Saturday, September 6, 2014

Prospects for non grads in S'pore: Societal shift needed to accept unconventional pathways

When I left the Singapore school system more than 25 years ago with qualifications that earned me a rejection letter from a local university, that development was the best jump start to self-development and lifelong learning I could ask for.

Thanks to a Singaporean who made his own way up the career ladder without a degree, my unconventional academic journey was eventually recognised when he gave me a chance to prove myself in corporate life.

That individual, Mr S.R. Nathan, embodies the societal shift needed as we ponder the value and potential of non graduates versus graduates.

The year was 1996. The place: An office at Raffles City which Mr Nathan used as ambassador-at-large.

He looked through my job application for his then-new strategic studies institute without a word before raising his head and asking a single question: You have A Levels and then you went on to Masters. So you don't have a first degree?

Mr Nathan's perceptiveness saw the past five years of my life compressed into mere minutes, with the expectation that as far as job prospects were concerned, I would soon be shown the door. 

Had it been any other public servant, the show would probably be over. But Mr Nathan bade me to continue.

He listened intently as I described how A level results failed to book me a place at a local university.

He seemed intrigued with the decision to head to work after my full-time National Service, starting at the age of 22 as the Singapore correspondent for a UK-based defence weekly. I was then the youngest freelancer engaged by the magazine and learned what I could from seasoned defence journalists.

The years of freelance work for defence publications, an invitation to present a paper at a defence forum at the age of 23 eventually led to a British academic sketching out options for furthering one's studies overseas. Back in the United Kingdom, that academic shared my dream with colleagues who taught defence/strategic studies. Three were approached. Three wrote back. They hailed from the University of Wales at Aberystwyth, King's College in London and the University of Hull. All were prepared to assess the application for a Masters programme.

And so, the paper chase moved into high gear.

The British publisher of the defence magazine -  then and now an influential voice in the British defence scene - supported the application. As did the Naval Attache from an embassy in Singapore. Their endorsements underscored the value not just of networking (which anyone can do), but of proving oneself to an international audience who can be discerning.  

And so, off I went to the UK for a course of study that leverage on what I assessed to be two strengths: in language and in military history/defence matters. In the early 1990s, Singapore's education system did not offer any courses in strategic studies to students outside the Singapore Armed Forces. This meant that the net had to be cast wide to countries that did offer such courses to civilians. Help came from unexpected quarters. At the time, when the National Defense University in the United States was downsizing its National Security Management courses due to budget cuts, a contact there mailed the entire series of Blue Book textbooks to me. This series of about a dozen books proved of immense value in laying the academic foundation so necessary for the Masters in Strategic Studies that I embarked on from September 1995.

Thanks to that piece of paper and with Mr Nathan's advice, I eventually joined Singapore Press Holdings as a daily-rated temp, converting to full-time employment six months later. I have not looked back since.

It wasn't all smooth sailing. The five years in the academic wilderness as a non graduate taught me who my real friends were. Some made scornful remarks about freelance work (try telling people you work from home), others were dismissive about strategic studies/war studies as they'd never heard of it (honestly, their views didn't matter and I gave up explaining what it was all about), others made disparaging remarks about non grads in the guise of offering unsolicited "advice" about university courses (have access to better qualified advisors, thank you). It was great to purge one's life of such characters.

Mr Nathan's willingness to look beyond conventional notions of academic pathways is precisely the societal mindset change needed as Singapore examines career opportunities for people without degrees. Beyond the recent burst of media stories of non graduates made good, Singapore Inc needs to walk the talk.

Our education system needs to reorientate itself quickly because the openness the British university admission system displayed 20 years ago when they were willing to consider work experience as a criteria for a Masters course is, alas, relatively unheard of in Singapore even today. British varsities are apparently not unique in their approach to assessing candidates. The US system is similarly inclined.

One can only wonder at the untold number of Singaporeans who have had their educational aspirations dashed by a system that needs to check the boxes so rigidly that individuals who do not conform to current concepts of talent management fall through the cracks.

The good news is this: Success stories of individuals who made it invariably have some common themes woven into their narrative. These include an innate stubborn belief in their ability to succeed no matter what, passion/drive in pursuing their course of action and a sense of realism in what can be done.

While some elements are within an individual's control, there is an added element of luck and in meeting the right people at the right time.

For me, the turning point emerged during that interview by Mr Nathan. And for that, I remain forever grateful.


Asrar Ahmad said...

Good man, for not backing down from the" superior and snobish" singapapore educations system.
And a great insight on another option vs the singapore way.

TheGreenBeenz said...

The Singapore way of single-minded ness worked in the past when we were a developing society. I think young Singaporeans should remember that things were always as they were... Am glad that options seem to be opening up for the late bloomers and alternative paths to education and qualifications too are becoming a reality.

I hope this is all part of our maturation as a society and progress as one nation. Naysayers should instead celebrate the great visionaries like president Nathan and the courage of those like David Boey. Together we can.

Unknown said...

Sadly, networking and marketing yourself are not things "anyone can do". They are in fact very rare and valuable skills, far more valuable than anything you can be taught in a classroom or laboratory, in fact.

That was your particular talent, you are lucky to have it, and owe a good portion of your success to it. Unless you recognize your own good fortune in possessing so much "EQ", you run the risk of looking down on people who cannot make it like you did because they lack your ability, just as others looked down on you for lacking academic ability.

bar code said...

A very inspirational morning read. Thank you David for sharing your story. I need hope, not for myself (old already, hopeless haha) but for my boy...

Subaltern Lim said...

Thank you for sharing with us on your life journey David. It is inspirational. You are right. This effort will take nothing short of a cultural shift... Great leap of faith begins with a single step. This were to come to fruition, the future Singapore will be transformed !

Unknown said...

The British have one strong point and it is called 'recommendation'. People of calibre who recommend an aspiring junior to a high institution have trust and mentorship in their beliefs. They won't recommend you if they don't believe in you. Of course, your command of the language will make them sit up and listen. Well done to prove yourself. An NS commission does have value. First and Foremost.

Unknown said...

Hi David,
This post of yours is rather inspiring. After reading, I can't help but ponder, for every one "success" story, how many have tried and failed?
Simply put, the way our society works is still largely based on academic qualifications. Not everyone is willing to take chances on what is perceived to be a handicap/disqualifying attribute. (i.e. lack of academic qualifications)

Perhaps we could start to teach networking, communicating or presentation skills more to students of various levels. :)

I'm heartened after reading this as well. I'm shooting for my own goals currently. It's hard work but I do hope to achieve them like you did for yours. Cheers!