The name Low Thia Khiang is pretty familiar to those in the older generation. However, perhaps due to mainstream media and ‘national education’, many youngsters who were born in the 1990s do not know much about him.
In my opinion, the mainstream media in Singapore (ranked 154th out of 180th in press freedom globally) often puts more focus on the AHTC issue rather than other issues raised in parliament.
How do you explain the fact that his team in Parliament spoke up so many times in parliament but received little coverage in comparison?
Low turns 60 years old on 5 September 2016. So, I decided to write this post to document some issues he spoke up about in the recent years. Of course, my blog entry will not include every single issue he has covered. To cater to the short attention span of netizens, I’d focus on 8 recent and interesting issues he has spoken about.
1) The tuition culture in Singapore
A recent Household Expenditure Survey revealed that families in Singapore collectively spent $1.1 billion per year on tuition. This is almost double the $650 million spent 10 years ago.
This phenomenon, especially in bell-curve system, has affected those from poorer families who could not afford tuition like their richer peers to keep up.
During the budget debate on the estimates for the Ministry of Education in 2013, Low Thia Khiang expressed concerns that private tuition fees have become a financial burden to many families, with the stressful education system and the cost of educating children not encouraging Singaporeans to start families.
“At the budget debate last year, Minister for Education seemed to suggest that tuition is quite normal as it happens everywhere all over the world and that this is a sign of parents having high aspirations for their children’s success in education.
While this may be true, is the Minister not concerned when private tuition appears to have virtually become a parallel system to our publicly funded education system? …Families spend more on private tuition then on university tuition fee. Private tuition fee has become a financial burden to many families, especially those from the middle-income group….
If our schools could provide the additional support for weaker students to boost their academic results to assure parents that their children are able to cope with schoolwork, it would ease the anxiety of parents from sending their children for tuition…Schools should also be mindful not to feed the anxiety of parents and putting unnecessary pressure on students by purposely setting difficult questions in routine assessment test to fail students in order to spur them to work harder.
MOE must reclaim the confidence of parents that the school can and will be able to educate their children and bring out their best and full potential without the need for parents to seek private tuition outside school education.”
2. Waiting Time for Specialist Consultation
Most who have visited specialists via public hospitals or who accompany our elderly parents for their medical appointments would who know how long it takes to get an appointment with a specialist.
Low Thia Khiang spoke up on this issue recently during the Ministry of Health Committee of Supply Debate 2016 that he received feedback from a patient who needed to wait for 6 months to see a lung specialist, and another 3 months for the biopsy results. He was concerned that this long wait would result in a patient’s condition could deteriorate and he could develop complications which are harder and more expensive to treat.
In his words:
Long waiting times for appointments and medical investigations at Specialist Outpatient Clinics (SOCs) for subsidised patients, have been a longstanding problem. I asked about this during the COS debate three years ago, and was assured by the Minister that MOH adopts a “multi-pronged approach” to address the queues at our SOCs.
However, three years have passed and the situation does not seem to have improved. I have received feedback from a patient who needed to wait for 6 months to see a lung specialist, and another 3 months for the biopsy results. During this long wait, a patient’s condition could deteriorate and he could develop complications which are harder and more expensive to treat.
The long waiting times seem to affect subsidised patients much more than unsubsidised patients. Are these long waiting times a way that SOCs regulate subsidised patients’ demand for their services? Or are they due to insufficient resources being made available to meet subsidised patient demand?
3. Hitting the nail about the reasons regarding low birthrate
In view of our ongoing problem of low birthrates, the main policy solution was basically the baby bonus. While this is generous, the Baby Bonus hasn’t been as effective in targeting the real reasons. Some Singaporeans cited high cost of living, poor worklife balance and stress as reasons for low birthrates.
Mr Low was able to clearly articulate the root cause of low birthrates and criticized relying too much on immigration as a solution:
“Without a total fertility rate recovery plan with clear targets, our birth rates are not going to go up. So when 2030 arrives what solution are we going to turn to? Immigration again? Another White Paper to project a population size of 10 million for 2050 as a road map?
If we travel down this road map, Singaporeans will become a minority in their own country. The problem with the government is not that it lacks 20-20 foresight in infrastructure development, but it fails to recognise that the problem is its immigration policy in the first place…. Therefore the solution must be sought by focussing the promotion of the quality of life for Singapore families. By focussing on immigration, the government is using the cause of the problem today as a solution for tomorrow. What the government is doing is kicking the can down the road.”
4. The importance of managing the inflow of foreign workers
While Low was previously accused for flip-flopping on foreign workers issue, this is not the case as his view has always been consistent – WP is not an anti-immigration party. It welcomes those who could contribute to Singapore, but immigration must ultimately benefit Singaporeans.
This has been their stance for the past five years. In the 2011 manifesto, it also states that “The most important objective for our immigration policies should be to improve the well-being of individual Singaporeans and their families.”
His solution to the problem? Low believes it is in the interest of Singaporeans and our economy that the government should calibrate the dependency ratio of foreign workers by specific industry in order to be more effective in managing the inflow of foreign workers without hurting the business and our economy too much.
In the Budget Speech 2011, Low also called the Ministry of Manpower out for not making the distinction between Permanent Residents (PR) and Locals when reporting on local employment data in their labour force report. Quoting him:
Is the distinction important? The answer is ‘Yes’. It tells Singaporeans that more jobs did go to them. It tells Singaporeans that distinction between PRs and them goes beyond a mere difference in fees charged for education and healthcare. It tells Singaporeans that jobs are indeed created and reserved for them.
I am sure this house did not forget that Singaporeans did not even enjoy any significant fee advantage in education and healthcare when compared to PRs as recent as five years ago. So let’s make the distinction clearer. Let Singaporeans know more jobs did go to them in 2010 and more are reserved for them in the next decade. This is the true spirit of Singaporeans first.
PS: I just checked the most recent labour force report and it seems that Singaporeans and PRs are still being grouped in the same category “Residents (also known as locals)”.
5. Preventing molestations cases on public transportation
There has been a rise in molestation cases in the past few years especially on public transport. On average, there are 71 cases of molestation that take place in MRT trains reported every year.
According to the former Public Transport Council president Gerard Ee said then that the rise in such cases “is likely due to the public-transport system being more crowded.” Just this year, an engineer and dentist were jailed for molesting women on MRT trains.
During a parliamentary debate in 2015, Low Thia Khiang expressed concerns on this issue expressing that “Although the numbers seem small, I believe the reports are only the tip of the iceberg, as it is very embarrassing for many women to cry out in a crowded train and claim she was molested in front of everyone.”
The issue of underreporting is definitely of concern. In a recent Straits Times article titled ‘Sexual crimes remain under radar in Singapore“, the author highlighted that women tend to keep mum as they fear the publicity that goes with dragging these cases to court. Others keep mum for fear that they would be disbelieved or bring shame on their family.
To improve the situation, Low suggested the idea of a women’s only cabin. Quoting him
Molesters get away with their crime most easily when trains are packed during peak hours, with people standing very close to each other.
I doubt the current attempts at public education are working. National Crime Prevention Council posters in public transport showing a male attempting to molest a woman from behind and asking women to protect themselves may be backfiring. Internationally, such anti-crime campaigns and posters have been criticized for putting the onus on women to prevent the crime and promoting a culture of blaming the victim for the crime.
I urge the Minister to mandate the MRT service providers to have prominent signs on the floor and the doors, and within the cabins, to designate specific cabin as for women only…. Japan and Taiwan have implemented women only cabin with success..Although not all women will choose to take these cabins, but at least those who feel vulnerable or have had bad experiences will have the option of traveling to work and back home to their families with peace of mind.
This idea was also raised by MP Dr. Lily Neo. I personally support this suggestion as someone who has a close friend who was molested on the train but did not report it due to lack of evidence and fear of ridicule.
6. Protection for those with mental illnesses
During the budget debate this year, Low called for funding from the 3Ms and other insurance plans for mental illnesses to be on-par with coverage for other conditions. He added that companies need to be encouraged to provide equal levels of support and coverage for employees who suffer from mental health issues.
Quoting his speech:
“Currently, our 3Ms framework allows support for mental illnesses, but are limited. For example, Medisave has a withdrawal limit of $150 per day for inpatient psychiatric treatment, with an annual cap of $5,000. Compare this with daily limits of $450 for other patients who have been hospitalised. For Medishield Life, the difference is even greater, with a daily coverage of $700 in a normal ward, but $100 for a psychiatric ward….
Mental illness, while perhaps less understood, is no less real than physical illnesses. There is also stigma and lack of understanding which patients and their loved ones combat daily. Some studies estimate that one in six of our population would suffer from mental health issues at some stage of their lives.”
Low also spoke up for patients with mental illnesses in 2012 and during the COS debate in 2015.
7. Protecting our environment
In addition to bread and butter issues, Low also spoke up regarding environmental issues. He urged the MND to roll out the Greenprint initiatives ‘as soon as possible to all eligible HDB Towns in view of the national push towards productivity and escalating costs of town maintenance’.
For those who are unsure about this initiative, it aims to combat global warming and environmental degradation by infrastructure such as solar panels, sensor-controlled LED lightings, pneumatic waste conveyance system, and enhanced pedestrian networks.
This is piloted at only 38 blocks in Singapore but seeing it’s value, Low requested for this to be extended to more towns in Singapore. In his own words, this is why:
Pneumatic refuse collection system The old design of individual bin chute system in older HDB estate with daily manual collection is a low productivity design and is not cost effective. Residents also often have to live with foul smell during the collection. A modified centralized refuse collection system would increase productivity in town maintenance and reduce the cost of manpower in conservancy work.
Energy and water saving solutions for common area.Water and electricity cost is one the big expenditure items in Town Council management. Initiative on water saving device and exploring new source of energy for common area not only can achieve the green effect, but also save cost.
He requested for this again earlier this year stating that “the modernization of waste collection is a benefit that should be experienced by as many HDB estates as possible, including the older HDB estates.”
8. Lift Maintenance and Breakdown
Some complained that the WP did not speak up on this issue. However, Low Thia Khiang had raised this issue two months ago during the Budget debates in Parliament (read the full speech here). This was before the recent spate of highly publicised breakdowns and problems.
Low: new lifts have high breakdown rate, urge MND to (1) look at quality of new lifts, (2) provide special grant for lift maintenance, (3) regulate for standardised lift design and parts.
Desmond Lee: (1) take a look at your Town Council data and find out what the problems are, (2) Town Council should plan their finances ahead and MND is already providing additional assistance schemes, (3) there are over 20 lift brands used and the parts may be very complex.
Low: The problem is more fundamental, do we really have a competitive market or in a situation where we are dependent on the lift companies to set pricing on maintenance?
Desmond Lee: “If you think there is an issue, raise it to MND and HDB”, be specific.
I hope this article has given young adults a better idea of some interesting and recent issues which MP Low Thia Khiang had raised in parliament.
His journey in politics has definitely not been easy. As my team mate Yudhish said, “How difficult it must’ve been to sit and debate in a chamber of more than 80 people who would be ever-ready to characterise you as a troublemaker when what you’re really trying to do is to radically improve the quality and scope of intelligent debate in Parliament, with only 1 or 2 friends (in Mr Chiam and Ms Sylvia Lim) for support.”
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