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Something’s wrong with S’pore education

Locals struggle to compete with foreign talent as the education system leaves them unprepared

Back in 2016, a survey was conducted by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) which found that 62.5% of young adults aged 19-30 believed that skilled foreign workers have contributed to Singapore’s development.

For a country like Singapore with an ageing population and a shortage of high-tech workers, there’s no question that foreign talent is required in certain areas – programming, managerial roles and other high-skilled industries.

But of course, as in any developed country, the import of foreign talent always raises the question of whether they are taking away jobs from the locals. Increasingly, the question is asked: why does Singapore import foreign talent when there are plenty of educated and smart locals who can do the job?

That question was posted on Quora, eliciting a wave of responses from both expats and locals on why employers tend to favour hiring foreigners rather than Singaporeans.  The gist of it is that while Singaporeans are educated with all the right paper qualifications, they lack both talent and experience which makes them less desirable compared to their well-travelled and globally-exposed competition (foreign talent).

One anonymous author who is an expat wrote, “One thing the Govt has consistently overlooked is that to a certain extent, because of the education system, most people are not able to, or not willing to think logically/ think out of the box, and be pragmatic”.

This is a common thread that runs through most of the replies to this question on Quora. The same expat wrote, “For exceptionally highly skilled jobs, if the local population does not have skills that are required for that particular job, no employer will hire the candidate.”

Citing from personal experience, the expat talked about how his company was looking for skilled worker in PR but received countless applications from people with little to no relevant experience in PR. The author also noted that they received many capable and suitable applicants from overseas but were unable to hire them due to the quota set by the government on how many foreign talents a company is allowed to hire.

Another expat commented that he was surprised by the poor quality of local graduates with their ‘cookie cutter answers, weak language skills, inability to offer creative answers, and general lack of confidence’ which was in contrast to their impressive resumes and test scores.

Dan Leer, an expat who claims to have been in Singapore for more than 10 years and worked in two top-tier management consulting firms and a bulge bracket international bank, wrote in his answer:

In all these firms, I hardly saw any locals in senior positions. The only reason for this was their quality. In fact the HR team wanted us to hire local other things being equal.

As a senior consultant recruiting for associates and Analysts from major schools across the world. I was surprised by the poor quality of local graduates. Their cookie-cutter answers, weak language skills, inability to offer Creative answers, general lack of confidence was in complete contrast to their impressive resumes with high scores in standardised tests.

The few students we hired from local universities were originally from India or China.

Similarly, the trading floors of most banks are full of French, Indian and American Traders.

The admin staff though is always local.

The local education system churns out exam smart minions, not smart professionals or leaders. Singapore will always need TOP talent from other countries to survive. There is virtually no high-quality local talent to speak of.

Yet another expat commented that locals are generally ‘woefully underprepared’ to face the real world and that it’s not the fault of the students. He wrote, “A system does not make you inherently impractical any more than it makes you smart, it merely affects what you are competent at doing and how you use what nature gave you.”

Now, it’s not only the expats that feel this way. Even locals chimed in with their disappointment over how inadequately prepared most locals are for the workforce. One Singaporean who emigrated wrote, “I largely attest to the observation that [the] education system that does not train Singaporeans on creativity but social control. Important elements of critical thinking is omitted from the syllabus. The rote learning system took its toll on Singaporeans and its effects are seen today.”

Another Singaporean also noted the lack of drive that many Singaporeans exhibit. He pointed out from personal experience that many Singaporeans are content to sit behind their desk, working a 9-5 job, not doing any more or less than is stipulated in their job description. There is a lack of ambition. And this, he says, is part of the reason why foreign talent is more alluring to employers – they are driven and they take initiative.

A different Singaporean also added that part of the reason locals aren’t as driven and don’t put in as much effort in their jobs compared to foreign talent is simply because they lack the incentive to do so. The hidden safety net of a country that provides welfare and plenty of other job opportunities for locals means that they are not motivated to push themselves above and beyond the way their foreign counterparts do.

A former resident, Marcus Lova wrote:

The education system is the reason why I migrated with my kids.

The answer is obvious. I largely attest to the observation that education system that does not train Singaporeans on creativity but social control. Important elements of critical thinking are omitted from the syllabus. The role learning system took its toll on Singaporeans and its effects are seen today. COnstant bickering, politicking, backstabbing was always rampant in the local workforce and now with foreign influx, the Singaporeans are crying foul. Workplace research indicates these effects are results of an untrained workforce incapable of creative outputs.

However, the fact that Singaporeans run their life on propaganda dished out by the state daily worsens the their performance. A authoritarian country like Singapore engaging a global economy is similar to that of North Korea hiring foreign professors to teach their students. Clearly, the fact is obvious, They do not have capable people and live in a self-illusionary world of exam/grade meritocracy. The civil servants in the city-state themselves are good examples of this outcomes as they are unable to come up with creative solutions to complex problems.

The entire city-state runs on propaganda hype and marketing. It is just a matter of time before things go south as the rest of the world creeps up slowly but steadily to the Singaporeans and overtake them eventually.

All these are fair points to be made on this subject. There’s still a strong emphasis in schools on rote learning and test scores. Many countries, Singapore included, have yet to make that critical shift to a more holistic approach to education that teaches children not just what to learn but how to learn. Skills like critical thinking, autonomy, innovation, and self-guided learning are necessary for any Singaporean if they want to compete with foreign talents, especially in high-skilled jobs.