Skill sets of all kinds needed for nation's success

St Patrick's School students Ian Wee (left) and Fahd Shah Mohammad Nizam, both 15, working at Republic Polytechnic's Oliva Training Restaurant and Kitchen during the annual iChef Challenge on Oct 31.
St Patrick's School students Ian Wee (left) and Fahd Shah Mohammad Nizam, both 15, working at Republic Polytechnic's Oliva Training Restaurant and Kitchen during the annual iChef Challenge on Oct 31. PHOTO: ST FILE

Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung gave an interesting speech on vocations and their relevance to society and the economy ("What Chinese culture and Steve Jobs teach us about vocations"; yesterday).

I heartily agree with him that they have great relevance.

However, a vocation is more than a job, much less "a destination of last resort".

I define a vocation as a calling which fully engages our education, training and, perhaps most important of all, our passion.

IT giant Apple co-founder Steve Jobs is a classic example of a man characterised by all these traits, especially one involving a driving and innovative passion.

A vocation is more than a job, much less "a destination of last resort". A vocation is a calling which fully engages our education, training and, perhaps most important of all, our passion.

Mr Ong observed that "Singapore, as a young, multicultural country, does not have deep-seated historical biases or baggage".

However, the overriding importance of academic success has taken root in Singapore over the past decades.

Our top students, by and large, have followed a fairly well-trodden track of public service and socially respected professions like medicine, banking and law.

Other vocations are less well sought after as they are not viewed by our society in the same way. Perhaps, the less traditional vocations should be celebrated more in the media and in government circles.

The recognition of vocational skills as a criterion of admission to our institutes of higher learning is a step in the right direction to slowly change a deep-seated mindset still held by many parents - that academic success is key to future success and respectability.

Mr Ong also gave the example of the success of J. K. Rowling, creator of the Harry Potter series.

He described how, when Rowling was a child, she wrote fantasy stories. Her imagination was allowed to run wild and to run creatively.

In our primary schools, the writing pupils are asked to do is structured writing. They are given perhaps a few pictures to focus their writing on.

The template given produces standard stories which are marked accordingly, with a marking scheme decided by the teacher. So, how much of a child's imagination is given free rein under this regime?

If we can produce a Singapore version of J. K. Rowling, the economic spin-off will surely be incalculable.

The future success and prosperity of Singapore have surely something to do with the development of skill sets of all kinds, expertise in cutting-edge technologies, creative thinking and daring to venture out on untrodden paths.

Zee Kok Eng

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 05, 2015, with the headline 'Skill sets of all kinds needed for nation's success'. Print Edition | Subscribe