SINGAPORE - While the ongoing debate over social inequality has led to some valid criticism of meritocracy, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung insists that it is still the best model for Singapore.
But the system has to evolve, he said, to tackle new challenges and move away from a narrow focus on past academic merit, to recognise and celebrate a broader range of skills, talents, and strengths.
"It should translate into tangible changes in the way we hire people, admit students to tertiary institutions, grant awards and scholarships, and accord respect to fellow Singaporeans," said Mr Ong.
He was speaking on Oct 24 (Wednesday) at an event by charity EQUAL-ARK to recognise at risk-students whose social skills have improved through experiential learning with horses.
It comes a day after the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development released a report on equity, in which Singapore was found to be one of the most successful countries when it comes to uplifting successive generations through education. It also questioned the concentration of disadvantaged students in certain schools, and noted that they found it tough to achieve as much as their local well-to-do peers, despite outdoing students on the global stage.
Addressing the report, Mr Ong said that meritocracy has helped hundreds of thousands beat the odds - 15 years ago, only half of students from the bottom 20 per cent on the socio-economic scale went on to post-secondary education. Today, 9 in 10 do. Over the same period, the proportion of those from this group who went on to get a publicly-funded degree or diploma has risen from 40 to 50 per cent.
But "what used to work for us is starting to work against us," said Mr Ong. "As families do well, they spare no effort in investing in the abilities of their children, especially when they believe in meritocracy. As a result, children from different family backgrounds are pushing off blocks from different starting lines."
Another headwind is how the proportion of students from lower income families is shrinking.
"Ten years ago, about 20 per cent of our employed households had an income of $3,000 or less... Today, this has gone down to well below 15 per cent. But that also means that the smaller group of families that continue to remain poor and low income are facing more difficult challenges."
Mr Ong stressed the need to recognise this fundamental point - that these challenges have arisen not from meritocracy's failure but from its success. "So let us not discard meritocracy, for I don't think it has finished running its useful course." Meritocracy instead needs to adjust and the approach is to "not cap the top, but do even better in lifting the disadvantaged".
MOE already provides more resources to weaker students. Those in the specialised schools such as NorthLight and Spectra receive around $24,000 in resourcing each. Normal (Technical) stream students get about $20,000, while the rest around $15,000 or less, Mr Ong explained.
Around 6,000 more students from lower income households are able to tap into financial assistance schemes after the income criteria was relaxed in April. And MOE has been investing heavily in kindergartens to help lower-income families access quality early education, he added.
Admitting that the concentrations of disadvantaged and privileged students have intensified in certain schools, Mr Ong said more can be done to counter this "unhealthy trend". One way is to have a better mix of students in every school, he went on, pointing out that from next year's Secondary 1 posting exercise, a fifth of school places will be reserved for students without affiliation.