Friday, January 15, 2016

Net Present Value of Suffering.

This post is inspired by the large number of articles in response to the release of the O level results. Well meaning educators start to assist readers in choosing between a Polytechnic and a JC. One of the ideas which has been around since I was 16 years old is the idea that if a person is academically inclined, he should go JC and if he is practically oriented, he should go to a Polytechnic. Throughout the 90s, the same argument was used to help A level students choose between NUS and NTU.

Before I begin, I'd like to say that even if you are an elite super-scholar married to a medical professor, policies concerning Polytechnics are important to you. Reversion to the mean in IQ means that while IQ is heritable, children of elites will be on average only slightly smarter than the median population. The median Singapore is unlikely to have a degree given that about only 25% of the population are entitled to get degrees. This means that even elites benefit from government policies which reinforce Polytechnic education and apprenticeship programs.

Back to the usual advice to O level kids, I don't think this advice is helpful at all.

70% of JC students get to go to a local University and get a ticket to the middle class. A local university graduate starts at $3300 - $3600 a month. In contrast, 20% of Poly students get into a local University but they get to develop useful industrial skills which net them $2100 starting pay if they start work after getting a diploma.  The argument about academic or pragmatic inclination melts in the face of national income data. Everything boils down to whether you are confident as to whether your child can be top 70% in a JC or top 20% in a Poly. If not, a Poly should be chosen regardless of your child's inclination because it guarantees a set of industrial skills.

I will propose a different question :

Instead ask yourself, can your child suffer ?

Unlike Polytechnic educators, JC educators have KPIs tied to A level results. JCs whie being cheerful on the outside can be quite cruel to their weaker students. Weak students are "counselled" to drop subjects so that the numbers of the JC looks good. Strong students who take H3 or S paper get to enjoy a more collegiate relationship with their lecturers. Worse, the workload of a JC student is 40 hours a week compared to 25 hours a week for polytechnic students. JC students need to hit the ground running. I suspect a lot of humanity is lost in those 2 years and I suspect makes JC students more Machiavellian and narcissistic.

This question reflects a broader truth about Singapore as hinted by the Buddha eons ago.

Life is suffering.

Suffering is spread over the lifetime of an individual but suffering can brought forward similar to a discounting mechanism.

The choice of the JC brings suffering forward but slightly discounted. If you fall into the 70% you stand to get a quick ticket to the middle class and enjoy a salary 50% above diploma holders.

The choice of a Poly is not an inferior choice. You can get into the top 20%, you maintain your momentum. But if you fail to get into a local University, your route would be more circuitous. You can still make a lot of money becoming  a top salesman or an entrepreneur but each option has its own hardship and requisite amount of suffering.

Where government policy comes into the picture, tweaks need to be made to Polytechnic programs to balance the option against JC's ease into the middle class. This means creating apprenticeship programs which also allow skilled workers to have a good life. This is in effect, increasing the discount rate of suffering when students pick the Poly route.

So in balance, if you have just received your O level results and contemplating JC or Polytechnic, the proper question to ask yourself is :

Can you suffer ?


  1. Hi Christopher,
    This article brought up a lot of memories in my recent life! Just a little sharing, I graduated from Singapore Poly and am on my way to NBS.

    I agree with you that "The choice of a Poly is not an inferior choice." Rather than comparing it between if the child is academically inclined or not, I based my comparison between Poly and JC on "Do I already know what I want to pursue."

    Honestly, I won't say Polytechnic education is inferior, rather, it sheds a light on what the industry is like. Ask a JC student what the banking sector is like, they probably can't tell you the demand and skill sets required better than a Poly student can.

    My 3 years in poly, I never felt like I had to suffer nor the feeling that studying was torturous. I genuinely enjoyed my learning and that was also the key reason why I managed to perform very well in my cohort.

    I firmly believe that the point of an education is to educe the joy of learning out of every child. To see JC only as a gateway to university, saddens me because I know the child isn't learning, just memorising and trying to earn his placing in uni.

    I think there's also a common misconception that going to Uni is the end goal. I know of so many JC students who although manage to get to the university of their choice, they fail to get into the COURSE of their choice. Which matters more? The school or the course?

    Just sharing my 2 cents!

    Best regards,
    Aloysius Lee

  2. Aloysius,

    Thanks for sharing your perspective on this blog !

    You've brought up a good point. Many JC students fail to get into the course of their choice, which can be subject to further analysis.


  3. Hi Chris,

    Facing with the choice around 25 years ago, I decided on the Poly route after much consideration. The decision was a very tough one as I was more towards the JC route but eventually, I think my chances of getting into the local university was higher via the poly route and I made the choice.

    A lot of people back then questioned my choice. What? You choose Poly with an intention to get into a local university? Yes, I said. Because my O Level results was comfortable enough to get into a middle-tier and lower-tier JC but not quite good enough to get into a top JC. Therefore, most of my "competitors" who was in the same category as me would have opted for the JC route, leaving me fighting for a place in the local university with mostly lower tier competitors in Poly. It is not the percentage that counts, it is also the quality of your competitors that counts.

    Most important of all, I get to keep my O Level results for local university admission consideration. If I have a decent enough O Level results, why discard it with an unknown A Level results to gain entry to local university? Most people don't realize that local university also look at the O Level results of poly grads seeking admission. In fact, O Level results of a poly grad is quite important when he/she is seeking admission to local university because that is the only national exam that they can have a common base to look at. Otherwise, different poly offer different courses and there are slight variation in each of them.

    I did graduated from a local poly and didn't finish among the top 5% of my poly batch, and therefore I only have a diploma (without merit). But I managed to gain 2nd year direct entry to a 4 year Engineering course in NTU after NS.

    My bet had paid off but it was a calculated bet :)

  4. Ghchua,

    Thanks for sharing. I doubt poly students would be considered lower tier these days given that 20% do proceed to university but you brought up a really good point.

    If you are assured to be top 70% in JC but not top 20% in Poly, then choose JC.
    If you are assured to be top 20% in Poly but not top 70% in JC, then choose Poly.

    Better heuristic than academic versus hands-on skill.


  5. Hi Chris,

    The fact is that even during my time, there are pretty good poly students which explains why I couldn't even finish among the top 5% of my batch. But they are considered "lower tier" by me because they were weak in English and Humanities and did badly in these subjects in their O Level exams and couldn't qualify for JCs. They scored A grades in Maths and Science though.

    Even if they did well in Poly with their strength in Maths and Science, they still face an uphill task in qualifying for local university because of their O Level results. Therefore, one must know the system in order to game it. You can have a very good set of results but if you fail your O Level English, it is game over for you.

  6. Great article again, Chris. Loads of pertinent points. My two cents worth for folks making that choice - at 16 years old, it doesn't matter whether you go down via the Polytechnic or JC route.

    What matters is that you aspire to give whatever you chose your best shot to maintain maximum optionality come the final stage of most' folks education process - the Bachelor's degree. I experienced above average, but not stellar grades during my O' Levels and A Levels, where I had an L1R5 of 10 points and ABB for 3 A levels with no special papers at all, but had a ball of a time in JC and sec school.

    My goal back then was to play bridge, chase girls, and have a good time with mates, while toeing the line on academics so as not to piss my parents off too much, and there was not much alternative advice available to students then. I recall the channeled advice from teachers during my junior college times was to score 4 As and 2 Ds and then once you get some form of a scholarship, you'll be set for life. What they did not elaborate on was set for what? I shudder to think how life could have been very different if I burnt my matches mugging during JC and gone down the scholarship route, especially the government scholarship route. Just speaking from the heart, although I suspect this notion wouldn't go down well with many people. Haha :)

    My advice would be to floor the accelerator in college / university and go loco there in terms of maximising your academic performance and resume building process. My experience has been that a top GPA (think first class / summa cum laude), whilst not the only factor to secure a great paying first job, is absolutely essential. You need to have that in order to join the queue for a chance for that.

  7. Retireby35,

    Thank you for balancing the JC and Poly perspective. JC Bridge groups always had brutally smart people.

    I was thinking about the mass media and find that the authorities are very tentative about sharing the advantages of a JC education over a Poly education.

    Good to have a positive view on JCs here as well.