An Open Letter to the Council for Private Education

Dear Sirs,

scratchingheadfinal

I had a very interesting encounter with two of your officers yesterday. I say “interesting” as a euphemism of sorts because the excitement from the meeting did not abate and allow me to sleep well last night. I had seriously and sincerely thought that we had made some progress as a nation to be able to think through and dialogue about matters of public interest as sound, rational, reasonable and thoughtful people, but that must have been a perception only.

Interesting and ironic, is it not, that I was told by one of the officers who visited that my evaluation of them as overbearing and aggressive men was merely a perception? I tried to ease my discomfort – it must have been my oversensitive, tender and female hormones at play – by making my requests a little less direct, polite and relational.

> Would you like a drink?

No.

> The both of you are acting like “jeng hu”.

BUT WE ARE “JENG HU”, WHAT!!! They crowed like happy roosters, arms outstretched, completely overjoyed that I had understood the power differential between them and little me.

Yes, they had come to see me to “clarify” on one of the programmes that I was running. The contention was, in their view, quite straightforward. The programme ran “full-time” (five days a week, three hours a day) and incorporated a “modified academic curriculum”. It served special needs children and hence, according to the Private Education Act, required the centre to register under the Act.

I had numerous questions of course, such as

> How is special education defined in the Act?

It’s not. But education is. Education is instruction, training or teaching.

> So what about speech therapy and occupational therapy?

They are therapy (sic.).

> Oh, we provide behaviour therapy here. This programme you are asking me about is grounded on principles of behaviour therapy.

But it teaches academic concepts.

> So you mean, a speech therapist who teaches about colours, letters and numbers has to be registered under the Act?

No, that’s therapy.

> In traditional behaviour therapy, the clinical model is 8 hours a day, five days a week. Is that therapy or education?

Therapy.

> But if the therapy includes the teaching of colours, letters and numbers?

Silence.

That’s a grey area, said one.

No, that’s education, said the other.

> How are special children/people defined in the Act?

As individuals with physical and intellectual disabilities.

> Autism is not an intellectual disability necessarily.

Yes, it is.

> No, it is not. It is a neurodevelopmental disorder.

Other centres have registered their programmes for autistic children under the Act.

So these “other centres that have registered under the Act” now hold the defining criteria for truth? I wondered. Or does Science? Oh wait, it must be the investigations officers at CPE who decide.

> So what about ADHD? I wanted to ask. That is an intellectual disability too? These children are not intellectually disabled necessarily. And why, oh why, are we still using the term, “disability” as if there were no connotations of strangeness, otherness and rejection?

My questions were not just semantic ones, I assure you. I had practical questions as well, such as the small numbers of children served in the programme each day (sometimes 2, usually 3 and on busy days, 4 or 5), plus a very real concern that the form of the programme did not justify the large-scale administration required to comply with being licensed under the Act (amongst other things, I was told, we would need to have an Academic Board, an Examination Board and an Annual Report).

> An Examination Board? I asked, The children here do not sit for examinations.

You can apply for a waiver.

I stopped and asked myself whether the officer had even understood what he had just said.

> You are asking me to register and be licensed but to request for a waiver on one of the core expectations of the license process?

No, we are not asking you to do anything.

We went on like this for more than an hour and my frustrations and thoughts grew more anguished by the minute. After a while, their practiced answers began to sound like a broken recorder.

We are only here to ask for clarification. No, we are not asking you to do anything. You cannot offer it five days a week. That is education. That is therapy. No, that’s education. That’s a grey area. We have to go back and consult with our bosses.

> Maybe I should just close the programme down? I asked in exasperation at one point. Explain to the parents that the statutory restrictions interpreted and implemented by the CPE have forced us to do so.

No, we are not forcing you to do anything.

Oh, come on, CPE. Grow up. I have seen the 114 Deregistered PEIs that you have listed on your website https://www.cpe.gov.sg/for-students/deregistered-peis – your pride and joy, your coat of arms, your fulfilled KPIs, your acts of valour. It may shock you to hear me say that it speaks of your shame more than the individuals who had been seeking to provide a service, run a business, earn some extra income by equipping others with skills, or in some cases as is obvious, to exercise their vocation by serving children with special needs.

The original intent of the law was to protect students from errant training providers. But you have made the law a legalistic set of “yeses”, “nos” and “maybes” and forgotten to consider that there is a clear line between the unethical/immoral and the merely administrative. Indeed, you say that you cannot change the Act. It is there. But you forget that the Act is a human construction that says less the more it seeks to say more. Your lens is not necessarily mine and your ruler falls short against the complexities of what you are measuring. Let the hairdressers be hairdressers, I say. The Act was meant to regulate provisions but you are using it to destroy livelihoods and in this case, tangible assistance to children with special needs.

Educational, therapeutic and vocational provisions for special people in Singapore are still insufficient and largely unfunded by the state. When Wee Care was founded in 1996, we were one of only two other private providers who provided early intervention services to children with autism and other developmental disorders. I remember what it was like as if it were yesterday. The parents were so desperate, the children so lost, and the operational struggles so painful to overcome, day after day, financial year after financial year.

That other centre has since closed down, and understandably so. It is a long, hard and weary slog to provide for special children and the days get wearier, not easier. The monetary rewards are minimal, if any. Have I ever been thanked? Only occasionally by the parents of these children who know us best, and more infrequently still, the children themselves. But do I know how to discern right from wrong, good from evil, and the spaces between these locations that can make a difference in determining “international best practices” outside of legalistic dos and don’ts? I think and believe that I do.

It would really help if you knew what you were doing too.

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