Education and language shifts

19 Jun 2021

Straits Times, 19 Jun 2021, Education and language shifts
Singapore residents are securing higher academic qualifications, especially university degrees. More can read and write in multiple languages, and bigger numbers are speaking English at home.

But there are downsides such as an oversupply of graduates, underemployment, and the potential erosion of mother tongue heritage, experts tell Insight. And interventions are needed to bridge gaps between ethnic groups, they say.

Census 2020 showed rising proportions of those aged 25 and above attaining at least post-secondary qualifications. The largest jump was in university graduates, from 23.7 per cent in 2010 to 33 per cent last year. This was 12.1 per cent in 2000.

Despite the positive outlook, The Chinese University of Hong Kong's Associate Professor Aaron Koh warns of "credential hyper-inflation". "Competition will be intensified. Hierarchies of degrees are going to be recognised. Where are we going to find jobs for all these graduates?" He says the Government must encourage entrepreneurship, and for Singaporeans to venture abroad.

The proportion of university graduates also rose across the board last year for the Chinese (34.7 per cent), Malays (10.8 per cent) and Indians (41.3 per cent). Going back to 2000, 2 per cent of Malays held university degrees, compared to 12.8 per cent for Chinese and 17.5 per cent for Indians.

Institute of Policy Studies research fellow Mohamad Shamsuri Juhari says he has encountered many Malays who aspire to further their academic credentials, but they often contend with financial issues or juggle work and family commitments. "As a community, what we need to do is build up our base of social capital. That means exposing students to more accessible, life-altering connections, be it in terms of financial assistance, meeting up with Malays who they can see as role models, or gaining knowledge of study and life skills."

As for language, almost half of residents speak English most often at home, from 23 per cent in 2000. It has supplanted Mandarin as the first-choice language of the Chinese at home. Malays continued to favour their mother tongue at home - but the share of those doing so fell from over nine in 10 in 2000 to six in 10 last year.

Nanyang Technological University Associate Professor Tan Ying-Ying is not surprised, given society's inclination towards a "English-dominant" mode of bilingualism. NTU Emeritus Professor Eddie Kuo says the prevalence of English should facilitate more communication between people of different ethnicities. Singapore University of Technology and Design's Dr Nazry Bahrawi agrees, but adds: "It would be a shame to lose linguistic mastery of your mother tongue."

Noting possible implications for Singapore's competitiveness when dealing with non-English-speaking nations, the National Institute of Education's Associate Professor Tan Chee Lay called for mother tongues to be better promoted. "Display signs, exhibition write-ups, information booklets in all four languages as much as possible," he says.

Correction note: An earlier version of this report stated that in 2000, 11.7 per cent of people aged 15 and above were university graduates. The Department of Statistics has clarified that 12.1 per cent of people aged 25 and above were university graduates in 2000.

The earlier report also stated that in 2000, 12.6 per cent of Chinese and 16.5 per cent of Indians held university degrees. The Department of Statistics has clarified that the proportion of university graduates among various ethnic groups in 2000 was 12.8 per cent for Chinese and 17.5 per cent for Indians.