Thursday, 8 December 2016

PISA 2015: Singapore students top global ranking in reading, maths and science

Singapore students bag education 'World Cup'
They come out tops among 72 economies for their showing in maths, science and reading
By Sandra Davie, Senior Education Correspondent, The Straits Times, 7 Dec 2016

One week after scoring top marks in a mathematics and science study, Singapore students aced an even more prestigious international benchmarking test, which is dubbed the "World Cup for Education".

The Republic's 15-year-olds were ranked No. 1 for mathematics, science and reading in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a triennial study run by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to measure how well students use their knowledge and skills to solve real-world problems.

In the last PISA test in 2012, Singapore's students were ranked second in mathematics and third in science and reading.

PISA 2015 conducted last year saw teens from 72 countries and economies participating. In Singapore, 5,825 students, from all 168 public schools sat for the computer-based test, alongside 290 students from nine private schools, including a madrasah. The students were randomly selected and also had to fill in a questionnaire on their learning habits.

The Ministry of Education (MOE) said yesterday that the results show Singapore students are not just competent in applying knowledge and skills, but also in analysing and communicating as they solve novel problems.

It added that the deliberate curricular shifts made by MOE over the years to trim syllabuses and give more time to higher-order thinking skills have borne fruit.

Minister for Education (Schools) Ng Chee Meng, in a Facebook post, yesterday congratulated Singapore students on their top placing in PISA as well as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study released last week. They are equipped with some of the skills needed for the future, he said.

"Heartened too that our teachers' dedication to plan engaging lessons has built a strong foundation for our students," he added.

Donald Trump’s Taiwan call wasn't a blunder. It was brilliant.

By Marc A. Thiessen, Published The Straits Times, 7 Dec 2016

Relax. Breathe.

Mr Donald Trump's phone call with the president of Taiwan wasn't a blunder by an inexperienced president-elect unschooled in the niceties of cross-strait diplomacy.

It was a deliberate move - and a brilliant one at that.

The phone call with President Tsai Ing-wen was reportedly carefully planned, and Mr Trump was fully briefed before the call, according to The Washington Post. It's not that Mr Trump was unfamiliar with the Three Communiques or unaware of the fiction that there is One China. Mr Trump knew precisely what he was doing in taking the call.

He was serving notice on Beijing that it is dealing with a different kind of president - an outsider who will not be encumbered by the same Lilliputian diplomatic threads that tied down previous administrations.

The message, as former US ambassador John Bolton correctly put it, was that "the president of the United States (will) talk to whoever he wants if he thinks it's in the interest of the United States, and nobody in Beijing gets to dictate who we talk to".

Amen to that.

And if that message was lost on Beijing, Mr Trump underscored it on Sunday, tweeting: "Did China ask us if it was OK to devalue their currency (making it hard for our companies to compete), heavily tax our products going into their country (the US doesn't tax them) or to build a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea? I don't think so!" He does not need Beijing's permission to speak to anyone. No more kowtowing in a Trump administration.

Mr Trump promised during the campaign that he would take a tougher stand with China, and supporting Taiwan has always been part of his get-tough approach to Beijing.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Train fares in Singapore among the lowest in major cities worldwide: Public Transport Council

By Adrian Lim, The Straits Times, 6 Dec 2016

Train fares in Singapore are among the lowest, compared to other major cities worldwide.

For a 10km rail trip, commuters here pay $1.33, the sixth cheapest in a comparison of 36 cities across Asia, Australia, Europe and North America, according to a study. Only Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen in China, and Taipei in Taiwan, have lower fares than Singapore for a train trip of the same distance.

The study, conducted by SIM University, was released by the Public Transport Council (PTC) on its blog yesterday.

PTC chairman Richard Magnus said in the post: "We will continue to conduct such comparison studies, to ensure that we are kept abreast of international fare trends and uphold PTC's commitment to keep fares affordable for our commuters, while ensuring the sustainability of our public transport system."

Besides comparing fares for a 10km train trip, the study also looked at the lowest rail fare in the 36 cities. Singapore's lowest train fare is $0.77, placing it fourth among the 36 cities. Only Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Taipei have a lower minimum fare.

Mr Magnus said of the findings: "Within Asia, the rail fares in Singapore are among the lowest, while rail fares in cities like Tokyo and Seoul lie on the higher end of the spectrum in Asia."

He added: "When compared to cities in Australia, Europe and North America, rail fares in Singapore are considerably lower."

With the exception of Taipei, fare levels for the cities were converted to Singapore dollars based on each city's purchasing power parity (PPP). This accounts for any differences in the strength of currency and cost of living across the region.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

New PAssion Silver Concession Card to offer seniors concession fares and discounts

More perks to help seniors stay active and engaged
Free card for citizens aged 60 and above offers discounts on courses, travel, shopping
By Toh Wen Li, The Straits Times, 5 Dec 2016

Seniors will soon get to enjoy more perks with a new free card - which offers concession fares on public transport and discounts on items such as groceries and plane tickets.

The PAssion Silver Concession Card was launched yesterday to make it easier for seniors to stay active and be engaged in the community. It will be free for every Singaporean aged 60 and above. The new card merges the Senior Citizen Concession and PAssion cards.

Spearheaded by the health and transport ministries and People's Association, the initiative was launched as part of the $3 billion Action Plan for Successful Ageing.

Holders of the new card will enjoy discounted rates for PA community clubs' courses, activities and facilities, and at merchants such as Giant and Cold Storage. Those who are also KrisFlyer members get 5 per cent off Singapore Airlines fares. Over 1,000 PAssion Merchant outlets are involved in the initiative.

Seniors will also get concession fares - at least 25 per cent off the adult fare - on public transport.

Senior Minister of State Josephine Teo said: "We hope the card will facilitate (seniors') active lifestyles by helping them get from place to place comfortably, conveniently and more affordably."

The card was launched yesterday in Commonwealth Crescent by Health Minister Gan Kim Yong, PA deputy chairman Chan Chun Sing and Mrs Teo. Mr Gan said it was a way for Singaporeans to show "love, respect and support for our seniors", and, in turn, encourage seniors to "learn new things and make many new friends".

Rising global discontent will affect stability, security: PM Lee at PAP Conference 2016

It will be harder to prosper together, and Singapore must keep watch over impact of trend
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 5 Dec 2016

The growing mood of anxiety and discontent and the ground gained by extreme political parties in many developed countries will impact not just the world economy, but global security and stability, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.

There will be major consequences for small, open countries such as Singapore that have relied on open trade and making friends, and sought opportunities to cooperate, he said.

It will also be harder to prosper together in this new climate, where countries are turning inward and becoming more protectionist, seeing others' gains as their loss, he added.

Mr Lee gave this reading of recent trends in a speech to 2,500 People's Action Party (PAP) members at their biennial party conference.

He called on members to understand what the trend means for Singapore and to help ensure the PAP remains a party with strong support from all segments of society.

"The external world is changing... in a very fundamental way not advantageous to us. We have to watch this, we have to know how this is going to impact us over the next few years," he said.

Mr Lee, who is PAP secretary-general, noted that voters around the world are unhappy that the benefits of growth are not reaching them, and feel threatened that immigrants are competing for their jobs.

He cited the recent United States election, the Brexit vote and the rise of extreme parties in Europe as examples of voters' weariness of trade and wariness of immigrants.

"This looks like the trend now. I do not know how far it will go, but I do not like the direction the trend is going," he said. "If more countries turn this way, the world is going to change, and change for the worse."

Singapore prospered in the past 50 years by working hard, but it was fortunate to have a favourable external environment: A peaceful Asia and an international order where countries big and small cooperate and compete under rules that are fair to all, giving small countries "a right to their place in the sun".

Today, countries are flexing their muscles and becoming increasingly assertive.

"Nobody can tell how relations between the big powers will develop," said Mr Lee. "If US-China relations grow tense, Singapore is going to be in a very difficult spot, because we regard both the US and China as our friends and do not want to have to choose between them."

Meanwhile, obstacles to trade are increasing and Singapore's exports - a key pillar of its economy - are not growing by very much either.

But Singapore has to accept the world as it is, not as it wishes it to be, said Mr Lee.

"We ourselves must remain open, because if we close up like other countries, our people will be finished," he said.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Fresh Start Housing Scheme open for applications from 1 Dec 2016

By Janice Heng, The Straits Times, 2 Dec 2016

Applications to be on the Fresh Start Housing Scheme are now open for families who once owned a flat but now live in public rental units.

The scheme allows the families, who must have at least a child below the age of 16, to apply for a new Housing Board flat with a grant of up to $35,000, the Ministry of National Development and HDB announced in a statement yesterday.

After getting on the scheme, families have a year to apply for a new flat in the HDB's regular Build-To-Order or Sale of Balance Flats launches.

The scheme was first mentioned in last year's National Day Rally, with details given in this year's Committee of Supply debate. During the rally, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said he was concerned about the future of a group of families who, without help, may be permanently out of reach of getting their own flat.

The scheme has several conditions. For instance, at least one of the applicants must have been in stable employment for the previous 12 months. The family must also be assessed by the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF). The MSF and HDB will do regular checks to ensure the families are on track.

In a blog post, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said: "Some second-timer public rental families are ready and hoping to own a home again - they are in stable employment, manage their finances well, and have a stable home environment."

But they might find it challenging to buy a flat, he added.

The scheme helps by letting them buy a two-room flexi flat on a shorter lease and giving them another HDB concessionary rate loan and a new Fresh Start Housing Grant of up to $35,000.

Cheaper adult diapers for needy patients

Can't afford adult diapers? Tackle it with Confidence
Social enterprise launches cheaper option after learning of patients who struggle to pay
By Theresa Tan, The Straits Times, 3 Dec 2016

A new social enterprise wants to shake up the adult diapers market by offering a cheaper option for those who cannot afford the $200 to $300 that it can cost for a month's supply.

Home Care Enterprises (HCE), set up by Changi General Hospital (CGH) last December, decided to enter the market after CGH staff learnt that some patients struggle to afford necessities such as adult diapers.

In some cases, patients at home changed diapers only twice a day - compared to the average of five or six times daily - to save on costs. Such infrequent changes can lead to bedsores, infections and complications - and more stays in hospital.

HCE will launch the Confidence brand of diapers next month at 65 cents a piece. Its general manager Benjamin Cheam said this is about 30 per cent cheaper than the median price of popular brands such as Tena Value and Lille Suprem Fit.

CGH chairman Gerard Ee said: "Our diapers will shake the market. We hope other distributors will lower their prices. Even if they don't, this will provide (patients with) a real alternative."

The diapers are made in Indonesia, and HCE is able to sell them at a lower price as it does not spend on advertising and fees for middlemen, and it keeps its profit margin low, at about 10 per cent, Mr Ee said.

Checks by The Straits Times found the most commonly found adult diaper brand in shops here is Tena Value, which costs between $9 and $10.70 for 10 pieces at supermarkets and pharmacies.

Ms Zahara Mahmood, assistant director of the Neighbours programme - which aims to reduce the number of hospital admissions of the frail elderly - said 60 per cent of some 300 seniors regularly admitted to CGH depend on diapers.

She said some of these patients scrimp and save on diapers, only to face other problems.

A former cleaner in his 60s who is incontinent, for instance, changed his diapers only twice a day to save money as each costs $1.20. But the man ended up getting urinary tract infections and was hospitalised two or three times in a month.

ISIS terror threat greater now, says Shanmugam

Group's extremist beliefs have taken root in South-east Asia, with uptick in terrorism-related arrests in Indonesia
By Chong Zi Liang, The Straits Times, 3 Dec 2016

The threat of a terror attack in the region this festive season is stronger than that last year, because the extremist beliefs of terror group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have spread and taken root in South-east Asia, Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said yesterday.

Although ISIS has lost territory and has been wounded by military setbacks in the Middle East, there are pockets of people closer to home who are receptive to - and areas that are fertile for - such ideas, he added.

Mr Shanmugam also pointed to a series of actions that could indicate a looming threat. Towards the end of last year, Indonesia detected clear signals of an attack and arrested several individuals.

Still, Jakarta was struck by bombs in January, killing eight people.

Now, a similar uptick in terrorism-related arrests is taking place in Indonesia, he noted, adding that Singapore agencies are working closely with their Indonesian counterparts.

He noted that some of those picked up were protesting against the Jakarta governor, but planned to use the event for terror purposes.

Mr Shanmugam was speaking of the possibility of a terror attack in Singapore at a luncheon yesterday organised by the Foreign Correspondents Association here.

Terrorism was among a range of questions he fielded during the hour-long session. The other issues raised included changes to Singapore's elected presidency and its relationship with the United States, which will have a new leader next month.

But the threat of terrorism was a dominant issue.

The threat comes from three groups, he said. The first group, those who return from fighting in Iraq and Syria "battle-hardened"; the second, those freed from detention but who still harbour radical inclinations; and the third, those radicalised online by ISIS propaganda.

He noted that ISIS has called on its supporters to carry out attacks at home if they are unable to travel to Iraq and Syria to join its cause.

Friday, 2 December 2016

Singapore leads global trade ranking for the fifth time: Global Enabling Trade Report 2016

Singapore tops global trade rankings
One of the world's most open, says World Economic Forum report
By Grace Leong, The Straits Times, 1 Dec 2016

Singapore continues to top global rankings when it comes to enabling trade amid an uncertain period for exporters, according to a new report. The Global Enabling Trade Report 2016 found that the domestic market here is one of the world's most open, with 99.7 per cent of goods entering duty-free, while border clearance processes are the world's best in terms of efficiency, predictability and transparency.

The private sector ranks third for its transport services, and second for its operating environment, with especially high marks for efficiency and trust in public institutions.

But Singapore lags behind on access to foreign markets, said the World Economic Forum's biennial report. Mr Richard Samans, a member of the World Economic Forum's managing board, said in the report: "The year started with the signing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), bright hopes for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, signs of progress in the World Trade Organisation, and a positive mood among world leaders.

"By November, anti-trade rhetoric in the United States election, the United Kingdom's vote to leave the European Union, and stark divides among World Trade Organisation members had brought progress on these fronts close to a halt."

The TPP's fate is uncertain after US president-elect Donald Trump called it a "potential disaster" for his country, vowing to pull out of it.

Mr Samans noted that "less globalisation or less open borders" are not the solutions."What the world needs instead is a more inclusive globalisation to help those made worse off by it. This implies better redistribution policies and social safety nets, active labour market policies, and new industrial policies."

On the upside, trade liberalisation has continued in regions like Asia and Africa. "Amid the uncertainty, business and governments are looking for signs to show them which aspects of trade policy and practice are working well, and which aren't," said Mr Samans.

CIMB economist Song Seng Wun noted: "Singapore has a long list of free trade deals signed, and others waiting to be signed. If TPP dies, we may have to resume negotiations with Canada and Mexico."

Tharman named chairman of G-30, a group of leading global economists

DPM appointed next chairman of G-30, which seeks to deepen understanding of economic and financial issues
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 1 Dec 2016

Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam has been appointed the next chairman of the prestigious global body of top financial experts known as the Group of Thirty (G-30).

The Washington-based private group is made up of leading economists and policymakers from around the world, and seeks to deepen understanding of international economic and financial issues.

Mr Tharman's term will begin on Jan 1 and run for five years, the G-30 said in a statement yesterday.

He succeeds outgoing chairman and former European Central Bank president Jean-Claude Trichet.

Mr Tharman, 59, is also Coordinating Minister for Economic and Social Policies, and chairman of the Monetary Authority of Singapore.

He said of his appointment: "It will be a real privilege to succeed Jean-Claude Trichet, whose knowledge, wisdom and warmth have made him a role model for so many of us, in the G-30 and beyond.

"I look forward to working closely with my colleagues in the group as we continue to inform and influence dialogue within the global economic and financial community."

G-30 board of trustees chairman Jacob A. Frenkel welcomed Mr Tharman's appointment, saying: "We are confident that Tharman will successfully pursue the group's mission: to deepen understanding of key international economic and financial issues and, thereby, contribute to the quality of public policy decision-making."

Post-Secondary Education Account (PSEA) expanded to spur lifelong learning

By Calvin Yang, The Straits Times, 1 Dec 2016

The push towards lifelong learning will soon get another boost, when the use of the Post-Secondary Education Account (PSEA) is extended to a wider variety of courses, including shorter ones.

The expansion, announced by Education Minister (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung yesterday, will support those looking to develop specific skill sets, without the need to sign up for a full diploma or degree course, which may take years to complete.

Explaining the move, Mr Ong said: "This is the way learning will become. When we become adults, we learn in bite sizes."

The PSEA, set up in 2008, is meant to encourage young Singaporeans to complete their post-secondary education, where fees are much higher.

An account is opened automatically for eligible Singapore citizens aged seven to 20. It is closed when the account holder turns 30, and unused funds go into the CPF Ordinary Account. From April 1 last year to March 31 this year, 232,603 account holders used their PSEA.

Currently, courses covered under the PSEA include most full-qualification programmes offered by publicly funded institutions, as well as Singapore Workforce Skills Qualifications courses and government-supported special education (SPED) schools.

The expansion will also allow students to pay for more courses beyond those subsidised by the Ministry of Education (MOE), including those offered by arts institutions Lasalle College of the Arts and Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.

Mr Ong said the expansion reflects "the diverse options we have in skills training".

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Living donor not at higher risk of kidney failure: Study

By Carolyn Khew. The Straits Times, 30 Nov 2016

A kidney donor may have only one kidney after a transplant but it continues to function well, with four in 10 regaining 75 per cent of their pre-donation kidney function after five years.

In fact, donors lead healthy lives and are not at a higher risk of kidney failure or dying compared to the general population, according to a new study conducted by researchers from Singapore General Hospital (SGH) and Duke-NUS Medical School - believed to be the largest of its kind in South-east Asia.

The study looked at about 180 living kidney donors at SGH from 1976 to 2012. These patients had an average follow-up period of 11 years during which doctors looked at their blood pressure, urine test and kidney function during medical check-ups. It was also noted that kidney function in donors also stabilised after about a decade.

Which is why authors of the study are hoping that their findings will persuade more to consider being a living donor.

"The kidney function is actually not declining. We've removed your kidney but the kidney function tends to gradually increase... It's a very gradual, slow process and then it tends to stabilise. After stabilising, there will not be a dip," said Duke-NUS Programme in Health Services' Professor Tazeen H. Jafar, who was involved in the study.

Singapore is among the top five countries in the world with the highest incidence rates of kidney failure. In the last reported figures from the Renal Registry, 1,730 people suffered from kidney failure in 2014.

Kidney transplant from a live donor remains the best option for patients with end-stage kidney failure. Patients who undergo a transplant tend to have higher survival rates than those who undergo dialysis.

However, the latest figures from the National Organ Transplant Unit, Ministry of Health, show that while the waiting list for kidney transplants was 310 for the first half of this year, the number of kidney transplants from living donors stood at 16 as of the same period.