By Dr Nuraliah Norasid

The edict set in the cement blocks of our consumer-oriented society is, “whither there be demand, thither shalt be supply” and when that demand is a grade on a sheet, actual learning is gradually overtaken by the odious ‘how-to’s of acing an examination. Tuition centres have CEOs now and tutors are routinely photographed in suits and blazers as if they are trying to sell you a house rather than bumping up some poor gremlin’s Mathematics grades from an F9 to an A2. The standards of any of these centres can be so contrived that a tutor without an “English” enough accent are told to either acquire one or leave.

As part of a review and analysis done on private educational sector here in Singapore, I have discovered that our tiny country has over 300 private institutions which are affiliated to well-known overseas universities. Despite this, the private qualification does not necessarily guarantee an easy passage into the work force as private institution graduates continue to face challenges, one of which is in finding permanent employment which also pays them competitively.

In the same vein of education demand and supply, private education institutions emerged as a supplying entity within an economic environment where a degree is often a pre-requisite to a decent paycheck. Ideally, students would secure places in one of the local universities, preferably the two more established ones – the National University of Singapore (NUS) or Nanyang Technological University (NTU). However, the two universities’ Indicative Grade Profiles (IGP) with representative grades in the lower percentiles being mostly ‘A’s with the odd ‘B’ for flavour means that many are unable to make the cut. Those who are unable to secure a place in local universities are most likely to pursue a degree in private institutions because the prevailing mentality is that any degree is better than no degree.

It seems like a sound enough plan, with many pursuing Bachelor degrees in accountancy, business and management subjects, which in the common parlance is often referred to as “general degrees”. ‘Sound enough’ until the recent news about lower employment rates of private degree holders and the significantly lower salaries drawn compared to their peers from local universities. Prior to that, private education institutions have been in the limelight for being plagued with continuity and credibility issues. Several institutions have even closed down, leaving many students, who have sunk their money into their education there, stranded. The local degree holders do not have it entirely rosy either as they, too, are affected by rising unemployment rates and a saturated job market as many are also taking up positions in which they are overqualified for. It is increasingly common for graduates to take up freelance or part-time occupations that they have some levels of skill in. Anybody who has taken a GrabCar, Uber or taxi before would have met at least one degree holder, even a postgraduate degree holder, who drives part-time to keep afloat.

In the midst of this present state of affairs, the Malay-Muslim (MM) community is still working on boosting their numbers within the ranks of university graduates while hoping for a gradually decreasing representation of Malay students in Institutes of Technical Education (ITEs) and other ‘less prestigious’ institutes. All of this taking place alongside growing recognition of Malay students in polytechnics – their achievements as well as efforts in their chosen courses.

Are Degrees Still Relevant?

In light of the abovementioned slew of news on the state of education and the job market, there is the emerging question of whether the pursuit of the degree is still a relevant endeavour and as lucrative a life plan as it had been in the past. For the Malay-Muslim community, has the principle behind organisational-based programmes and initiatives always been the more skewed concept of Helen Keller’s “Keep your face to the light and you will never see the shadow” — and mistakenly so? Are we too slow in keeping up with the changes in Singapore’s educational and economic initiatives? Should we shift the focus away from trying to push more Malay-Muslim students into tertiary education and STEM degree-holding positions, and instead work on making it an adage that, “should you be an air-con repairman, then be an accomplished one”? All throughout human civilisation, there has always been a demand for the crafts or workman. So can related technical and skill-based occupations have a place in improving the community’s profile?

There are no hard and fast answers. In order for the changes we need to surface, it would require undoing years of institutional practices, social expectations and perceptions, and systems of economy. It would also need to see companies willing to eliminate degrees as a selection pre-requisite and utilise instead accept skill-specific measures of competencies and innovation such as portfolios, apprenticeship letters, or crafted models for new prototypes. Why, it might even need an apocalypse. Even as skills literacy are being promoted islandwide, unless something drastic happens, degrees will continue to be the basis for first selection into a job that will pay the bills and for the Built To Order (BTO) flats. At least until degree-holding unemployment becomes too big of a problem to ignore.

Deepen Students’ Values

While we are at this stage, the status quo cannot be preserved. The way forward may (and can) be found in nurturing our students to be indispensable assets to the industries they belong to. If they are chefs, every dish needs to be artfully crafted to be a culinary delight. If they are designers, their designs should be sought after for being novel and unique. More importantly, they need to believe that no matter where they stand or what their occupation may be, theirs is an existence of value, in this often dissociating postmodern reality. For this to happen, there is a need to go beyond raising awareness of the various programmes available, into incentivising skills upgrading and skills acquisition for the worker and the company. Companies can also work closely with institutions to expand the currently available internship opportunities and make learning a part of any employee’s job scope.

However, the greater concern for Malay Muslim Organisations (MMOs) lies in what can be done on the immediate front in order to help the community remain resilient, to excel and continue to aspire even in the economic slowdown. A systemically viable answer is probably what we need and somewhere out there, someone may have the answers all figured out, but it has yet to be within my grasp. Nevertheless, to take a feather from renowned writer Zadie Smith when she spoke of class and creativity at New York University (NYU), we need to understand that capability in a subject, an occupation or profession can truly be found in anyone, but they are not going to just “spring up” with the barriers that are currently in place. As Smith puts it, “the education system is rigged [and thus the] system needs to change”.

Our students and the ways we engage them are often very segregated, so for now, it can start with recognising the value of students within our community from all educational segments and figuring out ways in which cohesive and symbiotic relationships can be fostered between them. There also needs to be plans in place for school programmes to help students overcome structural barriers in the pursuit of their desired occupations. These can be in the form of bridging classes to teach ‘N (A)’ and ‘O’ Level Mathematics at ITE levels so that fewer students are at a disadvantage when it comes to meeting core subject requirements for future education and employment. To conclude, I shall reiterate (and continue to reiterate) the value of seeing things from the level of the students, their environment, their aspirations and their needs. The way the situation is now, they are being pushed to develop at the predictive exponential rate of a semi-sentient automaton chasing papers with the demeanour of a raging bull charging at a troubadour’s fluttering cape. It need not be told that that situation is not going to effective in the long-term.

Dr Nuraliah Norasid is a Research Associate with the Centre for Research in Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA). She holds a Doctor of Philosophy, with a specialisation in Creative Writing and Contemporary Mythopoesis from Nanyang Technological University. The views expressed in the article are her own.

This commentary was also published in Karyawan, January 2017, Volume 12, Issue 1.

Photo Source: