SINGAPORE - Singapore must grow its own brand of meritocracy, and balance its economic and social policies, said Minister of Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli on Monday (May 14).
"We cannot drive our economic policies on fierce pursuit of economic gains; but neither can we design our social policies with bleeding hearts," said Mr Masagos, speaking in Parliament in the debate on the President's Address.
Last week, President Halimah Yacob cited how Singaporeans want to live in a fair and just society based on meritocracy, but also one which does not leave anyone behind.
The Singapore brand of meritocracy ensures this, said Mr Masagos in a speech that saw other MPs thump their chairs in approval.
At the heart of the Singapore model of meritocracy, he said, was the spirit of giving back among those who had achieved success, to those who were in need.
Sharing the fruits of success with others was also the thinking behind Singapore's public service model, said Mr Masagos. The most capable people were awarded scholarships to study at the best universities in the world and then returned to dedicate their best years to public service and "everyone in society benefits".
Asking whether the children of Singapore's new rich would give back to society, like previous generations did, he said: "What is clear, though is that only when they give back, will society accept, rather than envy, their success."
Mr Masagos described how the traditional model of meritocracy is an imperfect system that does not always work properly.
It focuses on outcomes or engenders ruthless competition at the expense of co-operation, in which those who start with more end up monopolising success over generations.
This will increase inequality, polarise society and cause the marginalised to lose trust in institutions and society, he said.
"Slowly and quietly, society will break up from within. When that happens, we will not be able to come together to face challenges that call for national unity."
Instead of this form of meritocracy, Mr Masagos spelled out various elements that characterise Singapore's version, including government support, common spaces and experiences of Singaporeans.
Mr Masagos said government policies have to act as "ladders and bridges" to provide a fair chance for everyone to move up in society, not reward narrowly, and make alternative routes available.
"As DPM Tharman once put it - 'multiple peaks of excellence'. And if I may add, 'many chances of success'," he said.
Government policies must also enable self-reliance by encouraging work and provide opportunities to do well. To prepare the workforce, the government invested into SkillsFuture and the industry transformation maps to enable workers to seize opportunities in the future economy.
Speaking about common spaces, Mr Masagos noted how in his travels to other cities, he saw neighbourhoods and schools meant for the wealthy, successful and connected, while there are also in which visitors are advised to avoid - typically where the low-income or new immigrants gather.
"That is a failure of meritocracy that we have avoided and must never allow to take shape in our future," he said.
This is why in Singapore, the Government must distribute rental housing across the island and mix public and private housing more deliberately to ensure that the needy are not deprived of access to good quality public facilities.
"Every Singaporean must play our role. Resist the 'not in my backyard' tendency to shove critical but undesirable facilities like funeral parlours behind rental blocks," he said.
He added that in schools, education policies must enable every Singaporean to pursue their aspirations and realise their potential regardless of family background.
Even as the Government formulate these policies, Mr Masagos emphasised how meritocracy can only be moral if "those who take the most from the system also put the most back into it".