Puthucheary scoffs at NMP Lien’s free education idea

Nominated Member of Parliament Laurence Lien, CEO of the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre (NVPC), proposed in Parliament yesterday (3 Mar) that the government guarantee free basic education for all Singaporeans between 3 to 18 years.

Mr Lien said in his speech (‘NMP Lien: Every generation is a pioneer generation‘):

Primary and secondary education is essentially free in Singapore. Pre-school education is receiving substantially more subsidies. Can we not simply guarantee free basic education for all between 3 to 18 years?

For pre-school, a universal voucher can be provided to all children, set at the median fees charged by all operators. Tertiary education fees can be chargeable in the form of a loan whose repayment is a proportion of what the graduate actually earns in the workforce.

Those going into lower paid professions, like in the nonprofit sector, can receive loan forgiveness if they are unable to make full payment at the end of their loan tenure.

However, Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC MP Janil Puthucheary poured scorn on Mr Lien’s proposal to offer free basic education to Singaporean children from 3 to 18 years old.

The Malaysia-born Dr Puthucheary, who famously equated saving childrens’ lives in KK Hospital as a pediatrician to serving National Service, said:

I listened in interest to Mr Lien’s suggestions. He called for free education while acknowledging that much of the education is currently at very low cost. Free education is not free.

It’s very, very expensive to the society as a whole, to those societies that deliver free education, there is a very high taxation burden and it drives behaviour for individuals to seek private education.

And so the access to opportunity differentiates across the income spectrum. What is the outcome? The outcome we need is equality of opportunity for all. And free education, will it improve the equality of opportunity by giving similar access to everybody, I am doubtful of that.

Dr Puthucheary did not explain how a high tax burden in some first world countries is driving citizens of those countries to seek private education.

Dr Puthucheary sought further to rebut Mr Lien:

He (Mr Lien) also called for the envisioning of possibilities and talked about the reality on the ground. I have to say I take umbrage at this. In 1995, 99% of the time the reality on the ground is that Singaporeans work hard, they’re rewarded for their hard work and they do envision the possibilities. They do have pride in the work that they do and they have self confidence that they can build a better future for themselves and for their families.

I’ve one family I know very well through my MPS and my work on the ground. The gentleman is quite unwell and requires regular help at one of the hospitals. He’s unable to work at this point in time. His wife works to support the entire family. But they envision the possibility when their daughter receives the educational merit bursary award. They know that their daughter has possibility, has opportunity, has equality of access to that opportunity and they can see the future. The lady in question has pride and self confidence in her ability to maintain and provide for her family.

Mr Laurence Lien is a grandson of the late Lien Ying Chow, founder of Overseas Union Bank (OUB) which later merged with United Overseas Bank (UOB) after the government-linked Development Bank of Singapore (DBS) tried to make a hostile takeover bid for OUB in 2001. At the time, the elder Mr Lien did not want DBS to acquire OUB so he decided to merge with UOB.

On 1 August 2001, DBS was forced to apologise and pay compensation for a document condemning the merger of UOB and OUB. The DBS document said that there was likely to be “decision paralysis and infighting” if the merger went ahead. The act of UOB buying OUB was “designed to keep family control intact without regard for shareholder value,” and OUB shareholders “should chastise its board and management”. The document also referred to a “board and management team composed of family and friends”.

Later, DBS chairman S Dhanabalan said he was “angry and upset” the statements had been made and accepted responsibility although the document had not been prepared by his bank. DBS apologised to UOB and OUB and paid $1 million to both banks. Both UOB and OUB accepted Mr Dhanabalan’s apology and the retraction of statements, and donated the $1 million dollars compensation to charity.

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