“Singapore must preserve meritocratic government schools to keep up the standards of schools and universities here, and enable the brightest and the best to rise to the top, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew stressed last night” (MM Lee: Meritocratic Schools Drive Singapore: Top Schools ‘Don’t Guarantee Success’, Miss Joy Fang).
Meritocracy has been a key cornerstone of Singapore’s socio-economic structure; and as expounded in the news article “MM Lee: Meritocratic Schools Drive Singapore” (January 14, 2011) by Miss Joy Fang, educational institutions play an integral role in terms of educating students in an assortment of aspects, as well as to open up opportunities for greater exposure to groom students for leadership positions. There are several advantages with this consistent policy of meritocracy. First, a person’s progress and advancement is dependent on his ability and credentials; which indirectly encourages the student to excel in particular aspects so as to emerge as the crème de la crème. Correspondingly, such routes to success would not be hindered by connections, ethnic or family backgrounds; with the impetus solely on the individual to do emerge as the most deserving. Finally, selection based on merit per se promotes competitive; which in an academic background spurs counterparts to better one another constantly.
However, the chink in the armour lies in the fact that a person’s merits are judged overwhelming upon his academic portfolio, instead of taking equal consideration his co-curricular accomplishments, character, other skills and talents et cetera. Even though scholarship boards and universities have begun to gradually diversify their selection and application processes, earlier stages of the education journey still rely heavily on examination and grades. Minister Mentor Lee – together with the Ministry of Education (MOE) – should also be cognisant that with the changing times and variable expectations, “success” is not longer defined solely by academic excellence or pedagogic achievements.
Meritocracy cannot premise itself based on mere scholastic merits; otherwise, we run the dangerous risk of alienating talents who excel in other “obscure” areas of art, music, sports, so on and so forth. Coming from a top school, I have personally seen how students skilfully manoeuvre from one endeavour to another, and commit themselves to a plethora of activities for the sake of beefing up their curriculum vitae to give the impression of being an outstanding all-rounder. Even community service, which was supposed to be a platform for students to experience volunteerism and render services to beneficiaries, has been brutally manipulated to be presented as “achievements” in their résumés.
More importantly, given that many of the talents who have emerged from the meritocratic education system – further filtered by lucrative scholarship offers and public service job offers – will manage the public administration, we cannot risk having an “elite class” that is ignorant of socio-political values, sensitivities and awareness. When this group of talents do not have the ability to communicate their perspectives or promote their recommendations to the people on-the-ground, they lose the required faith; and disgruntlement would proliferate against this perceived “elitism”.
Diversifying meritocracy, and opening up definitions and opportunities should be the way to go. We must allow top students of different characteristics and talents to rise to the top, and simultaneously inculcate the necessary awareness to combat social lethargy when they go into the workplace. Successful individuals do not just excel in their personal fields; they should be people who go out of the way to do something for the society that has groomed and nurtured them.
A version of this article was published in My Paper.