Parliament: Making sense of “for better or worse”?

Photo:John Walker/CC BY 2.0Photo:John Walker/CC BY 2.0

Are our students “worse off” or “better off”?

I refer to the article “Disadvantaged Singapore students do better than OECD peers: Dr Puthucheary” (Channel NewsAsia, Jan 10).

It states that “Disadvantaged students in Singapore do better than those of similar backgrounds from other developed countries, Senior Minister of State for Education Janil Puthucheary said in Parliament on Wednesday (Jan 10) in reply to a question by Aljunied GRC MP Sylvia Lim.

Ms Lim had asked if the Ministry of Education (MOE) was concerned that a report by the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), titled Excellence and Equity in Education, found that economically disadvantaged students in Singapore were “significantly more likely to underperform in science compared to their OECD counterparts”.

Dr Puthucheary clarified that this was not true, as low-income students still outperform their OECD peers, it was just that Singapore students of higher socio-economic background outperform their peers by a larger margin.

He called Ms Lim’s interpretation “factually inaccurate”, saying students from low-income backgrounds had higher PISA scores compared to their OECD peers in all areas of assessment: reading, mathematics and science.

In follow-up questions, Ms Lim highlighted figures in the report stating that Belgium, Singapore and Switzerland were the only three high-performing countries with a below average equity in educational outcomes.

“There was a table in the OECD report that compared the performance of socio-economically disadvantaged students … and it was stated that the OECD average of disadvantaged students likely to underperform is 2.8 times, but Singapore is 4.37 times,” Ms Lim said.

“Is that not an indication that we have a bigger issue to worry about in terms of equity?”

Dr Puthucheary disagreed, saying: “If one chooses that as the measure of equity, which the OECD has chosen to do, then the mathematical result is as Ms Lim has demonstrated.

“However, it does not mean that our lower socio-economic status students are underperforming their OECD counterparts. That is not the case.”

Still, Dr Puthucheary said MOE is focused on this issue because it is important that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are able to overcome their circumstances and do well.

He also highlighted that the same report showed that about half of Singapore students from the bottom 25 per cent of disadvantaged households performed much better internationally than what their home circumstances would predict.

The report defined students in this category as “resilient students”. Dr Puthucheary noted Singapore’s proportion of resilient students is “substantially higher” than the OECD average of 30 per cent in the study based on 2015 PISA results.”

Let me try to use an analogy to explain – to help you to understand (at least from one perspective) – as to who made more or less sense in the above exchange in Parliament?

If someone tells you that lower-income students have a higher chance of ending up in the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) – but their starting salary in country A is still higher than country B.

So, the conclusion is that students in country A are not worse off than country B.

However – from an equity perspective – what if country A has been ranked as the most expensive city in the world – much more expensive than country B; and the income gap between the “richer” and the “poorer” is very big (A’s gini is the second highest world and B is much lower) – do you not see and agree that the statement that “students in country A are not worse off than country B” – does not really make much sense?

In other words – what really matters, arguably, may be the difference between the “lower” and “higher” students in a country, and not the difference between the “lower” students in two different countries.

ITE starting salary $1,700 in 2016?

In this connection, according to the Ministry of Manpower’s (MOM) Yearbook of Manpower Statistics 2017 – the median gross monthly starting salary of ITE graduates (Higher Nitec (Engineering)) in full-time permanent employment was $1,700 in 2016.

ITE starting salary $1,500 in 1999?

The starting salary in 1999 was $1,500.

So, does it mean that the increase over the 17 years was only about 13.3 per cent ($1,700 divided by $1,500).


Certification Level

Starting Salaries
( Based on July 1999 survey )

Higher Nitec in engineering courses


Higher Nitec in business courses


Nitec in technical courses


Nitec in Office Skills


(Source: ITE)

Real starting pay down (-20.7%) last 17 years?

Since inflation was about 34 per cent from 1999 (CPI 73.814) to 2016 (CPI 98.932) – does it mean that the real increase was about minus 20.7 per cent (34 – 13.3)?

By the way, the proportion (%) in full-time permanent employment was only 41.8 per cent.

For Nitec (Engineering) – it was only 33.6 per cent, and the Median Gross Monthly Starting Salary was even lower, at $1,545.

Can you imagine how much the other 66.4 per cent (100 – 33.6) who were not in full-time permanent employment (couldn’t get full-time jobs?) were earning?

Leong Sze Hian



About the Author

Leong Sze Hian has served as the president of 4 professional bodies, honorary consul of 2 countries, an alumnus of Harvard University, authored 4 books, quoted over 1500 times in the media , has been a radio talkshow host, a newspaper daily columnist, Wharton Fellow, SEACeM Fellow, columnist for theonlinecitizen and Malaysiakini, executive producer of Ilo Ilo (40 international awards), Hotel Mumbai (associate producer), invited to speak more than 200 times in about 40 countries, CIFA advisory board member, founding advisor to the Financial Planning Associations of 2 countries. He has 3 Masters, 2 Bachelors degrees and 13 professional  qualifications.