Getting parents to teach their own children won't solve the tuition problem

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I refer to Vivian Lim's letter to the Today paper, "Parental involvement can stem tuition culture."
While Member of Parliament (Mountbatten GRC) Lim Biow Chuan was concerned that tuition has become a crutch for students to the point that they “have lost the skill of self-directed learning” (“Tuition culture has to go, say MPs”; March 7), one contributing factor to this situation could be that many parents today have lost the skill of “self-directed teaching”.

Parents of the current cohort grew up in a time when the world saw productivity grow through the division of labour, and are enjoying the efficiency of this model. Teaching is now seen as provided primarily by institutions, with parents taking a backseat. Even parents who recognise the value of being more hands-on in teaching end up “outsourcing” because it requires less time, effort and discipline on their part.

Promoting deeper parental involvement and genuine interest in their children can contribute to a shift away from a tuition culture, as well as education in the broader sense. This could be done through outreach programmes by relevant institutions and self-help groups.

I just have a few simple questions.

1) Who's going to pay the bills while the parents teach their own children? In most lower to middle income families, both parents need to work full-time. You can't just expect one of them to quit his/her job to teach their children. It's simply not an option unless you don't intend to put your child through a university education.

2) What's wrong with a tuition culture? So many assumptions have been made recently about the tuition culture. But will parents be any better? Will they put less pressure on their children? Will they make better teachers?

3) Self-directed teaching isn't teaching and non self-directed learning isn't learning. Learning is by definition self-directed and teaching is by definition externally imposed. How are you going to ensure the child is doing his self-directed learning if he isn't being monitored? If you're monitoring him, is that learning still self-directed? Terms like these are a load of rubbish. Stop using them.


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When parents make baseless insinuations about CCA vendors

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Of all the ridiculous letters from parents I've been reading lately, like the one on teachers taking examinations, this one stands out. From the Today paper, When CCA vendors benefit at parents’ expense, Joshua Chia writes,
I share Madam Sek Ah Yan’s view in “Shouldn’t pricey supplementary items for school be subsidised?” (March 2).

My son is in his primary school’s badminton team. The school has engaged an external vendor to conduct the badminton co-curricular activity (CCA), which is not uncommon in schools today.

At the start of the school term, the coach gave out forms for an enrichment course, which would come at a cost and would be conducted by the coach on weekends or after school hours.

I am uncomfortable with this arrangement, as the coach may have a vested interest to encourage the pupils to sign up for the course.

Also, I am unsure whether or not the coach will let pupils who signed up have more opportunities to play in the schools tournament and pay more attention to them during the CCA period.

If the pupils are already in the school team, why is there a need for the enrichment course?

It should be targeted only at those who are not in the team and wish to learn badminton, to minimise any conflict of interest, since the same vendor is conducting the CCA.

That would also provide a level playing field for pupils in the team who did not sign up for the enrichment class for whatever reasons.

In my era, CCA enrichment programmes were uncommon or unheard of, and coaches would do their best to ensure the pupils improve their skills.

The authority should probe such arrangements where an unnecessary enrichment course may be beneficial to external coaches/vendors at the expense of parents.
First of all, the writer's complaint is based entirely on his suspicion that "the coach may have a vested interest to encourage the pupils to sign up for the course," and is wholly speculative. He offers no evidence whatsoever to show that the coach has in fact tried to coerce or pressure pupils into signing up. I'm not even sure why such a baseless complaint was published. Is the Today paper short of letters to publish?

Second, there's nothing wrong with encouraging students to sign up for courses so long as it is not coercive. Schools do it all the time with various supplementary programs that they think students will benefit from. So long as the student stands to gain from it, there's no reason why vendors shouldn't be allowed to encourage the student to participate and benefit from the program. Mr Joshua Chia hasn't shown why his son wouldn't benefit from it, or why the vendor's methods of encouragement are coercive. In fact, if he has the guts to complain on the Today forum, surely he can tell his son, the answer is "no".

Third, if he thinks there's no need for his son to attend the enrichment course, then don't send him for it. Unless the coach is penalising his child for an optional program, I don't see the problem here. Or is this just another case of a kiasu parent being afraid that his child will lose out if he doesn't attend every single training session? The solution isn't to take away all supplementary programs and make everyone else suffer.

Then, he insinuates that there's a potential conflict of interest because the same vendor is providing both the supplementary program and is conducting the CCA, but he doesn't say where that conflict of interest lies. This is quite perplexing.

The coach does have a vested interest in encouraging students to sign up for the course, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Anyone who provides any kind of service has a vested interest in encouraging people to continue to utilise his services. We don't normally consider that to be a problem, so why should we in this case? It's only a problem if the enrichment course being provided isn't beneficial for the student and the student is being coerced into attending it. But if that's the case, it has nothing to do with the same CCA vendor being the one to provide enrichment courses. There's nothing inherently wrong with such arrangements.

If anything, the coach has a strong vested interest in ensuring that he demonstrates the value of his enrichment program since parents will be paying directly for it rather than having the school fund it. With enrichment programs, parents have a greater say in whether or not they choose to send their child for it since they can withhold both their permission and their funding.

If Mr Chia is unhappy with the CCA vendor, he should take the issue up with him, or with the teacher-in-charge, not make this out to be a systemic problem. Arrangements like this are very common and they are very useful for schools with limited funding who at the same time want to allow students to explore different activities through enrichment courses. They are also much easier to arrange. You can't expect every school to find a different vendor every time they choose to conduct an enrichment course. Who do you think the burden will fall to? The overtaxed teacher-in-charge of course. And is there any reason they should do this if the CCA vendor is perfectly competent? Why go for second best when you have someone you trust and can work with? Will parents be any happier with a strange face coming in every other week to take charge of their children?

Mr Chia also needs to recognise that CCA vendors don't have it easy either. They often have to travel frequently from school to school and there's a lot of down time in between, during which they don't get paid. They also don't get paid during school holidays and exam periods when CCAs are suspended. Moreover, as it is, most schools have tight budgets and don't pay CCA vendors very much. The average CCA vendor doesn't make a lot of money. Offering enrichment courses is one way for them to add value to the school while at the same time supplementing their income. These arrangements are usually mutually beneficial. While I understand Mr Chia's concern as a parent, unsupported insinuations like these are frankly quite derisory.


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Should we increase National Service allowance?

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A PAP MP's insensitivity to the harsh realities many Singaporeans face has once again put the spotlight on a contentious issue--the monthly allowance for full-time national servicemen. According to the news report, which has since been removed, but can still be found on unofficial sites:
Senior Minister of State for Finance and Transport Josephine Teo was also present. She addressed one participant's suggestion that national servicemen should be paid more. 

While she noted the importance of giving NSmen recognition, Mrs Teo said service for the country cannot be measured in dollars and cents.
What incensed many Singaporeans was the hypocrisy of receiving million dollar checks while refusing to adequately compensate national servicemen who serve the country too--national servicemen who arguably need the money a whole lot more than influential politicians born into privilege.

There's much to be said about the plight of national servicemen who cannot afford to spend two years earning an income that is below the poverty line. As Carlton Tan points out:
Although the government refuses to provide an official estimate of the poverty line, it’s possible to calculate it using existing formulas based on publicly available statistics. Alex Au has done that using Hong Kong’s formula which takes half the median income of resident households. He found that in 2012, the poverty line for Singapore was $956. Median household incomes have not increased much in the three years since. This is therefore still an accurate estimate of the minimum income a person needs to afford basic human necessities. At $550 a month, most servicemen are thus being grossly underpaid at a level far below the poverty line.
Why are we paying servicemen so little? That's a question the government hasn't really answered. The most common explanation is that because NS is the fulfillment of a person's duty, he shouldn't expect to be fully compensated while doing it. But there are a few problems with such a line of reasoning. First of all, there's no reason to make national servicemen suffer if we don't have to. It's no less honourable to defend your nation and be paid more while doing it. As Carlton Tan points out:
No country is better served, or better loved, by having its citizens suffer while they defend it. A serviceman’s patriotism ought to be measured according to how well he serves, not how well he and his family suffers while he serves. His debt is likewise fulfilled through his service and not through his sacrifice. The one who sacrifices much while serving and the one who sacrifices little while serving are both discharging their obligations equally.
In fact, it's highly hypocritical to say that ministers should be well-paid when they serve the nation but servicemen don't. The difference between the minister and the servicemen is not how well they serve their nation, but how much of a choice they have.

If the debate over ministerial pay has revealed anything, it's that the PAP still thinks it needs to pay its cabinet ministers exorbitant amounts to attract the best talent. This can only be because despite being in power for over 50 years, they haven't been able to attract talent in any other way. It's only logical, therefore, to conclude that the PAP ministers are there mainly for the pay, and they have plenty of other options available to them.

In contrast, servicemen don't have a choice. And because they don't, it's possible to pay them peanuts and they can't do anything about it. The real reason we aren't paying servicemen well enough, therefore, isn't because NS is a duty to the nation. It's because we can, and they don't have any choice but to suck it up. But is this really how we should treat our own citizens?

Based on Carlton's estimates, it's possible to fund the increase in NS pay given that it currently only takes up around 3% of the defence budget. But this is only speaking financially. The only way to actually ensure something like this gets done is by getting the PAP to wake up its idea. Maybe it'll take another humiliating defeat by a relatively poorly-funded and poorly-organised opposition party. We'll know in a year or so.
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Why students can't afford to be idealistic about their university options

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With the release of the A level results, most students are probably rushing to apply to the best universities. One consideration they will have is their starting pay and employment opportunities upon graduation. At least one person has written in to the TODAY forum page to encourage students to look beyond their starting salaries and job prospects.
Of what use is the Graduate Employment Survey (GES), besides allowing universities to trumpet the employability of their fresh graduates? (“Slight fall in employment rate for local graduates”, Feb 28)

Paired with favourable international institutional rankings, the three colleges appeal to the pragmatism of prospective students and — perhaps more significantly — their parents.

At first glance, the survey seems fair. A similar survey is conducted by the five polytechnics for their diploma courses. Yet, what it also does is reinforce conceptions that the diploma or degree is but a paper qualification and that starting salaries should guide study choices.

The emphasis of the GES is on employment rates and salaries, but other information should be considered before matriculation and upon graduation. The remuneration reported does not reflect the likelihood of future raises or opportunities for career progression. Within degrees or specialisations, employment options could differ as students enter different industries.

With calls by the Government for young Singaporeans to follow their ambitions, the Education Ministry could urge the three autonomous universities to reconsider the practice of conducting the GES, even though the onus is on individuals to not focus exclusively on these employment and salary figures.

Comparisons will be made even without an annual quantitative study. Look no further than the parents who converged on online platforms to aggregate data after it was decided that the highest and lowest Primary School Leaving Examination aggregate scores would not be printed on result slips and that top scorers would not be named.

But while the diploma or degree may be a paper qualification paving the way for a future career, it can be more than that. Preferences change during a course of study and options can guide trajectories.

It would be a tragedy if the decision to further one’s studies is guided only by starting salaries and job prospects, especially when graduates now have the privilege to make choices that go beyond fulfilling pragmatic needs.
The key assumption here is that "graduates now have the privilege to make choices that go beyond fulfilling pragmatic needs." I don't think that's true at all. Singapore has just been named the city with the highest cost of living for the second year in a row. Students entering university now will find that the starting salaries they receive when they start work will barely be sufficient for them to afford a HDB flat. Add to that the cost of providing for your parents and you'll soon see that these students don't really have any choice but to be realistic. They have to pick the courses that will allow them to find the best paying jobs or significantly modify their lifestyle expectations.

For instance, if they want to own a car, they'll need an above average income as the price of car ownership continues to increase in the future. The government's only solution to road congestion currently is to deter driving by making it more expensive. ERP, COE and the latest fuel hike should tell you everything you need to know about future trends. Prices will only increase.

Also, with the ageing population and the need to support them, government expenditure is set to increase in the next few years. This year's budget already saw a massive increase in expenditure to fund schemes like Silver Support. The government continues to remain unwilling to impose heavy taxes on the rich so where are they going to draw additional revenue from? It's going to be from the middle class. So, this generation can expect to have to bear a heavier tax burden. We don't know if it's going to take the form of rising GST or income tax, but we do know that the revenue will have to come from somewhere, and if not the rich, then it will most probably come from the pockets of the middle class.

Having the freedom to choose the course that you like rather than the course that will give you the best job prospects sounds good. But the truth is, it's no more of an option now for students than it was for older generations. The sad reality is our economic growth has been outpaced by an increase in the cost of living.
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Singaporeans respond to news of Lee Kuan Yew's hospitalisation

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It seems that Yahoo News wasn't able to capture the full range of responses that Singaporeans have had to news of Lee Kuan Yew's hospitalisation for pneumonia. Reading their article, a stranger might have the mistaken impression that Lee Kuan Yew is still as popular today as he was half a decade ago.

Allow me to correct that with a few snippets taken from Facebook posts and the Hardwarezone forums.










I don't share these views, but it's telling that someone who was so popular in the 1960s is now so frequently the subject of ridicule. I wonder what it says about the future of the PAP.

Note: If you are one of the people whose Facebook posts are in here, and if you want it taken down, just send me an email and I'll respect your privacy. (email me at simplyinconceivablesg[at]gmail.com)
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The Real Singapore or The Rich Singapore? Evaluating the $40,000 monthly revenue claim

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The Real Singapore or The Rich Singapore?
Profiting off Singaporeans' discontent with the PAP, one ad click at a time.

As someone with a little online marketing experience, I was quite surprised when someone pointed out that The Real Singapore (TRS) was potentially making US$983 a day. So I decided to do a little digging myself and find out if that's really true and what that means for Singaporeans like you and me (are you gonna stop reading if I'm not?).



I will comment on the arrest of the TRS' editors in a separate post because I think the two issues should not be confused. Whether or not the TRS editors committed an act of sedition, whether or not the Sedition Act should be used to prosecute them, and whether or not we should read local news that is written by foreigners; these are questions that are important, but which have very little bearing on the factual question--how much does TRS make--and on whether their financial gain is our loss.


How should we estimate site revenue?

There are many ways to estimate a website's revenue. Here are the three main ways:


1) Direct estimate. 

You could let something like siteprice.org give you a direct estimate. The problem though is that you often don't know how they arrive at that estimate, and you have no way of knowing whether they have taken into account the nature of the website, the ad provider (Google Adsense in this case) and the placement of the ads (which is ugly betty style--all over the place).

TL;DR: Direct estimates are made using opaque methods so I don't trust them.


2) Multiply pageviews by your own estimated revenue per mile (RPM).

First, some definitions. RPM here doesn't refer to the speed of your car engine, it's your estimated earnings per thousand pageviews, or impressions. Page views, for those of you who don't know, are not the same as visits. The same unique visitor may log several pageviews if he chooses to go to another page on the same website. However, this creates a huge problem. Estimating the chances that a visitor will convert (which is a nicer way of saying, to click on your ad)

So, to get estimated site revenue, simply multiply estimated number of pageviews by the estimated RPM. But how do you get an accurate estimate? For pageviews, short of planting a tracker on their website, we can only rely on estimates provided by site analytic providers like Alexa or SimilarWeb

To get the estimated RPM requires an immense amount of guesswork, especially for users of Google Adsense. This is because telling people how much you earn through Adsense is against Google’s TOS and can result in them withholding your payment. As a result, such data is quite scarce. TL;DR: Very hard to make proper estimates because there is not enough data.

TL;DR: Very hard to make proper estimates because there isn't enough data.


3) Ask the owners of The Real Singapore

The easiest way would be to ask them directly. However, they probably wouldn't tell you because they’re definitely making at least a few thousand a month off TRS and there’s no easy way to tell Singaporeans, “Hey, we make a few thousand a month ranting about stuff we have no stake in, and no personal experience about, while you sit in your 4 by 4 cubicle and sweat your butt off to pay CPF. #dontyoujusthateforeigntalenttoo”

They also wouldn’t want to risk having their Adsense account suspended by Google, so we’re left with either option 1 or 2.

TL;DR: The owners of therealsingapore.com won’t tell you how much they earn so don’t bother.





Option 1: Direct estimate

The US $983 per day estimate came from cutestat.com and is one of the higher estimates I’ve found so far. Web tools like these are pretty unreliable in general  and you usually wouldn’t rely on them if your money depends on it. Nonetheless, I’ve done a comparison of the results from 12 different websites just to show you how much the results can vary. (Where the monthly revenue is not provided, I multiply the daily revenue by 30.4.)

Here are the results (all figures are in USD):

Tool used
Daily revenue (USD)
Monthly revenue (USD)
siteprice.org
264
7,918
freewebsitereport.org
269
8,061
websitelooker.net
270
8,222
siteworthchecker.com
277
8,421
siteworthtraffic.com
284
7,442
checkwebsiteprice.com
285
8,664
siteworthit.com
328
8,936
webuka.com
381
11,590
cutestat.com
983
29,883
MCJOnline.com
1,023
31,099
worthofweb.com
1,417
42,510
urlrate.com
2,880
87,552

(I’ve also created a jpeg for the revenue table in case it doesn’t display properly)

And here’s a graph of it.


As you can see, the highest estimate is ten times as much as the lowest estimate. Nonetheless, eight out of twelve sites give an estimate of a monthly revenue of between US$8000 to US$9000 (S$10880 to S$12240). That is less than what I initially saw, but it’s still a lot of dough. At the same time, it is also somewhat unbelievably high. We’ll have to evaluate this using the second method.


TL;DR: 1000% variation is a dead giveaway that this is an unreliable source.



Option 2: Multiply pageviews by RPM

This is where it gets really tricky because of the number of factors involved and the absence of reliable data. The best estimate for pageviews is Alexa, and it shows 12.9 million monthly pageviews.

For RPM, we’ll first have to consider the niche that The Real Singapore is in. Certain niches give you much higher returns because there’s a lot more competition among their advertisers. Niches like news tends not to do as well because the kind of keywords they use aren’t the kind that match the ones most businesses are looking for.

Let’s analyse the data from SimilarWebs and from Alexa and you’ll see what I mean. So, looking at the top keywords which bring the most traffic to therealsingapore.com, this is what I found.


therealsingapore.com keyword search terms (SimilarWebs)


therealsingapore.com keyword search terms (Alexa)


As you can see, this is what people are looking for in The Real Singapore:

  • Jover Chew
  • Mobile Air
  • Sex (???)
  • Keanu Reaves Charity
  • Lee Wei Ling
  • Edz ello
Now we use Google Adwords Keyword Planner to take a look at what those keywords are worth in terms of ad revenue (location was set to Singapore).

TRS keywords in adwords

As you can see, advertiser competition is low, and with the exception of “sex” and “edz ello,” those keywords don’t have any advertisers bidding for them. (“sex” is just the root keyword, and it is probably used in conjunction with “the real singapore” to find sex related news on the site. It still does say something about the focus of the website though.) “edz ello” only has a $0.14 suggested bid which is very low.

Compare this to the following search terms: “insurance Singapore,” “lawyers in Singapore” and “car repair Singapore”.

High value keywords in adwords

The revenue that TRS would earn from advertisements that match these search terms is thus much higher. However, these advertisements are only going to show up on their site if their posts contain these keywords, and are relevant. But even if such well-paying advertisements do show up, visitors are highly unlikely to click on them because they’re not really looking for any of those things.

For example, if you’re reading TRS’ latest diatribe against foreigners, you won’t have any interest in insurance, lawyers or car repair, and unless you mistakenly click on the advertisement, you most probably will just skip past those advertisements.

There are many other factors which influence RPM, such as geography. I’m not going to go into detail here, but you can bet that in general, there’s stiffer competition in online advertisement in the US than in Singapore. It still depends on the niche of course, but this means that we’ll have to lower whatever estimate we take from a US based site.

With this in mind then, I’ve looked at the reported earnings of a couple of other sites (like this one) and I estimate that therealsingapore.com has an RPM of between 0.2 and 0.5. Multiply this by the monthly pageviews and you’ll get an estimate of the monthly revenue.

Lower estimate (USD):
$0.2/1000 x 12,900,000 = $2,580 (S$3,508) 

Upper estimate (USD):
$0.5/1000 x 12,900,000 = $6,450 (S$8,772)


TL;DR: After lots of guesswork, here’s my educated guess (see below).

Estimated monthly revenue for therealsingapore.com (in SGD)

Range
Unrealistic estimate
Web estimate
My estimate
Ask the owners
Lower estimate
$40,640
$10,880
$3,508
Not possible
Upper estimate
$119,070
$12,240
$8,772
Not possible

(Image of the table here)

So there you have it. It’s not as much as the $40k (SGD) a month that I initially saw, and definitely much less than some of the more ridiculous estimates provided by shady web tools, but it’s still quite a decent amount. Is it something to cry foul over? I don’t think so. I’ll explain why in the next post.

Edit: I just checked out The Real Singapore again to make sure I didn't miss out any other advertising revenue sources. It turns out that I totally missed Taboola which hides 4 of its ads among the "More Like This" section at the bottom of each page. This is something which alters my estimate radically.

It seems like I will have to add between US $0.37 and $1.12 to my RPM estimate. This potentially triples the estimated monthly revenue, making it:

Lower estimate (USD):
$0.57/1000 x 12,900,000 = $7,353 (S$10,000)

Upper estimate:
$1.62/1000 x 12,900,000 = $20,898 (S$28,421)

Range
Unrealistic estimate
Web estimate
My estimate
Revised estimate
Ask the owners
Lower estimate
S$40,640
S$10,880
S$3,508
S$10,000
Not possible
Upper estimate
S$119,070
S$12,240
S$8,772
S$28,421
Not possible

If you have something to add, feel free to leave a comment below.

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