Dismantle meritocracy? No, create opportunities for all, for every stage of life

This is an edited excerpt from a speech by Second Minister for Education and Finance Indranee Rajah at the NUS Social Service Research Conference yesterday. The conference focus was on low-income families. In her speech, she laid out the vision of the new generation of political leaders - dubbed the 4G - to create a society of opportunities for every stage in life.

Today, I would like to speak about the 4G team's vision for a society of opportunities throughout life - one in which all will have the opportunity to fulfil their potential, irrespective of their background; a society in which birth is not destiny, nor where the starting point determines the end point.

The conference topic puts squarely in the frame the issues of inequality and social mobility currently confronting many countries, Singapore included.

While very much in the news today, these issues are not new.

In the 1965 Proclamation of Singapore, we proclaimed and declared as our goal that "Singapore shall forever be a sovereign democratic and independent nation, founded on the principles of liberty and justice and ever seeking the welfare and happiness of her people in a more just and equal society".

So as you can see, inequality and social mobility were issues even back then, and we had from inception made tackling them a fundamental tenet of achieving a fair and just society.

Since that time, we have achieved much in pursuit of our goal, and the statistics tell the story of the tremendous progress we have made in our quest for a more just and equal society.

In 1960, life expectancy was 62.9 years. In 2018, it was 83.2 years.

In 1980, nearly 45 per cent of the Primary 1 cohort did not complete secondary education.

Tackling inequality and maintaining social mobility are continuing challenges. They take different forms in different times, and each generation will have to address them as they manifest. The question for 4G leaders, says Second Minister for Education and Finance Indranee Rajah, is how they will tackle inequality and sustain social mobility, in this time and on their watch. ST FILE PHOTO

Today, it is less than 1 per cent.

In 1965, only about 10 per cent made it to post-secondary education. Today, more than 90 per cent of Singaporean youth go on to our institutions of higher learning.

Home ownership was less than 60 per cent in 1980. Now it is more than 90 per cent, of which more than 80 per cent is public housing.

This transformation can be attributed to our adherence to meritocracy, our heavy investments in education and our people, and our policies aimed at economic development, job creation, income growth, affordable quality healthcare for all, our public housing programme and generous subsidies to promote home ownership.

The cumulative effect of these policies was to generate a rising tide that lifted all boats.

The early generations saw significant improvements within their lifetimes and were able to give their children a better life than what they had experienced.


Why is it then that inequality and social mobility are still issues today? And what is the difference between then and now?

  • Getting the community involved in helping students

  • The difference the community can make is tangible.

    For example, Xishan Primary School is one of the seven schools that RSVP Singapore - an organisation for senior volunteers - is partnering for their mentoring programme.

    RSVP volunteers visit the school weekly to provide practical help such as after-school homework supervision and conduct activities like handicraft work to build healthy hobbies and interests.

    Over time, the seniors have befriended the children and serve as positive role models for them.

    Aryan, a Primary 5 student in the programme, was thankful that Uncle Jimmy shared his life story with him.

    Uncle Jimmy shared that when he was a child, he used to dislike doing homework, but he realised that he needed to work hard in his studies in order to support his family, which was going through some financial difficulties at that time. This has motivated Aryan to study harder.

    The bonds forged between the volunteers and students are precious and benefit the students tremendously.

    Every Saturday night, Mr Lim Seng Kee, an airside operations manager at Changi Airport Group, plays football with a group of SportCares youths between 13 and 21 years. He trains with them and leads by example, completing the sessions to the best of his ability and inspiring them to give their best.

    With the time spent on the pitch together, Mr Lim has become not only their football kaki but also their role model and trusted mentor who, through the sharing of his life experiences, motivates, inspires and encourages them to be resilient.

    Such ground-up volunteerism and active contributions from community organisations and alumni members are examples of the partnerships between citizen volunteers and schools that we are looking to expand.

    Through local connections, students are able to receive more immediate, targeted help required. When the community is involved, it actually works both ways: It strengthens the ecosystem of care and support for disadvantaged students but, at the same time, offers people an avenue to give back.

    • Speech by Second Minister for Education and Finance Indranee Rajah

First of all, in our early years as a nation, the starting base for the majority of Singaporeans was very low, across almost all indicators: education, income and home ownership.

There was a greater sense of all being in a similar situation. Or, as some older Singaporeans have put it, "we were all equally poor".

However, things have since changed. Our economic progress has created prosperity for many, but it has also resulted, over time, in different levels of resources accruing to low-, middle-and higher-income families. It's natural for families to want to use their resources to help their children advance, be it in the form of extra educational material, enrichment programmes or social networks.

As those parents who have accumulated more over our five decades of growth pass on advantages to their children, who in turn pass on further advantages to their children, this has given rise to a new concern that children at the bottom end of the spectrum have increasingly unequal starting blocks, which will translate down the line into very different outcomes and hinder social mobility.

At the same time, other deep-seated forces are also at play.

In an era where growth is driven by the knowledge-based industry in which the well-educated and exceptionally talented reap more rewards than others, economic and social benefits quickly accrue to those at the top.

This is exacerbated by rapid technological advancement.

The structure of our economy, like that of many others, is seeing rapid change driven by technology, automation and AI (artificial intelligence). Some of these changes have had the effect of worsening wage dispersion, threatening to deepen the divide between higher-skilled and lower-skilled workers. Lower-skilled workers risk being shut off from the new opportunities being created.

Meanwhile, as we have become more developed and gradually caught up with some of the most advanced economies of the world, our growth has naturally slowed.

This new phase of our development coincides with our changing demographic profile.

Our people are not as young as before - within a few generations, we have gone from enjoying the baby-boomer demographic dividend to dealing with the challenges of an ageing population.

This trajectory is not unlike that of other similar economies, such as South Korea and Taiwan. A slower pace of economic growth directly translates into how much progress each new generation is likely to see. It can also lead to stagnation for lower-skilled workers who are unable to adapt or reskill.

These trends and tendencies pose new challenges to our society that did not exist in earlier decades.

Left unchecked, they will cause less advantaged Singaporeans to be left behind, and to feel that the opportunities available can be accessed only by a privileged few.

As the needs and viewpoints in our society continue to become more diverse, such a situation will make it easy for new fault lines to emerge between the haves and have-nots, or the will-haves and the won't-haves.

Our Gini coefficient as a measure of income dispersion has remained stable in recent years, but if we do not actively intervene to mitigate inequality and enhance social mobility, our sense of being one united people will gradually erode.

These developments show that tackling inequality and maintaining social mobility are continuing challenges. They take different forms in different times and each generation will have to address them as they manifest.

The question for 4G leaders, therefore, is how we will tackle inequality and sustain social mobility, in this time and on our watch.


One common call is that we should "rethink meritocracy".

If that means that we should do away with letting people advance on merit, that we should abolish the principle of choosing the person best able and best equipped to do the job, then the answer is no, that cannot be the right approach.

We must remember that meritocracy was adopted as an antidote to corruption and nepotism and a means of ensuring that positions were obtained on the basis of substantive ability.

Doing away with meritocracy would be an invitation for those ills to resurface and weaken our system.

If the suggestion is that we should hold back those who can achieve more in a bid to equalise outcomes, then the answer must also be no.

Which parent doesn't want their child to be the best that they can be? Students too have their own aspirations. Each new generation will want to reach for the greatest possible achievement for themselves. It would not be right to hold them back.

People have diverse skills, talents and abilities. It's inevitable that there will be some differences in outcomes.

The crux of the matter is not the principle of meritocracy per se. The crux of the matter is that while we have worked very hard to provide equal opportunities, those from the lower-income and disadvantaged backgrounds might find it harder to access these opportunities.

Our approach is not to cap the top but to uplift the bottom - to improve access to these opportunities among the less advantaged and make the most of the opportunities on offer, to bridge the shortfalls and narrow the gaps so that all can rise together - an enabling meritocracy, if you will.

In tandem with this, there must be multiple pathways for achievement, success and careers to ensure continuing social mobility. Some may progress faster, others may take longer; some may take familiar routes, others the path less travelled, but ultimately all can have good outcomes - not necessarily the same outcomes - with effort on their part and, where needed, with support from the Government and others.

Our approach therefore is twofold. First, we will continue to strengthen the support for those who have less. Second, we will build a society of opportunities for all, at every stage of life.


As a government, we are committed to do the best we can to bring about the right conditions for our people to thrive. In the early years when we had fewer resources, heavy emphasis was placed on economic development, a policy approach which lifted an entire generation out of poverty.

As circumstances changed, we saw a rising trend of inequality in the 1990s. Without letting up on economic development which is the engine that generates the wealth that is a prerequisite for redistribution, in 2006 we made a decisive shift to provide greater social support to more vulnerable groups and those who need it most.

The coverage and level of our assistance schemes have grown in the last decade and span the life cycle. We will continue to strengthen support for those who need it.

In the coming months, my 4G colleagues will share more on this subject. But even as we do more to moderate the effects of unequal circumstances and strengthen support for those in need, we must in parallel also work to provide opportunities for all Singaporeans to do well in life.


The second key area of work therefore is building a society of opportunities for all, at every stage of life. This is a fundamental basis on which our nation is built, and remains a key pillar of the 4G's vision for Singapore.

The Government will strive to ensure that no one, no matter the conditions of his or her birth, will be denied the opportunities to improve the conditions of their life.

We will make sure that all are enabled to take advantage of the opportunities we provide in education, skills training, housing and other relevant areas. This is what we mean by an enabling meritocracy.

Ensuring that Singaporeans have a solid foundation from which to advance and progress is core to MOE's ( Ministry of Education's) work. But it also extends across many other policy areas - finance, social and housing, among others.

Minister Desmond Lee has outlined moves by the Ministry of Social and Family Development in the social space to moderate the income gap and strengthen the support for low-income families.

In housing, Minister Lawrence Wong has highlighted various initiatives to help rental tenants progress to home ownership.

Let me elaborate on what this means in relation to education.

First, we want every child to have good pre-school education, given the importance of early childhood development as a key factor for good outcomes in later life.

To increase the availability, affordability and quality of pre-school education for all, including the lower and middle income, we introduced the Anchor Operator scheme as well as MOE kindergartens, implemented the Nurturing Early Learners curriculum framework and Spark certification, and set up NIEC (National Institute of Early Childhood Development) as a pipeline of well-qualified early childhood educators. Fee subsidies are also available for those in need.

To help bridge unequal starting points, we piloted KidStart to provide targeted and upstream intervention for low-income children and their families, starting from pregnancy and going all the way to pre-school.

Early childhood is a continuing area of work and we will do more.

Second, for children in their schooling years, our education system must serve to develop every child's strengths and allow for success through different trajectories.

We in MOE see it as our responsibility to ensure that our public schools continue to provide quality education pathways for all students, regardless of their background, and to help them realise their fullest potential.

Our remaking of secondary school pathways with full subject-based banding is a latest step towards this direction.

Our institutions of higher learning - ITE (Institute of Technical Education), polytechnics and universities - provide different paths for our students to achieve their aspirations.

We will look into what else can be done to remove barriers to education and training at different levels.

Third, beyond opportunities in the early and schooling years, we want to ensure there continue to be diverse and rewarding paths for everyone in their working years.

Our economy continues to generate good jobs for our young adults as they enter the workforce. We must make sure we equip them with the right skills to take advantage of opportunities in our new economy. But this is just the start. We must make sure there are good opportunities for continuous education and training, and that learning does not stop after you enter the workforce.

Singaporeans should have the opportunity to deepen and broaden their skills at every stage in their career. We are looking hard at how SkillsFuture can be enhanced to support this goal.

We will also take care of our vulnerable workers - these include not only the lower-income or older workers but every worker who is at risk of displacement. Given the pace of technological change, it is especially important for us to see how we can help those affected by setbacks like job loss, illness or family difficulties to get back on their feet quickly. MOM's (Ministry of Manpower's) employment support programmes under Adapt and Grow are part of this.

This task of tackling inequality and ensuring social mobility is a critical work.

We do this because as Singaporeans, we must care for one another and look out for one another. Every Singaporean matters and we want all to do well.

Singapore must always be a society of opportunities for all, throughout life, where everyone can progress irrespective of starting point; where all Singaporeans will have equal chance to seek better lives - to meet their aspirations and find happiness - regardless of background. We must also do this as a matter of national interest.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 19, 2019, with the headline Dismantle meritocracy? No, create opportunities for all, for every stage of life. Subscribe