Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Indranee Rajah said that the issues of inequality and social mobility in Singapore is not attributed to meritocracy as she laid out the methods taken by the 4G leaders to curb such challenges.
Ms Indranee, who is also Second Minister for Finance and Education, said that although Singapore has indeed worked “very hard” to offer equal opportunities, people from the lower-income and disadvantaged background can find it hard to gain access to these opportunities.
She made these remarks while speaking at a conference organised by the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Service Research Centre. In her speech, she questioned the “common call” to reconsider the idea of meritocracy as the government addresses the issue.
“If that means that we should do away with letting people advance on merit, that we should abolish the principle of choosing the person best able and best equipped to do the job, then the answer is no, that cannot be the right approach,” she noted.
This is because individuals who can attain more should not also be held back in an attempt to equalise outcomes, she explained.
“Which parent doesn’t want their child to be the best they can be? Students too have their own aspirations. Each new generation will want to reach for the greatest possible achievement for themselves. It would not be right to hold them back,” she stressed.
Benefits of meritocracy
In order to justify the positive features of meritocracy, Ms Indranee emphasised a few statistics that showed good progress in creating equal society, along with heavy investments in education and people, as well as policies aimed at economic development, income growth, job creation and affordable quality healthcare for all.
She said that in 1980, more than 45% of Primary 1 cohort did not finish secondary education, but today the number is less than 1%.
If that is not all, more than 90% of local youths enrolled to the Institutes of Higher Education today compared to less than 60% in 1980.
“The cumulative effect of these policies was to generate a rising tide that lifted all boats. The early generations saw significant improvements within their lifetimes and were able to give their children a better life than what they experienced,” the politician said.
However, economic progress has also led to different levels of resources – creating low, middle and higher-income families. The changes in country’s economic structure have also widened the differences in wage, she added.
“Some of these changes have had the effect of worsening wage dispersion, threatening to deepen the divide between higher-skilled and lower-skilled workers.”
She added, “”A slower pace of economic growth directly translates into how much progress each new generation is likely to see,” she said, noting that it could also cause stagnation for-lower skilled workers who are unable to adapt.
4G approach to curb the problem
Speaking of how the 4G leadership plans to tackle the issue, Ms Indranee pointed out that more support will be given to lift the bottom of society, citing assistance in categories like housing, education, health and employment.
“To improve access to the opportunities among the less advantaged and make the most of the opportunities on offer, to bridge the shortfalls and narrow the gap so that all can rise together – an enabling meritocracy if you will,” she explained.
She also said in order to help the lower-income and disadvantaged families, players like social service agencies, individuals and communities as a whole have to work with families to pin down factors that led them to their situations, which are “myriad and complex”.
“They range from unemployment, financial difficulties, poor health, disability, family problems, among others. Often these problems are beyond the families’ control. Their circumstances can be overwhelming, and sometimes, it is difficult for them to even reach out for help,” she explained.
As such, to help such families, she said that the work of Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Social and Family Development converge.
She referred to “Uplifting Pupils in Life and Inspiring Families Taskforce” (UPLIFT) created by the MOE to look at issues and problems encountered by underperforming students from disadvantaged families, understand what exactly prevents them from performing better, identify gaps and devise practical solutions as a way to help these students.
In addition, MOE is also looking to expand partnership between citizen volunteers and schools, she noted.
“When the community is involved, it works two ways: it strengthens the ecosystem of care and support for disadvantaged students and at the same time, offers people an avenue to give back,” she explained.
However, if the government fails with their approach, Ms Indranee said, “If we fail – if widening income inequalities result in rigid and stratified social system, with each class ignoring the others or pursuing its interest at the expense of others – our politics will turn vicious, our society will fracture and our nation will wither. This is not just the task of government. It is the task of everyone because it affects all of us.”
Over on TODAY’s Facebook page, netizens highlighted their disagreement with the government’s approach and their idea that meritocracy is not to be blamed for inequality and social mobility in Singapore. They pointed out that Singapore’s meritocracy is “tainted” because only those with good connections will be accelerated faster and reach higher in life, as opposed to those without connections. One online user added that “people from poor background must put in more effort to equalize with people with better background”.
Kum Weng Mak said that the “blind belief of meritocracy is intrinsic to the perpetuation of inequality”. He added that meritocracy enables but only for the “upper-class to fix the rules of the game”. On the other hand, Ho Victor said that it “ironic” for Ms Indranee to talk about meritocracy, given that only her fellow colleagues are “parachuted into position of power and wealth”.
A large group of online users said that the government only talks and shows no action. They said that the government is “talking in rings” and using “jargons”, without actually solving the problem.