On Lousy Schools and Xenophobia

Ben Leong
12 min readSep 20, 2021

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed herewith are strictly mine as a private citizen and has nothing to do with my employer, the National University of Singapore.

I don’t write these days because I am up to my eyebrows in work. However, I am deeply troubled enough by what recently transpired during the 10-hour marathon session in Parliament that I decided to write.

Let’s start with some disclaimers. First, the one thing that I learnt from the Parliamentary session was that not every school is a good school, and it so turns out that I also happen to also come from a lousy school. Also, I was not offended by Vivian Balakrishna’s comment. Instead, I was rather amused and sympathetic. I might have asked myself the same question if I had to sit through a 10-hour circus.

Also, for avoidance of doubt, I am not related to Mr Leong Mun Wai (LMW), even though we might share the same surname.

Our Very Own Trump is Finally Here

I suspect that the PAP is probably feeling really good about their latest performance. LMW was shown to be a complete buffoon who was unprepared and had no idea what he was saying. He cannot even tell if he supports CECA, or not. The PAP probably thinks they put up a really good show with sound arguments and solid data. There is no doubt that the PAP has proven the PSP wrong.

But has the PAP been reading the comments online? Hold that thought.

PSP now has 2 ex-scholars in Parliament. But do people really believe that they are really as stupid as they seem? Raise EP to $10K? Does that even sound real?

My assessment is that while the PAP might have “won” the debate, they actually lost the war. The PSP did not go to Parliament to win the debate. PSP went in there to get martyred. Seems to be that the PSP is following the Trump/Brexit playbook and they are actually pulling it off. Read the damn comments online! :-(

Interestingly, WP also won. Pritam made a damn good speech that I think all political speech writers should probably watch and learn. Not quite your Martin Luther King, but pretty darn good.

Let me say this v bluntly: LMW doesn’t do his homework and cannot even talk properly. Do we need to have whole house full of PAP MPs to take turns to hammer him? Did people find it entertaining? I found it painful and cringeworthy. Tan See Leng did a good job. Maybe then send in Shan for good measure. Good enough lah.

In this instance, I believe that the PAP has very severely under-estimated its political opponents. It is surprising that I have to say this given the number of generals the PAP has in Parliament, but not every political opponent will look like Chiam See Tong, Low Thia Khiang or Pritam Singh. Mutations can happen. It has happened.

CECA was an unnecessary distraction

First, I would like to steal shamelessly from Pritam/WP: CECA was a dog whistle (I actually had to google that. You should too). Given all that had already been said earlier, I don’t believe that the PSP is so illiterate not to understand that CECA is not *the* problem.

I hate fake news and what upsets me about PSP is their insistence on pedaling fake news à la Trump.

While there are provisions under CECA for the transfer for manpower, the numbers of Indian nationals under those provisions is only about 500 a year and effectively negligible. Let’s all acknowledge this and put a stop to further misinformation about CECA.

What the PSP has done in Parliament is to distract the PAP by having it spend 10 hours trying to prove PSP wrong on CECA. The coup de grâce was to exasperate Vivian until he made a Freudian slip, and then had to publicly apologize. Genius.

What PAP should have done is to simply reiterate the facts but then acknowledge that we really have do have a problem.

The problem is that there are some quarters in Singapore who feel that there are too many Indian nationals working in Singapore. PSP probably did not dare say this explicitly for fear or being branded a racist or xenophobic party. The irony is that they are branded racist anyway, so why not just say it as it is? When even Tamil Murasu publishes an article on this, we need to acknowledge there’s a problem.

Let there be no mistake. The PSP is not trying to win votes from the PAP supporters. Who are we kidding? The PSP is obviously speaking to the folks who feel, rightfully or otherwise, that the have been negatively impacted by the large number of immigrants. The way that the PAP has responded in Parliament serves only convince them that the ruling party is completely out of touch. :’(

Singaporeans are NOT racist or xenophobic

Trump won and Brexit happened not so much because Trump or the pro-Brexit politician were particularly charismatic. They were mostly immoral, conniving liars. Not like the people who voted for them didn’t know that. They were suffering. They felt ignored by the ruling elites and they just wanted to give them their middle finger.

Let us not go down that path.

While I completely disagree with the way that the PSP has tried to highlight the concerns on the ground, I agree with those concerns. Allow me to try to articulate them as a matter of public interest.

First, let’s look at what the publicly available data tells us (dunno why PSP says cannot find data):

*Allow me to acknowledge that the table was shared with me by my friend (who also went to the same lousy school), who was probably too free and decided to check if there really is data available like the Government said. I suspect he doesn’t want to be named, but if he changes his mind, I will update this post. :-)

In case people have trouble understanding these numbers, what they seem to suggest is that there has been a drop in the proportion of degree and diploma holders holding PMET jobs over the last 10 years. Allow me to say that I am not making any claims that these numbers are accurate, and there is likely some error.

What these numbers almost certainly suggest (within a certain margin of error) is that it is very likely that there has been an increase in what the PSP calls “under-employment” and the trend is a downhill one. At the heart of the issue is that the proportional increase in the number of degree and diploma holders is higher than that for the increase in PMET jobs.

Think about it. The government has been telling you to upgrade. You kwai kwai go and get a diploma or a degree. Then you realise that try as you might, you cannot get a PMET job. Will you be upset? Can anyone fault you for being upset?

Hold that thought and suspend judgment for the moment.

Next, let’s think about our manpower policies. We import workers who will do the menial work that Singaporeans don’t want to do. This policy is no problem at all. Nobody is going to find fault.

But given that we are an advanced economy, we will also need to import foreign labour at the upper end of the spectrum. Some people will claim that some of these foreign workers are unqualified and are here only because of nepotism. Let’s ignore that for a moment and assume that the system works as intended and we import only highly-qualified, highly-paid workers. Essentially, if we could have our way, we actually want to import foreign workers that are better than our own median workers. Ostensibly, this makes complete sense.

But, now put yourself in the shoes of a below-median Singaporean worker — and there are a lot of them. You might even agree that these foreigners are better than you. But you do NS, and when think about your own future, it is not clear to you how you can improve your lot in life to match up to these foreigners. You look at your kids and you worry if they can compete with the kids of these foreigners. They are richer, they have more money. They can afford better tuition. How do you feel?

Some people will then try to convince them that these foreigners will bring prosperity to Singapore. While people complain about the clusters of foreigners in the condos in the East, their landlords are not complaining. Without these foreigners how are these landlords going to make passive income from their second properties? There is no doubt that these foreigners are making some people rich and some people v v rich….. but what is in it for the folks who actually don’t see any benefit from the presence of foreigners, except for overcrowding? Some claim that they feel like they are foreigners in their own country.

I believe that LKY himself once said that Singapore can only take in something like 30,000 new immigrants a year. Anything more would be “indigestible.”

I think it is only human nature for some of our fellow Singaporeans to feel unhappy. Some will feel disappointed. Some will feel angry. We are only human. I think it would be wrong to label these feelings as xenophobia.

We are not perfect. We do have some racists and bigots among us. But I have faith in our people. We, Singaporeans, are a good people. We are fair-minded and we are generous, so let us not call each other names.

It is not my intention to support the PSP. What I want to demonstrate above is that it is possible to articulate the concerns of our fellow Singaporeans without resort to spreading misinformation and making people angry.

I hope the Government takes active and concrete steps to acknowledge those concerns and address them directly. People do not want just data and statistics in Parliament. They want to know that their Government cares and understands their fears, their hopes and their dreams.

Thoughts on “Under-employment”

I want to take a moment to address this issue of under-employment. As a teacher, I find it really irritating when people say things like “since Singapore’s education system is so good, why can we just educate our own Singaporeans to do the jobs?”

I want to make 3 points.

First, it is a myth that “anyone can learn to become anything if only they tried hard enough”. I suspect that some people actually believe this and they would be offended to hear me say otherwise, but I will say it anyway.

Not everyone can be trained to become a doctor, or a lawyer, or a software engineer. Many things in life require aptitude. For some things, without aptitude, there is no hope.

For example, I think it would be impossible for me to become a ballet dancer or run 2.4 under 7 mins. Even a miracle won’t do.

As teachers, we are not here to help them become who they *want* to be. Not always feasible or plausible. What we can try to do is to help our students find their strengths and talents, and to become the best versions of themselves. If we cannot do that, we just try not to cause damage.

Allow me to demonstrate how we can reason about this: we all know that software engineering pays a lot now. How can it be true that it is easy and that everyone can be a software engineer? If it were really true, then how can the pay be so high? Software companies might be profitable. They are not charities. Why is that so hard to understand?

Second, it is not true that PMET jobs are the best. It is not a recent phenomenon that PMET’s get retrenched at 50’s and cannot find jobs. What used to happen is that they all become taxi drivers and complain about the government.

What has changed in recent times?

  1. Taxis are out of fashion. Grab is the in-thing — but unlike taxi-driving, there is no minimum age, so the young ones are competing head-on with the uncles.
  2. My impression, but I could be wrong, is that the labour market is more volatile and more people are getting laid off earlier in their 40's.
  3. Costs of living are much higher. Just look at the property prices and compare it to inflation.
  4. People are marrying later and having kids later, so when they get laid off, they often still have school going kids. While the PMETs who were laid off in earlier years could potentially just drive taxi or retire, many of the PMETs laid of these days have much higher financial burdens.

Basically, while it is not new for PMETs to be laid off, life has likely gotten *a lot* harder for them. On this note, I would like to highlight that the successful hawkers actually make a lot of money and they cannot get laid off. While people want to blame the Government, I believe that there has been what I think is an unhealthy fixation on becoming PMETs without fully understanding the risks — which have *always* been there.

Finally, much of the supposed under-employment these days is due to “paper qualification inflation.” I believe that most of the poly graduates from my cohort would have been college graduates today if they only had been born later.

Do we believe that the (terminal) poly graduates today would be as good as the poly graduates during my time?

I would encourage people to do the following thought experiment: how much do they remember of what they learnt in poly or college that they still need in their work today? Doctors will need it. Lawyers will need it. I certainly need it, but I suspect that we are in the minority.

It should then be abundantly clear that most paper qualifications are only good to make it convenient for the employers to do shortlisting. Basically, for most people, they are going to college only to signal to their future employers that they are not stupid. Did we not know this?

As societies get richer, we are seeing significant “paper qualification inflation” globally. We have already seen this in Korea, in Taiwan, in the US (and people cannot pay off college loans) and even in China. What China has done is to “make” the students spend another 3 years in school doing Masters. I don’t know how this helps. To me, I think it makes a lot of young people waste 3 years of their lives and only delays the onset of the problem.

My point is: while the Opposition would be quick to blame the PAP, I suspect that there are bigger forces at play beyond the PAP. The Government has tried in recent years tried to tell people that a degree is not necessary, but it has fallen on deaf ears. Seems to me that the Government has since given up, or at least I haven’t heard much of it recently.

Parting Words

To conclude, I would like to acknowledge that the PSP has pivoted v effectively to a new political strategy that is politically expedient. It is a tried and tested approach that skillfully combines the best of Trump and Mahathir.

While I didn’t think much of Leong Mun Wai earlier, he has somewhat earned my respect for his dogged tenacity. It does take immense strength of character to execute PSP’s current extreme-right strategy. The only words I can think of to describe Mr Leong are in Chinese: 忍辱负重,能屈能伸。(Translation: “Endure humiliation to carry out an important task. Able to stoop or to stand; submit or assert oneself as the occasion requires, i.e., adaptable to circumstances.” — Courtesy of Prof Loy)

However, I would like to make a personal appeal to the PSP to abandon this strategy. While winning is important in politics, it cannot be winning at all costs. PSP’s current trajectory will lead to significant polarization. We have seen from the examples of other countries that this cannot be good for Singapore.

Allow me to also remind the PAP that LKY is dead. J. B. Jeyaretnam is also dead. Why is there is a need for us to have such an adversarial Parliament? Why is there the need to have a whole house full of PAP MPs all take turns to run down this one lone Opposition NCMP? Where is the honour in that? Can we all work towards a more gracious Parliament where people compete to better articulate the concerns of the rakyat, so that people can feel heard?

We only have one country. We actually have something good going for us. Let us not screw it up.

Majulah Singapura.

In case people want to post comments, the discussion is here.

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I received the following feedback “It would be better if the OP just discuss the merits of the debate.” Others also complained that I am TL;DR (too long winded). Sorry, I cheonghei. Allow me to summarize:
1. I think this debate has no merit.
2. PSP is blatantly spreading misinformation that CECA was the cause of the large number of Indian foreign workers in Singapore. That is patently false. FTAs and the regulation of foreign manpower are 2 separate matters. Even if CECA didn’t exist, we will likely see similar numbers. CECA is a dog whistle. Even WP agrees.
3. PSP’s proposed policies are not for real. Asking to get shot down only. As an employer, you will agree with PSP meh? Why propose policies that are so far off the domain of what is reasonable to create a circus?
4. Why PAP went to spend 10 hours entertaining the PSP to create this circus?
5. WP 鹬蚌相争,渔翁得利 (translation: when the snipe and claim fight, the fisherman benefits. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Fight_Between_the_Snipe_and_the_Clam). For avoidance of doubt, I did not steal this from Calvin Cheng. I said it first. :-P