What Chinese culture and Steve Jobs teach us about vocations

This is an excerpt from a speech by Mr Ong Ye Kung, Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills), at the Singapore International TVET (Technical and Vocational Education and Training) Conference yesterday.

How are vocations relevant to society and economy? The simple answer is: In almost every way.

A vocation has sometimes been seen as a job, and even a destination of last resort; an economic, rather than personal, choice. But as a collective, artisans, craftsmen and tradesmen have always been part of a larger social order. It is also an evolving order, depending on economics, societal values and politics of the times.

The concept of Shi, Nong, Gong, Shang is an ancient Chinese concept. It is arguable if it was meant to be a hierarchical order, but over time, Chinese society did gave the Shi (court official) the highest regard, and it is the piece next to the king in Chinese chess. Nong (farmer) came next, followed by the Gong (vocational tradesmen). And finally Shang (businessmen), who were historically treated with suspicion. But in the year 2000, with the advancement and opening up of the Chinese economy, entrepreneurs and businessmen cemented their place in the Chinese system through the Three Represents theory.

Social hierarchies through occupations are even more entrenched in the Indian civilisation, with roots in the Vedic Indian society. Vaishyas, comprising merchants, artisans, tradesmen and farmers, are placed below priests (Brahmins) and Kshatriyas (warriors and public servants) and above Shudras (labourers).


Apple's late co-founder Steve Jobs' (above) foundation of vocational skills was laid under his father's influence rather than via formal education. To excel and accomplish something innovative and extraordinary, one must have deep skill sets hardwired into your anatomy, says Acting Education Minister (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Europe has quite a different social set-up. Feudalism in the Middle Ages made it necessary for tradesmen and craftsmen to get together to form guilds, to advance their own interests vis-a-vis the landlords. They were the first trade unions.

Through the guilds, they charted career progression pathways from apprentices to journeymen to masters, stipulated and enforced standards, and imparted skills and knowledge to future generations.

Today, the tradition continues in many European countries. In Germany and Switzerland, the vocational pathway is parallel - and not subordinate - to the academic pathway.

The United States has its own historical biases which it is still grappling with, but when it comes to acquiring skills and advancement in a vocational trade, it has taken a very pragmatic approach. It is a system with a myriad of certification courses for various trades. Indeed, in the US, after you get your degree and master's, the next progression may be a certificate programme in a specific area or a particular task. Years ago, when we were promoting Mice (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Events) in Singapore, the Workforce Development Agency tried to bring in a US certificate course in event management.

Unlike China, India or Europe, Singapore, as a young, multicultural country, does not have deep-seated historical biases or baggage. We can combine the rigour of the European vocational training system and the pragmatic nature of the US employment market to develop our own system - one in which skills are not subordinate to academic knowledge, one in which both are needed for our society and economy to excel.

Given economic realities today, the distinction between vocational training and academic tracks is becoming less meaningful. Traditional craftsmen need knowledge to distinguish their work and academics need hands-on skills to excel. And at the highest levels, it is not possible, or no longer meaningful, to distinguish the two. Let me cite two examples to prove this to you.

Steve Jobs admired his father, whom he described as being able "to build everything", and followed his father around mending fences and repairing cars. He loved electronics as a child, did a summer job with Hewlett-Packard to make frequency counters on the assembly line, and designed circuit boards for video games. His foundation of vocational skills, which was in fact laid under his father's influence rather than through formal education, and desire to make things, overlaid with his knowledge of technology, markets and consumers, enabled him to create the first computer with a Graphical User Interface. The GUI predated the Macintosh, and later the iPod, which in turn provided the technological foundation for the iPhone and the iPad.

A similarly inspiring story is that of J.K. Rowling, the creator of the world of Harry Potter. As a child, she wrote fantasy stories that she frequently read to her sister. Her true vocation is a writer, but Harry Potter has become a brand in itself and Rowling's legacy has extended far beyond the book series, covering a multi-billion-dollar enterprise of movies, merchandise and theme parks. To me, most importantly, her works have cultivated the reading interest of many millions of children around the world. She would not be able to do this without being a writer in the first place.

I believe to excel and accomplish something innovative and extraordinary, one must have deep skill sets hardwired into your anatomy, so your movements and responses are visceral and instinctive. It is like a professional player translating the complex coordination of movements of various body parts into a smooth natural golf swing; or the fluid beauty of Lionel Messi on the football pitch.

This is a result of years of practice, coaching and hard work. But from the deep foundation laid by time and effort, you reconfigure, rearrange your competencies, invent new ones, and venture into the unknown. Those of us who grew up watching gongfu movies will know this is when you become unbeatable - and feel obliged to retire in the mountains, to avoid killing people who insist on asking you for duels.

In Chinese, when you practise something hard enough, you acquire Xin De, that is, something acquired through the heart, executed through the soul. That's how high you can go in a vocation.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 04, 2015, with the headline 'What Chinese culture and Steve Jobs teach us about vocations'. Print Edition | Subscribe