Wednesday, 4 October 2023

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Meritocracy: Romantic idea, poor application

By: Jeraldine Phneah

The deficiency of the Singapore education system in ensuring and realizing meritocracy.

“We discover, regardless of which society, that in the long run, the rich will marry the rich and their children will have more opportunities. And those who are not rich will form another type of social condition. And that is, those who are not rich and do not have many opportunities will stick together.In the long run, if this situation doesn’t change, it will polarize the whole society…. Therefore our aim is to give more opportunities to Singaporeans. Regardless whether you come from a rich or poor family, the moment you start school, we hope that everyone starts from the same starting point. No one will be far behind others.” – Chan Chun Sing, Acting Minister for Social and Family Development and Senior Minister of State for Defence


When the concept of “Meritocracy” is taught in national education in Singapore, it is associated with only positive connotations – equality, equity, fairness. Indeed, democracy is a good progression.  As I grew out of my young-and-impressionable phase, I slowly started to notice the limitations of meritocracy and how policies which support it, despite its good intentions, cannot help Singapore achieve social mobility fully.

Instead, the poor application of this ideology can paradoxically undermine equality of opportunity and form a class of ‘entrenched elite’ which is the phenomenon Chan described above.

The Singapore government and Ministry of Education have done a good job in giving the poor a chance to progress but the question is, how can we increase their progression? How do we ensure the huge advantage that the privileged children have over the disadvantaged is minimized?

Achieving an entirely level starting line will never be possible due to human nature and the realities of this world but I believe policies should be implemented to ensure that we minimize this gap.

 The advantage privileged children have

Privileged Children with parents who are university graduates or who have more financial means tend to excel better than those the disadvantaged ones don’t.

In 2010, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew shared some glaring statistics. More than half of students studying in top schools like Raffles Institution, Anglo-Chinese School (Independent) and Nanyang Girls’ High had fathers who were degree holders.

In contrast, the percentage at Chai Chee Secondary School, a neighbourhood school, was only 13.1 percent and this was the highest percentage amongst four schools where data was obtained. I noticed the same trend when I compared my peers in Victoria Junior College to my friends in the Normal Academic and Normal Technical streams in Fairfield Methodist School.

Singapore’s GINI coefficient has progressively risen from 0.425 in 2000 to 0.446 in 2010. In a Straits Times survey, 83 percent of 400 respondents agreed that the income gap affects social mobility. Even Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had noticed that “fewer children from lower-income families are rising to the top of the heap”.

The reason for this startling statistics, according to former Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew was that privileged children had a “more favourable learning environment at home” shaped by better-educated parents.

Better-educated parents are more supportive generally because they know what is important. They have been though university, have friends who teach there and are more updated with the latest trends on what is needed to excel. A simple example would be that educated parents tend to see enrichment as necessary for growth or an advantage, while the less educated parents may see it as a ‘waste of money’. I’ve had friends who could not go on overseas programs because of lame reasons like ‘safety’, ‘waste money’ and they could only watch as their more well-to-do peers had something prestigious and new to add to their portfolio.

Besides which, richer parents also have a higher amount of disposable income. This can be used to “buy a qualification” for their child or channel these resources into their children’s education and development – enrolling in tuition, paying for premium co-curricular activities (CCA) and enrichment courses.

Some educational policies such as Direct School Admission based on special skills like sports and arts may favour richer children as well. More educated parents would usually have the sense and financial means to develop their kid in a particular sport or art/music i.e. piano, violin, giving them a distinct advantage even if they do not do well academically.

Right from the beginning, entry to primary schools are already heavily advantageous towards richer children. Better primary schools are usually located in richer districts. The proximity of one’s home to a primary school is a major factor in admission. ACS primary is located in Novena/Newton., RGS is in Bukit Timah, Tao Nan is in Marine Parade and Nanyang Primary school is located near Botanic Gardens. Many of these “high class” primary schools are also affiliated to good secondary ones.

Another factor for admission is whether or not the parents or siblings are alumni, again, this favours parents who have higher education.

Primary school is a critical period for growth and development and even more so, with the new IP program where PSLE literally decides your next 6 years. With our current system, we are not protecting the interests of the disadvantaged.

Having had a good start, many of these young children move on to independent/ autonomous or prestigious institutions which are a hinterland of opportunities. For good schools, the management will fight hard to present opportunities to their students for them to have outstanding portfolios and records.

They will also find it easier to do so, being better equipped with the expertise and support – for example, top science and research agencies will willingly collaborate with these schools and their bright children. In VJC, we have the Victoria Science Research Talent Programme and H3 NUS-A*STAR-VJC Science Research which will look very good in CV. RI also has this Gap Semester which gives student adequate time to use on projects which could build up their portfolio. There are numerous other examples but can we say that the same opportunities have been extended to other schools?

Would competitive university courses and scholarships admission committees take into consideration that whether a candidate, given the opportunities presented by the limits and constraints of his school, make him a more deserving candidate (especially if he goes to create and find his own opportunities), versus another who simply has to study hard and then select out of the plethora of choices laid in front of him by his school?

Such limitations inhibit many lower-income students from being able to excel to their fullest potential and gain access to prestigious opportunities.

In an attempt to prove that the not so well off are given the same opportunities as those who are, the Public Service Commission disclosed that for the 2008 batch of PSC scholars, 47% live in HDB flats and 53% live in private housing. Though the percentages seem somewhat equal, one has to consider that nearly 80% of Singaporeans live in HDB flats. So, if you think about it this statistics only shows that PSC scholarships still go to affluent candidates in a much larger proportion.

Singapore is starting to look a bit like Micheal Young’s nightmare vision in “The Rise of the Meritocracy” (1958). The new ‘aristocracy’ are the rich/educated elite whose members marry one another and spend their money wisely on enrichment that would give their kids an advantage in education. These children are then sent to special schools and showered with resources.

 Looking Ahead

Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam admitted as much in his Budget speech “To sustain social mobility, meritocracy alone is inadequate. We want to give the best leg up to those who start with a disadvantage.” He suggested some new measures, mostly about giving more money in the recent Budget 2013.

Through his new initiatives, he hopes to help students with a disadvantage to “catch up and better build a foundation to do well later in life”.

However, this issue cannot be simply solved by putting money into this and that funds or programs. It does not cure the root of the problem. Just like the whole babies policy thing. The root of the problem is the rising living expenses and attitudes of young people, a $200 increase in baby bonus will not be effective at all because the cost people are concerned about is not the cost of giving birth to one but raising a child for life.

How about solutions targeted at parents’ attitudes? More resources for government schools to have talent programs and enrichment? Adjusting the Primary school admissions policies? How about regulating private tuition? It creates a loss for the economy due to under-declared income taxes and just perpetuates this inequality problem by giving richer students more advantage. It is neither efficient nor equitable.

I hope the government can find more solutions to level the starting line. When this is done through more equalized access to education opportunities, there should be no contention that the successful should be rewarded for their efforts.

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