Students of Nan Hua High School, Singapore, in the school hall (Source : Wikipedia).

Reducing income inequality in Singapore is better than imposing quotas for university entries

by Chris Kuan

If the government want to encourage the young to go into vocational institutes than to universities, here's my suggestion - get real about reducing income inequality.

And that comes from making the tax and spend policies a lot more redistributional than today. The young and their parents cannot but see university degrees as the best insurance against bad outcomes in life when they see, amidst high living costs, the lack of state assistance and social entitlements to help mitigate unknowables such as the extent of healthcare expenses and the adequacies of retirement.

Furthermore it is easy to see degrees as giving the best chance to earn a level of income that generates a lot of advantages beyond the simple differences in wages over those who have lower level of income. The field needs to be levelled significantly to give better outcomes for the lower rungs of wage earners, therefore making the absence of a degree less onerous.

The other suggestion is to set up a long term development bank, no not DBS but like Germany's KfW to provide long term finance and patient capital at soft terms to develop local industries.

The present short term attitude of local companies, not least encouraged by being told to "steal other people's lunch" don't bode well for stuff like vocational training and apprenticeship which takes time to develop and nurture. We don't have the equivalent of the patient German Mittelstand or the myriad world beating small specialist companies in Japan.

A final suggestion - bear down hard, very hard on access to foreign labour. Restriction in university places will rightly be seen as discriminatory as I wrote yesterday if a shortfall in graduates trainees is met by foreign workers, many with less reputable or even fake degrees. Companies will not be patient to develop and nurture the 60-70% going into vocations and apprenticeship or pay good enough wages if at the simple submission of the relevant forms, they get access to cheap foreign labour.

The above stuff again suggest that the government may think it is making "hard choices" but it is still not good in mitigating the trade-offs of its propensity in pulling every kind of levers all at the same time. What I suggest maybe anathema to the government but the options are there.

In prehistoric times, when yours truly started work at a prestigious US bank, colleagues were looking at me funny because among my batch I alone had neither diploma nor degree. It seems nothing has changed as Tay Kheng Soon mentioned there is a snobbery involved in a degree.

Then in my first overseas job, other than the general manager who looked more university professor (Catholic priest, a German colleague corrected me, LOL!) than banker, none of the German expats went to university, all of them having started at the company at 16 and having undergone years of on the job training and courses. They would retire as general managers and executive directors and I bowing out with regional responsibilities. We in Singapore do not have the patience to pursue this approach, not the employers and (I must add) not the employees.

But it is well nigh impossible these days to get to these levels without a degree. From the perspective of the financial industry, perhaps a narrow one, tasks and responsibilities used to be performed by someone with GCE Os are now done by university graduates these days.

A trading assistant or a portfolio assistant in the days did not go to university, these days they are graduates. So are many of those who compiled and analyse daily risk reports, profit and loss etc. This is not because there is a glut of graduates but because these tasks have become much more complex, requiring more educated, more skilled staff.

Given what I have seen over the past 35 years, having a quota on university places seems a very bad idea indeed.