As a parent of two kids, issues affecting Polytechnic students and graduates are important issues to me because, at this moment, I still lie behind the Rawlsian veil. I am concerned that if my children did not qualify for a seat in a local university and end up studying in a Polytechnic/ITE, they will face an uncertain future with the gig economy.
I think many parents have this fear but they are too ashamed to admit it because it hurts the feelings of 50% of their friends. Also, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with turning out average. It's only wrong in a place like Singapore.
I echoed my fears and shared my deepest concerns with a friend I know, whom in my opinion, is best positioned to address my fears because he is very successful in business, lectured in polytechnics, and are intimately close with the problem at hand. He is a straight-talking fellow.
In summary, the conversation left me more shaken than before.
I asked my friend, why not put two and two together and have Singapore's startup eco-system draw their recruits primarily from Polytechnics, specifically poly graduates who are not going into local universities, instead of waging a price war for local university graduates?
He said that most startups would be, privately, unwilling to hire the 80% of the polytechnics cohort. My friend commented that our education system sorts people out "far too well". I read this as a hint that people's motivations correlates well to their academic positions in the local education system.
The conversation then took an even darker turn...
My friend said that he can teach a polytechnic class and he will know exactly who is on their way towards a local university within one week of interacting with his students. My interpretation of this statement is that the polytechnic population is now bimodal.
20% of poly graduates are elites from the secondary school cohort who possibly wanted to avoid JC because they hate PE and CL2 lessons. These guys will go to a local university and become leaders of the future industry.
The government will then praise the polytechnic system for producing such corporate heroes and declare that we have an egalitarian meritocracy. But that still leaves 80% to be destined to join the gig economy after getting a diploma if they don't sign up for some private degree program.
I then asked what can the 80% be hired to do after we transform into a Smart City ? Are we being blinded to to the needs of the middle class given that the 20% of poly grads are becoming doctors and lawyers and seem to be doing better and better every year?
My friend did not answer the question directly despite being a really smart guy.
After the conversation took a detour into several other areas, he said that perhaps his average students can be hired to do admin work, but cautioned me that such work needs to be documented very carefully, or the work would not be done properly. Perhaps, he did not have confidence that the average poly graduate would have any initiative in the corporate world at all.
We did not come up with any clear solutions that day beyond the flippant idea that unhappy Singaporeans may make a bigger difference if they build a career in a second tier city in China like Chongqing or Australia.
For this Christmas, when we think about compassion and empathy, the general idea is for us to focus on the bottom 5-20%. This is why elites like to focus on charity work. Helping the disabled and homeless makes us feel so good and superior to the other Singaporeans who do less charity. Also, the story behind the struggling single mum who has to raise intellectually disabled children can easily make us cry.
There is no compassion or empathy for the median Singaporean because if you are median, there are an equal number of people who are both better and worse off than you. The story of the Singlish speaking dude who spending weekends LAN gaming at Parklane and nights fapping to anime porn is more likely to make us go "Meh."
But not thinking about giving a decent life for the average Singaporean is what can poison a good society. World events in 2017 have shown that Populism can upstage a great government once hope is lost. Populations can turn against free trade and capitalism even if it better for them over the long term.
Asa result of our apathy, the people who just want to see the world burn will grow stronger.
My friend said that even friending his students can be a negative experience. His students are the ones who spell Singaporeans "Sinkies" or "Sinkaporeans" and find every excuse blame the 70%.
It's very easy every Christmas to brag about the good we do for the unfortunate or the poor.
But it's much harder to admit that we did not spare a thought for the average fellow citizen who is facing the latest round of disruption from our transformation to a Smart City.
For this Christmas, I am admitting it right now.
Christopher Ng Wai Chung