Students face the numbers game

The dilemmas facing Singapore's planners and the plight of the elderly were highlighted by two Straits Times correspondents in a campus talk last Friday.

They were speaking to National Junior College students at the fifth of six talks leading up to the inaugural Straits Times-Ministry of Education National Current Affairs Quiz - or The Big Quiz.

In front of a packed auditorium of Year 1 and 2 students, political correspondent Robin Chan spoke about tensions between Singaporeans and foreigners, Singapore's need for foreign workers, and the possible effects of slowing down the influx of foreign workers on Singapore's economy and society.

Urging students to think over the issues, he said: 'It's not just about having foreign workers here or not. The conversation is a lot more nuanced and complex.'

'The Government has a very big challenge on its hands to get the balance (of foreigners and Singaporeans) right, and it'll have economic, social and political impacts on you - it'll affect the wages you earn, the people living around you, the party you vote for in the polls.'

Senior correspondent Radha Basu followed up with a talk on Singapore's ageing population. She noted that while Singaporeans have one of the highest life expectancies in the world, at 82 years for women, 'we are not really living very well.'

She pointed out that the number of Singaporean citizens and permanent residents earning less than $1,000 a month has grown from 218,700 in 2001 to 236,000 last year; the number of elderly living alone has grown from 15,000 in 2000 to 35,000 today, and is expected to climb to 80,000 in less than 20 years' time. The number of elderly with mobility problems is expected to double too.

She also touched on vulnerable sections of the population who have fallen through the cracks, giving examples from the people she had met and interviewed on the job. These included an elderly man who lived alone and tried to starve himself to death as he could no longer move around easily.

Students found the talk informative and useful for General Paper essays, especially since both speakers trotted out plenty of statistics.

Said Joanna Tan, 17, a Year 1 student: 'I think foreign workers are important and could further the growth of our economy. But we need to reduce our reliance on them as too many foreign workers might lead to friction in society, which might end up hurting us.'

Johnson Ho, 17, another Year 1 student, said: 'I learnt a lot about the needy elderly. We should help them. I feel that it is a good opportunity for students to learn and be more aware about the community around us.'

One thing Yuan Yijia, 18, a Year 2 student from China, learnt about Singapore was that its fertility rate of 1.2 was well below the replacement rate of 2.1. 'I knew it was low, but I didn't know it was that low,' she said.

She added that the talk reinforced her understanding of social challenges facing Singapore.

The final campus talk will take place this Friday at Anglo-Chinese Junior College. The Straits Times' senior correspondent Chang Ai-Lien and copy-editor Yen Feng will discuss science and religion.

Alongside the talks, the broadsheet is running a series of primers on current affairs topics every Friday.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education is providing teaching resources on these topics that GP teachers can use in classroom discussions.

The talks, articles and lessons address current events issues - including sports, education, politics and science - and will culminate in The Big Quiz.

All 23 pre-university institutions - including junior colleges, Millennia Institute, and the School of the Arts - have signed up for the preliminary round, which will take place next Wednesday. Additional reporting by Nicholas Teo