Move away from paper chase? Heartlanders wonder if it is possible

The call from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at his National Day Rally last Sunday surprised many heartlanders.

He indicated that it was time to look beyond academic qualifications and stressed that it is not necessary to be a university graduate to climb the corporate ladder.

Mr Lee said: "We... want to help (students) create a brighter future for themselves by many routes - not just the academic routes, but also, alternatively, by getting good jobs, mastering deep skills, performing well and then getting relevant qualifications along the way as they work, as they advance in their careers.

"Pathways and opportunities to upgrade and to get better qualifications remain open throughout your career. It's never the last chance."

An Applied Study in Polytechnics and ITE Review (Aspire) committee, chaired by Ms Indranee Rajah, the Senior Minister of State for education, has been set up and will soon reveal its findings on charting such a work and study path.

As Mr Lee spoke, one person came to my mind: Eleanor Koh.

My youngest sister has only an O-level certificate, and it was one that took the Normal stream student five years to complete.

That made her the weakest link among the four siblings in our family, despite the fact that none of us made it to university.

Yet now, Eleanor, 43, is definitely the most successful. It took years of sheer hard work, coupled with a little luck, to climb her way up that corporate ladder.

Her start was humble: She worked in a fast-food chain, putting in long work hours, most times in the kitchen.

It is a far cry from what she is today: General manager of Greenlam Asia Pacific. Its parent company, Greenply Industries is India's largest interior infrastructure company.

Business units in countries like the Philippines, Vietnam, Myanmar and Indonesia are also under her care.

But my sister is perhaps not the norm.

As a parent of two teenagers in secondary school, I question how possible her route is in today's environment where paper qualifications are the first things that get you through the front door.

It is an observation that is echoed by heartlanders who say they are not confident the change will happen soon, even as they concur with Mr Lee.

Madam Lin Junting, 52, who sells bak kut teh, says in Mandarin: "Difficult, lah. Not in Singapore. My two sons, both from ITE (Institute of Technical Education), can only do 'chu gong' (blue-collar work). Luckily, one of them is now a foreman."

Mr Darron Ang, 48, who has a diploma, is not convinced that the system can change so easily or quickly.

He says that in his years of searching for jobs, "there were many times when I lost to a graduate".

A former employee, who worked in a senior position with a service provider, points out that degree holders and scholars start their professional path on the fast track.

There are also different classifications among the graduates - whether you have a master's degree or doctorate makes a difference.

That sentiment is highlighted by cabby Ng Khee Chee, 58. He says: "Even those who have a general degree have difficulty finding a job these days. How can the non-graduates compete?"

Reports that quote different players in various industries reflect a similar concern that is best summed up by Education Minister Heng Swee Keat, who said in a Facebook post that the shift away from a paper chase will not be easy.

He wrote: "It requires a societal mindset change and we need all our stakeholders - Government, companies, unions, students and families - to come together on this."

This Heartland Auntie says that government agencies and government-linked companies must take the lead, for the rest of the corporations to follow.

The day when a non-graduate can realistically think of holding a director's post or taking up an important ministerial position is when the proof will be in the pudding.

When scholars are not held up as the model of success, then things can change. Because right now, the fact that you do well academically seems to put you on a path to a worry-free, gilded career.

Well, that is what we all think anyway.

Why do you think parents fight tooth and nail to get their kids into a particular school? It is also this mindset which makes the "all schools are good schools" mantra a little, well, irrelevant still.

And here is where I must admit: While I am proud of a sister who has achieved success without that important piece of paper, I am also selfishly guarding my children's future.

My son, who takes his O levels next year, is under the illusion that he can be as successful as his aunt.

But my husband and I - both with only A-level certificates - are quick to burst that bubble.

Now that the big O looms ahead, we want him to get into a junior college and later, university.

He is expected to put in his best. Only because we recognise that a lack of the degree can make it hard work for him to succeed in later years.

Unless of course, Mr Lee's call for change comes in on time.