Monday 22 April 2013

Hail the new meritocracy

Singapore needs to redefine what success means to realise vision of a society where all are treated as equals
By Han Fook Kwang, The Sunday Times, 21 Apr 2013

There's a new vision and definition of meritocracy in Singapore, and they have a wonderful ring to them.

When something as refreshing and with the potential to change comes our way, we should do more to herald its arrival.

But, seriously, when Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam spoke to this newspaper recently, it was his vision for Singapore and his view on meritocracy that stood out for me.

Here's what he said which was published last Friday and is worth quoting at length:

"We've had a working meritocracy. It has brought us quite far. It's allowed for a tremendous amount of social mobility in our first 40 years, but I think it has to evolve.

"We've got to be a broader meritocracy recognising different strengths and different individuals, but also a continuous meritocracy where it doesn't matter so much what happened when you're in Sec 4 or JC 2 or when you finish your polytechnic or ITE (course), but what happens after that."

It is not just education, he added, but also the way ordinary workers are treated whether in a restaurant or on a bus.

"We are a meritocracy that's still a bit too much defined by what happened in your school years or your post-secondary years."

His vision of Singapore? To become a society where people treat one another as equals, regardless of their education level or job.

That's a tall order, especially since, as he pointed out, Singapore is a product of both the British system of education which is quite elitist (think Eton and Oxbridge) and the Chinese system which is very "test-oriented" (think the imperial examination system).

Can Singapore change this dose of double-strength DNA?

The realistic answer is that it will take a heroic effort on everybody's part, and even then, the outcome isn't assured.

But, it's important to understand why a society, in which everybody believes he or she is as equal as anyone else and treated as such, is better than one which is overly hierarchical and with widening social gaps.

First, there is tremendous wastage whenever people believe they are less equal because they will not make the maximum effort and live up to their potential.

Many of us who travel can see, for example, how motivated and productive waiters in Western Europe are, with just one or two serving an entire restaurant.

The same is true of construction workers, in Japan, Australia and other mature economies.

Their societies are much more egalitarian than Singapore, where waiting at tables isn't seen as such a demeaning job and waiters, or for that matter, bus drivers and construction workers, are treated with greater respect.

When they are treated well, they are more likely to give of their best.

This is a key reason for the low productivity of Singapore workers which no amount of government incentives can help.

But more important than work is how an unequal society divides the country politically and socially.

Singapore is moving in this direction because it wants to be a First World global city with all the attendant glamour and glitz but which the HDB heartlander finds hard to identify or keep up with.

This widening gap will create political problems because the leaders cannot move the country in one direction when the people do not have a common vision of what the future holds for them.

How then to realise Mr Tharman's vision?

Singapore needs to change in three areas.

First, and most obvious is the education system which needs to be made more multi-dimensional and rounded so that a student's entire life doesn't depend on how well he does at the PSLE or the O and A-level examinations.

It is an encouraging sign that changes are afoot in this direction and education is a key focus of the ongoing Our Singapore Conversation headed by Education Minister Heng Swee Keat.

I do not envy his task because it is a complex issue and students and parents have different expectations of what a good education is about.

Even on a relatively simple question about whether to retain, abolish or tweak the PSLE, there will be no consensus.

But if Mr Tharman's vision is to be realised, there is one critical change that needs to be made to the way pupils are assigned their schools after PSLE.

There should be a greater mix of students with differing academic abilities in every school, including the so-called elite ones.

When this happens and there is less differentiation among schools here, there will be less pressure to do well in those life-defining examinations.

Then students and teachers can focus more on learning and be more open to developing other skills besides doing well in examinations.

Without this change, no amount of tinkering with the PSLE will mean much.

The second area of change has to be in the way we value what people do to earn a living.

We can say all we want about how we should treat people equally regardless of the jobs they do but if we pay a cleaner at a hawker centre only $800 a month, it is an empty promise.

This has nothing to do with how productive the cleaner is, which is a favourite retort.

It has everything to do with our values as a society and how we want to treat our fellow Singaporeans.

Our instinct as a society when we see such low wages being paid must be to say without a moment's hesitation: This isn't right and we should put a stop to it.

We shouldn't require an economist or productivity expert to tell us that.

Raising wages at the low end must be a top priority in this exercise because, like it or not, pay does affect a person's self-worth.

Finally, Singapore has to develop a stronger sense of community, that we are in this together and need to look after one another.

This is a defining characteristic of those societies that approximate Mr Tharman's vision - Japan, Israel, and the Scandinavian countries where there is much greater respect for everyone regardless of the jobs they do.

In fact, they have an easier task because of their homogeneous population with one language and culture.

For Singapore, it means having a more vigorous civic society where people take responsibility for their actions and causes, and, in so doing, forge a stronger sense of ownership of their community.

Is this an impossible dream for Singapore?

Perhaps, but a vision for the future is a good place to start.

We could begin with being smarter about the meritocracy we practise.


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