While most of his peers in secondary school were focused on their academic pursuits and dreamed of getting into a top junior college (JC) and subsequently an esteemed university, he had his sights set on a radically different aspiration – to be one of the best swimmers in the world.
His name? Joseph Schooling – Singapore’s first-ever Olympic champion.
While undeniably talented, Schooling would arguably not have become the swimmer he is today if he had not pursued a sporting education in the United States during his formative years.
That he did, puts him in a rare group of Singaporeans who have dared to break away from the traditional path of chasing paper qualifications, which is regarded by many in the country as the definitive benchmark of success.
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The prevalent culture of greatly valuing one’s paper credentials – also known as credentialism – in Singapore was addressed by Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat during a dialogue in October last year, as he called on Singaporeans to move away from placing “too much emphasis” on a person’s academic qualifications.
But, what will it take for Singapore to move away from being a credentials-driven society?
Strong family support
As with most things, changing this mindset starts at home, and being able to find success without going down the academic route often hinges on the support of one’s family.
Indeed, Schooling would not have been able to train and study in the US without the support of his parents, Colin and May Schooling, who forked out over S$1 million over the years to keep his Olympic dream going.
Colin and May however, admitted that they, too, were initially influenced by the prevalent culture of credentialism in Singapore. Nonetheless, they chose to back their son’s sporting dreams after being convinced by his potential and dedication to the sport.
In an email interview with The Pride, May and Colin said: “Being Singaporeans, we were obviously concerned with the chase for academic excellence. But then, we saw how serious he was in wanting to swim competitively. His consistently excellent swimming results also showed us he had the potential to go far in the sport. That was why we decided to wholeheartedly support his (sporting) aspirations.”
Colin and May though, added that they still required Joseph to score “good grades”, even while pursuing his sporting dreams.
Still, they believe that moving away from a culture of credentialism will see Singapore unearth more talent in the sports and arts scene.
“We agree…that we have to develop our kids more holistically, but we also understand why some parents are dogmatic over (having) a preference for the paper chase,” they said.
“But, we should also recognise that not everyone can go the academic way. People are born with different talents, and those who are late bloomers must be educated, too.
“Parents must believe in their kids…encourage and guide them, but never force them. If our excellent education system can encompass ways to develop our kids with an all-rounded education, we’ll definitely be able to get more champions for sports, the arts…and entrepreneurs.”
Daring to be different
But, while Joseph Schooling had his mind firmly set on becoming an elite swimmer, and subsequently worked towards that goal from a young age, he is the exception to the norm, as Singaporeans are generally hesitant to pursue their passion in lieu of going down the more common academic routes.
Singaporean singer Cheryl Francisca Lee was one such individual.
Having “done well” for her ‘A’ Levels, Cheryl was eligible to study medicine at a local university – a career path her parents had initially expected her to embark on.
But what Cheryl really wanted to do was to further her education in music, which was an integral part of her life as she was growing up – she was part of her school choir, the Singapore Lyric Opera, and even had her own band.
Nonetheless, Cheryl harboured doubts about the viability of turning her passion into a full-time career.
“I had done well in school, so going on to study law and medicine, like what many of my friends did, would have been the safer choice,” Cheryl explained. “My dad too, was sceptical of whether such a career path was practical.”
However, Cheryl ultimately decided to chase her musical aspirations after her band was selected to open for Grammy-award nominated band Hoobastank during their concert in Singapore in 2007.
“That was such a surreal moment for us…I knew then that I truly loved music and I wanted to make it my career,” said Cheryl, who was both the keyboardist, as well as one of two lead vocalists for her band.
Cheryl went on to further her musical education at the acclaimed Berklee College of Music in Boston, US, and graduated with a double Major in Filmscoring and Electronic Production & Design.
Following her graduation, she moved to Hollywood in Los Angeles, where she worked closely with Emmy winning composer Bear McCreary, whose works include the musical compositions for TV shows such as Da Vinci’s Demons, The Walking Dead, and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
It was a dream for Cheryl to work in Hollywood. However, she acknowledged that the music industry in Hollywood was competitive, and being a foreigner in the country put her at a disadvantage.
Despite that, she was still able to land stable and sought-after jobs – something she attributes not to her qualifications, but her attitude.
“I was lucky because my employers liked me,” said Cheryl. “To them, and many other companies in Hollywood, paper qualifications and talent only helps you open the door.
“How long they’ll keep you depends on intangible, soft skills like your work ethic, whether you can work well with others, your willingness to learn…essentially your personality. That, I think was why my employers kept me.”
Cheryl eventually left Hollywood and moved to Taiwan in 2015 to try and break into the Asian music market. She is currently part of electronic pop band ElectroO2, and has released three albums to date.
Looking back on her journey in the music industry so far, Cheryl insists she has no regrets at having taken the “scary” step of forgoing the conventional route in her education to follow her passion.
“At the end of the day, I think it’s important that people do something they love and enjoy,” she said. “But they have to think it through thoroughly, and be very certain that they want to go down a certain (career) path before committing to it. After that, they must have the courage to take that first step.”
Hiring beyond qualifications
Employers, too, play an important role in helping Singapore move away from a culture of credentialism.
Looking past an individual’s academic results, and instead hiring employees based on their experience, personalities, and abilities can help encourage Singaporeans to stop chasing paper qualifications.
And this is something that the founder of coding school UpCode Academy, Lee Zhi Peng (ZP), practices.
The 27-year-old is well aware that academic results are not the sole indicator of a person’s aptitude. After all, he was able to achieve success in his career despite ending his formal education just after JC.
“When I was in school, I was taught by everyone that grades are the only things that matter,” ZP told The Pride. “Not unlike other Singaporeans, I had to work hard in school to reach the expectations of my parents and teachers.
“I think I was a good student who went through the education system in top schools and had good results. But in JC, I was very discouraged from academics, largely because I didn’t know who I wanted to be and how academics will clarify that for me.”
While waiting to enter university, ZP took on an internship role at a local technological start-up, where he learnt how to do coding.
Realising that he enjoyed coding, and was good at it, ZP opted to relinquish his place in university in order to continue working.
Eventually, at the age of 24, ZP set up his own tech venture, 40Tasks, where he developed the LOCO application, a mobile-app which allows shop owners to promote deals to users in the vicinity.
Two years later, after raising more than S$900,000 in funding and investment for the 40Tasks, ZP left the company, before starting UpCode Academy in 2017.
Now, as an employer, ZP makes it a point to hire people for his company based on their capabilities rather than their paper qualifications.
“The belief that academic achievements are the only indicator of success is a dangerous mindset (for employers) to have,” ZP said. “After all, when people…fill leadership positions in organisations with scholars, it can overlook a lot of other important attributes (needed for the role) like leadership and experience. This will lead to poor management, resulting in the deterioration of the organisation.”
Nonetheless, ZP recognises that academic qualifications are still important.
“It is necessary as well for the nation to recognise academic achievements and rely on them to fill roles which require academic specialisation in our country,” he said.
“But, while Singapore’s education system is the most stable way to success (in this country), I believe people must never neglect their identity and passion either – it might lead them to a path less travelled, but if they believe in what they’re doing and press on, they will eventually succeed in life.”