TL;DR – Disagree, yes. Disrespect, NO!
Not too long ago, Minister Ong Ye Kung spoke about the evolution of Singapore’s education at the St Gallen Symposium in Switzerland. A key point he made was that our education system needs to be aligned with the structure of our economy. This will ensure that people will have the skills required to find jobs even in this age of disruption.
As a result of this philosophy, Singapore has decided to provide university places for 30% to 40% of each cohort. The rest of the cohort will be provided with training for vocations in various industries.
As expected, the internet was up in arms. Some people screamed bloody murder. Why only allow 30% or 40% of each cohort to go to university? Doesn’t the Minister know that going to university is the only way to success? If someone doesn’t go to university, that person won’t be able to be successful in life! So why only allow 30% or 40% of each cohort to be successful, while condemning the rest to being second class citizens?!
Of course, amidst the rabid comments are some that are more well thought out and better reasoned.
Enter ex-GIC chief economist
One of the comments that is more well thought out and better reasoned came from Mr Yeoh Lam Keong. Wait. Who’s Yeoh?
Yeoh was once the chief economist of GIC. He is known to be vocal. During the campaigning period of the 2015 General Election, Mr Yeoh wrote a long Facebook post in response to a rally speech that DPM Tharman gave.
This time round, Yeoh wrote a Facebook post in response to what Minister Ong said. In that post, Yeoh said:
“Sad to see Education Minister Ong tow the same old unimaginative line that 30-40% university graduates is the maximum needed.”
Yeoh pointed out that the history of education policy is full of examples where policymakers underestimate the skill and education needs of the modern economy. He used the USA as an example. At one time in the USA, it was thought that too many high school graduates are being produced, which would lead to unemployment and dissatisfaction. Today, its turned out that high school was a bare minimum.
Yeoh agreed that that vocational training should be upgraded to be on par with academic degrees and encouraged like in Germany. But he didn’t agree that this meant limiting or capping the latter. Instead, if anything, in the new knowledge economy with massive AI crowding out of many traditional jobs and professions, one should err on the side of too much education and training rather than too little.
A lot of people commented on Yeoh’s post. Some comments were insightful, and added to the richness and depth of the discussion. Other comments were far less useful. Some comments were downright pointless.
Then there were also those who chose to turn Yeoh’s comments into divisive headlines.
TISG said Yeoh “blasted” Minister Ong, only he didn’t…
The alternative media site TheIndependent.sg (TISG) wrote an article based on Yeoh’s comment. That article carried the headline: “Ex-GIC economist blasts Minister Ong’s education policy of capping local university graduates as “unimaginative”
However, Yeoh didn’t blast Minister Ong.
Why do we say that? Because Yeoh said so himself. He posted a response to the TISG article on his Facebook page, where he said:
“While it’s good of the Independent to report this issue , can I say that the headline that I “blasted” Minister Ong is both inaccurate and unhelpful.”
Yeoh clarified that his comments were aimed at stimulating constructive public awareness and debate about this complex topic. He reiterated that such sensationalist headlines are unnecessarily divisive.
Yeoh pointed out that the many comments on the original post have explored and discussed this difficult subject together in somewhat greater depth. He expressed his thanks to the contributors, and stated that this is what public debate should be about. However, he also highlighted that he noticed some of the comments were unnecessarily hurtful.
More importantly, Yeoh emphasized that he has a lot of respect for Minister Ong. He revealed that he and Minister Ong have had productive public discussions in the past which he hopes will continue, even if they don’t agree on all points of policy.
Yeoh urged other commentators on his posts to treat one another with respect and with goodwill. He reminded us that:
“We are all in this together, including the govt, so please, let’s not get personal”
One reason why I respect people like Yeoh is that they are able to disagree respectfully. They argue their positions rationally, based on facts, and coherently. They are passionate about defending their positions and advancing their arguments. But they remain respectful, and rarely, if ever, make personal attacks. And along the way, they get to hear alternative views and different perspectives. All of these add to the depth and richness of the discussion, and we go away with, hopefully, better understanding that while we may be all nice and kind, but we can also be so different in our take on things.
We need more people like Yeoh. That’s the way we can discuss complex issues, get the best ideas, and work out the most suitable solutions to the difficult challenges that we face as a nation.