Substance over form, Mr Yeo

Mellanie Hewlitt
Singapore Review
17 January 2003

Many would recall Philip Yeo’s comments in the 2nd Nov 2002 issue of the Straits Times: “Got a basic degree? Wash test tubes then”.

The comments raised quite afew eye brows in the community and provoked a backlash of replies from critics. In his reply to his critics Philip Yeo posed two questions;

a) If you were terminally ill, would you trust a surgeon who was a college drop-out?; and
b) Would you take a drug that was designed by a college drop-out?

The questions reveal an innate bias and myopia that permeates the senior ranks of the government bureaucracy and explains in part the dismal performance of the GLCs and State Owned Entities, which are affectionately known by locals as “Scholar Havens”.

Replying to Mr Yeo’s first question, if I was terminally ill I would want to the most experienced surgeon oversee the operation. The emphasis here is on the actual experience as opposed to mere paper qualifications. The last thing I want at my bedside is an arrogant “professional student” whose only experience is scoring straight As in an exam hall, and who has no actual experience.

Afterall, a degree is merely a means to an end. An efficient education system ensures that graduates are equipped with specific skill sets that will address actual needs of the practical work place. Looking again at Mr Yeo’s analogy, it would be a wasteful allocation of resource to have even an A-level student wash test-tubes, let alone a graduate or post-graduate student.

The first sensible rational question is, do we need an undergraduate to wash test-tubes? The answer is obvious. Why then are we faced with this inane question? The startling fact is that with a worsening economy and soaring unemployment rates, there is an over supply of middle management professionals who are now forced to compete for lower tiered jobs with fresh graduates and non-graduates.

And the problem does not just stop there as there is a domino effect and the repercussions are felt throughout the labour market. A Human Resource Manager with a fixed budget for a junior position suddenly found that he could engage an older more experienced and more qualified professional to do more, for less. But where does that leave the fresh graduate who would have otherwise filled this opening? He is unemployed, or forced to look for more menial work.

Arguably, this situation benefits the employer and it is an employer’s market. But viewed on a macro level, it is a far from ideal situation. There is a tremendous amount of wastage of scarce human resources as graduates are unable to put their professional skills to good use.

With the current economic situation going from bad to worse, there are already many examples of overqualified professionals who are forced into menial enterprise. Many become cab-drivers or hawkers to tide over the bad times. Did these professionals spend years in university just to drive a cab or fry Char Kway Teow? Do you actually need a PHD to be a hawker or a cab-driver?

What is even more amusing is the attempt by the local papers and mass media, to glorify such cases (e.g. 12 Jan 2003 issue of the New Paper “From banking man (earning five-digit monthly pay) to Golden Mile nasi lemak man Why”) We can only hope that Mr Yeo’s latest investment in PHD graduates will not add to the growing ranks of the unemployed professionals.

Does the current system work, or is it making an already bad unemployment situation, even worse? Only in Singapore do we have a government that is so engrossed with the accumulation of paper qualifications, that they have long since forgotten the original objective behind the education system, and have instead identified the means as an end to itself. In their blind pursuit of their version of a utopian society, educational elitism takes center stage above all else, eclipsing the actual needs of the labour market itself. The distortions in the demand and supply chain is most acute in industries that are dominated by State Owned Entities and Government Linked Companies. Health care is an excellent example.

For decades it was common knowledge that there was a severe shortage in supply of doctors in Singapore. This had contributed to escalating health care costs to the extent that the paternalistic government found it necessary to increase medisave contributions in CPF accounts. One would have expected the Medical Faculty to increase student intake and also increase employment of foreign doctors to alleviate the dismal situation. But they had steadfastly refused to do either, allowing the situation to go from bad to worse. What compounded the situation was the archaic admissions criteria in the medical faculty which placed a strict quota on female graduates who would otherwise be admissible. The rationale behind this policy can best be described as medieval, resting perhaps on the argument that female doctors will ultimately marry and abandon their medical professions in pursuit of domestic life. This archaic medieval policy was only lifted last year, after being in effect for decades.

Fortunately, the mismatch between demand and supply is much less acute for professions which are less subject to government regulation, and more exposed to the international market. Some examples are banking, accounting, IT etc. Successful professionals in these industries see employment in MNCs which are in sync with market conditions. And market forces are able to address any weaknesses or kinks in the demand-supply chain and weed out inefficient unproductive elements. The same cannot be said of State Runned Enterprises and GLCs which have a free hand into public funds and tax dollars. These are a safe haven in difficult times for fat bacon meat which would otherwise have seen the short end of a shot-
gun in the competitive private sector.

But the disturbing fact remains that these lumbering unproductive loss making enterprises, occupied by government bureaucrats and scholars, will continue to be a burden on the economy and private sector.

The underlying issue here is that due to the inability of the domestic economy to generate higher echelon jobs, and a very weak employment market, graduates (and PHD holders) are often unable to find jobs in positions that they were academically trained for. This is not a failing on the part of the individual, but rather a failing on the part of the system, and yes, ultimately the government. And looking at Mr Yeo’s latest project, it appears that no progress will be made in this area for at least another few years.

Moving away from the gray area of public policies, we must look towards substance over form. Substance in this context refers to the actual experience and ability to perform the job. Form is a decorative facade which is a vague indication (which may be inaccurate) that the person has such ability. Which would you trust if you were terminally ill, a PHD who has never touched a scalpel or a self-thought albeit non-graduate physician who worked her way up as a nurse, and who has successfully treated 1,000 cases similiar to yours? You decide, but the answer is clear to me.

But there is also a more crucial question that lies beyond policy matters waiting to be addressed: CAN THE CURRENT PAP LEADERS IDENTIFY WITH THE NEEDS AND ASPIRATIONS OF THE AVERAGE SINGAPOREAN CITIZEN IN THESE DIFFICULT TIMES?

If we do not have leaders who can understand and relate to the plight of the common man on the street, how can we have faith on these same leaders to lead us out of stormy waters?

Can a leader who continues to receive handsome remuneration in tax dollars ever relate to the plight of the average wage earner who earns less then 10% of his take home pay? How can he even start to appreciate the ramifications of his far-reaching policies (on ERP, petrol, electricity, motor insurance, bus and MRT fares, and now hospital fees) which were all too likely drawn up in a clinical environment?

As unemployment rates soar to new highs, there are also repeated calls by the government for Singaporeans to be less “less choosy” about work. In the Jan 13, 2003 issue of the Straits Times, Lim Boon Heng has called on Singaporeans to “expect smaller wage rises in future”. But this is also akin to a bad tailor who is encouraging a paying customer to be satisfied with very poor workmanship! AFTER SO MANY YEARS OF SLOGGING AND SWEATING in our supposedly elite world class universities, why are we being told to settle for less in terms of careers and expectations?

Perhaps Mr Lim should start applying this sentiment to Singapore’s million-dollar ministers who continue to take home millions of tax dollars per year even in these difficult times. In the past, the merits of such handsome remunerations have always been that these would be needed to attract the best talents and to ensure elite performance. But in the current circumstances, I am still struggling to identify what qualifies as resounding performance from our elite leaders, especially when they have repeated (and admitted) several times over that the economy recovery will be led by external forces. Perhaps our leaders may have more pressing issues on their hands then tudongs and head-dresses at schools.

Oh yes, as for Mr Yeo’s second question, I would have no problems taking a drug that is designed by a college drop-out, if the drug is safe and it works. That is substance. But am I to understand that Mr Yeo would he be willing to take a defective drug if it was developed by a PHD holder?

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