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  • Writer's pictureTan Hui Ling

Branding of Meritocracy in Singapore

Updated: Aug 2, 2021

Is Singapore a truly meritocratic society? Read this article to find out more!

“We, the citizens of Singapore, pledge ourselves as one united people, regardless of race, language or religion….”, is a common speech that every Singaporean says since young. This also highlights how meritocracy is often conveyed as a tenet to the Singaporean’s identity, achieving the “Singaporean dream” of becoming a society that is not defined by our race or religion. However, there seems to be many innate flaws that greatly hinder our progress to become a true meritocratic society. This article aims to lay out how education forms the foundation of preventing the “poor from becoming poorer”, and what more can be done to truly alleviate income inequality in Singapore.


Meritocracy in education has progressed much throughout the last few years in Singapore. In 2020, Singapore’s Gini coefficient was 0.375 after government transfers, down from 0.398 in 2019. This is due to efforts by the government to allow more students to enter higher education, allowing them to upskill through providing grants and/or providing bursaries to students who are from underprivileged families. However, much more needs to be done.


In a highly practical and competitive society like Singapore, as students, success is often defined by our ability to achieve academic merit. Often, the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) is defined to be the “make-or-break” milestone that would decide the “destiny” of the child to enter a prestigious school. Should the student not enter into a prestigious school, the student would be stigmatised to have a lower chance of entering University – another commonly defined definition of success.


However, this definition of success deprived individuals who do not have equal access to academic resources, preventing them from having a fair start in life. This can greatly hinder their ability to progress up the social ladder. In fact, Kenneth Paul Tan has written about the unintended consequence of meritocracy, where he describes that “conspicuously wide income and wealth gaps, instead of serving as an incentive, can breed a culture of resentment, futility and disengagement among the system’s losers, thus perpetuating their low status, heightening their sense of disenchantment and alienation, and igniting a politics of envy. “


Moreover, this phenomenon is also worsened by the ironic provision of financial “help” to these low-income households, which further segmented this population of individuals. This is because stringent administrative procedures are used, and the backgrounds of these individuals have to be uncovered to prevent inappropriate use of government funds. However, it also comes with the negative externality of highlighting these individuals for their situation.


While there have been efforts by the government to revamp our education system to that of a more inclusive one, where success is not only defined by our qualifications and the mainstream education stream, these efforts do not target the core of the problem – which is societal perceptions. In fact, to truly portray meritocracy, it should be a bottom-up rather than top-down initiative.


Singaporeans need to take charge and actively make a conscious effort to reach out to the underprivileged, as we are “One People, One Nation, One Singapore” not “One Person, One Individual, One Soul”. We need to learn to accept and embrace to prevent ourselves from turning into a stuck community. In fact, there is a greater need to capitalise on the strengths of every individual to further progress our society to greater heights. Every individual is unique and success is defined by ourselves, not the society.


However, recognisably, it is very hard to transform the social culture in Singapore as larger systems have to be considered for the wellbeing of every individual, which is known to be very close-minded and conservative. Therefore, it would require some time before societal perceptions can be changed and liberalised. However, the change in mindset and perception should start from our generation of individuals.


In conclusion, inequality is an extremely important topic of discussion in Singapore as it threatens our social fabric. Truthfully, the narrowing of the divide would require some time for the fruits of our generation to be harnessed. However, the change in mindset has to start somewhere, and it is up to YOU to take action and challenge societal perceptions today.


Written by: Tan Hui Ling

Edited by: Jamie Tan


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