Smoking out tobacco control and foreign student scholarships

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.

* * * * *

Yee Jenn Jong (Workers’ Party) framed his question about government scholarships for foreigners in a way that required quantitative answers.

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.

* * * * *

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.

38 Responses to “Smoking out tobacco control and foreign student scholarships”


  1. 1 yinbin 30 January 2012 at 08:04

    The question was about the scholarships granted by the Government (through the Ministry of Education) and the relevant statistics was provided in the answer. You said that further information is needed about the scholarships given by the universities and the private sectors. Important as that information may be, it is not directly pertinent to the actual question that was being asked.

    Heng simply should not have mentioned the latter category of scholarships since they were not relevant to the question asked. See the consequence (invited further questions here)?

    Total transparency is not exercised in most countries and I suspect it would only be counter-productive and paralyzing to the governance of the country to allow the public full access to government information. Not trying to be patronizing. But can ordinary citizens be trusted to have the capability to objectively and reasonably digest information if it is fully released by the Government?

    • 2 yawningbread 30 January 2012 at 11:03

      It seems like you believe in a polity of a wise government ruling over a dumb populace. But questions you might want to consider include: Are governments by definition always wise? Are people necessarily dumb? Do people whose taxes are being used, not have a right to know? And if they do, is not a right a right, whether or not they use that information wisely? (Just as if money belongs to someone, whether he spends it wisely or foolishly, he has a right to spend it any way he likes).

      • 3 Poker Player 30 January 2012 at 13:42

        I think wisdom and stupidity are the wrong words to use.

        First get “in whose interest” clear first – then comes “wise” or “stupid”.

      • 4 yinbin 31 January 2012 at 08:15

        I think an appropriate analogy is the distinction between experts and non-experts, without assuming that the non-experts are necessarily ‘dumb’ – they simply lack the relevant expertise and experience. As a general statement, non-experts perhaps should not (presume that they can) intrude into the areas that are the field of experts.

        Generally, the government has a strong team that has the knowledge, experience and vision to make sound policies for the overall good of the country. They are able to see the whole picture and balance different needs. In comparison, the average voter tends to be less informed and is only concerned with particular issues without regard to the ‘whole picture’. I think this would be a fair characterization of the distinction between the government team and the ordinary citizens.

        Churchill once said (at least it’s attributed to him): “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter”.

        In my opinion, let the Government do their own job. If they release all data (which could be sensitive), it may likely invite a cacophony of responses/opinions/noises from “the average voter”, which will make it difficult to move forward.

        And simply because something is perceived to be a right does not mean that there are no other, overriding considerations. I may think that I am entitled to privacy, but I also understand the need for body searches/scanners at the airport. My right to privacy therefore is not an absolute right.

      • 5 Fox 31 January 2012 at 10:08

        @yinbin,

        Actually, even experts have tremendous difficulty prying information from the government. For example, attempts by academics to obtain data on population, labour force, etc from the government are met with frustration at every turn.

      • 6 Poker Player 31 January 2012 at 11:03

        “In my opinion, let the Government do their own job. If they release all data (which could be sensitive), it may likely invite a cacophony of responses/opinions/noises from “the average voter”, which will make it difficult to move forward.”

        You mean data that distinguishes native born citizens, foreign born citizens and permanent residents?

        Statistics that correlate sentencing for the same crime for different income groups and races (including white and non-white foreigners)?

        My hobby is a lexicon of Higher Singlish started quite a few years back – today’s entry are “sensitive” and “sensitive issue”. It means – “I don’t want to talk about it because it reveals my prejudices and interests”.

      • 7 Chow 31 January 2012 at 22:13

        @yinbin

        Well, expert opinion is over-rated. In a sense the world is (very) complex and the fact that an expert is often an ‘expert’ by virtue of fact that he/she has devoted an extraordinary amount of time into a very small and narrow facet of a problem. This means that it is unlikely that the expert is going to come up with answers or solutions that are more brilliant. This extreme specialization often means that other forms of knowledge are often lacking. Personally I prefer the term ‘specialist’ because nobody is really an expert.

        Looking at it in another light, these ‘experts’ are only experts because they have been designated by someone or some group. In general, experts are out there, everywhere and they walk among us often unnoticed. They often known as ‘amateurs’. Take a look at scientific history or even computing. Science first started out as a hobby of sorts for the rich aristocrats and they really never considered themselves scientists. Computing is another example of groups of individuals who often worked in their spare time or as a hobby. Think GNU, Linux, and Firefox and all that. All these are put together by enthusiasts who often have day jobs in other areas.

        So how I see it is that what you are trying to say is that data and information should be kept and left to people who are equipped with the specialized skills to handle them (e.g number crunching is best left to statisticians). But this is where you make the error of believing that just because the government (in this case) calls them ‘experts’, it means that they are best capable of handling the data and information and no one else is. This is not true. What is true is that this data and information is best left to the general public and by doing so, those most interested and sufficiently equipped, will be able to extract the necessary and relevant information from the data available. This is because the people with interest and skills to handle the data does not necessarily exist only in the employ of the government. They are everywhere. I mean think about how easy it is to be an expert. Just wrangle a way to get yourself as a ‘talking-head’ on some TV channel long enough and people will think you an expert. That’s right. Experts are a product of sufficient publicity. In my opinion, interest will drive a person to develop the necessary skills needed.

    • 8 Hsien Liao La 30 January 2012 at 13:54

      Your last question sounds quite like a joke and a reflection of your intellect (or lack thereof): How do you define “ordinary” citizens and how do you determine in advance if “ordinary” people can or cannot be “trusted”? Your words indicate your belief in the stratification of society, and that the government is a distinct group of citizens that are obviously not “ordinary”. Get out of my non-elite and uncaring face!~

    • 9 Chow 31 January 2012 at 22:19

      And just to add, your comment: “As a general statement, non-experts perhaps should not (presume that they can) intrude into the areas that are the field of experts” really means that if this goes on, we can kiss goodbye to social mobility. It also means that we are in danger of breeding an ‘Old Boys Club’.

      If one is to believe this statement to be true then one must necessarily believe that because one’s father was a leather-tanner, one must remain a leather-tanner all of one’s life. If one finds a group of ‘experts’ setting up barriers to entry all it really means is that they are trying to hide something. That or else what they make out to be the deep, arcane mysteries of their field is nothing more than bunk and nursery rhymes.

  2. 10 Fox 30 January 2012 at 09:32

    Yee was asking for the number of scholarships granted by *MOE*, not by the entire Singapore government. A significant number of scholarships are given by MFA and stat boards. For example, the SIA-NOL scholarships for Indian national is awarded by SIA but funded by MOE and thus allowing for plausible deniability when a question like Yee’s is asked.

  3. 11 anon 30 January 2012 at 10:06

    The number of ASEAN scholars cited seems a bit low, even if it is per cohort. I recall in an ASEAN scholar briefing session, there was easily 50 ASEAN scholars in JC1 for my JC alone, and that was the early 90s, and my JC was not RJ or NJ or HJ.

    The last time when Gan Kim Yong was MOS for Education, he fumbled over the foreign student numbers as well.

    http://www.channelnewsasia.com/stories/singaporelocalnews/view/289193/1/.html

    Seems like our million dollar ministers either don’t know or don’t care to find out the ballpark number of foreign students in Singapore.

  4. 13 yuen 30 January 2012 at 10:10

    >where did the rest come from? Perhaps they are full-paying students

    a large portion of foreign students would be from Malaysia, and most of them would be self financed; because they generally pay a subsidized tuition, they would sign a 3 year bond to work in Singapore after graduation

    students from other foreign regions are mostly sponsored as they are generally not from wealthy families; the impression given by the reply, that the sponsorship is mainly from “schools, universities and the corporate sector”, rather than the Singapore government, and the purpose is more “to create a diverse student body that encourages the learning of important cross-cultural skills” than “to meet the manpower needs of our economy”, seems to reflect well intentioned wishful thinking rather than actual development..

  5. 14 Vote for Change 30 January 2012 at 10:29

    I find it very ridiculous that a lot of time is squandered in the parliament on backbenchers asking for information and office holders providing those information. Why should our elected MPs be wasting time on fact finding instead of questioning policies and making suggestions to improve on these?

    IS THIS A FIRST WORLD PARLIAMENT? What a pathetic government we have.

    • 15 Han 30 January 2012 at 12:21

      I agree, why do we need the facts before making suggestions to improve on policies?

      • 16 yawningbread 30 January 2012 at 15:08

        Is this a tongue-in-cheek comment?

      • 17 Minna Ikuzo 31 January 2012 at 14:37

        I think what Vote for Change was wondering (as am I) is this – shouldn’t our elected representatives have access to this information as a matter of course? Being thusly equipped, wouldn’t that leave more time in Parliament for debating issues and policies as opposed to requesting and receiving information?

  6. 18 Super S 30 January 2012 at 14:06

    Freedom of Information is for governments who do not skeletons in the cupboard. Ours has a whole cemetary in there

  7. 19 Seb 30 January 2012 at 14:10

    “While the proportion of foreign students at universities here is 18 per cent, Mr Lee said their intake was not at the expense of local student enrolment, which has been rising steadily.”

    http://www.pmo.gov.sg/content/pmosite/mediacentre/inthenews/primeminister/2011/August/2000_more_uni_places_for_local_students.html

  8. 23 Anon 30 January 2012 at 15:22

    Scholarships from NUS/NTU are not considered scholarships from MOE, hence the small number. There are also bursaries, allowances, bridging programme, hostel arrangements and such.

  9. 24 anon 30 January 2012 at 17:52

    Alex, I think you give the Education Minister too much credit. Like others, he appears to have resorted to selective statistics. Why only ASEAN (not that we even trust quoted ASEAN firgures)? What about PRC students? Anecdotal evidence is of a large unbonded cohort over the years (recruited by secondary schools involved in the program – just check with parents in said schools) that dwarfs the 150 per year HSK claims.
    Incidentally, this highlights a problem with the opposition and the quality of their parliamentary hustings. Unless they begin to build their network to tap into what’s happening on the ground, they can kiss 2016 goodbye.

  10. 26 arockefeller (@arockefeller) 30 January 2012 at 18:39

    It’s naive to think that PAP backbenchers are actually formulating their own questions. I’m sure the questions are handed to them – or at least suggested – in advance by the party heirarchy. While it’s important to keep an eye on parliamentary proceedings and see what the level of debate is, there are far better ways of assessing the performance of a government by focusing on tangible results. We also don’t know how much work each MP is putting in behind the scenes to effect change in the party.

    This problem is universal, even in first world parliaments. In Australia, leading questions from backbenchers to their leaders are very common and known as “Dorothy Dixers” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorothy_Dixer)

  11. 27 haveahacks 30 January 2012 at 18:41

    Were these answers written or oral replies ? There is a fairly long queue of questions and at the end of a session, the MP can opt to get a written reply or hold the question till the next sitting of parliament. The advantage of waiting for an oral answer is you get to ask follow-up questions; the disadvantage is that you may have to wait long long for your turn. The advantage of opting for a written reply is that you get an answer faster; the disadvantage is that often the answer is meaningless and you don’t get to ask follow-ups.

  12. 28 Paul 30 January 2012 at 22:48

    There are clearly more questions to be asked than there is time under the current system to answer. I wonder if a full time Parliament would be an appropriate solution.

  13. 29 Anonymous 30 January 2012 at 23:53

    I doubt the Minister is 100% honest in his reply. How about the MOE PRC scholarships? And I thought the ASEAN scholarships are offered by the ministry of foreign affairs instead of MOE. Pardon my ignorance but it’s so confusing.

    Anyone who have studied in NUS / NTU would be able to easily tell that the number on SG govt scholarship is definitely more than 170. Besides, $25k sounds like what we pay on local rates. That’s not even including the expenses that the scholars receive. I thought there’s a foreigner rate charged by NUS/NTU? Perhaps the SG govt gets a discount?

    My friends and I whistle blew on a PRC scholar who broke the bond and left to work in the UK but there was no action taken on the scholar. Neither did MOE provide a a satisfactory answer to our queries on their processes to mandate that these MOE PRC scholars served their bond to completion. I won’t be surprise if MOE doesn’t have a track of what they graduated with and where exactly they are working now.

    • 30 yawningbread 31 January 2012 at 00:13

      I would not accuse the minister of being dishonest. More likely, it is that numerous parties offer numerous kinds of scholarships. Yee Jenn Jong’s question merely scratched the surface, but he wouldn’t have known that until he asked his first question. What this instance points to is how an MP may need to ask a cascade of questions to get at the whole picture, but our parliamentary rules don’t really allow for that.

  14. 31 jem 31 January 2012 at 11:55

    Heng comes across as dishonest, perhaps accidentally but nevertheless still. The question asked was about foreign students, yet his first response narrows it down to foreign students from ASEAN countries only. Later on he simply mentions international students. Are these internationals from all over the world or just ASEAN?

    [If it turns out that scholarships from MOE are only for ASEAN students, then this point is invalid, but I doubt so.]

    Secondly, Jenn Jong asked what was the percentage of foreign scholars who graduated with a second uppers honours or greater. Heng gave the percentage of international students instead of that of foreign scholars.

    It seems a little odd to me. The numbers should be better if using foreign scholars rather than foreign students. Unless of course, the foreign scholars on average perform *worse* than foreign students?

    Side note: What does ‘obliged to work for *up to* six years’ mean? 6 years? 4 years? 1 day?

  15. 32 lobo76 31 January 2012 at 14:38

    I am interested in the process in which the Minister obtains his ‘answers’. As I highly doubt he goes into the system to find out the information, who exactly are the ones who prepare these ‘answers’? Who then edits the results into a form for the minister to just read? How much input does the minister actually contribute to the final version that is being read in the parliament?

  16. 33 More honesty please 31 January 2012 at 18:07

    These ministers who fudge straight forward questions will not be respected by people who bother to look below the surface. We can only constantly sigh at the lack of transparency and honesty of the PAP ministers. What are we paying for? They are certainly not value for money.

  17. 34 Ng K 31 January 2012 at 22:19

    We would like comprehensive answers. There are many types of scholarships. Some for eg are ‘development funds’ set up for eg the ifnancial industry. As a citizen and tax payer I want to know how much the govt and relevant local entities (both public and private and statutory bodies) are spending on foreigners in the area of education and training. THank you.

  18. 35 TY 9 February 2012 at 15:20

    I dont see what is the difficulties of tabulating all the scholarship foreigners received over the years under different gov organisation, ministries and glcs. Comparing all these data to what locals received. Then we have a full picture.

    Surely a scholar somewhere could have done with ease.

    Until we have all the stats, a number plug here and a cost there doesnt help. All further discussions on this become immaterial.

    Is the gov playing tricks on the electorates?

  19. 36 Jammie Wong 22 February 2012 at 16:30

    Alex, you have mis-quoted YJJ’s question. Your quote above:
    “Mr Yee Jenn Jong asked the Minister for Education for the last 10 years what was (i) the annual number of FOREIGNERS who…” (emphasis mine).

    YJJ’s facebook status:
    “*16. To ask the Minister for Education (a) for the last 10 years what was the annual number of non-ASEAN foreigners who…”
    (https://www.facebook.com/yeejj.wp/posts/282775508456897)

    YJJ’s status is as per Order Paper here: http://www.parliament.gov.sg/sites/default/files/u4/Order%20Paper%20-%2017Feb12.pdf

    Would you revise your article?

    • 37 yawningbread 22 February 2012 at 16:40

      You’re mixing up two different questions by Yee. The question cited here was the one he asked in the parliamentary sitting of 9 jan 2012, and the quote is taken from the official parliamentary records. Being the official records, it would not be a misquote. You’re quoting from the Order Paper dated 17 Feb 2012 — that’s his follow-up question, where he took the trouble to specify non-Asean students.

  20. 38 Oliver Yuen 23 February 2012 at 23:15

    Hi Alex, a number of foreigners are on MOE Tuition Grant Scheme, which may not be the same as being scholars


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