Shift conversation to values we cherish as society

I read with great interest Opinion Editor Chua Mui Hoong's commentary (Tackling the class divide: We, the people, also matter; Oct 7).

In particular, I was drawn to the point that one way people can contribute towards bridging the class divide is by treating everyone "with the respect we want them to give us".

The article brings to mind a related debate on meritocracy.

Recently, debate has been sparked about the kind of society meritocracy has produced in Singapore, and whether it should continue to be a fundamental principle of our society.

This begs the question of what a meritocratic society means to us.

There are some who see meritocracy as a founding principle encapsulating the ideal that with skill, perseverance and imagination, anything is possible.

On the other hand, there are others who consider meritocracy to be synonymous with elitism and inequality.

This debate can only move forward, however, if we dive deeper and ask ourselves: What are the values represented by meritocracy that we wish to cherish as a nation?

There are three: respect, humility and discipline.

Respect is a mindset of valuing and giving due regard to every individual in our society, regardless of their background or experience.

It is encapsulated in the attitude that "there is something to learn from everyone".

Humility refers to an internal recognition of two points.

First, the recognition that one does not know everything there is to know, and that there is always something more to learn, master and experience.

Second, that our present successes come in part from standing on the shoulders of those who came before us.

Taking the analogy of a spear, if respect and humility were the spear's shaft, then discipline is the spear's head - the driving point that delivers grit, resilience and hard work towards learning and mastering the lessons and knowledge we gain from others.

It would be more constructive if our conversations could shift from whether meritocracy should be an ideal we strive towards to the values that we cherish as a society.

It is only then we can continue to craft Singapore's identity together and gain the attributes needed to tackle the class divide at an individual and societal level.

Lee Kok Thong