I read an insightful and thought-provoking article written by Yann Wong on board a flight. Perhaps because of the hours of enforced solitude (i.e. without the distractions of mobile phones, TVs and various other forms of distraction), I was able to think about what it was in the article that resonated with me.
Perhaps, it is the idea that Singapore has somehow created a system of meritocracy that in reality creates ivory towers and division. But in the same vein, we are so trapped in that system because we have been conditioned to be so entrenched in the system that we have lost the ability to critically analyse it. Are we too close to the picture to really appreciate the full picture? Or, are we too proud to recognise the fragilities of our system? Maybe, in our stellar rise from third world to first, we have allowed hubris to become greater than logic?
When Singapore began its meteoric rise from former British colony to an economic power house, the world was a very different place. At that time, we were in an age where the "knowledge" workers were required and in scarce supply. Few could afford an education and were stuck in a cycle of blue collar work. So began an education system that churned out "professionals" to serve this need. The thing about knowledge acquired to serve a purpose is that it can be learned - it does not require supreme critical thinking or in fact much thinking outside the box. It was about "programming" an individual with the right skills to do a high level job. By high level, I don't mean inventing a cure for cancer. I just mean a desk bound job that is not blue collar work.
With this type of education system, we have, fast forward 50 years, created a scenario whereby we no longer understand why it is that we have to learn something - just that it is in the syllabus and we need it to get good grades which then leads to a piece of paper we call "qualification". I am certainly guilty of this. I did well in exams but honestly, can I remember much of what I studied? The brutal truth is a resounding no. This begs the question - were the hours of stress and endless sleepless nights of cramming worth it after all? I performed well in school but now on hindsight, it was without much understanding. I simply studied enough to get A1 – that is very different from having a thorough understanding of the subject matter. I sometimes wonder if the teachers themselves had a full understanding of the knowledge they were supposed to impart to us.
I would have thought that the hallmarks of a good education were understanding and retention of that understanding. In this, I do not really think we have succeeded. Somewhere along the line, we have lost the plot.
I am not knocking the rationales for why the earlier models of education were conceived in this way – it was meant in large part to be an equaliser. By providing everyone with the same education, we were able to give everyone the same opportunities to become equipped with the qualifications required in the knowledge economy. Where an education was once only in the domain of those who could afford it (which in turn led to lesser choice of workers with the right knowledge) because, let's face it -not all who could afford a fancy education were necessarily the ones with the right aptitude.
But a byproduct of that social equaliser is at this point just another form of elitism. Aren't those that do well under the system (bar a few) those who have good family support and higher social economic status?
Talking to a few of my friends who are teachers, this would appear to be the case. Students from more well to do families have the luxury of an army of tuition teachers to bash the required knowledge into their heads to excel. They have quiet spaces at home to study, helpers to prepare nutritious meals at pre-set times to ensure that they don’t have to worry about lifting a finger apart from flipping the pages of their textbooks.
Poorer students don’t have any of these support systems and because of our relentless streaming systems, we tend to only have sight of those who are like us - completely losing sight of this segment of society altogether. There we have it – an equaliser that now divides and separates. Is the current system as is still an equaliser? Or does it perpetuate the system of elitism and ivory towers?
Because we value this paper qualification so much, we tend to use this as the sole gauge for everything from army officers to politicians without thinking about other more important and relevant factors such as understanding, maturity, sensitivity, passion or even common sense! Could this be why deaths in national service are more commonplace than necessary? Are we promoting the right people to become officers? Are our politicians the most effective in terms of understanding the needs of the people?
We need to think about this long and hard. Nothing is ever static. In my layman view, perhaps we need a bigger overhaul in the education system than just tweaks. We cannot be blindly loyal to a system that may no longer serve the needs of the information age where creativity, thinking outside the box, imagination, enthusiasm and a healthy dose of common sense practicality are needed.
Besides, does the system that was set up to create a society based on merit still deliver meritocracy?
In the way that it now ruthlessly discriminates (unwitting or otherwise) against those who do not have the resources for additional support and the way it divides the "haves" from the "have nots" such that the "haves" are blind to the existence of the "have nots" does not bode well for the future of a society which was built on the premises of meritocracy. The creation of the "meritocracy aristocracy" can only lead to instability in the long term.