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Monday January 15th 2018

Political reasons why our government restricting graduate enrolment?

WikiLeaks news  revealed last month that only 23% of  Singaporean students entering primary school will ever complete a 4-year tertiary education.   Even though the report was out in early September,  the ramification of the leaked report is still been felt till today.

According to  the damning WikiLeaks report, Cheryl Chan – asst director  of  Planning Division at  Ministry of education (MOE), stated that the government does not encourage more Singaporeans to get higher education, capping graduate enrolment rate at  20-25 %  because the labour market does not require too many graduates

So far, the government has yet to  come out and  defend it’s policy.

What is most troubling is that the country continues to allow in hundreds of thousands of foreign professionals via the Employment Pass (EP) category as the population is  deemed to be lacking in skills that could meet the requirement of the current economy. Nevertheless, many citizens have commented via the various blogs here that the foreign  professionals who came in simply because they have the basic qualifications attained in their third-world countries ate   lacking in skills and hardly could be called “talents”.

It is  presumed that the majority of the population does not benefit from the current economic bloom as the country is now flooded with foreign professionals out to reap the benefits of our own economy. One in three workers now in Singapore is a foreigner. Ironically, most of our unemployed middle-aged PMETs could only drive cabs or indulge in commissioned work such as insurance or property agents – adding on to the current employment mayhew in our country.

Tighening graduate enrolment not only frustrates the local population  benefiting fully  from the current economic bloom but also limiting social mobility.

Though there is  a certain section of the population that benefits from our meritocratic educational system and managed to escape from the poverty trap, many others are not so fortunate.  Limiting graduate enrolment only makes the situation worse as the general population has less chance  to benefit from the current growing economy.

This is probably why our wage gap remains one of the largest in the world and the bottom 20% of our low-waged workers have stagnanted wages for the past few years.


Though the government has poured much resources and attention to its primary, secondary and  post secondary education,  it’s tertiary educational  programmes remain limited. So far, there are only three state-funded universities: National University of Singapore (NUS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and Singapore Management University (SMU).

Source:Singapore Education Statistics Digest 2008

Type of School

Number of schools (2008)

Kindergarten 200+ (2004)
Primary Government 133
Government-aided 41
Secondary Government 120
Government-aided 28
Independent 5
Specialised 1
Mixed Level1 Government 5
Autonomous 3
Independent 6
Junior College
Centralised Institute
Government 9
Government-Aided 4
Independent 1

In the NUS student graduates’ statistics 2009/10,  a total of 6088 first degree graduates were recorded of which 5869 were studying full time.  For the previous year 2008/09 statistics, a total of 5986 first degree graduates were recorded. A year earlier 2007/8, the first degree graduates figure stood at 5797.

These NUS first degree graduates’ intake statistics proved that the tertiary enrolment during the recent few years have not risen much and may be intentionally capped to be in line with governmental policy.

It can be assumed that annually, our three state universities only take in less than 15, 000 fresh graduates and the rest have to fend for themselves.

It is also worrying to witness  many internet comments stating that our government has provided  allotted spaces for  foreigners to study using our tax paying money when our own people have to pay astronomical sums to study abroad.

The overseas scholars  merely have to complete their study and sign a bond to stay and work in the country for a few years. Many are also offered  permanent residence status immediately after they have graduated.

Currently, The  National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) each haas  more than 20 000 students. Singapore Management University (SMU), opened in 2000,  has  take in more than 7000 stduents.

On the other hand, private tertiary  educators are  doing a roaring trade as adult learners flock to SIM University (UniSIM)  taking  up the various higher learning programmes available.

Established in  2005,  it  has took in a total of 10, 000 students so far and the government has provided a 40% subsidy funding to matured Singaporeans who wanted to study at their own pace.

Other sinister reaons  behind  government’s skewed policy?

Many netizens have  speculated that there may be other sinister reasons that our government is not prepared  to reveal for the capped graduates’ enrolment  as many thousands of Singaporeans  have to pay  their own way annually  to tertiary education through private educators.

Our annual government budget  for education in Singapore has always being in the high 20%  category  but a lot probably goes into funding for the  JCs,  polytechnics and ITEs. Polytechnic and ITE graduates normally serve as technicians and rarely aspired to be head of department or section head. They remain secondary  employees of a company serving the needs of our multi-national companies out to make a quick buck from our glittering economy.

Being a country of high GDP growth and reserves, this seems ironical and many  could not understand why the government is slow in the feet to beef up tertiary institutions.

Could it be that the government – always  believing  that elitism  is something that will benefit the country in the long run –   continues to treat tertiary education as an institution of higher learning for those gifted few rather than the general population?

It has continued  government  scholarship programmes even though many Singaporeans have ask the government to reconsider it’s merits. Besides  instilling unhealthy elitistic  values, scholarship programmes have also lose its significance as the rich also now apply for such programmes in order to be  listed as a coveted “Scholar”.

Wikipedia in the article  - Education in Singapore  - commented on the merits of meritocracy:

”Meritocracy  is a basic political ideology inSingapore and a fundamental principle in the education system which aims to identify and groom bright young students for positions of leadership. The system places a great emphasis on academic performance in grading students and granting their admission to special programmes and universities, though this has raised concerns about breeding elitism. Academic grades are considered as objective measures of the students’ ability and effort, irrespective of their social background. Having good academic credentials is seen as the most important factor for the students’ career prospects in the job market, and their future economic status.”

I remembered not been able to enter our prestigious universities 25 years ago after receiving my GCE A level result. Though my results were not fantastic, I am sure that if I am in Australia or the USA,  I would gain easy entry into any tertiary programme and attain my degree at the state expenses.

I have to slog my way through private diploma skilled programmes using  my own hard-earned money. I could only claim back less than $2500 in relief when I computed my income tax return.

I also realized  that  only less than 20% of my pre-university classmates  gained entry into the  public universities and the rest of us were left either to pursue higher education  at our own expenses  or continued on to work in lacklustre jobs due to our lack of advanced education.

Many managerial positions were meant for only graduates and those who could paid their way to higher education abroad have a strong head start in their career path – regardless of whether they could work or not.

The lack of a university degree has truly hampered a lot of Singaporeans from gaining a foothold in the work force. Many positions require at least a basic degree and the lack of it has prevented many Singaporeans  benefiting from the current economic bloom.

Even though many first world developed countries have continued to pour money into its tertiary education in the bid to prepare   its population to the fullest economic potential, our government has being slow in this area.

Countries like Japan, Australia  and US have enjoy at least a 40% graduate population and many countries allow matured adults to participate in  state-subsidised full-time tertiary education when they decided to pursue higher education after spending many years at work.

So far, our universities have not allow citizens of matured age to return to tertiary education at fully subsidized rates. They have to join part-time degree programmes that were conducted in the evening and paid only slightly subsidized rates.

More significantly, each year, only about 400 Singaporeans are allowed into the prestigious medical faculty despite the severe lack of medical doctors here. Many top-classed Singaporeans have to study medicine abroad and few venture home after their internship done abroad

The brain drain, which started from young, is  more apparent during these recent years and there are surprisingly few initiatives  from the government to stem it. Worse still, there are quotas given by the different educational institutions starting from primary schools to allow in more foreigners to partake in our limited educational pie.

For example, 15% of places in polytechnics are allotted  to foreigners with excellent results and they are given scholarships and allowances. All they need to do is  fulfill  the 2-year requirement to continue staying and working in Singapore.

Ironically, we also have to import  about 300 doctors from India and China yearly to meet the severe short fall in the medical field.  Many have  come in to start as interns first before they can be converted into full fledged doctors as their foreign  medical degrees ate still not recognized.

This  is a strange phenomenon that few people can comprehend. It has also led to unfounded speculation that our government has purposely sidelined the population from having too many graduates because an educated citizenry is troublesome to handle.

Many recent uprisings in theMiddle Eastare caused by students as they are articulate, fierce and reckless. This is more so if there is high graduate unemployment.

I will discuss why our government has decided to cap graduate enrolment in greater detail here.

Service industry does not need too many graduates

Ms Cheryl Chan has revealed that Singapore needs less graduates as we are scaling up the service industry.  The two integrated resorts (IR) have hired more than 30, 000 workers so far but there isn’t any statistics revealing how many of them are Singaporeans.

However, her statement should indicate that not many of these IR workers are from Singapore and more tellingly, none will be a graduate as the pay structure and work conditions are not very favourable. Most service  work pays  less than $1500 a month with shift work thrown in.

Ms Cheryl’s statement has revealed that our economy may be heading towards a dominant service industry  which will  not benefit   the well educated .

This is understandable as our government has being slow to react to the recent heavy withdrawal of many manufacturing industries  to cheaper locations.  Our domestic market has also being somewhat lackluster all along and beefing it up now with the current 5 million population mark seems logical.

A dominant domestic market  can bring  more stability and permanence to the country’s economy but the fact that it has also hire much more foreigners  has somewhat nullified it’s inherent employment benefit to the native citizens.

Moreover, the 2008 global financial crisis  has caused many of our prized engineers and  middle-level managers to go out of job permanently.  Many  of these middle-aged PMETS either escape to other countries where their skills are still in demand or take up low end secondary jobs such as cab drivers or self-financed traders/property agents.

A lack of minimum wage policy in the country means that service industry jobs will continue to  attract third world country workers who flock to the prosperous island state  by the tens of thousands as companies can hire on the cheap with easy-to-get work permits. Our country has now become a top magnet for wealthy investors  as they can earn first world  return using cheap third world labour.

Singaporeans have  not benefited much from the recent boom in our  service industry viz-a-viz the two IRs. Worse, they have to bear with  a sharp rise in foreign population and spike in crimes associated with all kinds of vices.

Our Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has promised Singaporeans, when he decided to have  the two IRs, that  the main reason is  that they will help to create jobs for the country.

The decision to have the IRs was mooted during the 2008 global financial crisis and our country was going through a deep-seated recession.

Many manufacturing MNCs have pulled out during that period and relocated  to cheaper countries during that period causing massive unemployment especially to our engineers and technicians.

Many MPs and citizens gave way then as the promise of more jobs for our countrymen softened the conscience of many.

However, we all knew by now that though the two IRs created tens of thousands of jobs,   ironically only benefited our foreigner counterparts because of the low pay structure and tough working conditions.

Our country has become a haven for MNCs to make money because our government has allowed them to hire cheap foreign labour.

Too educated population difficult to handle?

History has shown that many revolutions were started by graduates or under graduates.

We all remembered how the 1989 Chinese Tiananmen masscare was started by young graduates  and intellectuals  out to change the world.

The most recent Middle East uprisings were sparked off by undergraduates and graduates as they were young. articulate and  reckless but mostly unemployed.

They were frustrated by the very few  opportunities in their own country and the lack of human rights only worsen the situation.

Without much to lose and no family to take care of,  young graduates continue to fuel many of the recent revolutionary activities.

Many here believe that our government has decided not to over-educate the population in case they get too smart and start subversive  activities.

This is understandable as throughout history, the troublemakers are young, articulate and educated.

Notably, the Tiananmen massacre was led by a group of intellectuals and students, frustrated with the lack of liberation and  reform in China.

At the height of  the demonstration, as many as 100, 000  universities’ students and workers took to the streets nearby Beijing demanding economic and political reforms.

The Chinese Red Cross has estimated that 2, 600 people were massacred during the military crack down by and  the Chinese government has stated that there were only only 261  death with 7, 000 wounded.  NATO intelligence has recorded 7, 000 deaths whereas Amnesty International has estimated it to be 1,000 deaths.

It will  be difficult for the government to fulfill all the aspirations of a well educated workforce. As of now, there is already growing resentment from the well-heeled  middle-aged population who is crying out loud for political reform and more economic opportunities than those currently dished out to its’  local workforce.

Well educated population not voting for PAP?

It is well known  throughout history that  a well educated workforce is tough  to handle – especially for a country that practices democracy.

They need room to air out their frustrations in a democratic social setting and more importantly they know how to cast their votes irrespective of the consequences.

In the recent 2011 General Election (GE),  seats in the eastern part of Singapore were fiercely contested.

The Marine Parade (44%) and Tampines (43%)  GRC – both contested by the National Soldarity Party (NSP) lost narrowly to the ruling party.  The East Coast GRC contested by the Workers’ Party, won 45% of the votes along that precinct.

Aljunied GRC,  won by the Workers’ Party (WP),   was considered to be in the inner eastern part of Singapore.

Both teams  contesting in Marine Parade and Tampines GRC  were considered to be inexperienced and with little political experience – yet they managed to attract more than 40% of the votes.

None of the western  part of the country attracted more than 40% of the opposition votes – not even the Choa Chu Kang GRC helmed by the government scholar husband-and-wife team Tony and Hazel Poa.

They could only mustered 39% of the votes there and is widely considered to be the A Team for NSP then.

Some have predicted that these eastern  GRCS will remain hot contest zones in the next 2016 GE as voters residing  there are  seen as more educated and ready to push for more policy changes than their western residents.

Political analysts have speculated  that the eastern part of Singaporean have all along  attracted residents who are  more educated and experienced. The properties there are also more expensive than the western  part and it is reasonable to assume that the residents are also more allfuent and articulate.

Most of the western part of Singaporean tend to be inhibited by the lower middle to low income groups as it is not only further away from the city but also poorly developed. The value of the properties there naturally lose out to the eastern part of the country.

Many newly-converted citizens also bought properties in the west as it is cheaper. This is probably also one reason why the opposition parties tend to fare poorer in the west as new citizens will vote for the ruling party out of gratitude and loyalty.

The non-graduate segment of the population also bought properties in the west as they are less able to command a better paying job and have no choice but to settle for that area.

Being less educated, the voters are also seen to be simpler, easier to please and also less open to changes. They will prefer to have a status quo and more resistant to have political changes in the country.

The recent 2011 General Elections and  recently-held Presidential Election have  proved that the more educated voters have voted for  changes against the ruling party as most of the voters in the east have voted for opposition parties’ candidates.

The tide is seen as turning against the current regime  as our young people are getting more educated, articulate and ready  for changes in our country.

It is also reasonable to assume that for political reasons, the government will want to cap graduate enrolment to ensure it’s political survival as a less-educated population is deemed to be less articulate and ready for changes compared to be a more educated one.


As our economy  goes through rapid cyclical changes,Singaporeneeds a work force that is educated,  nimble and energetic.

Capping our graduate enrolment is not only detrimental to our economic well being but also politically selfish.

With many well paying jobs going to foreign professionals currently, the local unemployed PMETs will be frustrated and agitated.

It is hope that the government will relook it’s current tight graduate enrolment and if possible bring annual intake to at least 35% of  the primary school cohort.

If not, frustrated local citizens, so far not benefiting a lot from the current economic bloom, will continue to vote against the government in large numbers during future elections.

Written by: Gilbert Goh









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Reader Feedback

16 Responses to “Political reasons why our government restricting graduate enrolment?”

  1. KT says:

    Gilbert, comprehensively written covering every aspect. but i hope u can shortened it, a hard time reading such a long article – most readers will stop short, defeating the purpose and reducing the no. of readers who could otherwise gain understanding from your articles … Thanks

  2. Owen says:

    Hi Gilbert,

    That is the reason why most younger generation went overseas studies and don’t want to come back to sg. IT has been happened since 90s…

    Not surprise now even more and more younger generation of the late 80s and 90s want to migrate out.

    Anyway, for your information, the lesser educated one in the west of sg still want a changes.

  3. ajohor says:


    Your article diatribe is very presumptious, further, people living near the Holland Village areas would by definition be highly educated. So why did the opposition lose, the clear case would be the educated populace there wanted good opposition parties like WP or SPP and not radicals like SDP and company.

    There is a legitimate economic/political argument for more graduates, however, it will need to also arrive with a more refined employer culture of not plug/play but rather at all levels.
    In addition to more tightened criterias.

    • aaaaa says:

      Why so sensitive? You staying in HV ah??

      Btw the so-called educated and rich staying around HV are the minority and mostly staying in the condos, not in the HDB flats. Many of them are also foreigners. Most of the HDB flats near HV are populated by poorer folks who bought the flats way back in the 1980s. I know coz my relatives stays there. There are also quite a number of HDB rental flats near HV. Surprised??

      It’s only in recent years that richer folks paid thru their nose to buy resale HDB flats in HV and Queenstown and Tiong Bahru and Clementi and Bt Merah etc. They are still the minority, and definitely they will vote PAP as they believe that PAP will ensure that their HDB flats continue to go up in price, even after having paid $600K to $900K for them.

      This is also the reason why new towns like Sengkang and Punggol vote 70% for PAP. People who recently buy expensive flats don’t want to even think that their flat prices may drop. If there is a new HDB town along East Coast, you will also see 70+% votes for PAP. Human nature.

    • Sleepy says:

      Please do not neglect V. Balakrishnan’s smear campaign against V. Wijeysinha in your analysis; this is vital esp. when we note that Bukit Timah-Holland Village is overwhelmingly typified by wealthy, Chinese, Christian families.

      P.S.: Take note that one cannot gauge “quality” based on a certain district’s vote — one can merely infer which party’s stance is more aligned with that particular body of voters.

  4. abc says:

    Cost is not a factor in PAP wanting to limit Uni education. The govt can target 50% of all kids to go thru subsidised govt Uni education, and it wouldn’t increase MOE budget by a few % points.

    The 2 major reasons are listed below. #1 is more objective, while #2 is speculative.

    1. Since more than 10 years ago (since dotcom bust/911/SARS), more and more uni grads are becoming jobless in Singapore. And more & more uni grads are taking longer to find jobs and being long-term unemployed (jobless for over 6 months). This phenomenon is increasing for older uni grads. Ever since the 2008 recession, Uni grads make up the largest proportion of unemployed citizens. And this situation has not improved, as shown by the latest June 2011 Employment Report by MOM. Even after so-called very good years for employment in 2010 and early-2011. And after both PAP and companies all keep saying shortage of employees and tight employment market.

    1.1 A major cause for #1 is the unrelenting mass import of cheaper & younger foreign workers. Particularly S-pass and E-pass workers. If PAP allows even more citizens to become Uni grads, this will exacerbate #1 even more. The only way to mitigate this is to reduce the numbers of S-pass and E-pass. But this will definitely severely antagonise companies and big businesses. Just listen to all the hoo-ha and veiled warnings by all the employer associations when govt made recent small changes to the W-pass, S-pass and E-pass. And CEOs, CFOs, business owners, corporate management, industry bigshots etc are among the most ardent PAP supporters and donors. PAP cannot afford to offend these supporters and donors.

    2. A more educated citizenry is more politicised and more critical thinking. This is especially true for those who have gone thru the “softer” disciplines like social sciences, humanities, arts, and even business studies. Not surprising why NUS students as a whole tend to be more political then NTU. Add that to more unemployed and higher educated citizens, and what you get is problems for PAP. It is still far easier to appease unemployed uneducated masses who don’t expect too much and accept low wages as a fact of life. Just give them $600 ang baos once in 5 years, and NTUC vouchers can already. Easier to CONvince lower educated people to take up jobs as cleaners and security guards then to convince unemployed Uni grads.

  5. N says:

    I’m highly disappointed with this article.

    The policy behind restricting the number of graduates is simple. There is a limited demand for graduates in an economy. If (hypothetically speaking) only 25% of all jobs in our economy require a graduate degree, and we allowed 50% to go to university, only half of that 50% will be able to get a graduate job. The remaining half will be disappointed because they would only secure a job which does not require a degree, and they would just have wasted 3-4 years of their time. Have you considered the number of graduates out there who are doing jobs which could be filled by a-level or polytechnic graduates?

    A corollary of the above argument is this. If the remaining half cannot get a job befitting of a graduate, they may end up pursuing further education. At some point, for a graduate to get a graduate job, he/she may need a masters degree or a PhD. This is known as academic inflation, and is a serious problem in European countries.

    The other major assumption which you make is that the graduate jobs which would go to foreigners would instead go to Singaporeans. This is also not true. A degree does not mean much beyond the first few years. After that, experience matters much more than a degree.

    As for all the arguments, I believe it falls foul of occam’s razor. The simplest solution is usually the correct one. If you have to go through hoops to make your point, chances are, it is inaccurate.

    Finally, one last point. It is easy to blame others (politicians and foreigners) for why we are not where we want to be. But also consider the fact that you are in the best position to change your own destiny. Don’t forget that employers in Singapore want the best man for the job. If a foreigner is hired over you, then perhaps he really is more experienced than you are. You would stand a better chance next time if you did something about yourself.

    • N says:

      Let me also put it this way. There are polytechnic graduates out there who have worked hard and made it. The founder of Creative Technologies was a polytechnic graduate. I can name many others who are successful without a degree. Ultimately the focus is not on the amount of education you have, but how much hard work you are willing to put in. The failure to gain entry into a local university is merely small setback which will not deter those with a real drive to succeed.

      If you’ve encountered a glass ceiling in your career, and you think that this is because of your academic achievements, take a part-time degree. Go further and take a Masters degree or a PhD. I know people who’ve done that and have been highly successful. With Singapore as an education hub, many education opportunities abound. Seize these opportunities, rather than blame others for your own incompetence.

  6. hungry says:

    I agree with that the reason is the limited demand for graduates. I can however, understand why people are unhappy with this policy. In a way, a degree is a tool that helps people to climb the social ladder, which is viewed to be of importance due to the high standards of living. Of course, one is still able to do that if the person works hard to reach the top from bottom. However, looking at how so many jobs require a degree and emphasise on education qualification, it is no wonder why citizens are insecure about not having a degree. Although work experience matters more, you need to have that piece of paper to act as a stepping stone for some jobs in the first place.

    There are some who can succeed without a degree, but these people make up a small percentage of the population. Moreover, not everyone is suitable to be an entrepreneur.

    While it is easy to say I want to pursue further studies since Singpaore has lots of education opportunities, it may not be easy to actually do it. Private degrees or Masters are expensive compared to degrees offered in local universities and not everyone can afford that, even if they work at the same time. Sometimes it’s not that people do not want to work hard to seize opportunities, but they do not have the resources or are faced with bad circumstances.

    I think the main issue is not the education policy, but the depressed wages(of non-degree jobs) that is coupled with high standard of living. If the wages and working environment for jobs in say, service sector can be improved such that people can actually survive on it, there may not be such a huge scramble for degrees. I think there is a need to minimise the income gap and revise wage policies so that non-degree holders have the chances to survive the high standard of living. This will then make the restriction of graduate enrolment more justifiable.

  7. Kev Jang says:

    The current spate of Occupy Wall Street protests occurred precisely because of the dissatisfaction of people with the various world governments’ measures of bailing out banks, protecting mega-corporations and subsequently also leading to labour exploitation. Which person would actually be willing to work for 80 hours and then get paid for only 36 hours per week? Yet in certain countries’ protests, such as in Canada, protestors have drawn attention to the fact that people are paid way too little and overworked beyond their capacity, simply as foreign workers in their countries, on the basis of fear of being repatriated back home to their own countries. As much as Singapore seems to be uninvolved in these, I think that it is more truer than anything else that the same situation of labour exploitation and a lack of equity are happening here.

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  9. Sam says:

    This is a well written article.

    1) We limit local graduates and then sponsor foreigners through scholarhsips through taxpayers money.

    This clearly does not make sense. If we do not need that much local graduates, then why even sponsor foreigners? Apart from politically motivated motives, I find this hard to grasp. My son belongs to the other 75% who did not make it to University. I, myself, also belong to the other 75%.

    2) The ruling party has make policies that favor the rich and corporations. Now, we are dealing with income gap issues. This bubble will eventually burst and I am confident, I will live to see that day come.

    3) It is stressful to be in the other 80% of do-not-haves. Coping with the high cost of living is bad enough. To have more babies is unthinkable. Hence we need foreign talent. This is a flawed logic that only our elite ruling party fail to see, let alone comprehend. Prolonging the issue is not solving it. It will only make the situation worst. This is the type of ministerial people we need and must pay millions for. For the rest of local population, $1000 income is enough.

  10. Sye says:

    Sg is following the German System only only allowing 33% to get to its university but at a much lower %.

    However they copied the wrong system without studying the system. In Germany, they have blue collar that can become department heads and lecturers in poly and universities, making those with college/diploma comparable with degree, as engineering and technical skills are considered more important. That is why Germany is a industry powerhouse. You don’t need a degree in Germany but you need a degree in Singapore because degree holders are the most highly pay in the civil services.

    Who says Sg can’t absorb so many graduates? Singapore is using a system that put graduates above everything for example, police force, teachers, civil servants etc and it is never enough.

    Only in Sg, you can find a Department Head in charge of a technical department like ST and you can even find SMRT CEO and STs CEOs actually lead by people with totally no experiences. The only thing they have is their degrees.

  11. Sal says:

    In my opininon if more people have degree qualification, theres more people going to migrate…..its the ticket for pr approval in most countries.

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