13 Oct Every School a Good School: Elitism and Meritocracy in Singapore
In a recent controversy, Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan was caught disparaging opposition MP Leong Mun Wai as “illiterate”, while another unidentified Government MP was overheard wondering how Mr Leong had managed to get into Raffles Institution – implying that attendees of less prestigious schools were less intelligent.
And while most people would agree that such elitism is morally reprehensible, meritocracy, in contrast, is considered laudable. Indeed, in Singapore, meritocracy is the national ethos. Defending Singapore’s commitment to the system in 2019, amidst criticism of meritocracy leading to elitism, then-Education minister Ong Ye Kung argued that, “Even those who rail against meritocracy struggle to come up with a better system.”
Yet meritocracy and elitism cannot be easily separated. After all, meritocracy seeks to reward those who are smarter and more able, whether this be with better educational opportunities at school, or with better-paying jobs in the economy, or indeed with actual power over governance. But note that this also practically fits the conventional definition of elitism – in that we are giving favoured treatment to those we consider better, equating to the grooming and selection of an elite group at the head of our society.
Meritocracy’s criteria of ability and achievement is of course morally preferable to the totally arbitrary criteria used in other systems, such as feudalism (i.e. birth) or oligarchy (wealth), but in view of the above, it is worth questioning whether meritocracy is truly desirable – and whether society really is made better off by us treating people so differently based on their ability and achievement.
Let’s start with the education system in Singapore. As those who have experienced it can probably attest, the entire education system is meritocratic and based on streaming – that is, it seeks to sort students based on ability and achievement. Such streaming starts from a young age and continues all the way through a student’s education journey.
Here is a non-comprehensive list of the kinds of sorting that might occur:
- Within a primary school, top-scoring students are put into top classes, with fellow top students.
- The Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) then determines which secondary school a student ends up in, with better PSLE scores earning a student a place in schools considered stronger – schools such as Raffles Institution (RI), Raffles Girls’ School (RGS), Hwa Chong Institution (HCI), or Nanyang Girls High School (NYGH).
- Even within a single secondary school, different students will be in different streams, as determined by one’s PSLE score. These streams include:
(a) the Integrated Programme (to take the A-levels or IB exams after 6 years)
(b) the Express stream (to take the O-levels after 4 years)
(c) the Normal (Academic) stream (to take the N-levels after 4-5 years)
(d) the Normal (Technical) (to take the N(T)-levels after 4 years).
- For those taking the O-levels, students hope to gain entry into a junior college or polytechnic. Again, performance dictates this – better results will see a student get into schools considered stronger, such as Raffles Junior College (RJC) or Hwa Chong Junior College (HCJC).
- Even within junior colleges, streaming continues. In HCJC, for example, there is the Humanities Programme. Set up in 1980 by Dr Goh Keng Swee, who saw that the country suffered from a surplus of mathematicians and engineers but a deficit of humanities-trained graduates, the Humanities Programme was created specifically with the intention to get students to study Philosophy, Politics & Economics (PPE) at Oxbridge. Indeed, the Programme’s former name used to literally be the “Pre-University-Cum-Overseas Merit Scholarship for the Study of Humanities at Oxbridge” (PROMSHO), which manages to be very elitist in a very succinct way.
The question hanging over all this, of course, is whether such intense and differential streaming really does improve educational outcomes. In theory, streaming is beneficial to both stronger and weaker students. By getting the academically stronger students together and teaching them at a faster pace – which their academically weaker peers might not be able to keep up with – the stronger students can learn more over a single school year. Meanwhile, by grouping the weaker students together and teaching them at a slower and more measured pace, they get sufficient time to master individual topics, rather than being lost as the teacher moves on to the next topic.
However, in terms of the empirical evidence, there is no strong reason to believe that streaming meaningfully improves education outcomes:
- Research comparing the performance of students in different streams within a school or between schools fails to discover any significant effects.
- Research comparing the aggregate performance of schools in one region or country with that of another finds no effect.
- Experimental research that randomly assigns students to streaming vs non-streaming treatment have mixed results, with evidence from the US being that there is no large effect, while equivalent experiments in Kenya show fairly large gains.
All the above experiments have their limitations. For example, the school-based analyses do not take into account possible self-selection of better students into streaming (i.e. better students choosing to go to selective schools that use streaming, and then doing better anyway regardless of whether streaming works). Similarly, regional-based analyses do not account for self-selection of better school systems into streaming (i.e. better school systems choosing to use streaming, and then performing better for other reasons like better curriculum or greater resourcing). Furthermore, even when research is very rigorous and avoids the above type of problems, their external validity might be questioned – how applicable are these controlled experiments to the rest of the world, exactly?
To sum this up, while the theory tells us we should strongly expect benefits to streaming, the comprehensive (if flawed) empirical evidence appears to point the other way. On balance, we might still lean towards having a streaming system, but the extreme extent to which Singapore does it is questionable, especially when factoring in the costs streaming has on children’s stress levels and mental health.
Even beyond education, meritocracy structures the whole of Singapore society. The able and high-achieving earn better-paying jobs, while those considered the very best and brightest academics – the President Scholars who study at Oxbridge and Ivy League colleges – become ministers with control over state policy and the national budget. Perhaps there are good, pragmatic reasons for this – and we will get to this later – but more than that, some people also consider this system intrinsically just. They think that people who have the ability, and who – to be fair – do work hard to apply said ability and hence achieve results, deserve greater rewards.
However, the idea that greater ability makes one deserving of greater rewards is deeply problematic. After all, intelligence is about 50% genetically determined, and hence inherited from one’s parents. Simultaneously, one’s upbringing and environment matter too – getting the right nutrition and intellectual stimulation plausibly affects the structure and functioning of the brain; indeed, some studies have found that socio-economic status can potentially account for as much as the other 50% of one’s IQ. But neither one’s genes nor one’s upbringing are a matter of choice – we don’t choose these things, and hence we don’t earn our intelligence and ability.
But how about hard work? Being smart and capable isn’t enough, of course – one needs to work hard and put in effort to succeed as well. However, hard work is a matter of whether one is capable of self-control – of being able to make yourself do difficult and unpleasant things now so as to achieve future goals and rewards. And self-control in turn has strong genetic determinants, with genes accounting for around 64%-75% of self-control in children aged 7-12 and for around 47%-49% of self-control for teenagers in the 12-16 age range.
Therefore, a meritocratic system that rewards ability, effort and achievement is, in a deep and fundamental sense, about rewarding people for things beyond their control. In this context, it is hard to escape the conclusion that such a system is both arbitrary and unfair.
Of course, even if meritocracy is not a fair system, it might still be the best way of organising society for pragmatic reasons. Certain jobs are both important and difficult (e.g. leading a country; or running a billion-dollar multinational company; or doing scientific research that advances human understanding). To ensure that these roles are executed properly and that the benefits from them are accrued, we need the right people for the job – which means imposing relevant skills and educational qualifications, and then getting qualified people to take it up by offering attractive pay. In short, we have to be meritocratic, in rewarding people who possess the right talents, who will work hard in applying said talent, and who ultimately succeed.
A Myopic View of Merit and its Impact on Inequality
And this seems reasonable enough – except the way Singapore goes about the matter is flawed. For one, a skewed and myopic view of merit is often used, with youthful academic achievement prioritized over real-life career performance. And secondly, the difference in pay between jobs we consider important or difficult (e.g., policymakers and investment bankers), and those we don’t (e.g., nurses and cleaners), has ended up so large that the harms to our society and economy end up outweighing the benefits.
On the first matter, in Singapore we often just have a distorted view of what constitutes ability and achievement. The Government, for example, provides greater opportunities to its scholars, and singles them out for quicker promotion relative to their non-scholar peers – even though current performance is surely a better indicator of merit and ability than are one’s grades at the age of 18.
On the second issue – Singapore’s Gini coefficient, which measures deviation from perfect economic equality, is around 0.36 after taxes and transfers are accounted for. This is higher than most developed nation peers like Canada, France, Germany, Sweden, Japan etc.
An unequal distribution of wealth in society is undesirable not just from the point of view of moral fairness, but from a hard-nosed, economic perspective too. Simply put, unequal societies are also unhappy and less economically dynamic ones.
There is a phenomenon which economists call the diminishing marginal utility of income – which is just a fancy way of saying that the same amount of money benefits a rich person far less than it does a poorer person. This makes sense – an extra $100 doesn’t do much for someone already wealthy enough to fulfil their basic needs, and to enjoy plenty of food and travel and entertainment besides. However, that same $100 can be a life-changer for someone who can’t even put enough food on the table. Indeed, economists from the London School of Economics analysed data from multiple surveys and confirmed that how much life satisfaction additional income brings a person declines with increasing income.
The net result is that an unnecessarily unequal society like Singapore’s is, on aggregate, far less happy and satisfied than it could be, were it to achieve a more equal distribution of income via robust social welfare programmes.
Some people fear that engaging in more aggressive taxation and redistribution would decrease the incentive to work, thus reducing labour supply and ultimately national prosperity. This, however, is a groundless worry – researchers with the U.S. Congressional Budget Office reviewed multiple research studies and show that labour supply does not change much in response to taxes.
And from a broader economic perspective, advanced economies have had difficulties achieving strong growth without sustainable financial bubbles due to a host of different reasons, amongst which number increased savings rate due to more unequal income distribution – the poor save more than the rich. By ensuring a fairer income distribution, we can permanently raise demand in the economy and stimulate growth while avoiding financial bubbles.
Meritocracy is best in moderation. Some degree of it – like streaming in education – might make sense, but we should not go overboard as is now the case. And in terms of how we run the broader economy and government, a more nuanced approach to our application of meritocratic principles will be needed if we are to avoid creating morally unfair and economically inefficient income inequality. Moving forward, Singapore as a whole will also need to re-assess our narrow definition of “merit”, and take steps to lighten the disproportionate weight put on academic performance above all else.
Joel Tan, Senior Associate Consultant and Economist at Future-Moves Group, is a graduate of the University of Oxford and comments mostly on developments in global current affairs, politics and economics.
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Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent those of Future-Moves Group.