A school field in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. File picture.

By TWC2 volunteer Nicholas, based on an interview in July 2018

“If you don’t study hard, you will become a road sweeper”.

Does this sound familiar?

Chances are that you have heard or received a similar rebuke by adults to “motivate” you or their children to focus on their studies. “Road sweeper” in this case, is an arbitrary term and also refers to other low wage demeaning jobs shunned by society. As a kid growing up in Singapore, we were often made hyper-aware of the importance of education and its causal relation to one’s future position in society. In a meritocratic society like ours, success in education is viewed as the first step towards “making it” in life, along with hard work and talent. Admission to prestigious schools, attaining tertiary education and securing scholarships are but a few of the many milestones that we associate with a successful career and admirable earnings.

The value of education

Access to education is of significant importance to anyone living in the globalised world of today. It empowers the individual, granting him or her entry to higher level occupations, thus to higher income, in turn raising the standard of living for themselves and their family. Other indirect benefits of access to education can include increased political participation rates, better health, improved self-efficacy and breaking out of the poverty cycle. Its efficacy is recognized globally, with the Right to Education under Article 26 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights stating that elementary education is to be free and compulsory and access to higher education based on individual merit.

In developing countries like Bangladesh and India, the literacy rate is variably lower than that of the developed like Singapore. Various issues such as poverty, early marriage (for women), and the need to work to support the family stand in the way of completing education. But what about people who manage to attain tertiary education and beyond there? Does our view of it as a rubber stamp for success here reflect the reality that exists there?

A worker with a Bachelor’s Degree

I sat down with Anuwar for an interview and was immediately struck by his fluency in English, an uncommon trait for workers who have not worked for long in Singapore. Anuwar is a 29 year old graduate from the National University, Bangladesh, graduating with a Bachelor in Political Science. After graduating, he secured a job that lasted 6 months before his contract ran out. Unable to secure another job, he decided to come to Singapore to work as a general worker. As the conversation increased in depth, it became apparent that the decision was an informed one not just by informal recommendations but also through knowledge gained in his studies.

“Why Singapore?” I questioned, intrigued to know if his education had contributed to his decision.

“Singapore system is good”

All the knowledge in the world could not account for bad luck, where he suffered a back injury during a mishap whilst helping to carry a 400-kg cement casting. A total of 6 men were carrying it when two of his colleagues released the load early. Without sufficient time to react, his back took the strain of one entire side of the load. The specifics of the injury are unclear but when his employer was told that it was serious, his employer was quick to initiate plans to send him back to Bangladesh. Heeding the advice of his colleagues, Anuwar lodged a case with the MOM and is now currently stuck in limbo as he awaits his case to be cleared.

Education vs societal needs

“But he has a degree, why can’t he find a better job back home?”

Bangladesh’s economy is divided into three main sectors: agriculture, manufacturing and services, with garment exports making up 80% of Bangladesh’s total export revenue. In an economy that demands practical skills like engineering and agriculture, the opportunities of social science graduates and its development are heavily neutered. In the case of Anuwar, pursuing his interests had resulted in eventual unemployment. This contrasts with Singapore, where our economy has a well-developed trade & services industry: finance and business services, supply chain and port services, R&D and so on. Consequently, opportunities in the government, research and communications sectors are abundant, an environment that would have favoured Anuwar. As a social sciences student myself, the reality of this hit home. 

Our worldview is indelibly connected with the society we live in, which can leave us with an incomplete perspective of the world. Education may not always clear a path to a brighter future. Believing that it invariably does leads to a false correlation in which we stereotype low-wage manual labourers as uneducated. In truth, they are equally capable of embarking on careers not dissimilar to ours but due to circumstances, are unable to do so. Perhaps, as Bangladesh’s economy continues to grow and transform to a services based one, Anuwar can put his hard-earned knowledge to good use and improve his social economic status. But for now, he has an injured back to worry about.