Forum Letter Replies

January 13, 2015

SkillsFuture is for every Singaporean

We thank Ms Carina Tay Jing Yi (“Beware overcompensating in rush to recognise less academically inclined”, Today Voices, 8 January), Professor Mark Findlay (“S’pore-style meritocracy should adopt a level field”, Today Voices, 9 January), Mr Amos Maximilian Lee Canguang (“Meritocracy must be tempered with equality”, Today Voices, 9 January), Mr Teng Hau Wei (“ITE, poly scholarships don’t blunt meritocracy”, Today Voices, 10 January) and Mr Aloysius Chia Wei-Yan (“Scholarship debate: Talent manifests in diverse ways”, Today Voices, 12 January) for a lively and positive discussion on the issue of developing talents and skills in a meritocratic society.

The SkillsFuture movement is aimed at enabling all Singaporeans to develop the skills relevant to the future. It will engage every segment of our workforce, including university, polytechnic and ITE graduates.

We agree that individuals should not be measured on their academic qualifications alone. These qualifications are not irrelevant - they reflect determination and an ability to learn in one’s youth. But we have to look beyond early qualifications, and recognise that a whole set of skills matter in how well we do and what we contribute - such as the ability to apply knowledge in real world situations that keep changing, develop deeper knowhow through practice, collaborate well with others, and look for opportunities in the face of challenges. We have to help and enable Singaporeans to develop these abilities continually, and in so doing broaden our meritocracy.

We have been introducing progressive changes to all parts of our education system, not just our polytechnics and ITE, but also our schools, junior colleges and universities, to encourage every Singaporean to develop the aptitude for learning and improving throughout life.

SkillsFuture is however a long-term effort that will involve the collaboration of many stakeholders - employers, individuals themselves, unions, and education and training providers. We are pleased that many are already coming forward to partner us on this journey. Just last week, SingTel launched its new SingTel Cadet Scholarship programme in partnership with Singapore Polytechnic and Republic Polytechnic. It is but one programme, targeted at developing a pipeline of talent and skills relevant to a particular industry.

We look forward to more employers coming on board and taking ownership in identifying and developing talent to meet their future skill demands.

Mr Adrian Chua
On behalf of SkillsFuture Secretariat

Beware overcompensating in rush to recognise less academically inclined (Carina Tay Jing Yi, Today Voices, 8/1, p20)

Education has always been a key focus of Singapore’s pragmatic, forward-thinking society.

This was again highlighted in the report “SingTel launches scholarship for polytechnic students” (Jan 7),which stated that the SingTel Cadet Scholarship Programme will be offered to top students at various polytechnics and comprises a year-long bond and university scholarship.

While I applaud the public and private sectors’ efforts in offering more opportunities to students of diverse disciplines, I also notice Singapore’s push for a fairer meritocratic educational system has, in recent years, become somewhat condescending.

Lately, many of the new scholarships and programmes available have been directed at polytechnic or Institute of Technical Education (ITE)students. In fact, the SkillsFuture Council is directed at helping these students.

While this is commendable and has made our system less elitist, I wonder whether the idea of meritocracy is being forgotten. Some may say rewarding and commending citizens based on merit — the crux of meritocracy — is cruel, but under this system, the most capable benefit the most.

This is a harsh reality in which many civilisations have thrived, despite complaints that the less capable are left behind and that it breeds inequality and corruption.

Singapore has been a proudly meritocratic society, until complaints that people from non-elite schools and backgrounds were unable to get the recognition they deserve despite their capability.

I am all for Singapore redefining what talent is. I admit readily that polytechnics and ITEs are not short of talented individuals who deserve recognition. The point, however, is if too heavy an emphasis is placed on granting more opportunities only to polytechnic and ITE students, the meaning of meritocracy would be diluted.

This would be no better than spoon-feeding these students, who are capable and intelligent enough to attain awards and scholarships without the bombardment of programmes dedicated to them.

There would also be the subliminal idea that they require easily attainable awards because they are inferior to students from other institutions, which is an elitist, backward and prejudiced mentality.

Our system need not start sub-categorising awards and leaving a quota for polytechnic and ITE students when it comes to scholarships that can be open to all institutions.

What our educational system needs is simply to accept that talent will ultimately manifest in diverse ways and that academic criteria alone cannot always measure and rank the talent in our population effectively.

Once our perspective on the definition of ability shifts, we need not rely on overcompensation to appear equitable — the system can select individuals who can and will contribute to the nation, and award them accordingly, regardless of educational background.

S’pore-style meritocracy should adopt a level field (Professor Mark Findlay, Today, 9/1, p20)

Hard-road meritocracy, from the log cabin to the White House, is said to have made the United States the superpower it is today.

This should not be equated with a limousine ride to the best school and university, then on to an executive position in the family firm.

Billionaire Warren Buffett cannot be called condescending for his cross-class philanthropy.

His view is that one is as probable to get a smart, new idea from a poor child as from a rich one; therefore, they all deserve support.

Where that support is unavailable in the family, the obligation rests with the community at large to not waste hidden talent.

But many Singaporeans confuse the origins of meritocracy at this nation’s birth with the benefits of privilege prevailing today. (“Beware overcompensating in rush to recognise less academically inclined”; Jan 8)

I do not deny that many less-wealthy families struggle hard and sacrifice much to ensure their children have the best opportunities they can afford. But this sometimes leads to debt spirals that trap the student for years to come.

If it were sport, rather than education, we would take a different view. In athletics, runners start from the same line.

If they enhance their potential with artificial stimulants that improve their performance, we are outraged and they suffer eventually. Coming off a common base is our accepted measure of sporting merit.

Singapore risks accepting a flabby meritocracy if it does not applaud initiatives that open up access to the best educational opportunity for all, to reach their maximum at the appropriate levels.

Polytechnic study, for instance, is not evidence of lower levels of academic inclination. Nor is a layered approach to meritocracy any recipe for dumbing down a knowledge society.

The challenge is to let merit grow out of common soil, fertilising each plant with the best nutrients on offer. We might need to put a little more effort into fields where the soil has been parched, but in so doing, the harvest is richer.

In a small state with an ageing population, the future is not only in elite youth, but in every young citizen who is offered the best start possible. From an economic viewpoint, putting all your resources where success is already probable is bad business.

We must ensure that Singapore-style meritocracy does not contribute to yawning wealth gaps, but rather, adopts the Buffett philosophy of levelling the playing field.

Meritocracy must be tempered with equality (Amos Maximilian Lee Canguang, Today, 9/1, p20)

I wish to address certain points in the letter “Beware overcompensating in rush to recognise less academically inclined” (Jan 8).

Meritocracy is a value, not a system in which we exist. However, meritocracy becomes harder to adhere to with increased societal stratification.

Although it was ideal in post-independence Singapore and early United States, economic progress left some people behind as others benefited. These differing accumulated resources can then be used to perpetuate inequality through education.

A well-known Singaporean feature is tuition. Is one really more capable if one goes to four tuition classes and does better than another who cannot afford tuition and falls behind?

The writer mentions that meritocracy is a harsh reality in which many civilisations have thrived. Unfortunately, this is often not the case. Establishing the imperial examinations in the Han Dynasty did not prevent war, corruption and political manoeuvring.

It sustained such instability because it intrinsically gave the most “intelligent” the right to rule as they saw fit. More often than not, they cared only for themselves.

Meritocratic progression under the British and Americans is racialised too, depriving various ethnic groups of their deserved progress.

The writer perhaps feels a tinge of reverse discrimination. However, this fear is misplaced. If one is capable, one need not worry about the state actively assisting those who may have been left behind in society’s progress.

We should build compassion for the less fortunate and greater self-awareness that our place in society is today a result of a multitude of factors, such as our parents’ resources, and not solely our own ability.

So, while maintaining the spirit of meritocracy, by encouraging competition and reward for ability, we must always temper it with equality. The state should actively support those who are hungry to succeed, but are lagging simply because of economic factors.

ITE, poly scholarships don’t blunt meritocracy (Teng Hau Wei, Today, 10/1, p11)

I refer to the letter “Beware overcompensating in rush to recognise less academically inclined” (Jan 8).

Meritocracy is the notion of fair opportunities for people from different social strata.

In China, the civil service examination was a meritocratic practice by which candidates not of the nobility could progress to the civil service. In later years, however, wealthy noble families bribed their sons’ way through to the civil service, thence strengthening their political influence and wealth.

This is an example of how elitism defeated the idea of fair opportunities in imperial China, even for the poor, and of social mobility through the civil service exams.

In Singapore, the rich do not bribe their way through exams. But they can send their children to better tuition or provide them with a more conducive environment for studying.

While there are those who make it to the top by sheer luck or hard work and not in any way by their wealth, those who go on to “lesser” institutions seem to be generally from the lower end of the social strata.

This does not mean they are not intelligent. They may not have done well in their exams, and the majority of each cohort do not make it to top junior colleges. But they and the elites who become political or corporate leaders contribute equally to society.

If I think of it in terms of the human body, the non-elites would be the organs and the elite leadership would be the conscious mind, which controls voluntary actions such as walking.

Meritocracy is good, but let us not overdo it that it becomes laissez-faire elitism. Giving scholarships to polytechnic and Institute of Technical Education students does not undermine our meritocracy, as these are not just given to anybody but to deserving students from these institutions.

In fact, they strengthen the original notion of meritocracy by levelling the playing field. Those in elite junior colleges are offered a lot more prestigious scholarships, even by overseas organisations. From youth, we have been taught to help those in need; we should advocate for those who are less fortunate.

Scholarship debate: Talent manifests in diverse ways (Aloysius Chia Wei-Yan, Today, 12/1, p14)

I refer to the letter “Beware overcompensating in rush to recognise less academically inclined” (Jan 8) on not diluting the principle of meritocracy in the handing out of scholarships.

While the letter writer’s concerns are legitimate, it seems that she has overlooked the multitude of scholarships given to the best students from Singapore’s schools by statutory boards, government agencies and private companies.

While scholarships given to students who are from polytechnics and Institutes of Technical Education may have been given more prominence, they are only among the many scholarships given to students.

Awarding scholarships to students from vocational institutes acknowledges that, just as academic ability may not be equal, access to opportunities may similarly be unequally distributed.

Furthermore, if talent manifests itself in diverse ways, all the more there should be scholarships awarded to those who did less well in an academically-inclined, exams-driven education system.

Society thrives on talent, but not all talented people excel at taking exams. People may possess talent in innovating and inventing, entrepreneurship, creating art or in sports.

A truly meritocratic society recognises a diverse range of talent and achievement, not only good exam scores.