By Abdul Shariff Aboo Kassim

Over the past decade, there have been efforts, both implicit and explicit ones, to change mindsets about education and jobs.  Deep skills and innovation are the buzzwords as the old order – merely attaining tertiary qualification and higher; and going for jobs that promise prestige and security – is increasingly being recognised as not being nuanced enough for the dynamic city that Singapore must strive to be in order to emulate the economic power of leading global cities like London, New York, Paris, Shanghai and Tokyo.

There are added reasons why Singapore should aim for changes in the education and economic realms. For a long time, paper qualifications have been valued over actual ability. The incentives for obtaining straight ‘A’s in national examinations were lucrative: effectiveness as a signalling tool for scholarships and to prospective employers who often use the Grade Point Average (GPA) as a convenient cut-off point to streamline job applications from fresh graduates.

As a consequence, a notable skill being developed in school is identifying strategies for obtaining good grades, such as “spotting” questions likely to appear during exams and going through drills to master them. In a competitive educational environment, even co-curricular activities (CCA) are often pursued to enhance one’s educational portfolio rather than being pursued out of interest. This has often come at the cost of motivating the learner to acquire deep knowledge and excelling in the field of learning inside and outside of school.

However, in more recent times, the education sector has introduced a slew of measures to advance to a “talent meritocracy” from an “exam meritocracy”, terms famously coined by then-Education Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam during an interview with Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria. Current Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng announced, in April 2016, the replacement of the aggregate score for Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE) with wider scoring bands, stressing the need for a paradigm shift towards holistic education.

Employers are changing their human resource practices to accord greater recognition to job performance as a determinant of career progression. In January last year, the civil service took the lead by ceasing its longstanding practice of grouping officers according to their education levels and began referring to them by their existing grades, which reflect their job scope and salary range. This is a move that will not only reward commitment to learning on the job and upgrading of skills to take on higher level responsibilities but also help organisations that adopt such conventions to plug the skills gap.

The more progressive assessments of aptitude in education and human resource practices, however, are but just two aspects of the multidimensional approach needed to facilitate the shift towards valuing the attributes that will lead to economic dynamism.  Convincing the various other stakeholders – parents, students, employers, educators and community leaders – that focusing on building one’s capabilities in one’s chosen field or acquiring deep skills through balancing academic learning with praxis will take more than merely educating them about an emerging economic landscape that are forecasted to be fraught with disruption, among other phenomena.

Empirical evidence remains the most effective means of coaxing a society that has been conditioned to embrace pragmatism to adapt. To the man on the street, a future scenario in which deep skills will count more for career progression than university degrees, as argued by Education Minister (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung, remains a theory.

Persuading society that talent or deep knowledge, and lifelong learning are a better assurance of career progression in the future than mere paper qualifications may not get much traction if only certain skills in certain fields are valued, such as those pertaining to growth industries like healthcare, finance (fintech) and IT (data analytics, cyber security). It would fuel suspicion that leaders and policymakers are brandishing portrayals of the future scenario to serve ‘narrow’ economic interests – which often are subject to revision according to economic cycles or when circumstances change – not the diversity of interests of the larger society.

It would be more cogent for skills or talents across occupational types and across disciplines  to be accorded due recognition, even if career prospects are deemed not bright or if their immediate contribution to economic growth is unappreciable. The pervasiveness of talents or skills across the board being valued would lend credence to the declared mission of forging a culture of creativity and innovation.

As soon as one talks about excellence or mastery in a particular field, one needs to take into account one’s aptitude, which may not necessarily be in a discipline related to sunrise industries. The education pathways that are established on the basis of where future jobs are likely to be created may turn out to be structures that impede the flourishing of a creative, innovative, passionate and motivated lot as they still bear the elements of a top-down thinking on serving the ‘greater good’.

The pathways will be pursued because of the lure of promising careers, as is the case with an “exam meritocracy”, as opposed to being pursued by virtue of one’s talent or interest, which characterises a “talent meritocracy”. The latter is more likely to facilitate the shift from a narrow focus on results to acquisition of deep knowledge and skills.

Loosening up the system and allowing talents to crop up naturally across fields instead of the approach of channelling the ‘bright ones’ and the “less-academically-inclined ones” to certain pathways respectively may well support the cultivating of a love for learning, especially lifelong learning, necessary for deepening knowledge and skills.

It is worth studying environments that are bustling with talented individuals or organisations who are at the forefront in their respective fields – from science to arts – about the conditions that make them tick.

Perhaps, the speech by Monetary Authority of Singapore’s (MAS) Managing Director Ravi Menon during the Singapore Perspectives 2018 conference offers a good start to appreciating talents across occupation types, job categories and fields, thus firmly entrenching creative and innovative tendencies in the national culture.

Reflecting on ways to sustain economic dynamism, in addition to increasing the total fertility rate (TFR) and resident labour force participation rate (LFPR), for which efforts are already underway, Mr Menon spoke about professionalising domestic services.

Policy-wise, helping creativity and innovation trickle down to the so-called “rank-and-file” jobs is not at odds with the national goal of achieving economic dynamism.

Mr Menon argued that professionalising such jobs will aid Singapore in making up for what the TFR cannot achieve in the shorter run. While the TFR offers what he described as “the best and most lasting solution”, its positive effects on labour force and GDP will only be felt around 2040 as it will take time for the extra babies born in the next 15 years to start entering the labour force.

Raising the LFPR, in Singapore’s case, is compounded by the problem of women not returning to the workforce after their prime childbearing years. While there is scope for improvement – Singapore could aim for a female LFPR of about 11% observed in countries like Germany and the Netherlands – it will only translate into a cumulative labour force increase of about 2 per cent in 2035. Efforts to raise female LFPR should nevertheless be undertaken together with professionalising domestic services to boost economic dynamism in the more immediate term.

Moreover, professionalising domestic services, Mr Menon argued, will strengthen and broaden the middle class, and make for a more equitable society. This augurs well for a country staring at social problems contributed by inequality and class divide. It will also help instill pride in those who supposedly hold “lower end” jobs, thus facilitating the raising of productivity levels.

In addition to its potentially positive impact on society, professionalising domestic services will provide the empirical data that there is a commitment to promoting a culture of creativity and innovativeness because these are services that Singaporeans from all walks of life engage such as those provided by a bus driver, hairdresser, baker, childcare teacher, security guard and bank teller.

In fact, Mr Menon pointed out that there are already jobs that are historically perceived as being “less skilled” but perceptions towards them changed over time as they were upgraded, such as bank tellers, vehicle mechanics, hairdressers and bus drivers.

The wages of bus drivers are just below the median in Singapore (96% of national median wage), comparable with their counterparts in Australia, the US and the UK (107%, 94% and 101% respectively). Mr Menon said the introduction of the bus contracting model and the entry of foreign transport companies incentivised raising driving standards and efficiency, making bus driving more professional.

Hairdressers are doing even more spectacularly, earning much closer to the median wage (82%) compared to their counterparts in Australia, the US and the UK (32%, 68% and 44% respectively). While it could be attributed to the outliers, as one participant opined during the conference – that is, celebrity hairdressers who are able to charge high fees to their rich clientele – Mr Menon suggested the emergence of outlets such as QB House, EC House, kcuts 10 as a reason why the median wages of hairdressers have risen. QB House, for instance, explains in its website why it can complete a stylish haircut in just 10 minutes: it helps customers maintain their hairstyle by trimming the grown hair only; it leverages on technology such as “Air Washer” to help its hairdressers achieve efficiency in their work.

Going forward, taking the cue from jobs such as bus driving and hairdressing, other jobs such as plastering, childcare, baking and security services can raise its standards and achieve greater professionalism. Skills can be deepened through upgrading knowledge; and technology can be leveraged, as QB House has done.

With time, perceptions towards such jobs will change. The larger Singaporean society will come to appreciate that creativity and innovation are not jargons that apply only to “higher level” jobs but also domestic service providers, people they meet on a day-to-day basis.

Abdul Shariff Aboo Kassim is a Researcher / Projects Coordinator with the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA), the research subsidiary of the Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP).

This commentary was also published in Karyawan, April 2018, Volume 13, Issue 2

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