Meritocracy and the paradox of success

Education is a key tool to ensuring social mobility. But Singapore's success has made its job that much harder. Education Minister Ong Ye Kung, in a speech to the Equal Ark charity yesterday, talks about the challenges and ways to make meritocracy work better. Edited excerpts of his speech:

Of late, there has been quite a lively debate on the issue of inequality. I think Singaporeans are probably less worried that inequality exists, because income gaps, uneven wealth distribution - they occur in every society. But they become a worrying threat when the gap becomes entrenched, society becomes stratified, and people start to segregate themselves.

The best way to reduce stratification is to continue to ensure social mobility. So long as young Singaporeans from humble backgrounds can grow up to be successful, social distinctions will have less chance to coagulate, and our society can continue to stay together as one and united.

And education has been, and will continue to be, the key tool to ensure social mobility. It enables our young, regardless of background, to hope, to aspire and to achieve. The result is that hundreds of thousands of Singaporeans have benefited from our education system, and beat the odds with the hand that life has dealt them.

Fifteen years ago, five in 10 students from the bottom socio-economic quintile progressed to post-secondary education. Today, it is nine in 10. Fifteen years ago, 40 per cent of students in the bottom socio-economic quintile progressed to publicly funded degree or diploma programmes. Today, that has increased from 40 per cent to 50 per cent.


And so we have seen some very good progress. But the job is getting harder, as we are fighting against some strong social headwinds. What used to work for us is starting to work against us.

Take meritocracy. It recognises talent and ability over wealth and circumstance of birth, and motivates society and people to work hard. But as families do well, they spare no effort in investing in the abilities of their children, especially when they believe in meritocracy. As a result, children from different family backgrounds are pushing off blocks from different starting lines. So meritocracy, arising from a belief in fairness, seems to have paradoxically resulted in systemic unfairness.

A second headwind is the achievement inequality. As education successfully uplifts families, the percentage of students from lower income families is shrinking. Ten years ago, about 20 per cent of our employed households had an income of $3,000 or less, at 2017 dollars. Today, this has gone down to well below 15 per cent. But that also means that the smaller group of families that continue to remain poor and (of) lower income are facing more difficult challenges.

Secondary 1 students from Cedar Girls' Secondary School. Education Minister Ong Ye Kung notes that education enables our young, regardless of background, to hope, to aspire and to achieve, adding that hundreds of thousands of Singaporeans have benefited from the education system and beat the odds with the hand that life has dealt them. ST FILE PHOTO

Every time we read stories about these families, we feel a strong sense of sympathy, sometimes even a sense of injustice. But they have always been there through the decades, except that in the past, they were part of a much bigger group that many of us belonged to as well.

So the more meritocracy works, the more it looks like systemic unfairness. The more we uplift families, the harder it is to uplift those who remain poor. So paradoxically, these challenges result from the success, not failure, of our policies.

It is important to recognise this fundamental point, because it will guide our actions going forward. If we mistakenly think that the challenges result from policy failure, we will discard the policies and the philosophies that we have put in place. And whatever we replace them with are most likely going to be worse.

Conversely, if we recognise that the challenges are a result of sound policies having to adjust to new realities, then our conclusion would be quite different. We would want to evolve and improve existing policies to suit the challenges of our time.


So let us not discard meritocracy, for I don't think it has finished running its useful course. Despite all the criticism of meritocracy, many of which are valid, no one has come up with something better.

So we need to double down on meritocracy, move away from a narrow focus on past academic merit, to recognise and celebrate a broader range of skills, talents and strengths. It should translate into tangible changes in the way we hire people, admit students to tertiary institutions, grant awards and scholarships, and accord respect to fellow Singaporeans.

As for reducing achievement inequality, a tempting solution is to chop down the tall poppies to equalise outcomes. This goes against the nature and instinct of Singaporeans, who always strive to do our best. So let's not cap the top, but do even better in lifting the disadvantaged.

This bears out in the findings of a report published by the OECD , which found that even as our top students pull ahead of the rest of the OECD countries, education in Singapore continues to spur social mobility for our students from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

For example, to illustrate, about 50 per cent of our students from disadvantaged backgrounds perform better than that predicted by their family background, compared with the OECD average of 30 per cent. More than 40 per cent of students from disadvantaged backgrounds in Singapore do well in core skills, such as reading and maths, compared with the OECD average of 25 per cent. Even as we help our top students soar, we spare no effort in ensuring that every student can achieve his or her potential.

Nevertheless, there is still room for improvement. The concentration of disadvantaged and privileged students has intensified in certain schools, as observed by the OECD report, and we can do more to counter this unhealthy trend.

One way is to foster a better mix of students in every school. For example, from next year's Secondary 1 posting exercise, MOE will reserve 20 per cent of school places for students without affiliation to the secondary school.

Another way is to continue to ensure that all schools are well resourced and supported.

Today, MOE skews resources in favour of weaker students. We set up specialised schools - NorthLight, Assumption Pathway, Spectra and Crest - to provide a whole-school education approach to better meet their students' needs. For example, they offer curricula that are practice-oriented and more technical in nature, to help students acquire skills that will put them in good stead to find a job and start a career after graduation.

Each student in these specialised schools receives about $24,000 per year in resourcing. Each student in the Normal (Technical) stream receives about $20,000 in resourcing, while others in the other streams receive less - about $15,000 or less per student.

We have recently enhanced the MOE Financial Assistance Scheme by raising the income eligibility criteria, to benefit more students from lower income households. Students on the scheme need not worry about school fees, textbooks or uniforms. Schools can also tap what we call the Opportunity Fund to help students cover significant school expenses, such as overseas learning trips or purchase of computer devices.

We also increased the meals provision for lower income students from seven meals a week to 10 meals a week under what we call the School Meals Programme. In addition, we are investing heavily in pre-school education, with one-third of MOE Kindergarten places reserved for students from lower income families.

By 2020, we will have student care centres in every school to provide students with a conducive environment to study and to complete their homework.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 25, 2018, with the headline Meritocracy and the paradox of success. Subscribe