Lawrence Wong said his words had been “taken out of context”, in a post he made to his Facebook wall at 01:06h, 9 Feb 2012. The Minister of State for Education was referring to a report in Today newspaper quoting some of what he had said at a dialogue with students of the Institute of Technical Education (ITE), and which had generated considerable controversy on social media:
Several students from the three ITE campuses at REACH’s Kopi Talk dialogue held at ITE College East asked if opportunities for them to upgrade after graduating could be expanded.
Mr Wong said he understood their aspirations but not everyone would be able to pursue a diploma at a polytechnic immediately after obtaining their Higher NITEC.
This was due to limited places at local polytechnics and employers’ demand for ITE graduates. “If everyone can move up, we will not have enough ITE graduates out there in the workforce,” he said.
“At the end, it’s the number of places we can provide … I don’t think we’ll be able to satisfy everyone, frankly,” he said.
— Today, 8 Feb 2012, Further education hot topic at ITE dialogue, by Neo Chai Hin
I understand much of the controversy was over the specific words: “if everyone can move up, we will not have enough ITE graduates out there in the workforce.” Here is what he wrote on Facebook, for the record:
Today carried a report of my dialogue with ITE students yesterday, noting the strong desire of the students to get a diploma.
It quoted me as saying, “if everyone can move up, we will not have enough ITE graduates out there in the workforce”. Unfortunately, this was taken out of context.
I would like to share with you what transpired in the dialogue so that you have a fuller picture.
I explained to the ITE students that MOE has been expanding places in the polytechnics so that they can further their education.
In fact, we are doing all we can to expand capacity in the polytechnics. In 1995, about 12% of ITE students progressed directly to the polytechnics. Currently, this proportion is at 22%, and it will be increased further to 25%.
So, even more ITE students will have the chance to get a diploma.
I’ve met many ITE students who have succeeded in getting a place in the polytechnic. One of them is Mr Muhammad bin Moh Jauhari.
He did well in ITE College West and got direct entry into the second year of electrical engineering at Ngee Ann polytechnic. With the increased places in the polytechnics, I hope that there will be more examples like him.
But even with the expansion of places, I was upfront in highlighting to the students that not all of them will be able to get a place in the polytechnic.
There is a strong industry demand for ITE graduates, and the job market needs people with their technical skills.
The polytechnics also have to maintain a certain entry criteria to uphold the standards of diploma education.
Moreover, we do not want to end up in a situation like some countries where they have rapidly expanded diploma/degree places, resulting in large unemployment or under-employment of such graduates.
Nevertheless, for the students who are unable to get a place in the polytechnic, I encouraged them not to be disappointed or give up.
There are other pathways to upgrade themselves and further their studies.
In particular, MOE has expanded and enhanced the part-time diploma programmes in the polytechnics. So ITE graduates can work first, and then upgrade their skills later, to keep current with industry needs.
I also told the students that this is an attractive pathway for them to consider.
Because when they start work, they will have a better understanding of what they enjoy doing, what they are good at, and what industries they would like to work in.
They will then be able to upgrade their skills in that particular industry through a part-time diploma, which is subsidised by the government, and which their employers will also support.
As of 11:15h, Monday, 13 Feb 2012, there were 52 comments to that Facebook post, of which one was a response by Lawrence Wong himself telling one comment-maker to drop him an email.
I frankly cannot see what was wrong with Today’s report. Wong’s explanation on Facebook essentially repeated the same. In any case, I find it hard to believe that people do not already know that there are limited places in polytechnics and ipso facto, not every ITE graduate will be able to pursue further studies there.
The controversy therefore cannot be over this fact that he pointed out, since everybody knows it — though he seems to think that it is over the fact, and that is why he spent 442 words on Facebook saying the same thing. What he apparently fails to grasp is that people are taking umbrage over (a) the tone, and (b) the implications beyond the fact.
The tone of the key sentence in question was this: You should be content to be dogfood in this dog-eat-dog world; not everybody can be top dog. Heard that way, it should hardly come as a surprise that people won’t be happy being cast as dogfood.
This in turn points us to the implications: Why is our society and economic model such that we have top dogs and dogfood? These students know that paper qualifications open doors to money, privilege and status, to jobs that pay 5, 20 to 100 times what they can ever hope to earn. One might be tempted to answer that by saying that that is because doctors, bankers and public relations spinmeisters create value many times the multiple of electricians, plumbers and pastry chefs, but surely that would be tautological. We largely measure the “worth” of doctors, bankers and spinmeisters by the incomes they command.
If we were a society in which electricians, plumbers and pastry chefs were paid a significantly higher fraction of what we pay doctors, bankers and the like, this cry for access to the springboard to privilege would be reduced. Is such a society unimaginable? Take for example Germany where construction workers make about half what doctors earn.
This is what Lawrence Wong needs to clarify: why have we built and why are we intent on perpetuating a society in which skillsets are rewarded in such starkly different ways?
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This incident is another example of the pretty pickle that the government often finds itself in. Every now and then, the government claims it is misunderstood or that social media blows what they have said “out of context”, or that bloggers and assorted comment-makers in new media are irredeemably biased against the People’s Action Party.
The party tells its members that they have to use social media more (and better) to get their message across.
As media academic Cherian George pointed out recently at a seminar, this is to mischaracterise the issue. The people do not misunderstand what the PAP and its ministers have said. They have heard them loud and clear. They just don’t agree either with the position the PAP takes, the attitude it adopts or the paradigm it operates on. And until the party is prepared to re-examine all these, getting savvier with new media isn’t going to make much difference.