Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Education in the old days

I remember doing a compulsory social science module as an undergraduate and I had to write a paper on education and economic development in Singapore in the 1960s and 70s. As part of the research, I went to a dark musty corner the Central Library where they stored Singapore related materials and went over the educational statistics. When I looked the educational statistics of ASEAN countries, one thing that immediately struck me was that Singapore did not actually do a very good job of providing basic education services to its people from the 50s up to the 80s. Part of the blame should really be laid on the British but even after independence, Singapore lagged behind countries like the Phillipines and even Vietnam in some respects. For example, the percentage of Singaporeans in each batch in the 70s and 80s who completed secondary school is astonishingly low. Things only started to improve significantly in the mid-80s but by then, it would be fair to say that a large number of people left school undereducated and minimal education. Back in those days, relatively few people had any kind of post-secondary education (VTI, polytechnic, university).

Some people would say that Singapore could not afford to provide large-scale secondary and post-secondary education back then. It is quite hard to believe that claim, considering that Singapore has always been in the top three in Asia in terms of per capita GDP even before independence. We were not that poor to start off or else immigrants from China and India would not have settled here in the old days. Further more, even South Korea and the Phillipines, which had and still have lower per capita GDP and large rural agricultural populations, did considerably better than Singapore.

If you look at the statistics here, the average person in the 25-29 age category in 1984 had only 8.5 years of schooling, which means that he/she probably didn't even finish secondary school. Twenty years later, in 2006, this means that the majority of people in the 45-50 category are undereducated and lack qualifications, such as basic English skills. That would not have been fatal in the 90s when manufacturing jobs did not require too many qualifications and you could earn a decent living as a factory operator. However, manufacturing jobs in Singapore are rapidly being outsourced and the new jobs created in Singapore are in the services sector where you do need at the very very least a basic high school education. If you see where I am going, it is not so difficult to see why there are so many middle-aged people who find it hard to get employment opportunities in the current job market in Singapore despite the tight job market (or so we're told).


takchek said...

But the PAP's mantra of 'retraining' doesn't help much either (unless you are counting jobs like road sweepers, McDonalds' counter staff etc).

There are many underlying factors, (under)education is only one part.

Fox said...

Of course, you're right. Under-education is only one of the many factors. Ageism is one commonly cited factor although I am in no position to comment. The liberal foreign talent policy is another.

I am highlighting the point about the lack of qualifications because some people in the Singapore govt hold the view that getting a job is the business of the individual and the government is not responsible for one's employment.

My stance is that, because a generation of Singaporeans was undereducated when it was economically feasible to provide more universal education (see South Korea and the Phillipines), the goverment has a moral obligation to help these people secure employment or make social assistance more readily available so that no one will jump on MRT tracks again.

Darth Solarion said...

I remember there was a statistic some time back where there was a substantial portion of the population with less than a university degree or a diploma for that matter.

I think the population, or the govt for that matter, hasn't come to grips with the fact that many of these low end jobs will never return, and with that, their iron rice bowl.

Moreover, the govt's past history of having the EDB luring companies to set up shop here, has led the bulk of the population to expect the govt to work harder on that, but as it is, no one wants to set up shop here due to high costs.

Then of course, aside from the liberal foreign "talent" policy, is the clear pro-business slant of the govt and the workers do not have their rights enshrined in law.