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The Straits Times

Practising What Is Preached

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.

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.

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.

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.

About guanyinmiao

A man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting. Carlos Castaneda.


8 thoughts on “Practising What Is Preached

  1. i think the problem is not so much of the civil services being discriminatory in their hiring practices, but rather, the demand for jobs in the civil service sector outstripped the supply. If there were enough jobs for everyone, you can be sure, that the academic qualifications wont matter that much. However when there is intense competition for certain jobs or positions (i.e. those that some SAF commanders failed to get and hentak kakied as a result), assuming work experience is kept constant (as usually the case for youths entering the work force), whatever insignificant differences among the job seekers, whether in academic qualifications or personal attributes, will be magnified greatly.

    i dont think there’s any easy solution to this

    Posted by Gerard | August 25, 2014, 4:10 pm
    • I think we can agree that for fresh graduates – either from the universities or the polytechnics – the lack of work experience means that differentiation is hard (you pointed this out). For the employer it would then make sense to discriminate based on academic qualifications and other co-curricular activities. Therefore the signalling function of the degree remains, even though it is insufficient.

      The broader point is that moving ahead, when these employees are into five years of employment for instance, will the employer then look beyond the academic qualification to consider work experience / results per se? At the moment in the Civil Service all signs seem to point to the converse.

      Jin Yao

      Posted by guanyinmiao | August 25, 2014, 11:33 pm
      • Do you have any other examples of the ‘signs’ in the Civil Service employees dont look beyond academic qualifications apart from the typical commander who has been ‘hentak kakied’? because based on my experience in NS, its not that these ‘hentak kakied’ commanders weren’t good enough. but rather, someone else is better than them, and there’re aren’t enough positions for all of these ‘outstanding commanders’.

        so is it the case that employers promote workers based on academic qualifications ? in order to avoid a confirmation bias, it is important to consider if employers favor people with higher academic qualifications who have showed poor work results or less experience( work experience would be a constant if everyone is from the same batch fighting to get promoted for a recently vacated position) relative to those with lower academic qualifications?

        Posted by Gerard | August 26, 2014, 12:39 am
      • That’s a fair point. Anecdotal examples from either side are not going to quite cut it, though I do have the burden of proof. I could raise a point on the PSC scholarships, but the same problem emerges.

        In this vein I would argue that the popular -perception- is that non-graduates and non-scholars see themselves as being discriminated against, perhaps as a result of the traditional focus on academia, the perceived favouritism shown to their counterparts et cetera. While the fallacy of confirmation bias – as you raised – could arise, these perceptions of the employees can be ascertained and aggregated through a study.

        The answer to your question can only come from the Government. And if it is true that the Civil Service does not promote or fast-track workers based on academic qualifications then this specificity and transparency in clarifications would be helpful. For instance in response to a post last week someone mentioned that after five years the MAS pays little heed to one’s scholastic qualifications, and focuses primarily on work performance. If this is a common practice across the board I think it’s worth sharing.

        Jin Yao

        Posted by guanyinmiao | August 26, 2014, 12:55 am
      • on another note, the thing about work performance is so subjective. If you were going to do study on the topic as you described, how are going to measure this ‘performance’? If you’re an employer and you want to promote someone base on work performance, so how are you going to track his/her performance in an impartial manner? some arbitrarily determined KPIs? peer appraisal? Will this focus on work performance result in an even greater ‘wayang culture’ or more office politics?

        Posted by Gerard | August 26, 2014, 12:19 pm


  1. Pingback: Daily SG: 25 Aug 2014 | The Singapore Daily - August 25, 2014

  2. Pingback: The Chase Continues | guanyinmiao's musings - September 17, 2014

  3. Pingback: Diversity Of Public Servants Matters Too | guanyinmiao's musings - November 2, 2015

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