Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Meritocracy is under siege. Here are three ways Singapore can overcome its limitations

By Ong Ye Kung

29 July, 2019

While meritocracy is under siege and faith in it is weakening across the globe, it has not failed and will remain a key principle for recognising individuals, said Education Minister Ong Ye Kung at the 2019 Raffles Institution (RI) Founder’s Day on Saturday (July 27). Below is an excerpt of his speech, in which Mr Ong also offered three suggestions on how Singapore can overcome the limitations of meritocracy.

This year’s Founder’s Day is special and coincides with Singapore’s Bicentennial commemoration. Sir Stamford Raffles’ declaration of Singapore as a free port changed the fate of our country.

The British left behind important institutions from which Singapore could build upon — the civil service, the rule of law, an education system, in which Raffles Institution, or RI, is a shining gem.

As the school grew over the decades, it admitted bright local students from all backgrounds, and with a good education, they went on to have successful careers and contribute to society.

RI graduates have gone on to become successful “thinkers, leaders, and pioneers” in many fields, in becoming professionals, entrepreneurs, senior executives, and artists, amongst others. They run companies and lead our nation.

In many ways, the development of RI is a reflection of Singapore’s development. Hence, the values which RI stood for are also those cherished by Singapore society — two very prominent ones come to mind: excellence and meritocracy.

Meritocracy, however, is under siege. All around the world, faith in meritocracy is weakening, as people start to see its outcomes as somewhat unjust.

Parents who succeeded under the system spared no effort or resources to invest in their children and ensure that their children do well in education, while poorer parents cannot afford to do the same.

Children with the same inherent abilities may therefore end up with different outcomes. Left on its own, success and privilege become encrusted at the top, and over time, this morphs into class stratification.

As the originator of the term “meritocracy” Michael Young wrote in a commentary in 2001, and I quote: “It is good sense to appoint individual people to jobs on their merit. It is the opposite when those who are judged to have merit of a particular kind harden into a new social class, without room in it for others.”

Today, I will argue that meritocracy has not failed us, and will remain a key principle for recognising individuals. Because even those who rail against meritocracy struggle to come up with a better system.

[And I would agree that "meritocracy has not failed us". Past tense. I would hesitate to accept that meritocracy has a future or has a future in its current form, or has a future without some extra-system ameliorative adjustments.]

Would we prefer a birth right system? Or nepotism? Or a system that ensures equal outcomes like communism? Or perhaps resort to lotteries for all appointments and promotions?

[Oh yes, throw up some straw men.]

Universities in the United States have adopted policies such as affirmative action on and off since the 1960s, but this has not stopped the more affluent from finding ways to still emerge winners.

It boils down to the fact that meritocracy may not be a perfect system. It is not, but it is the still the best system we know. However, this does not mean that we cannot do anything to improve it.

[Agree. I mean, if you are wedded to the term "meritocracy" sure. Let's go with that.]

The impetus is on us — not just the Government, but all of us — to overcome the limitations of meritocracy, and consciously fight against the ossification of social classes. And I would like to present to you three suggestions today that can contribute to this effort.


First, we need to recognise that we are in a different phase of development. Meritocracy, even when remaining the same in spirit, will look different at the outset. We need to adjust our perspective with the times.

Let me give you an illustration. For the cohort of students that entered Primary 1 in 2000, around 8 per cent of students who lived in one- or two-room flats successfully enrolled into local university courses. If we compare that with the cohort 15 years ago, or those who entered Primary 1 in 1985, the number was higher, at around 11 per cent.

Many of us may conclude — “A drop of three percentage points! No wonder there are not so many students from one- or two-room flats in universities nowadays. Social mobility has slowed, inequality has worsened, meritocracy has failed!” That’s how most of us will react.

But our perspective will change once we realise that amongst the 1985 cohort, about a fifth, or 20 per cent, lived in one- or two-room flats.

For the 2000 cohort, this figure has fallen to 1.4 per cent, a 13-fold reduction. Life has improved, and they have moved out of their one- or two-room flats.

Far fewer students living in one- or two-room room flats are in universities now, not because meritocracy has failed, but because there are simply fewer students living in one- or two-room flats to start. In other words, meritocracy has succeeded in moving them out of poverty.

That is what I call the paradox of achievement. The more we lift people out of poverty, the more we feel that inequality has worsened.

[I think in this case, your metric is suspect. Instead of using 1 and 2 rm flats as a proxy for low income, how about using the P20 or the lowest 20th percentile household income or per capita household income as a self-adjusting measure? No matter how much you lift people out of poverty, there will always be the "relative poor" or the bottom 20 percent. Maybe if you did that you will find your paradox is based on a metric stuck in time.]

In a similar vein, while the profile of RI students is somewhat skewed towards the higher income, it is not excessively distorted either. Today, over half of RI students live in public housing.

[When 90% of Singaporeans live in public housing, the more interesting question is, what is the percentage of RI students living in PRIVATE Housing? You see the glass as more than half full, I see the glass as almost half full of "cream".]

I believe society is reasonable, and will calibrate its expectations of meritocracy, provided it is kept informed of how the larger environment and profile of our population has changed and evolved.

[Well, that's your job isn't it? And that's what this speech is trying to do right? To "calibrate" society's expectations of meritocracy.]


Second, we need to broaden the definition of merit. There is validity in the criticism that the current definition is too narrowly focused on academic achievement. We have placed too much emphasis on IQ and being exam-smart, at the expense of EQ and being street-smart.

But broadening meritocracy does not mean lowering of standards. We still take pride in working hard, excelling, and maintaining high standards in everything we do. That is what accords Singapore and Singaporeans the good reputation we enjoy internationally.

What we want to ensure is that standards for something as complex as human capability and potential are not measured with one single ruler — academic excellence — there must be other rulers and other yardsticks.

That is why we are making comprehensive adjustments throughout the entire education system — from the Primary School Leaving Examination scoring system, the basis for Direct School Admission, and admission to polytechnics and universities.

When we talk about the SkillsFuture movement, it is much more than just training programmes. Underlying it is the principle of valuing people of different aptitudes and strengths, and recognising diverse talents.

It is an approach already used in many industries and companies. Many start-ups and technology companies mostly recruit based on skills, not academic results. Artificial Intelligence will in time help employers sieve out applicants with the right skills, which will make sorting solely by academic grades outdated and ineffective.

When I speak to chief executives, almost everyone agrees that they have to hire based on skills and not just academic grades, so I think the impediments to better hiring policies today are largely operational in nature, and will be overcome with time.

Third suggestion, we must all put in a strong effort to actively reach out and provide greater support to students from humbler backgrounds,

[Ah! Here is the TRUE paradox of achievement. If (over-emphasis/over-dependence on) Meritocracy has not worsened inequality, why is there this need to ACTIVELY REACH OUT... TO STUDENTS OF HUMBLER BACKGROUNDS? After all, more than half of RI students are from public housing, right? This is intellectually dishonest.]

A few months ago, the Ministry of Education introduced the Uplift Scholarship for Independent Schools to help students from lower-income families.

Beyond covering expenses such as school fees, text books, school meals, it also provides out-of-pocket expenses, which the student can use for various enrichment programmes, co-curricular activities' equipment, student-initiated projects, etc.

This removes affordability as an impediment for students from lower-income families to attend Independent Schools. As of June 15 this year, we have awarded a total of 399 Uplift scholarships.

[Great! Out of how many students from how many independent schools? Oh? We are just supposed to clap for 399 students helped? We should not care about how many were NOT helped? I am sure, if the success of applicants were 100% or close to it, you would be highlighting those figures. The fact that you just gave a bald figure without context, gives me grave suspicions.]

Let me conclude. As an institute for learning, what RI stood for and continues to stand for is not just relevant to education, but to society. Striving for excellence and meritocracy are values and principles which our society holds dear, and were critical at a time when we were poor, when our nation had yet to be formed, and when societal cohesion was weak.

Today, as we embark on a new phase of nation building, new challenges and imperatives have come to the fore. Sometimes, old principles get questioned, and uncertainties and self-doubt can creep in, as is happening in many societies around the world today.

But I do not believe that our past principles have become obsolete or irrelevant.

If we understand how inequality is part of the consequence of our success in improving lives, ensure a broad recognition of different talents, and do our utmost to uplift weaker members of our society — we can continue to reward and recognise excellence, while being compassionate and inclusive.

This will not happen automatically, and it will require all of us — the Government, schools, employers, individuals, parents and students — to play our part.

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