Posted by: Principal/Editor | November 1, 2012

Singapore and Meritocracy

The compulsory education Act was implemented in 2003 and it was outlined that compulsory schooling for all Singapore citizens will be from 7 till the age of 12. Besides passing this bill, Singapore also prides itself from practicing meritocracy. Meritocracy has often been viewed as one of the key tenets of Singaporean culture and local identity. We strive to provide equal opportunity in education for all, regardless of race and religion compared to places like Indonesia and Malaysia where certain race or religion may receive greater priority.

Yet, most recently, there has been some controversy in The Straits Times forum pages over the idea of meritocracy, and its relationship with social and economic inequality. The Online Citizen (TOC) mentioned that some commentators continue to argue that Singapore’s version of meritocracy provides the right incentives for an individual’s competitive drive, that it can promote social mobility, thus putting at bay fears of the consequences of social and economic inequality in Singapore. TOC added that many other commentators feel that meritocracy is elitist and heartless.

Citing meritocracy as the reason to provide the ‘best’ to every individual, schools in Singapore are segregated in several ways. Just looking at the primary level, you see stratification within school through the Subject-based Banding exercise when the child completes the Primary 4 exams. You also see segregation through the Gifted Education Programme (GEP) and Schools for Special Education on the other extreme. A child enters the GEP at the age of 10. To paint an ideal picture, this child will most likely do well at PSLE and continue on in an elite secondary school followed by a two-year junior college experience before graduating at one of Singapore’s esteemed universities. At the same age of 10, if the child were to end up in the Foundation stream, he would go on to Normal Technical stream in secondary school and proceeds on attaining a Higher NITEC certification at the ITE. He would then go on to work as a blue-collared worker in one of the factories in Singapore. Two kids; both merely 10 years old yet their fates have been sealed.

Much needs to be done to truly embody ‘equality of education’ and what meritocracy essentially means. Unless we are able to break away from the incessant obsession of not leaving things to chances, we will continue to treat our students like factory products that can be labeled and branded. How then would such ‘meritocracy’ lead to self directed learners of the 21st century?

Posted by Rezia


  1. The term meritocracy originates from a social science fiction, The Rise of Meritocracy, by a British politician and sociologist, Michael Young (1958). He defined it as a system where “merit is equated with intelligence-plus-effort, its possessors are identified at an early age and selected for appropriate intensive education, and there is an obsession with quantification, test-scoring, and qualifications.” The book actually serves to warn the dangers of using the idea of rewarding individuals according to their ‘merit’ to resolve issues of social inequality. Young also commented in a newspaper, that he was disturbed that ‘meritocracy’ is used in a positive light and deemed as the right path modern society should move on.

    I agree that the ‘sieving’ process that we have in our education system, such as LSP, Foundation, and Normal Tech, has caused much stratification in the school system. It seems that education has put its seal of disapproval on those who cannot perform and relegate them to the bottom of the streams. The branding that they get from schooling has disadvantaged them naturally against others who have done well for themselves. In fact, the playing field has not been level even before formal schooling begins. The haves enrol their toddlers in full-day Montessori schools since the age of two while the have-nots could only send their 6-year-olds in 3 hour a day PCF kindergarten. With the means and control in their hand, the elite is capable of reproducing itself.

    What can be done about the polarised meritocratic society? Perhaps, we need to make education more equitable and ‘fairer’ for the have-nots. This means policymakers need to deliberately provide resources that can close the gap faster. One way is to provide funding such that the lower income group can afford to send their children to better pre-schools. For children who are lagging in their studies, they will be allocated more competent teachers who can help them learn better. More funds can be provided to equip their classrooms with learning and teaching resources that can help them learn effectively. As leaders in schools, the least we can do is make sure their needs are always in our radar. We cannot leave their fate to chance.

  2. can i know, when singapore implemented meritocracy in their educational system? i need some information about it bcoz i’m working with my thesis right now..

  3. I would like to pick up on your idea of ‘equality in education’. What exactly is meant by that? Does it mean equal opportunities, equal outcomes or both? By definition, a society that is driven by meritocracy would never be equal; and it is designed to be so. It assumes that there will be able individuals, and of course those who are not. It strives to give equal opportunities to everyone but cannot ensure equal outcomes for all. The fundamental appeal lies in that the system rewards you for your talent and work regardless of your race, religion or socio-economic background. This is especially important in building a corrupt-free society in a region that is still rife with corruption, and in giving Singapore citizens the hope that anyone can make it if he or she works hard. ‘Reward for Work, Work for Reward’ ── this is one of the four key principles of governance. The gap between the haves and have-nots is designed to motivate the have-nots to work hard to be among the haves one day.

    Sadly, unintended byproducts such as intensifying competition to move up the socio-economic ladder and a growing economic inequality had resulted from this culture. Given the very limited manner in which Singapore perceives success through academic results and access to better educational streams, the education system had umfortunately turned into an unwilling tool to be exploited and blamed for its apparent ‘inadequacy’. Parents are shifting to homes near to popular Primary schools and volunteering their time so as to get their kids into these schools. Tuition, once regarded a luxury, is now the norm for almost any school-going kid with rising affluence. There are even training centres which claim they can adequately prepare your child for the Gifted Programme selection test. These moves in effect skew the ‘competition’ in favour of those who can afford the resources.

    PM Lee had recently called for the system of meritocracy to be calibrated but rejected the idea of scrapping meritocracy. “If we’re not going on merit, what are (we) going to look at?” he asked. I believe the government must continue to play a key role in ensuring equal opportunities for all, especially those who are less well-off, so that every child is adequately equipped to run the race at the starting line. Stop giving scholarships to those who don’tneed them. Make information more freely available to everyone, especially those from disadvantaged families, so that they can take steps to improve their situations. I believe meritocracy still has a place in our society but it needs to be carefully calibrated so that it continues to give hope without capping the talented top.

  4. With the author’s and subsequent writers’ replies focusing on two main groups – the elites and the low-income, where does it leave the sandwiched, middle-class?

    I see this same phenomenon in schools with ability segregation created by streaming after PSLE – Express, N(A) and N(T) streams. Many such ‘good’ schools with all 3 streams have programmes such as talent development for their top students and remediation programmes for their at-risk students, but often the students who fall in-between are left to fend for themselves. School leaders often quote limited resources (i.e. manpower and time) as reasons for such decisions and a compromise has to be made. With such stratification, eventually those in the “middle class” of the school would feel even more left out. Indeed, a more balanced approach has to be mooted.

    Our Deputy PM Tharman Shanmugaratnam recently shared his vision for a Singapore where everyone treats one another as equals. This struck a chord with what I heard about some European countries where the graduates of vocational institutions are paid as well as the graduates from more traditional tertiary institutions. The way that they value and treat each other do not depend on what people do as their livelihood. Even in some more developed Asian countries, road sweepers, construction workers, bus drivers and waiters are treated with greater respect than we have seen in Singapore. An unequal society has sent worrying lines of division and stratification amongst our people and most heartlanders will continue to find it hard to identify with the government’s economic growth policies without a shared vision of what the future holds for them.

    Change is imminent…

  5. How would meritocracy lead to self-directed learners of the 21st Century? This question seems to imply that meritocracy and self-directed learning are mutually exclusive, which I think is totally flawed. Meritocracy is about rewarding a person based on its merits and not its race, status or religious background. One of the outcomes of a self-directed learner is that this person is motivated and will probably do well in the examinations. In fact, in order to do well in the examinations, a self-directed learner will have the edge over those who are not self-directed are rely heavily on teachers. Hence if being self-directed leads to better results and hence coming on top of other students, I do not see how meritocracy and self-directed learning are mutually exclusive.
    In addition, having subject banding at Primary 4 and having GEP in the Primary school does not seem to contradict meritocracy. If the child does well in these exams and continue to do well in life, how does it contradict meritocracy? Every child has a chance to take these exams and has a chance to succeed. Note that I’ve said that every child has a chance, but it may not be a fair chance as the children from richer families have the chance to send their children to top notch tuition agencies which purport to enhance the chance of their students going into GEP. The problem herein lies the tuition industry and to some extent, good pre-school education. Unless the government regulates these two industries, (it seems that the government is putting a hand into pre-school education with the setting up of 3 kindergartens in MOE schools), meritocracy would only mean that one is rewarded based on merits and not that everyone has a fair chance in succeeding.

  6. I would like to offer an alternative view here. Suppose that the Foundation Stream did not exist, and the 10 year old continued to remain in the same mixed ability class. For the past few years, he was already not doing well academically, and he still could not catch up with his peers in his subjects. He may feel demoralised and slowly lose interest in his studies. Outside activities beckoned to him. These may include playing truancy, picking up smoking or joining gangs. He may eventually be a primary school dropout. So, which is worse – primary school dropout or ITE graduate?

    Of course, I have painted an ominously bleak picture here. But you get my point. The education system here is not perfect, but it is trying to tweak itself to cater to different ability learners. We hope that all our citizens can be, at least, an ITE graduate or someone who can learn useful skills to be gainfully employed in life later. And meritocracy here also means that being in the Foundation stream does not necessarily lead you to a lowly job later. It all boils down to hard work. If you are from the Foundation stream, and you persevere, there are chances of you making it to polytechnics and even local universities. This is the essence of meritocracy. That, in itself, is equal opportunity in education. Unless we are talking about equal opportunity or access to resources. If we want equal access to resources to employ the best tuition and best enrichment for our children, this will never be possible. Because we do not have the same pool of money or networks to begin with.

    Meritocracy should not be viewed as having equal pool of money or networks, but rather the focus should be on the equality of chance to rise up the social ladder. And no one is stopping us from doing that. We pride our education system in having many ladders and bridges so that students can choose to move along at his own pace. And we are continuing to strengthen our ladders and bridges (with initiatives like DES and DPA). I would still like to think that education in Singapore helps many families to move up the social ladder and not the other way round.

  7. I see the relationship between meritocracy and non-self directness in learning, but only in the context of the culture, structures and systems we have in place Meritocracy is by and large a universal concept. Even in countries that practice affirmative action (the supposed anti thesis of meritocracy), such policies are in the interest of levelling the playing field to allow for people to achieve and be eventually be rewarded according to their merit. In fact, meritocracy is a highly attractive concept for the ordering of society as it becomes a proxy for fairness and equity, a benchmark to determine what is fair treatment in an unfair world.

    The problem with meritocracy in Singapore rests on the following foundations:
    1. Merit is very narrowly defined (almost exclusively based on academic grades).
    2. Because of how we have “gamed” the system (predicting questions, rote teaching and learning, focus on memorising content and procedures), academic grades has become a poor indicator of “merit” i.e. those whom we deem meritable that emerge from the system may not hold any merit in the workforce.
    3. Our cultures (Chinese, Malay, Indian) have by tradition placed undue merit on academia and white collar work, whilst shunning non academic work, and manual labour. Hence giving rise to a false dichotomy of meritable vs non-meritable work.
    4. Our wages are artificially depressed, where often manual work is severely under rewarded, due to the high influx of cheap competition from less developed countries and the lack of a minimum wage system.

    As such, meritocracy in Singapore is no longer in sync with the social, economic and political environment in which it operates:

    – It does not indicate a person’s worth to a company that hires him with any reliability or validity
    – It perpetuates gaming behaviour in education that sabotages the efforts of the government and educators to imbue students with traits, skills and competencies of use to the economic world they will enter.
    – It forces all students to compete for a very small share of jobs in the economy (Minister Tharman once said that we cant be a nation of office workers). This leaves large sectors of the economic and social aspects of the nation as undesirable (sports, performance, aesthetics, craft, hospitality, health care etc…)

    Hence, the reason why meritocracy apparently stifles self directness is because the current form of meritocracy rewards that kind of behaviour, it perpetuates the traditional classroom, it perpetuates a culture of rote learning and teacher centred teaching.

    To break away from this, we need not junk meritocracy as a concept for ordering society.

    A more precise and less disruptive method is for the government to develop the political backbone to reform the examination system, and take the political fallout that may come. There can be no reform in such an area without considerable short term pain. Unless we can reform national examinations to truly reflect a broad based and valid measure of merit as defined by the 21st century economy, we will have a system that drives a behaviour of dependency. Ironically dependency is precisely what meritocracy seeks to avoid.

  8. I disagree that segregation is that clear and once on one path, there is no return but one will surely end up in ITE and a blue-collared job while the others will definitely graduate from a university and get a high-paying job. There are now numerous opportunities for one from the Foundation stream to still end up in a university, ensuring that late-bloomers are not denied the chance to bloom, especially when Singapore is in need of talent.

    Although Foundation students can still make it to the NA/Express course, to finally clear O levels, or for NA students to still make it to O levels by Secondary Four (Express), and go on to a JC and a university, if they do well, perhaps the main worry is not about the structures of allowing late-bloomers to still enter the fast track but how to help them get there. Now, there are programmes in the primary school to help lower-ability students to catch up with their peers. There are also many remediation programmes in schools, especially at Primary Six and Secondary Four and Five, so as to help our students do their very best for the national examinations.

  9. Segregation in the education system is carried out in the name of customising the curriculum to suit the students’ learning ability. It purports to be student centric as it considers the level of readiness a student possesses in managing the rigours of a particular educational stream. However, there are issues that merit concern and deliberation, one of which is, in what way is the test driven criteria for segregation (PSLE score) the best measurement of a child’s ability. What justification does MOE have at hand to dictate that PSLE scores equates to the channeling of students to a particular academic stream? What are the special all powerful hidden elements of these celebrated numerical digits that hog front pages of the national paper on PSLE results day and spark big budget spending on large banners, brandishing these magical numbers, unfurled outside school gates? The high stakes natures of the PSLE, O Levels and A Levels have largely shaped the teaching and learning process where practice and drill dominates. Some may argue that drill and practice methods are increasingly giving way to teaching of concepts and their application. But playing the devil’s advocate, I would like to ask if students have learnt concept application or have they learnt to memorise concept application? Back to the issue of the fairness of segregation based on test scores, falling back on PSLE scores for the lack of a more efficient method of assessing a student’s ability ignores the existence of multiple intelligences.

    As long as the assessment format of the PSLE an O levels remain pen and paper tests, there isn’t much hope for students who participate actively in class discussions, ask wonderfully insightful questions, provide simple and yet logical responses to address ambiguous situations but ultimately is unable to produce at the national exams. Do these students really lack ability and thus deserve to spend their next 4 years in a stream that is less challenging and thus deemed good for their learning? Streaming also creates stigmatization against these less challenging streams. Perhaps we should consider removing streams completely and practice differentiated instruction in all classes instead.

  10. I believe the principle of meritocracy is here to stay despite considerable scrutiny in recent months especially in education. While many sees the practices in the example of streaming and scholarships bringing about social stratifications and elitism, we must acknowledge the basis to meritocracy lies in the idea of success as long as one works hard regardless of one’s background –and this indeed has brought about efficiency and progress for our nation as a whole. I think more importantly is how we should not confine our definition of meritocracy in education narrowly to just about academic grades but also in terms of character, leadership and a broad range of talents, as said by PM Lee in January this year when he gave out Edusave Character awards- a reflection of the government’s commitment to meritocracy to help students achieve their best, character included. This in line with the introduction of character and citizenship education in schools as part of holistic development of our students. We as teachers, should seek to, together with parents, to guide the children by setting good examples and instil good moral values in them yet at the same time not neglecting their studies despite focus on character, leadership and service.

  11. The principle of meritocracy is attractive – you are rewarded based on merit, and merit is a consequence of industry. It is a sound system because it ensures equal opportunities for all, and is a check against nepotism and cronyism. In its purest form, it ensures an equal playing field, appealing to human’s innate sense of fairness.
    It does not guarantee equal outcomes however. It MUST not. If all outcomes are the same, then clearly there is no incentive for effort. Unequal outcomes is necessary for meritocracy to work. And if Singapore’s system is founded on meritocracy, then we have to accept that there will be unequal outcomes. The issue does not seem to be with meritocracy as a system, but rather to do with how our society values some outcomes over others.
    Meritocracy may not be a perfect system, but it is the least imperfect one. It would be hard to argue against the fact that our society has progressed so far because we have based out system on meritocracy. The job of teachers then is to recognise that students are individuals, and respect that individuals are different. Only when we start to respect and accept differences do we start to build a more inclusive society.

  12. Meritocracy has been one of the guiding principles of Singapore.
    This is one principle that has helped Singapore to progress to where we are today. Rewarding hard work and talent has always been important especially in a resource-scarce country like Singapore. This has in a way driven our students to strive for the best so as to secure a better course in the higher institutions and later a secure and better paid job in their starting career.
    To me, this has served Singapore well especially in our nation building years where there are large pockets of Singaporeans then earning low wages who wanted their children to have a better education than themselves.

    However, with the widening income gap resulting in some children getting a better head-start as compared to fellow peers in some low income families, it appeared that meritocracy may have its limitations. I think it is important for the country’s policy makers to continue to refine the Meritocracy Principle to ensure the late bloomers or low SES children will also benefit with a good kick start programme to level up. More importantly – we should not rock the boat and throw this system away. Meritocracy is a system that Singapore is proud of and of which many countries are envious of us.

    The issue is to help our less ability / late bloomers / low income families to level up so that these people can compete at the same equal footing with the others.

  13. Following up from the original post and subsequent responses, I think that there is a need to distinguish between the brand of meritocracy the Singapore government has in mind, and the implications to society based on such a system of meritocracy. The fact that the original post has generated so many responses is an indication of the contentious nature of meritocracy in Singapore. Many of the earlier posts have touched on this distinction but I think that there is scope for further scrutiny.

    As rightly pointed out in earlier posts, meritocracy refers to how individuals are duly rewarded for making certain achievements. The bigger the perceived achievements, the bigger the perceived rewards. This, to me, is the idea of meritocracy in its purest form. By definition, meritocracy would mean that there cannot be any equality in outcomes. Besides the point that this form of meritocracy does not guarantee equal outcomes, meritocracy in the Singapore context also involves the provision of opportunities to achieve. These opportunities are often claimed to be ‘equal’. However, it is important to understand the sense in which these opportunities are ‘equal’: individuals are allowed to garner the rewards they desire regardless of their background and identity, i.e. everyone has a chance. This ‘equality’ does not, however, extend to ensuring that everyone has an equal chance to succeed. Therefore, meritocracy in Singapore does not deny you the opportunity to succeed, but it also does not ensure that everyone will be provided with exactly the same conditions to succeed. One’s successes are due to individual ability and industry.

    With regards to education, the policy of meritocracy means that every child will have the opportunity to succeed but may not have an equal chance of succeeding. And I think this is where many Singaporeans have an issue with the policy. If the policy is indeed beneficial for the country, why is there is a rising income gap between the richest and the poorest? If meritocracy allows for social mobility, why is the middle class now the sandwiched class, with little chance of social advancement? Many attribute these phenomena to the system of meritocracy in our education system. Because not every child is provided with the exact same conditions to succeed, they argue that these who are less privileged in terms of available resources are more likely to achieve less. And because the trend in society seems to support this, meritocracy does not seem as attractive as it is made out to be. However, because meritocracy is often claimed to be a cornerstone of government policy for a successful Singapore, it has drawn the majority of criticisms for current social issues.

    I do not profess to have any solution but I think that the root of the current problems in society does not lie with the policy of meritocracy alone. Various government policies and governing principles interact with one another. The policy of meritocracy does not lead to a perfect education system because there is no political system that would make everyone in society happy, let alone the policy of meritocracy. But the argument is that meritocracy as a policy, allows society as a whole to benefit. So perhaps, what is needed is to look beyond the policy of meritocracy at other factors in education which needs to be tweaked.

  14. I believe the meritocracy system as well.

    Meritocracy is a system in which advancement is based on individual ability or achievement. Equalitarianism is the doctrine of the equality of mankind and the desirability of political and economic and social equality. (

    On 5 January 2013, during a bursary and Edusav award ceremony, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said to students and parents that Meritocracy in Singapore was about more than just academic grades. It also included character, leadership and a broad range of talents. He stressed that everyone in Singapore, regardless of background – has a shot at success. PM Lee’s speech covered both meritocracy and equalitarianism. But these two concepts in educational policy are seemingly contradicting. A lot of debated about this are happening.

    Education plays a critical role in the sustainability and success of Singapore as a nation. To remain open and adaptable, it is essential for Singaporeans to keep up-to-date, not only knowledge and technology, but also the mindset. It is an integral part of the economic development and nation building of Singapore.

    Meritocracy has been a key value that helped Singapore continuously rank 2nd of economies by The Global Competitiveness Index 2013–2014.
    Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong had a speech during the Singapore Perspective Forum organized by the Institute of Policy Studies:

    “Meritocracy has served Singapore well and there was no real alternative to it.”
    “The challenge for us is to improve our system of meritocracy.”
    “What we want is to shape a system of meritocracy in Singapore that works for the benefit of all, and is consistent with our ideals for a fair and just society.”

    The success of Singapore today has proved the success of Meritocracy policy. Of course, there are still implications and requires continuously improvement and innovation.

    More effort needs be made by the government, schools and organizations to ensure that the talent selection is neutral and transparent; it must be based on non-discrimination regardless of race, gender and economic status.

  15. Historically, Singaporeans have celebrated the merits of meritocracy. The adherence to this ideology has benefited the nation greatly, from leveling up whole generations to ensuring a clean government. However, as the nation progresses, the fault lines brought about by meritocracy have become more apparent. As such, meritocracy have very much been in the limelight in the past two years or so, with many calling for a review of it’s relevance.

    I think “Whether meritocracy is still relevant today?” is not the real question but rather “If not meritocracy, then what?” It is easy to critique but less so to suggest alternatives, not to mention solutions. The vocal Singaporean has been quick to critique and expect our leaders to offer working solutions. However, the price will be high and may not be at all worthwhile.

    I think meritocracy has its place and should stay. However, as the society progresses and people become more informed, how we practice meritocracy should change to better reflect current realities. A move towards a more humanistic and less ‘defined to the grain’ form of meritocracy is a good start.

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