Monday 15 September 2014

Shattering myths about scholars, smarts and respect

By Zuraidah Ibrahim Deputy Editor, The Sunday Times, 14 Sep 2014

Last week in Parliament, MPs spent hours dissecting what it means to become a society that is less obsessed with the paper chase and more concerned with lifelong learning.

Education Minister Heng Swee Keat tried valiantly to disabuse us of what he described as three "limiting beliefs" that could prevent people from fulfilling their potential.

One was the assumption that paper qualifications are the be-all and end-all. All the degrees in the world might not get you a job, he said, if there are no jobs to be had. And, most jobs actually require a variety of skills, not just that one piece of paper.

Another limiting belief, perhaps in overreaction to the old obsession with credentials, is that qualifications do not matter at all.

The third is when people believe that they will lose out when others earn qualifications, overlooking the fact that the whole team can benefit when its members develop better skills.

The Applied Study in Polytechnics and Institute of Technical Education Review, or ASPIRE, report emphasises the value of getting the right qualification, be it a degree or a diploma or whatever else. Pick up knowledge and skills that enhance your value as a worker and as a human being.

Nobody would disagree that this would be a proper and productive conclusion. However, people doubt whether society has already arrived at this better place.

And until they are confident that the environment around them has changed, they cannot be blamed for continuing in the old mode. After all, where jobs are concerned, it is not a great idea to be too far ahead of the curve - you want to be valued by today's employers, not those in some hypothetical future.

To make that leap of faith, one can see at least three mindsets in society at large that need to be broken.

Mindset #1: Scholar equals smart

It may be less pronounced than when my peers and I started out in the working world, but it remains an awkward truth. The divide between overseas scholarship holders and those who obtained local degrees persists. Defenders of the scholarship system insist that if scholars fly, it is because their A-level results and the hoops they went through to win scholarships turn out to be accurate predictors of their workplace contributions; non-scholars' allegations of unfairness are just masking the fact that they are genuinely not as able.

Certainly, some of the strengths that won them their scholarships, combined with the exposure and confidence imbued by a good overseas education, do translate into superior workplace performance. But it would be disingenuous to ignore systemic reasons why scholars are unfairly favoured when they start work.

It is only human for bosses to fall prey to a confirmation bias. Having decided to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in an individual and committed to a firm contract of four to six years, it is natural for employers to give the returning scholar more opportunities. It would take an extremely honest organisation to admit, actually he is no better than the guy who just showed up from a local university.

Of course, employers have tried to make the system more open and less determined by examination results. The Administrative Service, for example, is no longer the monopoly of returning overseas scholars that it once was.

Employers could do more to accommodate those who did not get scholarships but developed themselves in the course of higher education.

The reality, though, is that there is a limit to how much opportunities can be equalised as long as organisations use the scholarship system to compete with one another for the same bright young talents.

If they get too ruthless with their returning scholars, it will affect their ability to recruit the next generation of scholars. The top A-level students have no shortage of opportunities and, often, multiple scholarship offers. They can afford to be fussy and to scrutinise what exactly they are getting into when they sign that six-year bond.

An organisation where most returning scholars are being treated like the elite that their schools have taught them to believe they are will obviously be more attractive than one where scholars are routinely overtaken by local graduates.

Thus, just as with employees, it is unlikely that individual organisations' mindsets will shift as long as wider employment practices are hooked on scholarships as a shortcut to finding talent.

Mindset #2: Some smarts matter more than others

This mindset is related to the first: If someone has excelled in formal education, he must be intelligent - in every way and in all situations. He can take on any challenge thrown at him. While this may be true of that rare, truly gifted individual, it is hardly the case for most people.

People have different strengths, which are suited to different challenges. Yet, we tend to be narrow-minded in our view of intelligence and talent. We have been told to prize talent that can be accounted for through traditional qualifications, as well as through money and status.

Fans of television's Japan Hour would know how the hunt for the best green tea ice-cream can take multiple episodes to be completed. I am always struck by how one of the world's most technologically advanced societies can also embrace and retain their traditional crafts. But whether it is tradition or technology, their spirit is captured in the word shokunin - which means craftsman or artisan, but actually connotes a deeper meaning about the joy in doing something to the best of your ability.

Valuing different intelligences will not just make people feel better; it will help Singapore create wealth for all.

Mindset #3: Stinginess with respect

This leads me to the mindset that may be the most unhealthy of all: A judgmental attitude that looks up to certain professions and looks down on others. Respect is what we crave, say human psychologists and behavioural economists. Economists like Richard Layard, for example, have long argued that it is not income alone that makes people happy, but also a sense of belonging. People need to know that they matter to others.

Last year, when we interviewed Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, I noticed that the room had several interesting paintings, which we discovered later were the work of prisoners. His choice of decor reflected his belief that Singapore needs to recognise different strengths. We need to treat one another better, he said.

Unfortunately, those who have not done so well in school are "very aware of what they didn't achieve, but not enough of them have discovered their strengths".

And, at the other extreme, are those who are fully aware of their strengths, but are not "sufficiently aware of their weaknesses, and not sufficiently aware of the strengths of others".

He posed a rhetorical question that I think goes to the heart of the current debate - how we value fellow Singaporeans: "Do you view them as equals?"

Shifting mindsets is a collective responsibility. It starts with others - from the establishment and employers to other organisations. But it involves each of us.

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