Ong Ye Kung carefully avoids admitting that “meritocracy leads to systemic unfairness”

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By: Michael Han/

Is meritocracy a dirty word?

Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said in Parliament that it is “in danger of becoming a dirty word.”

But he said that this is because “our policies (are) succeeding and improving the lives of Singapore families.”

The logic for Ong is quite plain and simple here. He said that “those who benefit (from meritocracy) go on to invest in their children, which means students from affluent families get a head start.”

Curiously, isn’t that the issue with meritocracy the government is trying to address? That is, the key phrase is “students from affluent families get a head start”.

You see, their early success is no doubt based on merit, and that should be encouraged.

But it is when the meritocratic system becomes entrenched, even embedded as sacred cows, that the merit that one generation rides on becomes the affluence (and influence) the next generation exploits on.

As such, the later generation doesn’t excel in merit alone, but more on affluence (or vicarious merit?). And this invariably results in widening the income and class gap.

It is therefore not merit that is the issue, but an embedded system of merit that is monetised by those who succeed on it at first, and then, through largely unintended and unconscious effort, “de-meritizes” the system to unduly favour their own offspring.

For the above reason, I am earnestly still struggling to understand these words by our education minister as he concluded with this sweeping assurance:-

“But I stress there is no contradiction between meritocracy and fairness, nor reducing inequality and raising our collective standards. Instead, we should double up on meritocracy be broadening its definition to embrace various talents and skills.”

Ong is urging Singaporeans to understand that the government can always strike a healthy “have the cake and eat it” balance between meritocracy and fairness, or meritocracy and reducing inequality.

He said that “Singapore should not lose faith in meritocracy, even though it seems to have paradoxically led to systemic unfairness”.

The qualifiers in that sentence are unusually unsubtle with words like “seems to have” and “paradoxically”.

I wonder, is this an outright denial of or refusal to admit to the reality that meritocracy has led to systemic unfairness…full stop?

The problem of the dignity gap between the rich and the poor (as raised by Professor Teo in her book “This is What Inequality Looks like”) is one good example of systemic unfairness.

The other examples are the social stigmatization and deprivation that children from poor families have to contend with in school.

They often feel left out and are bullied due to their class and status. Some of them also feel like second class because they do not get the attention they need from teachers to overcome their lack of self-esteem and confidence.

Apart from struggling with limited financial means in the family, they also have to struggle with the stereotypical accusations that they are not performing because they are “lazy” and/or “unmotivated”.

The government may be saying that grade is not everything, but the impression on the ground is that many are still hearing the haunting refrain that it is however the only thing (for success in life).

This is clearly evident from the mad rush of parents trying to game the educational system by piling up on their kids with enrichment classes and tuition.

This accounts for the seemingly incredulous advertisement of some tuition centres as noted by NMP Professor Mahdev Mohan when he said:-

“They said that an A grade in Chinese can be secured in just 24 hours. They suggest that you can be guaranteed a PSLE scarce of 279, much higher than I ever got.”

Such aggressive false advertising is a symptom of a society that is still obsessed with grades as a golden ticket to a secure and successful future.

Alas, the warm milk that the sacred cow of meritocracy is producing is still very much about academic excellence at all costs. And for the affluent parents, no costs is too much to springboard their children to greater heights in the society.

This brings me back to the “paradoxical systemic unfairness” as mentioned by Ong. Actually, there is nothing paradoxical about it.

A system based on merit is always the right start. But it cannot be the be-all and end-all of it all.

At times, as an interlude here, I wonder whether is this the way politicians act, especially when one is being thrown into a system that has been with us since independence, and has proven its worth to a certain extent, but is in urgent need of an overhaul from the ground up.

In other words, how much can we expect from our education minister to acknowledge without qualifiers that meritocracy alone is not enough when he is only taking up that post for a season before he moves on to the next higher calling for another season?

Is there then an unspoken protocol not to rock the ministry boat too much while one is there?

Ultimately, we need our parliamentarians to step out of the system, step out of the meritocracy box, and look at the cultural behemoth that it has created since independence.

Alas, our culture is seeped in unmitigated meritocracy, and unless we work beyond the schools to the marketplace, workplace and the community at large, the income gap and class divide will still widen, maybe slower but yet sure and steady, and this translates into a broken ladder for students from poorer and broken families to scale up.

Let me end with Ong’s words: “We should not cap achievement at the top, but continue to strive to lift the bottom.”

This goes without saying of course, and Ong is definitely spot on with that goal.

But it is not about capping achievements, whether at the top or at the bottom. It is however about capping unfair privileges, economic advantages and class divide that is widening the overall gap to produce many social ills in society.

And to achieve that, maybe our mindset would have to change to acknowledge that at some point of our development, it is inevitable that there will be some contradiction (unhealthy even) between meritocracy and fairness, between meritocracy and reducing inequality and raising our collective standards.

Without such acknowledgment, will our efforts be undermined or compromised?