In 2014, Eugene Tan, a Nominated Member of Parliament, gave a speech about Singapore’s meritocracy in a Parliament session. Indeed, meritocracy is deeply rooted in Singapore’s culture of success, and this philosophy has always been linked to the country’s development.
When Singapore became independent in 1965, it was suffering from severe poverty, but turned out to be in 2018 one of the most successful country in the world. How could this spectacular social and economic development be explained? Kishore Mahbubani, a Singaporean academic and former diplomat, and currently Professor in the Practice of Public Policy at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, points out that the formula for success was “three exceptional policies: Meritocracy, Pragmatism and Honesty”. Long considered an integral part of the Republic’s success and development, meritocracy has increasingly come under fire, with many claiming it has instead created inequality and elitism.
According to the English Cambridge Dictionary, meritocracy is defined as “a social system, society, or organization in which people get success or power because of their abilities, not because of their money or social position”. This same source then presents positive discrimination as “the act of giving advantage to those groups in society that are often treated unfairly because of their race, sex, etc.”. Both ideas include selection and therefor exclusion of those who do not comply with society’s framework. But the subject also confronts two concepts that seem incompatibles. Why would there be need for positive discrimination if the system ensure equality of opportunities? To what extent meritocracy and positive discrimination can be considered as legitimate policies if they contribute to forms of social and economic exclusion?
This analysis will thus focus first on the roots of the meritocratic system in Singapore and how it actually contributed to the country remarkable success story. However, even if this model proved efficient in the first decades of exponential economic growth, it has been recently criticized. Detractors have pointed out that Singapore, under cover of its meritocratic philosophy, has failed to tackle the known problems of racial and social discrimination, with many claiming that it has, instead, contributed to create inequality and elitism. To face the upcoming new socio-economic challenges, Singapore is now progressively shifting towards a “comprehensive meritocracy”, that encompasses elements of positive discrimination.
I) The history of meritocracy in Singapore and how it contributed to its success
Post-independence period (positive?) discrimination to help Singapore’s recovery
Singapore took its independence in 1965. Mr. Lee Kuan Yew was appointed Prime Minister and undertook extensive economic, social and political reforms to develop the country. Singapore suffered, along with malnutrition and diseases, rampant crime, unemployment, and corruption.
In order to fight against poverty and its aftermath, Singaporean government implemented selective measures and strict familial planning (“Stop at Two” policy). These measures were enforced using financial and social incentives, such as tax rebates, schooling and housing priorities. For example, men were encouraged to choose graduated women as wives (“Great Marriage Debate” after the Graduate Mothers Scheme in the 1980s), and couples to undergo sterilization after their second child. They were thus penalized if they did not comply with these criteria.
Although these measures were controversial, there is no denying they contributed to improve Singapore’s economy and social welfare, and helped it to become a world-class city state. Smaller population meant better healthcare, better budget allotment, all in all better quality of population policy. This government willpower for excellency, that went as far as to prioritize the reproduction of higher social classes, represented the founding principles on which its meritocratic system would then be developed.
Meritocratic education of Singapore
An efficient education system that could prepare the next competitive local workforce was one of the priorities of Lee Kuan Yew. School is compulsory from the age of 6. Although education in Singapore is free, all families must pay various small fees. These fees are fairly small for public schools, but don’t necessarily cover additional costs for things like uniforms, transport and school materials. Government can also provide for the needs of students coming from low-income families with scholarships and other financial allowances.
A 2015 OECD survey ranked Singapore “world’s best education system”. Young children often display remarkable academic skills as early as in primary school. School attendance and in-class learning contribute to this performance, but a large part of academic education actually derives from parent’s pressure: 70 per cent of parents sign their children up for extra classes outside of school hours to help them attain top performance in English and mathematics. The median amount spent on tutoring classes ranges from $150 to $250 per month. This system thus self-contributes to meritocratic culture. Moreover, students in government schools often take up to two major examinations every year and have regular tests every month to track their progress in school.
Focus on academic performance of students has been criticized over the past few years. Many have pointed out that other essential factors such as the physical and psychological wellness of students have been left aside, although they could also contribute to enhance school grades.
Contribution of meritocracy to Singapore’s socio-economic success
Is Singapore one of the most successful economy in modern history? Did any other country managed to improve the delivery of basic needs faster than Singapore? If so, how did it manage it? The only way to answer these questions is to look at empirical data, policies that were initiated and most importantly what key ideals and principles were developed and valued in the society. When Singapore gained its independence in 1965, it was a country with a per capita income of $550 which, is almost equal to Ghana.
Real GDP of Singapore
Soon the problems faced by Singapore quickly disappeared. Its per capita income shot from $550 to $55 000 today. This meteoric rise is nothing short of an socio-economic miracle. Right from the start Singapore built a very comprehensive socio-economic institutions. Excellent healthcare, housing and education were of primary importance. The education system was tailor-made to create professional workforce. The government reduced tariffs and taxes induce foreign investment. To bring more entrepreneurs and foreign companies, a system was especially created to increase the ease of doing business. Moreover, the system was free from corruption, unions and taxation.
Many regard the exceptional leadership of the founding father of Singapore, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew as one of the main reason for what Singapore is today. As mentioned in the introduction, his vision for Singapore could be summarized in the “MPH formula”: Meritocracy, Pragmatism and Honesty. This is when meritocracy became an essential part of of Singapore’s political and social culture. As for politics and policy making, meritocratic political system selects the most educated and capable person to rule.
The benefits of the meritocratic system cannot be denied and have been indispensable to the economic rise of Singapore. It has induced fierce competition, that pushes the boundaries of excellence.The system acts as a driver to push people beyond their comfort zones and with opportunities to rise above one’s current socioeconomic class. Such environment is necessary for fast economic progress and made Singapore one of the most competitive nations in the world.
This system has not only helped Singapore to prepare its local workforce, but also made Singapore a magnet for talent. Many highly skilled professional flogged to Singapore as the system has them to believe that their talent are “valued more” than any other thing. This can be seen as only 60% of all the residents are Singapore nationals. The system helped Singapore to attract and hire the best civil servants and politicians in the the policy making process. Thus making Singapore famous for efficiency of its goods, labour and financial markets and the quality of its higher education and training system, infrastructure, macroeconomic stability and the transparency and efficiency of institutions.
Described as a national core value, meritocracy is said to have provided equal opportunities to all in Singapore’s multicultural society. It has also been a conceptual underpinning of various institutions in the society such as education, civil service etc. and has been a vital part of both “brand Singapore” and “Singaporean identity”.
However, as Singapore evolves on a global stage, there must be a constant evaluation of the system and check its relevance in today’s world. In recent years this system has come under fire and many negative side-effects have been highlighted such as widening income gap and growing elitism. Meritocracy largely rewards academically-inclined individuals. This excessive fascination for academic achievements has created a discord among the less academically inclined groups. The fierce competition in the system has also increased the overall stress level among both students and professionals.The next section will talk about the above mentioned flaws in detail.
II) New challenges for meritocratic system
We saw in the first part that meritocracy is very important and structuring Singapore since its creation. Thanks to it, Singapore managed to become the most developed country in south-east Asia with an advanced economy and one of the top educational system in the world, according to the PISA rankings of these past ten years. However, this idea of meritocracy is today increasingly challenged, as a number of inefficiencies of this system are point out by observers, and frustrations are rising among Singaporeans, who feel that meritocracy is mostly favorizing elites.
An absolute merit?
First of all, we must precise that the notion of merit in Singapore arises from a liberal and egalitarian vision, is to say: each individual is succeeding just because it works hard at school and then to get a job, no matter its race or its socio-economic environment. In this conception, the only inputs are intelligence of this individual, maybe talent, and its capacity to work a lot and to work well. This point of view on merit takes merely the individual as independent from the society, doing whatever he/she can only because he wants it and because he/she can develop/have the skills linked to it. In this notion of merit, the individual is taken apart from his social, cultural, or economic background: no matter where it comes from, everything is possible to him/her.
The problem with this definition of merit, is that it doesn’t take in account that some individuals may be favorized from the very beginning just because they come from this neighbourhood, because their parents had this type of job, because they had this type of education, etc. For instance, it is commonly observed that it is far more difficult for a middle class children or children from poor extraction to succeed in entering great universities.
This definition of merit has lead to a kind of perpetual competition within the singaporean society. The kiasu (fear of losing) has become a common feature among Singaporeans, as students undergo increasingly more pressure from their parents and from their teachers, expecting them to be good at school, to do a lot of extracurricular activities, etc. This pressure, which is commonly more important in middle class family (it is kind of the reflect of parents anxiety, who want their children to do better than them), leads, also, to ask the question of the real merit. Are all the students undergoing the same pressure from their parents? This can be an example of inequalities in this kind of meritocracy, along with uneven opportunities for students with different socio-economic background.
How can we see this within the society? Is there any concrete flaw of this conception of merit in today’s Singaporean society?
Is it a real meritocracy?
Racial discrimination in job applications
The meritocracy in Singapore works on a mere concept, concerning job applications: if you are the best one in an application, you will be hired; if you have the best grades. However, it is interesting to see that Singapore is one of the country where there is the most racial discrimination in job applications in the world, with 400 complaints a year between 2011 and 2016 for workplace discrimination, and 48% of Malays, 41% of Indians, and 18% of Chinese feeling discrimination when applying for a job.
Those figures raise a concern, and a contradiction in the principle of the meritocracy in Singapore. If we come back to the definition of meritocracy, we see that in its very definition, it is supposed to reward the individuals no matter their social position or wealth. Here, we have Singaporeans that are discriminated against because they have a different race from that of their recruiters. One could argue that this type of discrimination is not appearing because of the Singaporean model, but that it would appear in any society. But it would be ignoring that the Singaporean model is blind to this kind of discrimination, so it its favorizing it in its principles (it suppose that every recruitment is objective and taking the best applicants, so there is nothing to do).
Thus it is difficult to talk about meritocracy in Singapore anymore: are employers completely objective when choosing applicants? It applies not only to jobs, but we will also see that in the educational system, the fact that the meritocracy is “blind” to the social and wealth position of students raises also concerns today in Singaporean society.
Socio-economic discrimination in the educational system
The meritocratic system has lead to the necessity for parents and children to have a strong educational background, and as exposed in the first part, to be involved in a lot of extracurricular activities. However, in 2011, senior statesman Lee Kuan Yew commented that more than half of the students at Raffles Institution, one of the best university in Singapore, had parents with great educational backgrounds and very good socio-economic position. It works the other way around: there were only 13,1% of students with university-educated parents at another non-elite mainstream secondary school. Indeed, and according to the government itself, Singaporean households in the top income quintile spend on average $175 a month on private tuition and other enrichment courses for their children and, according to Diana Rahim, in Meritocracy as a Myth, “Having a wealthy background can give you the upper edge from the very beginning through an expensive, private kindergarten education, and later on through expensive tuition, enrichment programmes that will benefit you when applying for school, and connections for good internships and jobs.” When you know that after that, recruiters focus primarily on the educational background to hire employees, you see that education is vital for Singaporeans and that it can become a factor of discrimination for those who come from poorer families.
It shows that meritocracy in Singapore is not what it promised to be in the beginning, but that it is progressively becoming a fabric of reproduced rich elites, and that is more and more felt by Singaporeans. Indeed, this speech from Lee Kuan Yew, who was talking about how Singapore managed its success, was widespread on the internet, it lead to passionate discussions and this event fuelled the discontent and frustrations of Singaporeans.
As we will see in the third part, it is indeed more and more a feeling of lack of confidence that is rising into the Singaporean society, that targets the elite and its so-called reproduction.
Elitism has always prevailed in Singapore’s conception and vision of Lee Kuan Yew which was shaped during his stay at Cambridge. He believed that “social progress depends on a creative minority which embodies progressivism”. Today it is effectively an elitist system is prevailing in Singapore, and it is maintained by what is called meritocracy. The Gini Coefficient in Singapore (which measures income inequalities) has risen from 0.425 in 2000 to 0.446 in 2010, making it the most inegalitarian developed country in the world (it is ranked between Mozambique and Saudi Arabia).
This elitism is perpetuated by the educational system. As an example of this meritocracy translating into elitism, let’s have a look at the Gifted Education Programme (GDE). Implemented in 1984, the general idea is to select a pool of talented pupils and turn into the future of the nation. How? These children from the top one percent (according to their academic grades) will be granted a lot of resources to prepare them for the future. This system is much debated since it does not give the same chances to everyone, especially as they are selected at the age of nine when social background is still of the utmost importance. As a result, only 40% of those who are part of this program live in HDB. Many other examples exist which translate this elitism (Integrated Program in secondary school is basically the same). It has even been admitted by the Prime Minister saying “fewer children from lower-income families are rising to the top of the heap”. What could be merit for the people in the early days of Singapore has simply turned into social reproduction for their children.
But school is also were connections are created – it is an important networking place for parents as well as a way to meet their future counterparts from children. Most of the political figures come either from Raffles Institution, Anglo-Chinese School or Catholic High. On top of creating a societal hierarchy and a gap within the society, meritocracy played a major role in redefining the political landscape. From Chinese merchants in the early days of Singapore, the leaders were slowly replaced by an English-educated elite. Now the whole top of Singaporean’s society appears to be frozen and inequalities are questioning whether the Singapore Dream has become an elusive concept.
III) How Singapore will address these challenges in the upcoming years
Many terms have been used recently to describe the changes that are operating within the principle of meritocracy in Singapore: compassionate meritocracy, trickle up meritocracy, comprehensive meritocracy of even meritocracy through life.
Some recent policies have been implemented in order to soften the rigidity of the educational system since 2004, which is considered to emphasis too much on academic achievements. The Direct Schools Admissions exercise gives more credit to non-academic achievement, and let junior colleges or polytechnics select a percentage of student thanks to these achievements. Considered or not as positive discrimination, it is a small step but clearly towards more flexibility in the rigid meritocratic education system. To fight against anxieties around inequalities at school, the Minister of Education launched the “Every School a Good School” program which aims at giving the same chance to pupils whatever the school they study in.
The Skill Future Council, which is a national movement to provide Singaporeans with the opportunity to develop their potential throughout life regardless of their starting point, is another example of the operating shift. It tends to recognize that no only academic matters but that skillful people who may have failed at school can be reoriented and accompanied to reveal their full potential.
But what is true in education is also true in politics. The recent election of Halimah Yacob in 2017 which has been qualified as the best proof of how meritocratic Singapore is, is largely debated. Indeed, she became the first female president and the first in five decades to come from a Malay ethnicity which is historic in a way. But it appears that the election outcome is largely debatable. Even more, there has been no election since she was the only candidate. For the first time, only people coming from the Malay ethnicity could become president. The criteria was narrowed only one year prior to the election for the reason that no Malay had held the presidency for the five preceding terms. It was even narrowed to the point that only someone who had been a senior executive of a company with S$500m in equity could run for presidency. It is clearly a strong message in favor of meritocracy that the government tried to send, but the result could be the contrary. Indeed, although the elected comes from a minority, she has almost been appointed and thus they gave no chance to any other candidate to challenge her. It shows the limits of meritocracy in the way it is conceived in Singapore, and how the government is trying to face them.
Singapore could definitely benefit from a more comprehensive meritocracy, by providing equal grounds for people to compete on – even if they are less affluent – and also recognize that there are people who might not be performant in traditional academics but are inclined vocationally in sports or arts.
All the terms used to describe meritocracy these days in Singapore illustrate how it is evolving, aim at reduce inequalities and reduce discrimination to suit a changing Singapore context.
It seems pertinent, especially for a country like this one which wishes for an inclusive society, and which has always been relying on it as part of its success.