A Singaporean Graduate’s Thoughts on PM Lee’s Paper Chase Advice

When I graduated two years back with a Bachelor of Accountancy from Singapore Management University (SMU), I turned down offers from the Big Four accounting firms to join a lean American corporate sales training company as a sales associate.

Wanting to chase my dream as a professional speaker and coach, I knew one of the most fundamental skills I had to master first was sales. Hence, my divergent career decision from my peers. And to be in the industry I have desired to be in, would give me an insider perspective and the necessary head start.

Yet, one of my well-intentioned college mates told me,

“Ben, you are wasting your degree and the past four years. Why don’t you get at least a CPA (Certified Public Accountant) (certificate) first then do what you want? Like chasing your dreams? At least, you will have a safety net.”

As a brash and overly optimistic 25-year-old, you would have thought I was incensed by her remark.

On the contrary, I was baffled. I always believed that the value of an university education goes way beyond just a passport to a good job or as my friend put it, a “safety net”.

Instead, I greatly valued and treasured the academic and intellectual rigour I had to develop to survive, the vibrant and diverse exchange of thoughts and perspectives when you debate over controversial issues with fellow students in an Ethic class, the access to regional and global networks like student conferences and competitions, the relationships with my deans and professors who are not just dedicated to supporting us to excel on our report cards but our lives that was just beginning.

So to equate my four years of exploration and self-discovery as a “waste”, I just couldn’t reconcile that.

A U-Turn Too Late For The Paper Chase?

In our 2014 National Day Rally, Prime Minister (PM) Lee Hsien Loong said,

“Don’t go on a paper chase for qualifications or degrees, especially if they’re not relevant”

Following the Rally, a slew of initiatives like the Applied Study in Polytechnics and ITE Review (ASPIRE) Committee and plans to improve the career prospects for non-degree holders working in the Public Service, have also been brought to public awareness.

While all of these proposals are most heartening, I personally wonder if they would address the fundamental “relevance” of our paper chase, as echoed by PM Lee?

Quite like what my well-intentioned friend advised me after our graduation, this chase is driven by a deep-seated fear of losing out in modern meritocratic Singapore.

Or what we know better as our “kiasu” (fear of losing out) syndrome.

From the frightful balloting at “elite primary schools” to the mad scramble to fill our children’s free time up with tuition and enrichment classes to academic and scholarship coaching classes to secure coveted places for prestigious Ivy league universities and government scholarships, our national rhetoric has always been a resounding one – if you want to be relevant enough in our Singapore society, you had better get the right papers in your file.

In fact years back, when I was representing Singapore in an Asian youth summit, I still fondly recall my conversation with one of our session panellists. He happened to be also a Minister in India. He told me,

“Your society’s ruthless chase for meritocracy is the very reason for success of your nation but can one day also be, the very reason for your failure”

With no intention to slam the very system that gave me tremendous opportunities, I can’t help but think there was a grain of truth in what this gentleman said to me.

The necessary trade offs for our society’s unyielding stance towards and definition of success are numerous. Like how as a society, we have been perceived as being less creative, entrepreneurial, risk-taking and accepting of failures and deviation from what are the conventional paths of success and appropriateness.

So What Will The Singapore Chase Be About?

This is everyone’s guess.

But I do believe that our next steps ahead especially with our socio-economic bearings set in place, should involve big themes of embracing true diversity (in social standing, educational attainments, political leanings and beliefs, religion, gender et al), encouraging critical thought not just in our schools but also workplaces, enlarging spaces for mature public discourse and ensuring that we stay adaptive and nimble in face of global competition.

Returning to PM Lee’s Rally Speech, we need to redefine our context and definition of “relevance” so his call to not go on a mere paper chase will truly make sense and be heeded by our youths. Whether this involves radical changes to the recruitment and talent development processes in our traditionally meritocratic and paper-biased public sector or gradual socio-cultural shifts on the ground so the Tiger Mum realizes that there can be more paths to success and survival in modern Singapore for her children, we all have a shared responsibility in charting these next steps too.

And back to my personal chase to be relevant in my own life, I quit my sales job last September to pursue my entrepreneurial dreams full-time because I felt I was ready. While it has been filled with trepidation and uncertainty at times, it has also been undoubtedly gratifying and rewarding for me to be in the “people change business” as a professional speaker and public speaking coach.

If there is anything to celebrate and acknowledge about my undergraduate education in accountancy, it has never been a waste either.

It has been thoroughly relevant in maintaining my own profit and loss statements and filing my income taxes, being savvy in my conversations with my clients in the financial sectors or just sounding intelligent during conversations at networking sessions when it meanders to that of the larger economy.

Perhaps the words of the late Steve Jobs come in most timely in this conversation about relevance –

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward you can only connect them looking backwards.”

This post will be shared at my personal LinkedIn Page.