While Singapore's meritocracy has worked well so far, the risk of it becoming increasingly narrow and rigid is real. It needs to be refined and enhanced to offer Singaporeans hope and opportunity, said Singapore's central bank chief yesterday.
Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) managing director Ravi Menon was speaking on the topic "An Inspiring Nation" at the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.
It was the last of four lectures he is giving in his capacity as IPS' ninth S R Nathan Fellow. The fellowship advances research on public policy and governance.
Mr Menon said while there is no better alternative to democracy, meritocracy and the market, they can lead to excesses that are socially harmful if left completely unfettered. What is needed is to continually refine and temper them.
He cited three ways to achieve a more enlightened meritocracy: broadening it to recognise a more diverse set of human talents and skills; making it inclusive to blunt some of its sharp edges; and exercising compassion, recognising the roles society and fortune play in an individual's success.
Meritocracy must go beyond schools to the workplace, he said. "(There) is little point to have a school system that recognises different areas of strength but the workplace does not reward them equitably." He noted that in many businesses here, there is still too much emphasis on educational qualifications and interviews in hiring, even though a six-month internship can tell far more about a candidate.
He described five values-based attributes that could make Singapore an inspiring nation to Singaporeans as well as others: a meritocracy of hope, a beacon for diversity, a city of giving, a heart for the environment, and what he called "a thousand points of light".
He said Singapore is seeing greater diversity across multiple fronts. The reason behind many disagreements, he added, is that people's lived reality is not in accord with statistical facts. For example, Singaporeans frequently express concerns about job security or discriminatory hiring. But net jobs for locals increased during the first quarter of this year, and there were 68,000 vacancies remaining at the end of the quarter.
Yet for those who have lost jobs, or seen a less qualified foreigner being employed in place of a local, that is their lived reality. This is where empathy is needed, he said.
"There is some discriminatory hiring; let us stamp it out. There have been fake certificates presented by some employment pass holders; let us send them back.
"But let us not overgeneralise. Let us also acknowledge that many foreigners who come here to work are highly qualified, passionate about their work, and decent people."
As one of the largest offshore wealth management centres in the world, Singapore can serve as a hub for philanthropic giving, he said.
Noting that Singapore has more than 400 single family offices, he said being a philanthropy hub will encourage the development of related advisory capabilities and good jobs for Singaporeans.
Such offices are set up by a family to manage their wealth and oversee things such as philanthropic activities and business operations.
Innovative methods can be applied to enhance philanthropy, too. For example, donors have moved away from direct giving to exploring innovative ways to deliver the greatest impact, such as donor-advised funds and contributing through third-party foundations.
He quoted what the late US president George H.W. Bush said at his inaugural address: "I have spoken of a thousand points of light, of all the community organisations that are spread like stars throughout the nation, doing good."
Singapore, too, must have a thousand points of light, Mr Menon said, adding that Singaporeans depend too much on the Government to solve their problems. "Good government is Singapore's greatest strength; it is also our greatest vulnerability, for it is a single point of failure. With all the complexities and challenges ahead, Singapore needs a much stronger ecosystem, multiple sources of strength."
He noted that the Government is trying to be less directive and more collaborative, and in the interim there could be more public debate and messiness. This is something Singapore must be able to handle, he said. "Messiness and uncertainty are par for the course in the world of innovation... It is the sign of a maturing society and the basis for a more durable nation."
But the Government alone cannot create an innovative economy or inclusive society. During the question-and-answer session after his lecture, he said a social compact should also form among the people.
And the way to cultivate desired values in society is through practice, he added. Citing the Greek philosopher Aristotle, he said: "We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts."