Every Singaporean really does count

~by: Siew Kum Hong~

According to the Heritage Foundation, Singapore has the second freest economy in the world (after Hong Kong). But there is one aspect of Singapore that has always felt to me like a command economy: the way the Government tries to calibrate supply and demand in higher education.

On 8 February, the TODAY newspaper reported that further education was hotly-discussed when Minister of State for Education Mr Lawrence Wong conducted a dialogue with around 100 ITE students. Some ITE students asked about the possibility of increasing the number of polytechnic places available to them after graduating from ITE.

This is what TODAY reported:

“Mr Wong said he understood their aspirations but not everyone would be able to pursue a diploma at a polytechnic immediately after obtaining their Higher NITEC.

This was due to limited places at local polytechnics and employers' demand for ITE graduates. "If everyone can move up, we will not have enough ITE graduates out there in the workforce," he said.

"At the end, it's the number of places we can provide … I don't think we'll be able to satisfy everyone, frankly," he said.”

MOS Wong also warned against a situation of too many degree- and diploma-holders seeking jobs, citing the example of the Singapore embassy in Paris, who had received only applications from degree-holders for a receptionist job. He also went on to explain that ITE was a foundation for polytechnic education, and hence ITE graduates would not be allowed to apply for polytechnic courses unrelated to their areas of study.

As Mr Brown put it on Facebook:

“Translation: “If we allow everyone to be well-educated, who will be the serfs?””

This is the sort of misguided social engineering that leaves a bad taste in many Singaporeans’ mouths. It stems from a fundamentally-misconceived view of higher education as being a means to the end of creating people to fill the jobs out there. And mind you, the sort of logic has been applied in the past, to limit the number of polytechnic graduates who are allowed to pursue undergraduate courses in our universities.

Never mind that the Government has a poor record at central planning with higher education to guide Singaporeans towards, or to deter or exclude Singaporeans from, this or that sector. Witness the shortage of lawyers in recent years. Witness also the angst of biotechnology graduates today, who were induced to enter that course of study by the heavy promotion by the Government, only to find that a basic biotechnology degree was, to paraphrase Mr Philip Yeo, only good enough for washing test-tubes.

Never mind that nowadays, most people view education as being at least as much about self-actualisation. Viewing higher education solely in terms of an assembly line for workers is nothing less than anachronistic.

Never mind that education is almost universally recognized as one of the key drivers of social mobility, and this message tells ITE graduates that they need to look for another way – besides education — to do better in life.

Never mind that deliberately limiting the number of places available to ITE graduates, effectively imposes an artificial restriction on how far ITE graduates can go in their education. Don’t we pride ourselves in meritocracy? Where is the meritocracy in not allowing those ITE graduates who are good enough for polytechnics, to enter them?

Never mind that an education is meant to equip one for life, while the jobs out there today will not be the jobs available in 10 years’ time. Without giving ITE graduates who want to do so, the opportunity to equip themselves with skills going beyond today’s jobs, the Government may be deliberately disadvantaging ITE graduates for years into the future, if not for life.

Never mind that even if ITE graduates are not allowed to enter polytechnics, many will still pursue part-time private courses at their own expense.

Never mind that a diploma-holder who is good will succeed, while a diploma-holder who is not good will not succeed. And that is regardless of whether or not that diploma-holder entered the polytechnic after graduating from ITE, JC or secondary school.

Never mind that the Paris embassy example cited by MOS Wong is not at all analogous. France is experiencing economic troubles including very high unemployment, which is the more likely reason why degree-holders are applying for the receptionist job. Correlation does not mean causation, and the fact that degree-holders are applying for the receptionist job does not prove that there are too many degree-holders in France.

Never mind that polytechnic courses are varied enough that there will be some, if not many, courses that ITE, JCs and secondary schools do not prepare students for. In which case, why restrict only ITE graduates, but not JC or secondary school graduates, from applying for such courses?

Sorry Mr Wong. It’s not just ITE students who disagree with you. I would hazard that most Singaporeans would also be disappointed with these comments. In our hearts, we want all Singaporeans to have equal opportunities, and to support those Singaporeans in going as far as they can. There actually are Singaporeans who truly believe that every Singaporean really does count.

Editor's note:  Minister of State for Education Lawrence Wong has since posted on his Facebook that his comment, “if everyone can move up, we will not have enough ITE graduates out there in the workforce”, has been taken 'out of context'.

See his Facebook comment HERE.

This article first appeared on Siew Kum Hong's blog.