PROSPERING in the sometimes-brutal world of business usually means arming yourself with a degree or two beforehand, but one successful operator believes in bypassing university and jumping straight into the fray.

Mr Mohamed Salleh Marican, 65, founder and chief executive of Second Chance Properties, told The Straits Times: "There are many things that cannot be taught, such as instinct. By living in that jungle, you build up your instinct."

His youngest son, Mr Mohamed Amal Mohamed Salleh Marican, 27, honed his business acumen by joining the company straight after national service, instead of pursuing a degree like his peers.

Over the years, Mr Mohamed Amal has climbed the ranks to become executive director of retailer First Lady, a Second Chance unit.

He could be an example for Singaporeans fixated on getting a degree. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has urged Singaporeans not to go on a paper chase , especially for degrees not relevant to their jobs.

The public discussion those National Day Rally remarks sparked led Mr Mohamed Salleh to write a letter to his son, as he wanted "to strengthen Amal's confidence".

He said: "He got married recently, and his wife is trying to persuade him to go for further studies.

"I want to tell him don't worry about this, or being told that you must have a degree."

He wrote in his letter: "Your future is in your hands and if you had told me that your ambition is to be a doctor, an engineer, an architect, a banker, a journalist... then yes, I would have insisted that you study hard to earn a degree and possibly an MBA.

"However, you wanted to be like me and I know very well then (and now) that no professor can give you on a silver platter - the skills, attributes, business acumen and instincts to survive and eventually master the particular jungle you chose to conquer."

Indeed, human resources players agree that a degree is not always necessary and the gap between those with degrees and without will close over time.

Ms Linda Teo, country manager at ManpowerGroup Singapore, said: "While educational qualifications still form a basis for employers to evaluate the job seeker's competency for entry-level corporate positions, employers may not necessarily require a degree."

These days, employers are focusing more on accomplishments, skills and job experience over academic qualifications, she added.

Ms Teo noted that for technical roles, employees with the relevant skill-based, Nitec or diploma qualification are preferred.

But she acknowledged that good academic qualifications provide a head start.

"But this advantage is often short-lived. Usually, the difference between degree and non-degree employees narrows as they progress in their careers. Before long, their experience and accomplishments speak volumes and their academic qualifications would become secondary."

Both multinationals and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are looking for other attributes, such as interpersonal skills and management and leadership, noted Robert Walters Singapore associate director Joanne Chua.

She said: "However, local SMEs place greater emphasis on relationships with the owners of the business, common values... Operational experience often compensates for the lack of degree qualifications."

Asked if someone without a degree but with 20 to 30 years of experience would be able to move on to another corporate role, Ms Chua said it would depend on the type of corporate role and the capability of the individual.

She said: "Some companies look at the transferable skills that candidates can bring to the company. For example, entrepreneurial spirit, independence, strong supplier network and industry contacts."

Even though Mr Mohamed Amal may not have the university experience of his peers, his father, Mr Mohamed Salleh, said: "There's a price for everything. You know what people say, it's the university of hard knocks, now he's going through that. It's a different university, and he's got a different experience."