“Mr. Lee explained that the Government is not discouraging people from pursuing degrees but it wants young people to study what would be useful and valuable to them when they went to work” (PM To Youth: Study What’s Good For Your Job).
The Government’s push to diversify pathways is well-intentioned. At a dialogue in Ang Mo Kio (ST, Aug. 24) Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke of the many choices available to young Singaporeans, and how better career guidance would help them make more informed decisions. Member of Parliament Mr. Inderjit Singh was critical of students splashing out on degrees from institutions “where the quality of education was suspect”. Moreover the university – which only prepares students for jobs available today – and the degrees it offers are no longer as valuable. Prospective employees are already expected to be involved in co-curricular activities and community projects, and to have gathered relevant work experience.
Through the scholarships offered by the Public Service Commission the government has echoed these expectations. Besides stellar academic results the scholars are expected to be “all-rounders”. Yet two questions follow: how much will work performance matter, and how can non-graduates and non-scholars – especially late-bloomers – break their glass ceilings?
PM Lee spoke about the hiring of Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) officers, that “there was no need for a specific academic qualification”, because it was about how much they knew the SAF and whether they have “the right spirit and the right values”. Anecdotally however, beyond exceptional individuals who may not be representative of the whole, national servicemen speak of outstanding commanders who had to hentak kaki. Vis-à-vis the graduates and the scholars they were great on the field, but were doomed to advance slowly.
It is not just about entry to the public sector, but also about advancement and opportunities.
Specificity and transparency are crucial. Of course professional qualifications are needed in certain disciplines – teaching for instance – and starting points will differ. Nevertheless after years of employment will the Government pay less attention to the educational backgrounds of their employees, to focus on work performance and abilities? Across different sectors in Singapore the Civil Service is probably the most discriminatory in this regard. There seems to be perpetual distinctions between graduates and non-graduates, between the degrees of the graduates, and between those who received scholarships and those who did not.
In the face of these expectations why should the chase for degrees slow down?
The Government – through the Civil Service – has to take the lead to shift this social culture. Academic achievements might approximate to, yet does not equate to, success at work. Meritocracy can be operationalised through broader, more continuous lenses, by blurring distinctions between different qualifications and between different degrees as employees prove themselves at the workplace. The Government has to clear and precise with its schemes, for they will signal a commitment to this “diversification of pathways”. Otherwise, the rhetoric since the National Day Rally speech will be dismissed as hogwash.