Singaporeans all try to hide this fact but deep down we all know that a caste system exists in our country. Being a harmonious multi-racial and multi-cultural society, this caste system has no linkages to race, language or religion. Instead we have created an ugly caste system out of a value which we are particularly proud of – Meritocracy. With everyone having equal rights to education in Singapore, our nation and people have crafted out a system that rewards an individual’s education merit with social, economic and status rewards. To lessen the effect of this caste system, our government is now taking the lead to start changing Singaporeans’ perspective.
Rise Of The Qualification Caste
Meritocracy has its fundamental benefits. It advocates fierce competition which pushes people to achieve the best that they can; regardless of class, race or creed they may find success if they get to the finishing line first. Singapore’s history of meritocratic success has resulted in a social culture in which individuals are driven to work beyond their comfort levels and in resourceful fashion, with sight of opportunities to rise above one’s socio-economic class.
This drive for meritocracy success has trickled down to influence the state of our children education. All parents want their children to do well in school and eventually make it to university. Polytechnics used to make the cut amongst local parents. However with the numerous private institutions offering degree courses outside of the 3 main local universities, the value of a diploma has dwindled in recent years. Institute of Technical Education aka ITE has also been give the dreaded nickname of ‘It’s The End’.
To make sure their kids rise above their mediocre peers, parents are willing to part with a huge portion of their monthly income to put their children in the best pre-schools and do volunteer work just to make sure that they get into the top schools. Some mean parents even resort to putting down cleaners and security guards for their ‘lowly’ work they do and used them as examples to warn their kids of their ill fate should they not do well in school.
Parents also compare their children’s education with others. ‘Wah your kid so smart go study at NUS’, ‘All local university cannot make it then fly overseas to study ah’ and ‘Har, go ITE. Jia lat, his future gone already!’.
There you have it – the rise of the Qualification Caste.
Our Government Propagated It Too (in the past)!
The rise of the qualification caste system is no fault of the citizens. For decades, our government placed great emphasis on education achievements to take its pick from our fresh local graduates. It is no secret that only 2nd Uppers Honours Degree Honours and above eventually get hired into ministries, statutory boards and agencies.
Even in the army, we see leadership qualities, capability to perform under pressure, strategic thinking and personal fitness take a back seat when it comes to comparing qualifications. It is interesting to note the difference in salaries between a Lieutenant with Diploma and a Lieutenant with Good Honours and Above. The latter is valued at $1,500 more every month just because he graduated with a Good Honours Degree from a recognised university.
With such a precedent set by the public sector, how else would you expect Singaporeans to interpret and react?
Can We Turn The Tide?
We are off to a good start with Prime Minister Lee saying this of the civil service in his National Day Rally speech, citing the People’s Association as an example where there is a single scheme of service, and advancement is based on merit, and their ability to do their job well.
PM Lee means business. He has called for a cultural change in the way Singaporeans view success and value each other. He emphasised that Singaporeans should look for ways to succeed regardless of their paper qualifications and that employers should value their staff and develop them to take on higher responsibilities.
Changes To Our Society
With the income and progression discrepancies in the civil service, much is needed to be done to close the gap in career prospects between graduates and non-graduates. In the meantime, work has begun to ensure that there is support for those in the workforce, and fair opportunities for teachers.
1. Making Learning Lifelong
So for example, a carpenter with WSQ2 certification is better skilled than one with WSQ1. When he leaves his current company and works for a new employer, his employer will deploy him at the suitable job level that his WSQ2 skills serve.
Recently, ASPIRE was created to ensure that those in-school (ITE, Polytechnic, private learning institutes) are given an opportunity to pursue craft-based education if they do not wish to pursue an academic track.
Essentially, this is to alleviate the situation of parents spending their lifetime savings for their children to get a degree regardless of whether it is practical or if the university is reputable or not. The actual fact is that a craft-based career can be one that does as well as an academically qualified one.
To bridge the gap between ASPIRE (in-school learning) and CET (adult-based learning), the Skills Future Council (SFC) was set up. There will be an emphasis on mastery of skills, across the board, even for degree-holders. The council will be a tripartite committee chaired by Mr Tharman, and comprises of Government, employers and unions (NTUC).
Labour Chief, Mr Lim Swee Say mentioned that this framework can help the country remain competitive and create enough jobs for Singaporeans. It is also about helping workers to have enough skills to keep pace with challenges at the workplace so they can remain employable.
With the ASPIRE and CET in place, hopefully Singaporeans can look forward to better jobs with better pay sooner than they think.
2. Non-graduate Placement On Graduate Salary Scale
Non-graduate teachers who perform well at their jobs can be placed on the graduate salary scale from the fourth quarter 2014. The change will take place at the classroom-teacher level, without requiring them to rise to leadership or senior teaching positions.
At the moment, non-graduates are on a lower pay scale. Teachers with degrees start on salaries of $3,010 to $3,310, while those without start at $1,480 if they have A-level qualifications, and $1,870 to $1,920 if they have polytechnic diplomas.
3. Faster Promotion For Top Performers
Non-graduates teachers who join the civil service under the management support scheme and perform well can get their first promotion after two to four years, down from the current three to six years, from October. If they continue to do well, subsequent promotions will also be faster.
Although the intention of levelling the playing field and lessening the Qualification Caste is good, we should also be mindful not to discourage Singaporeans from achieving their degree dreams. We should continue to foster a positive and nurturing environment for our children to perform their best in school and strive for the highest possible qualification.
Going Beyond Graduation
Even after graduation, Singaporeans should continue to upgrade their skills sets to keep themselves competitive in the job market. NTUC Union Leader Mr Patrick Tay highlighted the “need for attitudinal changes to focus less on paper qualifications and greater mapping and development of each individual’s abilities, skills and aptitudes”.
The notion of meritocracy for our people has shifted. It is no longer based on what you have achieved at 18 or 24, but a meritocracy through life, where you will be assessed on your performance at every stage of your life, regardless of where you came from or where you started.
Are you ready for it?