By Seah Chiang Nee
In the face of a changed labour market, Singapore may have decided to keep the local university population from increasing beyond current levels.
The more cautious approach to higher education emerged from private talks that a senior education ministry official had with a U.S. diplomat several years ago, according to WikiLeaks.
No formal announcement has been made, but the remarks quickly set off a buff of excitement among Singaporeans, who worship higher education as a god of success.
The official was quoted as telling the diplomat that the government did not plan to encourage more students to go for university studies.
The campus enrolment rate would be maintained around 20 per cent to 25 per cent of total Singapore students. The reason, she added, was the labour market did not need everyone to get a degree.
While political leaders have denied other WikiLeaks allegations, no one has commented on this subject.
Not playing a numbers game
Recently, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat said, in future, university planning could not "be a numbers game alone" and that "it has to be a strategic approach, responding to the needs of the economy".
The revelation has raised public speculation, including one that it is cheaper and faster to bring in trained foreigners en masse than to produce them at home.
Given past records, this is unlikely to be the whole truth. The government has always given priority to developing Singaporeans to play an economic role.
But such talk persists. "The number of local students is being reduced because foreign professionals are available at lower salaries," said a former IT engineer who is now doing jobs on an ad hoc basis.
Adding to the unhappiness is the presence of foreign students, who make up roughly 20 per cent of students in local campuses.
This new move is seen in some quarters as a new quota of sorts.
Some of the harsher critics call the limitation a downsizing of the national ambition, or at least of the individual dream.
To economists, however, there are wider fundamental reasons for it. The demise of the manufacturing era has significantly altered the job market.
Many of the newly-created jobs today are in services that do not require formal four-year university training. "A degree is nice to have, but we need something else," is a regular employer comment.
For example, the opening of the two resorts required some graduates to be retrained as casino dealers and roulette operators.
In the past decade, thousands of retrenched middle-aged professionals have become property or insurance agents. Others are driving taxis.
This has evidently made the government worried about producing more graduates that the market does not need, especially with the global economy turning dismal.
A different approach
If the WikiLeaks report is accurate, Singapore seems to be breaking ranks with countries whose universities keep churning out masses of students for jobs that often do not exist.
Reuters reported this week that China's colleges are pushing out graduates in numbers far exceeding demand.
"A decade-long expansion in university capacity has created distortions in the job market," the news agency said. "China needs to work on the imbalances."
Singapore's tale is different. This is a smaller entity where numbers are easier to manipulate.
The universities here produced some 12,000 graduates in 2007 — or 25 per cent of all students — below Japan's 50 per cent. But this is only half the story.
According to Unesco, a further 18,000 Singaporeans were studying in foreign universities that year — half of them in Australia. In one year, some 4,000 enlist in US universities.
Poor hardest hit
Social commentator Lucky Tan said any university cutback would work against lower-income Singaporeans who could not afford to study abroad.
The WikiLeaks story showed the government was unable to fulfil its pledge to develop every Singaporean to his full potential.
Some Singaporeans are, however, supportive of being cautious. "It is important to maintain a balanced, orderly labour market for the sake of social order," said one writer.
Society does not only need graduates, she said. Who is going to work as a mechanic? Or cook?
In an observation on Asia's chaotic past, former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew spoke of the dangers of educating hordes of graduates and being unable to provide them jobs.
He noticed that many unemployed graduates often ended up roaming the streets, making violent revolution.
In a recent related comment, Lee remarked that Singaporeans were not getting smarter, only better educated.
Willingness to sacrifice
The ruling People's Action Party is not yet facing such a crucial test, and how sensitively it can handle public grouses — especially on jobs and education — will decide its future.
More than anyone, he knows his people's readiness to sacrifice for their children's education.
Many families are prepared to set a huge monthly budget to pay fees to private tutors to give their children the edge in exams to make it to university.
Just three months ago, a father angrily wrote how he had to sell off his prized house to finance his son to study medicine in Britain because he was rejected for a place in Singapore.
This was despite scoring 4 "A"s and a Special Paper in his A-Level examinations.
During a dinner gathering of several families at our house a hot subject surpassed all others among the wives: their children's education, what to study and which country to study in.
These are upper middle-class earners, who see their children's future depending on getting a good university degree — the higher the better.
I wonder how they will react to the government move to discourage them to enrol for one.
A former Reuters correspondent and newspaper editor, the writer is now a freelance columnist writing on general trends in Singapore. This post first appeared on his blog www.littlespeck.com on 17 September 2011.