Striking the right balance

  • Letters
  • Sunday, 23 Dec 2012

LAST week, Singapore’s agency in charge of getting singles to date and marry sparked off a storm of protests when it launched “love vouchers”.

Some singles took offence at the thought that their family and friends would see it fit to buy them a chance at love – rather than trust them to win mates based on their personal qualities and merit.

Money muddies the waters when it comes to relationships.

But subsidising the cost of dates pales in comparison to using money to buy one’s child a coveted job, promotion or place in a top school.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong defended Singapore’s meritocracy on that basis two weeks ago, in a speech to the People’s Action Party (PAP) conference.

He said that he worries when people charge that Singapore’s long-established way of distributing rewards based on merit is wrong because “if we are not going on merit, how are we going to do it?”

Would Singapore then move to a system based on wealth or connections or race, he asked.

The answer, of course, is “no”. Singapore’s meritocracy is not under that kind of challenge.

What is being questioned is whether the system as it works today remains truly about merit and merit alone. Or is it the case that the rich can now use their wealth to buy their way to merit, and use their connections to make up for a lack of merit?

Such concerns lie behind questions like the one posed by PAP MP for Marine Parade GRC Seah Kian Peng last month.

In a written question in Parliament, Seah asked the Education Minister about the housing types of pupils in six top primary schools: Raffles Girls’, Methodist Girls’, Henry Park, Anglo-Chinese School (Primary), Nanyang and Tao Nan.

In his reply, Heng Swee Keat revealed that only four in 10 pupils from these schools live in Housing Board flats. That is half the national average of eight in 10 pupils for all primary schools.

Heng said the 40% figure “broadly reflects the mix of residential housing in the vicinity of these schools”.

Tao Nan is in Marine Parade, ACS (Primary) in Newton and the remaining four in Bukit Timah.

Since children who live within a 1km radius of primary schools enjoy priority for places in them, parents with the means to buy homes in these areas will surely do so, to give their children a headstart in life.

Days after PM Lee’s speech, Kevin Lee wrote to The Straits Times Forum page to call for an end to practices that he said “fly in the face of meritocracy”.

The three he cited were priority in Primary 1 registration for children of alumni, lower secondary school entry requirements for pupils from affiliated primary schools and a lower secondary school entry requirement for those in the Gifted Education Programme.

That is not all. In Singapore’s market-based system, money also buys children higher-quality pre-school education, tuition and enrichment classes.

All these serve to enhance and boost whatever natural talents or merit children possess, and to perpetuate advantages from one generation to the next.

At the same time, no one can fault rich parents for using the resources at their disposal to help their offspring stay ahead of the pack.

The danger, of course, is that over time, inequality begets greater inequality. The cycle of advantage becomes structural, as does the cycle of disadvantage.

Those who criticise such structures are not attacking meritocracy, they are critiquing the status quo.

They are warning that if left unchecked, certain aspects of Singapore-style competition will lead to an ever more stratified society, which those stuck at the bottom will come to decry as unfair.

But change will not be easy. For starters, the winners of the current system will resist it, and they are armed with wealth and influence.

For another, any change to tilt the balance in favour of weaker and less-advantaged groups risks being seen as anti-competitive, and therefore anti-meritocratic as well.

That is clear from some responses to proposals to review the way secondary school places are allocated, for example.

One suggestion is to lower the entry scores for top secondary schools. That would allow a more diverse group of students to qualify for places, including less-advantaged children who lack the head start that their more privileged peers enjoy.

In a strongly worded letter to the ST Forum, Ang Peng Seong expressed his objection.

He wrote: “To enable children to get into their desired schools through a relaxation of the criteria is a travesty of meritocracy, akin to telling Cambridge and Harvard not to offer places to the brightest, and multinational corporations not to select the best.”

Those who share Ang’s concern say such changes will only lead to a “mediocracy” – where mediocrity rather than excellence is celebrated.

That is a valid concern.

But for a meritocracy to be sustainable, it cannot privilege excellence and competition over all other social goods, including diversity and equality.

For schools to have a diverse student body is a strength. It gives young people a chance to meet, get to know and hopefully empathise with peers whose backgrounds differ from theirs. It helps to reduce the social distance between the haves and have-nots.

For a society to be perceived as just and fair, those who start out behind must believe they have a shot at success.

Money and connections boost the opportunities of the privileged. Where possible, the Government should step in to equalise opportunities for the rest.

With lower entry scores, a bigger pool of students has a chance to gain entry into a top school.

These measures are not anti-meritocratic. They keep a meritocracy balanced and sustainable, by ensuring its rewards are spread widely across society.

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Education , Singapore , meritocracy


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