Forum: True merit goes beyond grades, school choice

The report on the new PSLE indicative cut-off points has resurfaced anxieties around school choice, and put the spotlight back on the issues of social mobility and meritocracy (Perfect PSLE score not needed to enter top schools, April 28).

These fears and anxieties still seem to reflect a rather narrow view of meritocracy - one that is based on grades, schools and achievement.

In his most recent book, The Tyranny Of Merit, political philosopher Michael Sandel argues that meritocracy has a dark side.

He suggests that while meritocracy has been a catalyst for social mobility, it has also led to an overemphasis on credentialism and a sense of hubris among the educated in the West.

This problem is not entirely foreign to Singapore. In 2018, then Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung mentioned that while meritocracy is still the best model for Singapore, the system has to evolve to tackle new challenges and move away from a narrow focus on past academic merit to recognise and celebrate a broader range of skills, talents and strengths.

He added that "it should translate into tangible changes in the way we... accord respect to fellow Singaporeans".

Our forefathers hardly ever had these issues. Most of Singapore's Pioneer Generation did not possess diplomas.

When I think of that generation, I am often reminded of my grandmothers. Neither had a university degree, but both had a deep sense of unassuming openness.

They did not possess the meritocratic credentialism Dr Sandel describes.

They were as comfortable chatting with the fishmonger as their educated children or grandchildren.

They exemplified the welcoming yet tough kampung spirit that existed when people lived side by side in houses with diverse neighbours. They were not unlike many of their generation.

Too often, in modern Singapore life, we fixate on the schools our children go to and how much we earn, and compare ourselves with others.

We lose sight of how to talk to one another with unassuming openness, without labels and merit, and fail to accord respect to fellow Singaporeans.

We make the same mistake that Jewish preacher Abraham Heschel referred to when he said: "We teach children how to measure, how to weigh; we fail to teach them how to revere, how to sense wonder and awe."

Dr Sandel ends his book by suggesting that a way forward for meritocracy may be recognising that all of us, fancy diplomas or no, make important contributions to society, through our work, the families we raise or the communities we serve.

This requires us to recognise that there is true value in the dignity of our work and everyday lives.

I can find no reason why the Pioneer Generation would not want that for the younger generation.

After all, isn't that what all that education and merit are really for?

Jonathan Lee Xue Han

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