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Singapore in Numbers - Illiterate in Singapore

As part of Channel News Asia current affairs investigative series "Write of Passage" dated 15 Oct 2021, they had explored the issue of illiteracy in Singapore. In the video segment, they had quoted that about 10% of Singapore residents are illiterate. The host and probably many in Singapore would probably find this statistic surprising. Singapore has been known to have one of the most educated populace in the world; so how can this statistic be true?

According to the our World in Data; as at 2010, almost 30% of Singapore residents were tertiary educated, just one place behind South Korea who has the highest at 30.04%. By 2020, about 32% of the Singapore Residents have tertiary qualifications and remains one of the highest in the world.

But aggregate and average data hides a lot of the details and often prevents us from understanding the issue at hand. In the Channel New Asia documentary, they had featured several individuals who have reading levels equivalent to lower or even pre-primary levels; and their ages span from 30 to 60 years old. This suggests that illiteracy spans many age groups in Singapore. But how big is this issue?

With 32% of Residents with tertiary education qualifications, this implies that 68% have lower educational qualifications; of which 10% have no educational qualifications (blue) or illiterate per the documentary.

About 35% of those aged 65 and above have no education qualifications; where the older the demographic, the more likely that they have no formal education. This is the generation built Singapore during its early days of independence. But Singapore was also a very different place than what it is today.

In Singapore back in the 1960s, one could make a decent living by sheer brute force and skill. Many were working as coolies, craftsmen or farmers. You did not need any education qualifications to work and make a living in such roles.

Singapore went though some very fast paced and drastic changes to the economy in the 1970s and 1980s, by attracting foreign investments, expertise and enterprise; investing in infrastructure and education and creating higher value jobs that required increasing higher levels of education qualifications. During the economic transformation, this group found their livelihoods progressively phased out and they were ill prepared for both the new economy and retirement.

For the older generation without any education, they also lacked much in the way of retirement planning; since such financial tools didn't exist in their day. Even as Singapore modernized, such tools remained inaccessible due to their lack of awareness and/or their ill health which could make them ineligible. Many have to continue to find work to support them through retirement. But that is monumentally hard in modern and highly educated Singapore. Sad as it is, one has to recognize that this is a consequence of the meteoric economic growth that Singapore experienced; and in this case, the country moved faster than these people could adapt.

Subsequent generations of Singapore Residents are increasingly well educated; about 55% of those aged 25-29 have a tertiary education and about 1% of the population aged 20-40 have no educational qualification. For the younger generation without any education, in an economy where qualifications and certifications are a prerequisite for almost all jobs, they will face significant challenges in the job market for the rest of their lives. As Singapore matures as a society, I hope that formal and informal resources can be made available to this group to contribute to the society in their own way.

For more details on the the education profile for Singapore Residents, please click here.

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