Can You Thrive Without a Degree in Singapore?

Can You Thrive Without a Degree in Singapore?

In Singapore, most of us have been drilled from young to – study hard, do well in exams, get a degree, find a well-paid job and lead a good life. While this might sound formulaic, is obtaining a degree the only way to ‘thrive’ in this little red dot?

In our society where getting a degree represents the hallmark of education and is widely regarded as the ‘ticket’ to a good career, financial stability and a comfortable life, how can one succeed without a degree?

It is often perceived that those without a university degree will find it harder than their peers to get the jobs they want. This is true to a certain extent, just look at any job portals and the prerequisite for many jobs is at least a Bachelor’s degree.

Moreover, there is a discrepancy in salary between a degree and a diploma holder, with the former commanding a higher pay. According to the Ministry of Manpower, the median gross monthly salary for a graduate in 2017 is $3400, while a polytechnic diploma holder earns $2200 and an ITE graduate earns $1700 per month.

Do you really need a degree to get a job?

That said, is a degree absolutely critical to your success in today’s workforce? We have all heard about degree holders who cannot find jobs or take months to find one.

According to Singapore’s Business Times, results from annual surveys of recent graduates from the National University of Singapore (NUS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), and the Singapore Management University (SMU), showed that only 78.4 per cent of graduates (the lowest figure registered in 10 years) in 2017 managed to secure full-time permanent employment six months after their final examinations. This was down from 79.9 per cent in 2016, and 89.8 per cent in 2007.

Sam Goi "Popiah King" (photo from Straits Times)

On the other hand, we have also heard success stories of individuals who have only completed secondary school. One such example is Sam Goi, better known as Singapore’s "Popiah King" for his company's famous frozen packaged popiah rolls. He has investments across a range of listed and private firms. At the age of 19, he dropped out of school after Secondary 4 to help out at his father's grocery store. In 1977, he bought over Tee Yih Jia and transformed the company into a global player.

Is a degree necessary then? Well, it all depends on what your ambition is. If you want to be a doctor, dentist or lawyer, a degree is integral for such professions. However, there are many career options out there which do not require a degree. The more important deciding factors in either settling with a diploma certification or pursuing a degree is - is it in line with what you want to do, and are paper qualifications critical for that line of work?

8eyedspud illustrated wall murals

8eyedspud's illustration projects for clients like Tiffany & Co., Shake Shack @ Jewel Changi,
Singapore Airlines, Chope, Grab, and Love Bonito

Jacqueline Goh, illustrator and co-founder of 8eyedspud – a boutique illustration studio, felt that a degree wasn’t absolutely necessary for her to do what she now does with such passion. “I always knew I wanted to illustrate as a career. However, my dad allowed me to take up illustration only after I studied business.

So I completed a business diploma at Ngee Ann Polytechnic first before heading on to LASALLE College of the Arts for an illustration degree. It was the first time I actually enjoyed going to school as I went there wanting to learn something instead of trying to pursue a piece of paper which I knew wouldn’t mean anything if I were to start my own business.”

A report released by the Ministry of Manpower on 19 March revealed that among job vacancies for PMETs in 2018, a degree is not a main consideration for employers when it comes to hiring (for 52% of the vacancies). Examples of such jobs are: software, web and multimedia developers, system analysts, commercial and marketing sales executives.

There are also many degrees (arts and social science) which are not career-specific and graduates can be hired in many fields.

Illustrated wall mural for Shake Shack at Jewel Changi Airport, by 8eyedspud

How long will your academic qualification last?

With disruptions in the world’s ever-changing economy, there is no guarantee that anyone, not even degree holders can have job stability. It is important to constantly upgrade or pick up new skills and be a lifelong learner.

In a plenary session which was part of a three-day symposium held at the University of St Gallen in Switzerland, policymakers, business leaders and academics gathered to discuss this year's theme - the future of work in light of advances in robotics, automation and artificial intelligence.

Singapore’s Minister for National Development and Second Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong said on 4 May that in order to cope with technological change, Singapore must emphasise skills, performance, and contributions to society, rather than paper qualifications.

A problem faced not only in Singapore but in other Asian countries as well, Mr Wong mentioned that there is a need to shift away from mere paper qualifications in a time of fast technological change.

uleap app e2i learn on the go

Echoing Mr Wong’s views, Mark Hall, Manager of Adecco Singapore said that workers need to constantly upgrade their skills to meet advances in technology and new ways of working.

This is how e2i’s ULeap (Learning Enabled through Active Participation) learning platform enriches learning communities through courses delivered in bite-size and trending discussions. The courses are tailored to address the issues of on-the-go and speed-to-market learning.

What else are employers looking out for, besides academic qualifications?

 In fact, some employers are even looking past degrees. Mr Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) said that, “Skills are what carry a premium now, and skills need to be honed throughout our lifetimes ... All of us need to keep learning and deepening our skills throughout our lives.”


To thrive in a new economy which is constantly evolving, in an age of technological disruptions, having a degree is useful but not necessarily a ticket to success in life. Rather, it is crucial to strive to continually learn and upgrade your skills pertaining to your desired career field.

If you're a Singaporean 25 years and older, don't forget to utilise your $500 SkillsFuture credit from a large selection of available courses online from the myskillsfuture portal. Or if you are an NTUC member, you can further tap on the Union Training Assistance Programme (UTAP) which helps to defray up to $250 of your training costs.


By Zann Huang


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