BY HAN FOOK KWANG, EDITOR AT LARGE, Straits Times
Singapore is changing.
You have heard this line many times by now, so what’s new?
Well, here’s one more to add to the fast-changing story line: You don’t need a university degree to succeed.
Good luck to that one! You can almost hear the cynics saying.
It will be a tough sell even after the Prime Minister devoted a large part of his National Day Rally to the issue, recounting several examples of Singaporeans who have done well without a university education.
“We need a cultural change because, fundamentally, this is about our values, about how we value people, and Singapore must always be a place where everyone can feel proud of what they do, where you are respected for your contributions and your character, and anyone can improve his life if he works hard and everyone can hope for a better future,” he said.
Put this way, it’s a lot to ask, almost requiring the PM to move heaven and earth to make it happen.
To understand what it will take to make this transformation, you have to first know what the present condition is like.
In fact, the issue is more than just about whether a university degree is useful for everyone and will get you ahead in life.
It is about the more deeply entrenched view of how Singapore regards talent and the role of the elite here.
It’s a pity the PM didn’t spend more time on this because I believe he would have made a greater impact if he did.
So what is the prevailing narrative?
At its core, it is that Singapore is a little red dot with no natural resources and so has to depend solely on its people to earn its keep.
And the most important group is those at the top, in leadership positions, because the decisions they make matter the most to the country’s survival and success.
Therefore every effort must be made to identify, nurture and develop them.
They have innate intelligence and drive, and given the right conditions and support, will make their abilities count.
A university education is a basic requisite, but not just any degree as only the very best of the Oxbridge or Ivy League kind will do.
It was a powerful narrative that shaped the way Singapore educated and selected those earmarked for these positions.
Generous government scholarships were granted to the select few with stellar academic achievements.
Local institutions like the National University of Singapore were not considered good or prestigious enough even as their global rankings rose.
The elite Administrative Service was where most of these scholars ended up, and its pay scale reflected their pedigree standing, pegged, like ministerial salaries, to top earners in the private sector.
This narrative was reinforced at every opportunity.
One of the favourite lines from the ruling party’s candidates at General Election time was how, from humble beginnings, they made their way to the top through this route.
It became a large part of the Singapore brand of meritocracy and accepted as one of the defining values that made it succeed.
I think most people bought into it, and many still believe it continues to be relevant.
What’s not so clear though is how this narrative affected ordinary Singaporeans, especially non-graduates, and how they saw their place in society.
Did they feel like second-class citizens, of less value, because they could make only limited contributions to the country’s progress, especially in the material sense?
Did they have less confidence in the future, for their children especially, knowing they were not regarded highly and would not be able to join the select ranks?
Or did it spur them to make even greater effort so they could become one of them?
Perhaps some were inspired, but there would be many who might have felt they didn’t belong in a country that continually focused on the contributions of the top.
Their diminished sense of self-worth, if not addressed, would alienate them further from the leadership.
Indeed the warning signs are already evident, including the anti-elitism that has grown over the years, surfacing every time there is some perceived misstep or failure of the Government in implementing its policies.
To be fair, the Government has tried in recent years to rebalance its approach in various ways, opening up more options in education, pouring resources into the Institute of Technical Education and the polytechnics, and making its policies more inclusive.
But the elite narrative has been so powerfully broadcast and absorbed over the years that it will take more than these initiatives to bring about a real change in mindset that the PM talked about.
Even more interesting is the question of whether the powers- that-be agree that fundamental change is needed.
I think there are many who continue to believe that, given Singapore’s vulnerabilities and constraints, the elite approach isn’t wrong.
Exceptional leadership will continue to be a key factor in determining whether Singapore succeeds.
This being the case, can the two narratives – the old and the recently proposed – co-exist?
Can Singapore be a place that continues to place great emphasis on elite leadership with all the support system built over the years intact, and also one which values every individual regardless of his or her education and material possessions?
Or will something have to give?
Singapore isn’t the only country trying to manage this balance.
In Japan, there is also intense competition among students to get into the top universities like Tokyo and Kyoto, and to join the major companies like Sony and Toyota or the powerful ministries such as Finance and Trade and Industry.
But it is also a society with a high regard for workers at every level.
The result has been a people known to take great pride in their work and to try to achieve perfection in whatever they do, whether as waiters, factory workers or master craftsmen.
It’s a powerful demonstration of what can be achieved when there is respect and recognition all round, and less disparity in status and rewards between the top and the bottom.
Perhaps that’s also how the Scandinavian countries are able to achieve a high standard of development in a more egalitarian environment.
Can the new Singapore Story produce similar results?
Maybe it is time to move heaven and earth.