"If you don’t study hard, you will become a ______________ when you grow up"

By Benjamin Chiang

Does that title sound familiar?

I heard it a lot when I was growing up. As a 7 year old, I would look askance at my aunts and shoot them a look of confusion. I was confused because that one sentence packed more questions into it than answers. And at 7 years, I didn’t yet know how to unpack these questions.

a.) So what if I became a ___________ when I grew up? I see many of those around and they live perfectly ok lives.

b.) It wasn’t that I didn’t want to study hard, it’s just that there are subjects I didn’t like. For example, I didn’t want to study Chinese and yet it was a compulsory module for anyone wanted to get into University. No amount of convincing was going to help: I didn’t care for the language and simply did not want to study it.

c.) You hear of the most rich and famous people who didn’t study, what was their formula for success then?

d.) Why do I have to follow the herd? How would I know all this studying wouldn’t be wasted effort?

e.) There was so much I’m “learning” that I didn’t understand and disagreed with, but yet each time I posed a question, the teacher’s knee-jerk is to tell me not to ask and to accept the answer. How on earth would I continue studying with mind blocks like this.

And then there was that big word: meritocracy.

The problem is back then “meritocracy” translates to the layman as: “you got University degree or not”?

Your future pay package was sealed the minute you were streamed into “normal” or “express”. Heading to ITE, polytechnic or university was the final nail in the coffin. Some of our teachers constantly reminded us of that fact.

I hated that system. For as long as I was a teenager, not passing Chinese meant that I was never going to get into university so I might as well give up.

This was in the 90s. I see things changing in society these days. Since the tightening of labour began in 2011, the Government had publicly called for more changes to the way we approach paper qualifications. We’re now seeing more new policies such as “one race to the top”, which in a way merges the career paths of both the degree and diploma holders in the civil service.

The narrative has now shifted from “qualification for qualification’s sake” to one where skills take the centerstage. This is further reinforced by having two Ministers in the Education ministry. While Ng Chee Meng’s role will be to continue the leadership at the traditional role of education, Ong Ye Kung’s involvement is a little more interesting.

Mr. Ong, will be in charge of matters related to higher education and skills training. Other than ITEs, polytechnics and universities, his work will narrow in also on private education, continuing education and training.

What I’m hoping to see is for this Minister to move the branding of the Singaporean workforce to the forefront. To do so requires him to influence and change our traditional mindsets on education and to see learning as a way to acquire new skills. Rather than just qualify for qualifications sakes.

He needs to convince all layers of society (the MNCs especially) that their policies of only recruiting degree-holders for their management-trainee programmes is not going to work in a labour starved Singapore. He needs them to be convinced that our workers regardless of pedigree, has the ability to do the work and rise through the ranks.

Singapore needs to standout in a world where degree holders are exported by the shiploads and where the traditional forms of educational excellence is being rapidly commoditised. Our workers need to understand that papers do not guarantee good jobs anymore.

It is not qualifications, but skills that are the new future.

For the rest of us who have passed school age? Never stop learning, never stop skilling.

If I could send some advice back to my 7 year old self, it would sound something like this:

“Study hard. Study hard not because you would not have a job.

In the future, there would exist jobs that you wouldn’t even imagine! Games, cartoons, story telling, toys – these are all jobs that would pay so much and make you so rich.

But don’t study hard because it would make you rich. No, if you do you would be extremely disappointed. Study hard because it would sharpen your mind and make you think like no one else would.

Do maths, do Chinese, do chemistry. Read your history. Learn them well not for any practical reason. No one is going to ask you to measure the radius on the cake before you have it and/or eat it. You’d probably never use another Chinese idiom in your life again ever. But learn them well because a skillful mind is flexible, is creative, can recall facts quickly, is witty and knowledgeable.

Learn your literature, not just because it is an art form…but use it to sharpen your communication skills. The ability to speak, write and present well is going to open more doors for you than any qualification can.

Learn your geography because you are going to travel to so many cities and visit so many towns. You’ll be one up the person who cannot tell the difference between Machu Picchu and Manchester.

Study hard so that you can think faster, work smarter, solve more problems than anyone else. Do this and the future will take care of itself.”

This article first appeared on Five Stars And A Moon. It is reproduced with permission.


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