Lawrence Wong: Focus on skills, not paper qualifications

Stress on credentials a societal mindset, he tells Swiss meeting

Singapore must move away from an emphasis on paper qualifications, and recognise skills, performance and contributions to society instead, said National Development Minister Lawrence Wong.

"The paper qualifications do not define who you are as a person. That is a mindset change that we are trying to effect in Singapore," he said yesterday at a plenary session during the 48th St Gallen Symposium in Switzerland. Mr Wong, who is also Second Finance Minister, was responding to an audience member who asked whether Singapore's education system gives opportunities to less qualified people.

He noted that the focus on credentials is not an education problem per se, but a societal mindset.

"It is not unique to Singapore by any means, perhaps less so in Europe... but certainly when you look at Asian countries, there is that emphasis in credentialism as a signal for employers to decide who is a better candidate, as a signal to society to decide whether you can do well in life. So, we should move away from that," he said.

Former GovTech chief executive Jacqueline Poh, who spoke at the symposium, told The Straits Times this mindset made hiring non-degree holders a challenge in the past.

The agency had sought out four polytechnic graduates to join its ranks since 2016, as they had passed in-house coding tests and were deemed highly skilled. But they turned down offers to sponsor them for expensive overseas specialist courses in cyber security to pursue a degree, she said. "As it turns out, we actually had more difficulty than we expected. We had a lot of challenges trying to get students and parents to agree."

The three-day symposium was established in 1970, and holds yearly talks involving policymakers, business leaders and academics. This year's theme was the future of work in the light of advances in robotics, automation and artificial intelligence.


The paper qualifications do not define who you are as a person. That is a mindset change that we are trying to effect in Singapore.


Speaking on a panel on the readiness of the next generation workforce, Mr Wong shared Singapore's efforts to train adult workers via SkillsFuture, and how the Government, employers and unions work together under its tripartite model to transform various industries.

On automation, he said robots cannot completely replace humans in work as they do not have empathy or the ability to form relationships and meaningful interactions.

Asked by another panellist ifit was the job of politicians to block technological change, Mr Wong said policymakers should take a progressive approach - via sandboxes or pilot schemes - to manage the pace of change. "You want people to be comfortable, and then progressively let change happen," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 05, 2018, with the headline 'Lawrence Wong: Focus on skills, not paper qualifications'. Print Edition | Subscribe