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The Work Holiday Programme: an undergraduate’s concern


By Ned Stark

Singapore’s open door policy rolls on. The government’s stated goal is to bring Singapore’s population up to the 6.5 million mark. Unless we drastically increase our birth statistics, it is clear that many of these 6.5 million residents will be made up of foreigners.

Minister of Manpower Dr Ng Eng Hen’s recently announced increase in S passes for mid skilled manpower from 10-15%, coupled with the announcement of a Work Holiday Programme (WHP) for 2000 foreign students highlights some problems with our foreign talent policy.

First and foremost, there has to be a clear definition of “Foreign Talent”.

Male Singaporeans at an employability disadvantage

In theory, Foreign Talent refers to the kind of talent that Singapore’s economy needs to progress, and the talent that these foreigners have is for some reason not found in the local talent pool. Viewed from this angle, foreign talent policy theoretically is good for the country as they fill in the gaps in Singapore’s economy.

However, I’m considering that the WHP will be bringing in 2000 foreign students to compete with our 3500+ local undergraduates. Apart from the sheer numbers, this is especially alarming when put in the context of our NS handicap. Due to National Service obligations, local males often start school or work 2-3 years behind their female and foreign colleagues.

Even after serving two years one is still liable to be called up for reservist for a period of ten years, 40 days a year, until we reach the age of 40 (50 for officers). Kiss any hope of being able to put in overtime if you fail your IPPT: it’s Remedial Training for you. Our new batch of WHP friends, with no such liabilities, will doubtless be at an employability advantage.

"Spring-board" foreign talents

Another issue is with regards to education. While it is laudable that Singapore wants to become an education hub, allowing foreign students to come to our shores may result in locals being disadvantaged in the area of tertiary education.

Obviously, there is no guarantee that such students will contribute to Singapore’s economy. Several see Singapore as merely a spring board to the West, thus these foreigners can just use Singapore, get a degree (and possibly deprive someone else of a degree), and then just leave.

Another problem, less apparent but more insidious, is also present. There are a considerable number of foreign students in the Engineering faculties of the local universities. In a bell curve system of grading, a foreign student’s gain is a local one’s loss.

Friends from the Engineering faculty have said that the average Grade Point Average (GPA) of local students is almost 1 full point out of a possible 5 lower than that of their foreign counterparts.

While this is completely reasonable in a Darwinian sense, the lower GPAs on local transcripts is a further problem for our local student’s employability. This, in turn could result in local students being deemed as not as capable when the person’s only fault was that he could not do better relative to his foreign counterpart. And if the applicant is male, his situation vis a vis a foreign job seeker is further compromised.

Paradigm shift in mindet needed

To set the record straight, I am not against foreigners or immigration per se. However the current execution of the policy gives rise to a variety of problems which could adversely impact undergraduate jobseekers.

The solution is not xenophobia, but a paradigm shift in mindset. For too long our foreign talent policy has been premised on bringing foreigners in on the assumption that they will ‘cosmopolitanize’ our Singaporeans.

My proposal is simple: push Singaporean students out into the world. Use the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on subsidizing foreigner’s education in our country to sponsor locals to study overseas.

Give our poor Singaporeans the same opportunities we’re extending to poor Vietnamese, Chinese and Indians.

Divert their subsidies to creating bond free grants to Singaporeans eager to study abroad: grants that aren’t restricted to those with S papers and brilliant transcripts.

After all, if one of our publicly financed China scholars returns to his country of birth, it is Singapore’s loss. If our own Singaporean scholars return to their country of birth, it is our gain.

Ned keeps a blog here.