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

Contradictions

But yet, why does the government continue to encourage people to get a degree, while at the same time, prohibit them from taking one?

To rub salt into the wound, Minister Ong said in parliament earlier this week that, “degrees do not enable people to earn a living,” The Straits Times quoted him as saying, and which echoed what Khaw said in 2013. He added: “Degrees do not define us, individually, or as a society […] Our society needs to evolve, such that all occupations, crafts and trades, whether the skills are acquired through a degree education or not, are respected and recognized.”

But where the gap between what university and polytechnic graduates earn is more than S$1,000 and where degree holders earn nearly twice that of ITE graduates, the fact of the matter is that, “degrees do enable people to earn a [decent] living.” Where Ong would like to say that, “whether […] skills are acquired through a degree education or not,” that all occupations should be respected, as long as the government does not show that respect to non-degree holders by increasing their wages, Ong is not putting his money where his mouth is – workers are not given respect precisely because the government does not accord them the dignity of their wages.

But to commenter Edwin Tow on The Straits Times Facebook page, he said: “I rather we call a spade a spade, and many non[-university] jobs and qualifications [are] in higher demand now than ever.”

Making a comparison, he said, “Taiwan opened up more and more universities from the 2000s so everyone could have a degree, and today they have rearranged themselves into a natural pecking order. Some universities are more recognized than others, and the salaries and job offers differ accordingly as well. Many [university graduates] there end up having to do jobs unrelated, settle for much lower pay (their 22K 二十二K salary fix), or go abroad to seek [for] jobs.”

Indeed, for Taiwanese workers aged 20 to 24, their average starting monthly salary for their first job was NT$23,119 which increased to NT$25,868 on average for all jobs. And for workers aged 25 to 29, their starting salary was NT$27,798 which increased to NT$32,472 for all jobs.

But what Tow did not mention is this – in Taipei, the poverty line is NT$15,162, and there are only 1.7 percent of the people living in Taipei who are living in poverty. In other words, where 84 percent of Taiwanese students go on to study in universities, the majority of Taiwanese graduates all earn starting wages above the poverty line – the average starting salary is 52 percent higher. Compare this with Singapore where with the estimated poverty line of S$2,080, about half of graduates from the polytechnics and ITEs would be earning wages below the poverty line.

Tow ended his comment by saying, “and, Animal Farm has a universal truth in it. Begin with idealism, and end with realism. To counter it? Pragmatism.”

But this is exactly what the Taiwanese are doing – they are paying pragmatic wages. One can fault Taiwan’s education system for having too many universities, but for what it is worth, their graduates do not earn poverty wages. Just by comparing the graduates in both countries, the top 30 percent or so Singaporean youths who graduate from the public universities might earn a starting salary that might be better off, but for the bottom half of Singaporean youths, their below-poverty line starting salary puts them as worse off than Taiwanese youths. This is not to say that the Taiwanese system is better, but at least it has basic protections, as well as free healthcare, unemployment benefits and adequate pension, all of which Singapore does not have.

As such, when Taiwan’s Premier Lin Chuan admitted that Taiwanese wages were low but also pointed out that, “relative to other countries, Taiwanese consumers had higher purchasing power,” what he said is not too far from the truth. Moreover, in some Taiwanese companies, such as at Hon Hai Precision Industry Co for example, Hon Hai chairman Terry Goh had said that, “engineers and administrative staff with bachelor’s degrees are offered starting monthly salaries ranging between NT$36,000 and NT$47,000,” according to newspaper Taipei Times, which at around the median monthly wage of NT$40,853 for private sector workers in Taiwan, means that these Taiwanese university graduates earn equivalent to their Singaporean counterparts, on a purchasing power basis. Taiwanese are not necessarily worse off, and might even be more fortunate. They live in a democracy, no less.

The joke is on Tow. He claimed that Taiwan has “today […] rearranged themselves into a natural pecking order.” But it is Singapore that has perfected the pecking order to the extremes – Singapore’s inequality and rich-poor gap is higher than Taiwan, and the highest among the developed countries.

But perhaps Tow has convinced himself that living inside Animal Farm isn’t that big a deal, for he seems to have taken his own advice, to “begin with idealism,” and “ending with [the] realism” that he has today.

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