Meritocracy remains the best model for Singapore but needs broader approach


At the EQUAL-ARK Gala Dinner on Oct. 24, 2018, then Education Minister Ong Ye Kung spoke about the paradoxical nature of meritocracy in Singapore, and despite its criticisms, no one came up with something better.

I am happy to join you here tonight, to recognise the good work that EQUAL-ARK has been doing for our less privileged youths, and to persuade everyone present to continue to support and contribute to the programme to help even more students.

Of late, there has been a lively debate on the issue of inequality. I think Singaporeans are less worried that inequality exists, for income gaps and uneven wealth distribution occur in every society. But they become a worrying threat when the gap becomes entrenched, society becomes stratified, and our people start segregating themselves.

The best way to reduce stratification is to continue to ensure social mobility. So long as young Singaporeans from humble backgrounds can grow up to be successful, social distinctions will have less chance to coagulate, and our society can continue to stay together as one.

And education has been, and will continue to be, the key tool to ensuring social mobility. It enables our young, regardless of background, to hope, aspire, and achieve. The result is that hundreds of thousands of Singaporeans have benefitted from our education system, and beat the odds with the hand that life dealt them.

15 years ago, five in 10 students from the bottom socio-economic quintile progressed to post-secondary education. Today, it is nine in 10. 15 years ago, 40 per cent of students in the bottom socio-economic quintile progressed to publicly-funded degree or diploma programmes. Today, it is 50 per cent.

So we have seen some very good progress. But the job is getting harder, as we are fighting against some strong social headwinds. What used to work for us is starting to work against us.

Take meritocracy. It recognises talent and ability over wealth and circumstance of birth, and motivates society to work hard. But as families do well, they spare no effort in investing in the abilities of their children. As a result, children from different family backgrounds are pushing off blocks from different starting lines. So meritocracy, arising from a belief in fairness, seems to have paradoxically resulted in systemic unfairness.

A second headwind is achievement inequality.

As education successfully uplifts families, the percentage of students from lower income families is shrinking. 10 years ago, about 20 per cent of our employed households had an income of S$3,000 or less, at 2017 dollars. Today, this has gone down to well below 15 per cent.

But it also means that the smaller group of families that continue to remain poor are facing more difficult challenges. Every time we read stories about these families, we feel a strong sense of sympathy, and even injustice. But they have always been there through the decades, except that in the past, they were part of a much bigger group that many of us belonged to as well.

So the more meritocracy works, the more it looks like systemic unfairness. The more we uplift families, the harder it is to uplift those who remain poor. So paradoxically, these challenges result from the success, not failure, of our policies.

It is important to recognise this fundamental point, because it will guide our actions going forward. If we mistakenly think that the challenges result from policy failure, we will discard the philosophies and policies that we have put in place. And whatever we replace them with are most likely going to be worse.

Conversely, if we recognise that the challenges are a result of sound policies having to adjust to new realities, then our conclusion should be to evolve and improve existing policies to suit the challenges of our time.

So let us not discard meritocracy, for I don’t think it has finished running its useful course.

Despite all the criticism of meritocracy, many of which are valid, no one has come up with something better.

We need to double down on meritocracy, move away from a narrow focus on past academic merit, to recognise and celebrate a broader range of skills, talents, and strengths. It should translate into tangible changes in the way we hire people, admit students to tertiary institutions, grant awards and scholarships, and accord respect to fellow Singaporeans.

On reducing achievement inequality, a tempting solution is to chop down the tall poppies to equalise outcomes. This goes against the nature and instinct of Singaporeans, who always strive to do our best. So let’s not cap the top, but do even better in lifting the disadvantaged.

This bears out in the findings of a report published by the OECD yesterday, which found that even as our top students pull ahead of the rest of the OECD countries, education in Singapore continues to spur social mobility for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

About 50 per cent of our students from disadvantaged backgrounds perform better than that predicted by their family background, compared to the OECD average of about 30 per cent. More than 40 per cent of students from disadvantaged backgrounds do well in core skills such as reading and math, compared to the OECD average of 25 per cent. Even as we help our top students soar, we spare no effort in ensuring that every student can achieve his or her potential.

Nevertheless, there is still room for improvement.

The concentration of disadvantaged and privileged students have intensified in certain schools, and we can do more to counter this unhealthy trend. One way is to foster a better mix of students in every school. For example, from next year’s Secondary 1 posting exercise, MOE will reserve 20 per cent of school places for students without affiliation to the secondary school.

Another way is to continue to ensure that all schools are well-resourced and supported. Today, MOE skews resources in favour of weaker students. We set up specialised schools – NorthLight, Assumption Pathway, Spectra, and Crest – to provide a whole-school education approach to better meet their students’ needs. For example, they offer curricula that are practice-oriented and more technical in nature, to help students acquire skills that will put them in good stead to find a job after graduation.

Each student in these specialised schools receives about S$24,000 in resourcing. Each student in the Normal(Technical) stream receives about S$20,000 in resourcing, while others receive less – about S$15,000 or less per student.

We have recently enhanced the MOE Financial Assistance Scheme, by raising the income eligibility criteria, to benefit more students from lower income households. Students on the scheme need not worry about school fees, text books, and uniforms. Schools can also tap on the Opportunity Fund, to help students cover significant school expenses such as overseas learning trips or purchase of laptops.

We also increased the meals provision from seven to 10 meals per week under the School Meals Programme for eligible secondary school students. I spoke to a few students on the scheme when I visited Northland Secondary recently. They carry an EZ-Link card which is topped up by the school to cover expenses for meals – breakfast, recess, and lunch if it is a CCA day – and they use the card to pay for their meals in the school canteen. These students need not worry about going hungry in school, and can focus on learning. Today, around 50,000 students from lower income families are on the scheme.

In addition, we are investing heavily in pre-school education, with one-third of MOE Kindergarten places reserved for students from lower income families. By 2020, we will have student care centres in every school to provide students with a conducive environment to study and complete their homework.

Our schools alone will not be able to provide such a high level of education and care, and they should continue to tap on community resources provided by do-gooders like you. The contribution from the individuals, communities, and businesses go beyond monetary donations.

For example, in 2010, Mr Peter Lim set up the Singapore Olympic Foundation-Peter Lim Scholarship to help deserving sports talents from humble backgrounds pursue their dreams of becoming sportsmen. Some lucky students even had the chance to go to Spain and train under the Valencia team coaches. Such once-in-a-lifetime opportunities are what make a child believe in future possibilities.

Similarly, EQUAL-ARK helps at-risk youths and youths with special needs gain social-emotional and self-management skills through equine-assisted experiential learning. The starting point of the programme is the firm belief in holistic development of young persons, with character being a vital component.

Through the programme, students get to learn about horses, and experience horse riding. More importantly, outside of the sessions at the stables, caseworkers and teachers work with students to develop action plans, to continue to bring about positive behavioural changes in them.

The programme has already reached out to more than 4,000 students since it began in 2011. I am happy to see that it has been well received by the schools it partners with; for example, it is now part of the curriculum for Secondary Two students at Spectra, and is offered to all Year 1 students at NorthLight.

I thank EQUAL-ARK again for the good work that you have been doing, and I hope that everyone here will continue to contribute your time, expertise, ideas, and other resources to support our students. With all your help, we will continue to improve the education system. There is no silver bullet to solving inequality. But we have many initiatives, many programmes to be able to counter this trend, and it requires not just the government doing the work, but also schools, communities, businesses and philanthropists, do-gooders like you. Everyone should make the effort to counter the trend of inequality. So all our efforts will open up opportunities for all our students, help them to be their best, and build a united and cohesive Singapore and an even better education system.

Cover photo credit: Henry Be on Unsplash