Singapore Needs Expats Because Its Education System Suppresses Creativity
Top image credit: Asia Law Network

Singapore today is awash with foreign workers. Not just solely for cheap manual labour, but also for high paying executive positions. Executive positions that are highly sought after by Singaporeans, that corporations would pay both locals and foreigners a premium to fill up.

There are two popular perspectives on how this situation came to be. The first is that Singapore needs them to grow our economy. The other is that the government is responsible for opening the floodgates. Both are misguided. Both try to give simple explanations, which unfortunately do not actually address the root cause of this employment issue.

Shaun Tan’s article Dear Singaporeans, Foreigners Are Not Stealing Your Jobs (July 3) once again opens the conversation on Singaporeans love-hate affair with immigration of foreign talent. We are grateful for the construction workers and blue-collared workers who are invaluable to our economy, but damn the white-collar expats who keep competing with Singaporeans for high-paying jobs.

Speaking as an IT professional, I am well aware that my own industry is one of the greatest culprits of hiring foreign talents. But, and this is important to note, we wouldn’t do so if we didn’t have to in the first place.

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Foreigners are more expensive and difficult to hire. These are either corporate executives or technical staff who require better accommodation than a workers dormitory. They are proud, educated people who are aware that they face no local competition and will demand a higher salary package.

Companies spend heavily on recruitment agents to source for suitable talent from overseas (and they are often duped by unqualified hires), and HR departments have to settle extra administrative work with the Ministry of Manpower. With no attachment to Singapore, expatriate staff can hold their company hostage should they suddenly decide to leave the country and abandon their jobs. Why would any company willingly subject themselves to such nerve-wrecking situations?

So if there are locals willing to do the job, and there are companies are willing to hire them, why are we still complaining about firms hiring foreign talent? Its because many of us have been sold a myth that permeates Singaporean society. We have been led to believe that Singaporeans receive a world-class education which prepares us for employment.

That is not to say our education standards arent high, nor that a high standard of education isn’t sought after by the industry. These are still important factors. Having once been a private tutor, I am well aware of the kinds of pressures that Singapore society places on our kids to excel in their studies, and many students actually deliver strong academic performances. However, what we are mistaken on is that education standards are the most important consideration in HR decisions.

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This brings me to my main point: Singapores education system ill-prepares our kids for work. It may sound shocking to many, considering that Singapore students are ranked globally as top in math and science, and our universities have made it to the worlds top 20 university rankings. Furthermore, these are perfect statistics for developing academics people specialised at researching about their subject areas.

But these are not the reasons why firms hire professionals and executives.

What companies require of their executives is instead a flexibility of skills. We are living in an era where specialised industry processes are being taken over by computers and automation. Companies have no need to hire people with the capabilities of just performing repeated, tedious, memory-intensive work. What they lack are people with the adaptability and flexibility to fill various changing business conditions, and the ability to pull knowledge from various different fields to make wise judgements.

However, that is not the direction that Singapore’s education has headed. Instead of giving students a wider breadth of courses and flexibility of fields, the government has encouraged specialisation in a narrow range of subjects in polytechnics. Rather than appreciating the value of the different subjects in JCs, our students are forced through a rigid paper chase.

On top of this, Singapore has one of the most bureaucratic systems in the world, governed by key performance indicators (KPI). This has also led to our education system being less adaptable. Even when schools try their hand at non-academic CCAs, the goal is not to develop students holistically but to fulfill even more KPIs.

Singapore’s education system moulds our kids to think in a few fixed ways. It encourages a specialised mindset based on rigid measurements of performance. In a different era, this might have been considered a valuable education. However, that this isn’t the demand of today’s modern industry, and its unfortunate that we have yet to change our mindset.

This article was written by Jan Chan, an IT consultant, in response to our previous article on foreign competition for Singaporean jobs.

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