The graduate with the Chanel bag


(throw the hat, but don’t throw the skills…)

I was at a convocation recently and it is amusing to observe and overhear some of the graduands – especially those who come complete with children and a career. The one who struck me most was this one girl who spoke on her phone as if giving instructions to her colleagues. This was a graduate that came armed with a pair of Gucci heels and a Chanel Bag that (ironically) costs a fresh grads monthly pay.

The graduate with the Chanel bag paints a beautiful picture that demonstrates it is unnecessary to possess paper credentials before you can make good money, or pursue a career. The degree she is about to receive, is a certification of the skills she has set out to accomplish, nothing more.

Contrast her with an acquaintance of mine. Lee, 22 then, once asked me a frustrated question, “Eh Ben, I want to study leh… but dunno study what good. Can tell me which one people want to hire more ah?”. That was what got my goat. If you believe that the degree was some magic paper that would bring you wealth, then my friend, you will be sore frustrated.

It’s just like art. If you’re a designer or an artist, you don’t need school to tell you to practice everyday or to keep pushing yourself further. A really enthusiastic and dedicated artist will be up at 6am daily making things and finding new ways to push his skills. He’ll be painting, drawing, cutting, observing and thinking till he misses lunch, dinner and even the toilet. Success boils down to just about 3 characteristics: will, discipline and focus.

Passion can wax and wane, but it is iron discipline that gets you success. And there is no university in the world that certifies discipline.

So when the Minister of National Development was quoted by media saying the degree was not necessary for success, I was cautiously cheered by the remark. I thought, maybe for once holders of Diplomas and other uncertified skills would finally have a chance at being recognised.

I would have stronger faith when I finally hear of people with talents, skills sans certification being employed into high paying senior, critical positions in the Civil Service and not just limited to assistive, administrative and secondary roles that pay less.

All around me are so many friends with sharp minds, argue intelligently, think strategically and critically. Some are late bloomers, some just don’t have the financial ability and most of us were just conditioned by society to start work first, make money and then worry about education later.

In 2004, I was disappointed with the jobs market in Singapore. Most employers did not want to consider paying more for a diploma holder. Job seek portals feature advertisements with discouraging requirements. Most quote, “Only degree holders need apply“, “Fresh graduates welcome“, “Must possess good degree“.

But why? A degree is not the assurance and last word on skills. This sort of discrimination just pushed me to look abroad for employers who were less judgemental on a person without a degree. I worked in both London and China, and I have sat through so many interviews where the interviewers looked intensively into skills, experiences and thinking instead. Overseas in big cities, everyone agreed that unless you were a doctor, lawyer or any such professional fields, the lack of a degree does not and should not seal your fate. Many a businessman relied on wit, creativity and opportunities to build their empires because in the wild, sleazy world of corporations, you need far more than papers to perform.

If the civil service would lead the way, be blind to the paper, hire on skills and ability and back this with a befitting pay package – I believe it would set the stage for private companies to follow suit.

And just like the graduate with the Chanel bag, I hope more Singaporeans see the certificate a tool as a mark of our ability and not the certificate as an ability in itself to get jobs.


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