Elitism can undermine meritocracy

As an alumnus of Raffles Institution, I am heartened to hear principal Chan Poh Meng's call for greater egalitarianism in the school system ("RI now a 'middle-class' school / 'Make RI a better school for S'pore"; Aug 4).

However, I disagree with Mr Russell Tan Wah Jian's assertion that elitism is not a problem in Singapore ("'Elitism' can be good for society"; Forum Online, Aug 11), because it threatens the very system of meritocracy he supports.

No doubt, it is impossible to ensure complete equality of outcome for all members of our society. The very consequence of meritocracy is some level of inequality, since we wish to reward successful individuals for their efforts.

However, the problem here is that the very equity of this meritocratic system is put in jeopardy if the elite of our society entrench the position of their progeny in the social strata.

The principle of meritocracy is underpinned by the concept of equal opportunity - individuals must have a fair shot at attaining success in life.

If this assumption does not hold, social stratification may occur, as the socio-economic elite make use of their greater resources won through the meritocratic system to make their own children more competitive.

For instance, a wealthy parent can give his children better nutrition, learning opportunities and internships than their poorer counterparts. This may well lead to the wealthy becoming more competitive and successful than the children of the poor.

In such a situation, meritocracy is undermined, as through a long repetition of such a cycle, social stratification occurs.

It does not seem very equitable for a person to be allocated a socio-economic position by virtue of his birth.

This situation is a serious fault in our society.

Our state derives its legitimacy from the belief that individuals who work hard can make a good life for themselves.

If social stratification is allowed to proceed unchecked, the people may lose confidence in meritocracy, and, by extension, the idea of Singapore itself. A loss of social cohesion may result, as tensions rise between the "haves" and the "have nots".

Society shares both the blame and the responsibility for rectifying this situation.

We need to find ways to ensure that deserving, low-income individuals continue to be given opportunities to improve themselves, such that they can compete with their wealthier counterparts.

As much as meritocracy seeks to reward the diligent and penalise indolence, the sins of the father should not be visited upon the son.

Every generation of young Singaporeans should have a more equal playing field upon which to attain success.

Ng Qi Siang