Time to make our meritocratic system more flexible

A lunch crowd at Singapore's central business district.
A lunch crowd at Singapore's central business district.PHOTO: LIANHE WANBAO

While Singapore is churning out marvellous test takers, most appear affixed with a box that is limiting their thinking and handicapping their ability to adapt outside a stipulated format.

At a local job interview, I was much tickled when the interviewer asked for my master's transcript. It might make sense if I were applying for a professorship, but the position had nothing to do with the education sector; I jokingly asked if he was looking at giving me a scholarship. With all seriousness, he explained it is standard practice in Singapore, so I obligingly furnished it.

Next, the interviewer asked for my experience in handling the specific duties of the prospective job. Having worked on these specific tasks and more for 10 years during my entrepreneurial undertaking, I was clearly seasoned in them.

However, I soon discovered the experience gained from operating my own successful business did not count. I was puzzled as to why the same experience earned from running my own business, versus working for someone else's, was disregarded but, apparently, I am not the only one who has encountered this (Recognise strengths, skills of mums rejoining workforce, by Ms Joy Koh Chi Er, April 10).

Last Sunday, my child passed by a mental health awareness booth at the library and decided to check it out. In order to earn a treat, she had to visit four different stations.

At each station, I pursed my lips as the teenage exhibitors explained the various symptoms and treatments of mental health to her. They did not miss a single word on their script, but their speeches clearly flew over my five-year-old's head.

Did they lack the ability to tailor their presentation accordingly?

Our system of meritocracy is well-prized and has served Singapore well. Nonetheless, we might be missing out.

Think about the street-smart and successful entrepreneur who was bypassed for consideration for a ministerial position simply because he wasn't a scholarship holder, or the brilliant student who was denied a spot at a local university simply because there was one subject external to his orbit of interest and passing capability.

Intelligence comes in various forms. We are losing out on capitalising on varied talents if we net only those whose particular adeptness can be measured by our meritocratic system.

Lily Ong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 15, 2019, with the headline 'Time to make our meritocratic system more flexible'. Print Edition | Subscribe