Parliament: Time to examine meritocracy and inequality, says Kok Heng Leun

In his Budget debate speech, Nominated MP Kok Heng Leun said Singapore should look at systematic approaches to eradicate inequality, so that meritocracy can be more equitable.
In his Budget debate speech, Nominated MP Kok Heng Leun said Singapore should look at systematic approaches to eradicate inequality, so that meritocracy can be more equitable.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Meritocracy has long been upheld as an important tenet of Singapore society, but it is time to examine its failings, Nominated MP Kok Heng Leun said in Parliament on Tuesday (Feb 27).

"Our meritocracy only rewards those who have made achievements," he said. "What about those who continue to fail in school? What about those who work two jobs and still cannot earn enough to support their families?"

In his Budget debate speech, Mr Kok said Singapore should look at systematic approaches to eradicate inequality, so that meritocracy can be more equitable.

"We have been inculcated with the values of meritocracy - hard work will be rewarded, self-reliance and personal achievement is key to our success," he noted.

"Have we also then made those who have failed to achieve believe in the narrative that it was because of personal failing that one cannot do better and accepted the narrative that it is not a dignified existence?"

In his impassioned call for a more inclusive society, Mr Kok said there are many who do not succeed despite their best efforts, because "the odds are perpetually stacked against them".

These include people who grew up in poor families who could not afford books and enrichment classes, or with little parental supervision.

"By the time these people go to school, by the time they leave school, by the time they enter the workforce... I don't have to say it. We know what the outcome is," he said.

"For every one person who says, 'I came from a poor upbringing but now I am a success,' there are many others who did not succeed."

The key is to provide care and support in a sustained and meaningful way, Mr Kok said.

"More importantly, how can we provide assistance without making those who need help feel that they have to prove that they have worked hard but not achieved enough and hence is worthy of support? Without feeling that they have no more dignity left?"

Also touching on inequality, Dr Tan Wu Meng (Jurong GRC) said it is important for Singapore to achieve "good quality growth" to reduce income inequality. This means building a diverse economy that offers more paths for people to gain deep skills and do well.

Encouraging entrepreneurship among the young is also another way to narrow inequalities, he added. The Government should study how to nurture entrepreneurial skills in schools, so that even children from less privileged families, who lack access to enrichment classes, can benefit.

Mr Darryl David (Ang Mo Kio GRC), meanwhile, called on the Government to consider an enhanced financial assistance scheme for education, with different tiers of Edusave grants and top-ups depending on family income.

He also suggested making student care more accessible and affordable by giving higher levels of subsidies to lower-income families and prioritising student care services for children of single working-parents, as these families typically do not have the same level of social support that dual-parent families have.

Mr Ong Teng Koon (Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC) highlighted how technological disruption could create a "displaced underclass" of workers whose jobs have been made obsolete and who will struggle to make ends meet.

While government schemes to retrain workers is helpful, he noted that a large segment of the population will struggle to learn and apply new skills.

"Out of our 2.2 million labour force, around 700,000 workers are over 50 years old or have secondary education or below. Many of them will struggle to learn and when you factor in their families and dependents, the number of people affected gets scary really fast," he said.

Short-term cushioning may not be enough, he added, as these workers cannot "trampoline" back into economic health, so any support would need to be sustained.

He suggested alternative revenue sources to fund such support measures, such as a wealth tax.

As technology advances, wages will likely fall as a share of gross domestic product, so making the owners of land and capital pay their fair share may make sense, he said.

Meanwhile, Mr Kok also highlighted the work of non-governmental organisations and activists, noting that this group has worked "incredibly hard" to fight for the rights of the marginalised in society.

Sometimes their work, while not in opposition to the Government, can clash with the Government's position, he noted.

By and large, activists do not want to make trouble, he added, but sometimes, when they feel that they are not heard, they appeal for support from the public.

But this is what a functioning democracy is all about, Mr Kok said, urging the Government to participate in this dialogue as "a vulnerable observer, a vulnerable listener".

Mr Kok said: "Asking hard questions always begins with messiness. We need to first acknowledge the mess. Then, together, we wade through the messiness, sort things out and listen to different views."