Home News Ong Ye Kung urges a ‘doubling down’ on meritocracy

Ong Ye Kung urges a ‘doubling down’ on meritocracy

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Contrary to the criticism that the well-beloved tenet of meritocracy as a cause of inequality that has been going around later, Ong Ye Kung, Singapore’s Education Minister said that the nation needs to “double down” on it.

He argued that systemic unfairness in society is a result of the triumphs of meritocracy, as opposed to being proof of its failure.

The Education Minister was speaking in front of Equal-Ark, a not-for-profit organization, at the Shangri-La Hotel on Wednesday, October 24. He pointed out that better options than meritocracy have yet to be proposed.

In his speech, he said, “We need to double down on meritocracy, move away from a narrow focus on past academic merit to recognise and celebrate a broader range of skills, talents and strengths,” arguing that focusing even more on meritocracy will change how students get into university, how scholarships and grants are given, how Singaporeans are hired, and ultimately, given the respect they deserve.

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Mr. Ong also admitted that the “job is getting harder” because of “some strong social headwinds,” even as the country has taken great strides forward with using education as a tool for social mobility.

Singapore’s meritocratic educational system rewards talent and skills ass opposed to birth circumstances and social status, but has also, the Education Minister said, given rise to systemic unfairness.

This is due to many families who have embraced meritocracy have invested much into their children, causing children from varied social strata to be “pushing off blocks from different starting lines.”

Related: Former teacher responds to CNA Insider video, “It’s not meritocracy, it’s privilege.”

The problem, Mr. Ong states, is that “The more we uplift families, the harder it is to uplift those who remain poor.”

He told his audience if “we mistakenly think that the challenges result from policy failure” what may take their place will have an adverse effect.

“Whatever we replace them with are most likely going to be worse. Conversely, if we recognise that the challenges are a result of sound policies having to adjust to new realities, then our conclusion will be quite different: We will want to evolve and improve existing policies to suit the challenges of our time.”

Another topic that the education minister touched on were there larger difficulties that families that have stayed poor have had to face. Admitting that a possible solution would be to “chop down the tall poppies to equalise outcomes,” he showed how this would fail in the end since it contradicts the nature of Singaporeans to always try to do their best at everything. Far better, he said, to “not cap the top, but do even better in lifting the disadvantaged.”

Inequality had been a subject of charged discussion lately, as many government officials speaking on the subject, including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong himself.

The education minister said that the threat of inequality grows when the wealth gap solidifies, causing the stratification of society, and leading to people separating from one another.

Mr. Ong highlighted the achievements of Singapore’s educational system, reminding the audience that in 2003 only half of the students from the bottom socio-economic quintile went on to acquire an education at the post-secondary level. Today, 9 out of 10 students do so.

He continues to champion education as vital for upward mobility, and as the most significant way to ensure against social stratification. “So long as young Singaporeans from humble backgrounds can grow up to be successful, social distinctions will have less chance to coagulate and our society can continue to stay together as one.”

Some netizens agreed with Mr. Ong concerning meritocracy, but stressed the need for a social ethos for the more privileged to help lift up others.

Other netizens disagreed, feeling that meritocracy is a thinly-veiled term for elitism.

Mr. Ong has not changed his tune from a few months ago, when he carefully avoided admitting that “meritocracy leads to systemic unfairness.”

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