Saturday, October 29, 2011

Government volte face on social mobility?

For a long time, this issue really got my goat. There is a ton of evidence lying around for years that their stubborn position on social mobility was all wrong. Alas the PM admitted as much and I read with amusement how the writers had singled out the Ng Eng Hen, the then education minister to rake over the coals.

I quote from the article:

In March this year, then-Education Minister Ng Eng Hen gave a more upbeat assessment of the situation.
Speaking during Parliament's debate on the Government's Budget, he cited statistics to make the point that social mobility is alive and well.
Half of the pupils in the bottom third by socio-economic background scored in the top two-thirds of their cohort in the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE).
'Gratifyingly, our data affirms that the Singapore Story continues for this generation,' Dr Ng told the House.
He thought we were fools, the way he abused statistics. That was why, I doubted his testimony on the deferment of Patrick Tan in parliament. Our ministers are increasingly like those elsewhere but wanted to be treated as exceptional. It would hurt our interests to accomodate them. If we trust, we must also verify. They know some of us do and therefore with certain policies, e.g., CPF and public housing related, they make so complex. On the other hand they are a paragon of simplicity dealing with large foreign investors. Even the casual off hand remark of the wife of a former CEO of Caltex then based here that there was no night life in Singapore had immediately gotten EDB scurrying to respond. With us they often try to come up with confusing or off the point answers which are basically absurd. Being Asians, we were often loathe to publicly embarrass them. Those days are over.

Here taken apart for what it truly was, Dr. Ng attempt at "lies, damn lies and statistics" in March this year.

As some observed during the March debate on social mobility, the statistics cited by Dr Ng can be interpreted differently.
Dr Ng said that one in six pupils in the bottom-third socio-economic bracket scores within the top one-third in the PSLE. But that means five in six do not.
Dr Ng also said that among students from families living in one- to three-room HDB flats, almost half progress to universities and polytechnics - a figure that held steady in the past decade even as the number of Singaporean households living in such flats fell.
But the share of these students who make it to university is one in 10 - significantly lower than the national average of one in four.
This is the new normal which is very uncomfortable for some our leaders. The media keep having to prove their street cred all the time in order that circulation might not fall. Unfortunately for Dr. Ng, since the PM changed his position, the media will not hesitate to bring out the bayonets. At least they only try to lacerate instead of stab.

Whatever happened to honesty is the best policy? Just as well he is no longer in charge of Education. He could be seen as a bad example to our pupils in schools. May be I have been wrong about him. If so, I am forced to conclude that he must be lacking skills in numeracy expected for someone in his position who must handle statistics correctly all the time. It would be difficult to be competent if he cannot understand data and analysis. How was he able understand the results of medical trials in medical journals correctly when he was a top surgeon?

Political courage and honesty are directly correlated. Nobody is perfectly honest but to spin with numbers like he had is hard to overlook.

I hope the government will stop being an impediment to improving social mobility here. It is too early to be more confident because some "hard truths" are still standing in the way. It is sad that until recently, they were prepared to torture the data to confess what wasn't there. At best, I say they were naive victims of confirmation bias. Again, Kahneman had warned us about such pitfalls. It is pervasive but we expect leaders to do better.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting observation, and I can understand your anger if you feel you are being lied to. But given a politician's incentive to always present a situation in the best light, should you expect otherwise? In any case, it appears that he is factually correct. :)

    But I think for you to truly justify your outrage, you would probably do 2 things:

    1. Identify why children from lower income families do not go on to tertiary education at the same rate as other kids.

    2. Identify where educational policy in Singapore is failing these kids.

    It could be that kids from lower income families prefer to forego further education and enter the workforce early. Lower income parents may place less emphasis on tertiary education and these opinions might have rubbed off on their kids.

    Government policy might have limited ability to change the situation in this case, and some attainment by underprivileged kids is actually the best outcome which could reasonably be expected.

    I say this as I've some experience mentoring kids from 'neighbourhood' schools. Even amongst 'student leaders', many only aspire to polytechnics and not university as they are impatient to start earning an income and they thought any disparity in starting pay would be equalised by their headstart (in terms of years working) and their own abilities.

    I personally think otherwise (but then again, I'm PhD candidate so I'm obviously biased towards a uni education) and but I often have to concede that they do have a point.