Top Heavy

It was a torrid afternoon in a village in Northern Thailand in 1994. Loud look toong music was blasting away from giant speakers across the padi field. The man who rented the speakers was busy entertaining guests. The men were dressed in pressed shirts, tailored pants and sandals. The young women wore colourful long-sleeve shirts, untucked to cover the curves brought out by their tight, faded jeans. The older women wore T-shirts and sarongs. The children were riding back and forth on their parents’ motorbikes.

The guests were mostly neighbours of the host and they loved parties. They danced to the lively beat of the music, feasting on snacks and emptying the dozens of bottles of fiery Mekhong Whisky tamed with “soda” and ice. The whole village was pulsating like a huge organism. The host’s daughter had just been accepted as a cabin attendant on Thai Airways.

Yao mo gao chor ah? No. In a place and time where few people had travelled by air, getting to work on a plane was a cause for celebration not less significant than getting married. The same goes for those who have graduated from one of the numerous universities in Thailand. The rup ba rin ya ceremony was and still is a very big deal. Huge feasts and parties are thrown by the proud parents, sometimes with borrowed money.

But the reality on the ground is a lot less pleasant when these folks were done with the partying. Many parents sold land to get their kids through university. What is the return on investment? Well, many of the Thai graduates I’ve met in the provinces back then were doing menial jobs like answering phone calls, filing documents and cleaning up the office. Some of them could not even operate a fax machine.

“Oh, I studied History.” Sure, they didn’t have fax machines back then when people were getting around on horses. And the usual excuse for not being good at English even though they majored in English and were trained to be English teachers was “Thailand was never colonised, unlike Singapore.”

Sculpture @ Chiang Mai University, Chiang Mai Thailand

Their hours were long, but for most of the day, these young graduates in the provinces would be snacking and gossiping. At the end of the month, they collected a measly pay of about 6,000 baht. Even then, their employers often owed them several months’ pay before they disappeared to hide from creditors. One of the graduates I knew who had a stable job and income was driving a tour bus. With tips, sales of souvenirs and overtime, he was getting close to 10,000 baht a month. Another one was working as a clinic assistant. She was trained to be an accountant. On the other hand, a school dropout who spoke Cantonese and worked in a trading company dealing with Hongkong clients earned much more than those with Masters degrees in Fine Arts.

When someone asked me how I would deal with the problem if I were the PM, I said that Thailand should close down 90% of its universities. It was a perfectly pragmatic move that would trigger a military coup. Nothing of that sort happened and the job market in the provinces was and still is too top heavy. An increase in places and enrollment in tertiary institutions pleased the people. It gave the aspiring middle class some hope, but can the job market take in so many graduates? From my observations, the answer was already obvious 20 years ago. There were way too many graduates, not exactly over-qualified but with no relevant skills. Passing exams takes great effort, but apart from the government, how many employers will pay you for your grades?

Fortunately, the situation in Singapore is nowhere as bad. Standards kept going up and the people responded by rising to those challenges. As more and more people could meet those standards, more and more places had to be created and more and more degrees had to be printed. But our kiasu approach towards education and academic qualifications has led to a similar trend.

As someone who used to employ them, I found that the N Level graduates we had 20 years ago were a lot brighter than the N Level graduates today. It’s not that exam standards have dropped – they have actually gone up, but parents here have been squeezing and pushing their kids way beyond their comfort zone and actual abilities. The results? Someone who ought to be a C student ended up as a B student and the B students ended up as A students. When I first served my NS in the 1982, some officers only had O Levels. Today, even diploma holders have trouble getting into the higher ranks. Does it mean we have better and smarter soldiers now? Sure, the bar has been raised, but within the general population, it’s still the same old normal distribution curve. We still need more foot soldiers than commanders.

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Thanks to all the tuition centres, coaches, mentors and parents who pay through their noses to send their under-performing kids overseas, we now have a seriously top heavy situation. Everyone wants to be a leader. Nobody wants to be a follower.

That’s equivalent to a ridiculous army with more generals than soldiers if you can imagine one. Or will we end up with an army with basic degree holders as riflemen, honours graduates as junior commanders, master degree holders as senior commanders and PhD holders as generals? It’s not funny. Somehow, it’s unthinkable to keep folks in the not-so-glamourous trades by paying them well. How do we tell those who are not academically inclined that they should be contented with their jobs when their incomes remain stagnant and the “solution” for them, going forward, is to “upskill”? Then again, if everybody upskills, who is left to support the base of the pyramid?

Instead of asking people to “upskill” to increase their income, leaving a vacuum at the base of the pyramid, perhaps we should top up their pay to a more “correct” and dignified level so they would be encouraged to remain. Trades which are “endangered” like the local construction worker, hawker and regular infantry rifleman should all be considered for such top ups. Why? We want the infantry rifleman to remain an infantry rifleman. We don’t want him to kill himself trying to qualify for OCS! We can’t pay our construction workers the “market rate”. We want them to enjoy a standard of living close to that of their Bangladeshi colleagues back home. Should we then worry that too many people who could have become doctors, lawyers and engineers might end up cleaning tables at food courts to enjoy the generous top ups? Why can’t people apply “should not and ought not” when it’s appropriate?

It makes things even worse if you keep contradicting yourself by telling people to upskill for higher income at one end and discourage people from getting into university in the same breath. Obviously, you’re also not going to be very popular if you tell people that you are refining the filtration process by reducing the number of opportunities to get into university. You don’t need to agonise over such a decision, but you do need to be prepared for a lot of questions if you resort to untenable excuses.


© Chan Joon Yee

Dewdrop Books