Perspective Unlimited

Monday, June 18, 2007

Some Further Discussion on University Admission

Comments over university admissions are still coming in even though I posted the discussion (with an ensuing debate with Mr Wang) one week ago, probably due to the references from Lucky Tan's site. After the initial outburst, I think the quality of discussion has improved.

There is a thread on university education as a signalling device model (due to Spencer), and some discussion on whether polytechnics should be converted to universities (originated from Jimmy Mun). I have also provided some further explanation on the difference between vertical and horizontal differentiation in education, a la Michael Porter, borrowing from some industrial organisation concepts.

Finally, I am flagging a paper I read sometime ago "The Weakening Position of University Graduates in Singapore's Labour Market" by Stephen J Appold (you can google it). The author of the paper discusses some underlying income trends which he sees as evidence that Singapore is producing too many graduates without enough differentiation. I do not agree with some of the things he says and some of his interpretations, but there are some interesting points there.

The discussion may help you gain further insights on the pros and cons of further extending university education for Singaporeans from today's level. Even if it does not change your mind on this issue, it will most certainly help you gain a deeper understanding.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Putting Singaporeans First

Five years ago, if someone were to suggest to me that Singaporeans should always come first, whether with regard to housing, healthcare or education, I would have agreed readily. But as you can tell from my recent posts, I have become more skeptical about these "Put Singaporeans First" instincts.

Back in the 1980s, faced with competitive pressures from Japan, there was also a 'Buy America' campaign. Today, 'Buy America' is probably targeted at cheap Chinese imports. But to those of us who are beginning to understand how inter-connected the world is, such efforts are looking increasingly futile, and are in fact detrimental to the people they are supposed to benefit. It became somewhat of a joke when it latter transpired that many made in America products in fact had foreign components.

Looking beyond goods and services, globalisation has also resulted in greater movement of people from their countries of birth. Immigration and emigration are on the rise everywhere. I mentioned before that 1 in 10 British nationals actually live overseas even as Britain experiences large scale immigration.

Singapore, being a global city-state, is not immune to these forces. I dare say that on the whole, we have benefitted greatly from it. We have many non-citizens (permanent residents, permit holders) working here for large parts of their lives. Many are becoming as Singaporean as you or I. Similarly, there are many Singaporeans working, studying, living overseas for an extended period of time. I am a Singaporean, but I do receive some British welfare benefits because I am studying here.

With the influx of non-locally born students or working professionals to Singapore, competitive pressure inevitably arises - as is reflected in rising rents, house prices, transport congestion or university places. Faced with competitive pressure, the natural instinct is to adopt a 'Put Singaporeans First' mentality. There are also those in Britain demanding that welfare for foreigners be cut, and that British citizens should come first.

Why should we worry about putting citizens before every one else? Firstly, it has become increasingly difficult to meaningfully categorise people into citizens and non-citizens based on the passports they hold, and conduct redistribution policies that way. For example, many permanent residents have lived in and contributed to Singapore for decades. Many have Singaporean spouses and Singaporean children.

Secondly, even if we give the Singaporean priority to everything, healthcare, university education and what not, he or she could easily emigrate to another country after consuming all the benefits (ah big beautiful house and nice lifestyle in Australia). Being open and free means that citizens can easily pack up and leave. The fact that one has to be a Singaporean citizen at the point of consuming taxpayer-funded benefits does not guarantee that it will be taxpayers' money well-spent. Who is a taxpayer? Foreigners who work here pay taxes too, GST if not income taxes.

Though it has become a cliche to say that the world has become more open and borders more porous, we still have not really accepted this at the emotional level. Many of you will no doubt disagree with me on this and believe that we citizens should always come first. But I hope to convince you at least that old comfortable assumptions we have will not always hold today.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Protection for Singaporeans?

A letter to the ST Forum over the weekend called for university places to be reserved for Singaporeans. I suspect by Singaporeans, the writer Mr Ong meant Singapore citizens only (not including permanent residents).

Globalisation has created winners as well as losers, relatively if not absolutely speaking. Being a small country market, Singapore has much to gain being part of the global economy. There is no denying of the benefits economic openness has brought to Singapore. Where there is disagreement, it is about how we can as a society manage the effects of being open.

Faced with competition, there is always a danger that political pressure for protectionism will mount. First, it begins with some price discrimination for public service, charging non-citizens more for education and healthcare like what we are already doing. The next natural step will be absolute quantity controls, such as reserving education places (or jobs) for Singaporean citizens like Mr Ong suggested.

Very soon, even that will not be enough - 'Old' citizens will not be too happy with the 'New' citizens in their midst. Surely the newly naturalised citizens do not deserve same privileges generations of Singaporeans have worked hard for? What's next then? Ah, one has to be a twenty-fifth generation son-of-the-soil before special privileges are conferred.

Though I had previously disagreed with Aaron Ng on more than one occasion, I have to compliment him this time for writing something as sensible as his latest post. He has clearly spotted the danger in Mr Ong's arguments. While the instinct to protect Singaporeans from competition is highly understandable, it is plainly silly to imagine that Singaporeans will be well-served with a dose of such protectionism no matter how well-meaning it sounds.

Endnote: There is also a discussion on this topic over at Mr Wang, which I have posted some further comments. I have also reproduced my last comment on Mr Wang's blog below.

Mr Wang and All,

Can't possibly respond to every comment. I would just reiterate my point. First, let's separate the issue of scholarships for foreign students and reserving university places for Singaporeans. The former is about whether it is beneficial for us or simply wasteful of taxpayers money. The latter is about whether we should institutionalise positive discrimination (for want of a better term) for Singaporeans (however defined).

Like I said, university access has already expanded greatly for Singaporeans over the past 2 decades. We have a high proportion of graduates (around 25 per cent of each cohort if I am not wrong). I can hardly imagine a situation where further expansion of university access will not diminish the average quality of intake. Sure, some As students may not get the course of their choice, but remember, A level grades have been inflated a lot over the past decade.

If the current level of access is still not good enough, and we choose to impose further quantity controls by reserving places for Singaporeans, it is the beginning of the slippery slope towards protectionism for Singaporeans. Where does one stop?

The end result is that the market will begin to discount the degrees of local university graduates, inferencing (probably correctly) that a significant proportion of them earned their degrees only because of the institutionalised protectionism. What happens next? Eager parents will fork out even more money to send their kids overseas, even if they have local access. Why? Because they will need to separate themselves from the local graduates, whose degrees will be under a cloud of suspicion that they are not nearly good enough. Who lose? Singaporeans in the end.

I understand that this is an emotional issue, but I hope at least some of you can see my point.


On a personal note, over at Mr Wang's site, some bloggers are beginning to suggest that I come from a selfish perspective, trying to argue against greater university access for my country men. Some are even suggesting that I am not thinking straight. But consider this. If I were selfish, wouldn't I argue for greater protectionism for Singaporeans for local university entry, knowing full well and safe in the knowledge that I already have an overseas degree? Wouldn't I want to restrict the number of bright kids from overseas coming to Singapore? Go figure.

I am not arguing against greater university access. I am making a simple point that however appealing protectionism initially looks, it has a strange way of turning around and hurting the people it is supposed to protect.