From a tiny obscure fishing village to a globally-recognised financial hub, Singapore has undergone tremendous change to arrive at where it is today. This phenomenal transformation is attributed to factors such as a progressive government, a harmonious society and adequate investment in education. All undergirded by the principles of meritocracy.
However, problems have since emerged from Singapore’s economic success through the decades. Behind its high standard of living and one of the highest GDP per capita records in the world lies an alarmingly high level of social inequality. In Oxfam’s Commitment to Reducing Inequality Index, Singapore ranks in the bottom 10 out of 157 countries, .
Simultaneously, Singapore’s meritocratic approach is coming under increasing scrutiny. Although a recent 2018 study of 82 countries shows Singapore as the top nation in Southeast Asia and 20th worldwide for social mobility, even listing amongst the top 10 for education, everything is not quite picture-perfect. The nation is found trailing behind in areas such as fair wage distribution and social protection, coming in at the 51st and 61st positions respectively.
To find out what this means about Singapore’s brand of meritocracy, here are some insights from Dr. Grace Chee, lecturer of Social Work Programme at the S R Nathan School of Human Development (NSHD), and Associate Professor Leong Chan-Hoong from the Centre of Applied Research at SUSS.
What are your thoughts on Singapore’s position in the studies?
I have no doubt that Singapore ranks at or near the top in terms of social mobility and education. This is quite obvious, given its excellent education system. I do agree, however, that this has resulted in the creation of inequalities among its citizens.
Inequality can be examined at the absolute or relative level. The former compares standard of living with similar developed economies, and Singapore has done reasonably well. Even among the lower-income families, there is a reasonable quality of life and upward mobility. For the latter (relative inequality) however, the evidence points to a jarring gap between the wealthiest and poorest. The Oxfam study as well as other international research programmes like the PISA test echo the comparative deprivation. Moving forward, our social and educational policies will have to pay greater attention to enable the less successful community to catch up with their affluent peers. Relative, more than absolute, divides and shapes anxiety and wellbeing.
Do you believe that meritocracy is affecting social mobility in Singapore?
Yes, I believe that meritocracy has a big effect on social mobility here. Those who have the credentials and merits will rise faster and go further compared to those who do not. Therefore, this creates gaps in society. Those who do not have the credentials will have a more challenging time trying to keep up with and to match those who do. More resources are offered to those who have the "merits", while those who do not might struggle to obtain these same resources.
How is Singapore already addressing the issues of social mobility? What else can or should be done? What is Singapore not doing right?Leong:
The reform in the education sector, spearheaded by former DPM Tharman when he was Minister of Education, is bearing fruits. More students are entering higher education, or given a second chance to upskill. The social safety net has widened since 10 years ago, to the credit of then Minister for MSF, Mr Chan Chun Sing. These are things that have evolved for good.
There is not enough recognition and compensation for skills-based professions, e.g. tradesmen like electricians, plumbers, builders and drivers, who received much lower wages and respect from the public. There isn’t a strong profession-based association that can lobby their interest and Singaporeans are also not prepared to pay them higher wages, in part because our policies enable us convenient and cheap access to foreign labour. We need a mindset change, and to recognise and pay more for essential blue-collar services.
Lastly, the system in the public service division has a secondary, but nevertheless important impact on work culture in Singapore and how we compensate high performers. It remains a very top-down and elite-driven system that is not tolerant of different voices. The issue is not so much the lack of mobility in the public sector, but rather the culture that sets the tone for the rest of Singapore Inc, i.e. cold, rigid, but a financially rewarding career if you make it to the pinnacle of the sector.
What are the difficulties in making sure meritocracy is fair?
The major difficulty, I feel, is ensuring that equal opportunities are given to everyone. For example, factors such as gender, race and age might also influence access to resources as well as the trajectory of success for individuals. Trying to ensure fairness is a challenge. Perhaps this might be due to human nature, where we might unintentionally stereotype individuals based on these factors and hence, form certain conceptions of what the person is capable or incapable of. This then furthers inequalities and future progression.
That said, there will always be inequality in a society. We can try to equalise it or remove it, but the reality is that it is human nature. Divisions and differences will exist and individuals will be "ranked" accordingly. Unfairness in access to resources, job opportunities, etc. will naturally exist. The bigger question, then, is how do we try our best to "equalise" while keeping in mind the reality of people having different experiences and definitions of what success and upward mobility are. If there were no inequality in society, then we would not have social issues such as homelessness, poverty, food insecurity, etc.
We’ve always criticised meritocracy, but if not meritocracy, then what?
We often criticise meritocracy and state how bad it is. Yes, to some extent, I feel that this criticism is warranted. There are divisions in society that are created by it. On the other hand, a society without meritocracy would not be sustainable for long. Meritocracy is needed to help a society progress. Perhaps the best "solution" would be to not get rid of it completely, but rather, to find a way to try to "balance" its effects on individuals.
It is meritocracy but not one without compassion. For a small state, we probably need more compassion than ever to stay united.
 Oxfam (Oct 2018): The Commitment to Reducing Inequality Index 2018
 Business Times (Oct 2018): Singapore ranks among bottom 10 globally on tackling inequality: Oxfam
 Straits Times (Jan 2020): Singapore fares well in health and education on global social mobility index