Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s wife, Ho Ching, has admitted that she discounts people who confuse education with intelligence, in a recent Facebook post.

On Saturday (9 Nov), Mdm Ho – who serves as CEO of Singapore sovereign wealth fund Temasek – shared a quote on her personal Facebook page that stated: “I hate when people confuse education with intelligence. You can have a Bachelor’s degree and still be an idiot.”

Mdm Ho added that she does not hate such people but raises an eyebrow and discounts their character when she encounters such people. She wrote: “No need to hate – More like raising an eyebrow and pitting a discount to the character.”

It is interesting that the wife of the Prime Minister would say that she discounts people who equate education with intelligence especially given Singapore’s past education policies that made citizens equate academic performance, good grades and degree certificates with upwards social mobility.

For decades, meritocracy was an important principle behind Singapore’s education policies, which aimed to identify and groom bright young students for positions of leadership. The system placed great emphasis on academic performance in grading students and granting their admission to special programmes and universities.

Academic grades were considered as objective measures of the students’ ability and effort, irrespective of their social background and having good academic credentials was seen as the most important factor for the students’ career prospects in the job market, and their future economic status.

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The Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), that 12-year-olds take at Primary 6, is the first major national examination that will determine where they will be placed in the rest of their secondary education.

Those who do well will be streamed into the Express and Normal/Academic streams where they will get to go through secondary school and go on to join the prestigious junior colleges or polytechnics based on their O-level examination grades. These students will go on to complete their tertiary education at universities.

Those who do not perform as well in the national examinations will be put into Institutes of Technical Education (ITEs), where they will receive vocational education, which carried a negative stigma and was looked down upon as a dead-end option for underachieving students for many years.

Although it is still possible for ITE students to earn a place in the polytechnics after two years of vocational education, students must be within the top two per cent of their 32,000-strong cohort.

The emphasis on academic performance at a young age takes a toll on both students and parents. Parents, who saw good grades as a path to sure success for their children, began turning to private tuition. A 2008 poll found that only three out of 100 students did not receive private tuition – an industry which has such high demand that it makes hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

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In recent years, however, the Government went into overdrive to drive home the message that a degree is not required to be successful in Singapore. Education Minister Ong Ye Kung pointed out that degrees do not enable people to earn a living and that only skills carry a premium.

In 2017, then-Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam also said that ITE graduates are “well sought after” in the industry, even though only five jobs were available for ITE graduates in the Singapore Public Service – the country’s largest employer – at the time.

Around the same time, the issue of the “graduate poor” started to emerge. A 2018 survey conducted by National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, in partnership with Ong Teng Cheong Labour Leadership Institute, revealed that 4.3 per cent out of 1,626 local graduates were “severely underemployed.”

Despite working full-time, these graduates earned less than S$2,000 per month – lower than the salary diploma holders typically earn. Young graduates the press interviewed at the time revealed that they were unable to land a job despite searching desperately for months while others said that they were surprised that the skills they acquired in universities were not sought after and turned to freelancing and joining the gig economy.

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In April this year, a survey conducted by the Committee for Private Education (CPE) found that 9.3 per cent of fresh graduates from four autonomous universities in Singapore were either unemployed, still looking for a job or in involuntary part-time or temporary employment, six months after they graduated last year.

The four universities are Nanyang Technological University, National University of Singapore, Singapore Management University and Singapore University of Social Sciences. Those who are unable to gain admission into these schools usually turn to private education institutes, which are generally more expensive, to attain university degrees.

Unfortunately, those who graduated from private education institutes fared more poorly when it came to employment. The CPE found that one in four fresh graduates from private education institutes were either unemployed, still looking for a job or in involuntary part-time or temporary employment, six months after they graduated last year. -/TISG