By Abdul Shariff Aboo Kassim

 In his National Day Rally 2014 speech delivered on 17 August, Prime Minister (PM) Lee Hsien Loong touched on two key areas  pertinent to the Malay/Muslim community: education and employment. With a relatively young population structure and an  uncertain  socioeconomic outlook posing a threat to upward social mobility, there is a pressing need for the community to view  longstanding  issues in these aspects through alternative lenses to capitalise on the potential of its youth to maintain socioeconomic progress.

PM Lee’s focus on career prospects for Institute of Technical Education (ITE) and polytechnic graduates is particularly apposite as the proportion of Malay students heading to ITEs and polytechnics for post-secondary education is significantly higher than those heading to other institutions such as the junior colleges. The Singapore Census of Population 2010 indicated that a larger portion of Malays in the workforce have post-secondary (non-tertiary) qualifications – which include Nitec, Higher Nitec and Master Nitec – as compared to the national average, while those with polytechnic qualifications are almost on par (Chart 1). However, when it comes to university qualifications, Malay students are significantly lagging behind the national average.

Considering the educational composition of the Malay workforce, it is important for the community to examine its education and employment initiatives vis-à-vis the new directions put forth by PM Lee. One of the recommendations mooted at the 3rd National Convention of Singapore Muslim Professionals organised by AMP in 2012 was to have graduates in every family. Although the definition of ‘graduate’ is taken to be inclusive of ITE and polytechnic graduates, the ultimate goal for the community is to increase its number of university graduates – a target it must envision for each of its learner. Furthermore, the supply of ITE and diploma graduates from the community is quite substantial and what is clearly lacking are university graduates.

How should the community reconcile its aspiration with the initiatives spelt out by PM Lee? Should the community moderate its long-term goal of producing more university graduates and channel more resources instead towards helping its ITE and polytechnic graduates to advance in their careers? The latter makes sense if one is to consider the sheer proportion of ITE and polytechnic graduates amongst Malays in the workforce, as well as the national initiatives the community could tap on, like recommendations by the Applied Study in Polytechnics and ITE Review (ASPIRE) Committee, led by Senior Minister of State for Law and Education, Ms Indranee Rajah; which aims to create, widen and strengthen the work-and-study path.

However, as PM Lee cautioned, the task of implementing a work-and-study path on a national scale is a massive undertaking, involving collaborations among multiple stakeholders: government agencies, businesses, unions and the society. All of the individuals whose success stories PM Lee shared during the Rally are employees of one of the largest conglomerates in Singapore, Keppel Corporation. Whether it is structurally feasible for other large companies and small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs) across industries to look within and create career paths for its employees against a backdrop of rapid technological changes and evolving labour market trends, requires an in-depth study. SMEs, for example, may be incapable of supporting such initiatives due to rising business costs following economic restructuring.

It is also worth noting how resident working Malays are distributed across industries. According to the 2010 Census, the largest proportion (16.7%) of Malays are in public administration and education, followed by three other industries with significant representation of Malays: transportation and storage (15.4%), manufacturing (11.7%), and wholesale and retail trade (10.6%).

The question to ask then is how practical will the work-and-study initiative be for the public administration and education sector? Will there remain an inclination to recruit those with relevant qualifications and experience, instead of taking on the longer process of grooming those with lower qualifications to take on senior positions?

In formulating an optimal strategy to sustain the community’s socioeconomic progress, of which education and employment are the main drivers, the community has to take into account its key characteristics: educational profile, occupational and income distribution. Considering the significantly small proportion of university graduates and the relatively long duration that those with ITE and polytechnic qualifications may need to get into senior managerial positions to draw higher incomes, the community may still need to continue motivating its young to attain university qualifications while tapping on national initiatives to support its ITE and polytechnic graduates.

Abdul Shariff Aboo Kassim is the Researcher/Projects Coordinator of Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA). The opinions expressed in the article are his own.

This commentary was also published in AMPlified, October 2014, Issue 24.

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