Scholars
Less lustre
The present generation of scholars is finding it hard coping with Singapore's real life problems. By Seah Chiang Nee
Mar 15, 2014

(Synopsis: The decline of the scholarship system comes as graduate unemployment rises.) 

THE Little India Inquiry has produced an uncomplimentary account of how scho­lar leaders could fare in a major disorder.

Indirectly, the city’s first riot in 40 years provided a chance to test the real capabilities of Singapore’s scholar-police leaders.

Since independence their mettle, like that of a whole generation of Singaporeans, has been largely untested because of the lack of any crisis.

Academically these scholars excelled, passing exams with distinctions, but how does their performance measure up in a big riot?

Some answers came when Deputy Assistant Police Commissioner (DAC) Lu Yeow Lim, ground commander at the riot scene, faced the Commission of Inquiry.

The officer appeared not to know much about what was happening around him.

He appeared indecisive and lacking in firm leadership, which got one member telling him: “You made the problem worse!”

One observer commented: “This Little India incident revealed epic failures by police commanders, who occupy top posts because of their scholastic achievements without experience.”

He said it is worrying because others of the same type are also sitting in top positions in the civil services and the armed forces.

The inquiry has raised public disenchantment with the scholarship system, in which the brightest students are selected for leadership roles.

In the early years, scholars had contributed much to Singapore’s success story.

However, as problems piled up with the leaders unable to resolve some of them, credit has turned to blame.

Three years ago, PM Lee apologised to Singaporeans for mistakes his government had made, including overcrowded trains and inadequate public services.

Then last year, he admitted his scholar-led government did not plan infrastructure well to cope with the increased foreigners, adding: “We lacked that 20/20 foresight.”

Falling esteem

A number of scholars remain exceptionally capable, but collectively their esteem in the eyes of the public has fallen.

The trend comes at a time when Singapore is experiencing an increase in graduate unemployment that could reduce interest in higher learning.

The government last week admitted that the country is producing too many graduates who cannot find good jobs.

This is the first tacit admission that the workforce may be over-educated and over-valued for the current state of the economy.

There had been numerous stories of jobless graduates having to drive taxis or sell real estate to earn a living.

The questionable worth of a degree in getting work comes as confidence waned on the scholarship system.

As the city becomes more crowded, more Singaporeans are growing wary about being led by people with high education alone.

This is one of the few countries which select the brightest students to run the country.

For years, the system had worked well with the early batch of scholars contributing to make this an efficient, corruption-free society.

So with the government becoming less enamoured with the economic worth of a university degree, will there be a future for scho­lars to be groomed for leadership?

Will all this serve as the prelude to a retreat from Singa­pore’s policy of maximum education for its people?

Indications of growing unemployed or under-employed graduates had begun to circulate as early as eight years ago.

The dilemma worsened from 2009 as an army of educated foreigners poured in to find work.

It looks set to worsen further in the years ahead with tens of thousands of fresh graduates coming into the job market.

Currently, the pursuit of higher learning remains strong. By 2020, 40% of each education cohort would be university-trained.

It is unlikely that whatever the government wants, Singaporeans will likely fight their way to a place in university.

Getting parents to cut back on their children’s education is Mission Impossible.

Many have suffered sacrifices to help them pass various exams on the way there.

Both issues – the scholarship system and educating citizens to the utmost possible – were virtually carved in stone at independence nearly 50 years ago.

The graduate glut is rising partly because of mass arrival of migrant workers. The authorities have since reduced the number of arrivals.

Unemployment among the highly educated has risen from 3.3% to 3.6% in the first half of 2013, worse than the national average of 2.1%.

Acting Manpower Minister Tan Thuan Jin told Parliament that the graduate glut here could match those in Taiwan and South Korea.

He did not say whether the authorities would act to control the flow of graduates.

However, a Wikileaks document earlier revealed that the government had no plan to encourage more students to go for university studies.

The campus enrolment rate would be capped at the 20% to 25% of total Singapore students. The labour market, she added, did not need more graduates.

That report came as a shock to Singaporeans who worship higher education as a god of success.

Social commentator Lucky Tan said any cutback would work against lower-income Singaporeans because the rich could easily send their kids abroad.

Not all are against the government being cautious. “It is important to maintain a balanced, orderly labour market for the sake of social order,” said an economist.

Years ago while visiting India, former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew spoke of the dangers of educating hordes of graduates and not being able to provide them jobs.

Many tended to end up roaming the streets or sitting in coffee shops planning violent revo­lution.

And later Lee remarked that Singaporeans were not getting smarter, only better educated.

One result could be the continued downgrade of the degree.

Singaporean engineers have become hawkers or casino roulette operators, their acquired skill virtually rendered useless.

(This article was first published in The Star)