Alan Soh

I am my own columnist, sharing my own thoughts and recent experiences!

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The talk about Scholars, University graduates and non-graduates (Pt 1)

In the past few weeks, there has been much discussion ongoing online and offline among Singaporeans pertaining the recommendation report produced by The Applied Study in Polytechnic and Institute of Technical Education Review (ASPIRE) committee which is chaired by Ms Indranee Rajah, Senior Minister of State for Education & Law.

This report focuses on the value of getting the right qualification, be it a vocational certificate, a diploma or a university degree. It stresses the importance of obtaining the right skillsets and knowledge that would enhance the value of an individual as a worker in our Singaporean society, for now and the future.

For full details on the report, do logon to this Ministry of Education (MOE) webpage on ASPIRE ->

I would like to share this ST Sunday Times editorial commentary written by its deputy editor, Ms Zuraidah Ibrahim on “shattering myths about scholars, smarts and respect”. Dated Sunday 14 September 2014, page 39.

Which I agree wholeheartedly after reading it.

Last week in Parliament, MPs spent hours dissecting what it means to become a society that is less obsessed with the paper chase and more concerned with lifelong learning.

MOE Minister Heng Swee Keat tried valiantly to disabuse us of what he described as 3 “limiting beliefs” that could prevent people from fulfilling their potential.

One was the assumption that paper qualifications are the be-all and end-all. All the university degrees in the world might not get you a job, he said, if there are no jobs to be had. And, most jobs actually require a variety of skills, not just that one piece of paper.

Another limiting belief, perhaps in overreaction to the old obsession with educational credentials, is that qualifications do not matter at all.

The third is when people believe that they will lose out when others earn qualifications, overlooking the fact that the whole team can benefit when its diverse members develop better skills.

With regards to the ASPIRE report, nobody would disagree that this would be a proper and productive conclusion. However, people doubt whether our society has already arrived at this better place.

And until they are confident that the environment around them has changed, they cannot be blamed for continuing in the old mode. Afterall, where jobs are concerned, it is not a great idea to be too far ahead of the curve – you want to be valued by today’s employers, not those in some hypothetical future.

To make that leap of faith, one can see at least 3 mindsets in our society at large that needs to be broken:

Mindset no. 1 – Scholars equals smart (i.e talents)

It may be less pronounced than when my peers and I started out in the working world, but it remains an awkward truth. The divide between overseas scholarship holders and those who obtained local degrees persist. Defenders of the scholarship system insist that if scholars fly, it is because their GCE A-Level results and the hoops they went through to win scholarships turn out to be accurate predictors of their workplace contributions; non-scholars’ allegations of unfairness are just masking the fact that they are genuinely not as able.

Certainly, some of the strengths that won them their scholarships, combined with the exposure and confidence imbued by a good overseas education, do translate into superior workplace performance. But it would be disingenuous to ignore systemic reasons why scholars are unfairly favoured when they start work.

It is only human for bosses to fall prey to a confirmation bias. Having decided to invest hundred thousands of dollars in an individual and committed to a firm contract of 4 to 6 years, it is natural for employers to give the returning scholar more opportunities. It would take an extremely honest organisation to admit, actually he is no better than the guy who just showed up from a local university.

Of course, employers have tried to make the system more open and less determined by examination results. The Administrative Service (Singapore Civil Service), for example, is no longer the monopoly of returning overseas scholars that it once was.

Employers could do more to accomodate those who did not get scholarships but developed themselves in the course of higher education.

The reality, though, is that there is a limit to how much opportunities can be equalised as long as organisations use the scholarship system to compete with one another for the same bright young talents.

If they get too ruthless with their returning scholars, it will affect their ability to recruit the next batch of scholars. The top A-Level students have no shortage of opportunities and, often, multiple scholarship offers. They can afford to be fussy and to scrutinise what exactly are they getting into when they sign that 6-year bond.

An organisation where most returning scholars are being treated like the ELITE that their schools have taught them to believe they are will obviously be more attractive than one where scholars are routinely overtaken by local graduates.

Thus, just as with employees, it is unlikely that individual organisations’ mindsets will change as long as wider employment practices (in Singapore) are hooked on scholarships as a shortcut method to finding talent.

(To be continued……)


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Speaking up in English

speak englishSingapore Member of Parliament for Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC, Mr Hri Kumar has shared his thoughts about parenthood and PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) via Facebook today.


This was what he shared:

There were 2 stories in the news this week about our education system. The Sunday Times of 30th March reported a speech by Assoc Professor Jason Tan (from National Institute of Education) where he introduced a new word (at least to me): Parentocracy.  Basically, AP Tan said that children today are more likely to succeed based on the advantages their parents give them, and less so on their individual abilities.   

On Wednesday, we learned that the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) ranked Singapore teens top in the world in a problem solving test. It puts paid to the often heard criticism that Singapore students are just excellent at rote learning. Our PISA ranking is a great achievement, and our students, their teachers and the MOE deserves credit.

But there is one important aspect of education which PISA does not test, and we should be mindful of.    

I have been a working professional for over 20 years, and have interacted with many Singaporeans at all levels of the employment ladder. While there are always black sheep, the Singaporeans I have dealt with are hardworking, knowledgeable and have a deep sense of responsibility and commitment to their work. But they are often let down by their standard of spoken English and a lack of confidence to persuade or articulate their views on their feet. Many employers I know share this view.   

I say this not to criticise Singaporeans but to highlight that we are paying a high price for this deficit.   However skilled you are at problem-solving and however many hours you spend at your desk, you will not likely make a strong impression in the business world if you are unable to communicate your thoughts and ideas effectively. I have lost count of the number of times I have attended meetings where Singaporeans keep silent while others dominate the discussion, thus giving the impression that the latter are more knowledgeable or capable. If you say nothing, people will assume that you have nothing to contribute. That is a serious disadvantage if you are competing for a job, a promotion or a project.  

To be clear, I am not saying that we should be all talk and no action. To put it simply, it is important to have the substance, but you need to demonstrate the form as well because, like it or not, you will be judged on that.    

What does this have to do with our education system?

I believe that one reason why my generation of Singaporeans lack such skills is that there was never any incentive to speak up or speak well in school. In my time, oral exams were only pass/fail, and were, frankly, meaningless. So, very little time was spent on making presentations or engaging in activities which enabled us to speak up. Instead, we spent a lot of time writing and on hard subjects, because that is what the exams demanded of us. If we were poor in English or our second language, we memorised compositions and hoped that a similar topic would come up in the exam! Where English was concerned, the deficit was not made up outside school as very few of us spoke good (or any) English with our family and friends. In short, we graduated not equipped with the oratory skills important for our working lives.   

The Ministry of Education has moved on this. A few years ago, it introduced the STELLAR program and has changed the PSLE English syllabus to promote better speaking skills. There are more activities for students to make presentations and engage in debate. Our students now are more confident to speak up. These are good steps, but I wonder whether they are enough. Anecdotal evidence suggests that much more is being done in this area in the international schools. It would be good if we could get a sense of how our students are doing compared to others.  

Here is the connection to AP Tan’s point. If we placed greater emphasis on speaking up in schools, and assess students accordingly, there will be a greater incentive to speak well. Nothing focuses the minds of students and parents better. I am not proposing to burden our kids even more – we can afford to scale back a bit on content. Yes, parentocracy dictates that those with means can and will send their kids for enrichment classes to improve their speaking skills.  But that advantage will always be there in any system – think tuition and personal coaching for art, dance and tennis to meet direct school admission (DSA) requirements.   

But here is the thing – it costs much less money to get our children to speak up and speak well than to learn to play tennis or the piano. The difference is that at the end of the day, our children will learn a real skill which will benefit them for the rest of their lives.

My thoughts:

Like most Singaporean students, I used to be quiet in school during my younger days. Dare not voice opinions. Because I fear of appearing stupid or ridiculous in front of others. 

In the past 10 years or so, as I stepped out into the workforce and due to my hearing-challenge issue, I began to push myself, to speak up as often as I can. Partly also due to peer influence (most people around me are uni graduates and professionals), I need to bench-mark myself, therefore I make sure I speak proper English as fluently as I can.

I only do Singlish-speaking during informal settings such as conversations with friends or family members.

I am usually a quiet worker. I think long before I speak. If I can do so on-the-spot, I will try to value-add to the task by providing constructive feedback or share some honest opinions.

I am well aware of the fact that if I don’t bother to speak fluent English as often as I can at appropriate occasions publicly, NOBODY will know how well I can express myself, let alone gauging my communication skills, performance appraisal etc.

Having intelligence quotient  (cognition, memory, thinking, process) is important, but other factors such as emotional quotient (self awareness, self regulation, emotions management) and social quotient (social & interpersonal skills, political strategies, leadership, influence, negotiation, communication, impression management) are also equally vital as well.

I believe EQ and SQ can help one succeed further in life, than just relying on IQ.

At the end of the day, you want people to notice you. Agree?