Friday, August 28, 2020

Understanding the four critiques of Singapore’s meritocracy

By Brandon Yip Zhen Yuan

29 April, 2019

Though Singapore’s meritocratic educational system has come under criticism of late, I believe we are often unclear on why Singaporeans are unhappy.

Meritocracy is bascially a system that rewards citizens in proportion to what society perceives as their merit.

Here, I shall distill four distinct criticisms of meritocracy and categorise them into two groups: those that criticise meritocracy from within the meritocratic framework and those from without.

Knowing the differences between these criticisms can hopefully help Singapore society to better discuss how our understanding of the meaning of meritocracy can evolve.

The first critique is what we may call the Socio-economic Inequity critique.

According to this, the educational system unfairly privileges those from higher socio-economic backgrounds.

Those from higher socio-economic backgrounds are being rewarded by the system not because they are genuinely more meritorious than those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, but simply because their parents have been able to provide conducive home environments or purchase tuition.

Those from lower socio-economic backgrounds conversely struggle to progress not because they are lazy or stupid, but because they are systematically disadvantaged.

This criticism, which is aligned with the idea that education should be a social leveller, is clearly an internal critique.

The system, instead of rewarding true merit, is rewarding socio-economic privilege.

The second critique we may call the Narrow Definition of Merit critique.

According to this, the educational system recognises too narrow a definition of merit, namely, academic ability. The ability to pass examinations is one of a range of valuable skills we want to hone and reward, and it is one that is not even particularly useful in the workplace.

The system therefore needs to recognise a wider range of skills, from piano playing to entrepreneurship, and so be sensitive to and reward a range of talents, the critics argue.

Once again, the idea of meritocracy is not challenged, but the critique aims to make the system more sensitive to other kinds of merit.

The third critique we may call the Narrow Definition of Rewards Critique. While the previous criticisms focused on whether the system was picking up the right kinds of merit, this criticism focuses on the kinds of rewards we assign.

Take for instance admission into a small range of elite schools or the award of prestigious scholarships.

This criticism is concerned with the elitism that arises when we privilege a narrow range of rewards.

How radical is the criticism?

I suggest that there are two versions of this, one that fits within the framework of meritocracy and one that will not.

The milder version might advocate that we should no longer see entry into certain elite schools as the mark of achievement. Consider, for example, a scholarship board that believes it should consider applicants from junior colleges as well as polytechnics and the Institute of Technical Education.

The scholarship board still operates within the meritocratic framework because its aim is to find the most meritorious candidate on whom to confer the scholarship.

A more radical version of this critique, however, would find fault even with this scholarship board.

For it would continue to perpetuate the idea that the mark of achievement is entry into an elitist “scholar” class, even as it opens up this class to applicants from various educational streams. Someone who espouses this radical version might insist that society should completely not make out any position or vocation to be a better reward.

But would that still be meritocratic, given that a meritocracy is supposed to produce unequal outcomes based on how much merit a person has?

The final critique we may call the Narrativist Critique.

According to this, the system of meritocracy perpetuates a national narrative that is too simplistic to capture the complexity of our lives and the dominance of this narrative forces citizens to conform to it in a harmful manner.

This national narrative, which is reproduced in the individual stories that Singaporeans tell themselves, is one of surmounting odds through hard work and skill.

Those who succeed are proclaimed as legitimately deserving. What is left implicit is that those at the bottom have failed to be deserving.

But this narrative fails to capture the multifaceted reasons why people may fail to succeed in Singapore’s system.

According to those who advance this critique, the real culprit is the dominance of the system which perpetuates the sense of inferiority among those who are unrewarded.

This critique is radical: it calls not for tweaking meritocracy but for replacing it.


Distinguishing between the four critiques clarifies the kinds of tradeoffs we have to consider in policy making.

This is because certain policies might satisfy one kind of critique but exacerbate problems from another perspective. Let me give two examples.

Firstly, consider the move to de-emphasise academic ability and allow more students to apply for secondary schools through the Direct School Admission scheme on the basis of their other talents.

This may satisfy the Narrow Definition of Merit critics, but may exacerbate problems from the perspective of the Socio-economic Inequity critics.

This is because students who come from lower socio-economic backgrounds may find it even harder to hone their sporting or artistic skills as compared to their well-off peers.

Secondly, consider the suggestion that elite schools should proactively enrol students from lower socio-economic backgrounds. This may satisfy those who are concerned about socio-economic inequity but not those who are concerned with the Narrow Definition of Rewards in our system.

This would legitimise entry into elite schools as a mark of achievement in society, and we would merely be opening up the elite class to a wider range of citizens.

Until we distinguish between the critiques, we cannot have a clear-sighted discussion on the merits of various policies.

More importantly, this categorisation reveals a deep division in the seemingly unanimous chorus decrying the education system.

For a long time, meritocracy has defined Singaporean society without much challenge.

Now, however, there are valid criticisms of meritocracy and even Education Minister Ong Ye Kung has acknowledged this, though he maintains that the system works best for Singapore.

For a while, critics of meritocracy have been primarily pointing out the problems.

The challenge is now upon them to craft a convincing alternative; credible not just to them, but to the large mass of Singaporeans for whom meritocracy remains the only plausible option.


Brandon Yip graduated in 2018 from the National University of Singapore with a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Philosophy. This is adapted from a runner-up entry of an essay competition for NUS students and alumni that is held in conjunction with NUS’ U@live forum on the topic “Education – Still a Social Leveller?” Education Minister Ong Ye Kung was a key panelist at the forum on March 27

[This essay reads very academically; theoretical.]

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