a community of singaporeans

Minister’s blunder a cause for concern

Posted by theonlinecitizen on July 20, 2007

By Choo Zheng Xi

Our writer Leong Sze Hian recently pointed out that numbers for the proportion of foreign students in local varsities given by Minister of State for Education Gan Kim Yong in Parliament did not add up.

Mr Gan had said in Parliament that of 23,000 foreign students who applied to local varsities, “only 987 or 4.3 percent were given places”.

Mr Leong was right.

The Ministry of Education today clarified that almost five times the number were in fact admitted. Out of the 23,000 foreign students who applied, the actual number admitted was 4,218.

However, even with this latest clarification from MOE, the numbers still do not stack up. (Link)

The most cursory glance at the figures involved shows that the gross disparity in the statistics delivered to Parliament and actual numbers should have cried out for an explanation.

As Mr Leong pointed out in his article, about 20% of the National University of Singapore’s 23,900 undergraduates come from overseas. For anyone curious about the issue of foreign talent, not to mention a Minister of State, this disparity should have been obvious.

It is worrying that a Minister of State would present statistics to parliament which later have to be corrected by officials from his ministry. This seems to defeat the purpose of having parliamentary debates in the first place.

More worrying is the weakness of political leadership this incident displays: what exactly is the role of the Minister of State if he is merely the Parliamentary mouthpiece for his civil servants?

MOE has been quick to put the actual statistics out in public view. This is commendable.

However, it is most regrettable that Parliamentarians have been temporarily deprived of the ability to ask the questions about our government’s foreign talent policy they otherwise could have were accurate statistics provided in this sitting. The debate must now carry on in the platforms in which it was first aired: in the old media and the new.

Mistake aside, unanswered questions still remain.

As Mr Leong has written, the government has so far not provided us with actual admission intake figures for Singaporeans, PRs and foreigners. Indeed, a back of the envelope calculation shows that the number of foreign students might actually exceed the 20% quota set by MOE.

The government has staked its reputation on good leadership. One Parliamentary misstep will hardly rattle its track record. However, this incident does put into question the importance the political leadership places on the question of foreign talent.

Unless the government wants to entrench an impression of laissez faire management of a laissez faire policy, it has to ensure that its ministers are properly briefed before the next Parliamentary sitting, and that Parliament and the people are given the correct answers – and figures.


16 Responses to “Minister’s blunder a cause for concern”

  1. Gerald said

    I think “correction” is a more appropriate term than “clarification”. You clarify when the other party misunderstood. But you correct when you stated something wrong.

    The figures given by MOS Gan were almost definitely provided to him by MOE. He was just reading from the prepared figures that MOE officers provided to him. Unless he decided to deliberately fudge the figures himself (which I don’t believe he did), fault lies with MOE not with him. Nevertheless he is ultimately accountable since he delivered the speech.

    The question we need to ask now — and be concerned about — is: Did MOE deliberately try to mislead Singaporeans or was it an honest mistake on the part of their officers?

    Given the number of top brain scholars in MOE, it is hard to believe that none of them spotted such an obvious discrepancy until it was raised by blogosphere. Added to the fact that the high proportion of foreign students on our campuses is already a hot potato political issue, it is hard not to suspect that MOE was trying to use its initial set of figures to downplay concern about Singaporeans’ places being denied because of foreigners.

    If it turns out (and we might never know) that MOE really was using half truths to ease public unease, we really need to be concerned that some of those scholars there may be taking their “helicopter vision” too far.

  2. LifesLikeThat said


    Even if it was MOE officials who gave him the numbers, as Minister of State for Education, he should know these numbers at the back of his hands. This is especially so when, as you rightly said, this issue of foreign students is a “hot” one among singaporeans.

    And considering the thousands of foreign students we are letting in, it is even more critical that he knows the exact numbers.

    The buck stops with him – as minister.

    The figures came from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.

  3. Anon21072007 said

    The ministry officials can obtain exact figures as they are all in their databases. Cos they loved red tape. Now, the MOS has to decide on what kind of figures to make public based on the political agenda of the day and the political cost. Like all sensitive issues, they liked to gross over them and hope that people would move on. Or this can be used as a diversion for other things.

    Well, foreign student numbers and legal service become hot but what about the cost of living stuff.

  4. Y K said

    Another area of “Lack of Transparency” ? Apart from the “CPF Nomination Process”, what next ? Healthcare Statistic and the term “Longer Life Span” ???

    Mistakes can happen but “deliberate” mistakes must not be allowed to take root as it will erode the confidence of the people on the government and do a dis-service to our pioneer Ministers who worked very very hard to bring Singapore to what it is today through their prinicipals, one of which is “INTEGRITY”.

    So far, we stand out well in the world stage, our leaders do not “FLIP FLOP” as what we have seen in recent months and for that we are very fortunate to have such leaders. Hence, a reminder to our leaders that we must not compromise on the trust our citizen placed on the government. If this is a statistical honest mistake, lets admit it and don’t repeat it and lets move on.

  5. Robert HO said

    Robert HO said…

    *Comments deleted by editor.

    *Dear Robert, please refrain from posting lengthy comments here. This comment which I have deleted is a few thousand words long. Thanks.

  6. […] a hilarious version of a conspiracy theory, Sylvia- we are the PAP are we not? As such we are infallible. We uphold the Constitution. Ask the bugger on the street if he’d cared about his […]

  7. mrbiao said

    Several days since the last official reply… no further clarifications/corrections yet – is this the end of the debate? Are they going to just let this matter die a natural death and let the people forget about it?

  8. David said

    Mr Biao,
    of course, that’s the end of debate and the quest to find the answer will just simply stop and divert to other new topic by gov in coming days (Terrorist issue, dengue issue, etc “. A million dollars minister don’t have to answer to anyone at all. Since when, these ministers need to be accountable to what they say and act ?

    They only do at their own discretion. If they do so, they believe that they are doing Singaporean a flavour instead. keeping mum now is the wisest thing they want to do now.

    Anyway, if history has repeat itself, the ministers are very confident the problem will go away itself in matter of time and be long forgotten. Nevermind, if people remember and recall it in next election, because the election is still very much a PAP’s sure win game because ‘what you gonna do, when the world’s large cronies step over you’ ? Answer: NOTHING, and as usual, suffer in silence.

  9. CLarence said

    Hurrah for the blogosphere again, this is surely something to make them sit up and take note.

    Let’s hope our ministers get their act together soon.

  10. Dr Tan B L said

    This is a very disturbing development. I remember reading abt this as a possibility when I first read this article.

    I didnt give much notice to it, dismissing it even as paranoid and delusional.

    Today my 21 yr old daughter posted it to me again and I read it, this time, it gives me no pleasure no report, it neither reads as paranoid and delusional.

    It’s time to really ask some serious questions like do they know how to count?

  11. Taxi Driver said

    As a taxi driver (not by choice but no choice), I fetch passengers to the higher institutes of learning, such as NUS, NTU, SMU, SIM and the Polytechnics very frequently, almost every other
    day or night.

    I have been shocked to see and feel the overwhelming intrusion and “invasion” by the number of foreign students occupying each and every one of our campuses, especially the universities. To my mind, the figure can go as high as 50% in some faculties because I have spoken to many of the undergrads whenever I had the chance to meet them, both foreign as well as local.

    How can a Minister then bring himself to “honestly” report to the Parliament that the actual figure for foreign students was only 987?

    Even after the correction, that altered the figure to 4,218, I am still not convinced that it was the REAL figure that encompasses each and every single foreign students actually studying in our local universities. I think the figure given was only for the 1st Year students. Many foreign students had entered directly into the 2nd Year programs for reasons only known to the universities concerned and the MOE.

    Another thing that I have been shocked was the number of free-loading foreign students in our campus. I sincerely believe that at least 80 percent of them are either on scholarships, grants or easy-loans given by our govt at the expense of our own local students and taxpayers’ money.

    What about those on Masters, PhD and Research Programs? At least, I believe, 70% of the places for Masters and 90% for PhD and Research are being taken up by foreigners; mostly on a “free-loading” basis.

    How do you think I feel, when I had to work extremely hard, even downgrading my status to a taxi driver from that of a middle management, in order to support my children in the universities, while our govt is giving away free scholarships, grants and easy-loans to foreigners so easily and in so questionable numbers without blinking an eyelid?

  12. Education Minister states that 4.3% of foreign students who apply to local universities were given places when actual number is closer to 20% « Preparing for the Transition |

  13. mrbiao said

    Wah, Taxi Driver, I might have been one of your passengers before! Indeed on ground level me and my counterparts feel that a more likely ratio for local-foreign students is about 3:1 … however, in certain faculties (like mine), it goes to about 2:1

    Like what Dr Tan BL has said, I do think the people employed in the civil service don’t know how to count (either that or they refuse to count properly). I read a couple days ago that starting pay for fresh grads as economists in the government is about S$3,500. Wow. So high pay yet we get all the wrong/misleading numbers so frequently!

    I do think the blogosphere needs to continue blogging about this specific issue on the foreign students ratio… only if we keep the topic burning then they will pay attention to it and come out to clarify matters!

  14. kiasu said

    Son of a Gan! We pay Kim Yong S$1,593,500 a year and he makes ‘mistakes’ like that? What hope do we have of our civil servants who make less $$$ than him? And the silence from the PAP government on this matter is deafening indeed!

  15. David said

    Why are ppl complaining about lies ? Is it surprise that PAP lies ? We should only complain if PAP don’t lie ! Because if PAP don’t lie, then it is not PAP, and we should be very afraid then !

    Long live PAP !

  16. […] just relying on government stats, given the fact that government has been known to make mistakes, a fact which surfaced not too long ago, Ned sees the article as a positive development for the New Media and the relationship between the […]

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