Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Are we overproducing elites in Singapore ?

Some folks have protested that I am duplicitous when it comes to degrees. 

Diploma holders of my generation do fairly well and many end up in senior management. However, for Millenials and Gen Z, I take a dim view of folks who proudly proclaim to drop out from an academic program. Life choices aside, they have no idea how much they damage their personal brands because only the most privileged folks can survive not having a degree.

Population census 2020 explains this in greater detail. I was able to calculate the percentage of degree holders based on different generations of Singaporeans.

If you examine my cohort ages 45-49, only 41% had degrees. Mathematically, you can live your life without a degree and yet signal above-median level intelligence and conscientiousness. 

If you examine the batch 10 years younger now aged 35-39, 54% have degrees. The reverse is now true concerning non-degree holders, if you drop out, you are signaling possibly below-median intelligence and conscientiousness. Of course, don't get upset with what I say because signaling does not mean that it is fact, but employers and HR departments will begin to tighten restrictions and you'll find many jobs that do not require degrees actually listing a degree as a requirement. 

But that's not the most disturbing thing about these statistics. 

Richard Turchin studies cliodynamics and he concludes that the overproduction of elites was responsible for the fall of the Roman Empire and the American Civil War. When we overproduce degree holders, especially lawyers, not every degree holder will be able to get a decent job upon graduation. You can find the ramifications of that in the article here.

The US is in a much more serious condition than Singapore, not every lawyer who passes the bar exam in the US gets to practice. Singapore is also dealing with a flood coming not from local universities but overseas. We're also seeing a lot of younger local graduates fighting cultural wars imported from overseas. About a week ago, a friend showed me how his contemporaries from the humanities have accused him of not doing enough for the woke agenda, even resorting to personal attacks to make their point. This is an early sign of a bifurcation of elites, where the elites who cannot get a decent position in society starts to fight against the status quo and society polarises and can't gain consensus moving forward.

By looking at these numbers, it is quite convenient to simply tell the government to reduce university intake. But that is a problem because the wealthy will buy their degrees from Australia or the UK anyway. Furthermore, it is not politically viable to tell Singaporeans to accept joining the workforce with a diploma when you allow the floodgates to open to foreigners and not audit the quality of their degrees. 

Fortunately for me, it's not my paygrade to propose a solution. 

I hope Minister Chan will think of something that can work for everyone.

If I have free rein, I will first get our Polytechnics certified by foreign bodies to get diplomas the same recognition as a degree overseas rather than build Tier 2 universities. It's just a waste of the student's time to keep them in school any longer than necessary.

I will also have a white list of universities in emerging economies that will consider these degrees equivalent to local degrees with minimum grades.  For the whitelist to have any meaningful effect, the inflow of foreign talent must be controlled and cannot go back to the levels of the Goh Chok Tong administration. 

Moving forward, citizens may have to live with a licensing regime for everything. A lot more forms of blue-collar work can only be performed by licensed individuals in Singapore so as to allow non-degree holders a decent quality of life. 

For a start, as much as it hurts our competitiveness,  maybe HR Managers should be the exclusive domain of Singapore citizens. 


  1. The polys' courses today are not those of 15 or 20 yrs ago. Most are quite rigorous & follow Uni course structures (at least on paper). But the pieces of paper don't get commensurate level of respect, probably coz there's a perception (quite true in some cases) of institutionalised laxness in ensuring almost all poly students will graduate.

    Since the minimum for a "reasonable" family-supporting job today is a degree, let's get rid of the pretense of "good diplomas".

    What UK & Oz have done is to turn their polys into 2nd-tier Unis. Most of our poly syllabi now are pretty much core Uni. Just need to pad it with Biz and/or Sociology-type and/or IT modules (depending on major e.g. Biz diploma + Data Sci & Informatics = Biz degree) to make them Uni-level.

    To get the respect, the new-Unis management will have to be purged/re-educated to impose rigor on the system.

    The main benefit is to cut the time for a significant % of each cohort to start focusing on their work contributions & careers earlier, instead of spending another 1-2 yrs getting a degree (often overpriced & dubious quality), and/or putting in 1-3 years of sub-par work performance as a dis-engaged diploma holder to build up savings before going for said degree.

    The expansion & building of all these new Unis is kinda misguided & a cop-out. They should have worked using the existing Polys as a base.

  2. Its not "overproducing elites". The problem is that there are too few blue collar jobs with pay you could raise a family on.
    Other rich Asian countries like Japan and Korea have a minimum wage and stronger unions.