Dr Tony Tan was no independent-minded person on the graduate mothers scheme
He is known to older Singaporeans as a man with a strongly independent mind, who has stood up to prime ministers on key policy issues such as the graduate mothers’ scheme in the 1980s, which gave priority in school registration to children of graduate mothers, and more recently, the entry of casinos into Singapore.
– Straits Times, 17th June 2011 on Dr Tony Tan
When Tony Tan’s name was first floated as possible presidential candidate, the Straits Times was quick to highlight his supposed independent streak from the PAP government. In particular, Dr Tony Tan was said to have stood up to Cabinet by opposing the graduate mothers scheme, which prioritise school admission for children of graduate mothers. How accurate is this statement? Did Dr Tony Tan really question and oppose the scheme, or was he forced to do so by electoral circumstances and outcome?
To answer this question, it is helpful to review the older news archives. The records appear to suggest instead that the PAP was forced to abandon the graduate mothers scheme after suffering an unprecedented 12.8% swing (compared to the previous election) against themselves which also saw opposition candidate Chiam See Tong defeating future MND Minister Mah Bow Tan in Potong Pasir.
In order to understand what really happened, some background explanation is necessary.
In his 1983 National Day Speech, PM Lee Kuan Yew highlighted a trend which he found greatly disturbing. Educated women, he said, were having fewer children compared to less educated ones. As a consequence, this resulted in a lop-sided procreation pattern which LKY feared would undermine the collective intelligence of Singapore citizens in the long run. If one believes, as Lee Kuan Yew clearly does, that intelligence is a heritable genetic trait, over time less intelligent offspring would come to outnumber intelligent ones and this spells great trouble for Singapore’s future. Some corrective eugenics measure, Lee believed was necessary to correct this trend.
And so the graduate mother scheme was born. The scheme gave priority admission to school for children whose mothers who were also degree holders. Such an incentive, Lee hoped, would induce graduate mothers to bear more children which may reverse this trend. The public it turned out, was far less supportive of the scheme than it was hoped.
Dr Tony Tan’s initial defense of the graduate mother scheme
Now where does Dr Tony Tan feature in all these? Prior to the 1984 election, Dr Tony Tan was quoted as saying that the scheme was “worth a try” and that he recognised that the lopsided pro-creation pattern was indeed a problem.
He said whether the scheme would succeed in achieving its aims of getting graduate mothers to have their “fair share of children” to correct the lopsided procreation pattern still remained to be seen. “I will certainly support any move which will help to reverse this trend. So, in my view, the priority scheme is worth a try.”
Indeed, where was the dissent Dr Tony Tan is supposedly famous for? In the above quote, Dr Tan makes it clear that he considered the trend to be disturbing and that it was worth trying to remedy it. In today’s world, it’s strictly speaking none of the country’s political leaders’ business that such a pattern exists. Children should be judged not on their parents merits, but solely on their own performance. However, it’s not apparent from pre-election news reports that Tony Tan opposed it publicly right from the start.
When the NUS student union protested the graduate mothers scheme in 1984, Dr Tony Tan was quick to rebuke them by saying students should prioritise their studies ahead of political activism:
“Young people are, naturally, idealistic and feel strongly about social issues, but it would be foolish of you to fritter away the next three to four years in pursuit of peripheral and frivolous activities,” he told the students.
Though he denied that his remarks had anything to do with their position, even the government-controlled Straits Times was not fooled when it cited Dr Tony Tan’s comments as a response to the actions of the university students.
Update: The only dissent Dr Tony Tan appeared to have expressed on the graduate mothers scheme appeared to be this from 2nd April 1984. It is apparent that Dr Tony Tan merely doubted that the scheme would work, rather than whether it was unfair. Dr Tony Tan responded to a resident who had questioned if the government’s elitist mentality was acceptable:
“I am not worried whether the new admission policy will lessen the chances of children of non-graduate mothers not getting the schools of their choice. The main problem is whether the policy will have any significant effect on graduate mothers wanting to have more children.”
Dr Tan was answering a West Coast resident, who criticsed the policy and argued that the government should aim to develop the potential of all Singaporeans rather than concentrate on a few.
Thus far, the public record does not support the claim that Tony Tan was an early dissenter on the graduate mother scheme. But in reality, who dissented strongly against the scheme right from the start, apart from the public?
The real dissenters
Answer: The political opposition at the time, led by Chiam See Tong of the SDP and JB Jeyaretnam of WP. The SDP’s 1984 election manifesto included the following:
We, the SDP denounce PAP’s policies:-
***** 1) of School enrolment preference for children of graduate mothers and the idea that only graduate mothers produce intelligent children; and
***** 2) that only those who are scholars, regardless of their commitment and political belief, are entitled to rule the people of Singapore.
Similarly, the WP under JBJ issued a strong condemnation of the scheme, saying it would lead to a rigid and stratified society. A 14th March 1984 ST article reported that Parliament threw out a motion questioning the scheme:
THE House yesterday threw out a motion by Mr J. B. Jeyaretnam (Anson) — by 43 votes to one — on the new primary school admission priority scheme. Mr Jeyaretnam, who said the scheme was unconstitutional, called for a division during the debate on the estimates of the Ministry of Education.
The opposition MP, who described the priority scheme as “vicious,” “abhorrent” and “fascist,” appealed to the ministry not to play God but to accept the limitations of mortals. Mr Jeyaretnam added that the scheme had created bitterness not only among parents who did not qualify but also among graduate mothers who felt insulted.
JBJ reiterated his party’s position just before polling day. From an ST article published on polling day in 1984:
But the priority scheme for graduate mothers favoured a certain class of people —the children of graduate mothers — and this was a step in the wrong direction, he said. “What is worse is that it’s a crime against children. Why should any child be made to feel that he or she is inferior to another child?” Mr Jeyaretnam said.
But dissent was not confined to the political opposition and the public. There was dissent even amongst the PAP backbenchers. On a parliamentary sitting on 12th March 1984 freshman PAP MP Dr Tan Cheng Bock of Ayer Rajah directed the following at Dr Goh Keng Swee:
Dr Tan Cheng Bock: Is the First Deputy Prime Minister aware that his policy of priority of admission of children of graduate is discriminatory? It discriminates against children of non-graduates. It discriminates against children of graduate fathers and non-graduate mothers. It discriminates against children of mothers who complied with our sterilization policy by ligating after having two children. And in view of this unfairness to most but 200 Singaporeans, would the First Deputy Prime Minister like to review this policy?
[Source: Singapore Parliament (1984) Parliamentary Debates: Official Report Education Policy On Admissions And Streaming.]
The 1984 electoral backlash
Then came the 1984 elections. The PAP was shocked by the massive 12.8% vote swing against them as compared to the previous election. There was much soul-searching by the PAP, just as it did so after this year’s election why this was the case. The election was considered so pivotal that it was allocated an entire chapter titled The Turning Point – 1984 in the 2009 book Men In White (pg 365):
The PAP had tempted fate by rolling out one controversial policy after another in what was an election year, the post-mortem report noted. It was never done in past election years.
So a graduate mothers policy was launched. Lee gave graduate mothers their pick of pre-school or primary school for their third child. It sparked off a public outcry. The papers were inundated with angry calls and letters, even from tertiary educated women who, at the time, made up only 1.3 per cent of the female population.
Newcomer Teck Ghee MP Lee Hsien Loong, as part of a task force, authored a post-mortem report in which one of the most important factors in the poor electoral performance of the PAP was the hugely unpopular graduate mothers scheme.
The actual reasons for abolishing the scheme
Once the public had shown their strong disapproval of the policy at the ballot box, Dr Tony Tan, as Education Minister and the government decided not to tempt fate and instead roll back the policy. However, despite doing so, Dr Tony Tan took pains to emphasise that the reason for doing so was not so much because it was unfair, rather because there was little evidence that the graduate mother scheme was working the way the government intended it to ie. to induce graduate mothers to have more children.
Indeed some early 1985 Straits Times reports make this clear.
Dr Tony Tan quoted in ST, 4th Feb 1985:
“It’s fair to say that all of us recognise the fundamental importance of why the scheme was launched — to encourage better- educated mothers to have more children and to correct the lop-sided procreation pattern,” he said. This problem affected all affluent countries, he said. “Whether the priority scheme is the right way, whether the incentive will have a material effect on graduate mothers…it may be fair to say that some of us are not convinced graduate mothers will be inclined to have a third child.
A later ST report on 26th March 1985 makes this more explicit. The the graduate mothers scheme was pivotal in causing the PAP to suffer a huge vote swing:
From the start, there was a strong public outcry which persisted throughout the year. The scheme emerged as a prominent election campaign issue in the December polls.
Dr Tony Tan stressed that the main reason why it was aborted was not because of public opposition but because it appeared unworkable.
But Dr Tan felt that most of the criticisms of the scheme had been misplaced. He said yesterday that only 157 children benefited from the scheme last year —hardly enough to affect anyone else. The crucial issue, he said, was whether the scheme would encourage graduate mothers to have more children. The response from graduate mothers has indicated that the answer is no.
A later report (ST, 15th May 1985) also quoted Dr Tony Tan’s insistence that he still considered it important for graduate mothers to have more children, though this time he acknowledged that there was unfairness (although he did so only after the election):
“The Government should not give up. The objectives are not disputed by anyone,” Dr Tan said. “But we got to find ways in which we can try to encourage graduate mothers to have more children without creating a sense of unfairness and resentment in the general public.
In short, the main crux of the issue was that the proposed scheme was not working at all as intended. Unlike the opposition parties (WP and SDP) and dissenting PAP backbenchers, little thought appeared to have been given by Dr Tony Tan as to whether it was discriminatory and unfair. The electoral results and the general public on the other hand was much more effective in “persuading” the PAP to drop the policy.
Why then give credit to Dr Tony Tan for having rolled back the scheme? Was he not merely acting on the public backlash which caused the PAP to lose an additional seat in Potong Pasir to opposition MP Chiam See Tong? Was there any evidence that he had dissented on the graduate mothers scheme before the people made their strong opposition known in the 1984 election?
Some concluding thoughts here. On the issue of casinos in Singapore, Dr Tony Tan appears to be on more solid footing having opposed it right from the start. However, is this considered sufficient evidence of independence? Didn’t Lee Kuan Yew himself also oppose the casinos? Does anyone consider Lee Kuan Yew an independent-minded person worth voting for as President given his early opposition to the casinos?
As Finance Minister in 1984, Dr Tony Tan refused to extend child relief to mothers who had less than five ‘O’ Levels, done in part to correct the “lop-sided pro-creation pattern”:
The Straits Times understands the government considered extending the incentive to working mothers with at least three ‘O’ levels. But it decided to cut off at five ‘O’ levels. Government thinking is that a full secondary school education means achieving at least that level. Those who can must be encouraged to go for further studies.
If one reads the record of policies of the 1980s, one sobering observation was that the decade was filled with discriminatory policies against lesser educated families, who received fewer incentives to have children. This likely played a huge role in preventing the birth rate from climbing up to its replacement level and set the stage for Singapore to import foreign workers some 20 years later to make up for the dwindling birth rate.