In his speech at the Budget 2023 debate on 23 February, Mr Leon Perera, Workers’ Party Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC, focused on the question of “what kind of meritocracy do we want in Singapore?”
He suggested that while meritocracy has its merits, there is more that can be done to promote equality of opportunity and social mobility.
Mr Perera pointed to a book by Harvard Political Philosophy Professor Michael Sandel entitled The Tyranny of Merit, which he recommended to all members present. While not agreeing with all the arguments made in the book, Mr Perera believed that the current state of meritocracy in the US is used as a tool to justify inequality and condescension towards those without university degrees.
He suggested that this was an unfair game, where certain individuals have advantages such as genetic endowments, social capital, parental guidance, and resources that others lack. He believed that a focus on vocational and trades jobs was necessary to balance out the advantages now conferred by a university degree.
Mr Perera acknowledged that it is important to ensure a more level playing field and social mobility but argued that this alone does not justify the vast and ever-increasing gaps in income, economic security, and social respect between those who do well in the academic and job arenas and those who don’t. He proposed a meritocracy that strives for both equality of opportunity and social mobility, while also ensuring a decent standard of living and societal respect for those who are less successful in conventional terms.
“There is a strong case for raising floor levels of living standards and dignity for those who have skills that are less marketable, but doing so in ways that are economically sustainable, like retraining and so on. We should reject the notion of a natural aristocracy of merit where the more successful behave like aristocrats did in feudal societies.”
Mr Perera also highlighted the issue of inequality in Singapore society, particularly among the younger age groups. He cited a survey by OPPI that showed that while Singaporeans overwhelmingly believed in meritocracy, younger Singaporeans, especially those aged between 18 and 25, have a lower belief that Singapore society is equal and fair compared to the older age groups.
He explained that many younger Singaporeans are struggling to live a holistically meaningful and purposeful life due to the intense competitiveness in Singapore, both at work and in academia, coupled with the high cost of living and housing.
In addressing the need for a new kind of meritocracy in Singapore, Mr Perera acknowledged that jobs should go to people with the best ability, but he questioned whether gaps in income and economic security need to be so large to achieve a high-productivity, innovative economy.
He pointed to countries like Sweden and Denmark that generate entrepreneurism and economic dynamism with smaller gaps. He argued that a meritocracy that promotes social mobility and reduces income inequality, while ensuring economic sustainability, is necessary.
He stated, “To be sure, meritocracy has its merits. Jobs should go to people with the best ability. Ours should not be a society where we punish those who can invent, lead, create, take responsible risks, inspire others, even as we strive to uplift the least advantaged. We need a high-productivity, innovative economy to grow the pie. If we fail in this, the poor will be hardest hit.”
Policies to improve wages, skills and productivity in trades jobs
On employment of Singaporeans, Mr Perera called for a concerted policy effort to improve wages, skills, productivity, and working conditions in trades jobs like carpentry, plumbing, air-conditioner repair, forklift and crane operators, and other skilled artisanal or craft jobs.
“We need this so that the Singapore core can be attracted back to these jobs since anecdotally it would appear that there are few younger Singaporeans entering such trades,” Mr Perera said.
He added that some of the blue-collar jobs, such as prime mover driver, offer decent pay but seem to be attracting few young Singaporeans. According to a recent Channel News Asia article, some in the haulage industry estimate the average age of prime mover drivers to be 55, with younger drivers accounting for 5-10% of the workforce or less.
To address this, Mr Perera suggested developing job redesign and career laddering plans for these trades jobs in conjunction with industry chambers and stakeholders. “We should nudge a move towards more training and productivity for such jobs, which would enable better pay and conditions,” he said.
Mr Perera also called for the fast-tracking of foreign work pass holders who are very skilled and experienced in trades jobs to become Singapore citizens, to enhance the Singapore core in those jobs. Once it is clear that a critical mass of Singaporeans have been attracted to these jobs, he suggested gradually reducing the supply of foreign work passes in these professions at a calibrated pace that businesses can adapt to.
Regarding economic development efforts, Mr Perera suggested nudging foreign investors and local firms to hire some Singaporeans with lesser educational credentials and retrain them in skills that are adjacent to the skills they have but are more future-proof and enable them to operate at a higher level of productivity.
On the subject of productivity, Mr Perera asked whether the National Productivity Fund’s (NPF) goals, strategies, KPIs, and investment activity are made easily available online for transparency. He also asked what the KPIs for how the fund is used are and whether the NPF funding gives sufficient focus to non-tradeable, domestic sectors where Singapore’s productivity problem is perhaps the worst.
Mr Perera suggested working with TACs to benchmark more productive countries in non-tradeable, domestic sectors and then using schemes such as NPF funding to nudge Singapore’s SMEs in particular to implement more productive business processes and technologies.
In addition, he proposed a Skillsfuture education loan to help fund Continuing Education and Training (CET) for adults who cannot competitively secure scholarships and places in retraining programs like PCP, the supply of which is still limited. Access to such loans could be made more readily available than the supply of special Skillsfuture grants, but weighted towards those with lower incomes and towards CET programs that support retraining towards sunrise industries, like high-tech farming, for example.
Mr Perera also urged the government to consider lowering form class sizes and to publish randomised controlled trials on the benefits of smaller classes on learning outcomes in general and for those less advantaged students in particular.
Measures to address inequality
Lastly, he called for social service agencies to provide more generous levels of aid to poor families in such a way as to encourage positive behaviours that will help them improve economically and break the poverty cycle for their children.
On the issue of prejudice against those without degrees and social cohesion, Mr Perera said, “We should always guard against prejudice when deciding on awarding a contract or promotion or choosing a service provider between someone with credentials and someone with less; rather we need to focus on their ability to do the job.”
He then proposed several suggestions to ensure fair minimum floors for those who are less successful in life and to bring about equality of opportunity for poor children. He acknowledged the expansion of Kidstart and Com-link, but had a few suggestions of his own.
Firstly, he emphasized the role of preschool in setting the stage for success in school and work later in life, and proposed that the government make preschool education compulsory and completely free for those on lower incomes.
He referred to a Unesco study conducted in 2020, which found that 63 countries have adopted legal provisions for free pre-primary education and 51 countries have adopted pre-primary education as a compulsory level in national legal frameworks.
He said, “I know from a reply to my PQ last year that 90% of children aged 3-4 are enrolled in preschool but this proposal would make a difference to the 10%.”
Secondly, he urged the government to consider lowering form class sizes and to publish randomized controlled trials on the benefits of smaller classes on learning outcomes in general and for those less advantaged students in particular. He highlighted that some research has shown that smaller classes bring benefits, and he set out the detailed arguments for this in an Adjournment Motion in the House in 2017.
Thirdly, he proposed a Skillsfuture education loan to help fund Continual Education and Training (CET) for adults who cannot competitively secure places scholarships and places in retraining programs like PCP, the supply of which is still limited.
He referred to the Workers’ Party’s 2020 manifesto, which proposes that Skillsfuture disburse a zero interest loan for adult CET.
He suggested that this thrust could support the upgrading and future-proofing of trades and blue-collar jobs, which he had spoken about earlier and recommended that access to such loans be made more readily available than the supply of special Skillsfuture grants, but weighted towards those with lower incomes and towards CET programs that support retraining towards sunrise industries, like high-tech farming, for example.
In his speech, Mr. Perera also proposed that government agencies work with industry bodies to nudge companies to offer more internships and attachments to students from less popular secondary schools. He suggested that such students would benefit from understanding the culture and work norms in companies.
He noted that while some companies do engage with universities and polytechnics to secure interns, it is less easy or common for them to engage with secondary schools and junior colleges to the same end, particularly the less popular ones.
He emphasized the importance of social service agencies providing more generous levels of aid to poor families, but in such a way as to encourage positive behaviors that will help them improve economically and break the poverty cycle for their children. He shared his experience of working with a few NGOs in one of the rental blocks in the Serangoon ward of Aljunied GRC, where they held sessions to help families take better care of their mental health and physical confidence and to support the children in terms of confidence-building, decision-making, and goal-setting skills. He suggested that such interventions can be deeply meaningful and promised to speak more about this at the MSF COS.
Importance of fostering respect and rejecting extreme meritocracy
Mr Perera stressed that fostering respect across socio-economic lines is a challenge that requires effort from everyone, and not just the government. He added that it is difficult to successfully choreograph events and policy practices to achieve this without culturally instilling the right values and mindsets in Singaporeans.
“We should always guard against prejudice when deciding on awarding a contract or promotion or choosing a service provider between someone with credentials and someone with less; rather we need to focus on their ability to do the job,” Mr Perera said.
He further emphasized the importance of not privileging conventional pathways to success at the expense of those who are successful in other fields that are more craft-intensive and urged Singaporeans to judge and value individuals based on their character rather than their credentials and net financial worth, in line with the cornerstone of Singapore culture.
Mr Perera concluded by rejecting a meritocracy that creates a natural aristocracy. He warned that an unbridled and heartless meritocracy inevitably leads to a backlash from those who feel disadvantaged and discriminated against because society undervalues and underpays for their skills, aptitudes and potential.
“In the US, voting patterns have come to diverge between those with and without college degrees, with many non-college graduates turning to the kind of anti-systemic politics seen in the Capitol riot on 6 January 2021,”
Perera said, adding that an extreme form of meritocracy and laissez-faire policies that elevate those deemed to have “merit” too high and too harshly above others cannot be sustained.