The city-state of Singapore boasts one of the most advanced economies in Asia, and one of continent's most educated populations. And that's becoming a problem.

Recently imposed restrictions on immigration and a slowdown in the country's economic growth have increased the need for more Singaporeans to take up jobs in the country's factories, shipyards and service industries that keep the Southeast Asian island metropolis humming.

This is not an easy sell in a country with one of the world's highest proportions of college-educated citizens, and where its leading politicians, including Cambridge-educated Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, all boast prestigious university degrees.

Nevertheless, in his May Day message to the nation, Lee called for "a fresh approach" to boost Singaporean productivity and help keep wages rising. His government wants a new scheme promoting vocational programs and apprenticeships to help funnel Singaporeans into the workforce, and away from possibly pursuing full university study.

"As a society, we must be supportive and open-minded. We should not measure people by their paper qualifications, but by their skills and contributions," Lee said.

As Bloomberg News notes, Lee's stance, though unusual, is not totally new. A few years back, then-South Korean President Lee Myung-bak warned of the dangers of "reckless university enrollment" and considered closing some institutions of higher learning.

South Korea and Singapore may represent a particular end of a spectrum -- students in the ultra-competitive educational systems of both these countries routinely place high in worldwide rankings. But the concerns voiced by the Singaporean prime minister reflect a larger global dilemma as governments struggle to equip their nations for what Lee terms "the unsettled world economy."

In many countries, including the United States, politicians and education reformers have argued for a new focus on science and technical training to ensure a country's competitiveness in an age of tech "disruption" and globalization. Skeptics, including The Washington Post's columnist Fareed Zakaria, have offered notes of caution, warning that an emphasis on this sort of learning -- at the expense of a liberal arts education -- will in the long run undermine a country's ability to be hotbed for innovation.

Others go further, and fear that the steady atrophying of the humanities may lead to an erosion of the "civic republican" values that underpin many democratic societies.

To be sure, that may not be that great of a concern for Singapore's Lee, who presides over a country that since its founding -- by his late father, Lee Kuan Yew -- more than half a century ago has been dominated by one political party. It's far more a glitzy commercial entrepot than a hub of cosmopolitan humanism. Fittingly, a branch of Yale University in Singapore, billed as "new model" of education in Singapore, has so far served more as a feather in the government's cap than an agent of wider liberal change in the city.

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