Meritocracy in Singapore’s Education System – Ashley Tan, Singapore

Meritocracy has become a rather contentious issue of public debate in Singapore. Although this locution has been widely propagated by ministers and education directors commending the terms that come with this concept, meritocracy has increasingly come under fire, many claiming it has instead created inequality and elitism (TodayOnline, 2014).

Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong mentioned in the speech that he delivered at the Raffles Homecoming 2013 Gryphon Award Dinner that “at its core, meritocracy is a value system by which advancement in society is based on an individual’s ability, performance and achievement, and not on the basis of connections, wealth or family background. For Singapore in particular, a meritocratic system, while not perfect, is the best means to maximise the potential and harness the talents of our people to society’s advantage.”

Singaporeans, especially parents, are known to be “kiasu” or “overly competitive.” In his parliamentary speech, Mr Heng Swee Keat brought up the issue of the over-emphasis on marks and grades in Singapore, stating that many parents and students feel that our country’s education system is too focused on tests and examinations. Because of Singapore’s highly competitive academic culture, many parents have signed their children up for various enrichment lessons, ranging from piano and dance classes to expensive math lessons at well-known tuition centres like The Learning Lab.

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According to The Straits Times, nearly eight in 10 parents with children in primary school pay for private tuition, while more than six out of 10 parents with secondary school-aged children do so. This shows the proliferation of the importance placed on tuition classes to further enhance students’ academic progress.

However, families coming from Singapore’s lower social echelons do not have the ability or capacity to equip their children with the skills that could potentially make them stand out from their peers, and these families are not able to keep up with the tuition culture in Singapore. Hence, although equal opportunities to succeed are presented to everyone regardless of his or her background, many feel that the rising inequality gap between the wealthy and poor in Singapore has led to unequal educational outcomes. An example of the manifestation of equality in the education system is the Compulsory Education Act, which states that every child in Singapore (regardless of his or her financial background) has to attend mandatory education provided by national primary schools. Although it is commendable that the Singaporean government is putting emphasis on education through social policies like these, the inability for students from poorer financial backgrounds to catch up with their peers in our educational rat race remains thanks to a lack of personal funds and resources. This problem has been in existence for years, but the growing stratification between various income groups in our society has further exacerbated this issue. Thus, it is not surprising that many lower income families find that the concept of meritocracy is inherently biased towards those with better accessibility to resources, and that it impairs their social mobility.

Granted, the government has implemented policies to combat this issue. For instance, a new scholarship that will allow low-income students in Singapore to become the first in their family to study overseas has been established by alumni of the University of Warwick (The Straits Times, 2015). Academically strong students who have a family income of less than $2,500 a month or per capita income of less than $625 a month are eligible to apply for this scholarship and will receive up to $50,000 a year. Policies like these provide a wider range of opportunities to students from lower income families and help them develop their skills and aptitudes on an even deeper level through overseas tertiary education, which could potentially serve as a platform to broaden their horizons. However, it is imperative that our government continues to explore policies that can aid in enhancing our national schooling system, since the best way to shrink the inequality gap is through education.

So, are the principles governing meritocracy really fundamentally flawed? Personally, I do not agree with this sentiment. In my opinion, the ability to reduce the inequality gap in Singapore lies in the policies that are created and implemented by the government in order to uplift everyone in society, rather than a peripheral term that is supposed to encompass all of the ideals and values we believe in as a nation.

Hence, our government needs to continue crafting socio-economic policies that endorse not just equality, but also equity. Besides levelling the playing field for all Singaporeans regardless of their social standing, our government must ensure that each individual receives the resources that he or she requires in order to either excel or move up the social ladder more easily. This will not only help to prevent the stagnation of our society, but also allow everyone to succeed without being eclipsed or overshadowed by those with greater access to better resources and materials.

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Besides this, we need to start inculcating correct values in Singaporean youth so that they adopt the right mindset as they grow older. An increasing number of younger Singaporeans take their wealthy social backgrounds and circumstances for granted and do not attribute such factors to their success. This is breeding ground for growing elitism and a sense of entitlement and threatens to annihilate the inclusiveness of our society.

It is crucial that members of our younger generation who come from higher social backgrounds understand that they have a responsibility to help those who are less privileged. Those who become successful due to the aid of their social standing need to remember to lead with compassion and extend a hand to help lift others who may require more support. This will ensure that everyone in the society rises together. It is a social duty and national responsibility to ensure that the privileged help improve lives by empowering others, rather than just living for themselves. Only if we choose to commit ourselves to this can we truly uphold the fair and just standards that meritocracy propounds, and create an inclusive society that leaves no one behind.

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