Is meritocracy preventing Singaporeans from giving back?

ST editor-at-large Han Fook Kwang chairs a panel discussion on the topic of giving back to society by the privileged. Panellists include Professor Paulin Straughan, Mr Laurence Lien, Dr Goh Wei Leong and Ms T. Ranganayaki.
(From left) Panel moderator and Straits Times editor-at-large Han Fook Kwang, Lien Foundation chairman Laurence Lien, Singapore Management University sociology professor Paulin Straughan, Healthserve co-founder and chairman Goh Wei Leong, and Beyond
(From left) Panel moderator and Straits Times editor-at-large Han Fook Kwang, Lien Foundation chairman Laurence Lien, Singapore Management University sociology professor Paulin Straughan, Healthserve co-founder and chairman Goh Wei Leong, and Beyond Social Services deputy executive director T. Ranganayaki, at the panel discussion last Tuesday.ST PHOTOS: NG SOR LUAN
Members of the public posing questions to the panellists during the discussion. The panel discussion was organised by The Straits Times in partnership with the Singapore Kindness Movement.
Members of the public posing questions to the panellists during the discussion. The panel discussion was organised by The Straits Times in partnership with the Singapore Kindness Movement.ST PHOTOS: NG SOR LUAN

Issues on privilege and lack of generosity raised at panel discussion organised by ST

The meritocratic system has worked well in pushing Singaporeans up the social ladder in the years since independence, but it may have built the belief in some people here that social mobility is purely based on merit and hard work.

As a result of missing the fact that certain inequalities are entrenched and that people may not have the same starting point, the meritocratic principle they hold dear may be preventing society from being generous, said professor of sociology (practice) Paulin Straughan from Singapore Management University last Tuesday.

She was speaking at a panel discussion on privilege and giving back to society, organised by The Straits Times in partnership with the Singapore Kindness Movement.

The discussion, which was moderated by Straits Times editor-at-large Han Fook Kwang, included a panel comprising Beyond Social Services deputy executive director T. Ranganayaki, Lien Foundation chairman Laurence Lien and Healthserve co-founder and chairman Goh Wei Leong.

Prof Straughan cited meritocracy as an example of something that worked for Singapore in the past, but might now be getting in the way of a more generous society today.

She noted that meritocracy is something Singaporeans hold "dear to (their) hearts" because they believe in fairness.

WHAT MUST BE DONE TO MAKE S'POREANS MORE GENEROUS?

MORE TIME NEEDED

Work-life balance is the answer... the problem now is we don't have sufficient time. And if you don't have sufficient time, you tend to be a lot more self-centred because you're always worried about yourself. Whether you're able to achieve your work goals, keep your job, strive for that promotion. But when you have that space and time to think, then you can start to do a lot more.

SINGAPORE MANAGEMENT UNIVERSITY PROFESSOR OF SOCIOLOGY (PRACTICE) PAULIN STRAUGHAN

AN OPPORTUNITY, NOT A PROBLEM

Just step out of whatever bubble you put yourself in and look around. We have Housing Board (estates) where we have rental blocks right next to new Build-to-Order flats, and nobody knows anyone on the other side. A social issue is not a problem to be plugged, it's actually an opportunity for (the) community to come together.

BEYOND SOCIAL SERVICES' DEPUTY EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR T. RANGANAYAKI

IMPORTANCE OF BEING PRESENT

If there's one thing I can invite people to give, it's the gift of presence. The philanthropist can come and participate with his presence, but so can the person right at the other end of the pole, a migrant worker, the local poor. Everyone can give and when we have that, we actually acknowledge the individual's role in society and I think that's really important. There's a ripple effect of just being there.

HEALTHSERVE'S CO-FOUNDER AND CHAIRMAN GOH WEI LEONG

VOLUNTEER TO UNDERSTAND

Volunteer and engage broadly first before you start giving money, before you write the cheque. Part of it is encountering and understanding the issues, but part of it is also understanding which area you will resonate with the most. What will ignite the passion in you? Often people will say 'I don't know'. Of course you don't know, because you've not really tried.

LIEN FOUNDATION CHAIRMAN LAURENCE LIEN

Many have enjoyed the society built by the Republic's first generation of leaders, where hard work can result in upward mobility.

But not everyone starts from the same point in society, she reminded.

"But we still reward in the same manner... the message around you is we're a meritocratic system, and therefore I deserve this reward that I get... You see that your paycheck is yours because you worked hard for it and you made all the right sacrifices, and it makes you a less gracious person."

This makes it hard for individuals to recognise that their position in society is not just due to hard work, but by the "grace of God", for example.

Mr Lien shared similar sentiments.

"There's always the assumption that because we are a meritocratic society, if people are poor, it must be their fault; they must be not working hard," he said.

He said people in Singapore are not doing enough to help the needy, citing how donations to charities in Singapore was 0.6 per cent of the nation's gross domestic product, compared with 2 per cent in the United States.

The wealthy can do more, he said.

"If you look at the Forbes 50 list of Singaporeans, only one in five are known to have foundations."

Previous reports showed the Khoo Foundation, for example, funded Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, and pledged $50 million to build the Khoo Teck Puat-National University Children's Medical Institute Paediatric Ambulatory Centre.

Mr Lien said one reason for the poor giving rate is the mentality among Singaporeans that the Government, not them, is responsible for helping the needy.

He said: "When there's a social problem, the first instinct for Singaporeans is (to say) 'What's the Government doing about it?' As if by saying that, they don't have to do anything."

Calling this an "unhealthy dynamic", Mr Lien said the Government has already done a lot and "should lead by stepping back".

He added that there is a need for a greater sense of community ownership.

Mr Lien said Singaporeans, especially the privileged, are not aware of what is happening on the ground.

Mr Han questioned this, however, citing Singapore's urban nature.

"We live very close to each other, Housing Board flats are all around us. You walk out in the streets, you see an old person struggling to push a cart full of cardboard to sell. It's very evident and visual out there," he said.

However, Mr Lien disagreed.

He said: "You can live in your cocoon if you go from your wonderful condominium or big house to your office in Shenton Way... Just because you sometimes visit hawker centres and see old people cleaning up (doesn't mean) you know the stories they carry with them."

This was a point raised by Ms Ranganayaki as well. 

  • About the Panellists

  • • Professor Paulin Straughan, professor of sociology (practice) at Singapore Management University, where she is also dean of students.

    • Ms T. Ranganayaki, the deputy executive director of Beyond Social Services, a charity which works to help children and youth from less privileged backgrounds break away from the poverty cycle.

    • Mr Laurence Lien, chairman of philanthropic organisation Lien Foundation which was set up in 1980 to help the needy and deprived in society.

    • Dr Goh Wei Leong, co-founder and chairman of Healthserve, which provides migrant workers with affordable healthcare, social assistance, skills training and free meals. He was also The Straits Times Singaporean of the Year 2017.

    • The panel was moderated by Mr Han Fook Kwang

"We have HDB (estates) where we have rental blocks right next to new Build-to-Order flats, and nobody knows anyone on the other side," she said.

Dr Goh said his eyes were opened when he set up a clinic for migrant workers in Singapore and became more aware of social issues after being exposed to the community.

His organisation now provides migrant workers with affordable healthcare, social assistance, skills training and free meals.

Dr Goh also struck a positive note about the young.

"All of us are at different stages of our social consciousness, and I've learnt that to bring people to have a real contact (with a migrant worker)... that makes a difference. And over the last few years, I see increasing awareness, empathy and interest."

Dr Goh said millennials had "really helped the cause".

"They come with this sense of wanting to change the world and I've learnt that they can, if we give them that platform," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 07, 2019, with the headline 'Is meritocracy preventing S'poreans from giving back?'. Print Edition | Subscribe