theonlinecitizen

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The Work Holiday Programme: an undergraduate’s concern

Posted by theonlinecitizen on May 25, 2007


By Ned Stark

Singapore’s open door policy rolls on. The government’s stated goal is to bring Singapore’s population up to the 6.5 million mark. Unless we drastically increase our birth statistics, it is clear that many of these 6.5 million residents will be made up of foreigners.

Minister of Manpower Dr Ng Eng Hen’s recently announced increase in S passes for mid skilled manpower from 10-15%, coupled with the announcement of a Work Holiday Programme (WHP) for 2000 foreign students highlights some problems with our foreign talent policy.

First and foremost, there has to be a clear definition of “Foreign Talent”.

Male Singaporeans at an employability disadvantage

In theory, Foreign Talent refers to the kind of talent that Singapore’s economy needs to progress, and the talent that these foreigners have is for some reason not found in the local talent pool. Viewed from this angle, foreign talent policy theoretically is good for the country as they fill in the gaps in Singapore’s economy.

However, I’m considering that the WHP will be bringing in 2000 foreign students to compete with our 3500+ local undergraduates. Apart from the sheer numbers, this is especially alarming when put in the context of our NS handicap. Due to National Service obligations, local males often start school or work 2-3 years behind their female and foreign colleagues.

Even after serving two years one is still liable to be called up for reservist for a period of ten years, 40 days a year, until we reach the age of 40 (50 for officers). Kiss any hope of being able to put in overtime if you fail your IPPT: it’s Remedial Training for you. Our new batch of WHP friends, with no such liabilities, will doubtless be at an employability advantage.

“Spring-board” foreign talents

Another issue is with regards to education. While it is laudable that Singapore wants to become an education hub, allowing foreign students to come to our shores may result in locals being disadvantaged in the area of tertiary education.

Obviously, there is no guarantee that such students will contribute to Singapore’s economy. Several see Singapore as merely a spring board to the West, thus these foreigners can just use Singapore, get a degree (and possibly deprive someone else of a degree), and then just leave.

Another problem, less apparent but more insidious, is also present. There are a considerable number of foreign students in the Engineering faculties of the local universities. In a bell curve system of grading, a foreign student’s gain is a local one’s loss.

Friends from the Engineering faculty have said that the average Grade Point Average (GPA) of local students is almost 1 full point out of a possible 5 lower than that of their foreign counterparts.

While this is completely reasonable in a Darwinian sense, the lower GPAs on local transcripts is a further problem for our local student’s employability. This, in turn could result in local students being deemed as not as capable when the person’s only fault was that he could not do better relative to his foreign counterpart. And if the applicant is male, his situation vis a vis a foreign job seeker is further compromised.

Paradigm shift in mindet needed

To set the record straight, I am not against foreigners or immigration per se. However the current execution of the policy gives rise to a variety of problems which could adversely impact undergraduate jobseekers.

The solution is not xenophobia, but a paradigm shift in mindset. For too long our foreign talent policy has been premised on bringing foreigners in on the assumption that they will ‘cosmopolitanize’ our Singaporeans.

My proposal is simple: push Singaporean students out into the world. Use the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on subsidizing foreigner’s education in our country to sponsor locals to study overseas.

Give our poor Singaporeans the same opportunities we’re extending to poor Vietnamese, Chinese and Indians.

Divert their subsidies to creating bond free grants to Singaporeans eager to study abroad: grants that aren’t restricted to those with S papers and brilliant transcripts.

After all, if one of our publicly financed China scholars returns to his country of birth, it is Singapore’s loss. If our own Singaporean scholars return to their country of birth, it is our gain.

Ned keeps a blog here.

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8 Responses to “The Work Holiday Programme: an undergraduate’s concern”

  1. Well, you know what’s scary? It’s that probably they know what’s wrong with their campaigns, but they won’t do jack squat because it would be an admission of failure, and the ones up there don’t engage in that.

  2. Boboshoot said

    Dear Ned

    Good article. I admire your efforts to be constructive. However call me a cynic, but I feel that the people up there are unlikely to adopt your suggestions because they have little incentive (or prodding) to do so.

    For a long time I was puzzled why there seems to be preferential treatment given to foreigners. Today I’ve become rather clear of where things stand.

    Let me share some (somewhat over-used) analogies which I believe help to explain this phenomenon:

    The HR Analogy
    —————
    If you’ve been in the job market long enough you’ll know that the reason why nowadays employees don’t stay long in one place is because HR departments tend to pay more for outsiders to come in, rather than to increase the salaries of some of their own staff who are known to be “sticky” (ie. have little intention or option to move elsewhere). So you get a phenomenon that for two employees of the same grade and same capability, the person coming in may be paid much higher than the person who’s been around for a long time.

    We’ve all heard of some people who got a raise by threatening to jump ship or others who left a company for better prospects and then got headhunted back for even higher pay.

    That’s because in today’s corporate world loyalty is worth very little, and “long-service” has a bad connotation to it. All that’s important is the relative bargaining power and negotiation “games” between the employee and the HR department.

    Coming back to the issue of the government and how it treats its own citizen’s vis-à-vis foreigners, I feel it has got nothing to do with whether we are xenophobic or xenophiles but cold-hard pragmatic “HR policies”.

    Recruitment Drive To Replenish the Ageing Ranks
    ————————————————
    Ned, in one key area I disagree with you because I think bringing in foreigners is not about “cosmopolitanizing” us.

    Bluntly put, we are in dire shortage of young workers of all levels due to a major strategic-level population policy cock-up made by the government in the past. In fact, I believe that this is the #1 issue that would probably keep the people up there awake today (or rather, tonight).

    Our old folks don’t seem to be going anywhere (they’ve tried to put some in low-cost Batam but failed) and seem to be living longer than ever. Efforts to kill them by making their lives miserable and depressing have only met with limited success (OK, sorry, that’s a very bad joke). Therefore our Immigration Office a.k.a HR department is scouring the planet for young talents to make up the numbers, otherwise Singapore will soon become an old folks home bankrupted by lack of sponsors.

    Because of the dire situation, the government is so desperate that they are literally rolling out the red carpet to talent that wants to call the red dot home (this is among other potential revenue raising schemes like GST, Casino…).

    Obviously, not all are going to stay. Some smart PRC fellas will simply abuse the system, but I think they’ve already punched the numbers on their financial calculator and determined that there will be a net gain for our economy (provided they’ve done their sums right – recent events show that they are increasingly prone to serious financial cock-ups)

    What About Us Long Service Employees?
    ————————————-
    Sadly, to fix their previous population cock-up, they’ll be giving first class tickets to recruit foreigners to come over here, and we Singaporeans are going to get paid with economy class treatment. Why? For 80%+ of us who lack the ability to migrate and seek greener pastures, we are going to be stuck here. They can shove NS and GST down our throats, there is nothing we can do about it. It’s not like there’s any other “employer” out there going to recruit us. We can’t bail out – so why should they bother to give us first class treatment?

    Sheep and the Shepard’s Dogs
    —————————-
    And who should we blame for our own second class treatment? I feel in this area we should look in the mirror. We Singaporeans are like sheep. The majority will just follow blindly regardless and are easily cowed. In the unlikely event that some sheep make some noises, the Shepard will bring out his BIG staff (or is it a hatchet?), and we sheep will obediently fall back into line to bleat “4 legs good…”

    We have become all too familiar about the fate of those few recalcitrant sheep, of a particular black variety, well, who have been set upon by the sheepdogs, so to speak. Further vague threats about “doses of imcompetent…” should keep us all in line NDP style.

    So when someone up there says it is his responsibility to “take care of the 80%+ of us who cannot migrate”, perhaps he knows exactly what he is talking about. Just not the way we gullible sheep read it.

    Conclusion
    ———–
    As I recap “in today’s corporate world loyalty is worth very little”. Would a government a.k.a known as Singapore Inc be any different, especially if the sheep continue to be sheep and so there is little risk of a “boardroom tussle”?

    Grants for our young but long-service employees to study abroad, you say? Scholarships without super-elite-12A1s-plus-S-paper-distinctions, you say? As the uncle in the coffeeshop will put it, “you wait long long”!

    Rgds

    Boboshooter

  3. jer said

    Xenophobic? I don’t see the problem with this, actually. I’m sure you know Asians (particularly Chinese) have an infamous reputation abroad as being “muggers” and for running Chinese food eateries hours long after local stores close (see Aus, for instance). Some of the locals there don’t like it either. It’s a similar argument. Do you think everyone then should just stay home?

    I think the bell curve is, in fact, a rather fair rating in that these foreign talent are earning the same local degree–much like our local students.

    Consider this: with subsidised education in the UK, a local there who gets educated in a renowned university because he/she lives within the proximity of the university (as everyone knows, it is Not difficult for an international student to enter a reputable UK university.. if you can pay the exorbitant fees) comes to SG as an expat and is judged more favourably because of the “global” degree; that, perhaps, might be an injustice.

    But that’s entirely up to the employer’s discretion.. I’m sure all of us would like to be born rich too, but that’s just the way the cookie crumbles

  4. jer said

    Btw, I was replying to your argument that:

    “Another problem, less apparent but more insidious, is also present. There are a considerable number of foreign students in the Engineering faculties of the local universities. In a bell curve system of grading, a foreign student’s gain is a local one’s loss.

    Friends from the Engineering faculty have said that the average Grade Point Average (GPA) of local students is almost 1 full point out of a possible 5 lower than that of their foreign counterparts.

    While this is completely reasonable in a Darwinian sense, the lower GPAs on local transcripts is a further problem for our local student’s employability. This, in turn could result in local students being deemed as not as capable when the person’s only fault was that he could not do better relative to his foreign counterpart. And if the applicant is male, his situation vis a vis a foreign job seeker is further compromised. “

  5. Ned Stark said

    Ah, but while the foreigner has the opportunity to go somewhere else, the local is stuck in Singapore with the local degree. Therefore it is a likely scenario that the local would lose out.

  6. WANG said

    Ned,

    Any Singaporean with a local degree from the practical applied sciences, arts, business, engineering can go anywhere in the world. Have met innumerable number of ex Malaysians/Singaporeans/Indonesians in both OECD and non OECD countries who are working in their desired field.

  7. Clarence said

    I read through your article and got particularly interested in some of your points.

    First of all, your point about NS is totally valid. It’s a cause for concern for many Singaporean males. And now, great, we have foreigners coming in, free of NS obligations, and ceteris paribus, why would any employer hire a Singapore male over a foreigner? Let’s not even start the debate about the higher GPA scores they get.

    Now on to your next point. “Friends from the Engineering faculty have said that the average Grade Point Average (GPA) of local students is almost 1 full point out of a possible 5 lower than that of their foreign counterparts.”

    Well, while in general I agree that people from a certain nation consistently hog the top spots for each module – first hand experience – it is by no means UNFAIR. What have your friends to complain about? That they’d to study much harder for a lower grade? That they had too little free time to do non-academic stuff? Foreign students have to engage in CCAs so that they can stay in the halls of residences, else they’d have to find their own accomodation, and a Singaporean (assuming he/she is staying with his/her parents) doesn’t need to do that. If you choose to do so (i.e. stay in a hall), and engage in CCAs, remember that it was YOUR choice. If you chose to go out/play games over studying for that midterm test, again it was your choice. Do you have a right to complain about the stiffer competition? Sure, as long as you remember that it is not a RIGHT to earn an A, even without studying much.

    Next point: “For too long our foreign talent policy has been premised on bringing foreigners in on the assumption that they will ‘cosmopolitanize’ our Singaporeans.” This assumption, like you say, couldn’t be further from the truth.

    It is only natural that one will stick in his/her group of friends. We will hardly venture out of that “safe” circle because a lot of us do not want to leave our comfort zones. It’s not just us Singaporeans, I think people the world over would have the same sentiments.

    Personally, I think financing specific students’ overseas educations is not a very good idea because it will take up a lot of money on the government’s part and yet only benefit a few.

    I feel a better idea would be to finance more students on overseas student exchanges. OMG, please do not make me go on about how my own student exchange changed my life. I do not want to launch into a campaign on why EVERY student should go on exchange. Firstly, it will cost less for the government to do so, and secondly the same pool of money can be used to benefit so many more! Thirdly, we will all then be truly cosmopolitan. Meeting people of German, French, Italian, Japanese, Brit, Norwegian, Finnish, Czech, Slovakian, Canadian, American, South African descent all under one roof made my exchange really memorable. (I’m sure I missed out even more nationalities – I can’t remember all at a go.)

    And because of my exchange, I have friends all over the world. Because of the exchange, London is no longer a faraway place I can only dream of. Because of exchange, I’ve come out of my shell, and I’m now talking to you all about my wonderful experiences. Need I say more?

  8. Ned Stark said

    Clarence,
    I am in full agreement with your point in exchanges. There are many things out there which Singaporeans should see untainted by the information fed to them by the ST.

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