Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Streaming of students has pitfalls as well as benefits: Ong Ye Kung, Education News & Top Stories - The Straits Times

Streaming of students has pitfalls as well as benefits: Ong Ye Kung, Education News & Top Stories - The Straits Times

Streaming of students has pitfalls as well as benefits: Ong Ye Kung

SINGAPORE - Sorting students by their ability has led to better educational outcomes, but Education Minister Ong Ye Kung acknowledged that streaming may come at the expense of students in the Normal streams losing confidence.

"The Ministry of Education (MOE) introduced streaming in 1980 to systematically customise learning for students of different profiles," he said on Monday (Feb 18) in a written response to Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC), who asked in a parliamentary question whether his ministry has studied the effects of streaming on secondary school students' self-esteem and confidence.

"(Streaming) has very successfully lowered student attrition and improved educational outcomes," said Mr Ong.

But the Government must also recognise the trade-off between customising and stigmatisation, he said, adding that factors affecting self-esteem and confidence are complex and multifaceted.

Mr Ong said that studies by the National Institute of Education have shown that Normal (Academic) students, after spending some years in secondary school, were similarly or more confident in their studies compared with their Express stream peers.

"But there is also feedback from teachers that students in Normal streams may over time also lose confidence and the mindset of growth and development," he added.

To combat this trend and "blur the lines between education streams", he said the MOE has put in place measures such as subject-based banding, where students from the Normal streams can take subjects at a higher academic level; and the Polytechnic Foundation Programme, for students to join the polytechnics without having to take O-level exams.

"Our work in this area is ongoing," he said.

Mr Ng also asked whether there is a pathway for Normal (Technical) students who do well in the N(T)-level examination to take O levels, beyond subject-based banding as an option.

In response, Mr Ong said that Sec 4 Normal (Technical) students who perform well at the N(T)-level examination can first transfer to the Sec 4 Normal (Academic) stream and take the N(A)-level examination.

Thereafter, they can progress to Sec 5 Normal (Academic) and take the O levels.

"This allows students to progressively bridge the gap between the academic demands of the N(T), N(A) and O-level curricula," he added.

Over the last five years, about 530 students each year have transferred from N(T) to N(A), he said, adding: "They are identified early, based on their secondary school performance."

Of all the N(T) students who move to the N(A) course, 10 to 20 of them go on to study in the Express track each year, he said.

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Friday, February 15, 2019

TODAYonline | Hyflux’s fall from grace: What went wrong

TODAYonline | Hyflux's fall from grace: What went wrong

Hyflux's fall from grace: What went wrong

SINGAPORE — The woes of water-treatment company Hyflux, once a market darling and much-vaunted trailblazer in Singapore's entrepreneurial space, have been festering for some time, market watchers and corporate governance experts said on Wednesday (May 23).
However, the company and its board failed to pay enough attention to its finances as it put the pedal to the metal in expanding its footprint, the observers told TODAY.
On Tuesday, Hyflux announced it was seeking court protection to reorganise its business and deal with its liabilities. It also suspended trading of its shares and related securities.
The aim was to allow the company to focus on ongoing talks with strategic investors, optimise operations, nail down areas for growth and complete projects to generate steady cash flow, said the company, which recently posted its first-ever yearly loss since its public listing in 2001.

Associate Professor Lawrence Loh, from the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School, called the reorganisation "long overdue", as the signs were clear for some time: Hyflux's stock has tumbled to about S$0.20 a share, one-tenth of the price in its heyday. "But it's better late than never," said Assoc Prof Loh.
Synonymous with the company, its founder and group chief executive Olivia Lum, who is also executive chairman, has over the years built a steady record and propelled the firm to global prominence, with operations and projects spanning the Asia-Pacific, Middle East, Africa and the Americas.
Hyflux founder Olivia Lum speaking at the opening ceremony of Singapore's second and largest desalination plant, Tuaspring Desalination Plant. TODAY file photo
Despite her stellar record, observers have raised questions over whether corporate governance and risk management practices had been adequate.
Assoc Prof Loh, who is director of the NUS Business School's Centre for Governance, Institutions and Organisations, pointed out that Hyflux's risk management committee met only once in the 2017 financial year.
By contrast, its audit committee met four times, and its investment, nominating and remuneration committees each gathered twice in the same financial year, checks by TODAY showed.
Assoc Prof Loh said the company needs to beef up its risk management, as it has to make large and risky investments at times.
NUS corporate governance expert Mak Yuen Teen said it was "not enough" for a risk management committee to convene just once a year. "I would ask whether they were actually effective, because what can you do once a year?" he said.
The nature of Hyflux's business, its heavy debt pile and rapid growth meant that risk management was key for the company, added Assoc Prof Mak. "Most committees, I expect them to meet at least three or four times in a year to be meaningful," he said.
Then there is also the issue of whether Hyflux's board of directors had asked the right questions and challenged corporate decisions in the face of a dominant figure like Ms Lum, who has "strong ideas and a strong mind", said Assoc Prof Mak.
He noted that in companies helmed by founders, there was the chance that the founders would either fail to listen to the views of their directors or do not have the "right kind of directors" serving on their boards, because they want to push their ideas through.
Hyflux's eight-member board includes two former employees. Non-executive independent director Christopher Murugasu was Hyflux's senior vice-president for corporate services and Mr Gary Kee, a non-executive non-independent director, was its executive director overseeing areas such as corporate finance and information technology.
Assoc Prof Loh said that in general, it was not good practice to have ex-employees serve on boards, because boards are meant to "represent the shareholder, and monitor the management and employees". "It doesn't square with the fundamental purpose of a board," he said.
Agreeing, Assoc Prof Mak said former employees are also unlikely to question Ms Lum's decisions. "If they are former employees, would they feel that they are in a position to challenge management?" he asked.
TODAY has reached out to Ms Lum and some of the company's independent directors for comment. When contacted, law professor and independent board director Simon Tay declined comment.
Tuaspring Desalination Plant. TODAY file photo
Over the years, Hyflux has had to deal with a snowballing mountain of debt.
As of March 31, the company chalked up S$1.3 billion in net borrowings, compared with S$1 billion in equity.
Its landmark Tuaspring project, which combines South-east Asia's largest water desalination plant with a gas turbine power plant, has put a dent in its bottomline.
Hyflux has been in talks to sell a stake in Tuaspring without success.
On Tuesday, Ms Lum said the project had not escaped the brunt of "depressed electricity prices in Singapore", despite improvements in wholesale prices in the last few months which had stemmed losses.
A "sharper rebound" was needed to restore the group to its previous levels of profitability, she said.
Still, the observers said navigating the whims of electricity prices, which are subject to market forces, also boiled down to risk management.
"When you're growing, you can't expect the best-case scenario… you cannot keep thinking (power prices) are only going to go up," said Assoc Prof Mak.
Assoc Prof Loh pointed to the financial viability of the loss-making plant as among the reasons Hyflux has faced difficulties in divesting its single-largest asset. Singapore's small and already-saturated electricity market is also "not very attractive" to potential investors.
Although he did not think it was likely, Associate Professor Nitin Pangarkar from the NUS Business School said national-security considerations could possibly be at play, given that water is an existential issue for Singapore. This could limit the pool of investors for Tuaspring.
CMC Markets sales trader Oriano Lizza said he "wouldn't discount" that consideration too, and that the sale of assets such as Tuaspring could be kept "localised", which could limit foreign investment.
The observers said there was a chance an investor such as state investment firm Temasek Holdings — which was formerly a shareholder in the company — could step in, but warned that any such move cannot be perceived as a bailout.
Assoc Prof Loh said there was a strategic element in Hyflux's water business, which puts it in the "realm of national interest". There was a need to indigenise water-treatment capabilities, which are critical for water-scarce Singapore, he explained.
Still, Temasek should not be seen as a "bailer of last resort", and must exercise commercial discipline and due diligence before making a move. "We should not send the wrong signal to the market that if you're in some industry that's critical to Singapore, you can take all the risks, and if you fail, some big sugar daddy called Temasek will come and bail you out. That's the wrong starting point," Assoc Prof Loh added.
Assoc Prof Mak said Temasek must be "hard-nosed" if it decides to step in and must ensure it is not just channelling funds to keep Hyflux afloat. "At the end of the day, Temasek's job is not to do National Service."
The fall from grace of a firm once touted as a homegrown success should be a cautionary tale for other Singapore-based companies, the observers said.
Assoc Prof Mak acknowledged that while Hyflux has a sound business with the technological know-how to boot, it could have neglected to keep a sufficient eye on its finances as it grew aggressively.
"When you pursue growth, you also need to have proper risk management in place. And I think founders need to also be open to external views," he added. "That's an important lesson when you've independent directors, to make sure that (they) are there to bring different perspectives and to challenge and question decisions."
Assoc Prof Loh said that having a sound business strategy was key. "When you start expanding, you should make sure that your expansion is adequately financed — don't take too much risk, especially in terms of debt financing," he said.
Assoc Prof Pangarkar added: "If you're taking risks in one thing, then you have to balance it with a good stable environment and business prospects in something else. Don't let the risky factors pile up. They can be pretty toxic at some point."

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Monday, February 11, 2019

Parliament: Bionix did not stop reversing in CFC Liu Kai incident despite repeated commands, says Ng Eng Hen, Politics News & Top Stories - The Straits Times

Parliament: Bionix did not stop reversing in CFC Liu Kai incident despite repeated commands, says Ng Eng Hen, Politics News & Top Stories - The Straits Times

Parliament: Bionix did not stop reversing in CFC Liu Kai incident despite repeated commands, says Ng Eng Hen

SINGAPORE - The Bionix armoured vehicle which collided into the Land Rover that Corporal First Class Liu Kai was driving, leading to his death, did not stop reversing despite repeated commands for its driver to do so, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen revealed in Parliament on Monday (Feb 11).

In the Nov 3 accident, the Bionix Infantry Fighting Vehicle stopped only after it mounted the driver's side of the Land Rover - about eight seconds after it started reversing, said Dr Ng.

An independent Committee of Inquiry (COI), as well as the police, are looking into whether the communications equipment used by the Bionix crew was working properly at the time, he said.

Dr Ng added that it will be up to the Attorney-General's Chambers to decide if there are grounds to prosecute any person in the criminal courts for CFC Liu's death.

Even if there are no criminal proceedings, Dr Ng said the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) will take disciplinary measures for lapses identified in the military court and provide updates on them.

In the meantime, the servicemen involved in the incident have been redeployed to non-operational roles, and a series of safety measures have been put in place, he added.

These include installing additional emergency horn buttons and rear-view cameras in the Bionix armoured vehicles.

The minister was giving the preliminary findings of the Committee of Inquiry (COI), which was convened to look into circumstances leading to the death of the full-time national serviceman (NSF) on Nov 3 last year.

Dr Ng said the COI was able to piece together a "detailed chronology" from the recordings of the Land Rover's front and in-vehicle cameras, and statements from multiple witnesses.

CFC Liu, 22, was a transport operator from the Singapore Armed Forces' Transport Hub West.

On the day of the accident, he was assigned to drive an assessor from the Active Unit Training Centre - a regular Captain - who was the Land Rover's vehicle commander.

The officer was deployed to observe and evaluate exercise troops - in this case, the Bionix vehicle.

The Bionix vehicle's crew were from the 42nd Battalion Singapore Armoured Regiment. Dr Ng said the crew comprised four people, all NSFs.

A Second Lieutenant was the vehicle commander; a Third Sergeant acted as the rear guide, when the vehicle reverses; and a Corporal each performed the role of gunner and driver.

The COI determined that the crew members were qualified to participate in the exercise, having received the requisite training for their roles, said Dr Ng.

A day before the incident, the captain met the Bionix's vehicle commander to understand his crew's manoeuvre plan for the exercise. Another meeting was held on Nov 3, before the exercise started.

Dr Ng said the COI felt the servicemen involved had their rest in accordance with training safety regulations, and their mental and physical states were fit for participation in the exercise which commenced at 7am in the Jalan Murai training area.

Just before 10am, the Bionix crew spotted several vehicles involved in the exercise passing a junction ahead of it.

The armoured vehicle then stopped, as ordered by the Bionix vehicle commander.

The Land Rover, which was following the Bionix to assess the crew's performance in the exercise, also stopped.

The trainer then instructed CFC Liu to overtake the Bionix, and as he moved forward slowly, he heard shots fired as part of the exercise.

CFC Liu then stopped the Land Rover at a maximum distance of 19.8m from the Bionix, the COI found.

This was short of the 30m safe distance as stated in the training safety regulations, said Dr Ng, adding that the COI noted that it was the responsibility of the Land Rover's vehicle commander to ensure the safety distance.

Four seconds after the Land Rover stopped, the Bionix crew reversed the vehicle in execution of the extrication drill ordered by the Bionix commander, as a response to the gunshots.

Dr Ng said the COI acknowledged the need for this type of training - an extrication drill for enemy encounters carried out to get away as fast as possible - even though it is high risk.

The Land Rover was initially not in the path of the reversing Bionix, but the vehicle operator then made a "slight steer" to straighten its path and this brought the armoured vehicle into the path of the Land Rover.

Almost immediately after the Bionix started reversing, the rear guide was seen gesturing at the Land Rover to move away. He was also seen pushing the microphone of his Combat Vehicle Crew (CVC) helmet closer to his mouth.

He issued stop commands into his communications set repeatedly, but the Bionix continued to reverse.

Dr Ng said the COI noted that the rear guide had repeatedly given the order for the driver to stop reversing through the intercom via the CVC helmet.

"The COI noted that the intercom system was working earlier in the exercise. They have asked for an independent technical assessment report on whether the intercom system was working properly all the time," he said.

He added that police investigations are also focused on the communications between the Bionix crew, and whether this was affected by the equipment.

The intercom via the CVC helmet is the rear guide's only means of communications with the other crew members in the Bionix, he said.

The Land Rover's video showed the trainer tapping CFC Liu and signalling for him to reverse the Land Rover.

CFC Liu also engaged the reverse gear, judging from the beep sounds. Both of them also shouted and gestured with their hands for the Bionix to stop.

The trainer also tried to reach for the handset of the radio set to communicate with the Bionix crew, but about eight seconds after it started reversing, the armoured vehicle hit the Land Rover and mounted the driver's side before stopping.

CFC Liu was trapped. The trainer managed to extricate himself and notify the exercise's conducting officer who immediately ordered the exercise to cease.

A medic on board a nearby Bionix immediately tended to CFC Liu. The SAF Emergency Ambulance Service, a unit medical officer and the Singapore Civil Defence Force were also activated and on site.

CFC Liu died from his injuries at about 10.35am. The cause of his death, as determined by post-mortem examination, was traumatic asphyxia, said Dr Ng.

The COI found there was adequate deployment of medics and medical equipment as part of the safety management plan, he added.

Dr Ng said the COI did not find any mechanical problems with the Bionix - its steering parts were "fully functional" - and that the Land Rover CFC Liu drove was serviceable.

In response to the COI's findings, Dr Ng said the SAF has or will put in place a number of measures to prevent the recurrence of such incidents, including some not identified by the COI.

From next month, the Bionix training fleet will be retrofitted with a rear-view camera system in phases.

The system provides a live video feed of the vehicle's rear to enhance the operator's situational awareness while in the vehicle during training and operations.

It is capable of operating in a low-light environment, with the video displayed on the 6.5-inch-wide display panel mounted in the operator's compartment.

Since November 2018, all Bionix vehicles used for training have had three emergency horns, and the vehicle's rear guide can use them as an additional way of alerting the operator and those outside the vehicle of any hazards or obstacles.

When sounded, the Bionix's operator has to stop the vehicle immediately.

More experienced, regular trainers have been added on the ground to supervise and train national servicemen.

They will no longer just be in Land Rovers or other "soft skin" vehicles, said Dr Ng. Instead they will be required to be in the combat vehicles with the trainees during training.

The army is reviewing the need for other vehicles and their occupants at risk during exercises. These include safety vehicles, and vehicles for trainers.

The Army has also put in new safety measures in extrication drills where vehicles have to reverse.

First, trainers will no longer travel in Land Rovers but will join exercise troops in the combat vehicles during high risk training.

Second, for all reversing manoeuvres including extrication drills, the driver can only move the vehicle backwards with the explicit clearance by the rear guide.

Also, the Army will ensure that only essential vehicles are allowed into the exercise area to minimise the risk of accidents.

Dr Ng said that CFC Liu was a well-liked and respected soldier who served with pride.

"We mourn the loss of this precious son. And we hope that the measures we have put in place will prevent a similar incident from reoccurring," he said.

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Aloysius Pang's death: No malfunctions with gun-lowering mechanism, says Ng Eng Hen, Politics News & Top Stories - The Straits Times

Aloysius Pang's death: No malfunctions with gun-lowering mechanism, says Ng Eng Hen, Politics News & Top Stories - The Straits Times

Aloysius Pang's death: No malfunctions with gun-lowering mechanism, says Ng Eng Hen

SINGAPORE - Inspections did not detect any malfunction of the gun-lowering mechanism of the Singapore Self-Propelled Howitzer (SSPH) that crushed Singapore actor Aloysius Pang and led to his death, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen told Parliament on Monday (Feb 11).

He also gave details of the two other servicemen in the howitzer's cabin with Corporal First Class (NS) Pang, 28, an NS armament technician who died four days after suffering injuries on Jan 19 this year during a military exercise in New Zealand.

The two other servicemen were an operationally ready national serviceman (NSman), with the rank of Third Sergeant, who performed the role of gun detachment commander; and a regular holding the rank of Military Expert 2. He is an armament technician.

Both, who are experienced in SSPH maintenance, have been redeployed from their operational roles, said Dr Ng.

Dr Ng said this crew had been trained specifically on the SSPH and had conducted similar maintenance works on it in the past, adding that during the exercise in New Zealand last month, checks were done on the guns daily.

The Defence Minister was giving a ministerial statement in response to more than 10 questions filed by MPs relating to training deaths in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) in the last two years, as well as the measures taken after the most recent incident involving CFC Pang.

On Jan 19, CFC Pang was taking part in an annual live-firing exercise called Thunder Warrior on his seventh in-camp training (ICT). The exercise was held at the Waiouru Training Area.

He was doing repair work on the gun's calibration system for accurate firing inside the SSPH when he could not get out of the way of the gun barrel in time as it was being lowered. He was crushed and died of his injuries four days later.

Following the incident, Dr Ng said the SAF's "immediate task" was to ensure that there was no "systemic machine malfunction of the SSPH", as this would put other maintenance crew members at risk.

"Inspections of the SSPH have not detected any machine malfunction of the gun-lowering mechanism," he said.

Dr Ng said the regular armament technician in the cabin with CFC Pang had been in service for more than 16 years, with eight years of working experience on the SSPH.

It was also his sixth time participating as a technician in Exercise Thunder Warrior.

The gun commander was in his eighth ICT and had undergone refresher training prior to his deployment in the exercise, said Dr Ng. Both personnel were not named.

Dr Ng said the SSPH's cabin is 2.3m in height, measuring 2.44m from front to rear, and 2.64m from side to side. The gun barrel divides the cabin into two. There is space for the three people within the cabin to occupy positions on either side of the gun.

The interior of a Singapore Self-Propelled Howitzer. PHOTO: MINDEF

The gun barrel is usually tilted upwards for firing but needs to be lowered for some types of maintenance work. When fully lowered, the rear end of the gun goes up and ends about 10cm below the top rim of the cabin, but there is still adequate space for people within the cabin to be in their various safe positions.

Dr Ng said: "During the lowering of the barrel, no one is supposed to be behind the barrel.

"Unfortunately, CFC (NS) Pang was caught between the gun barrel and the interior of the SSPH as the gun barrel was lowered, and (he) sustained compression injuries to his chest and abdominal areas."

CFC Pang had undergone refresher training on maintenance tasks in New Zealand before participating in Thunder Warrior.

He was also involved in the preparation of more than 10 SSPHs in the exercise, including servicing and maintaining the guns, added Dr Ng.

CFC Pang also attended a two-day refresher Maintenance Vocation Training on the basic functional checks and troubleshooting for the SSPH in his previous ICT in February last year.

In this incident, Dr Ng said CFC Pang, who was first activated, requested and received help from regular technicians, as he was unable to resolve the fault.

He added that the actor, along with the two others, were familiar with the safety procedures that are taught to all maintenance and SSPH operating crew.

The regular technician, who is overall in charge, is responsible in ensuring that the gun has been lowered and fixed in place before any maintenance work can begin, said Dr Ng.

He added that the safety instructions also specify safe positions within the SSPH cabin for soldiers to occupy during the gun lowering, as well as safety precautions to be taken.

The gun commander, who lowers the gun in operations or during maintenance, must first check to ensure that it is free from obstacles and that no one is in the travel path of the barrel. Other people in the cabin are to occupy their safe positions.

Dr Ng also responded to a question by Non-Constituency MP Daniel Goh, who asked whether the design of the SSPH will be reviewed to determine possible flaws.

"The SSPH prototype platform had undergone extensive trials and evaluations from 2000 to 2002 before its introduction in 2003," Dr Ng said.

He added that there had not been any reported injury of servicemen due to the gun being lowered for maintenance, or when operating in or firing the SSPH.

He said the SSPH was designed and developed to international military standards, and other militaries also operate tracked 155mm guns with similar gun-lowering mechanisms, such as the United States, South Korea and Germany.

The independent Committee of Inquiry (COI), convened on Jan 25, has full access to material and witnesses to determine the facts of the case, he said.

"Everything asked for by the COI will be released to them - I do not foresee any information that needs to be withheld for security reasons," added Dr Ng.

"We owe it to CFC (NS) Pang and his family, indeed to all Singaporeans, to get to the bottom of what happened, and make things right, to ensure the safety of the NS training system as a whole.

"I ask that all of us respect these objective and impartial processes that are under way, to reserve our judgment and wait for the conclusions of the COI, which will be presented in Parliament subsequently."

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