What was PM trying to get at?

374
Graduates tossing caps in the air

By Abhijit Nag

Graduates tossing caps in the airThe Prime Minister’s cautionary words at the official opening of UTown are worth debating.  Singapore is committed to expanding the number of university places from 27 per cent of each cohort currently to 40 per cent by 2020. So far so good, but what next? As PM Lee said “Other countries have found that having large proportions of students going to university does not necessarily guarantee happy outcomes.”

He pointed out unemployment was higher among university graduates than among vocational high school graduates in South Korea, where more than 70 per cent of each cohort goes to university. Universities must impart skills that lead to good jobs, he said.

PM Lee could be echoing his father who spoke against “overcrowding” in universities.  Accepting an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws at the University of Hong Kong in February 1970, Mr Lee Kuan Yew said: “Against the prevailing drift to gross overcrowding  of universities in the new countries with ever lowering pass levels, I was cheered to find that the University of Hong Kong has under 3,000 students and the University of Singapore 4,500.”

Now one in four Singaporeans is going to university. What a change since then. The growing army of university graduates has not pushed up unemployment, which is still an enviably low 2.1 per cent, but will there come a time when there are more graduates than jobs? The possibility must have crossed the PM’s mind, or he would not have cautioned against that.

Singapore is better educated today but faces more problems as well. Support for the PAP plunged to a post-independence low in the May 2011 general election. That may be due to other reasons, but look at the coincidence.

Singaporeans have become more questioning, more critical of the authorities, it is said. Maybe that is because education is supposed to foster the spirit of inquiry, make you ask questions.

Knowledge is power, it is said, but it can also lead to trouble. Remember what the Bible says: God told Adam not to eat from “the tree of knowledge of good and evil”, but Eve was tempted to share the fruit with him, and they were banished from the Garden of Eden.

Not all knowledge is regarded as good. Thus we have the story of Dr Faustus, a scholar who makes a pact with the devil and learns black magic, and has to pay dearly for it when he is consigned to hell.

There are still restrictions on what we are allowed to read and learn. There are banned books, official secrets, classified information.

Not all the restrictions are misplaced. Iran and North Korea face sanctions for nuclear programmes because of the hazards they pose. WikiLeaks sparked a crisis by releasing secret US diplomatic cables after publicizing Afghan war documents that were said to endanger people’s lives.

Knowledge is not all sweetness and light. It can be both creative and destructive.

Marx may or may not have been right, but there can be no denying the upheavals he caused. Millions died under Stalin and Mao and then there were all those conflicts during the Cold War. Inspired by the Nobel  Prize winning economist Milton Friedman, Margaret Thatcher launched an economic revolution that socially devastated Britain, The Guardian commented when she died in April. The 2009 recession was blamed among other things on financial derivatives called credit default swaps (CDS), that built up the housing bubble.

Of course, there is no denying the miracles of science and technology. But isn’t it a shame that the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer? Technology can turn the world into a global village, but cannot narrow the gap between the rich and the poor?

Impossible! What’s impossible today is just waiting to be done tomorrow. That’s the best thing about science, education and technology. You can always expect something new.