Professor Tommy Koh's speech at the Singapore Children’s Society Book Launch

October 19, 2015


Mr Koh Choon Hui, Prof John Elliot, Mr Alfred Tan, Ms Sue Cheng and Ms Lin Xiaoling from the Children’s Society.

Madam Speaker, Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, Professor Ann Wee, Professor Aline Wong, Professor Leong Wai Kum and Mr Janadas Devan, six of the eight thought leaders whose lectures are contained in the book.

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

Thank The Children’s Society

I would like to begin by thanking the Children’s Society for inviting me to launch this important book. In 2007, the Society inaugurated an annual lecture on children. The book contains the text of the first 8 lectures. I have read each of the lectures with admiration and have learned something new from each lecture.

The Society invited me to deliver the sixth lecture in 2012. I declined on the ground that, according to my wife, I am not a good father. She said that I was too liberal and forgiving, had wrongly opposed to her strong belief in corporal punishment and was not sufficiently demanding. I belong to the Kahlil Gibran school of parenting. Since my wife is always right, I accepted her judgement. I therefore persuaded my friend, Professor Leong Wai Kum, our leading authority on family law, to deliver the lecture in my place.

Singapore And USA

My two sons grew up in America. The Children’s Society has asked me to reflect on the biggest difference between the two countries for children. I think the biggest difference is that there is no such thing as private-tuition in America. In fact, I recall that the teachers at the UN International School pleading with my wife not to help our children with their homework. They said that, otherwise, they could not accurately assess the children’s educational progress.

In contrast, 70 percent of parents in Singapore send their children to private tuition. The private tuition industry is a billion dollar industry. This phenomenon is not unique to Singapore. The same situation exists in China, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan, all the so-called Confucianist societies. The explanation is probably to be found in our profound respect for education, our obsession with passing examinations and our belief that education is the passport to success in life.

My wife is very against private tuition. She wants the government to abolish the industry. I have told her that this cannot be done. Having met two of the so-called super-tutors, Anthony Fok and Laura Oh, recently, I can understand why parents send their children to them. Anthony and Laura are not only great teachers but they are also wonderful human beings; warm, caring and inspiring.

Praising The Children’s Society

I would like to praise the Children’s Society which is one of Singapore’s oldest and best managed volunteer welfare organisations (VWOs). In 2014, the Society reached out to a total of 68,000 beneficiaries. About 17,000 were served directly by the Society and the remainder benefitted through public education and targeted programmes.

A Good Place To Be Born In

Singapore is a good place to be born in. We have the lowest infant mortality rate in the world. Children are generally loved and well cared for. There are no street children or homeless children in Singapore. Our schools are good and our students regularly emerge at the top or among the top in PISA tests and ranking. Unlike many other countries, including those in the West, there is no youth unemployment in Singapore.

A Puzzling Contradiction

Singapore seems like a paradise for children. Why does “paradise” still need the Children’s Society and the Straits Times Pocket Money Fund?

We need the Children’s Society because there are vulnerable children who need protection, counselling and help. We have children and youth who have developmental problems. And we certainly have troubled families and dysfunctional families.

ST Pocket Money Fund

The ST Pocket Money Funds is helping about 14,000 students this year. I asked the outgoing chairman of the fund, Mr Han Fook Kwang, for his reflections. He replied as follows:

“Still too many children and their families in households with meager, barely subsistence incomes …… we are helping the bottom 13 per cent. Numbers applying have gone up every year. One worrying trend, the majority are Malay families: many dysfunctional, one parent or absent spouse or without employment, with long-term illnesses, etc. No easy solutions”.

Mr Han’s final comment is this:

“The number of children needing support is huge and I am not sure even with more VWOs involved we’re making a big enough impact”.

I think we should reflect on Mr Han's sober words.

Thank you.

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