Meritocracy with a Heart: Reigniting the Singapore passion

Meritocracy is often associated with having a cold and over competitive society. In a purely meritocratic society, this element of help would not exist, and disadvantaged individuals would have to fend for themselves.

Once upon a time, our forefathers believed in hardwork. They believe in self-sustanence and self-reliance. Singapore had been calibrated to train citizens of strength.

In this time, good grades and talent were celebrated. This was the brand of meritocracy Singapore knew then and has brought us far to where we are today.

Today, meritocracy has become a bit of a dirty word. It means competition. It means paper grades. It perhaps could even carry a tinge of elitism, because it is perceived that you had good grades only if your family didn’t have bread and butter issues to worry about.

But if there were to be a lack of competition, there would not be much incentive to work hard, potentially leaving society at a standstill. And if we were to survive or even thrive in the international arena, we need to keep up this level of healthy competition and even seek to improve it. Economic giants such as India and China, will put Singapore in a disadvantaged position, because as one Indonesian politician once so elegantly put it, we are merely a “little red dot”. No economic advantage, we won’t last long.

Meritocracy also mean all are equal, except we celebrate those more equal than others.

Stressed out students and concerned citizens might critique and say that it is precisely because of meritocracy that students are forced to “mug” for the sake of good academic results. Some may even go further to say that they feel that they will be condemned by society if they do not excel in their academics. They point out that everyone has different talents and we should not all be evaluated using the same yardstick as it is unfair and disadvantageous to those who may not be so inclined in that area. They argue that it is unfair that people with better results are given more and better opportunities and this could lead to it being a vicious cycle.

But how is this unfair? In a meritocratic society, we are allocated the same resources and given the same opportunities according to our abilities.

Yes, we do place a bit too much emphasis on academic results and more often than not, one’s worth is tied proportionately to his or her results. Yes, I agree academic results as the sole indicator of one’s abilities are not accurate, even unfair. However, to use that line of argument to abolish meritocracy, is thus ridiculous! It is like getting rid of the entire apple tree, when only one apple is rotten.

To address the concern about the over emphasis on grades, at the start of 2013, Prime Minister, Mr Lee Hsien Loong has stressed in a speech that “merit” goes beyond grades and scores, to include character, leadership and a broad range of talents. We are indeed trying to change our yardsticks, but it’s going to take time and effort.

Like it or not, older Singaporeans still pride our success on meritocracy. But we need to renew this framework. We need to revisit this and relearn what we “know” about meritocracy.

Every Singapore should have an equal opportunity to succeed, what we want is meritocracy with a heart.





  1. Unfair because not everyone has opportunities to reach for their limits.

    My parents were poor when I was young. My father M’Sian, Mom Sg, and I Sg too.

    Despite my intellect, the lack of funds to be channeled to tuition, extra lessons, books, even basic stationary, computers, and communication device meant I lost out on the social circle needed to compete with those most equipped to take on the challenges.

    Despite that, thanks to pure intellect, I managed to pull together some impressive grades that were ‘not good enough’ to enter local medical school, but accepted in an overseas University.

    If things were truely fair, with every opportunity presented to me as to my peers, I would be at the top.

    This isn’t to say that meritocracy hasn’t its benefits. Afterall, without meritocracy, even if I had this genius of a brain, it wouldn’t have made a single difference.

    However, Singapore’s meritocracy is different. To purport that it is a fair system, or coming even remotely close to ideal is to fool the self.

    Merits should be an ends, not a means to determine the ends.

    Meritocratic structures involving streaming, tests, and limited selection criteria (in Singapore’s case, purely academic) seldom open opportunities for creativity and ideas to flow (think apple, or microsoft, or any other new entrepreneurial ventures).

    We either fit the holes allocated/available, or are discarded as useless, unsupported, and most unfairly, looked down upon. (Until some sharp eyed investor/teacher/mentor somewhere picks us up and invest in us til we become a star again).

    Being a doctor is awesome, but there is little incentive to return to Singapore just for her to leech my talents when she offered little to help me to where I currently am. So much for the Singapore version of meritocracy.

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