Dogfood bites junior education minister

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?

* * * * *

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.

40 Responses to “Dogfood bites junior education minister”

  1. 1 Simon Says 13 February 2012 at 19:12

    //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 intent on perpetuating a society in which skillsets are rewarded in such starkly different ways?//

    Well said. A CEO in Germany is also not allowed to make more than 20x the salary of the janitor in the office. Until MIW look hard at themselves over the principles applied across our strata of society, they really should stop projecting the social media or the rest of singaporeans as having Schadenfreude complex.

    • 2 Poker Player 14 February 2012 at 10:12

      We have the reverse ethic.

      We decide what is a fair wage for the lowest paid jobs.

      If a shortage causes an upward pressure on these wages, we flood the marking with starving foreigners to bring them down.

      We justify this as “managing the cost of doing business” – which magically doesn’t apply to the best paid jobs.

  2. 3 Vote for Change 13 February 2012 at 19:33

    The only viable solution is to vote out PAP. A leopard cannot change its spot, seriously speaking.

  3. 4 Lai Yeu Huan 13 February 2012 at 21:47

    Correct. An electrician out of trade school in Australia makes AUD100k a year. Every society has a right to choose the level of prosperity for its lower rungs.

    • 5 Daniel Lee 14 February 2012 at 11:14

      Lai Yeu Huan,

      Unless you are talking about an electrician in a mining sector in Australia, most newly qualified electricians get around $50-60K yearly.


      • 6 Dnton 15 February 2012 at 12:13

        50-60k a year is still upwards of 4k a month. Do you think many new electricians in Singapore earn that kind of money?

  4. 7 sna 13 February 2012 at 22:29

    His words are not taken out of context. It is the Government policy. Wong’s view affirmed what was reported in Wikileaks

  5. 8 Elaine 13 February 2012 at 22:30

    What they actually mean is
    Teens: we want a poly cert for some dignity and a chance to climb out of the lowest rung of the socio-economic and salary ladder.
    LW: the value of a degree is precisely in its scarcity; it’s demand/supply. If you lot can all get poly certs, and poly students can all get uni certs, then you’ve just diminished the certs for the rest of us real degree holders. My example of Parisian grads applying to be receptionists is a red herring; the issue there really is unemployment and scarce jobs, not too many grads. The only time we’ll consider ITE students getting into polys or even unis is if any of the ministers’ children can’t get a degree and have to end up in ITE too. But of course that’s never going to happen because of 1) our superior gene pool 2) our superior academic resources i.e. personal tutors 3) our superior financial resources i.e. we can afford to send our kids overseas to get a degree 4) our superior personal networks i.e. when our kids graduate we can certainly land them a plum job somewhere with our mates’ companies.

    • 9 SashaQueenie 15 February 2012 at 15:37

      Then why are valuable resources allocated to school and house foreign students? They are given places in our Universities. If scarcity is the issue here, then why give free education using our tax payer’s money to these foreigners? I am a firm believe that charity begins at home. It’s clear that when it comes to welfare and privileges, Singaporeans are on the losing end. This is a regime that cannot be allowed to continue.

  6. 10 Ah Kow 13 February 2012 at 22:32

    Polticians are to inspire us to do our best and to put in a place a system which provides for equal opportunities. Politicians are not responsible for the outcome of a person’s life. We do not need lectures about the realities of life from LW or from any minister.

  7. 11 George 13 February 2012 at 22:46

    We shouldn’t depend on the government. It’s too bad that students cannot do well enough to get into polytechnics. Why should taxpayers money be channelled to a poly to expand and take in students who couldn’t have made it in? The world is just the way it is, class differences, income differences, and it’s unfair. If the world valued dancers instead of mathematics, some of us would have failed in life. Our abilities are the result of natural talent (which is a lottery in life) and pure effort. What is valued by society is decided by society and not the government. Everyone should look in the mirror an ask why try like money, holidays, iPads, so much and don’t blame the government if our society is shallow.

  8. 12 YMC 13 February 2012 at 22:54

    In Australia, “tradies” – plumbers, electricians, carpenters are very well paid and highly respected forms of profession. Unfortunately in Singapore, it still has a very conservative Asian attitude towards blue and white collar workers.

    • 13 Daniel Lee 14 February 2012 at 11:30


      In Australia, the ‘tall-poppy syndrome’ is prevalent. This is a national culture where people in generally do not like others who show-off or make themselves stand out, leading others to ridicule those who do so; whereas in SG, we glorify those who stand out among the crowd.

      Yes. Those in the trade might be adequately paid, but even their individual salary peaks around $80-90K depending on their skill level. Compare this to any local doctor / GP who will easily pull twice or twice that amount.

      Lets not get too ahead with ourselves and the Aussie culture. I have lived here long enough to know that if being a dentist or doctor still gets that little bit more respect than a plumber / tiler / roofer.

      With that said, it also depends on which segment of society one is from. Clearly, a family from the upper-middle class and above would not normally not expect anyone in the family to be a ‘tradie’.


      • 14 Poker Player 14 February 2012 at 14:52

        “whereas in SG, we glorify those who stand out among the crowd.”


      • 15 Poker Player 14 February 2012 at 14:56

        Let’s not get sidetracked here. If Singapore “tradies” get the same deal from society as in Australia, it’s an incredible improvement over what we have now.

  9. 16 The God Emperor of Terra 13 February 2012 at 22:56

    The problem is the PAP will never ever bring out a minimum wage scheme which will be “fair”. That is the crux of the problem. The SMEs etc. will bitch and cry, but their problem is that they make inefficient use of labour. Which then brings in the other problem: Singapore’s economy is not climbing up the tech ladder. Many of our brightest are going into banking, and not joining the knowledge economy, of which has become something of a joke. There are some inherent problems with the way we have chosen to position our economy and the government I suspect has seen it but aren’t willing to publicly admit it, except dressing it as a “productivity problem”.

  10. 17 YMC 13 February 2012 at 22:59

    In America and Europe, traders, bankers and top CEOs were paid an obscene amount of salaries and bonuses – many times higher than ordinary workers – and considering the absolute carnage they have inflicted to the system of capitalism and Society – it simply goes to show that paying extremely high salaries creates greedy pigs who slaughter us in the end.

    • 18 Eugene 24 February 2012 at 23:04

      Now Royal Bank of Scotland Chief has admitted that his investment bankers are paid on an average 23,000 pounds a month which is way too high to the likings of the regulators. But the Chief implores that RBS alone cannot change this and needs collective action from the whole finance industry.
      Likewise in Singapore, the financial industry is paying exhorbitant remuneration to investment bankers. And using this to the papies advantage and paying themselves obscene amount of salaries and bonuses is worst as the regulators (the citizens) wishes are brushed aside.

  11. 19 dee 13 February 2012 at 23:33

    Unionise the trades that the ITE programmes train for. Then install a minimum wage that guarantees support the to average income level in Singapore. These are honest jobs that should be dignified as the respectable means of supporting the tradespeople and their families that they are.

    Restructure the system so that profit-margins and bottom-lines aren’t the only things worth caring about.

    I know, easier than done, but one can dream.

  12. 20 The 13 February 2012 at 23:49

    In Germany, it is the plumbers and carpenters who drive BMWs.

  13. 21 Whore 14 February 2012 at 02:14

    That’s cuz the doctors, lawyers and investment bankers drive Ferraris and the Company Directors fly private jets.

  14. 22 Anonymous 14 February 2012 at 04:03

    Even in a world with top dog, it is worth noting that a top dog one day can also become and not-top-dog another. Dogs fight each other to be top dog. Also when a not-top-dog fight to be a top dog and don’t succeed, it will come back and fight again and may one day become the top dog.

    If an education system was meant to ensure social mobility then people who don’t make it round the first time could also be able to have another shot at it.

    The problem with the PAP mentality is one where someone becomes a top dog — often by one route, academic achievement — the top dog is expected to stay there. So the engineer a system where a person reach the top he/she can kick the ladder off to prevent others from taking over!

    Hence, all these artificial barriers under the guise of “maintaining standard” — or criteria that the PAP deliberately narrowly defined — to keep others out.

    • 23 The 14 February 2012 at 09:47

      /// Even in a world with top dog, it is worth noting that a top dog one day can also become and not-top-dog another. ///

      Unfortunately, this is not quite the case in Uniquely Singapore. Once you are in the elite circle, it is very seldom, unless you screw up so spectacularly or are involved in scandals, that you become bottom dogs (maybe not no. 1 dog, but still top dogs). You can see some of the key people, having not perform in one stat board/GLC/ministry, are shunted to other outfits. They were given many chances. Worse still, some are promoted upwards after screwing up.

      Amakudari and Nomenklatura at work here.

  15. 24 Dan 14 February 2012 at 09:04

    There will always be lower life forms and those at the top of the food chain. This seems to be the official stance with regards to the general population. They forgot that those at the lower rung can be eased out of the fight by low cost foreign workers. There is no end to the social engineering.

  16. 25 Poker Player 14 February 2012 at 09:52

    “If everyone can move up, we will not have enough ITE graduates out there in the workforce,”

    Substitute polytechnic for ITE and you have the policy for the early 90’s and earlier. At the time, poly grads were UK university material (we are talking both red-brick and plate glass here). Too bad for your educational aspirations – the needs of the elite running the Singapore economy trumps your dreams.

    • 26 Poker Player 14 February 2012 at 10:05

      “If everyone can move up, we will not have enough ITE graduates out there in the workforce,”

      An yes, this sentiment manifests itself at all educational levels as the fetish for streaming.

      How else to explain this when there are successful models that don’t involve streaming and the fact that there are such things as “late bloomers”.

  17. 27 zotan 14 February 2012 at 10:16

    What is so difficult to understand? Despite the smoke screen, PAP will continue to pursue policies that perpetuate a rising income gap simply because they benefit the most.

  18. 28 tk 14 February 2012 at 10:35

    as many have mentioned, australian “tradies” often earn 6 figure salaries. this is a result of the massive housing industry (bubble) and mining boom (extremely vulnerable to a slowdown / hard landing in china).

    what they don’t mention is that scientists and engineers with >10 years of training and experience behind them are often stuck at the 50-80K level…

    so much for the “clever country”…

    • 29 Poker Player 14 February 2012 at 15:40

      “what they don’t mention is that scientists and engineers with >10 years of training and experience behind them are often stuck at the 50-80K level…”

      It is “often” too in SIngapore. We are not cleverer… and their tradies are better off. What was your point again?

    • 30 Jonno 14 February 2012 at 16:14

      Australia is not called a “clever country” but rather a “lucky country” cos it got lots of mineral wealth plus offshore oil & gas to last many lifetimes. Australia is an egalitarian society where people don’t look down on each other due to their jobs. They have mutual human ‘respect’. Singapore is an elitist country (or for a better word, meritocracy) where your position and earning power commands ‘kow-tow’ respect whereas those at the lowest rung are looked upon like ‘dogs’. It is not a human society!

      ‘Tradies’ and mining workers are at their industry forefront ie. hands-on people – that’s why they are paid according to their skill levels. Australia relies on a skilled based economy, and doesn’t need a top heavy management or big HQ staff due to the high cost of employment. That’s why scientists and engineers are not highly paid unless they contribute directly to the bottomline.

      In Australia unlike Singapore, to earn your money – you’ll have to get your hands dirty. Office workers are particularly vulnerable these days as they are the 1st to be laid off during an economic downturn eg. from banking sector. Manufacturing jobs are also vulnerable due to high A$.

      @tk – your knowledge of Australia seemed to be gleamed from newspapers or R U really Aussie based???

  19. 31 Chanel 14 February 2012 at 11:45

    They started with “it was an honest mistake, let’s move on”, but when that excuse didn’t work, PAP cadre use “I was misunderstood” and “I was quoted out of context”.

    Don’t they realize that it is actually an insult to the public by claiming that the public always “misunderstand” what they said? Is our command of the English language so low that we can’t even understand a simple statement made by our esteemed leaders? Should MOE re-examine the English curriculum in schools?

    As if insulting our command of the language is not enough, we have clownish PAP MPs like Vikram Nair accusing us of “deliberately” mis-quoting or misunderstanding what our dear leaders said!

    Actually, a simple, “I am deeply sorry for what I have said” would have worked a lot better for the minister or MP concerned than trying to bullshit their way out.

  20. 32 Just trying to be objective 14 February 2012 at 13:11

    It is easy to blame the PAP for policies taken or comments made by the general body or certain specific politician. Without venturing into the realm of determining if the PAP is really responsible for our societal infrastructure and the society’s mentality, should we not spend some time considering if the same will happen if another party takes over? Let me assure you that similar consequences, albeit in other aspects, will still happen nonetheless.

    I’m not advocating that policies in place for our education system works. Let’s put it this way, this is how a meritocracy system works: there will be “losers” and there will be “winners”. Setting aside the downsides of this system, the purportedly unfair advantages certain groups of people might have over others, has anybody proposed an alternative, better system instead of merely asserting that the government is screwing the people (at the “lower rungs”) up?

    I do agree that it is easier to see why the tone/ implications of what Lawrence Wong has said is construed in a negative way. I do admit that there are many deserving people out there who should make it to polytechnics/ universities, but for the fact that there just aren’t enough opportunities. Setting aside the inherent bias against the ruling party, I think we should examine if progressive efforts are being made before jumping to conclusions. It may be a slow effort but can we really deny the fact that the government has realized that MORE efforts need to be made to cater to the less-advantaged lots? Honestly, radical changes are made impossible by virtue of the way the economy works or in fact, the way capitalist system works. As with the always true economic principle: the supply has to meet the demand.

    I would think this is the same when we compare ourselves with other countries where we speak of plumbers/ carpenters or just blue collar workers who are more valued. We have to remember that everything is relative in different economic/ societal settings. As stated in one of the comments: the doctors/ lawyers/ bankers drive ferraris when plumbers/ carpenters drive BMWs. I’m not sure if that applies uniformly to ALL blue collar workers and ALL doctors/lawyers in said country but the truth remains that it is all relative. How much one’s services is valued really depends on the geographic/ societal/ economic needs of the society. In our case, economic/ trading growth is highly valued over manual skills. That is indeed the policy the government has chosen, (most probably) after taking in account the many resources and options available to our country.

    • 33 Vote for Change 14 February 2012 at 21:11

      I agree with you that it is all about supply and demand. As rightly pointed out by you, our government choses the growth-at-all-cost economic model and is responsible for the outcome that manual jobs are poorly valued by creating a large supply of foreign workers. Same for PMET jobs.

      In summary, the PAP government choses GDP growth over the welfare of its citizens. They have no ideas how to grow our economy except to increase our population. There is an urgent need to change. Vote wisely, vote for change. Thank you.

    • 34 16 February 2012 at 16:59

      “….should we not spend some time considering if the same will happen if another party takes over? Let me assure you that similar consequences, albeit in other aspects, will still happen nonetheless.”

      Are you Nostradamus?? You are as far from being objective as one can be.

    • 35 max 25 February 2012 at 10:35

      We have the Biggest Income Gap between the Top Earners and the botttom rung 20% in the world .What say u my friend? Can’t something be done to improve this, since we are relatively speaking not a poor country and 20% is not a large pool.

  21. 36 Jonno 14 February 2012 at 15:34

    This is another example of PAP’s micromanagement and rigid control of the education system in Singapore towards the general public. Education upgrading is the upward social ladder where common individual can pursue their economic dreams. By restricting such access is to breed social resentment, unhappiness and keeping people ‘downtrodden’. Why should only the academically inclined ones get to have education scholarships while those less academically can’t even go on to polytechnics. When there was an public uproar regarding National Service and elite ‘White Horses’ receiving preferential treatment during NS – This is another clear cut social engineering move! It’s an ‘us’ vs ‘them’ thing.

    Education should be managed in accordance to market demands instead of ‘scarcity’ value. It should not another COE scheme whereby supply is restricted thereby forcing unnecessary competition competing for a place. The big picture or rather, ‘seeing the forest for the trees’ is that a better education public can move the nation economically forward or are we maintaining an empire where the elite continually rule over an uneducated peasants class?

  22. 37 Godwin 15 February 2012 at 11:59

    If you feel so strongly about this issue, you can just bypass the government and pay your plumber more for his services – the government does not stop you from paying more for the value which you perceive you receive from a provider.

    At the end of the day, we are individually and then collectively responsible for how much our service providers make from us through our choices in what, where, and how much to spend our income on.

    • 38 Poker Player 15 February 2012 at 14:03

      I see this ridiculous logic quite a bit in comments. A kind of ad hominem non-sequitur.

      Why not leave the defense of a country from foreign invasions to individual acts of courage?

      For some problems, the solution needs to be coordinated and even coerced at the level of an entire society. Individual acts are part of the solution but they are futile without that level of social coordination.

      • 39 Elaine 15 February 2012 at 21:43

        There is merit in both Poker Player’s and Godwin’s reasoning. I’ve had contractors and designers work on my place and I’ve never quibbled with them. Similarly I don’t quibble and try to bargain down other service providers, from tailors to school bus operators to market stall holders. First it’s petty and service providers/ vendors resent it and thereby spoils the relationship; secondly, it’s inequitable. I find that I also get better service from them subsequently and they’re more willing to throw goodwill work/items. I think consumers themselves have to play a part in honouring various trades and businesses. People have to make a living. You wouldn’t want that to happen to yourself or your family; don’t do it to others.

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