increase payouts by 2.5% or 3% to allow individuals to attain the same cumulative payouts by age 80 or 85 years? Why cause individuals to get back lesser money before they pass on?
I will briefly touch on the second component of the recommendations before moving on:
- The panel also introduced the ‘Lifetime Retirement Investment Scheme’ to allow CPF members to invest in external funds to earn higher returns (other than the Singapore Government Securities (SGS) that the CPF are currently invested in – which are then funnelled to the reserves and then to GIC and Temasek Holdings).
- The difference from the current CPF Investment Scheme (CPFIS) which also allows CPF members to invest their CPF externally is that first, the panel claimed that administrative fees under the new scheme are expected to be lower. Under the CPFIS, the panel said that fees are “3% for sales charges and … up to 1.75% (for annual fees) per year”. Under their proposed scheme, fees “could be 0.5% per year or lower”.
- However, to keep costs low, instead of having someone to actively manage your CPF funds, the panel recommends that the funds are passively managed instead.
What are the concerns?
- My initial thinking was that the new scheme could be a good thing because there have been requests for the CPF to be managed and invested on its own. However, what does it mean for the funds to be managed “passively”. Even under Hong Kong’s Mandatory Provident Fund (MPF) pension funds, I understand that there are fund managers and even then, they are able to keep fees as low as 0.6% of fees.
- There are also not enough details at this moment to make an informed critique. My worry, however, is that the CPF funds have been traditionally used by the government as a cheap source of funds for their use via the GIC and Temasek Holdings. The government is unlikely to be willing to let go of the CPF, and therefore even under the proposed ‘Lifetime Retirement Investment Scheme’, would the funds still be somehow channelled to the GIC and Temasek Holdings? Would there be hidden fees for the administrative fees? But these are hypothetical questions which we can only consider better with more details – though knowing the government, I would scrutinise carefully what would be proposed.
More importantly, the panel proposes that CPF members should still have at least $20,000 in their CPF Ordinary Account and $40,000 in their Special Account – just as under the CPFIS – before they would be able to use the excess funds to invest under the ‘Lifetime Retirement Investment Scheme’.
But what is the issue with this?
- The panel itself revealed that 40% of active CPF members aged 45 do not even have $40,000 inside their Special Accounts. Even though CPF members contribute a higher proportion of their CPF into the Ordinary Account than the Special Account, but Tan Chuan-Jin revealed in 2014 when he was Manpower Minister that, “an average of 55% of (the Ordinary Account) savings had been withdrawn (by CPF members) to finance their flats at age 55“. As flat prices have increased and CPF members use increasingly more funds from their CPF to pay for their flats, logically the proportion of Ordinary Account savings used to finance flats would be higher as generations are younger. Thus how many Singaporeans would have enough combined funds inside their CPF to invest?
- As such, the ‘Lifetime Retirement Investment Scheme’ is likely to benefit only the higher-income earners and where the lower-income earners would not be able to earn higher returns on their CPF – if the proclaimed effect of the proposed investment scheme takes place. Low-income earners would still have no choice but to accept low returns while their funds are being diverted to GIC and Temasek Holdings, and the rich would have more flexibility to withdraw from the loop to invest elsewhere, which would then further widen the rich-poor gap and inequality in retirement.
- The solution to this is to ensure that wages rise at the bottom to allow wages (and savings) to catch up by defining a poverty line and implementing a minimum wage to that level – however, the government has refused to do so for both these definitions.
I would now like to revisit the panel’s Part One of their recommendations.
Prior to the recommendations, there have been grouses with the CPF Minimum Sum for many years. To ‘resolve’ the issue the government then changed the naming of the ‘CPF Minimum Sum’ and renamed it to be called the ‘Full Retirement Sum’.
However, the inherent problems with the ‘CPF Minimum Sum’ are still not changed. The main bugbear that a segment of Singaporeans have with the ‘CPF Minimum Sum’ is that it required them to set aside a minimum amount of funds inside their CPF, which they otherwise were not able to withdraw at 55 years old.
- But the basic issue is that Singaporeans have not been able to earn enough savings inside their CPF and are therefore not able to save enough to meet the ‘CPF Minimum Sum’. However, there was no effort by the government to allow the general population to earn higher savings (i.e. by increasing CPF returns across the board).
- Instead, all the government did was to rename the ‘CPF Minimum Sum’ to the ‘Full Retirement Sum’ but kept the same functional components. As such, as of 2015, Singaporeans were still required to have at least S$151,000 inside their CPF to meet the ‘Full Retirement Sum’ – as would be required under the ‘CPF Minimum Sum’.
So, why does this matter at this point?
- According to the government, if you have enough funds inside your CPF to meet the ‘Full Retirement Sum’, you would receive a CPF payout of S$1,200 to S$1,300 from retirement at age 65.
- However, if you only have half that amount, or the ‘Basic Retirement Sum’ of S$80,500, you would only get a payout of S$650 to S$700.
- The panel just revealed that 40% of active CPF members aged 45 do not even have $40,000 inside their Special Accounts. And since a significant proportion of their Ordinary Account have been used to finance their flats, how much would the majority actually have, after combining the leftover funds inside their Ordinary Account with the Special Account? Perhaps another S$20,000 or S$40,000 – or a total of S$60,000 or S$80,000 at age 45?
- Also, noting that people at aged 65 today would have earned lower wages over their lifetimes and could therefore only save lesser, how much would they have inside their CPF? Would it only be about S$60,000 or S$80,000? I estimated that the median balance would be only S$55,000.
- Previously, socio-economic blogger Leong Sze Hian had estimated that 85% of Singaporeans aged 55 and above would not have been able to meet the (now renamed) ‘Full Retirement Sum’ which has now been increased to S$166,000. I estimated this to be about 90%.
It looks like our estimates could not have been far off.
And what is the issue with this?
- If the majority of elderly Singaporeans do not even have S$80,500 inside their CPF, then they would not even be able to get a monthly payout of S$650 under the ‘Basic Retirement Sum’.
- The last time the government revealed how much the median CPF Life payout was, was in 2011 when Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said in a parliamentary reply that the median payout was only S$260 and the highest payout was only S$1,280.
- How much would the median payout have increased to today? – S$400? S$500? I estimated that the median payout in 2014 would only be S$400. I do not think I am that far off.
So, the problem?
- The government might come out with all the fanciful names – ‘Full Retirement Sum’, ‘Basic Retirement Sum’, etc and what their respective payouts could be, but the issue?
- Most elderly Singaporeans would not even get the S$650 payout under the ‘Basic Retirement Sum’ because they simply would not have enough retirement savings to do so.
- Then what is the point of having all these names, except to let the government look like it is ‘trying’ to salvage the situation? Until now, the government still has not revealed what the median CPF balance of Singaporeans is, and what the median CPF payouts are, despite numerous requests.
Perhaps, now we know why they do not.
Simply put, the whole CPF scheme that the government is trying to sell is hollow. They are trying to sell a scheme to Singaporeans which they know there is nothing to sell.
Just take a look around you. If elderly Singaporeans are able to get back enough payouts (what would be adequate for you to live on in a month? – S$1,500?), then why are there still so many elderly Singaporeans working as cleaners, security guards or collecting cardboards?
So, how does all these tie in with the panel’s Part Two of the panel’s recommendations – which we started this article off with?
- The panel decided to come out with a ‘new’ CPF Life Plan, where they said that Singaporeans will have to get a lower CPF starting payout. Thus if the median payout under the Standard plan is only, let’s say, S$400 today, then under the ‘new’ plan, payouts would only start at S$320 (the panel said that starting payouts will be about 20% lower).
- The panel also said that they came out with the ‘new’ plan to assuage the “concerns of (CPF) members over the reduction in purchasing power of payouts” and to “protect (CPF members) against increases in the cost of living in their retirement years”.
- But remember the point I made above that if the purchasing power of the CPF payout under the current Standard plan is already low, then under the ‘new’ plan, it would be worse?
- This is what I meant – S$400 is already very poor purchasing poor; S$320 is even worse. Even with a 2% increase in the payout every year, it will still be very poor.
Thus is there any difference that the panel came out with a ‘new’ plan? No – the payouts will still mean very poor purchasing powers, and in fact, under the ‘new’ plan, it is even worse because Singaporeans would be getting even lesser starting payouts and would not get back as much payouts in total as the old Standard plan until they are 90 years old – but which most people would not live until then.
So, from what we know about the CPF recommendations made by the CPF Advisory Panel so far, did they actually enhance the CPF system for the general population?
The only glimmer of hope perhaps, is the ‘Lifetime Retirement Investment Scheme’ but I won’t be holding my breath, for the reasons mentioned above.
I am afraid this was mostly a public relations exercise all this while to placate Singaporeans while allowing the government to continue to earn from Singaporeans’ CPF.
Last week, I wrote about how there is a limit as to how much citizens in the Asian Tigers and Japan need to pay for healthcare but in Singapore, there is instead a limit as to how much Singaporeans can claim. In fact, there is no cap as to how much Singaporeans have to pay – thus in 2012, more than 2,400 Singaporeans paid more than S$10,000 for their hospital bills.
This week, I decided to look further – at how much citizens in the Asian Tigers (Taiwan and South Korea), Japan and Germany pay into health insurance and how much they get back, in comparison with Singapore.
In Taiwan, citizens paid NT$546 billion into National Health Insurance in 2014. They got back NT$519 billion.
In Taiwan, citizens got back 95.1% of what they paid.
In South Korea, citizens paid 41.6 billion won into National Health Insurance in 2014. They got back 42.8 billion won.
In South Korea, citizens got back 102.9% of what they paid.
(Government subsidies and surcharge on tobacco account for 12.5% of the income of the National Health Insurance which pay for the administrative expenses.)
In Japan, citizens paid 128,019 (100 million) yen into National Health Insurance in 2010. They got back 127,726 (100 million) yen.
In Japan, citizens got back 99.8% of what they paid.
In Germany, citizens paid 199.6 billion Euro into the national Statutory Health Insurance in 2014. They got back 200.4 billion Euro.
In Germany, citizens got back 100.4% of what they paid.
(Note that “0.8 billion Euro was financed from reserves”. The report also said that, “The better off health insurance funds were able to pay bonuses from their reserves to their members amounting to roughly 0.7 billion Euro.”)
But what about Singapore?
Singaporeans only get back very little bit of what they pay.
Let’s take a look at Medisave national health insurance. In 2013, the Medisave balance is S$64.9 billion. In 2014, the Medisave balance is S$70.5 billion. The government does not reveal statistics on the annual Medisave contributions paid by Singaporeans, so one estimate is by deducting the 2013’s Medisave balance from 2014’s.
This would suggest that Singaporeans paid S$5.6 billion into Medisave in 2014 (Note that this figure would be higher but there is no publicly-available way to verify.)
In Singapore, citizens pay S$5.6 billion into the Medisave national health insurance in 2014 (by this estimate). But they got back only S$0.852 billion.
In Singapore, citizens got back only 15.2% of what they paid.
There is another way to estimate – by looking at the total contributions into the Central Provident Fund (CPF) pension funds. Singaporeans pay for Medisave by channelling part of their CPF into the Medisave.
In 2014, the total CPF balance is S$275.4 billion. The Medisave balance is S$71.2 billion, or 25.9% of the total balance.
In 2014, the total annual contributions into CPF is S$29.7 billion. So, if 25.9% of the total CPF balance is made up of Medisave, and if we assume that Medisave also makes up the same 25.9% for the annual contributions, then Medisave contributions would comprise S$7.7 billion. (Note again that this figure would be higher as the CPF was set up in 1955 but the Medisave was implemented in 1984, which means that the Medisave makeup of new annual CPF contributions would be higher than the total CPF balance.)
In Singapore, citizens paid S$7.7 billion into the Medisave national health insurance in 2014 (by this estimate). But they got back only S$0.852 billion.
Which means that in Singapore, citizens got back only 11.1% of what they paid.
However, taking note that Medisave contributions in 2014 are likely to be higher than both the S$5.6 billion and S$7.7 billion figures, Singaporeans would be getting back even lesser.
If Medisave contributions go above S$8.5 billion, then Singaporeans were only getting back less than 10% of what they pay. Socio-economic blogger Leong Sze Hian estimated that Singaporeans paid S$10 billion in contributions into Medisave in 2014.
If so, if Singaporeans paid S$10 billion into Medisave but only got back S$0.852 billion, then Singaporeans were only getting back 8.5% of what they paid.
What do you have to take away from the above discussion?
In Taiwan, citizens get back 95% of what they pay. In Singapore, the government profits from 91% of what citizens pay, citizens only get back 9%.
There are two points to take note of for Medisave:
(1) One point to note is that the Medisave is more convoluted than the national health insurance schemes in the other countries. Other than Medisave, there is also the MediShield national health insurance which Singaporeans have to pay into – and which the government profits from as well (as you will see later).
Whereas in other countries, the payouts from the national health insurance goes directly into paying for healthcare expenses, the Singapore government developed a two-step catch system where the premiums paid to the first national health insurance scheme (Medisave) is also used to pay a second one (MediShield), and since both schemes profit from the premiums paid and accumulate surplus, it creates a two-step catch where the government profits from premiums paid by citizens on two levels.
In 2014, S$766.5 million was withdrawn from Medisave to pay for MediShield premiums, which is as good as diverting 8% of Medisave premiums into MediShield which the MediShield profits from. In the same year, only S$448.1 million was withdrawn in MediShield claims and if you factor in that MediShield earns surpluses, this means that if we are to frame the argument to look at how much citizens get back from MediShield, in the context of Medisave premiums paid (so as to fit into the discussion in this article), citizens might only get back another 1% to 3% (which is negligible) – the government still profits from about 90% of Medisave premiums paid.
(2) Another point to take note is that whereas in the other countries, premiums paid for national health insurance are returned in full, in Singapore the government profits from premiums paid into Medisave, and accumulates surpluses.
Therefore for Singapore’s national health insurance, there is another way to look at the discussion – in 2014, there was a total Medisave surplus of S$70.5 billion but Singaporeans only got back S$0.852 billion.
This means that Singaporeans only got back 1.2% of what they paid.
Indeed, as mentioned above, Singaporeans are not just getting a very bad deal from Medisave. We are also getting a very bad deal from MediShield.
Thanks to a question by the Worker’s Party’s Gerald Giam who asked in parliament in 2011 how much Singaporeans were paying in MediShield Basic premiums and how much claims we were getting back, we now know that the government has been giving back lesser and lesser to Singaporeans, out of how much it collects.
From getting back 83.8% of what we paid in 2004, Singaporeans only got back 47.2% in 2005 and 53.1% in 2008.
This went down even further in 2013.
The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP)’s Chong Wai Fung gave a speech in 2014 and revealed:
For the past 11 years, Medishield has an average medical loss ratio of 63%. For 2013, the medical loss ratio reached a historical low of 43%! In other words, for every $100 Medishield collected, it paid out only $43 and pockets $57! I think very few businesses in the world can achieve this level of profit.
In a speech given by Mr Giam in parliament in 2014, he added that, “this is the lowest loss ratio since 2001.”
As we have seen above, in the other countries, of S$100 that was collected in premiums, about all the S$100 would be returned to citizens.
But not in Singapore.
MediShield only gave back S$43 and worse still, Medisave only gave back a miserly S$9.
Is there really a need to set aside so much in reserves? While this manages the risk for the Fund, it could be placing an unnecessary premium burden on policyholders.
If the pace of reserves accumulation can be adjusted to be more in line with MAS requirements, premiums can be made more affordable.
Mr Giam also said:
Let me state for the record that I believe that MediShield Life should be financially sustainable in the long term, and that enough reserves must be set aside for temporary spikes in claims and long term liabilities.
However, there is a big difference between setting aside enough for reserves, and setting aside too much for reserves. Setting aside enough ensures that the MediShield Life Fund remains solvent even when claims in a particular year are higher than expected. Setting aside too much could mean collecting excessive premiums to cater to an extremely unlikely, but catastrophic event.
On his blog, Mr Giam said: “I leave it to Singaporeans to assess whether or not they consider $1.5 billion to be “a lot more” in premiums than pay-outs.”
So, what do you think now – with the background knowledge of what the other countries are doing? Is the Singapore ruling government collecting excessive premiums from Singaporeans for Medisave and MediShield?
In its National Healthcare Plan, the Singapore Democratic Party said: “Instead of locking up our monthly Medisave contributions in individual accounts, the money should be pooled together towards a proper National Health Insurance scheme that adequately covers all medical bills, with affordable co-payment.”
The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) pointed to the example in America, where:
Under ObamaCare, private profit-making health insurance companies are restricted in the amount of profit they can make out of health insurance schemes.
ObamaCare mandates by law that the total pay-out for claims has to be at least 80% of the total premiums collected. This ensures that not too much premium is collected so that the insurance companies do not make too much profit (in this case a maximum gross profit of 20% before expenses).
However, in Singapore, the government is taking as much as more than 57% in profits from MediShield and as much as more than 90% in profits from Medisave!
The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) thus said: “Until this government commits to putting in place measures like the capping the MLR (Medical Cost Ratio) to ensure that we do not overpay for MediShield Life, there remains no assurance that huge profits will not continue to be made in the name of national health insurance in Singapore.”
In Germany, the government uses the reserves to pay for the citizens’ healthcare and to even return to the citizens bonuses.
In Singapore, the government uses the citizens’ healthcare insurance to pay for the reserves.
Is this ethical?
But where do the reserves go? Nobody knows.
And if the Medisave is not paying for your healthcare, then what is it paying for?
In his reply to Mr Giam’s question in parliament, then-Minister for Health Gan Kim Yong said: “MediShield operates on a not-for-profit basis and … premiums will be kept affordable and yet ensure the fund remains solvent.”
But from the evidence we have so far, it is clear that it is not just MediShield, but even more so for Medisave, that operate on a for-profit basis. In fact, premiums under the current ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) government is actually NOT affordable.
What solutions then has the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) propose?
The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) wants to make healthcare truly affordable.
The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) wants to reduce contribution rates for national health insurance, from the S$1,680 to S$3,360 that Singaporeans have to pay into Medisave every year, and reduce it to between S$0 and S$1,800 under the SDP’s National Healthcare Plan.
Premiums would be progressively tiered by income, and low-income families with incomes of less than S$2,000 would not need to pay premiums.
It is clear that this is doable and should be done – Singaporeans are currently over-paying for the premiums and the government is profiting excessively from Singaporeans’ contributions.
Not only that, the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) also proposed caps as to how much Singaporeans have to pay for healthcare in a year – Singaporeans need only pay a maximum limit of S$2,000 every year for chronic and major illnesses. The rest would be fully subsidised.
For Singaporeans who earn between S$800 and S$1,500, they would only need to pay a maximum of $500 every year, with the rest fully subsidised.
And for Singaporeans who earn less than S$800 or are on social welfare benefits, the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) proposes to fully subsidise these Singaporeans.
As I had shown in my previous article, the SDP’s proposal is in line with what the other countries are doing – citizens in the other Asian Tigers and Japan all only need to pay up to a maximum cap on healthcare.
It is only in Singapore where there is no cap on healthcare costs but under the current People’s Action Party (PAP)’s policies, Singaporeans instead can only claim a limit for healthcare.
And have to pay excessive premiums on Medisave and MediShield which are not returned to Singaporeans but which the government takes as profit.
Why did you choose to hurt yourself?
I came down with flu yesterday and had to see the doctor. The bill came up to quite a hefty sum.
So it set me thinking – you feel very insecure to see a doctor in Singapore. It is so expensive here and there is no cap on how much Singaporeans and the people living in Singapore have to pay for healthcare.
So, I decided to take a look at what the other Asian Tigers (Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea) and Japan do with their healthcare system.
This is what I found.
In Hong Kong, there is a cap on how much you have to spend on healthcare. In Singapore, I had to pay more than S$100 when I go to A&E. In Hong Kong, this is only less than S$20.
There is also a cap in Taiwan – you only need to pay S$6 to go to A&E at a district hospital and less than S$13 at a regional hospital. It is even cheaper if you are not going to A&E.
To see a doctor at a clinic, you just need to pay S$2.
There is also a cap on hospital bills of S$2,340 every year in Taiwan. You do not have to pay more than that if your bill goes above that.
In South Korea – again, there is a cap! – you do not have to pay more than $1,340 a year for all healthcare if you have an income grade of Grade 1.
And in Japan – if you earn $3,345 or less, you do not have to pay more than S$745 a year for all healthcare – again there is a cap.
Not only that, the cap, or the ‘Cost-Sharing Maximum Amount’, can be combined and shared among members in the same household, and the cap is also reduced for longer term recurrent health needs.
Then I looked back at Singapore.
There are no caps as to how much Singaporeans have to pay (and pay).
Instead, there are limits to how much Singaporeans can claim!
You can only claim a limited amount from the Medisave health insurance.
You can only claim a limited amount from the MediShield Life health insurance.
Which means that because there is no cap on how much Singaporeans have to pay for healthcare, they can go broke.
Indeed, the Worker’s Party’s Gerald Giam revealed that in 2012, “over 2,400 MediShield policyholders made co-payments of over $10,000 each“.
Mr Giam asked:
These co-payments can be financially crippling on their own. Would MOH (Ministry of Health) explore the introduction of an annual cap on out-of-pocket co-payments made by each patient. Any medical bills above the cap would be borne by the Government.
Such schemes are a feature in most developed countries, including Japan, South Korea and New Zealand. It is also one of the key consumer protections in the Affordable Care Act in the US.
An annual cap on out-of-pocket payments will limit the financial risk that individual patients are exposed to, and help allay the anxiety of many Singaporeans about uncertain medical expenses.
But Minister for Health Gan Kim Yong from the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) rejected introducing a cap on hospital bills.
He said that this is because “any expenses above the cap will be “free” to the patients“.
But where more than 2,400 Singaporeans have to pay more than S$10,000 for their hospital bills and where many cannot afford, can such an argument be justified?
The Worker’s Party’s Mr Giam also pointed out:
From the Government’s perspective, co-payments are necessary to discourage over-consumption. The Government’s fear is that “free” healthcare will escalate costs, and become fiscally unsustainable.
However, people do not consume healthcare like they do other goods and services. Most people visit doctors rather grudgingly – usually when they fall sick and have obvious symptoms. Demand for healthcare is therefore not unlimited.
The lesson from these two experiments, is that if co-payments are too high, poorer patients may be deterred from seeking necessary treatment. Similarly, it is difficult enough to get patients to adhere to their prescriptions, and high co-payments could make it even harder. This could have knock on effects like higher rates of hospital re-admissions, which will cost both the patient and the system more in the long run.
The Government’s claim that no one will be denied healthcare because of inability to pay is cold comfort for some Singaporeans who regularly forego medical appointments or cut back on prescribed medication because of the high costs and the difficulty in obtaining financial assistance.
Which is why the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) proposes a cap of $2,000 on hospital bills – Singaporeans should not need to pay more than S$2,000 for healthcare in a year.
And if you have to go to the hospital every year for a chronic or recurrent illness, the SDP proposes that from the third year onwards, you would not need to pay more than S$500 a year.
The SDP wants to make lives better for Singaporeans.
Why did you choose to hurt yourself?
I did some rationalisation over the ‘new’ Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) scoring system and decided to delve into the ‘changes’ a bit more.
I had a chat on my Facebook with some people who disagreed with (parts of) my previous article – they felt that the old PSLE scoring system which is computed based on the bell curve would mean the ‘new’ scoring system is different.
In the previous article, I had written based on the assumed belief that the ‘government’ wants to continue to ‘entrench’ the elitism and class differentiation in the PSLE and education system. In this article, I explore the merit of this assumption a bit more.
In the charts below, I compare the old and new PSLE system.
Please note the limitation of the comparison – the current (old) PSLE scoring system is based on using a bell curve to compute the T-score (You can read more about it on the Ministry of Education (MOE)’s website here.)
Source: Ministry of Education website
As I do not have access to the data of the students’ results, the charts below therefore do not take into account the bell curve for the computation of the old PSLE scores. Therefore comparisons made with the old scoring system should not be taken as direct comparisons and should only be used as a gauge. Even so, they help to let us draw some conclusions.
Therefore, in the charts below, the computation of the PSLE scores for the old system are based on directly using the actual subject marks.
The computation for the ‘new scoring system’ are however accurate. They follow the ‘new’ scoring system that has just been announced.
As can be seen in the chart below, for the ‘new’ scoring system, the marks of each subject would give a corresponding point to each Achievement Level. If a student scores 90 marks in one subject, he or she would achieve an Achievement Level of 1 point. If he or she scores 85 marks, this would be an Achievement Level of 2 points.
The points for the Achievement Levels of all four subjects that primary school students have to take for the PSLE (English, Mathematics, Science and Mother Tongue) are then added together to obtain the total PSLE score (as shown in the chart below).
Students are streamed accordingly based on their scores, into the Express, Normal (Academic) or Normal (Technical) stream.
In the chart below, the blue line represents the old scoring system and the red line represents the ‘new’ scoring system.
The red line’s computation is straightforward, based on the ‘new’ scoring system above.
For the computation for the blue line (old scoring system), I used an online calculator. Note again that this should only be used as a gauge as the PSLE scores have not been adjusted for the bell curve.
For the example below, I assumed that all subjects would score the same marks, and charted them at 5 marks interval on the horizontal axis – i.e. 5 marks, 10 marks, 15 marks, and so on.
If you look at the red line at the very top left hand corner, if each subject scores 1 mark, each subject would get an Achievement Level of 8 points. This would add together to give a PSLE score of 32 points.
On the bottom right corner, if each subject scores 100 marks, each subject would get an Achievement Level of 1 point and would add together to give a PSLE score of 4 points. The lower the score, the better, is the logic of the ‘new’ scoring system – which is similar to the ‘O’ Levels scoring format.
For the blue line, I used the online calculator. If each subject scores 100 marks, this would give a total score of 313 points (top right corner). If each subject scores 1 mark, this would give a total score of -44 points (bottom left corner). (Again, note that the scores have not been adjusted to the bell curve which might explain the weird numbers, and are therefore not representative and should only be taken as a gauge.)
In the chart below, I flipped the red line over so that you can have a more direct comparison.
Based on the old scoring system, a higher score is ‘better’. For the ‘new’ system, a lower score is ‘better’.
For ease of comparison, I turned the red line around.
What you can see immediately is that the old scoring system (blue line) follows a constant line (though not adjusted for the bell curve). The ‘new’ system (red line), however, is not a constant straight line.
Also, while the blue line is straight, the red line now looks terraced – this is so because unlike in the old system where marks are added up to give a total PSLE score, under the ‘new’ system, scores are banded and tiered.
The perspective some take is that by removing the bell curve and banding the scores, this is a ‘better’ system. Is it?
- Constant average 90 marks and above for each subject will give a score of 4 points.
- But for lower marks thereafter, the scores drop off very quickly.
The next chart gives you a better view.
In this next chart, I superimposed colour bands over the red lines – based on the ‘new’ system, to let you differentiate between the ‘new’ PSLE scores. Now, look at the next chart.
In the following chart, I changed the red lines into red bars, and superimposed the colour bands over them – based on the ‘new’ system.
In the far right of the chart, the most right band in red is labelled 1 at the top – for Achievement Level 1. The coloured bands are labelled 1 to 8 from right to left accordingly.
- As mentioned, for constant average 90 marks and above for each subject, each subject would get 1 Achievement Level point and give a total PSLE score of 4 points.
- But at 85 marks (constant for all subjects), this goes down to 2 Achievement Level points and a total PSLE score of 8 points.
- At 80 marks, this goes down again to 3 Achievement Level points and a total PSLE score of 12 points.
- At 75 marks, this goes down yet again to 4 Achievement Level points and a total PSLE score of 16 points.
- Then only at 70 marks does it stabilise a little and gives 5 Achievement Level points and a total PSLE score of 20 points, and which applies to 65 marks as well.
Next set of points:
- For an Achievement Level of 6 points and a total PSLE score of 24 points, this would mean that if each subject has the same marks, the marks in this range would be between 45 and 64 marks (as stated in the ‘new’ scoring system).
- For Achievement Level 7 and a total PSLE score of 28 points, this would range between 20 and 44 marks.
- Achievement Level 8 and a total PSLE score of 30 points would range between 0 to 19 marks.
Lets take a look at the next chart before we draw some conclusions from this.
The chart below have purple bands superimposed onto it based on the old scoring system.
In the far right band in bright purple, again assuming all subjects having equal scores, 91 marks and above would give a grade of A* (taking up 2 bars).
But the next grade – A – takes up 4 bars. B takes up 3 bars, C takes up 2 and then D and E takes up 3 bars each again.
You can see that the bands are more evenly distributed according to the marks.
Thus when you compare the old and ‘new’ system, what are some things that stand out?
- First, the PSLE scores for the ‘new’ system are divided even more finely than the old system.
- Second, the division becomes broader and broader as the marks go lower.
- As mentioned in the previous article, where 75 marks would give a grade of A, this time round it would only give an Achievement Level of 4 (which if based on the old scoring format, is a C). On first instinct, this therefore marks it more difficult for a student to do well.
- The ‘new’ scoring system might be viewed as being more challenging at first glance and might induce lower morale for a student who under the ‘new’ system would only have an Achievement Level of 4 when previously, this would be an A grade. (But of course, by 2021 when the ‘new’ system is implemented, no one would remember the old system and its format.)
Another question I ask is this:
- Where it might now be argued that the ‘new’ system no longer follows a bell curve, does the ‘new’ system instead differentiates the PSLE scores even more finely – at least for the higher marks – with the aim of still wanting to tease out the better scorers still?
- Has the ‘government’ seemingly given up on the bell curve but still want to retain the ability to identify ‘top’ scorers, and therefore the more refined differentiation system?
- “The 8 Achievement Levels (ALs) are designed to reflect broadly different levels of achievement. While it is not meaningful to differentiate too finely between students, we need a broad indication of their progress after 6 years of primary school, so that they can be matched to suitable academic programmes in secondary school.
- For example, while there may not be any difference between a student who scores 65 and another who scores 66 marks in a subject, there is a difference between one who scores 65 and another who scores 75. We want to be able to recognise this difference.
- If there are too few ALs, there would be more students with the same PSLE Score, which would lead to more balloting in S1 posting. This would cause more anxiety for parents and students.”
But this raises some other questions:
- If the MOE said that it is “not meaningful to differentiate too finely between students”, then why did it differentiate the students among the higher scorers more finely?
- The MOE said that “there is a difference between one who scores 65 and another who scores 75 (and they) want to be able to recognise this difference. Then, why does the MOE not differentiate between one who scores 50 and and another who score 60 – they have the same Achievement Level of 6, or why not between a score of 45 and 55, or between 30 and 40? – the logic does not flow. Why is the differentiation not consistent?
- The MOE said that one reason there cannot be too few Achievement Levels is that this would “lead to more balloting in S1 posting”.
- I offer another reason – the schools which require balloting have generally been the ‘top’ schools. The MOE does not elaborate further on the point but the concern with balloting seems to suggest that if the Achievement Levels are more evenly distributed, it would make it difficult for the MOE or ‘top’ schools to identify the ‘top’ scorers they want and which with balloting would also make it more difficult to identity the ‘top’ scorers – the thinking seems to be that it would dilute the ‘betterness’ of these schools – if so, this is a justification to allow the ‘new’ PSLE system to still entrench the elitism in the system.
- On the other hand, the Achievement Levels for the lower scores (see chart below – in lighter yellow portion) are broader in their coverage of the marks, which therefore suggest that the ‘government’ does not seem to be as bothered by the differentiation at the other end of the spectrum.
- Of course, there are other reasons. A practical reason is that students are scoring better and better over the years, and therefore there is a need to refine the differentiation to distinct the scores at the higher level. Indeed, the MOE said that, “The upper ranges are narrower because the PSLE is designed such that students are able to show what they can do and a large majority of students do well for the PSLE. On average, about half of the students will score AL4 or better.”
But this begs the question – if Acting Minister for Education (Schools) Ng Chee Meng said that the governments wants “to move this school system forward so that we reduce the competitiveness of it”, then doesn’t the more defined and refined differentiation at the higher scores still induce competition, and go against such a claim?
Back to the perspective that without the bell curve, the ‘new’ system would be better, this reasoning might be weak because with the differentiation for the ‘top’ scores made even more stringent now, one assumption is that the government would have looked at the distribution under the old scoring system and the refining of the ‘new’ system at the top tiers would similarly follow a bell curve logic.
The fact that the bands are tighter at the top (differentiated by 5 marks for Achievement Levels 2 to 4) before the bands broaden thereafter is an indication of this.
However, without the planning parameters that the government had used to develop the ‘new’ system, it is not possible to say for sure. But let’s take a look below to make a further guess.
In the next chart below (and without the data available for the bell curve), if we could assume that if all subjects score the same 65 marks, under the ‘old’ scoring system and based on the online calculator, the PSLE score of 187 would be able to put a student into the Express stream (purple square at top right corner in chart below), based on the cut-off points for 2015.
Under the ‘new’ system, it is not different where the same marks would give a PSLE score of 20 points, which would allow entrance into the Express stream.
The ‘new’ scoring system therefore seems somewhat better refined and which corresponds more to the old system at the higher scores.
The situation seems different for the Normal streams (which without the benefit of the bell curve and results is difficult to carefully assess) – on first glance, it seems that the ‘new’ system might allow more students who did academically less well to move on to secondary school.
However, the statistics would dispel this notion. Last year, 98.3% of students who took the PSLE were eligible for secondary school. 66.2% qualified for the Express stream while 21.7% and 10.4% qualified for the Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) streams, respectively.
If so, this does not mean the new system would allow more students to be eligible for secondary school. Rather, it seems that the bell curve might have caused some distortion to the PSLE scores under the current (old) system.
Some questions to ask are these:
- Under the current (old) system, when students are given grades and their respective T-scores, were they given lower grades than they would otherwise have scored? If they are, would this result in lower self-esteem, morale and confidence in our students?
- Also, how is the thinking behind the bell curve done? Are there students who have done relatively well but whose grades were adjusted downwards based on the bell curve and therefore entered a stream lower than which they would otherwise have gone to?
- Without the bell curve, would there have been more students who would perform academically better, and which would also mean more students who could have entered the Express stream, and then into university as well?
The question to ask is – does the bell curve unnaturally skew the academic performances of our students and which can psychologically create a disbelief in their own abilities?
I suppose these, and more questions, have been asked by parents. I am unaware as to whether answers have been given.
Some further fundamental questions to ask are these:
- What is the rationale behind deciding which grades/levels would allow students to enter into the Express or Normal streams? How do we decide what is academically more “Express” and what is more “Normal”?
- In order to have such a differentiation, the ‘government’ would need some working parameters as to how much marks they deem should be considered “Express” and what is “Normal”.
- Based on the ‘new’ scoring system, we seem to have an answer – the minimum to enter into the Express stream is if every subject scores a minimum of 65. So, is 65 marks the minimum to be in the “Express” queue”? But what determines that it should be 65 marks? Why not 50?
Of course, one response could be that the current system is working well – in how it distills students into the respective streams and there onwards into junior colleges, polytechnics or ITEs (for vocation training), and later on, universities – and therefore there shouldn’t be a need to question it.
But this exposes some other questions:
- Currently, there seems to be a fixed cohort of students who sat for their PSLE and who later enter junior college – 30%.
- There also seems to be a fixed cohort of 30% of the students who enter local public universities. According to WikiLeaks, Assistant Director of the Planning Division at the MOE Cheryl Chan was supposed to have said in 2007 that, “the government does not plan to encourage more students to get a higher education. The university enrollment rate will continue to be maintained at 20-25 percent because the Singaporean labor market does not need everyone to get a four-year degree, she asserted.” This figure has not changed much – last year, it was about 30%.
- If so, this raises some questions – for the seemingly fixed percentages of how many students should be streamed into the different streams and institutions, how are these percentages decided upon administratively?
- The added concern is that the bell curve would then skew the results in favour of the government’s planning agenda – what effect does this have on the development of our students? Does this lead to an adjustment in the perceived academic abilities along the lines of the bell curve? Also, would the marking system (for examinations) that would follow a bell curve also skew the perceived academic development of our students?
For me, the ‘government’s lack of address for these issues raises even more questions. The planning parameters could have been planned on long ago, but this issue should be revisited now.
The question to ask is:
- Where Singapore’s academic development would have advanced today as compared to many years ago, why are fixed percentages still used to determine the academic streams or pathways that students should take?
- Where academic development should have become grown better and more students should have the ability to enter junior colleges and universities, but where the percentages are still fixed (or only slightly changing), this leads to the question – are Singaporeans being held down from their academic advancement based on the government’s fixed planning parameters?
Indeed, several ministers have already said that pursuing degrees are not important. Based on the above questions, this then raises many questions, doesn’t it?
- Is our education system intentionally engineered to produce fixed percentages for specific workforce targets and wage tiers?
- Is the education system planned with inequality as part of its design?
Now, if we again continue to use the same assumption that each subject would have the same marks, and 90 marks for each subject would give a PSLE score of 277 under the old system, students are likely to enter the following ‘top-tier’ schools (as listed in the next two charts below), which have cut-off points at around 277.
The question then is this:
- Now that the PSLE scores have become more refined under the ‘new’ scoring system, did the ‘government’ refine the PSLE scoring system with the secondary school postings in mind? – Meaning, did the government look at the percentage of students who would enter the ‘top’ schools and then work backwards to decide which marks should be used as the cut-off points, to allow the scores which would enter the ‘top’ schools under the old system, to still be able to enter under the ‘new’ system?
- Are the subsequent scores then also divided accordingly?
In order words, does the ‘new’ system do away with the computation based on a bell curve but use the bell curve in its design instead?
Of course, some might argue that there needs to be a finer distinction so as to be able to stream.
But then, wouldn’t this be the wrong question to ask?
- First, it was Ng Chee Meng who said: “Every school is a good school, a good fit for the child if it best matches the students’ needs.” But if so, if every school is supposed to be equally good, wouldn’t streaming go against the very idea of wanting every school to be equally good?
- By the more stringent scoring system, wouldn’t the unequal system continue to be persist?
We cannot on the one hand say that we want schools to be equal but on the other, continue to maintain and even further develop a system to entrench the inequality, can we?
Below is a clearer list on the ‘top-tier’ schools, as per the discussion above.
In the next segment below, I try to look at another way of comparing the old and ‘new’ PSLE scoring system.Instead of the horizontal axis representing the marks at a 5 marks interval, I decided to use a different range.
The chart below shows the mark ranges for the old and ‘new’ scoring system. I decided to use each of the starting and ending marks for each of the range for the horizontal axis (meaning for the marks range of 91 – 100 for grade A* of the old system, I used the marks 91 and 100 – I did this for both the old and ‘new’ system) for the charts below.
On why I used the starting and ending marks for each range, this is because I want to compare to see if there are any obvious differences under the old and ‘new’ scoring system.
Accordingly, below is the chart. Again, the blue line represents the old scoring system while the red line represents the ‘new’ scoring system.
In the chart below, I invert the red line again for easy comparison.
Below, I changed the blue lines to bars to make the comparison clearer.
Again, I also superimposed yellow and red colour bands over the chart, based on the ‘new’ scoring system to let you see better.
And for the chart below, I also superimposed the purple colour bands over the chart, based on the old scoring system.
These are the bands compared – in the chart below, for the old and ‘new’ scoring system.
Now, the questions.
If you look at the yellow circles in the chart below, within each circle are the two PSLE scores, based on the two marks that separate two grade levels. For example, grade A* ranges from 91 to 100 marks. Grade A ranges from 75 to 90 marks. 90 marks and 91 marks are the two marks that separate these two grades – and which are within the yellow circles.
Their respective PSLE scores, based on using the online calculator, are 277 and 280 points respectively. Why is this of note?
Under the old system, 277 and 280 does not differ greatly in points. Similarly, 219 and 223 in the next circle and 165 and 169 in the next, also do not differ greatly.
But under the ‘new’ system (and based on the assumptions laid out in this article), 280 points would now give a PSLE score of 4 points while 277 would give a PSLE score of 8 points – which is a big difference now.
Similarly, 223 would now be a PSLE score of 16 points while 219 would be 20 points – again, a big difference.
165 and 169 would both be PSLE scores of 24 points because of the wider band for lower scores under the ‘new’ system.
This again clearly shows that the ‘new’ PSLE system has been tweaked to make the score differentiation even finer for higher scores, doesn’t it?
- From here, you can see that competition is now even stronger at the higher PSLE scores (or in order achieve these scores). But for the lower scores, it seems to be more relaxed (again without the benefit of how the scores based on the bell curve are computed, is difficult to make a firm comparison).
- Again, if Ng Chee Meng had said that the ‘government’ wanted “to move this school system forward so that we reduce the competitiveness of it”, the ‘new’ scoring system does not exactly do that, does it? In fact, it has now made it more competitive, hasn’t it?
But there is a caveat – based on the assumption of having similar marks for each subject, the competition would mainly arise in the yellow circles as indicated in the chart below – at the margins of each range under the ‘new’ PSLE scoring system.
So, if your marks are now 89, there is pressure to strive to get 90 marks, so as to be placed in Achievement Level 1 and score a PSLE score of 4 points.
If the marks are at 84, there is then pressure to strive to get 85 marks similarly. In between, at 86, 87, 88 and 89 marks, it might be thought that it is more relaxed. But does this logic work out?
Not really. At 89 marks, a person would still strive to get 91 marks. This would apply even at 86 marks. So, in truth, the ‘new’ PSLE scoring system would still make it very competitive.
However, the situation is very different for those who are high scorers (i.e. those who score 90 marks and above) – as indicated in the green circle in the chart below.
There was this person who made the following comment on my Facebook.
Under the old system, not only the 5 marks between 85 and 90 is competed for, every mark above 90 is competed for.
To get to iP school under the old system, you need at least 3 A stars and an A that is closer to 90.
You can get thru with 2A stars and 2 As …but the A stars need to be closer to 100 marks.
The fight amount the stressed young ones is always for the higher end of the grade…that is way above 90.
The new system wants to take away that.
He also said:
Under the old system, getting 90 for the A star is not enough. Reason being every point counts towards being better ranked than the competition. The T score is different for an A Star as it compares marks and not grade
Under the new system, there is no difference between a person scoring 90 and another scoring 100. They are both rated at 1 point. So there is no need to cramp and memorise for the exam. This is where the pressure lessens.
To get to a TOP school anywhere, one needs to be of a certain standard. Getting 4 points will gain one admission to a school of their choice. Even 5 will do the trick.
In this sense, it is way less stressful for the kids, especially those who can make it.
Low Chu Chong is supposed to be the Associate Director at DBS Vickers Securities. I suppose he knows what he is talking about.
Low Chu Chong also said this:
Children from families with good economic status will always have an advantage, be it in terms of tuition or extra help from parents who can spend the time to teach the. That is something no policy can change as most parents will try to give their offsprings a leg up.
This is the unfortunate thing about Singapore’s system where the inequality in the education (and economic system) has resulted in people believing that the inequality is natural and that “no policy can change” this.
In response to him, I said:
If we want to create an education system which is more equal, there are ways to do it. If we want to entrench a system where those with good economic status can benefit, then we will not change the system. It is a matter of will. Arguing that no policy can change an unequal system belies that the possibility that equality can be achieved, but when we do not try.
I also pointed him to an article on The Atlantic which explained how Finland changed its education system to become more equal – the article does a better job at explaining.
So you see:
- The ‘new’ scoring system has been refined to such an extent that it would seem to still protect the ‘elite’ schools and cause students to still be carefully sorted on an academic basis.
- Second, the ‘new’ scoring system would actually benefit the ‘top’ scorers as the stress levels are lessened for them. But such stress would still be present for every other student across the board.
Is this a better system? I do not think so, as it continues to induce stress and competition among our students?
Thus when Ng Chee Meng said that the ‘government’ wants “to move this school system forward so that we reduce the competitiveness of it”, I do not think we can take these words at their face value.
The former Principal of Xinmin Secondary School Goh Tong Pak was also interviewed on his thoughts about the ‘new’ scoring system.
The new system does not have a great effect in reducing stress because students still have to focus on all (four primary school level) subjects. For example, he said that if a student scores over 85 marks for each subject, the four subjects would add up to 340 marks which under the new system, the student would have 8 points. But if two subjects scored 100 marks and the other two scored 70 marks, even though the full marks are also 340 marks, the total score would only be 12 points.
“In the end, you still have to work to do you best for all the subjects, and people would not stop “rushing (to get higher marks)” just because the system changed,” he said.
He also said that this might cause parents to focus more on Higher Chinese instead.
He added: “Even if the student scores 1 point for 3 subjects but does not score well for the 4th, the student still cannot go to a school.”
Based on what he explained, I drew up the chart below.
You can see the discrepancy – based on the ‘new’ scoring system, it can make a huge difference as to which band of schools students with the two different scores would enter.
But in such a situation, where one student has 100 marks in two subjects versus another with 85 marks in four, how do you determine who is the better student? Also, even if the ‘new’ scoring system grades the student with 85 marks in four subjects as being better, does it mean the student who who has 100 marks in two is not as good?
Herein lies the problem with a scoring system, doesn’t it?
In the next example in the chart below, I put together some more numbers.
Take a look at the example below – they are self-explanatory. (Remember the assumption I set out at the start where in the absence of the bell curve, the comparisons are not direct.)
In the examples below, it seems to suggest that where a student would otherwise have gone to a Normal stream under the old stream, the ‘new’ system could enable the student to enter an Express stream.
(Again note that I do not have the benefit of a bell curve analysis and the relevant data to make this comparison complete.)
This raises some interesting questions:
- The first, of course, is whether this illustration would be accurate. I would like to hear the MOE’s thoughts on this.
- Second, assuming the broad idea of this illustration can be accepted, would this be an actual practice that would enable students to advance into the Express stream if they achieve the PSLE score of 20 required?
I am personally actually in favour of this. Let me explain:
- Dr Pasi Sahlberg, is a renowned Finnish educator who was quoted by The Straits Times as having “asked why Singaporeans were debating T-scores and bands when they should be debating if the PSLE was needed.”
- So did Stanford University education professor Linda Darling-Hammond, who asked “whether it was appropriate for children to take a high-stakes examination at age 12. She also “noted that most school systems in the world do it at age 15 or 16”. She added that: “That’s when most youngsters are beginning to discover what they are good at and where their interests lie.”
- As such, I am in favour of allowing all our students to advance into secondary school – without examinations and streaming – until such time (at 15 or 16 years old) before they should be streamed.
In this instance, I do not think we should have streams and call them “Express” or “Normal” – everyone should simply continue to study and enjoy learning. Streaming and national examinations at the age of 12 should be removed.
Having said that, for the example above, I am not sure if the outcome is intended by the MOE under the ‘new’ system – but even if not, I hope that this practice (as highlighted in the example) would continue to happen.
The examples below also provide you with further permutations.
Do take a look at them – they are self-explanatory. (Again, take note of the assumption of the bell curve.)
I would like to think that the ‘new’ grading system would give wider opportunities for those who are academically less-inclined to be able to move forward in the education system.
As the education experts aforementioned said, streaming and examinations at the age of 12 is too early and cause undue and unnecessary stress for our children.
I do however think that the ‘new’ scoring system continues to promote an elitist system and even favours the ‘elites’ but if the examples in the last two charts would be put into practice, I do think it is a favourable expansion in the change as well.
On questions as to whether for the students who do not do as academically well at PSLE, would they be able to cope – I think this should not be the question, at least not at this point.
The question we should be asking is – how can we restructure the environment to better facilitate learning for our children?
As I mentioned in the previous articles (with links), class sizes should be reduced, as well as the syllabuses and teachers’ administrative workload, so that this will give teachers more time and space to develop customised programmes for each student, to help them learn in different ways and to also allow them to find joy in learning. This would not only improve their academic learning but would also allow them to find out what they would like to do and pursue it.
The MOE made this points:
- “As long as the child enjoys learning and does his best, the AL he receives will enable him to progress at an appropriate pace in the next step of his learning journey.
- We want to encourage parents to set balanced goals for their child. For instance, if the child scores quite well in certain subjects, instead of chasing the last point there, he could work harder on his weaker subjects or pursue non-academic interests that will benefit him in other important ways.”
But if it is indeed the aim that children “enjoy” learning and to allow them to “pursue non-academic interests that will benefit” them, shouldn’t the focus then be on that?
The MOE cannot on one hand claim that it wants children to enjoy learning, but yet puts in place stressful examinations and streaming, which curbs the enjoyment, and forces them to compete for good results.
The MOE cannot also on one hand say that it wants children to “pursue non-academic interests” but yet on the other, continues to put so much focus on academic results.
It is one thing to say something but do another. Singaporeans can see for themselves whether the ‘government’ means what it says or whether the words should only be taken at face value.
As it is, the ‘new’ PSLE scoring system does not fundamentally address the concerns of Singaporeans. The ‘new’ PSLE system allows the very ‘top’ scorers to reduce their stress and protects the ‘elite’ schools.
However, the ‘new’ system also creates more stress as it means that instead of fighting for every point now for the PSLE score under the old system, students would now need to fight even harder to enter the next band. The ‘new scoring system does not take the stress away, no matter how much rhetoric is used.
I started this article by mentioning that the charts used for comparison does not take into account the bell curve. But even when taking the bell curve out of the equation, the point remains that the ‘new’ scoring system is just as competitive and stressful.
Not only that, with the more refined and determinate computation of PSLE scores, it exposes more questions as to how the government would decide which marks and scores would qualify for each stream. Importantly, how does the government make these decisions as to the cut-off points, and as to which student should go into the Express stream, or to university for that matter?
Should the government be the gatekeeper as to which academic ability should be considered “good”?
At the end of the day, what did Singaporeans really want to change on the PSLE?
As a Straits Times poll showed, “only two in five Singaporeans think the PSLE is necessary.”
“One in four stated outright it was redundant,” it added.
Singaporeans wanted the PSLE abolished. Not tweaked and still cause more stress.
But what then are the solutions? Plenty. I have outlined them above and in the previous article. But don’t take my word for it.
Here is what the former chief economist at the GIC has to say:
The Singapore ‘government’ introduced the ‘new’ PSLE (Primary School Leaving Examination) scoring system yesterday and claimed that it is aimed at “moving away from an over-emphasis on academic results”. Is it true?
In the chart below, check out the old grading system on the left and the ‘new’ one on the right (to be implemented in 2021).
Under the old grading system, the grades were called, well, ‘Grades’. Under the ‘new’ system, they would be called, ‘Achievement Levels’. Old wine in a new bottle.
More importantly, check out the marks required in each grade/level.
The ‘new’ system would now make it even more difficult for you/your child to score a higher grade/level.
Under the old system, a score of 75 will give you an A. But under the ‘new’ system, you will only get a grade 4 (two levels down).
Also, under the old system, a score of 60 will give you a B. But under the ‘new’ system, you will only get a grade 6 (three levels down).
But with this change, it would mean that students will have greater difficulty scoring higher grades.
Take for example my grades – I scored A*, A, A and B which in numerical terms would be 1*, 1, 1 and 2. But under the ‘new’ scoring system, I would instead get 1, 4, 4 and 6 (or A*, C, C and E in alphabetical terms). You can immediately see the difference.
Under the old scoring system, the higher grades would give students more confidence. But under the ‘new’ system, the lower grades/levels is going to hit the morale of the students.
On top of that, why did the MOE decide to change the alphabetical grades into “Achievement Levels” instead? Even under the ‘O’ Levels, students are awarded alphabetical grades as well. Is the ‘government’ trying to mask the change in mark ranges by discontinuing the use of alphabetical grade levels, in the hope that Singaporeans would be made confused, and so that no one would notice this change?
So the question is, does the ‘new’ PSLE scoring system really “move away from an over-emphasis on academic results”? Or does it actually put more focus on academic results with the more stringent scoring system, and put more stress on our children?
The Ministry of Education (MOE) claimed that, “The current T-score system differentiates students very finely,” and that it wants to change that. But instead, the ‘government’ turns around and decided to differentiate the Achievement Levels even more finely than the previous Grade levels – why didn’t the ‘government’ talk about this in their press releases?
In other words, the ‘government’ seems to be thinking that since it cannot differentiate the T-score finely, it has to find a way to still be able to differentiate finely, and therefore it turned to the Achievement Levels to do so instead – this way, it can still distinct the higher scorers and move them into the ‘top’ schools (it looks like this is the intent since the lower scores are now more compressed together).
Doesn’t this still stress our children? Now instead of stressing over T-scores, they have to stress over getting higher grades to get higher Achievement Levels – still as stressful as today!
Well, becareful what you wish for. The ‘government’ already had an agenda and they were just making use of the grievances of Singaporeans to further refine the system to allow them to distill students even more elaborately into academic tiers and you fell for it.
If the ‘government’ would state matter-of-factly that yes, they wanted to refine the system further to distinct students according to their academic abilities, then I cannot fault the ‘government’ for introducing this ‘new’ system. But instead the ‘government’ claimed that it is to “move away from an over-emphasis on academic results”, which is clearly not the case. If so, can you trust that the changes made to the PSLE scoring system would lessen the burden for you or your child?
Now take a look at the PSLE scores and the cut-off points for each stream in the chart below. The cut-off points for 2015 are on the left and the cut-off points based on the ‘new’ scoring system, on the right.
The numbers are different but the segmentation is the same, isn’t it? You still have to get an overall score just like now, and then you still get streamed into Express, Normal (Academic) or Normal (Technical), just like now. Then, what is the difference?
You still have to get as best a score as you can to enter as best a stream. And the ‘top’ schools will certainly still try to keep their cut-off points high to keep taking those with the best scores, so even if a student gets 20 points and can go to an Express stream, the likelihood is that the student will not be able to go to a ‘top’ school, because the ‘top’ schools will most likely only take those with 4 or 5 points – so still, not every school will be a good school (the government’s rhetoric). They will still be classed differently. I do not see the ‘top’ schools willing to do any differently, unless it comes from a government policy directive but it is clear that many of the policymakers who come from these ‘top’ schools would be unwilling to do so.
What will happen then? That means that when students choose and rank the secondary schools that they want to be posted to, they would still have to know the rough cut-off points of these schools – just like now, so that they can choose accordingly, which otherwise they would not get to go to a school listed in their choice. What is the difference from what is happening now?
Then isn’t this exactly like the ‘O’ Level examinations? All secondary students who score 20 points and above in the ‘O’ Levels qualify to go to a junior college – just like how primary school students who score 20 points and above in the PSLE would qualify to go the Express steam in a secondary school. And then, the ‘top’ junior colleges have high cut-off points. For example, Raffles Institution and Hwa Chong Institution both have cut-off points of 4 points (as shown in the chart below). Similarly, will ‘top’ secondary schools then have high cut-off points of 4 points as well? And like the ‘O’ Levels, will they be able to even reduce their points further to 3 points for the PSLE scores, by taking in students with relevant Co-Curricular Activities which could cut off another point or two?
How does this make every school a good school?
If so, the ‘government’ aren’t really changing the PSLE system, are they? They are just replacing the PSLE scoring format with the ‘O’ Levels scoring format. Backend, the technical aspects work all the same, under the old or ‘new’ system.
How does this remove the excessive focus on academic results? It still puts excessive focus on academic results, doesn’t it?
Do you remember how the ‘government’ said that it would remove the rankings of junior colleges in 2004 because it also said that it wanted to move away from an over-emphasis on academic results? Today, we still have the rankings. Today, we still have an excessive focus on academic results. Nothing has changed.
So what should you expect to change with the ‘new’ PSLE scoring system? Nothing.
In fact, if you look at it, what the ‘government’ has really done is to entrench the academic segregation by pulling it backwards into the earlier years of education. Already, there is a sense that students who go to the Express stream are more likely to enter junior colleges, and then to university and later on to earn higher pay. Last year, 66% of the PSLE cohort entered the Express stream. About 30% of each PSLE cohort go on to a junior college and a similar 30% go to local public universities. Replies in parliament already show how there are very few token polytechnic students who go on to university.
Also, the salaries of university students are de facto pegged to Employment passes while that of polytechnic students are pegged to S Passes which therefore institutionalises the wage differences of the different academic tiers into their wage classes – and which explains the large wage gap among the different academic levels. But by now paralleling the PSLE scoring system with that of the ‘O’ Levels, it looks even clearer the distillation system that the ‘government’ wants to create to demarcate Singaporeans of differing academic levels right from young.
But such a refined distillation system to segregate Singaporeans from young cannot surely be a healthy system, which later on would have social and psychological consequences – and from anecdotal evidence, shows that those in the higher academic levels are likely to view themselves in more self enhanced (proud) ways while those at the lower levels would face self esteem issues and insecurities, which again research in inequality affirm, in how Singapore’s highest inequality among the developed countries have therefore produced a people who are more likely to see themselves in self enhanced (and self-centred) ways and high inequality also produces more mental health issues among the populace.
Question is, why does the ‘government’ still want to protect an elitist system and refine the ‘scoring’ system to further institutionalise such a system? The rhetoric that the ‘government’ says, to claim that it wants every school to be a good school, is then just face value and means nothing, isn’t it?
Finally, do you remember the ‘enhancements’ that the ‘government’ made to the Central Provident Fund (CPF) pension fund last year? Those changes work the same way as the ‘enhancements’ to the PSLE scoring system.
For the CPF, the ‘government’ changed the name for the CPF Minimum Sum to the Full Retirement Sum and made it look like it is a brand new thing. But it is not – the Full Retirement Sum is the CPF Minimum Sum, but just in a different name. Indeed, a “brand” new thing.
Also, the ‘government’ also came out with new names – the ‘Basic’ Retirement Sum and the ‘Enhanced’ Retirement Sum (which is really just ‘half’ the CPF Minimum Sum and ‘twice’ the CPF Minimum Sum, respectively).
But what changes? Nothing fundamentally. Except for the elderly above 65 who would have slight improvements, the majority of Singaporeans would still not be able to have adequate retirement savings – because the general CPF interest rates and wages have still not been increased, and so the CPF still cannot grow faster, and Singaporeans still cannot have enough to retire on.
What changed? Nothing.
How are the changes to the PSLE ‘scoring’ system similar to that of the CPF? For the PSLE, the ‘government’ changed the Grade levels (A*, A, B, C, D,E and U) to Achievement Levels (1 – 8).
But students will still be streamed into Express, Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) at similar marks as today. ‘Top’ schools would most likely still take in students with the highest scores.
Worse still, students would now get lower grades/levels than under the old system and would face lower morale.
So what changed? Nothing. In fact, it got worse.
Nothing Changes with the ‘New’ PSLE Scoring System
When Singaporeans asked the ‘government’ to change the PSLE system, parents said that it was because their children were becoming too stressed and needed reprieve. Instead, the ‘government’ said that it would only change the ‘scoring’ system without fundamentally changing the primary school education system or the transition into secondary school, which should be what should be done to reduce stress levels at the root causes. So, alright, Singaporeans thought that changing the PSLE ‘scoring’ system might actually have the effect of reducing stress. But from the looks of it, it does not seem likely. Stress looks set to continue.
I hope I am wrong about this. MOE said that, “The PSLE changes are significant, so we will not rush the implementation.” It also said that, “The next few years will be used to test the new exam scoring and posting systems thoroughly,” so that as Acting Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng said, that the ‘government’ can make “Every school … a good school, a good fit for the child if it best matches the students’ needs.”
Honestly, I am not keeping my hopes high. I have just become too disappointed and jaded with how the Singapore ‘government’ works that I no longer really trust the ‘government’ to do what it propounds to do, but only on the surface.
I wonder all the time why this ‘government’ is not bold enough to make the fundamental changes required to kickstart our education system again, and our economy for that matter. But for whatever reasons, the ‘government’ does not dare to make major reforms and therefore we see ‘enhancements’ made which are like plasters placed over cracks, but without healing the cracks mean that the bottle will still break at some point anyway when it cannot handle the stress.
But how can the ‘government’ keep coming out with ‘solutions’ or ‘enhancements’ to problems when these are nothing more than repackaged (or worse still, just renamed) initiatives which do not fundamentally address the problems at hand? Then, aren’t we just kicking the problems down the road? Who does the ‘government’ expect to pick up the pieces later on, except for a government which would have a harder time trying to reverse bad decisions and which might just carry on making ‘enhancements’ (as is happening today) because the problems would be too deep to resolve by then or no one simply has the wits to do it?
Of course, if the question is to maintain an elitist and segregated structure, why change a system that works for the political elites, but except to modify it on the surface to appease those who are ruled and who are happy to have wool pulled over their eyes?
What are the solutions, you ask?
As I have written before, if you truly want to make every school a good school, you have to reduce class sizes (Singapore has the highest class sizes among the developed countries) and the administrative workload of teachers so that they will have the time (and energy) to focus on the development of each and every child. Teachers would also be less stressed and less likely to lose their temper with their students which we are increasingly hearing reports of. The syllabuses should also be reduced, and then school hours reduced as well, which together with reduced class sizes, will allow teachers to have the room to not only develop the potential of each child to their fullest but to allow them to do more creative activities to develop children’s critical thinking skills. Once this is done, where teachers could bring out the potential of each child more effectively, you would see students who are even more academically-effective (and all-rounded as well) and where schools would become more levelled academically and all schools would gradually become truly good schools. Finally, the government needs to ensure that education is free (or at least heavily subsidised – Singaporeans pay one of the highest childcare and university fees in the world today and Singaporeans receive very low scholarships compared to their foreign counterparts in local public universities), so that all children have equal access to higher education and will not be hindered by their lack of income or resources (where Singapore has one of the most unequal resource distribution in schools among the developed countries). Otherwise, the government should equalise wages so that the parents of these children would be able to earn higher wages to support their children through school – as it is, Singapore has the highest rich-poor gap and highest wage gap between the different education levels among the developed countries. Enrollment into higher education has to also be increased and more universities have to be built, so that our children would not be denied a chance simply because they cannot get a place in a local public university (Singapore’s university enrollment is considered low as compared to other developed countries). And if the government is sincere about upscaling the skills of polytechnic and ITE (vocational education) students to prop them up, then it has to institutionalise wage increases to again, level up the wages of polytechnic and ITE students so that they would be able to earn higher wages (and higher longer term wages) and not be trapped in poverty. It is estimated today that 30% of Singaporeans live in poverty – 30% of Singaporeans earn less than S$2,000 and the starting pay of polytechnic students is S$2,000. It is even lower for ITE students, at about S$1,200 to S$1,300.
But as it is, I do not see the ‘government’ do any of these. It removed the rankings of secondary schools and junior colleges only for them to make a comeback and to continue to stress our children. It changed the PSLE ‘scoring’ system but in essence, nothing changes. So fundamentally, the system does not really change to alleviate the stresses that our children face, and which they will continue to face.
Moreover, the solutions that I outlined above would make every school truly a good school, when there is greater equality in the accessibility to education and distribution of resources, but would the ‘government’ want to do that when this would threaten the very structure that the political elites have built for themselves?
I do not see the ‘government’ have the determination or will to do otherwise, but to keep with a system that produces enough workers for its low-cost foreign investment-fuelled rental market, and the political elites’ profit-motive.
Anyway why do I bother to speak up when the ‘government’ will keep persecuting me and Singaporeans would not even bat an eyelid. So, it really doesn’t matter now.
I am just writing because I thought that you might want to know. Just maybe. For you or your children’s sake, perhaps?