Chua Mui Hoong, Opinion Editor

Getting that degree: 'It's never your last chance'

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

Years ago, my mother used to nag her three children, saying: "If you don't study hard, you'll end up a road sweeper."

Sometimes, one of us would retort cheekily: "If everyone thinks like you, who will sweep the roads in Singapore?"

I don't mind swimming or cycling in the sun, but not sweeping floors. I studied hard.

My late parents were uneducated, ordinary folk from China who came to Singapore decades ago in search of a better life. They believed that their hard work was so that their children could go to school, study hard, and work in an office - not toil in the sun as their peasant forebears did.

At the heart of my mother's simple axiom - study hard or sweep floors - is a simple world view that splits the world into two groups: that of the thinker-scholar-manager and the worker-doer-sweeper.

It springs from centuries of Chinese civilisation. Ancient Chinese society is often described as falling into four classes: the shi (the scholar or administrative class, which had roots in warrior orders), the nong (farmers), the gong (artisans and craftsmen) and the shang (merchants).

When my mother nagged us to study, she was articulating her aspiration for her children to move from the nong to the shi class, not slide down to the gong.

In those words reside centuries of Chinese parental expectation. I suspect it does not differ much today.

It will thus be no easy task for the Aspire committee and the Government to try to reprogramme the Singapore population and get people to believe that one does not need a university degree to succeed in Singapore, and that those who embark on the gong (artisanal) path stand as good a chance as the shi (scholar) to succeed.

Aspire stands for Applied Study in Polytechnics and ITE Review, and is a committee tasked to look at "how to strengthen the applied education pathway" in polytechnics and the Institute of Technical Education (ITE), to ensure that graduates from these institutes have "good career and academic progression prospects".

Aspire released its report last Monday. One of its recommendations is to strengthen work-study programmes, so polytechnic and ITE graduates can continue to upgrade their skills after they start work.

At his National Day Rally, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also called for a "cultural change" in values. His message to young people: "Do not go on a paper chase for qualifications or degrees, especially if they are not relevant, because pathways and opportunities to upgrade and to get better qualifications will remain open throughout your career.

"It is never the last chance.

"You always have the possibility to advance, to improve yourself, to take another step as long as you are working, as long as your mind remains fresh and active and you dare to go."

Since then, public discussion on the issue has been heated. Some wonder if a degree is now useless. Others wonder if the "cultural change" is meant to reduce demand for university places from young Singaporeans, for fear the economy will not be able to offer them good-enough jobs.

I think the message is a different one. A degree is useful. In fact, it is going to be more, not less so, as more young people start off working life with one.

Rather, the message is: Don't rush straight from school to a degree. Don't get just any degree. Don't bankrupt yourself or your parents to get a degree from overseas. Take time to work, discover your true skill and passion, and climb the ladder of work mastery. There will be chances along the way to get a degree if you want it.

The PM's words bear repeating: "There is never a last chance."

This, to me, is a crucial message. The doors are not closing. There is never a last chance for that paper.

At the heart of the cultural change that the PM is calling for is a "continuous meritocracy", in the words of Deputy PM Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who used the term at a university student forum in September 2012.

Singapore can't be an "exam meritocracy", where career prospects depend on how well one did in final-year exams at age 22.

It has to be a society where merit is constantly tested, and proven, and rewarded, and improved upon, in the workplace, over and over again.

To do this requires us as a society to rethink our world views, and stop using pure academic qualifications as the criteria for so many things: to get into educational institutions; to get into training programmes; to slot people into different career schemes at work; and even to sign up for match-making programmes.

Paper qualifications may influence starting pay, but should not restrict a person's progression for the rest of his career.

Entry to training and skills courses especially can't be closed off to those who failed school exams. Otherwise, we condemn large numbers of people to low-skill, low-pay jobs for life, and never make use of their full potential.

It's quite clear from the PM's Rally speech that he's not saying a degree is of less value. The people he cited in his speech, who did well in their careers without degrees, were people who continued to learn and get qualified while on the job.

One started with a poly diploma and went on to complete an executive master's degree in business administration from the Singapore Management University. Another, who went to ITE, is pursuing a part-time polytechnic diploma. One man who dropped out of Secondary 2, went on to get a National Technical Certificate-3, awarded by ITE.

When The Straits Times published on its front page stories of two people who had succeeded without degrees, it was a similar story: a diploma-holder who worked as a sommelier for a few years and then got a degree; and a technician with a diploma now taking night classes towards - yes, a degree.

Persuading young people to work first, then pursue advanced qualifications in their chosen field, requires a huge change in the workplace. It needs employers who are fully engaged in helping workers get those higher-level skills and qualifications. The Aspire report made a start, but it will require many more committees and much more reorganising to get things moving.

Employers are as critical in this cultural change as parents and students.

Workers will believe there's never a last chance for a degree if employers are able to say: Come work for me and you will have chances to progress in skills, in paper qualifications, and in pay.

muihoong@sph.com.sg