"Well, as I said, because so many more are getting higher education, the scarcity value of a degree is less. Furthermore, the overall inequality in the society is much less than when 3 or 5 % were getting degrees and they were in great demand. If you had a degree, you could easily buy a house or a car, and it was no problem because that was your pulling power. Now, with 20% getting degrees and more tertiary educated, they are earning more than those who didn't go to university. But university graduates are not as few as before and, therefore, make less."
- PM Lee Hsien Loong, Harvard Interview[Link]
The Singapore Dream was once defined as 5Cs - Cars, Cash, Condo, Club Membership, Credit Card. These days they market credit cards to anyone with a heartbeat so you can drop that... overspending on your credit card can easily result in a nightmare. Club membership and cash are quite ill-defined - you can take club membership to be at one of the exclusive country clubs with golf not your NTUC Fairprice membership and cash to be something like $1-$2M in today's dollars. The Cs are still relevant today at least for a large segment of our population whose values have been shaped by materialistic orientation of today's society. I'll get back to the 5Cs but first I would like to share something from my childhood...
One of the fondest memories from my childhood is that of my dad driving the whole family to a drive-in cinema somewhere in Jurong. I can't remember what movie was screened but that day, my sister and I got to sit on the bonnet and roof of the car to watch the movie. In those days, I lived in a kampung but my dad owned a car so we get to go places. Family weekends were spent fishing at Bedok Jetty, the beautiful beaches, rustic Sentosa, movies etc. Children did not get much homework in those days. I was an undisciplined student who did not submit 90% of his homework even when required. Those days the teachers did not bother, my father did not bother as long as I passed and I had this thinking that if I understood the stuff they were teaching, homework wasn't important. PSLE was a pass/fail thing i.e. no marks involved. You can take it that I had a childhood - a happy one. My dad worked as a technician all his life after he earned his 'O' level attending night school. Degrees were rare in the 60s when a large part of the population was uneducated. My dad's story is one of spectacular social mobility. We left the kampung in the late 70s when my dad bought a HDB flat. It was fully paid in a few years and my dad was debt free. In the late 80s there was nasty recession and housing prices plummeted. My dad bought a terrace house and serviced his loan with his technician pay. My parents still stay in the terrace house today. Our neighbors have moved and sold their properties. The house on the left was sold to a rich lawyer and the one on the right was sold to a rich specialist doctor. You may be asking : what is so spectacular about that? Many people were able to do that in those days. See my dad had one of the worst starting point possible. He was an orphan and had to support himself working when he was still a child. Owning a landed property and putting all this children through university exceeded his wildest dreams....and he did it working as a technician. Two years ago, my dad asked me to buy the neighbor's house. Our neighbor's son got into some financial trouble and he had to sell the house to help his son out. I couldn't match the price offered by the rich lawyer and was priced out....actually I didn't come that close to being able to buy it because I realised later when I got to know the lawyer better that he is, to put it bluntly, 'filthy rich' and would have offered a much higher price because he liked the location. I was priced out 2 years ago and at today's prices, I'm completely priced out. But that is just a small disappointment not being able to own the same type of housing as my dad. The challenges for our younger generation is much bigger than mine - life is tough even for an Ivy Leaguer like Scott Huang (see previous post).
There is one C that describes our society so well - that C is COMPETITION. Intense competition that one cannot avoid. If you look at attaining the 5 Cs as a form of success, then a high rate of failure is built into the system - number of cars is dictated by a quota so most people will not own one and only 20% of the population will live in private property as land is scarce. Working hard alone will not do. You have to make more money than the other 80%. As if it is not intense enough, the PAP govt make sure the spurs are in your hide by importing people at a high rate at all levels. Today 80% of the 1st class honours in engineering are foreigners because the govt goes overseas through Contact Singapore and other means to hand out scholarships to bring in foreign students in large numbers. Among the 2 billion people in China & India, you can always find a large number of smart people willing to come here for a fully paid education. Don't be so simplistic to think that the local guys are not good enough to do well. When you have a quota and you have to grade people, people get knocked off simply due to the quota i.e the differentiation can be inaccurate and artificial. You can this extend to the rest of society. People make a mistake when they think that this intense competition and our meritocracy goes hand in hand ...but this idea of doing better when you work smarter and harder is only true up to a certain level of competition. When competition becomes too intense and working hard alone is not enough to attain your dreams and people will resort to excessive risk taking, unethnical, unfair, unhealthy & immoral ways to get what they want. What emerges out of this intense competition is not a better, stronger and cohesive society that can take on world but a selfish, unhappy one that is bogged down by the numerous failures it creates internally. Our FT policy went from one to import only the best carefully selected people to elevate Singaporeans to one that brought in so many people that it can only depress Singaporeans. PAP policies has caused the dreams of Singaporeans to become less attainable and the intense competition is now a source of great unhappiness in our society....and there is now plenty of unhappinessness with the PAP.
While many Singaporeans still dream of the 5Cs, a growing number dream about having more freedom, democracy, equality and justice in our society. The 2 dreams are ultimately linked and whatever stands in the way of one is also standing the way of the other. A growing number of Singaporeans do not want to wait any longer - they are leaving. The other day, there was great dismay in my company when we found out that an employee from one of our associates had applied to emigrate to New Zealand. My company had invested a large sum to have him trained for something very high tech and uncommon. I was asked to find out what was going on. He told me that our investment is safe because he has no plans to leave in the next 5 years. He was getting a head start because such applications can take a very long time. I asked him why he wanted to leave when he is actually doing quite well for himself in Singapore. He told me that looking ahead there is great uncertainty for his children - they are average students and may not have the same capabilities as him.....there is great uncertainty how well they will do given the extremely intense competition here. I asked him, "why New Zealand?". He told me that any place where an average person can lead a high quality of life would be okay....and that is probably what it takes to keep good people in Singapore. It is not just about attaining our own dreams but also a system that will give our children a good chance to do well in life.