SINGAPORE: Member of Parliament Denise Phua is unafraid to speak her mind - especially about issues close to her heart.
A few years after the birth of her son, Ms Phua went through what quite a few other parents have gone through – she discovered her son had autism. She then rolled up her sleeves and took action.
Today, she runs two special needs schools including the Pathlight School, the first of its kind in Singapore, to provide affordable and quality education pathways for children with autism.
Her tenacity extends beyond the world of special needs. The MP for Jalan Besar GRC and Chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Education has strong views on education as a whole. For years, she has advocated that the Primary School Leaving Examination be scrapped, and be replaced by a ten-year through-train programme.
Ms Phua went On the Record with Bharati Jagdish about what it will take to revolutionise education in Singapore, whether there is a willingness on the government's part to go beyond changing the PSLE scoring system, and her life in politics.
The interview begins with the time Ms Phua's life took an unexpected turn.
Denise Phua: For many years I was the typical Singaporean. Of course, I did good, I donated money, and I spent time volunteering. But my husband and I were the typical Singaporeans who wanted a good education, good jobs, hopefully a good spouse, good marriage and good school for our children.
In 1995, my second child was born. Within a couple of years, we discovered he was not developing like a normal child. He couldn't speak very much. He couldn't comprehend. He couldn't socialise. He was diagnosed officially then to have autism – not the mild sort, but moderate.
And I think that changed a lot of our perspectives. I continued to be driven. I wanted to cure my son, heal my son, and went all over the world. I got the best therapist in Singapore. Most of them were expatriates then. But I did not manage to change my son's condition. He became better because he was given therapy, but I think the whole experience changed me and my husband very much.
We realised that we met a lot of people who were in a worse state than we are. We knew then that Singapore could boast excellence in many things, in Changi Airport, in our infrastructure and our housing estates, our economy. But Singapore could not boast excellence in maximising the potential, or looking into the potential of people who are different.
And I saw families who couldn't even be in the queue for therapy because they couldn't afford it. I met so many of them. I started doing something at home, but it was not enough. The scale wasn't there.
So that was when I decided that there’s no point complaining or scolding the establishment and decided to do something about it. We had a lot of fears and anxieties then, but I think the best way to conquer our fears and anxieties and to make things better is really to take action, and that's what I decided to do.
Bharati Jagdish: You left your corporate career to become a full-time volunteer and then went on to start Pathlight School. But when you first found about his autism, what went through your mind?
Phua: We were very distraught. But it took us a while, maybe a few months to get over it and to wipe away our tears, to put down the grief and to take action. And that was when it all started. Having served and met many families who needed help, I realised I was a lot more fortunate than many of my fellow underdogs. And so I decided that enough is enough. I want to take action. I did not want to just complain, but really make a difference. And so that was when I used my consulting skills and all the corporate skills that I had learnt in what I call the first half of my life, to try to make a difference.
I put up papers, do strategic planning, organise the charities, so that they don't just depend on selling keychains and encouraged good people to join our sector. And that was when things started to move. I never saw my son’s autism as a death sentence. I’ve always thought – and I share this with other families as well – that if a child with special needs comes into our family, or if something happens and someone in our family becomes disabled, I think it's part of our destiny. It's part of a masterplan, at least in my worldview. And it's my role to do something about it.
Bharati: More recently, the Lien Foundation has been doing surveys and one of them was centred on attitudes towards people with special needs. It was found that while Singaporeans are supportive of the idea of inclusive education, only half said they are comfortable with their child seated next to a classmate with special needs, and about 53 per cent said they are comfortable with their child being classmates with someone with special needs. How do you feel about such findings?
Phua: I'm not surprised by the findings. They serve as confirmation of what most of us intuitively already know. My view is that mindsets don't just change because somebody tells you to be kind. It’s natural to want to be politically right, to sound like you're inclusive and to give the right answers when you are asked, whether you want to be kind and inclusive. Of course everybody will say that, but I think actions need to be taken to make sure that the system, the structure is also ready to help people change their experiences and their views.
INCREASING ACCEPTANCE OF PEOPLE WITH SPECIAL NEEDS
Bharati: So in this case, what sorts of action do you think need to be taken?
Phua: I've seen models in the world where schools are very segregated, so it's purely special schools and pure mainstream schools and they never mix. In some of them like Singapore – there's some form of interaction, but not sufficient. I love one model that I saw in the UK.
Bharati: You’ve mentioned this before – education villages where people of different socio-economic backgrounds, academic ability, able people and people with special needs, learn together.
Phua: And it's a model that I thought has a lot of potential, and we can localise it and make it even better in Singapore. It's a school, a village called The Darlington Education Village some miles off London. And it's really blending the best of both systems.
It's a whole village where there are three schools. One mainstream primary school, one mainstream secondary school, and a special school. In the special school, some of the children that I saw were even in need of medical support. But they also they have their own education curriculum that will allow all the students, special needs and otherwise, to join each other for some academics. They share the same cafe, the same social and communal space. But each of the schools also have their own academic specialty and expertise.
I think this is really a model that takes in the best of the different systems, and doesn’t force them to integrate without any support but really, making the best use of it. It’s organic, but with the understanding that these students have different education and support needs.
And I think that if Singapore could practise this, we can localise what we need, and we can do even better.
Bharati: You’ve talked about this model before in Parliament?
Phua: I have. I guess several ministries changed hands and different ministers have different priorities and I'm still very hopeful this will be done. I'm hopeful, eager and very willing to be part of this.
Bharati: Nothing’s been done about it. To what extent do you think it is even a priority for the government?
Phua: Well, to be fair a lot of things have changed in the last decade. I think when the Prime Minister first came on board, he promised a society that is disability-friendly, inclusive, and I think he has put his money where his mouth is. There were a lot of issues when I first started as a volunteer in this sector.
Special education students from Pathlight School. (Photo: Koh Mui Fong / TODAY)
As you know I co-founded a school. And at the time, the funding was really very little, especially for the schooling years and support from the ministry was not as much as needed. But today, it’s a lot more. And if you look at some of the political leaders, even their narratives are all quite different today.
Bharati: Why do you think it has taken us so long though?
Phua: It took us 30 years. The top priority after independence was really to put food on the table, roofs over our heads, and really to get the country going. So I think this was not the top priority at the time. I think the top priority for many years was really to provide for the mainstream. And as we become more affluent, we become more educated; as we see the rest of the world move, I believe that this Government, this country, this population has no choice but to continue this journey of being more inclusive
GETTING MORE SUPPORT FOR THE CAUSE
Bharati: On your part, what do you plan to do in order to rally the Government, to get the Government to put more money into this sector? Parents of children with special needs say there is not enough support, not enough is being put in, in terms of training teachers etc. as well.
Phua: I think it's more than just money. The sector faces challenges in terms of manpower. And I think the whole country, the whole economy faces that. Not everybody wants to support for example, children who are moderately to severely disabled, or those who are not disabled, but who need higher levels of support nevertheless.
And it's not easy to find folks to come into the sector. It's not easy to always find good leaders who can help to craft the vision. We need to have a new vision of what's possible - how to make special needs individuals contribute to society and not just always ask for help.
So I think the schools, the special schools themselves, we have to have a crucial conversation on what really schools should be, and can be for now and for the future.
Bharati: How do you think more manpower can be persuaded to come into the sector? Do we need perhaps disability awareness education, more exposure to people with disabilities?
Phua: I think it's important and I think a lot has been going on. The National Council of Social Service (NCSS) for example has come up recently with a very big campaign on this. During the ASEAN Para Games last year, I think a lot of people, a lot volunteers from the mainstream participated. The Purple Parade which I have co-founded under my Central Singapore CDC has gotten a lot of support as well. So I think these things have to continue and on a daily basis, we need to make sure that all ministries have a disability advocate.
We need to make sure that educators in mainstream schools are trained, that they buddy people from the special schools, that they make sure within classes those with special needs students are being supervised and looked after as well. So I think we need to do it on a daily basis, and we can't stop.
I believe also there's a place for technology. I think that social media can be both a bane and a boon. I think we can use technology as a way by which if you want to know about something, you don't have to wait for an event, you don't have to wait for somebody to campaign, you really can go somewhere and just learn.
Bharati: You said money is not the only thing, but nevertheless it is an important thing. And even in order to invest in teacher training, you’ll need money.
Phua: Yes, and actually we need more funding for other things too. We need more funding for services for adults with special needs especially. Mainly because there are some who are able to work, and they may not be able to work for long if they are not trained in the proper way. If their skills are not updated, they can become obsolete, and then attrition happens and they move out of the workforce. What a waste.
So we need funding for that, we need support for that, we need facilities for that, we need to make sure that whatever's happening in the mainstream, also applies to them. We must not forget about those who can't work. We must not forget them, because they're also part of the Singapore family. These are the ones whose families need a lot of support. No matter what you say, they are still part of our family, but it's not easy. Because it could cost a lot of money, but that's where the rest of society, we can all come in and chip in and see whether in terms of manpower, in terms of volunteer work, in terms of funding, in terms of fundraising events, and I think this is where all of us could come in.
Bharati: You’ve talked a lot about your son in the media over the years. What are your personal worries or concerns, if any, as he gets older?
Phua: I used to worry a lot and have a lot of anxiety and fear. I wondered what would happen to him when we get old, or if we become disabled, or we die. What will happen to our children? Who will look after them? I've decided that if I stay that way, I will keep on worrying for the next few decades and I think many parents, many families feel that way as well.
So there are groups of us who have decided that enough is enough and the only way to conquer our fears, our anxieties, our worries, is really to take action. And this is where there are many of us who are pushing for more to be done to help families plan their end-of-life concerns, to look at Lasting Power of Attorney, to take on deputyship under the Mental Capacity Act, to start saving, to start thinking about care plans. I think those are the only ways by which families can overcome their fears and I think even at this point, there are still many families who are worried, but not everybody takes action in overcoming their worries. It does not help.
I no longer worry so much for my own child. We just want to do things that will help the situation. So I think the only way to conquer all these fears is really to start taking action and if the actions are not good enough, let's together, as a village, do something to make things better. So that's my current worldview.
NEVER GIVE UP
Bharati: You’ve been an MP for about 10 years now. You have obviously had some positive experiences in your political life, and some negative experiences as well. Tell me what really stands out for you after all these years. We can start with the positive.
Phua: I was never exposed to politics or even to grassroots work till quite late, because when I served, I served in the special needs sector and for many years, in the private sector. I always thought that I'd be good for the private sector because I'm usually focused and driven to meet my KPIs. However, I think the good thing about politics is if you use it well, it's a great platform to make lives better for the people of my country.
So I've used as many opportunities as possible not just to speak about special needs, but on areas that I feel very strongly are important for my country. In education and manpower, why I don't think the casinos are a great idea to build our economy, to create jobs for our 21st century workforce, 21st century education, 21st century economies, and I think it's a great platform for me to express those views and to help shape policies. The Pioneer Generation Package is one example. When it was first discussed behind closed doors, I and some of the other MPs felt that it should benefit all people of a certain generation, and not be a social transfer benefit, and that what should really be done is to make sure that everyone regardless of where they live, and their income, should get the benefits. DPM Tharman was in charge of this. He, with blessing of the PM, listened to us.
Bharati: But of course there have been times when you have spoken up, and things still didn’t change. One thing you mentioned earlier – the casinos – that's one issue that several MPs have had an issue with for many years. But of course, nothing has changed in that regard. Scrapping the PSLE is another issue you have brought up several times in Parliament over many years. On these issues, things have not moved. Aren’t you frustrated?
Phua: I believe there's a season for everything. I'm not so naive to think that everything I speak up about will be changed in my generation or in my time. For the casinos, by the time I joined Parliament, two casinos were already up. But because we spoke up, so far, there' has been no third casino. And if there is one proposed in the future, we will be very vocal about it.
The Marina Bay Sands casino. (Photo: AP/Wong Maye-E)
Bharati: The current casinos are losing money.
Phua: Absolutely, so I rest my case. And the key is, if it's the right thing, then don't give up.
There's a season for things to happen, some reasons why. The PSLE, for instance, is something I've spoken up for many years. Not just me, but other MPs as well. But I don't think we should give up. I think that having discussed the issues in-depth with the public servants, the people who are implementing this for a few hundred schools, I realise it's not so straightforward.
There are questions like: So, what do you do with the academically-strong schools like Raffles Institution, RGS and so forth? Do we then say they are now through-train (schools)? Would it make things worse? Would it start the queue right at Primary 1 instead of Primary 6? Or do we say we scrap them? So these are not issues that are easily solved.
And I don't think that we should run away from them, but we also, as a politician myself, I must not be so naive to think that it's so simple, that's it's just a matter of talking, commanding, and making enough noise. Flaming people to get things to change.
However, I'm also not giving up because I think that even if it's not easy, we can pilot things, we can try it. It's not as though through-train primary to secondary school is such a novel thing. There are some countries in the world that already do it, and do it quite well. How do we localise it? How do we make sure that things can be implemented? So there are execution difficulties. I fully understand, but I'm not giving up.
Bharati: Some might say your ideas smack of idealism. There are questions about the merits of the through-train system as well. For instance, it was reported recently that some have not thrived in the through-train programme that allows students to bypass the O levels and aim for the A levels or International Baccalaureate. Some said they needed a more structured programme and a major exam to really hunker down. But because they don’t have to take the O levels, they just drifted along.
Phua: I believe there are ways to do it better. I'm very interested in the execution difficulties, challenges. I'm very willing to be part of brainstorming, thinking out of the box, on how these issues can be solved. How do we really make every school a good school? Which I think is a good vision, but super difficult.
How do we make sure that this tuition monster is being slain, but still keep it for students who need them to ensure that they can catch up, to ensure that they get to maximise their potential?
So these are not issues that are so simple. It's really easy to argue at the surface level, the top-of-the-iceberg level, but to go beneath the iceberg, to analyse the root causes, to find solutions that will be fair and balanced, I think those are important things that we need to look at.
RAISING THE BAR IN EDUCATION - ALTERNATIVES TO THE PSLE
Bharati: We’ll talk more about the Government’s seeming unwillingness to move more boldly towards this in a moment, but first, let’s discuss some of the questions people have been asking about the PSLE. For instance, something you mentioned earlier – if PSLE were scrapped, would it make Primary 1 admission to popular schools more stressful. Also, how to determine admission to Primary 1 to make it fair and achieve some of the goals you’ve been talking about – for instance better integration of people from different socio-economic backgrounds. Do you have any answers for these?
Phua: I think we have to start by creating quality through-train programmes, and then find a way to scale them. If you make it available only to a few elites, or people who have greater opportunities, or higher priority in admission, then I think it's not going to work. So we need to look 3, 4, 5 steps ahead, then work backwards.
What would be some potential problems? We need to do potential problem analysis, work it back into the system, and that's where I think deeper conversations need to be had. We are a great country. We've overcome so many challenges. I am a born optimist. I do not believe that we can't solve issues like these.
Bharati: Do you think the recently-announced changes to the PSLE scoring system would in any way, address some of the issues you’ve brought up over the years?
Phua: It’s an improvement, but there might still be a chase for grades – to move from one Achievement Level to another. But when more people are put in the same band, and balloting is required, then there might be a better mix of students getting into certain popular schools and I think that's not a bad idea.
I think it's not a bad idea that students who are academically strong learn how to mix and interact with people who may not be academically strong, but may be strong in other areas. And that's how good leaders are developed. How can we have leaders come from schools where all the people they mix with, are people who are just like them? I really think that's a no-brainer.
So this broad-banding is not a bad thing. Of course it gives a lot of anxiety to parents who think that it's not fair, and that the T-score really matters. But some of us do believe that a bit more mixing would be more reflective of society and schools should be a microcosm of society. It will make greater young people, make greater future leaders of this country. So that's my belief. Some people do not believe in that.
Bharati: Some also say: “We can't have people with different academic abilities in the same school or in the same class. How will the slower ones keep up? Will the more academically-inclined be forced to slow down?”
Phua: The really good educators will know what to do. There's something called "differentiated instruction" within the same workspace. This has been around for decades. There are different ways to do it. It's not even rocket science. It's part of what educators should know how to do.
And even if you put people in the same class with the same academic score, you should know they learn differently. Some people are more visual, some people are more auditory, some people are kinesthetic learners, and some people like to learn on their own. So I don't buy that.
I think that there are different ways to teach students even within the same classroom. It's really about what our worldview is, what we think is good for our country. If we carry on this way, we create a so-called elite class, we create a group of leaders who do not have opportunities to mix with people of different abilities, different social backgrounds. Is this good for our country? And this is where us leaders, whether in politics, or the people in the private sector need to decide. What's good for our country? We need to take a position on this.
Bharati: Lots of things will have to change for this to happen – we’ll need better-trained teachers, teachers who can actually execute differentiated instruction, more support staff so that teachers are not bogged down by admin work.
Phua: Yes, we need that space. I think we need to first define what are good educators. We need to also engage parents. I think parents being demanding, being very concerned – some of them have good intentions, and some of them probably have good reasons to demand more.
But I think most of us can do better to be more empathetic to the roles of the teachers, and to see our educators, not just teachers, but principals, the school leaders as well, as our partners.
We can only do better if we are able to support and engage our teachers who are helping our students, if we can join forces to try to do the best for our children. And unless we, parents are able to see that, and be part of the solution, and not assume or expect that the school must do everything including building your child’s character - unless we are able to do that, our children will not be the best. They will not get the best out of the system.
We need to all understand our different roles. At same time there's a bigger world out there of 21st century technology. We need to equip ourselves. We need to make sure that good resources are not just available to students in so-called good schools. We need to make these available to more. The lectures, the assessments, the portfolio, the resources – we need to use technology to make sure that these are available to as many schools as possible, to as many students as possible. That's when we can really raise the bar for the entire education sector.
Bharati: Clearly the Ministry of Education needs to work on this – put more resources into this for all schools.
Phua: They need to, and they are. To be fair, the Ministry knows quite a lot of it in terms of implementation. I've spoken quite a lot to the leaders there, not just the political leaders, but the public service leaders, and I think they understand, and work is being done. I think probably some of them are a bit more conservative. So they don’t want to speak about it yet to avoid raising expectations, but work definitely is done behind the scenes about this. Is it fast enough? For me, it's always not fast enough. But I'm confident that things are happening. I just want it to happen faster, in my lifetime, in my generation.
IS THERE POLITICAL WILL TO MAKE BOLD CHANGES?
Bharati: But there seems to be an unwillingness on the Government’s part to move faster on these issues. It’s not like the Government doesn’t have the resources. You work closely with the Education Ministry. Why do you think it does not want to go a step further, for instance, give you the chance to pilot some of your ideas? What's holding them back, you think?
Phua: Even in the normal distribution of people, some people are higher risk-takers, and some are not. And I think in issues like PSLE, which has been around for so many decades, there are legacy issues. Like I said, what do you do with the top schools – the Raffles Institutions, the RGSes? What do you do with them? These are really implementation issues. Are all parents supportive of this? Would you not want to give a chance to students at the age of 12, to move on to what they think is a better pathway?
And so there are issues. That's why I think that it is not so straightforward. And of course there's no perfect way, so we need to really go in with our eyes open.
Bharati: The Government has been known to make tough decisions on difficult issues. Why the seeming unwillingness to take bold steps to at least begin to effect a real paradigm shift in this case?
Phua: We need to do really good problem definition, identification, potential problem analysis, and find solutions that would be the best out of the different options.
Bharati: How optimistic are you that this is something that we will see movement towards in the next few years. At least a move towards piloting some bold ideas.
Phua: I don't know whether it'll happen in the next few years, but I do think there's a strong merit for that. And if there is a minister who's willing to give some of us a chance to pilot programmes, I think there's a very good chance that it can happen in our lifetime. And I don't see why not. I don't think it's such a big risk. After all, we are looking at many pathways to success.
In the 21st Century, we should have the courage to take some risks, and I don't think this would be a high risk either. So I'm hopeful that a through-train system can happen in my lifetime. And I also am very hopeful that the education village model that I have advocated, where we can plan the best of special schools and mainstream schools without them losing their best practices and their expertise, can happen.
Bharati: What do you have to say to people who say our education system is just fine? We’re doing way better than so many other countries. We’re doing really well in international assessments. Why change it?
Phua: The education system indeed has served us well. We still have many dedicated and competent educators and school leaders. Great facilities. Many pathways. We need to update our vision to meet the needs of the learner, educator, and classroom of the future. We must look at areas where we may have become victims of our success – the parentocracy, the tuition monster and the pitfalls of physically segregating students who are different.
DEALING WITH FLAK
Bharati: You talked earlier about the positive aspects of being in politics. What, to you has been a negative experience, or the negative aspect of politics?
Phua: While I have many residents who really are appreciative of the work that I and my volunteers put in, I think there are some – and not necessarily just residents, but Singaporeans as a whole – who may at certain times be very critical and may not understand the full situation.
I have experiences that sometimes put in me in a dilemma. When I spoke up for example, a few months ago, about foreigners who have worked in Singapore for many years and have been facing difficulties getting their children into local schools. And I spoke up for them. I mentioned that perhaps the ministry should look at some of these cases, and see if we can be of support. After all, they have been serving and working in Singapore and helping us for many years.
And that created an uproar among Singaporeans who said: "Ms Phua, how can you be doing this? You are Singaporean, how can you speak up for foreigners?”
Then, I think one month later, I spoke up about the concerns my residents had about the congregations in Little India. And there was another uproar. People said: "How can you be such a racist?” I was just talking about the congregations of very high density, which is a concern for some of the residents.
Bharati: You were referring to foreign workers who hang out in Little India. “Congregations of such high density are walking time bombs and public disorder incidents waiting to happen”. That's what you said in Parliament.
Phua: This was misconstrued as my meaning the foreign workers are walking time bombs. Of course they are not. I was talking about the congregations of high density.
Bharati: But you were talking specifically about foreign worker congregations of high density. That implies that foreign workers are dangerous.
Phua: No, not at all. I think it's important again to peel the onion and analyse the real issues. I think on the one hand, it is not unreasonable for my residents in Little India to expect that when they come home, especially during the weekend, to not have to wade through a lot of people. Especially for the daughters, and wives who may not feel safe having to walk through huge crowds of men. This applies to even Singaporean Indian families who live in the area. It’s not about race or nationality. So I think there are issues that they face, because they are the folks who live there. They are there day-in and day-out. So we need to be sensitive to their needs as well.
Bharati: But you also shouldn’t imply that foreign workers are dangerous, should you?
Phua: No, not at all. At the same time, I did tell my residents, this is Little India, we cannot forbid people from coming here. This is a public space. And they understand. I think they just want some of their communal spaces to be kept for them, or at least not to be overly crowded. That's one.
So we need to understand that and see, what's the most reasonable way that will help them. On the other hand, we also need to know that this country is built on the backs of many foreign workers. Not just Indians, Bangladeshis, but the Chinese, and many other foreign workers. And they have left their families to come here. Some of them have paid high agency fees to come here. And things are getting worse for them. They have their needs and we need to be sensitive to that. We need to treat them as people, same as us, with financial needs, with social needs, with recreational needs, with needs to remit money back to their families, to call their families, to use the Internet, and to have a social life as well.
I think that we need to look at solutions that will help them address these needs. Do all of these needs need to be met at a certain physical location? Yes, and no. So for some of them, if they want to come to Little India, I think they should have the right to do so. But some of these things can be also done at their recreational centers and so forth. So we need to find that balance. So steps have been taken to build more recreational centres elsewhere.
Bharati: You apologised for the comments you made in Parliament.
Phua: I apologised because I didn't want the people I work with, the foreign workers I work with in my Town Council, to think that I've changed my mind and look down on them, and see them as time bombs. They are not. They are serving us. They are human beings like us. They deserve solutions, social solutions that meet their needs as well. So I don't want them to feel bad.
Bharati: You said your intent was misconstrued. Maybe you need to choose your words more carefully.
Phua: What I've learnt to do as somebody in public service, is to always try to follow my GPS, my conscience, and that it doesn't matter if I get misunderstood at times. It's okay. I think over a period of time, people will see you for what you are. And even if they don't like you, so what? How can anyone of us be liked by everybody? And I always think that the best way not to get criticised, is to say nothing, do nothing, be nothing. What kind of a life is that? Why go into public service if you're just a puppet or wayang. So to me, it's okay. I just follow my conscience.