Higher aspirations for all

The acronym of the Applied Study in Polytechnics and ITE Review committee - Aspire - captures the essence of building a society of greater opportunity that is a key national objective today. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong referred to this committee in his National Day Rally speech on Sunday, when he spoke of how a university degree need not be the only route to a fulfilling career for young Singaporeans. He announced the setting up of a tripartite committee chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam to institute the integrated system of education, training and career progression suggested by the Aspire team.

It is apposite that Mr Tharman has been tasked with this job. He has sought to broaden perceptions of merit in Singapore with his call for a "continuous meritocracy". At a general level, such a meritocracy would recognise different strengths in different individuals; in particular, the educational starting point for careers would matter less than the proficiency and diligence that a person demonstrates at work. This notion treats meritocracy as an evolving goal that demands removing the rigidity in the current system caused by a fixation on academic qualifications. The tripartite committee will have the opportunity of translating the promise of continuous meritocracy into tangible ways of emphasising work skills over pure academic qualifications. This holds special promise for non-graduates.

However, two provisos are in order. First, society at large must accept that this new education-cum-employment model is both necessary and fair. Even with the public service setting the process in motion, the private sector will respond only if Singaporeans are willing to judge meritocracy more broadly than they have done. This involves practical issues. For example, how many parents would encourage their children to take the non-degree path if they are qualified to enter university? Would young Singaporeans be willing to abjure the paper chase, which sees some of them rushing to accumulate a master's degree right after their undergraduate education as a means of staying ahead, and concentrate on gaining work experience first? A revolution in mindsets will be needed.

Second, there must be no slackening of professional standards built till now, it has to be acknowledged, on a degree of academic elitism. The challenge is to broaden the field of beneficiaries while keeping standards high. Thus, non-graduates given a better chance to compete with graduates must prove at work that they deserve this opportunity. Continuous meritocracy, and the philosophy behind the Aspire exercise, is a sound one. But given the huge cultural shift it entails, it will not be easy. It must be given a serious - and sustained - try.