The Bigger Question

singapore graduates
 
There was a time in Singapore’s past when a person’s educational qualifications – or the lack of it – were raised as a sign of whether that person is qualified to take up certain positions.
 
30 years ago, former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew compared his party’s election candidate, Mah Bow Tan, to the opposition’s Chiam See Tong.
 
Mr Lee said, rather derisively at Mr Chiam, at an election rally in 1984:
"Mah Bow Tan, age 16, took his O levels - six distinctions, two credits. Mr Chiam, age 18 - seven credits, one pass. He passed his English language, not bad."
 
Mr Lee was attempting to show voters that Mr Chiam did not have the academic credentials to be a capable MP.
 
Nonetheless, Mr Chiam went on to win 60 per cent of the votes in that election, marking his entry into Parliament where he would remain until the 2011 general elections.
 
27 years in all.
 
Not bad indeed for someone who only had “seven credits, one pass”, and who often had to fight a lone battle in Parliament against 80-odd PAP Mps.
 
Mr Chiam, of course, would go on to become a lawyer in his own right too.
 
This episode in Singapore’s electoral history is a sharp contrast to what the same PAP government is saying today – that a degree is not necessary for success, or that a degree is no guarantee of success.
 
Indeed, the government has lately been saying that in fact having a degree does not necessarily mean that you would be hired in the workplace anymore.
 
The times they sure are a-changing.
 
The government’s message, however, seems to have been “misperceived”, according to Channel Newsasia. 
 
“As several MPs have noted, some members of the public are asking: Is the government now saying that qualifications don’t matter? Then why are we urging people to learn and upgrade? Let me be clear - ASPIRE is not about dissuading Singaporeans from upgrading ourselves or pursuing degrees or any form of qualifications,” said Mr Heng.
 
It is good that Mr Heng has cleared up the apparent miscommunication because the message was getting lost in the noise from all sides, including from remarks by ministers such as Teo Chee Hean and Khaw Boon Wan who should have spoken more clearly.
 
But let’s not kid ourselves that a university degree is unimportant. If that is what the government, whether tacitly or overtly, is trying to say, then it would be unfortunate.
 
A university degree is not just a piece of paper qualification or an outward sign of merit.
 
It is also a symbol of hard work, discipline, perseverance, patience, passion and diligence. 
 
So indeed, a university degree is more than just a piece of paper.
 
It shows strength of character and determination.
 
And it is also how one sharpens one’s minds, as far as academic intelligence is concerned.
 
While indeed it is laudable, and in fact long overdue, that we give technical education more prominence and recognition, we should at the same time “be mindful that we do not inadvertently discourage individuals from pursuing higher academic qualifications just because of their starting point”, as Workers’ Party MP Sylvia Lim cautioned.
 
“To this end, ITE graduates must be able to progress to polytechnics, and polytechnic graduates must be able to progress to public universities,” Ms Lim said in Parliament on Tuesday.
 
“Academic progression must always remain open,” she added.
 
Certainly, we want our people to know and realise that there are more paths and alternative routes to success, or to have fulfilling work.
 
But in order to effect this so-called “cultural shift” where paper qualification (ie, a degree) is not the be-all and end-all, there also needs to be a wider change in society.
 
Telling people that you do not need a degree to succeed is, to be honest, at the end of the day, meaningless, if it is not also accompanied by relaxation of rules, regulations and laws which currently stifle the people of Singapore.
 
For example, if you are interested in political activism and hope to spend your life doing this, what obstacles are in your way to succeed, or have a meaningful life doing this?
 
What if you are a filmmaker? Would your work be censored or worse inexplicably banned, as has happened in the past?
 
What then if you are an author? Or a sportsperson? Or a musician? 
 
How do you succeed, especially if you are one who tends to “stray” from the beaten paths?
 
So, when we talk about alternative pathways to success, we must mean it and open up the doors, remove the obstacles, especially the entrenched ones, and, in the words of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in 2004, “let a hundred flowers bloom.”
 
The real question is, therefore, not whether Singaporeans are willing to recognise that a higher education is the only path to success or fulfilment, or that it is the only sign of one’s capability – Singaporeans already know it is not, as can be seen in the Chiam example.
 
The real question is whether the government is itself ready to unshackle the chains by which it has held society down.
 
In the end, yes a degree is no guarantee of success. It may not even be necessary for what you may want to achieve in your life. But do we have a society which is ready to step aside and let each soar in his or her own way?
 
That, I would say, is the bigger question than whether a university degree is necessary.
 
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