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Chan Chun Sing contradicting with Lee Kuan Yew’s meritocracy nation?

By Richard Wan

Channel News Asia (CNA) reported on 23 January that the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, Chan Chun Sing, told the St Gallen Symposium Singapore Forum that instead of blindly chasing conventional definitions of success, society must have diverse groups of people and talents [Link].

Singapore must not become a ‘yardstick society’, Mr Chan said.

“Don’t become a yardstick society in which we aimlessly, blindly chase goals regardless of what we’re good at. That’s the saddest thing we can do for ourselves,” he told the audience. “The whole society will then lose resilience because it has become monolithic."

He continued, “This is something I fear for our society - where everyone goes after the same thing, the same yardstick, and we end up in what sociologists call a ‘prisoner’s dilemma’. That’s what scares me."

Actually, Mr Chan does not need to be scared. The idea of the so-called ‘yardstick society’ was widely supported and advanced by his predecessor, the former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

In particular, during the 1984 General Election, Mr Lee publicly compared the ‘O’ Level results of his candidate from People's Action Party (PAP), Mah Bow Tan and that of opposition candidate Chiam See Tong. He told Singaporeans, “Mah Bow Tan, age 16, took his ‘O’ Levels – six distinctions, two credits. Mr Chiam, age 18 – six credits, one pass.”

The residents of Potong Pasir decided to choose Chiam over Mah, who was a President Scholar, despite Chiam's poorer 'O' Level results. Chiam won 60.28% of the votes, compared to Mah’s 39.72% in that GE.

But still, Mr Lee obviously thought that a person with many distinctions in his examination results would make a better politician and even minister (Mah went on to become a minister in parliament after elected through a GRC consituency). Mr Chan himself is also another scholar able to score multiple distinctions in examinations and was selected by the PAP to join politics.

He was one of the top four scorers from Raffles Junior College, with six distinctions, including a distinction for Mathematics S-Paper and a merit for the Economics S-Paper. In 1988, Mr Chan was awarded a President's Scholarship and SAF Overseas Scholarship. He even obtained the Lee Kuan Yew Scholarship to study at the MIT Sloan School of Management later in his career. Obviously, Mr Chan himself can also be seen as a beneficiary of the ‘yardstick society’, as supported by our founding PM Lee Kuan Yew.

Now that Mr Chan is saying Singapore must not become a ‘yardstick society’, is he contradicting what was advocated by our founding PM?

What do you think?

Editor's note - Singapore's population has long been drilled with the ideology of meritocracy based on one's academic results and one's professional qualifications through the words of media, education system and our esteemed political leaders.It may be hard for Singapore to steer away from being a "yardstick society" in accordance with Mr Chan's suggestion. Society embraces the idea that good academic results equates to good job, job security, and good pay. This is evident in the wage differentials among people of different academic qualifications, and reflected in the national statistics. Even beyond academic results, there are performance metrics like Key Performance Indexes (KIPs) that shape incentives in the public service, corporate sector, and even ministerial bonuses, which are effectively yardsticks.