Why Meritocracy Is Flawed

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It is past dark in Singapore, a prosperous island-nation along the Straits, South East Asia. The year is 2018. As the streetlights illuminate the near-impeccably maintained pavement at regular intervals, a dark figure hurries along the streets. At first glance, this could be anyone. But upon closer inspection, it is a young person in his late teens, donned in inconspicuous street clothes. He is hunched over, stopping to catch his breath as his eyes dart nervously around, pupils shaking – a foreshadowing sign of Intracerebral Hemorrhage1… or lack of sleep. Letting out a heavy sigh, he gathers his things – a worn backpack and stack of neat revision materials, and plops down on the metal seats of the nearest bus stop. At last, he allows himself to breathe easy. His revision for the day is done. His smartphone screen lights up with the numbers ’11.20pm’. 10 minutes later, and he would have missed the last bus and have to find alternate transportation home.

This is the reality for close to some 30,000 16 year olds in the city-state, as the national O-level examinations loom just around the corner. The young man has good reason to be studying late into the night – the O-level examinations he is about to sit for will determine his next phase of life. Whether he is able to enter a Junior College, an institution with standardized pre-university curriculum that in 2016 accounted for 70% of all local university admissions, or a vocational college such as a Polytechnic or Institute of Technical Education which offers industry-oriented education and of which the former has a 20% admission rate to local universities. There are alternatives like art colleges, private schools or finding work, but these 3 institutions are the main objective for most Singaporeans taking the exam.

These educational institutions are post-secondary routes for students after secondary education, part of the ‘New Education System’ masterplan developed by Singapore’s Ministry of Education in the 1980s, as part of an educational reform when Singapore was on the cusp of economic success. Arguably, it worked. Singapore is the only country in the world to date that has transcended from a third-world country to a first-world country in just 50 years, and part of this can be attributed to a highly-skilled workforce and a culture built on hard work and grit.

But is it a true meritocracy? Like many other countries, Singapore prides itself on giving level opportunities to the best and brightest of its youth, regardless of race, gender and socioeconomic background. In a paper provided for the Asia Education Study Tour in 2006, this has been termed as ‘Ability Education’. This has been done through policies as well as scholarships, bursaries and grants which make higher education and learning trips abroad more affordable for students from less advantaged backgrounds with a strong academic and extra-curricular track record.

However, dynastic wealth gives many students a different starting point from their peers. Families with higher socioeconomic status and means are able to provide all of their children the best healthcare, access to the best schools (most of which are located in expensive residential areas and give students whose parents are alumni better standing for admission), after-school tuition, as well as free up their time after school for extra-curricular activities or clubs which add value and enrichment to their children’s resumes and portfolios. A study by the Singapore Children’s Society has indeed shown that children from higher-income families (with a monthly household income of above S$10,000) take up a larger amount of places in IP and GEP schools and their affiliated schools2 . A wealthy family will take care of all their children, not just those who are bright comparatively to their peers.

Whereas students from more disadvantaged or lower-income backgrounds may have other commitments from a young age such as working after school to help provide for their family, or taking care of young siblings or ailing family members and as such have less time or focus for their studies. In this case, the best opportunities are awarded to those with extensive support systems, not those who are the brightest and earn it by merit. In primary and secondary education, these differences may not be as apparent as in higher education, but it adds up.

Most students will have to place consistently within the top echelons of their peer group during examinations to earn a scholarship at a top tier university, especially abroad. Some students from higher-income families will get this same opportunity simply because their families can afford to pay the full tuition fees or make a hefty donation. Even after the academically-inclined student from a lower-income background has been awarded a full or partial scholarship for university tuition fees, there still lies the issue of footing the cost of accommodation and allowance, which is not often covered by scholarships. Some banks and institutions offer study loans or bonds which tie the student down after graduation by limiting their job opportunities even if they had better opportunities abroad or elsewhere.

Most bright students who are from lower-income backgrounds who do not fall into this category, but are more academically-inclined than students from more advantaged backgrounds, will simply give up at this hurdle. A disproportionate people from lower income brackets have completed tertiary education and post-tertiary education compared to those from higher income brackets.

Further, due to the difference in starting salaries and discrimination in the workplace by educational attainment, these students – now working adults, are more likely to end up earning less over their career than someone who is brighter but who had better opportunities. According to an MAS paper3 , there is a premium on work experience applied to workers with higher education, leading them to earn more the longer he is in the workforce compared to a worker with less education.

This difference translates into difference in well-being and opportunities for their children as well, which traps the family into a vicious cycle of poverty that is difficult to break out of. According to a 2011 survey on social stratification in Singapore, children with university-educated fathers were more likely to obtain a degree as well, at 63% odds compared to 37% and 12% for children with fathers whose highest qualifications were secondary education and primary education respectively.

There is a widespread notion and belief that Singapore, like many other developed countries offers fair and just opportunities by merit to all its people. The government and private sector indeed do their best in providing such opportunities. But it is unreasonable to expect them to be able to extend help to every person and ensure they have the best opportunities available. As such, many of these bright, disadvantaged students who later become working adults may start to believe that the reason they earn less than their peers from originally more advantaged backgrounds is because they were not bright enough to earn such opportunities by merit, when in actuality, the playing field was never level in the first place.

What can be done to ensure that meritocracy works its merit and the best opportunities are afforded to those who could best make use of them? Higher-income families are justified in supporting all their kin regardless of ability, and lower-income families try their best to provide for their kin, but sometimes, almost is never enough. ❄


1 Intracerebral Hemorrhage is a life-threatening condition caused by bleeding inside the brain.

2 Integrated Programme (IP) schools and Gifted Education Programme (GEP) schools may allow students to skip the GCE O-levels and secure a place in Junior Colleges by virtue of initial admission.

3 Staff paper ‘Education for Growth: The Premium on Education and Work Experience in Singapore’ published by the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS).

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