The Death of the Singapore Dream

I grew up on the Singapore Dream. Study hard, get good grades, go to a good school, get a good degree, get a good job. Be a doctor, lawyer, engineer, some high-status PMET with an enviable pay package and guaranteed Central Provident Fund contributions. Then, and only then, will you be successful.

What they won’t tell you is that if you fall short any step of the way, if you fall off the bridge to success, you’re on your own.

An article on Channel News Asia reveals the existence of the graduate poor: chronically underemployed graduates with full-time jobs but earn less than $2000 a month.

It’s a small number. 70 out of 1626 graduates. Four percent. A tiny number, easy to sweep under the rug, or to fold up into a government-driven career enhancement scheme. You might even go your entire career, your entire life, without meeting anyone like that. But if you’re one of them, chances are, you’re not going far.

I know. I’m in similar circumstances.

School of Last Resort

Ten years ago, having been rejected from Singapore’s three major universities, I had few choices and less hope.

After secondary school, I spent two years in Junior College and graduated with GCSE ‘A’ levels. Elsewhere in the world, ‘A’ levels might mean something. Here in Singapore, they serve just one purpose: a passport to a local university. Nobody wants A level graduates. There are job advertisements for people with O levels and diplomas and degrees, but nobody cares about A levels. Fail to qualify for a local university, and you’ve just wasted two years of your life.

What next? A private school. The school of last resort.

TODAY highlighted employment discrimination against private university graduates. Only 47.4 percent of the current batch of private university graduates secured full-time jobs six months after graduation, compared to 60.1 percent from the last batch.

Everybody knows the Big Three: National University of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore Management University. There’re three newer ones–Singapore University of Social Sciences, Singapore Institute of Technology, Singapore University of Technology and Design–who enjoy the prestige of being placed under the ambit of the Ministry of Education. Being Singaporean and government-approved, their degrees are recognized everywhere you go in this tiny island.

Other schools — Kaplan, Singapore Institute of Management, PSB, INSEAD, James Cook University –don’t enjoy the same cachet. Some aren’t even known at all. But when the rest of your life is staring at you and all you see is a wasteland of bills and broken dreams, you pick the best option you can find and roll with it.

I decided on a degree program. Media management, building upon my experiences as a writer and as the co-founder of The Online Citizen. I figured I could get into journalism some day, or at least something related to it. I discovered a part-time programme, promising a diploma in a year and a degree in another. No fuss, no extraneous classes or unnecessary socializing to suffer through, just classes and homework and exams and done.

Reality kicked in soon after. I had just over twenty people in my classes at Kaplan. A grand total of two people, over two years, were job-seekers. Everybody else had a job.

Here’s what they don’t tell you about part-time programmes in Singapore: they don’t have the same prestige as full-time programmes. They aren’t even aimed at fresh-faced A level graduates. They’re meant for employees who want higher paper qualifications to qualify for senior roles. Once they have the diploma or degree, they go back to work and get promoted.

If you’re a job-seeker, well, good luck.

I don’t blame anyone for this perception. Coursework in the programmes was minimal, something like two or three assignments per module. Coming from a mid-tier junior college, I found the assignments easy. After writing thousands upon thousands of words dissecting the end of the Soviet Union, discussing Decartes’ philosophy, and comparing Keynesian economics to Singapore’s policy of managing trade-weighted exchange rate index, the homework was a breeze. Exams were no different: compared to the A levels, the exams were far less demanding.

After all, the programme was for working adults with full-time jobs. All I had was a freelance data entry position. A soul-numbing dead-end gig that paid by the hour, and offered plenty of time for study and research.

I graduated near the top of the school in the top fifteen percent of my cohort, and was invited to the Golden Key International Honour Society. Surely that counted for something. It should have wiped out the disaster that was my A levels.

Men plan. Fate jests.

Eight Years of Silence

I’ve sent out dozens, hundreds of resumes. Every month, every week, every day, I applied for job after job after job, hoping that someone would notice. Until then, I crunched numbers and copied clauses, wrote story after story, and picked up whatever freelance job and short-term contract job I could find.

I did this for eight years.

In eight years, I received nothing.

Less than one percent of my applications made it to the interview stage. None of them went anywhere. The other ninety-nine-odd percent was greeted with silence.

It didn’t matter where I applied to. The government, the media, PR and advertising firms, publishing companies, frontline positions in other industries, private tuition, schools, copywriting companies, even a temple.


Over eight years I dropped my CV at every major headhunting agency. The only jobs on offer paid less than what I was making through my other jobs… or jobs I wasn’t qualified for.

Every year, some ten thousand fresh graduates enter the job market in Singapore. In 2014, it was fifteen thousand, and the number keeps rising. These newcomers compete with the old hands for a small pool of jobs. Fail to get a job, and you get left on the shelf. The longer you go without a job, the less likely you’ll ever have a job.

The time-honoured solution to unemployment and underemployment, championed by the government, is to get more skills. Up-skill, re-skill, deep skill. Get a new diploma, bachelor’s or master’s. If you ever need help, you can turn to the Jobs Bank, the Workforce Development Agency, Skillsfuture.

Been there, done that.

I applied for untold numbers of jobs at the Jobs Bank, along with every other job portal in Singapore. Silence.

I was recommended to the WDA. I sat through an interview, where a counselor provided me with a file filled with employment advice. How to pass an interview, how to frame your CV, how to comport yourself professionally, and… not much else. At the end of the session I didn’t feel like I’d learned anything new.

At the Skillsfuture website, I was pointed to their in-house job portal… and Jobs Bank and WDA.

What about getting new paper qualifications? Out of the question. I can’t afford to spend that kind of money, and I’m not going to spend another year or two of my life chasing more paper if it won’t guarantee a job.

Welcome to Singapore. Fall off the bridge to success and no one will catch you.

Inflation Nation

For the past fifty years, Singapore’s children grew up to the same litany. Study hard, get into a good school, get a good job. Be a doctor, lawyer, engineer. Don’t be a streetsweeper or karang guni man or toilet cleaner.

White collar work has always held a great degree of prestige. You get to sit all day in a cool office, work from just 9 to 5, and earn yourself a huge paycheck. A far cry from back-breaking labour from dawn to dusk, leaving you sweaty and smelly and tired, and you’re paid only in pennies and peanuts.

But no matter how much society holds white collar jobs in high esteem, there will always be a need for blue collar work. Someone has to take out the trash, construct new buildings, maintain the sewers, sew the clothes, haul the goods, and do all the difficult and dirty work of upholding civilization.

Singapore sidesteps this problem by bringing in guest workers from overseas. Go to any construction site and you’ll see what the workers are all foreigners. Filipino maids are a dime a dozen. Street sweepers and rubbish collectors are almost always guest workers. Young migrant workers do most of the menial labour in Singapore, while elderly men and women handle (relatively) less labour-intensive jobs like cleaning toilets and hawker centre tables.

Which squeezes out Singaporeans and forces them into the white collar industry.

At the same time, it is extremely easy for local companies to hire ‘foreign talent’ for senior management positions: all an employer need do is to post an ad on Jobs Bank before applying for an Employment Pass for that position.

With Singapore offering one of the highest pay packages in the world, coupled with low tax rates, stable political environment, low crime rates and high technology everywhere, well, why wouldn’t foreigners come to Singapore?

The system is flawed. Degree inflation has set in long ago. Local culture snubs skilled trades that are so valued elsewhere in the world. Singaporeans are squeezed out of or discouraged from blue collar professions, and have to compete with skilled foreigners in white collar jobs.

For most Singaporeans, it doesn’t matter. Study hard, get into a good school, get a good degree, and with a modicum of presentation and soft skills, you’ll have a good job and a career.

But if that doesn’t work out… what then?

To the Future

I’m not going to give up. I can’t afford to give up.

Looking back now, I recognize I made many mistakes in my youth. They haunt me still. I can’t go back and change things; all I can do is change course and keep plodding on.

Sure, I’ll keep applying for jobs. But I’m not going to place my faith in the government or the private sector. Nor is getting a ‘good job’ and career my ultimate goal.

My goal has been, and always will be, to become a professional fiction writer. I’ve subsumed my life into this overriding pursuit. It has yielded a number of skills, skills that have found little purchase in my country–but have been appreciated elsewhere. My fellows keep saying don’t give up your day job, but if you’ve never had a day job to begin with it’s not like you’ve much of a choice.

The Singapore Dream is dead to me. But I’m not going to give up, and I will not surrender my own dream.


Benjamin Cheah

* The writer blogs at Steemit.



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30 Responses to “The Death of the Singapore Dream”

  • patriot of Temesak:

    Ben, a bast**d now DEAD wants an Elite Society-Aristocracy, not sophistry…told you IDIOTS to go into a Rainbow and find a Pot-of-SHIT left behind by his FamiLEE & Cronies

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  • Python 5:

    talk so much, election who you voted for??

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  • Python 5:

    but don’t worry, we have seen the collapse of the American Dream during the Lehman/sub prime crisis. Now we shall savour the collapse the singapore dream.
    just watch the HDB 99year lease ponzi scheme unveils itself.

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  • INDIAN malay INDIAN president:

    actually, what is the POINT?

    lack of jobs?

    or, unrecognized degree?

    or, pap?

    1st, we don’t know who he voted for the past 8 years. but if he says, pap, then, go fly kite. but if he says, OPPOSITION, then, let’s talk.

    the open leg policy of pap is the root cause of his problem. pap mouthpieces never fail to say employers cannot find locals to fill jobs. it is FAKE news. employers cannot find locals to fill jobs only because they want to pay pinoy wage and hire Singaporeans in Singapore. it is a ffffing untenable thing.

    continue to vote pap then continue to have more cheap cheaper cheapest aliens FTs PRs who come in make the buck anf balek kampong to truly enjoy life while the male like benjamin can do nothing else but write about his situation which he cause himself if he voted pap the past 8 years.

    2nd, it is pap lky FAKE news you need that 1st class honours in this job and no less than 2nd class upper for that other job. because the Singapore under lky is set up like an imperial court where those who can score in A levels and Us become life time S$m earners courtesy of pap policy. BUT look at the rot under such a policy. look at MRT. look at NOL. look at everything today under pap. pap is utter FAKE news. can score in exams DO NOT Means can perform. NO. it is matching the ability to the job that counts. so if benjamin had voted pap and wanted his life to improve under pap given his current status he is DREAMING.

    benjamin can improve his life, at least a chance, is for New Government to quickly remove the close to 50% aliens FTs PRs from small island. then immediately thing become cheaper all else staying the same. if expenditure is reduced then pressure to do other things quickly such as getting that S$m wage which pap is paying is much reduced. with New Government, land pricing gets righted. with correct land prices, prices of almost everything else shall start to right themselves.

    anyway, start by voting out pap, benjamin. then you, and other fellow stupid 70% sheep has a chance in short life on once great small island Singapore. otherwise, lament also no use. because pap is still ruling.

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  • N.Jungne:

    GOT MEH??? Ah Loong’s dream or ms muffet’s dream maybe.

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  • Migrated:

    Most of my generation grew up having the same Singapore dream, mine is dead as well but I have chosen to build my new dream in my adopted country, not many Singaporeans have the chance to build their dreams outside Singapore.

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  • PAP is BEST:

    PAP best one, give you skills future $500 help you find job, you no use is you stupid. PAP next election take back Aljunied sure win.

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  • Neo:

    Hard Truth in sinkieland to be on top of corp ladder

    REALITY SUCKS. (Try to figure out what that means)

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  • Bapak:

    If you believe with PAP in power your dream(s) can be realized, you are still dreaming. PAP is your dream-stopper. To realize your dream, first thing to do you have to get rid of this dream-stopper.

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  • John Richards:

    You’ve got great attitude. The companies who refuse to interview or hire you are the big losers! Hang tough bro. Don’t give up.

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  • Selfish Sinkie Syndrome:

    There never was a dream to begin with… it was all just a big fat lie.

    Firstly, don’t name your child Benjamin in Sinkiepore, there is an uncanny coincidence of many Benjamins dying young (like the famous case of teenage suicide after pressured by 5 mata bully kichis) or becoming societal drop-outs.

    Secondly, stop banging your head against the wall. You’ve already tried your best for 8 long years, so stop. Regroup and do something else.
    Einstein once said the definition of madness is to keep doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.

    Third, its not your fault any longer if your’re in one of the supposedly richest countries in the world, and yet can’t get a decent job after trying your level best for 8 years. Move on and focus elsewhere, like start your own business or go drive taxi or sell sell milkpowder via Taobao to Chinese or something etc.. Go do stuff that Sinkies don’t want to do because all of them want to sit in clean aircon office doing paperwork.

    Fourth, for all the assumed benefits of a day-job, the stark reality is that when you’re actually in it as a wage slave, you won’t be happy nor fulfilled. Trust me, I’ve been there and done that.
    Most employees hate themselves on Mondays and then they cheer up on Fridays. Then they repeat it every week for the rest of their miserable life and I can honestly tell you 90% of employees here are just as lost on their careers as you are now. Sinkies just talk loud and look good on the outside, but inside all of them are in the same emotional mess as you are now.

    Fifth, even without a regular job, you aren’t losing that much. Really.
    The fact is many people with that day job you envy are in equally bad shape, or even worse shape financially. If you’re not in serious debt, then you are at least near zero. Many employees are in negative territory when it comes to their financial situation because they have racked up HUGE debts trying to live up to their outward image of success. Even with a high salary, their debts such as expensive car loans and housing loans, maids, childcare etc. pile up at an even higher rate. At the end of the day, if you tally up both accounts between jobless and employees, majority still end up near 0, since all their HDBs also go to 0 eventually. They worked so hard to pay for high-priced HDB but end up the same 0. So be happy. Ha!

    The same has happened at the national level. Lots of shiny buildings but Sinkieland is actually deep in debt. Our debt-to-GDP ratio is one of the highest in the world. The country mirrors the people: all trying very hard to keep up appearances but inside all rot and hollow with no value left.

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  • Singapore dreams are ...:

    … more for immigrants.
    Once being Singaporeans, the dream is dead.
    We expect benefits, entitlements, subsidies, rebates, handouts, at least more than the person next to us.
    More than 80% of Singapore households receive HDB new flat “subsidy”, GST rebate, water tariff rebate, conservancy rebate, medical fee subsidies.
    Why have dreams? Just vote PAP and more “goodies” will come your way!

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  • LIONS:

    Young voters,its up to you.
    If you continue to vote blindly,you only get WET DREAMS that vanish once you wake up.

    You choose what you want.

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  • LOL:

    As long as its foolish citizens keep voting for the Lee’s, Singaporeans can never be free.

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  • Dr. Chan:

    Singapore dream is more like Singapore Nightmare. Depends on how soon you want to wake up from it. You keep mentioning Doctors, Lawyers, Engineers in your article. Doctors – I agree (The healthcare field is a recession proof profession). Lawyers and Engineers – There are too many competition out there. One must be from top -tier schools like Harvard, MIT etc. to be really successful.
    In the US, nurses make a better than average living – could earn up to US$8000 a month, 6 figures a year. They are in severe shortage. They maybe considered a low – level job in Asia, but in the West they are considered as real professionals with advanced degrees, some in senior/management and director of health care facility/hospitals. Phinoy nurses made up 60% of nursing staff in my hospital and head of department.
    If you have not considered nursing as a career choice, maybe you might want to look into it. It may open your door to the ‘New World’ with new prospect and future. USA is constantly recruiting overseas nurses.

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  • LIONS:

    Like that army song …
    They say in SIN CITY,the PAPpy PAY is mighty fine.
    *you* ask for Briget Bardot(DREAMS),they give you Frankenstein(NIGHTMARE)?

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  • Sickies Deserve It:

    Change your citizenship and apply as a foreign talent. You have a much better chance of landing a job.

    By the way, did you vote for this rouge, crony capitalist government that bite the very hands the feed them the highest salaries in the world.

    Forget about the fake Singapore dream. Go for the real China dream!

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  • So what else is new?:

    After 5 decades under PAP Singaporeans can no longer tell the difference between a dream and a nightmare because they are either stupid or spineless or both.

    Singaporeans need to understand and accept that under PAP there is NO FUTURE for them and their children. PAP is just a bunch of arrogant, greedy, self-serving, incompetent, pro-alien SOBs.

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  • zoom58sg:

    Put aside the policies. Writer is not in touch with the job market.

    In a homogeneous countries like China, Korea and Japan, the competition for university places and jobs are also super keen. In this modern times, education is widely accessible and a lot of people have qualifications. This has become a “commodity” & is employer’s market. The employer has a lot of choices. Any employer would look for differentiating factors in a candidate eg leadership, communication skills, EQ etc – a lot of these are not taught in school.

    Has writer looked at how he writes his Resume? Has he “marketed” himself in the Resume to the potential employer? Has he taken up initiatives that show that he solves problems instead of being a problem to the employer?

    ***Employer has only less than 5 minutes to look at the Resume. In big firms like Apple or Facebook, the number of Resumes coming in for a job can be 50 – 100 for an attractive position. If 100 Resumes, employer needs 500 minutes to run through the Resumes. No time. How do you stand out in such a situation?***

    Has writer looked into using connections to get a job? Not bragging but as an example – my son took up a part-time retail promoter job for his vacation. He connected so well that he was posted to the main store, got promoted to be a trainer & even the main Store Manager wants my son to work for him after graduation. That’s EQ and going beyond the “qualifications”.

    World has changed (not only in Singapore). Writer has to change the mindset and understand that education is just the lowest level of entry.

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  • 70% Daft SInkies:

    More bad news, Benjamin!

    The survey only covered 37% of the private university graduates who responded to the survey. In other words, 63% of those who did not response, failed to response, no-job-too-shy to response, or simply boh-chap, were not captured in the statistic.

    So the real statistic is that only 46% out of those 37% interviewed, managed to find full time jobs which pay only slightly above the polytechnic graduates.

    In real term, when taking into consideration of the total cohort of private university graduates, in total percentage form, only 17 out of 100 private university graduates, managed to find full time jobs that is paying slave wage which is only slightly above those of the polytechnic graduates’.

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  • Wake Up:

    You had been hoodwinked by the Silly dream. There was never your chosen dream.
    You are there as a money making digit for the greedy government.
    Please read Animal Farm by George Orwell.
    It is a must read for all sinkies now. Though the book is meant to be a political satire of communist Soviet, ironically the story fitted perfectly on modern day Sillypore, a fake democracy under the familee.
    Pay attention to the characters, which one will find familiarity.
    Wake up and live away from this artificial bubble.

    The standing of the three universities will flounder when the country declines as the PAP government continues to milk and make a mess of this place.

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  • rukidding:

    But there seems to be alot of “ah Neh” Professors and lecturers in our Universities and Polys ???

    Wonder what “crap” qualifications got them employed ?

    Is it the ability to “talk ,suck and carry” ???

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  • Tom Lee:

    Most of the 70% are still dreaming. They will be woken up by frightening nightmare.

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  • Ong PC:

    As the writer himself says, he is part of only a tiny % of people in such a situation, which means overall our system is an undisputed success. You study hard, work hard and continually upgrade your skills, you will do very well in Singapore. The tiny % of people who have trouble making it, like the writer, have access to government assistance of all forms. He just needs to be patient and not be so picky. We are a small nation, we don’t have single career path available to everyone, for example, it is not possible to be an astronaut here. So be realistic and be thankful we are not like some European countries where the youth unemployment rates are over 50%.

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  • Dream?:

    We Singaporean have no more dream.

    Only dream we are having is to have a new Garment that will give us shelter, foods and job.

    So wake up 69.9%

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  • N.Jungne:

    I want to be the President of Sinkapoola, you can be the MM and your son, the PM. Of course SM will go to the Seat-warmer, Wah!! So young can walk come, walk go, then sell salted eggs.

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  • HarderTruths:

    talk cock sing song
    must have voted pappies for sure

    Now regret or looking for sympathy?
    Sorry there is none for you.

    If you want a job Desker Road still hiring…

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  • 8 Days closing. Muahahaha:

    Dear Benjamin,

    Applaud your tenacity in getting your desired job but traditional media jobs like print journalists are pretty hard to come by as hordes of publications are closing shop.Including 8 Days! HAHAHAHAHA! They were so ba ba bai bai (overbearing and self important)during the 90s. Now they can suck their own dicks. Likewise the ad industry is pretty nasty. In fact all the glamorous industries are pretty nasty.

    For private school uni grads like SIM. Most of us got jobs during the 90s buy govt jobs preferred NUS, NTU.

    Tell you something about the media. It’s a penny pinching miser environment (low pay long hours). You have to deal with fickle capricious people who hire and fire on a whim. The media industry attracts lots of delusional glory seekers – people who can’t write well but want to see their name (by line) in print. So it becomes a very political environment. Editors are generally very insecure as many politick for their job. Nobody wants to be the publisher (senior salesmen)

    Now the media industry is going to be wiped out. You can set up your own blog, set the direction you want, print what you want – instead of going through several layers of editors who’ll give you attitude. Some even edit your work till it’s unrecognizable.

    Good luck
    From someone who’s been there.

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  • Python 5:
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  • Humpty Dumpty:

    More like Singapore Nightmare

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