It is important to monitor how our members of parliament are discharging their duties in the legislature. One good way is to cast one’s eye on the Hansard from time to time to check the cogency and quality of the questions they ask, if they are backbenchers. If they are office-holders, we’d be interested in the quality of their replies.
Let me give you two examples from the parliamentary sitting of 9 January 2012.
Janil Puthucheary (PAP) posed a question about anti-tobacco efforts.
Dr Janil Puthucheary asked the Minister for Health (a) what is the total economic burden including lost productivity due to smoking, passive tobacco exposure and tobacco-related diseases; (b) how much is currently spent on educational and preventive measures for smoking; (c) how does this compare to the current expenditure on educational or preventive measures for other common diseases; and (d) whether there are plans to increase the expenditure on tobacco control.
The reply by Gan Kim Yong contains quite a lot of fluff. Perhaps he needed to bury within loads of positive statements (“stepped up our efforts”, “enhance its targeted, multi-pronged strategies”) the unflattering fact that smoking prevalence has been rising, from 12.6% in 2004 to 14.3 % in 2010.
Mr Gan Kim Yong: The annual social cost of smoking in Singapore was estimated to be between $600 million and $800 million in a 2002 study by the National University of Singapore. This includes the opportunity cost of tobacco-related work absenteeism as well as healthcare expenditure for tobacco-associated diseases.
I am pleased to share more recent findings which show that our National Tobacco Control Programme (NTCP) driven by the Health Promotion Board (HPB) has resulted in 14,000 fewer cases of lung cancer and 4,700 fewer cases of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease between 1986 and 2006.
However, smoking prevalence has recently been on a rising trend from a low of 12.6% in 2004 to 13.6% in 2007 and 14.3 % in 2010, driven by significant increases in smoking among younger Chinese and Malay men aged 18 to 39. In response, my Ministry has been actively stepping up the NTCP. In 2011, $14.6 million was allocated to HPB to enhance its targeted, multi-pronged strategies in both tobacco prevention and cessation, compared to $10 million in 2010 and $7.3 million in 2009.
As mentioned earlier, we have put into place various strategies to prevent our youth from picking up smoking.
We have also stepped up our efforts in tobacco cessation. HPB’s National Tobacco Control Campaign in 2011, also known as the “I Quit Movement”, adopted a community-based but personalised approach that helps smokers build a support network to quit smoking successfully. Since its launch in June this year, HPB has observed a three-fold increase in the number of smokers (from 500 to more than 1,500) who have sought help to quit. The dedicated QuitLine is still receiving a 50% increase (from baseline of 15 to 20 calls per week) in the number of smokers calling in to seek help, six months past the launch of the “I Quit Movement”.
The NTCP budget is comparable to HPB’s expenditure for other priority areas. However, we should not measure our tobacco control effort solely by the amount spent on it. We have to ensure that our programmes are effective.
Moving forward, we expect to continue to invest the necessary resources on tobacco control, and will work with the Health Sciences Authority, Customs and National Environment Agency to intensify enforcement efforts to prevent underage smoking, smuggling of low-price cigarettes and smoking in public places respectively from undermining tobacco control efforts. We will also step up our efforts to discourage young adults from picking up smoking and to help smokers quit their habit.
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Mr Yee Jenn Jong asked the Minister for Education for the last 10 years what was (i) the annual number of foreigners who were granted scholarships by the Ministry to study in our schools and universities and the annual cost of these scholarships; (ii) the percentage of foreign scholars who commenced studies in secondary schools and proceeded on to local universities; (iii) the percentage of foreign scholars in local universities who had graduated with Second Class Upper Honours or better; and (iv) the percentage of foreign scholars who completed their contractual bond period to work in Singapore after their graduation.
The Education Minister gave a reply that was more to the point than Health Minister Gan Kim Yong above.
Mr Heng Swee Keat: For students from ASEAN countries, MOE offers scholarships to promote mutual understanding and goodwill in the region. In the past few years, MOE awarded around 150 scholarships annually to students from the ASEAN countries at the pre-tertiary level and another 170 at the undergraduate level. The scholarships cover school fees and accommodation, and the annual cost is about $14,000 for each pre-tertiary scholarship and between $18,000 to $25,000 for each undergraduate scholarship. Around 65% of pre-tertiary international scholars progress on to our Autonomous Universities.
In addition, our schools, universities and the corporate sector also offer a range of scholarships to quality international students to create a diverse student body that encourages the learning of important cross-cultural skills, as well as to meet the manpower needs of our economy. With Singapore’s decreasing fertility rates, it is important that even as we seek to better develop our talent pool, we augment this with working professionals and students from abroad. This helps us to maintain our economic competitiveness and ultimately raise the standard of living of our people.
Of all the international students who graduated from our Autonomous Universities in 2011, around 45% did so with a Second Upper class of Honours or better.
Upon graduation, scholars are obliged to work in Singapore or Singapore companies for up to six years. More than eight in 10 scholars have been working in Singapore and are contributing to our economy. As for those who did not start work immediately, many had deferred their bonds to pursue postgraduate studies.
As Yee’s question and Heng’s answer showed, follow-up questions are often called for. Without them, it can be hard to grasp the significance of the answer given.
For example, it would have struck you that the Education Ministry’s 170 undergraduate scholarships annually to Asean scholars do not account for the thousands of foreign students in the National University of Singapore alone. That university has an undergraduate enrolment of about 27,000, with another 10,000 graduate students. I believe it was previously made public that about 20 percent are foreign students (can anyone locate some source statistics on this?), so where did the rest come from? Perhaps they are full-paying students, but since Heng added that the universities and corporate sector also give out scholarships, it would seem necessary to get a handle on these numbers if we are to make any sense of the situation.
I will hasten to add however that I fully support the idea that a significant minority of students in our universities should be foreigners, adding as it does an important dimension to education. This must necessarily include scholarships, which also help to create international goodwill for Singapore. Please do not assume from my discussion of this topic that I am anti-foreigner.
As for the other statistics Heng gave, we really can’t assess their significance unless there is comparable data for the student body as a whole, or at least comparable data for Singaporean scholarship holders.
Yee could have asked supplementary questions on the spot, but it would not be fair to Heng, as additional data need a bit of time to unearth them. Yee’s option would therefore be to ask his follow-up questions at another session of parliament. But parliamentary procedures impose limits on how many questions a member can ask, and he will obviously have to prioritise — which is to say, he may not have an opportunity to revisit this issue for a while.
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By why should only members of parliament get a chance to ask such questions? If we want informed voters, which surely the People’s Action Party cannot disagree with, there has to be ways for the public to obtain such information. It’s time for a Freedom of Information Act.