Is Education Minister Heng Swee Keat Talking Cock?

Come I clap for you. Some job in reality is more equal than others.

Minister for Education Heng Swee Keat said in his speech during the Committee of Supply (Education) debate last Friday there is a need for the country to embark on changes to transform the education landscape, an colossal endeavor which requires the collective will of employers, educators, students and society. He acknowledged that students were under stress to perform academically as they will be judged based on their grades. He went on and on about the need for diverse pathways that can define success uniquely distinct from the conventional academic route.

Looks like Heng tried to appease the young parents who worry about the paper chase that will place undue stress on their strawberry children and I am hesitant to agree this is not a pre-election political gimmick to calm the unsteady ground.

I cannot help but noticed Heng emphasizing on the alternative routes to success, yet at the same time he did not reject the current model of pursuing success via academic merit which has arguably served Singapore well for the past 50 years.

What he envisioned will not be effective unless changes start from within the civil service itself.

The civil service places heavy emphasis on academic grades which defines the starting pay packages for new officers and their career progression because academic grades is a quantifiable variable that can be used to "outright" justify an officer’s salary; after all, their salaries are borne by tax payers. Let’s take a look at MINDEF officer’s pay package:

Paper chase not important? My ass.

You can see one's starting pay is determined by one's qualifications – a diploma holder LTA can only draw $3090, a pass degree LTA can draw $4060, a pass degree with merit can draw $4220, an honours degree (2nd lower and below) can draw $4390, and honours degree holder with 2nd upper and above can draw $4590.

Any rational student who chanced upon this particular chart and wishes to pursue a career with the SAF will definitely try to get into a local university and score well. Who in the right mind will sign on within the SAF as a career officer with only a diploma when you know your starting salary pales in comparison to a degree holder yet will be performing similar roles as him/her? Imagine a diploma holder platoon commander knows that the platoon commander one floor below you earns minimally $1000 more but both are performing the same roles and that chap is earmarked to be an OC or CO while the diploma holder knows he is pretty much stuck on the climb up the ladder. It must have been a sucky feeling I reckon.

MINDEF’s focus on academic qualification is jarring. But some public agencies are not so explicitly hurtful. Let’s take a look at the starting pay packages for senior police officers:

You cannot help but notice that they have 2 ranks listed for applications – ASP and INSP, and it comes with a caveat that says “Appointment grade and starting salary will vary according to assessment of academic qualifications”. Why are there 2 ranks? A pass degree holder and a degree with merit will both be appointed as inspectors, while graduates with good honours will be able to sign on with a higher rank (and salary) as an ASP. At least the SPF tries to present the chart in a less elitist, discriminating manner.

Hopeful parents who think that their child will have a better life after the educational review, think again. The mindset that “good academic record holders make better officers” has served Singapore reasonably well for 50 years and I doubt this successful model can (or will) be changed overnight.

So I think it is still worthwhile to send your kids to tuition classes and drill them well as far as academics are concerned to ensure they ace their examinations. Good paper qualification still counts significantly towards a good start in your child’s career.

This article was first published over at the Taming The Crowd blog on 9 March 2015. It is reproduced with permission.


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