SEAH CHIANG NEE
SINGAPORE’S fraternity of taxi drivers, with its fair share of retrenched executives, has now an exalted new member – a PhD bio-chemist from Stanford University.
Prowling the streets of Singapore today is 57-year-old unemployed scientist Dr Cai Mingjie who lost his job at Singapore’s premier A-Star biomedical research institute last year.
The China-born naturalised citizen, with 16 years of research accomplishments, said he began driving a taxi last October after failed efforts to land another job.
The news shocked this nation, which holds an unshakable faith in the power of an advanced university education.
One surprised white-collar worker said he had believed that such a doctorate and experience was as good as life-long employment and success.
“If he has to drive a taxi, what chances do ordinary people like us have?” he asked.
I have met a number of highly qualified taxi drivers in recent years, including former managers and a retrenched engineer.
One cheerful driver – a former stock-broker – surprised me one day in giving me detailed reasons on what stocks to buy or avoid.
“At a time like this, the taxi business is probably the only business in Singapore that still actively recruits people,” Dr Cai said.
To me, his plight is taking Singapore into a new chapter.
“(I am) probably the only taxi driver in the world with a PhD from Stanford and a proven track record of scientific accomplishments …,” blogged Dr Cai.
“I have been forced out of my research job at the height of my scientific career” and was unable to find another job “for reasons I can only describe as something uniquely Singapore”.
The story quickly spread far and wide over the internet.
Most Singaporeans expressed admiration for his ability to adapt so quickly to his new life.
Two young Singaporeans asked for his taxi number, saying they would love to travel in his cab and talk to him.
“There’s so much he can pass on to me,” one said.
Others questioned why, despite his tremendous scientific experience, he is unable to find a teaching job.
His unhappy exit is generally attributed to a personal cause (he has alleged chaotic management by research heads) rather than any decline in Singapore’s bio-tech project, which appears to be surviving the downturn.
The case highlights a general weakening of the research and development market in smallish Singapore.
“The bad economy means not many firms are hiring professional scientists,” one surfer said. “Academia isn’t much of a help – there’s a long history of too many PhDs chasing too few jobs.”
While the image of taxi drivers has received a tremendous boost, the same cannot be said of Singapore’s biomedical project – particularly its efforts to nourish home-grown research talent.
“It may turn more Singaporeans away from Life Sciences as a career,” one blogger said.
One writer said: “In my opinion, PhDs are useless, especially in Singapore. It’s just another certificate and doesn’t mean much.”
Another added: “The US is in a worse situation. Many are coming here to look for jobs.”
“I won’t want my child to study for years to end up driving a taxi,” a housewife with a teenage daughter said.
The naturalised Singaporean citizen underwent his PhD training at Stanford University, the majority of his work revolving around the study of yeast proteins.
His case is not unique. US research-scientist Douglas Prasher, who isolated the gene that creates the green fluorescent protein (and just missed the 2008 Chemistry Nobel prize) faced similar straits.
Prasher moved from one research institution to another when his funding dried up, and he eventually quit science – to drive a courtesy shuttle in Alabama.
“Still, he remains humble and happy and seems content with his minivan driver job,” a surfer said.
With an evolving job market as more employers resort to multi-tasking and short-term contracts, more Singaporeans are chasing after split degrees, like accountancy and law or computer and business.
Others avoid post-graduate studies or specialised courses of a fixed discipline in favour of general or multi-discipline studies. “Experience is king” is the watchword; there has been a rush for no-pay internships.
“The future favours graduates with multiple skills and career flexibility, people who are able to adapt to different types of work,” one business executive said.
During the past few years, as globalisation deepened, there has been a growing disconnect between what Singaporeans studied in university and their subsequent careers.
It follows the trend in the developed world where old businesses disappear – almost overnight – and new ones spring up, which poses problems for graduates with an inflexible job expectation.
I know of a young man who graduated from one of America’s top civil engineering universities abandoning the construction hard hat for a teaching gown.
Another engineer I met is running his father’s lucrative coffee shop. Lawyers have become musicians or journalists, and so on.
Cases of people working in jobs unrelated to their university training have become so common that interviewers have stopped asking candidates questions like “Why should a trained scientist like you want to work as a junior executive with us?”
In the past, parents would crack their heads pondering what their children should study – accountancy or law or engineering, the so-called secure careers – and see them move single-mindedly into these professions.
A doctor was then a doctor, a biologist generally worked in the lab and a lawyer argued cases in courts – square pegs in square holes, so to speak.
Today the world is slowly moving away from this neat pattern.
* Seah Chiang Nee formerly edited a newspaper in Singapore and now writes a weekly column for The Star in Malaysia.