After being left out of opportunities to advance her career, Clare Lim quit her job in the communications industry last year and went back to school in hopes of getting a better-paid opportunity when she graduates.
"A supervisor once hinted that I wasn't given bigger tasks because without a university education, I wasn't capable enough. So, even though they have never explicitly said it, I know bosses favor degree holders, which was probably why I was never promoted," the 24-year-old Singaporean said.
"I was paid S$2,300 ($1,617) when I started. When I left, that's four years and eight months later, I still drew less than a university graduate's starting pay, which I learnt is about S$2,800 ($1,968)," she added.
Lim's experience is not uncommon in Singapore, a country that has long relied on academic grades as a yardstick for ability and potential. Students as young as 12 sit for nationwide examinations that determine the schools they attend and how far they can go in their academic pursuit. Critics have said that streaming students based on their examination performance that early hinders late bloomers from meeting their potential later in life.
But in recent years, the emphasis on examination results and paper qualifications has eased. The government now pushes for a culture of life-long learning, in which a tertiary education is no more important than the continuous upgrade of skills and knowledge.
One key development in that shift is the setting up of the SkillsFuture program in 2014, which subsidizes and pay for courses ranging from IT to languages as a way to encourage people to pick up new skills that can help their careers.
That idea was reinforced when the Committee on the Future Economy (CFE) said, in its report on Feb 9, that the country should move away from "the pursuit of the highest possible academic qualifications early in life" and towards life-long learning and retraining approaches. CFE was established to develop growth strategies for the country.
Recommendations put forth included having universities offer short, modular learning courses so that Singaporeans can gain new capabilities without disrupting their careers or personal commitments.
It also suggested the government nudge firms to hire based on skills and competencies, rather than just the degree.
Singapore's obsession with grades and paper qualifications stems from having to meet demand for skilled labor by multinationals, who played a big part in the city state's early economic success.
The competitive education system has resulted in a lucrative tuition industry. It is common for parents to send children to additional lessons after school and during the weekend to boost their chances at examinations.
"In meritocratic Singapore, academic qualification is the main deciding factor in the outcome of many stages of a Singaporean's life, be it in the progression of studies or work," said Timothy Chan, academic division director at SIM Global Education, a private tertiary education institution in Singapore.
"Therefore, it is not surprising that Singaporeans are obsessed with the pursuit of academic qualifications and grades."