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SINGAPORE - My sister graduated from the Institute of Technical Education (ITE), and now works as a waitress.
She doesn't plan to stay in that role forever. But neither does she dream of rising to become an outlet manager, say, or going into the corporate side of the business.
I thought of her when I was listening to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's National Day Rally speech last Sunday, in which he highlighted some ITE students who have gone far.
There was Mr William Tay, a star infocomms student who is now doing a diploma in Singapore Polytechnic. And there was Madam Dorothy Han, who now supervises 62 people at Keppel Fels.
Mr Lee shared such stories to illustrate that whether or not one is a university graduate, it is possible to thrive and advance in one's career. A bright future should be possible not just via the academic route, but also by getting good jobs, becoming skilled, doing well and getting relevant qualifications in the course of work, he said.
This shift away from the idea that a university degree is crucial for success is an important move to make.
But just as important, in my view, is for our society to respect those who cannot or do not want to climb high and are content with the jobs they have.
My sister does want to upgrade her knowledge and skills. She's thinking of studying for a polytechnic diploma. But after that, she still doesn't covet a position of power. "Maybe leading a small team, at most," she told me.
Underlying her choice is not a lack of confidence, just her self-confessed easy-going approach to life.
This does not mean she has "failed" in some way. She has just chosen her own path, and even if it doesn't lead far upwards, it's a path that should be respected.
The Prime Minister alluded to a similar idea when he spoke of the need to "respect every job, every worker" in the Mandarin portion of his speech.
Later, in English, he said: "Singapore must always be a place where everyone can feel proud of what they do."
So yes, we should celebrate those workers who rose up the ranks without degrees. But we should also value those who do not end up as leaders or managers.
We should help and encourage students in all educational pathways to think big, and all workers to rise as far as they are able and willing. But there should be no shame in choosing a blue-collar job, for instance, or in never rising to a leadership role.
One way to value every worker is to see the worth in every job, and not to belittle anyone's chosen career path.
Another is simply to treat the workers around us better.
When I was a student in Britain, I was struck by how bus passengers invariably greeted the driver upon boarding, and thanked him as they disembarked.
Greetings were exchanged at supermarket check-outs, and sometimes led to actual conversations.
In Singapore, I've seen coffee-shop diners thank the cleaning staff and shoppers return a cashier's greeting with a smile, instead of simply ignoring them.
These small gestures add warmth to what could otherwise be cold, impersonal transactions. They build a culture of acknowledging those around us - not just as staff who are there to "serve us", but simply as fellow human beings.
Recognising a job's worth also means paying a fair wage. If we are serious about valuing every worker, we have to put our money where our mouth is and accept higher prices, whether for hawker food or town council conservancy charges.
Respect all career paths
We should celebrate those workers who rose up the ranks without degrees. But we should also value those who do not end up as leaders or managers. We should help and encourage students in all educational pathways to think big, and all workers to rise as far as they are able and willing. But there should be no shame in choosing a blue-collar job, for instance, or in never rising to a leadership role.
This article was first published on August 24, 2014.
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