Singapore is not as literate as you think

By 2030, 900,000 citizens will be 65 years and older.


According to SingStat, only 70% of Singaporeans aged 25 and above are literate.

Can you imagine that? Singapore – where education is compulsory and where the administration prides itself on effective communication with the public, yet there still exist a good 30% of us who are illiterate!

According to data by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), younger Singaporeans rank very highly in numeracy, literacy and problem-solving skill. Credit to this goes directly to our national planning efforts; to make schools compulsory, heavy national investment into training and fostering a culture that places great emphasis on learning and meritocracy.

However, there was a time when Singaporeans did not enjoy these things. This was a time when the nation was not yet fully mature and was still being constructed. The result is older adults aged 45 to 65 performed lower than the OECD average. These older Singaporeans ranked 31st in literacy and numeracy skills and 18th for problem-solving.

Almost eight in 10 respondents of the survey said they were not native speakers of English.

The result of poor skills, is poor employability. And poor employability results in lower wages and a poorer quality of life.

Many of us look at Singapore through our first-world tinted lenses and expect everyone to be able to afford a house, good meals, good entertainment and plenty of disposable income. Because of that, we form in our minds a lot of “oughts” that we think a citizen should have. That somehow makes us entitled.

The real world however, is not like that. We are still after all, a free market society. Our income and material possessions is pegged directly to how much we can contribute to the economy. If a person’s education and skills are weak, chances are that his bank account would be weak too. And it is only fair.

Labour politicians have voiced their concerns. Heng Chee How of the NTUC said that the responsibility of investments into further education should be shared between the individual, the company and the country. Not just one particular organisation. “A skills gap damages the employment chances for older workers. It hurts the capability and competitiveness of companies, especially as the Singapore local workforce is aging. It reduces the ability of the country to amass the resources to cater to the needs of an aging population.said the Labour MP on his Facebook wall. 

Patrick Tay, also a Labour MP from the NTUC made a five point observation in response to the OECD report. One of his remarks was a reminder that ours is an ageing population. “Bearing in mind we have an Ageing workforce, it is crucial for Employers and also employees/workers to take pro-active steps to upskill, re-skill, Deep skill and second skill their workers/themselves to ensure they stay employed and employable and also future ready and relevant.

See the rest of Patrick’s notes here.

In a meritocratic society, everyone has a fair chance in the race to the top. However, in the perspective of education and skills, the younger ones have it a little more fair than others.

This should not be a zero sum race. We’re here to help each other. We’re here to give a boost to the other person who may not be as qualified, articulated or as literate as us.

We have a corporate environment that has the resources to train and give everyone the same chance, as long as they’re willing. We should put that to good use.



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