Meritocracy: Vision of S'pore as society of equals

Call for a broader meritocracy where people recognise each other's strengths

HOW you did in school at age 18 should not define your life, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam firmly believes.

This is why his vision for Singapore in 20 years is for it to become a society where people treat each other as equals, regardless of their education or job.

What matters is not which school one went to, or how one did at 18. What should matter is whether everyone has the opportunity to continually improve and upgrade his lot in life, whatever his starting point.

As the country mulls over the kind of society it wants to be, it has to look beyond just raising wages, or what kind of tax policy to have. "It's about changing the way we think about responsibility to society... It's also recognising the role that everyone plays in keeping the society going."

While he has spoken on meritocracy before, this time Mr Tharman sketched out in detail his views in an interview with The Straits Times.

He was responding to a question on what kind of Singapore he hoped for his four children in the next 20 years, when they will be aged between 37 and 42. The question was chosen online by readers of the ST current affairs website Singapolitics as the fifth most popular out of 20 possible questions for him to answer.

"We've had a working meritocracy. It has brought us quite far. It's allowed for a tremendous amount of social mobility in our first 40 years, but I think it has to evolve," he said.

"We've got to be a broader meritocracy recognising different strengths and different individuals, but also a continuous meritocracy where it doesn't matter so much what happened when you're in Sec 4 or JC 2 or when you finish your polytechnic or ITE (course), but what happens after that." It is not just education, he added, but also the way ordinary workers are treated whether in a restaurant or on a bus.

While significant changes to improve this have already been made in the last decade, he said, more is still needed.

"We are a meritocracy that's still a bit too much defined by what happened in your school years or your post-secondary years."

Mr Tharman, a former education minister, observed that the education system has created two groups of students.

One group know their strengths, but are not "sufficiently aware of their weaknesses, and not sufficiently aware of the strengths of others".

The other group have not done as well in school and are "very aware of what they didn't achieve, but not enough of them have discovered their strengths".

There has to be more mixing among people of different backgrounds, he said, and people have to be given opportunities to continually develop their skills and talents, or what he calls mastery.

"That's the only way in which, over time, quietly, without realising it, you recognise the strengths of others and you also know your weaknesses."

Singapore is the way it is, he explained, as a result of a combination of the British and Chinese approaches to education - the British system is "quite an elitist system", while Chinese education culture is "quite test-oriented".

Going forward, as Singaporeans think about the society they want, he hopes they will ask the fundamental question of "how we view fellow Singaporeans".

"Do you view them as equals? Do you do things together? That has to start from a young age and it has to continue through life."