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Speech by Minister Chan Chun Sing 2023 Debate on the Motion on the Address of Thanks for the Speech of the President

Published Date: 18 April 2023 06:00 PM

News Speeches

A Resilient and Sustainable Meritocracy

1. Mdm Deputy Speaker, I rise in support of the Motion.

2. As part of our Forward Singapore conversation, much has been discussed about refreshing our social compact.

  1. This has also been the central issue at this Debate, including in the speeches of the President, DPM Lawrence Wong and various Members.
  2. Many have asked: What is a "social compact"?
  3. Others asked: What is our "social compact"?

3. A social compact is simply:

  1. Our responsibilities towards one another;
  2. How we reward work and distribute the fruits of labour and success; and
  3. How we relate to and respect one another.

4. So, 3 'Rs'.

5. Central to the Singapore Social Compact has been meritocracy.

  1. People are recognised based on merit and achievements.
  2. We aspire as a nation for all to progress through our abilities, rather than birth rights, family connections or inherited wealth.

6. These principles have brought us this far.

  1. It has spurred our people to excel individually.
  2. It has also allowed us to accomplish much collectively.

7. Indeed, for a new country of immigrants, there did not and does not seem to be a better set of organising principles for people to operate within and excel.

  1. Many of our forefathers came to Singapore because this was a place that allowed them to realise their dreams, despite their starting circumstances, and lack of connections.
  2. Many of us are also here today because of the opportunities afforded to us by this system of meritocracy. This includes members from all sides of the House.
  3. Other systems, such as aristocracy, plutocracy, and nepotism, serve the interests of the few, rather than of the many.
  4. These other systems would not have similarly motivated our people to aspire and strive, nor helped us to attract the best and brightest to commit their future to Singapore.

8. While meritocracy has allowed us to avoid some of these pitfalls, it is now under stress worldwide.

  1. There are increasing questions if meritocracy is indeed fair.
  2. Or can it be fair, especially over the long term?
  3. The process is also questioned by some who are unhappy with the outcomes.

9. To fix the problems – some real and some perceived, various countries have tried to fix the process in different ways.

  1. Some countries have tried affirmative action for the less privileged groups.
  2. By levelling the uneven playing field in resources and opportunities for the less privileged groups.
  3. It sounds fine, until we have to figure out who gets to decide, who are the less privileged, and what opportunities we should set aside for them.
  4. It becomes even more complicated when everyone feels relatively "deprived" or "less privileged" from their own perspectives.

10. While meritocracy has generally worked well for Singapore so far, we also acknowledge that our system is not perfect.

  1. We must recognise that meritocracy, by itself, is not a panacea for all of our societal challenges.
  2. Let me list a few potential pitfalls; and suggest what we must do to keep our meritocracy sustainable and resilient.

11. First, as the world and our society evolve, our needs are constantly changing. Indeed, our relevance and competitiveness as a country depend on our ability to evolve with the times.

  1. Hence, meritocracy based on any single, static, and narrow metric for talent and ability will not allow us to build a resilient society with a diversity of strengths to meet tomorrow's challenges.
  2. As society matures, those who have succeeded under the previous and existing metric, will tend to want to perpetuate the same set of yardsticks.
    1. Sometimes to preserve their personal interests and comfort.
    2. Sometimes, they just assume that what has worked well will continue to work in a different future, and don't think of alternatives that society may need going forward.
  3. We must not allow any single, static and narrow metric to define success which can easily cause our society to stagnate and become irrelevant.

12. The second danger of meritocracy, beyond competing on a static and narrow metric, is to reward success based on fixed, defined, and pre-determined points in life and time.

  1. Once the determining test is conducted and the results are known, then it is as if the life trajectories of our people are fixed and become too difficult to change.
  2. This cannot be our society.
  3. People develop at different paces and demonstrate different abilities at different times.
  4. For society to allow everyone to do justice to their gifts, we must have a system of "continuous meritocracy", where no single test or point in time determines the rest of one's life.
    1. This continuous meritocracy must extend beyond the education system, throughout life.
    2. Employers and society have as much a part to play to recognise the skills and talents of our people; and not fall into the trap of credentialism of using any single dated metric.
  5. We must ensure that there is porosity in the ways that people can earn their spurs, contribute throughout life.
  6. And allow them to bounce back from setbacks.

13. The third danger of meritocracy is stratification over time.

  1. It is natural and perhaps inevitable that the successful will tend to mix amongst themselves, creating exclusive social circles instead of sharing social capital.
  2. It is also human nature to want to pass on our wealth and privileges to our children.
    1. Be it through the accumulation of assets, like investments and property;
    2. Or through access to additional education resources, like tuition.
  3. But these natural tendencies risk creating an endowment effect in society.
    1. Access to opportunities and rewards could increasingly be determined not just by the merits of this generation, but the transfer of wealth and privileges from the previous generations.
    2. Meritocracy becomes harder and harder for the less privileged, as their relative start state falls further and further behind the privileged.
    3. We must not leave this unchecked, or this will progressively stratify society, undermining our cohesion, and eroding our higher purpose to draw on the talents and capabilities from all in society, instead of the privileged few.

14. The fourth danger of meritocracy is the misplaced belief that one's success is attributed entirely to one's talent and hard work, without acknowledging:

  1. The role that society has played in enabling the person to succeed;
  2. The need for them to give back, uphold the system and strengthen our society;
  3. And the need to continually push back against the forces of social stratification.

Meritocracy with Singaporean Characteristics

15. To keep our Singaporean meritocracy resilient and sustainable, this Government, together with our people, will focus on six key strategies:

16. First, we value our people's diverse abilities. We will continue to move away from evaluating our people's diverse abilities by any single, static, and narrow metric – be it PSLE results, grade point averages, or whether they hold a degree or diploma.

  1. Take Full Subject-Based Banding. With the implementation of Full Subject-Based Banding next year, our education system will become more flexible and provide multiple pathways to cater to different learner profiles.
    1. Students will have the flexibility to pursue different subjects at different subject levels, which allows them to customise their learning in each subject to a pace suited for them, while developing other areas of interest.
    2. This, coupled with our plans to leverage educational technologies such as AI-enabled adaptive learning systems, will help to provide more customised learning experiences for all our students.
  2. We are also broadening the pathways in which students can access their education.
    1. With more opportunities for Direct School Admission and aptitude-based admissions, our students will be able to pursue studies based on their passion and aptitude, rather than purely academic performance.
    2. We will continually review our admission policies to ensure that our schools remain open and accessible for students from diverse backgrounds, while balancing other competing needs, such as preserving community ties and maintaining a variegated education landscape to cater to different students' needs.
  3. We will press on with our efforts to develop 21st Century Competencies in all our students, so that they can thrive amidst constant changes in our world.
    1. Our curriculum will continue to be refreshed regularly to meet our students' future needs. We will continue to emphasise important life skills and free up time and space for schools to strengthen learning dispositions and holistic development.
    2. This will allow our students to develop an empowering portfolio of skills that will serve them well whatever they end up doing, including adaptability, resilience, and the ability to think critically and inventively.
  4. To these ends, we need the support of parents.
    1. As parents, we must welcome schools to have their unique value propositions. This can better cater to the diverse needs of our children and help them to realise their full potential.
      • Hence, it is not necessary nor meaningful for us to constantly compare why one school's offering may be slightly different from another's.
      • The more appropriate question is not "is this a good school?", but "is this a good or appropriate school for my child?"
    2. As parents, we must also not fall into the trap of allowing broader dimensions of merit to translate into greater pressure to chase down more yardsticks to "beat the crowd".
      • We must remember that broader dimensions of merit are meant to help our children fulfil their potential according to their diverse strengths and interests; this is not meant to provide more ways to compare our children with others in areas that are not suited for their strengths or interests.
      • We must remember to teach our children that it is more important to surpass themselves throughout life, than to surpass someone else in an exam.

17. Second, we will continue to create more diverse education pathways to allow greater porosity throughout life.

  1. Building on efforts like Full Subject-Based Banding in MOE schools, our post-secondary and tertiary pathways will provide more flexibility to better support students' learning and progression. For example:
    1. Polytechnic students will be able to spread out their learning, if they intend to pursue side interests or need more time to build up a stronger academic foundation.
    2. ITE's enhanced curricular structure will cater to a diverse range of learner profiles, and those who graduate with a Higher Nitec can look forward to further upgrading opportunities, such as the expanded offerings of ITE's Work-Study Diplomas.
  2. Our publicly funded university degrees will also have a higher lifetime cohort participation rate, so that more Singaporeans can look forward to obtaining a degree from our autonomous universities not necessarily before starting work, but at some point in their working lives.

18. Third, we will invest in our people throughout life – not just in the first 15 years when they are in our schools, but also for the next 50 years beyond our schools.

  1. Our people will need to continually upskill and reskill across their lifetimes, to evolve at their own speed, create new value, and stay ahead of the competition.
  2. To support this, the Government has increased its investment in recent years in Continuing Education and Training, or CET, including through the national SkillsFuture movement.
  3. We will not stop here. We will intensify our efforts to help our people stay relevant and competitive.
    1. As part of the Forward Singapore exercise, we will announce more details in due course how we intend to help our workforce to upskill and remain relevant throughout life.
    2. Amongst the various ideas are more targeted training support for mid-career workers, including SkillsFuture Credit top-ups, and how we make training more accessible for working adults with competing commitments and responsibilities.
  4. But the Government's efforts alone will not be enough. We will need the partnership of industry, the innovation of institutions and the growth mindset of the individuals.
    1. Industries cannot wait passively for the "perfect worker" to be developed for them. They must be active partners in shaping students' interests and skillsets even before they enter the workforce. Hence, I welcome more companies to partner our schools in our Applied Learning Programmes.
      • After that, industries must also be prepared to invest the time and resources to support our workers to upskill continually.
      • I can understand the challenges for industries to commit to the training of our workers, especially in uncertain times. But if we don't grow our own timber collectively, we will all be fighting over a stagnant talent and skills pool.
  5. The Public Service, as an employer, will lead by example in supporting our workers to upskill continually.
  6. Our IHLs will continue to innovate and enhance their programme offerings, including through work-study programmes and stackable modules that may be more suitable for midcareer Singaporeans who wish to upgrade their skills.
  7. At the same time, our people will need to develop a growth mindset and passion for lifelong learning, to make full use of these opportunities.
  8. We need this whole-of-society effort to enable our people to stay relevant, and our industries to stay competitive, in an ever more challenging environment.

19. Fourth, not only must we respect a variety of professions, we must also fairly reward and remunerate the "heart" and "hand" work, that is commensurate with the "head" work. Our society needs all of these roles to complement one another to function well.

  1. As an example, MOE is reviewing the remuneration and career progression pathways in the Special Education sector – to strengthen the professional development of our Special Needs educators and improve the quality of services to better support students with Special Education Needs.
    1. We must ensure that our special needs educators who serve in diverse and demanding environments are recognised and appreciated for their efforts and contributions, for the challenging work that they do.
    2. We must also ensure that our special needs professionals have professional development opportunities just like mainstream MOE teachers.
    3. Indeed, there should be much more cross pollination of ideas and mutual support between the mainstream and special needs educator fraternity, and similarly within the special needs education sector.
    4. I hope to have the support of all Singaporeans for us to move in this direction.
    5. MOE and MSF will work closely with all our social service agencies to achieve this vision for the benefit of our special needs professionals and our special needs community.
    6. We will need to work together, and we can achieve more collectively to better take care of the professionals in this sector, instead of just thinking of optimising individually in respective institutions.
  2. Beyond MOE, other workplaces that involve "hand" and "heart" work, including those in the essential services sectors, also need to play their part.
  3. They need to hire, train and reward workers fairly based on skills and competencies.
  4. But this may translate to higher costs for some services provided by our fellow Singaporeans, which our society must be willing to accept and support.
  5. Otherwise, no matter how much we broaden the dimensions of merit in our school system, none of it will ultimately work because it does not translate into tangible differences in earnings and at the workplace.

20. Fifth, as a society, we must always do more for those with less, to uplift the less privileged.

  1. This has been and this will continue to be the guiding principle behind the Government's policies.
    1. That is why we set up the Uplifting Pupils in Life and Inspiring Families Taskforce, or UPLIFT, to rally the community to partner our schools in helping students from disadvantaged backgrounds to progress educationally and to achieve their full potential.
    2. That is also why we have a progressive tax system, to contribute to the running of such initiatives.
      • Everyone bears part of the responsibility, but those with more, bear more.
      • And those with less, get more.
    3. This is also why we want to do more for the less privileged in terms of housing, retirement adequacy, healthcare and many other areas.
  2. This helps us to ensure that the gaps in society are not too stark, opening us up to the politics of envy and threatening the harmony of our society.
    1. It also helps us to avoid the need for affirmative action, to decide who should or should not be given opportunities based on who they are, rather than what they can do, and what they can be.
  3. However, we must never degenerate into a system where everyone thinks they deserve more relative to others.
    1. Indeed, I see this as one of our major challenges.
    2. I fear a day when we constantly feel a sense of relative deprivation from seeing someone else getting more help than us, instead of feeling a sense of gratitude at being helped, or feeling a sense of satisfaction at being able to help someone else.
    3. We will then lose our social cohesion to the politics of envy.
    4. Perhaps, we need to regularly remind ourselves that it is more blessed to give, than if we are just to receive. Or as the Chinese say, "施比受更为有福".
    5. The ultimate measure of our success as a society is not how many people we can help because they are unable to keep up; but how few people we need to help because we have enabled them to thrive.
      • A sustainable and resilient meritocracy is one where the largest possible number of people are enabled to achieve and contribute; to take care of the fewest number possible who are unable to achieve as much.

21. Sixth, we need to imbue the right values in all our people from young, so that they can grow to become individuals who are willing to give back to society and create more opportunities for others.

  1. All of us must recognise that our individual success is never just due to our own abilities and hard work.
    1. That without the opportunities that society provided us, and the help from others along the way, we may not be where we are here today.
  2. So even as we celebrate and enjoy the fruits of our own labour, we must not forget to give back to society and others around us.
    1. To share the networks and ties that have helped us, so that others may also similarly benefit from the same opportunities and access.
  3. Today, our schools already facilitate this sharing of social capital across different schools.
    1. Through cluster-based programmes like co-curricular activities, Values in Action initiatives and other holistic development programmes, students from different schools can come together, get to know one another, learn how to communicate and collaborate with one another, and form friendships that go beyond their own schools.
  4. Going forward, we will further strengthen our school cluster system.
    1. To enable better pooling and sharing of resources, and allow more students to benefit from wider networks and build their social capital.
    2. We can do more of these through co-curricular activities, Values in Action programmes and even selected curriculum.
  5. We encourage everyone in society to partner us in these efforts.
    1. Contribute your time and talent, beyond treasures. Show our students the way forward and help to nurture a more giving generation in time to come.
    2. Share your networks and opportunities with the next generation of students, not just in your alma mater but in other schools as well, to help them succeed like you did.
      • I therefore call on the alumni of the more established schools to come forward, to join hands with us, to contribute to the wider community of schools, so that we can all progress together, faster and better.
  6. This is something that all of us, who have gone through the system and succeeded, can and should do.
    1. Some may ask: what can I contribute if I am not as successful? If I did not come from a school with a more illustrious history? If I do not earn a big salary, wear expensive clothes, live in a big house or drive a fancy car?
    2. My answer is simply this: those material achievements are not the only yardsticks of success; nor should they define our ability to contribute. Neither should they determine the respect and dignity that one deserves.
    3. Instead, we must define success by how much we contribute to others and the greater good, and not just how much we achieve for ourselves.
    4. We should have the courage to step up, and say "I can always contribute something, according to my abilities, regardless of where I am in life".
    5. I look forward to the day when our society defines success not just by one's achievements, but more importantly by one's contributions.
    6. When a true son or daughter of Singapore who earns and deserves our respect is one whose contributions not only commensurate with his or her achievements, but also one who contributes to the best of his or her abilities.


22. Mdm Deputy Speaker, let me conclude.

23. In an increasingly volatile and uncertain environment, we need to avoid over-structuring our system and processes to give our people a false sense of security, while eroding their development to handle an uncertain and untidy world.

  1. Instead, we must provide multiple pathways with diverse metrics of success, while equipping our people with the life skills they need to thrive in the 21st century.
  2. To allow our people to chart their own way forward, according to their own strengths and talents.

24. In an increasingly competitive world, we can easily fall into the trap of always looking at the right side of the bell curve and feeling eternally inadequate.

  1. Instead, we must remind ourselves of our gifts and responsibilities to help those who are less privileged than us.

25. In an increasingly unequal and uncertain world, we need to strengthen our sense of solidarity and collective assurance, without eroding the individual's responsibility and sense of agency.

  1. We must come together, as individuals, as parents, as employers, and as a community.
    1. To celebrate diverse forms of abilities and contributions.
    2. To recognise and respect the dignity of those who contribute in different ways to society.
    3. To help everyone upskill continually and move up the ladder throughout our lifetimes.
    4. And to give back to society and others who have helped us along the way.

26. Finally, the Singapore Story is a living story.

  1. Do not be taken by hubris to think that we have "arrived" or can ever "arrive", and need not evolve or improve anymore.
  2. We understand the merits of our system and how far it has helped us to come this far as a society, by unleashing our potential as individuals. Yet we are not complacent to think that we can ever stop improving our system. Any living system that doesn't grow, will wither.
  3. The mark of our success is not just how well we enable this generation to achieve success, but how well we establish the conditions for the next generation to be even more successful than us.
  4. Only so, will we be able to continuously write new chapters of the Singapore Story.
  5. There may never be a perfect system to develop all the perfect students or workers for our societal needs. But we can all contribute our part to build a better or less imperfect system, to continually inspire our people and all who believe in our dream –
    1. to build a resilient and sustainable meritocratic system to bring out the best from all,
    2. to be a beacon of cohesion with unity of purpose in a troubled world,
    3. a society with a sense of collective responsibility towards one another;
    4. a society with respect for diverse abilities;
    5. a society that rewards hard work, and talent;
    6. a society that recognises contributions beyond achievements; and
    7. a society with gratitude for our blessings to want to do good for all beyond ourselves.
    8. And finally, a nation confident to defy the odds of history to survive and thrive beyond SG100.

27. Thank you.