A class of problems in a modern urban city is that problem of "Who wants to be the Sergeant?"
Why would a top A level student choose Engineering as a discipline when the pay of a technical professional lags a marketing or finance professional after 5 years ?
Similarly, why would a medical practitioner choose to be a GP considering the gap between the salary of a GP and a specialist ? More likely, why would someone really smart and capable choose nursing, pharmacy or an allied health practitioner and play the sergeants and assistant to doctors.
To a lesser extent, most lawyers prefer corporate law to community law, we have a case of too many law graduates when there is a shortage of legal professionals in the community space.
Closer to many readers, recently some students made a conscious choice to choose a neighbourhood school in spite of getting a PSLE aggregate of 261. This led to them getting the attention of the PM. While I respect the choice made by the student and the parents, this is the exception rather than the norm. In my opinion, joining a neighbourhood school after getting fantastic grades is not a strategic move because of the power of the alumni of the top schools. You may get a decent education in a neighbourhood school, but you deny yourself a great alumni which can be a major asset to your career in the future. Even if the government can make all schools good schools. The reality is that not all alumni are great alumni.
This is an important problem, because if everyone were to let the invisible hand determine career and school choices, society might be less optimal or anti-fragile as a result of this. As Nicholas Taleb recently told Singapore officials, some entrepreneur needs to feed all the bureaucrats within the system, so Singaporeans should not be over-educated. Now we have a situation where our top engineering schools are the recruitment grounds of our best banks, which is great for the engineering graduates as it's a ticket to a great life, but who would create the new jobs and bring out the hottest start-ups of the future and risk living a life of serial failures most successful businessmen has to go through ?
I don't have a solution to this problem but I do know what generally does not work : Appealing to morality will most likely fail. There is no nobility in poverty and mediocrity. What I want to do is to reframe the problem in terms of evolutionary psychology so that we can look at the problem in a more visceral and fundamental manner:
I always challenge a start-up founder/engineer by saying that if he is stuck in a singles bar with an investment banker, doctor and lawyer and all of them want to hit on a chick, who is likely to score in Singapore ?
This is just a mental experiment which I think sheds light on how to solve the problem.
Policy makers need to get into the singles bar and create a situation where if a start-up founder, investment banker, lawyer and doctor wants to hit on a chick, the start-up founder has a fair chance of getting lucky. At this point of time, no one expects the situation needs to change to give the start-up founder an unfair advantage.
Just a fair chance would do.