SINGAPORE - Singapore should not lose faith in meritocracy even though it may seem to have led to systemic unfairness within the education system.
Instead of banning tuition and enrichment classes, scrapping the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), or implementing quotas in top schools, the country should move away from a narrow focus on grades to embrace a broader meritocracy of skills.
"We should not cap achievement at the top, but continue to strive to lift the bottom," added Education Minister Ong Ye Kung on Wednesday (July 11) in Parliament, as he described the fundamentals which will underpin the development of the education system here.
He was replying to an often passionate, sometimes emotional, debate on "Education for our future", which was raised by a group of Nominated MPs.
Eight NMPs and five MPs spoke, raising issues which ranged from tuition and the PSLE to lifelong learning and aptitude-based admissions.
Ms Denise Phua (Jalan Besar GRC), who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for Education, called for an education master plan to be reviewed every three years.
Mr Ong said his ministry will take in these views and suggestions - "some will take time to implement" - but his answer to the call to slaughter some "sacred cows" such as the PSLE, was "No".
He acknowledged that meritocracy is "in danger of becoming a dirty word". While it has uplifted many families over the decades, those who benefited go on to spare no effort investing in the abilities of their children.
Mr Ong said: "Unlike the first generation of Singaporeans where students are mostly from humble backgrounds, the next generation are pushing off blocks from different starting lines, with students from affluent families having a head start."
There have been suggestions to set a quota for low-income students in popular schools, but this, said Mr Ong, sends the wrong signal, and can even be seen as patronising.
Popular schools are already making extra efforts to attract eligible students from low-income families and increase the mingling of those from different backgrounds, "and we should encourage them to do more", said Mr Ong.
He also noted that while the PSLE is not perfect and does add stress for some families, any replacement system to decide on secondary postings is likely to be worse.
Mr Ong, who is chairman of the Chinese Development Assistance Council (CDAC), said he asked young volunteers at the self-help group who tutor students from low-income families for their views. Most were against getting rid of the PSLE, and told him that it can in fact motivate students to work hard.
"One said frankly that we can complain that PSLE favours the rich, but the rich are better poised to prepare their children in whatever alternate system that is in place. Support the weaker students more, but don't take away PSLE," Mr Ong told the House.
He pointed out how around 7.5 per cent of students who live in one- to three-room HDB flats emerge as top PSLE performers every year.
"And there are many others with great non-academic talents. We will continue to strive to help them develop their strengths to the fullest."
Mr Ong said this is reflected in the way the Ministry of Education (MOE) allocates resources. Around $24,000 is spent each year on every student at specialised schools, which cater to academically weaker students. Those in Normal (Technical) and Normal (Academic) get $20,000 and $15,000 respectively. All other students, including those in Independent Schools, get under $15,000.
Schools are also providing co-curricular activities such as equestrian and sailing, and opportunities such as overseas learning trips, which used to be regarded as available only to students from more affluent backgrounds, the minister added.
Talented Primary 4 and 5 pupils can also enrol in the Junior Sports Academy, which offers a two-year sports development programme for free. Since 2017, its capacity has been doubled to 800, and MOE is in the initial stages of developing a similar programme for the arts, Mr Ong said.