Open letter – Time to call off the paper chase?

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of this magazine. This letter was sent anonymously. 

Dear Minister Khaw Boon Wan,

I recently chanced upon this meme which then led me to an ST article in which you said university degrees aren’t vital for success.

My first reaction was to agree with you. After all, society is full of individuals who didn’t have the opportunity to finish school or attend university and yet are functional and balanced people who contribute immensely to both society and the economy.

We’ve all heard the legends of multimillionaire dropouts who are living proof that you don’t need a college education or degree to succeed in business or in life. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Richard Branson are just some of the most famous examples, but there are many other inspiring stories.

But then when I really thought about what you said and thought back to all the time, money, and effort spent acquiring my 3 degrees, I got a little upset. And the more I thought about it, the more upset I got.

Why, you may ask?

Well, mainly because I am the pure product of our result-oriented education system, a system which may have its flaws but remains the best way to ensure a good job, a successful life, a secure future, and the overall key to happiness.

At least that’s what I was told throughout my life. That’s what I believed for a long time.

And then I was confronted with the real world. The world of interviewers, recruiters, manipulators, influencers, networkers, gate-keepers, backstabbers, gossipers, and profiteers.

Only instead of seeing the job market in Singapore for what it is – a ruthless, cut-throat environment in which it’s every man for himself – I blamed myself for my shortcomings. I blamed myself for each of the bad experiences I encountered.

“I seem to be the only one struggling to find and keep a job, something must be wrong with me!”

You see, having being told my whole life that passing competitive examinations and spending late nights studying were necessary evils to reach success and riches, I was tragically unprepared to handle the bouts of struggles and self-doubt that go along with building a career.

It’s not easy to find out that the education system I trusted so deeply spent so much time convincing me I’d automatically join the ranks of the country’s elite instead of preparing me to the harsh realities of the professional world.

It was one of the harshest realisations I’ve had to deal with as an adult.

I am, of course, not blaming you or anyone else for the shortcomings or the obstacles I may have encountered throughout my (short) career in Singapore.

But I do take issue with the fact that the idea that academic success necessarily leads to professional success – and happiness – was so deeply ingrained in me that I felt betrayed and abandoned when success didn’t knock on my door once I held my end of the bargain (studying and graduating).

Historically speaking, I know why I was taught the things I was taught; my parents grew up at a time when paper qualifications were what set workers apart and opened the doors to jobs, promotions, and material prosperity. And in their time this may have been true.

The paper chase in Singapore has endured two generations, with numerous proponents of the cause echoing this same fear- or money-driven sentiment.

The problem is that that generation’s paper chase as a way to stay competitive and at the top was then propagated to my generation, which is facing a whole different set of pressures, competitions, and realities.

Things aren’t as simple as “No Qualifications = No Future” anymore.

The fact of the matter is that nowadays qualifications don’t mean a thing without experience. Just about everyone in my age group has some sort of degree (some two or three), and it seems like every other day some new business school opens its doors to fresh-faced students.

But what these schools still fail to point out to students is that getting a degree does not guarantee anything in life. It may help you cope better than non-graduates in uncertain economic times and it may bring you to rub shoulders with some of the most brilliant people in Singapore, but it will never take you straight to your idea of “success”.

Which brings us back to the start. Armed with the knowledge I now have, I’d probably do things differently. I probably would have begun working right after my Bachelor’s degree instead of studying for 2 Master degrees and forgoing precious real-world experience.

It would have saved me the trouble of reaching the job market overqualified and inexperienced—too expensive for entry-level positions but not experienced enough for the more senior roles.

That’s why I thought I should write this.

Not just to share my experiences and give my views on our education system, but to urge you to call off the paper chase and encourage our country’s youth to choose their own path in life instead of waiting to be led wherever the economy demands they go.

I mention this because I noticed that your diploma comment was made shortly after your call for more local crane operators, which made me wonder if your stance on paper qualifications was referring more to the fact that our economy needs more blue collared workers than to the fact that each Singaporean should follow his own true individual calling.

I hope this open letter will help younger Singaporeans think about the way they want to live their life as early as possible, so that they don’t have to find what they’re looking for in a foreign country, like I did.

Yours earnestly,

A Singapore Citizen Living Abroad (B.A., MPC, M.Comm)

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