SINGAPORE - Meritocracy in Singapore is a constant work in progress and care should be taken to avoid possible downsides, said Education Minister Chan Chun Sing.
This means keeping the definition of meritocracy broad instead of appreciating talent in a one-dimensional way, he said. It also means ensuring that meritocracy is continuous, rather than having "one high-stakes exam... define anyone for life".
In an address to a virtual audience of about 6,000 educators at the opening of the Education Ministry's Teachers' Conference and ExCEL Fest on Wednesday (June 2), Mr Chan said: "People develop different strengths at different stages of life.
"We must keep enabling porosity and look out for opportunities to allow different talents to develop at different paces. Even the successful must never be complacent."
He added that those who are more privileged have a responsibility to pay it forward to those with less in order for Singapore to be more inclusive.
ExCEL Fest is a three-day virtual event that aims to connect teachers with the latest trends in their field, and showcases award-winning innovations by schools.
In his speech, Mr Chan impressed upon teachers the importance of values that will anchor future generations as they navigate a complex world.
Meritocracy is one such value, he said. But it is also important for Singaporeans to be open and inclusive, as well as a trusted and principled people.
It is difficult for a nation of under four million citizens to always have the best ideas, Mr Chan said. But it will have a chance to remain at the cutting edge, should it remain open and connected to the world. "Being connected to the world is not an option, but a strategy for our survival," he added.
He also noted that Singapore's reputation for being incorruptible, principled and honest gives multinational companies a reason to invest here, and explains why significant international events are held here.
"This is a hard-won reputation. But it is also a reputation that can be easily lost," Mr Chan said. "It takes all of us to build and sustain this reputation."
He also shared a personal anecdote about how a teacher had once helped to instil confidence in him when he was a boy who could not read anything beyond picture books for children.
Growing up in a non-English-speaking household with limited resources, Mr Chan was overwhelmed when a teacher asked him to pick a thick book from the school library and take it home to read, he said.
That teacher - Miss Low of MacPherson Primary School - encouraged him to persevere, "imagining that he could finish each page like a picture book that he used to read". After he finished the book, Miss Low asked him to be a school librarian.
The move boosted his confidence and piqued his curiosity - a factor which, along with discipline, forms part of the foundation for all competencies, he said.
"Curiosity, once ignited, will propel a child to learn," Mr Chan said. "Discipline, once ingrained, will enable a child to pursue, master and perfect whatever he or she desires to learn."
He thanked his virtual audience for being the "Miss Lows" in their students' lives.
The minister also spoke on keeping the education system running in a sustainable manner despite the threat posed by Covid-19.
Doing so may require faster and more pervasive testing and isolation capabilities in order to ring-fence affected parts of the system while allowing the rest to operate as normally as possible, he said.
It will also require students and educators to toggle among different modes of learning and teaching as circumstances dictate.
"Blended learning is not an optional 'good-to-have'," Mr Chan said. "Blended learning is now an opportunity we need to seize, to teach our people to adapt flexibly amidst uncertainties."
The pandemic has underlined the sector's professional resilience, added director-general of education Wong Siew Hoong, commending teachers for their "nimbleness and adaptability" in responding to the situation.
"We stepped out of our comfort zones, we harnessed technology to ensure the continuity of learning for our students," he said. "Despite challenges from time to time, we persevered and often sought out new and better ways of doing things."
This included becoming familiar with various online platforms, Mr Wong added. "Nothing is impossible for us."