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[Article] - The Death of the Singapore Dream

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      [Article] - The Death of the Singapore Dream

      By: Benjamin Cheah

      I grew up on the Singapore Dream. Study hard, get good grades, go to a good school, get a good degree, get a good job. Be a doctor, lawyer, engineer, some high-status PMET with an enviable pay package and guaranteed Central Provident Fund contributions. Then, and only then, will you be successful.

      What they won’t tell you is that if you fall short any step of the way, if you fall off the bridge to success, you’re on your own.

      An article on Channel News Asia reveals the existence of the graduate poor: chronically underemployed graduates with full-time jobs but earn less than $2000 a month.

      It’s a small number. 70 out of 1626 graduates. Four percent. A tiny number, easy to sweep under the rug, or to fold up into a government-driven career enhancement scheme. You might even go your entire career, your entire life, without meeting anyone like that. But if you’re one of them, chances are, you’re not going far.

      I know. I’m in similar circumstances.


      Ten years ago, having been rejected from Singapore’s three major universities, I had few choices and less hope.

      After secondary school, I spent two years in Junior College and graduated with ‘A’ levels. Elsewhere in the world, ‘A’ levels might mean something. Here in Singapore, they serve just one purpose: a passport to a local university. Nobody wants A level graduates. There are job advertisements for people with O levels and diplomas and degrees, but nobody cares about A levels. Fail to qualify for a local university, and you’ve just wasted two years of your life.

      What next? A private school. The school of last resort.

      TODAY highlighted employment discrimination against private university graduates. Only 47.4 percent of the current batch of private university graduates secured full-time jobs six months after graduation, compared to 60.1 percent from the last batch.

      Everybody knows the Big Three: National University of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore Management University. There’re three newer ones–Singapore University of Social Sciences, Singapore Institute of Technology, Singapore University of Technology and Design–who enjoy the prestige of being placed under the ambit of the Ministry of Education. Being Singaporean and government-approved, their degrees are recognized everywhere you go in this tiny island.

      Other schools — Kaplan, Singapore Institute of Management, PSB, INSEAD, James Cook University –don’t enjoy the same cachet. Some aren’t even known at all. But when the rest of your life is staring at you and all you see is a wasteland of bills and broken dreams, you pick the best option you can find and roll with it.

      I decided on a degree program. Media management, building upon my experiences as a writer and as the co-founder of The Online Citizen. I figured I could get into journalism some day, or at least something related to it. I discovered a part-time programme, promising a diploma in a year and a degree in another. No fuss, no extraneous classes or unnecessary socializing to suffer through, just classes and homework and exams and done.

      Reality kicked in soon after. I had just over twenty people in my classes at Kaplan. A grand total of two people, over two years, were job-seekers. Everybody else had a job.

      Here’s what they don’t tell you about part-time programmes in Singapore: they don’t have the same prestige as full-time programmes. They aren’t even aimed at fresh-faced A level graduates. They’re meant for employees who want higher paper qualifications to qualify for senior roles. Once they have the diploma or degree, they go back to work and get promoted.

      If you’re a job-seeker, well, good luck.

      I don’t blame anyone for this perception. Coursework in the programmes was minimal, something like two or three assignments per module. Coming from a mid-tier junior college, I found the assignments easy. After writing thousands upon thousands of words dissecting the end of the Soviet Union, discussing Decartes’ philosophy, and comparing Keynesian economics to Singapore’s policy of managing trade-weighted exchange rate index, the homework was a breeze. Exams were no different: compared to the A levels, the exams were far less demanding.

      After all, the programme was for working adults with full-time jobs. All I had was a freelance data entry position. A soul-numbing dead-end gig that paid by the hour, and offered plenty of time for study and research.

      I graduated near the top of the school in the top fifteen percent of my cohort, and was invited to the Golden Key International Honour Society. Surely that counted for something. It should have wiped out the disaster that was my A levels.

      Men plan. Fate jests.


      I’ve sent out dozens, hundreds of resumes. Every month, every week, every day, I applied for job after job after job, hoping that someone would notice. Until then, I crunched numbers and copied clauses, wrote story after story, and picked up whatever freelance job and short-term contract job I could find.

      I did this for eight years.

      In eight years, I received nothing.

      Less than one percent of my applications made it to the interview stage. None of them went anywhere. The other ninety-nine-odd percent was greeted with silence.

      It didn’t matter where I applied to. The government, the media, PR and advertising firms, publishing companies, frontline positions in other industries, private tuition, schools, copywriting companies, even a temple.


      Over eight years I dropped my CV at every major headhunting agency. The only jobs on offer paid less than what I was making through my other jobs… or jobs I wasn’t qualified for.

      Every year, some ten thousand fresh graduates enter the job market in Singapore. In 2014, it was fifteen thousand, and the number keeps rising. These newcomers compete with the old hands for a small pool of jobs. Fail to get a job, and you get left on the shelf. The longer you go without a job, the less likely you’ll ever have a job.

      The time-honoured solution to unemployment and underemployment, championed by the government, is to get more skills. Up-skill, re-skill, deep skill. Get a new diploma, bachelor’s or master’s. If you ever need help, you can turn to the Jobs Bank, the Workforce Development Agency, Skillsfuture.

      Been there, done that.

      I applied for untold numbers of jobs at the Jobs Bank, along with every other job portal in Singapore. Silence.

      I was recommended to the WDA. I sat through an interview, where a counselor provided me with a file filled with employment advice. How to pass an interview, how to frame your CV, how to comport yourself professionally, and… not much else. At the end of the session I didn’t feel like I’d learned anything new.

      At the Skillsfuture website, I was pointed to their in-house job portal… and Jobs Bank and WDA.

      What about getting new paper qualifications? Out of the question. I can’t afford to spend that kind of money, and I’m not going to spend another year or two of my life chasing more paper if it won’t guarantee a job.

      Welcome to Singapore. Fall off the bridge to success and no one will catch you.

      Continue reading the 2nd half of the article...


      Edited by UltimaOnline 14 Apr `18, 11:00PM
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