School’s Out: How Singapore Keeps University Reserved for the Elites

REUTERS/Edgar Su
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[OPINION] The Singapore government is shutting out most Singaporeans from universities while keeping the door wide open to foreigners.

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The Singapore government’s recent revelation that it wants to restrict two-thirds of its citizenry from receiving public university education has generated a strong reaction among its population.

Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung said at the 47th St. Gallen Symposium in Switzerland last Thursday that the government wants to cap the “proportion of graduates in a cohort at about 30 to 40 percent,” Singapore’s broadsheet The Straits Times reported him as saying.

The government has not admitted this plan in the past – at least not publicly, but such a mind-set was already prevailing within the government.

The only inkling Singaporeans had of the government’s agenda was in 2011 when in a WikiLeaks diplomatic cable leak it was reported that an Assistant Director of the Planning Division at the Ministry of Education (MOE) Cheryl Chan was to have said in 2007 that, “the government does not plan to encourage more students to get a higher education.

“The university enrolment rate will continue to be maintained at 20-25 percent because the Singaporean labor market does not need everyone to get a four-year degree,” she was reported to have said.

The WikiLeaks cable also said: “Only 23 percent of Singaporean students entering primary school complete a degree at a local four-year university [in 2007]. In other knowledge-economies such as Japan's, around 50 percent of students complete a university degree.”

It caused an uproar at that time.

Placating the populace

In an attempt to appease Singaporeans, MOE responded on its Facebook by saying: “we wish to clarify that the WikiLeaks cable on higher education enrolment is outdated. [In 2011], the Singapore government provides publicly-funded university places for 26% of the P1 [primary one] cohort (a university Cohort Participation Rate (CPR) of 26%). We are on track to achieve 30% CPR by 2015.”

MOE’s response said two things. First, it acknowledged the WikiLeaks cable, which indirectly meant that what the leak said is true. Second, MOE did not deny curtailing the proportion of Singaporeans that it wants to allow into local public universities.

In any case, Ong has affirmed that now.

In order to placate the populace at that time, the government started announcing plans to open up more university places for more Singaporeans.

In October 2011, soon after the public outrage spurred by the WikiLeaks cables, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced in parliament: “we are widening access to higher education; particularly university places, where we have 25 percent, going on to 30, of each cohort in state universities.”

In 2012, at the National Day Rally 2012, Lee announced again: “we can increase the current full time university intake […] by 2020. […] That would mean 40 percent of each cohort will go to university, up from 27 percent today.”

In 2010, Singapore’s CPR was 25 percent. This increased to 26 percent in 2011, 27 percent in 2012, 30 percent in 2014 and 32 percent in 2015.

In 2015, MOE told The Straits Times that, “it was on track to reach the target CPR of 40 percent by 2020.”

But with news from Ong that the government’s agenda is to limit Singaporeans’ participation in local public universities to only “about 30 to 40 percent,” would the government now go back on its word? Would the government’s plan still be to increase the CPR to 40 percent and maintain it at that level, or will the CPR be reduced back to 30 percent after 2020?

If the government’s plan was to present a façade to give Singaporeans a semblance of hope, Ong’s latest announcement put the nail in the coffin to any such hopes. 10 years after the WikiLeaks exposé of Chan’s comment, Singaporeans now know for certain that it seems to be the government’s intention all along to restrict the majority of them from receiving higher education in public universities, and that the government’s agenda has not changed for at least the past 10 years.

Ong’s explanation for limiting the number of students from reaching higher education in public universities was to ensure that there would be “no glut of graduates in Singapore, and [to keep] graduate unemployment low,” The Straits Times reported.

But social commenter and past president of Singapore’s Society of Financial Service Professionals Leong Sze Hian commented on his blog: “Here’s what continues to baffle me – the logic of capping Singaporean graduates at say 30 percent because there may not be enough jobs – and then having about 35 percent of the total student enrolment in our public universities for non-Singaporeans.”

Chasing foreign money

Indeed, while the government aims to restrict Singaporeans’ access to public universities, the government has been courting international students to study at local universities.

After being prodded by an opposition politician, then-Education Minister Heng Swee Keat revealed that in 2012, “International Students and Permanent Residents comprised 16% and 5% of the universities’ intake respectively.” Heng also revealed that, “The proportion of [international students] varies by faculty, ranging from around 1% in Medicine and Law,” to even as high as “27% in Science and Engineering,” which he said were “courses highly popular with Singaporeans.” However, in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2016-2017, their statistics contradicted the government’s. The rankings showed that both of Singapore’s top universities, the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU), have international student populations at 32 percent of their student population, which puts Singapore as having the 60th largest international student population out of the 980 top universities in the world.

If the government so believes that Singaporeans should not be able to receive higher education because of its wants to prevent a “glut of graduates in Singapore” as Ong said, then the government’s allowance of such a high proportion of international students to be able to attend local public universities seems to be a contradiction, especially so since Heng also said that, “international students who receive tuition grants are required to work in a Singapore-based company for three years upon graduation to supplement our labour force.”

On The Straits Times Facebook page where news of the capping of local students’ access to public universities was first shared, commenter Marc Wang said: “We limit our own local-born from […] tertiary education because there [are] not enough graduate jobs, but open the doors wide for foreign-born graduates to work in Singapore.

“Wonder if that make sense,” he asked. His sentiment is one that resonated with most Singaporeans – his comment was the top-liked comment, which at the time of writing, had 337 likes.

But the government’s restrictions on Singaporeans’ access to public universities is not the only reason Singaporeans are up in arms. It is also how the scholarships are given.

In 2012, then-Senior Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Education Sim Ann revealed that, “on average [from 2001 to 2011], about 800 pre-tertiary and 900 undergraduate international students (IS) are offered scholarships […] The annual cost is about S$14,000 for each pre-tertiary scholarship, and between S$18,000 and S$25,000 for each undergraduate scholarship.” Opposition politician Yee Jenn Jong later pursued the question further, leading Heng to say in 2015 that, “the annual number of scholarships awarded to international students at the undergraduate level has come down in recent years. Since 2012, about 900 such scholarships are awarded each year.” However, this contradicts the previous reply – the scholarships have not come down, in fact the government has been consistently giving out 900 scholarships to undergraduate international students since 2001, as Sim’s answer before bears out. Heng added that, “The annual cost per scholarship is about $25,000 on average,” which adds up to S$22.5 million a year of undergraduate scholarships for international students. Given that each student could study up to four years, and where “less than 2% of international scholars have had their scholarships terminated,” Yee calculated that the total amount could add up to S$90 million in a year.

Scholarships for some

It was also revealed that from 2010 to 2013, about S$210 million was given in tuition grants to international students per year. Adding to the scholarships that the government gives out to international students, a total of at least S$300 million in financial assistance would have been doled out to international students per year.

MOE also said that, “on average, about 14% of our undergraduates […] in NUS and NTU in 2001-2005 were on scholarships [and also] about one-third of the undergraduate scholars were local students.”

If you do the maths, where 14 percent of undergraduates received scholarships, but where two-thirds of them were international students, this meant that of the undergraduate population, 9 percent of them were international students who were on scholarships. Also, according to Heng’s revelation that international students comprise 16 percent of the undergraduate population, the 9 percent of undergraduates who were international students on scholarships, meant that 56 percent of the international students were on scholarships (9 divided by 16). Since local students would make up about 80 percent of the undergraduate population but where less than 5 percent of the undergraduate population were locals on scholarships, this meant that less than 6 percent of local students were on scholarships.

In short, more than half of international students who study in local public universities were given scholarships but only less than 6 percent of local students were able to receive scholarships. (The government does not provide more recent statistics, so a better understanding of the current situation is limited.)

Tough town to get by

The news is more dire if you look at how Singapore has been ranked among the top 10 most expensive countries in the world to obtain a university education, and Singapore also ranks among the top 10 in the world with the highest education to income cost ratio, or where the highest proportion of average salaries are spent on university tuition fees. In addition, ValuePenguin found that, “university tuition growth has significantly outpaced CPI [Consumer Price Index] growth [which] indicates that not only has education gotten more expensive over time, it has also gotten costlier than most of Singaporean consumers’ other needs like food and transportation.” While, “CPI has increased by roughly 24% since 2007,” average university tuition in Singapore “has increased by roughly 38% since 2007 and 10% since 2013.” This is in contrast with South Korea where the “cost of higher education has increased by only 8% since 2007 compared to a 22% increase in overall inflation.”

ICEF Monitor also noted that, as “there are not enough university spaces to meet local demand [therefore] an estimated 9% of Singapore’s secondary school-leavers go abroad to study.” According to the HSBC’s Value of Education report, “81% of respondents (higher than 77% global average) [said] they would consider sending their children abroad for university education,” but of those, “43% cannot afford it.” HSBC added that, “the percentage exceeds the global average of 34% and is the second highest,” for people who say they cannot afford. Moreover, “among those parents who have not yet saved anything towards the cost of their children's university education, 42% [said] they did not have enough money left to do so after paying day-to-day bills.”

Yet the Singapore government seems to be restricting the access of Singaporean students to scholarships, on top of also restricting their access to public universities.

This knowledge of the government’s unwillingness to let more than 30 to 40 percent of Singaporeans be able to receive higher education comes on the heels of news last month that the government would be closing down four junior colleges (JC) and merging them with four others. There are 19 junior colleges in Singapore so the mergers would affect nearly half of them. Junior colleges are equivalent to senior high schools in America. Students go on to take the Cambridge A Level examinations or International Baccalaureate (IB) assessment at the end of their course, usually at the age of 18 or 19. Seven in ten A-Level students go on to study in local public universities.

Cutting back

The closure and merging of the junior colleges was also met with much unhappiness.

The official reasoning that the government gave for the mergers was that they were planned “based on geographical proximity so as to maintain a good spread of schools across the country.” However, an analysis done by the blog ConsensusSG showed that the top-ranking schools were shielded from the merger. The blog also pointed out that the MOE’s reason for the mergers was unconvincing as, “why are Hwa Chong JC and National JC not being merged? They are across the road to each other.

“What made them so special such that they were exempt? When will the Ministry finally admit that it does not, and has never treated its schools equally?” it queried.

The blog added: “the problem is that JC education has always been seen as exclusive and elitist to begin with and this sordid merger makes it even more exclusive and elitist.”

But former Member of Parliament Calvin Cheng, who was not elected but nominated, chimed in on his own Facebook page. He said: “the Government may need to avoid sounding elitist but I don't.”

“In choosing which JCs to close, one has to go with the least popular JCs. That is, the ones with the highest cut off points. Elite JCs are highly competitive - there will always be more demand than supply.

“Civil servants won't be able to give you this reply of course. But it's the truth,” he added.

It took a week after the announcement of the mergers before Minister for Education (Schools) Ng Chee Meng – yes, there are two ministers for education in Singapore – finally responded on his Facebook. A commenter responded to his Facebook post.

“I think the big question in everyone's mind is why are we closing down 4 JCs when our Minister Ng has announced the name of our latest JC just a little more than 16 months ago in Dec 2015. Has our cohort intake changed so much in 16 months that we went from opening a new JC to closing 4?” Tan Kee Hian asked.

Tan was referring to the new Eunoia Junior College which opened this year.

Responding to the contradictions with merging eight junior colleges while opening a new one at the same time, the MOE’s reply to Singapore newspaper The New Paper was that, “rather than to increase capacity, the school's Integrated Programme gives students more options.” According to the MOE, the Integrated Programme is offered to students who are “academically strong.”

However, Cheng gave a more in-your-face answer: “Why the new JC Eunoia? It's not a normal JC. It is being set up as another elite JC to take in IP students from several elite secondary schools.”

But “isn't every school supposed to be a good school?” Mona Cheah responded to Cheng’s remarks, referring to Prime Minister Lee’s remarks at Singapore’s National Day Rally 2013 where the latter said: “We make sure that the whole [education] system is of a high standard. Every school is a good school.”

But Cheng had an easy answer to Cheah: “Every school is a good school. But some schools are better schools. That's obvious isn't it?”

This reminds us of then-Jurong West Secondary School (JWSS) vice-principal Pushparani Nadarajah’s rebuttal to Lee when she said: "How many of our leaders and top officers who say that every school is a good school put their children in ordinary schools near their home? (Only) until they actually do so are parents going to buy (it)."

In the end, the truth is that not every school is a good school.

And the Singapore government does not want every Singaporean to have an equal opportunity at higher education in local public universities.

Protecting the elites

That the mergers were done on the basis of protecting elitism was a widely-held belief. On the Facebook page of Singapore’s cable news television Channel NewsAsia, where the news was shared, commentator Alan Wong remarked: “Brilliant move or limiting progress? Does this mean enrolment has fallen for [polytechnics] and ITE (Institute of Education) too?” Polytechnics and ITEs are post-secondary institutions where polytechnics are “set up with the mission to train professionals to support the technological and economic development of Singapore,” while “the primary role of ITE is to ensure that its graduates have the technical knowledge and skills that are relevant to industry.”

But “there are no plans to merge polytechnics, universities or the campuses of the Institute of Technical Education (ITE),” the other Minister for Education Ong also said at the St Gallen Symposium in Switzerland, The Straits Times reported.

This is in spite of the “falling cohort sizes of between 10 and 15 percent.”

But Ong said: "The situation for ITE, polytechnics and universities are quite different from JCs."

He explained that at the ITEs, the intake "could go down by 10 to 12 percent by 2020 or 2025" and that for the polytechnics and universities, their "cohort sizes are projected to fall between 10 and 15 percent by 2025,” The Straits Times reported. This, to Ong, is still “good critical mass” to retain the polytechnics and ITEs. On the other hand, the intake for the junior colleges, the MOE told The Straits Times, is “expected to drop by a fifth.”

But this did not convince John Wong who commented on Ng’s Facebook page: “I read the 2015 and 2016 education ministry statistics. The JC1 enrolment figures haven't declined drastically over the last 10 years.”

Enrolments

Indeed, MOE’s Education Statistics Digest 2016 showed that from 2008 to 2015, the enrolment in the first year of the junior colleges hovered in the 14,000s to the 16,000s. The enrolment in the polytechnics and ITEs from 2008 also hovered in the 24,000s to 26,000s and 13,000s to 14,000s, respectively.

Ong had implied that the junior colleges do not have the critical mass and have to be merged while the other education minister Ng professed that the mergers of the junior colleges have to be done because “we would see that several of our JCs [… would] only be able to fill less than half of its JC1 desired intakes – it is possible that some would struggle to fill even just 200, given the sharp drop in JC1 cohort for the coming years.”

But looking at the statistics, both of their reasoning do not seem to hold water. From 2013 to 2015, the enrolment in the first year of junior college did drop from 16,261 to 15,337, and to 14,043, but the same thing was happening at the polytechnics too, where the intake fell from 26,879 to 25,777, to 24,251.

Where last month the government merged eight of the junior colleges and this month, Ong said that the government would restrict the proportion of students from each cohort who could enter the public universities to between 30 and 40 percent, this has led to questions as to whether the two are connected.

Commenting on The Straits Times Facebook page, Chee Chua said: “Thanks for telling us the real reasons for [the] closure of JCs. The most direct route to university is now reserved for the smarties and the well connected.”

What perhaps amused some Singaporeans more was when Ong shared a photo taken during his school days on his Facebook and wrote: “A priceless photo which [Tan] Chuan-Jin sent me last night. Amongst these group of friends, one an ambassador, one a Permanent Secretary, two became senior executives in the private sector, and two of us are in Cabinet.”

Tan Chuan-Jin is Singapore’s current Minister for Social and Family Development. Ong and Tan, together with Minister without portfolio Chan Chun Sing studied in the same cohort at Raffles Junior College, popularly seen as the top junior college in Singapore. All three are earmarked to be potential future prime ministers of Singapore. And they studied together.

There can never be a more tone-deaf post at a more tone-deaf time.

So, elitism at play? To Cheng, he thought: “I do not find the word 'elite' a bad word. Nor do I think elitism is a bad thing as long as it's meritocratic.”

The meritocracy fallacy

The Singapore government likes to champion its model of “meritocracy.” Prime Minister Lee said in 2015: “we celebrate “Opportunities for all” which underscores our belief in a fair and inclusive meritocracy. For students in school and adults at work, we strive to create varied pathways for individuals to pursue their passions and fulfill aspirations.” But Lee’s rhetoric of a “fair and inclusive” society is contrary to what the statistics have shown.

And actually, are elitism and meritocracy two sides of the same coin?

To Cheng’s credit, on the disclosure that the government is restricting Singaporeans’ access to higher learning at public universities, he wrote on The Straits Times Facebook page: “The only way for this to work, and not cause resentment [among] people, is to close the income gap between degree-type jobs and other jobs. So [for] example, a master craftsman in Germany makes more than most degree holders.”

Indeed, a university degree is important not only because it enables Singaporean students to procure more knowledge, it is also the difference between being able to earn enough, and not being able to.

In 2015, the median gross monthly starting salary of university graduates in full-time employment in Singapore was S$3,300. For polytechnic diploma graduates, the median starting salary was a much lower S$2,100, or a difference of more than S$1,000. For Institute of Education (ITE) graduates, their median starting salary was only S$1,700.

According to Associate Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy Hui Weng Tat, who defined “relative poverty line to be set at 60 percent of the national median equalized income,” Singapore’s estimated poverty rate, which at 60 percent of the median wage of S$3,467 in 2015, would thus be S$2,080. With 25 percent of each cohort of students going to ITEs and 45 percent going to polytechnics, and where half of polytechnic graduates earn less than S$2,100, this would mean that as much as half of all graduates in Singapore are earning poverty wages.

Not only that, for the 60 to 70 percent of Singaporean students who are not able to qualify for public local universities, many would aim to secure a place at private local universities. However, first, private universities are more expensive than public universities. Tuition fees at public universities start at S$8,150 for most courses at NUS and NTU, and S$11,400 at SMU (Singapore Management University). Fees for private universities, however, can be anywhere from three to four times more expensive. The Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS), for example, charge fees of S$31,240 for most courses. (SUSS became Singapore’s sixth publicly-funded university earlier this week but strangely charge high tuition fees equivalent to private universities) Second, after students graduate from private universities, the Private Education Institutions’ Graduate Employment Survey conducted by the Council for Private Education found out that whereas, “graduates from Singapore’s state-owned institutions NTU, NUS, and SMU earn a median gross monthly salary of $3,200, […] graduates from the nation’s private education institutions (PEIs) earn a median gross monthly salary of $2,700. As such, students who enter private universities not only have to pay higher fees – three to four times higher – they also have to settle for lower salaries – 16 percent lower, which puts them in a double whammy. And if these students come from lower-income families, the debt they would entrap themselves in would take longer for them to clear, as opposed to students who graduate from public universities.

Indeed, Ambassador-At-Large at Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Tommy Koh writing in the New Year of 2015, had said that, “many of our children are growing up in poverty. About a third of our students go to school with no pocket money to buy lunch.”

“I was shocked when the president of one of our universities told us recently that 60 percent of his students need financial assistance,” he added. However, the Press Secretary to Minister for Education Ho Hwei Ling refuted what Koh said: “We know of no study that substantiates this, nor do our teachers’ experience bear out this alarming picture.” Ho, however, did not provide any figures.

Comparatively speaking...

Moreover, when you look at how university graduates (S$3,300) earn almost twice as much as ITE graduates (S$1,700) – which means that university graduates would likely earn more than 100 percent higher those with upper secondary education, and when you compare this with the countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), where “[adults] with a bachelor’s or equivalent degree earn [an average] 48% more” than those with upper secondary education – this means that the wage gap in Singapore between those with a university degree and those without is higher than most countries in the OECD. For the example that Cheng quoted, those with a bachelor’s in Germany earn only 52 percent more than those with upper secondary education. In South Korea and New Zealand, this is only 45 percent. In Denmark and Norway, a bachelor’s gives earnings of only 14 and 13 percent higher than an upper secondary education, respectively. And in Austria, the wage gap is only 5 percent. Singapore’s wage gap between those with a bachelor’s and an upper secondary school education, which at a likely more than 100 percent, puts it in the range of Brazil (105 percent) and Mexico (126 percent), which also rank as the 16th and 25th most unequal countries in the world, according to the Central Intelligence Agency. Singapore ranks alongside them, at 32nd most unequal.

Thus depriving Singaporeans of a university education is not as simple as denying them higher education. It also means depriving them of their economic livelihoods down the road. On top of that, where workers in Singapore with university education would see their wages increase over time, for those without a degree, the wages of “lower-skilled workers […] generally […] peaked earlier. In fact, wages of plant & machine operators and cleaners, laborers & related workers were largely flat for younger workers before declining for those in their mid-forties onwards.”

As such, where the government restricts the access of Singaporeans to public universities, this also cuts the latter off the opportunity to earn higher wages. Thus when even government ministers mock Singaporeans for wanting to take degrees, this cannot be more disparaging.

In 2013, in a dialogue with students, Coordinating Minister for Infrastructure & Minister for Transport Khaw Boon Wan had said: “You own a degree, but so what? That you can't eat it. If that cannot give you a good life, a good job, it is meaningless.”

But Khaw’s comments are a slap in the face for Singaporeans who are not able to obtain a degree, precisely because not having one “cannot give [them] a good life” when the majority of them would receive starting salaries below the estimated poverty line.

Minister without portfolio Chan also recently spoke at the Temasek Polytechnic's (TP) graduation ceremony and suggested to the students not to look for a perfect job. He used the idea of a relationship to illustrate his point: "Is it (more important) to marry the woman you love, or to love the woman you marry?"

Chan said that the students should "do justice" to their jobs instead.

A fair wage and competition

But then, where the government would urge Singaporeans to “do justice” to their jobs, would the government “do justice” to the wages of Singaporeans? How can Singaporeans “love” the job they find, if they cannot find jobs which pay them adequately?

Is this why the Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recently told Singaporeans that they “must make sure [they] steal somebody else's lunch”?

In 2010, Lee had told Singaporeans that, “we will ensure enough school and university places and we will upgrade our system so that everybody gets a good education.” But since then, Singapore has taken a very different tone.

In 2013, Lee said at the Ngee Ann Polytechnic's 50th Anniversary Dinner: “polytechnic graduates need not see a degree as the only avenue forward.”

To that end, the government introduced the SkillsFuture program for polytechnic and ITE graduates to “deepen their skills and gain a head-start in their careers.” However, there was one glaring omission in the program – there was no proposal to increase the wages of polytechnic and ITE graduates. SkillsFuture was like a wallpaper. In October of that year, the MOE announced that, “non-graduate classroom teachers will progress in the same way as peers with graduate qualifications and be paid along the same salary structure,” as reported by The Straits Times. The paper also reported that, “up to 30,000 teachers will receive 4 percent to 9 percent increases in their monthly wages, to ensure they keep pace with the market.” The “graduate and non-graduate salary structures for these non-teaching staff, such as counselors, will be merged from next April,” which this, Minister Heng said, “is very much in line with SkillsFuture, to go beyond academic qualification to focus on skills and contributions.”

But read a bit deeper into the article and it is revealed that, “however, graduate and non-graduate teachers will continue to be recruited at different starting salaries.” While graduate teachers earn a gross starting salary from S$3,010 to S$3,310, non-graduate teachers earn only S$1,580 to S$1,920. Of course, the different levels of skills training that the teachers are provided might necessitate a difference in pay scale, but even after the highest wage increment of 9 percent, non-graduate teachers would still only earn S$1,720 to S$2,090, which is still at the level of the estimated poverty line of S$2,080 or even lower.

In a Channel NewsAsia television talkshow in the same year, a Madam Zubaidah who was undergoing a SkillsFuture training program, said, “if I don’t have a degree, my salary will be capped at S$2,000, so that’s a challenge.” But in response, Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say told her that, “it has never been more crucial for workers to seek an upgrade to their skills amid a glut of degree-holders.”

He added: “we hope the day will come that a person like yourself has two options – either you go back to school to get your degree or you continue working while continuing with industry-based training.” He made no mention of pay.

Contradictions

But yet, why does the government continue to encourage people to get a degree, while at the same time, prohibit them from taking one?

To rub salt into the wound, Minister Ong said in parliament earlier this week that, “degrees do not enable people to earn a living,” The Straits Times quoted him as saying, and which echoed what Khaw said in 2013. He added: “Degrees do not define us, individually, or as a society [...] Our society needs to evolve, such that all occupations, crafts and trades, whether the skills are acquired through a degree education or not, are respected and recognized.”

But where the gap between what university and polytechnic graduates earn is more than S$1,000 and where degree holders earn nearly twice that of ITE graduates, the fact of the matter is that, “degrees do enable people to earn a [decent] living.” Where Ong would like to say that, “whether […] skills are acquired through a degree education or not,” that all occupations should be respected, as long as the government does not show that respect to non-degree holders by increasing their wages, Ong is not putting his money where his mouth is – workers are not given respect precisely because the government does not accord them the dignity of their wages.

But to commenter Edwin Tow on The Straits Times Facebook page, he said: “I rather we call a spade a spade, and many non[-university] jobs and qualifications [are] in higher demand now than ever.”

Making a comparison, he said, “Taiwan opened up more and more universities from the 2000s so everyone could have a degree, and today they have rearranged themselves into a natural pecking order. Some universities are more recognized than others, and the salaries and job offers differ accordingly as well. Many [university graduates] there end up having to do jobs unrelated, settle for much lower pay (their 22K 二十二K salary fix), or go abroad to seek [for] jobs.”

Indeed, for Taiwanese workers aged 20 to 24, their average starting monthly salary for their first job was NT$23,119 which increased to NT$25,868 on average for all jobs. And for workers aged 25 to 29, their starting salary was NT$27,798 which increased to NT$32,472 for all jobs.

But what Tow did not mention is this – in Taipei, the poverty line is NT$15,162, and there are only 1.7 percent of the people living in Taipei who are living in poverty. In other words, where 84 percent of Taiwanese students go on to study in universities, the majority of Taiwanese graduates all earn starting wages above the poverty line – the average starting salary is 52 percent higher. Compare this with Singapore where with the estimated poverty line of S$2,080, about half of graduates from the polytechnics and ITEs would be earning wages below the poverty line.

Tow ended his comment by saying, “and, Animal Farm has a universal truth in it. Begin with idealism, and end with realism. To counter it? Pragmatism.”

But this is exactly what the Taiwanese are doing – they are paying pragmatic wages. One can fault Taiwan’s education system for having too many universities, but for what it is worth, their graduates do not earn poverty wages. Just by comparing the graduates in both countries, the top 30 percent or so Singaporean youths who graduate from the public universities might earn a starting salary that might be better off, but for the bottom half of Singaporean youths, their below-poverty line starting salary puts them as worse off than Taiwanese youths. This is not to say that the Taiwanese system is better, but at least it has basic protections, as well as free healthcare, unemployment benefits and adequate pension, all of which Singapore does not have.

As such, when Taiwan’s Premier Lin Chuan admitted that Taiwanese wages were low but also pointed out that, “relative to other countries, Taiwanese consumers had higher purchasing power,” what he said is not too far from the truth. Moreover, in some Taiwanese companies, such as at Hon Hai Precision Industry Co for example, Hon Hai chairman Terry Goh had said that, “engineers and administrative staff with bachelor’s degrees are offered starting monthly salaries ranging between NT$36,000 and NT$47,000,” according to newspaper Taipei Times, which at around the median monthly wage of NT$40,853 for private sector workers in Taiwan, means that these Taiwanese university graduates earn equivalent to their Singaporean counterparts, on a purchasing power basis. Taiwanese are not necessarily worse off, and might even be more fortunate. They live in a democracy, no less.

The joke is on Tow. He claimed that Taiwan has “today […] rearranged themselves into a natural pecking order.” But it is Singapore that has perfected the pecking order to the extremes – Singapore’s inequality and rich-poor gap is higher than Taiwan, and the highest among the developed countries.

But perhaps Tow has convinced himself that living inside Animal Farm isn’t that big a deal, for he seems to have taken his own advice, to “begin with idealism,” and “ending with [the] realism” that he has today.

Convincing ourselves

Perhaps this is how Singaporeans have also convinced themselves to live, in their form of their “pragmatism” - that since they are powerless headless chickens running inside Animal Farm, they might as well bury their heads in the sand.

As Alan Chew commented on The Straits Times Facebook page (on a post about Ong’s latest remarks in parliament this week), he quoted George Carlin who said, “governments don't want a population capable of critical thinking, they want obedient workers, people just smart enough to run the machines and just dumb enough to passively accept their situation.”

To which, Terry Lim added: “[the] government [doesn’t] want an intelligent population because people who can think critically can't be ruled.”

But as Cicely Song commented, if the government so believes that a university education is not important, “tell the [member of parliaments’] kids to study [in] ITE [and] [polytechnics] and [not to] advance further [because] they need to play a good and convincing [role] model to the nation.”

Editor: Edward White

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