School’s Out: How Singapore Keeps University Reserved for the Elites

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A fair wage and competition

But then, where the government would urge Singaporeans to “do justice” to their jobs, would the government “do justice” to the wages of Singaporeans? How can Singaporeans “love” the job they find, if they cannot find jobs which pay them adequately?

Is this why the Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recently told Singaporeans that they “must make sure [they] steal somebody else’s lunch”?

In 2010, Lee had told Singaporeans that, “we will ensure enough school and university places and we will upgrade our system so that everybody gets a good education.” But since then, Singapore has taken a very different tone.

In 2013, Lee said at the Ngee Ann Polytechnic’s 50th Anniversary Dinner: “polytechnic graduates need not see a degree as the only avenue forward.”

To that end, the government introduced the SkillsFuture program for polytechnic and ITE graduates to “deepen their skills and gain a head-start in their careers.” However, there was one glaring omission in the program – there was no proposal to increase the wages of polytechnic and ITE graduates. SkillsFuture was like a wallpaper. In October of that year, the MOE announced that, “non-graduate classroom teachers will progress in the same way as peers with graduate qualifications and be paid along the same salary structure,” as reported by The Straits Times. The paper also reported that, “up to 30,000 teachers will receive 4 percent to 9 percent increases in their monthly wages, to ensure they keep pace with the market.” The “graduate and non-graduate salary structures for these non-teaching staff, such as counselors, will be merged from next April,” which this, Minister Heng said, “is very much in line with SkillsFuture, to go beyond academic qualification to focus on skills and contributions.”

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But read a bit deeper into the article and it is revealed that, “however, graduate and non-graduate teachers will continue to be recruited at different starting salaries.” While graduate teachers earn a gross starting salary from S$3,010 to S$3,310, non-graduate teachers earn only S$1,580 to S$1,920. Of course, the different levels of skills training that the teachers are provided might necessitate a difference in pay scale, but even after the highest wage increment of 9 percent, non-graduate teachers would still only earn S$1,720 to S$2,090, which is still at the level of the estimated poverty line of S$2,080 or even lower.

In a Channel NewsAsia television talkshow in the same year, a Madam Zubaidah who was undergoing a SkillsFuture training program, said, “if I don’t have a degree, my salary will be capped at S$2,000, so that’s a challenge.” But in response, Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say told her that, “it has never been more crucial for workers to seek an upgrade to their skills amid a glut of degree-holders.”

He added: “we hope the day will come that a person like yourself has two options – either you go back to school to get your degree or you continue working while continuing with industry-based training.” He made no mention of pay.

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