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Speech by Minister Chan Chun Sing at the IPS 35th Anniversary Conference: Revisit

Published Date: 12 June 2023 09:30 AM

News Speeches

Can Meritocracy Continue to Help Singapore Defy the Odds?

Good morning distinguished guests

1. Congratulations to IPS on your 35th anniversary.

  1. Milestones like these are a timely reminder to reflect about our road travelled, and the paths ahead.
  2. It is fitting that IPS has chosen to focus on revisiting our social, political and economic foundations – how far they have brought us, and how much we must continue to evolve them to take us forward amidst the new challenges.

2. IPS' decision to kickstart proceedings today by revisiting meritocracy speaks to how it has been a core pillar of Singapore's Story and our success.

3. For this morning's panel, let me share how meritocracy must evolve to continue to enable Singapore to defy the odds of history:

  1. For us to attract talent and secure our relevance in a fragmenting world.
  2. For us to create new economic opportunities for our businesses in a fragile global economic order; and
  3. To distinguish ourselves as a cohesive, compassionate and caring people amidst a fractious world.

Revisiting Meritocracy

4. Let me start by looking at what meritocracy is. Simply put, meritocracy is a system in which –

  1. People and ideas are recognised, rewarded and respected based on how they perform,
  2. Rather than who they are or where they come from.

5. As a young nation, Singapore could have chosen many ways to organise and govern ourselves:

  1. The rich and well connected could have demanded to lead, and to bestow favourable positions on their family and friends. You can think of Plutocracy, Aristocracy or even Nepotism.
  2. Amidst racial tensions and strife, we could also have allowed only certain ethnic groups to rise, based on their proportion, background or heritage. Again, we can think of Majoritarianism and Systemic Racism.
  3. We have seen these played out in many parts of the world throughout history.

6. Instead, we chose to organise ourselves as a meritocracy – where people were rewarded based on their own ability and hard work.

  1. Compared with many other societies, many more successful Singaporeans come from poor and middle-class homes and from different language schools.
  2. They were able to rise because Singapore had created a system where they had the opportunities to rise regardless of their background or connections.
  3. By giving everyone a fair shot at success, meritocracy inspired all of us to strive to be our best, and to use our talents to give back to Singapore and to society.

7. Meritocracy has thus far allowed Singapore to defy the odds –

  1. To maximise the only natural resource we have – our people and their talents.
  2. To grow from a third-world country to the thriving global city we are today.

8. For a young country, there did not and does not seem to be a better set of organising principles for people to compete and excel.

9. Now, more than 50 years on, Singapore faces new challenges.

  1. We are a much more mature, affluent and educated society, but there are concerns about growing disparities – not just in income, but also wealth, social capital, connections and opportunities.
  2. We are also much more globally connected, and much more aware of the opportunities and inequalities around the world.
  3. And though we have achieved many successes, we can easily fall prey to complacency, and end up being victims of our own success.

10. Thus, it is timely to ask ourselves – amidst our changing realities, can meritocracy continue to help Singapore defy the new odds, and succeed?

Pitfalls of Meritocracy

11. Meritocracy is not a perfect system. No system is.

12. A few months ago, at the Opening of Parliament, I shared four potential pitfalls of meritocracy we must be wary of. Let me briefly recap them.

  1. First, success in a meritocracy cannot be based on a single, static and narrow metric.
    1. As society matures, those who have succeeded will want to perpetuate the same yardsticks and measures of success, narrowing our talent pool, reducing our diversity and resilience as a society.
    2. But a single, static, and narrow metric that does not keep up with the times can easily cause us to stagnate and become irrelevant.
  2. Second, our meritocracy cannot reward success only at pre-determined, fixed points.
    1. People develop at different paces and demonstrate different abilities at different stages of their lives.
    2. We must recognise this and have a system of "continuous meritocracy", where no single test at any one point in time determines the rest of one's life.
  3. Third, meritocracies have a tendency to stratify over time.
    1. It is perhaps human nature to want to pass on our wealth and privileges to our children.
    2. But these natural tendencies risk creating an endowment effect – with meritocracy becoming harder and harder for those with less, or those who are less privileged. And over time, if we are not careful, this may then degenerate into aristocracy or plutocracy.
  4. Fourth, meritocracies can lead to the misplaced belief that one's success is solely the result of one's own talent and hard work.
    1. Yes, hard work and talent are factors for success. However, we do not succeed alone – we are indebted to the support of those around us – parents, mentors, teachers, friends.

Can Meritocracy Help Singapore Defy the Odds?

13. So can meritocracy continue to help Singapore defy the odds of history? Meritocracy has helped Singapore succeed in the last 50 years, but unless we consciously keep strengthening the system and avoiding the pitfalls, it may not continue to do so for the next 50 years.

14. But just because meritocracy can be flawed, like any other system, that does not mean we should give it up altogether.

15. If I may borrow a turn of phrase from Winston Churchill,

  1. Meritocracy may be the worst system,
  2. Except for all those others that have been tried.

16. So instead, we ask ourselves how can our meritocracy help Singapore to be even more relevant, competitive and cohesive in the next 50 years.

Meritocracy to Keep Singapore Attractive and Relevant

17. First, a meritocratic system keeps Singapore relevant and attractive, so that the best will want to compete for and connect with Singapore.

18. Compared to 50 years ago, Singapore's position in the world has improved considerably.

  1. Our standard of living has vastly improved. We enjoy good standing in the international community, and have friends and partners around the world.

19. But our fundamentals have not changed.

  1. We will always be a small country without a conventional hinterland;
  2. We will always need to be connected to the world to secure our lifelines and livelihoods;
  3. And our people will always be our most valuable resource.

20. In fact, in the "new normal", where talent is more mobile and remote work is increasingly the norm, the ability to attract and retain talent will be even more important for our success going forward.

  1. If we trip up and lose our attractiveness to talent and relevance to the region and the world, someone else will quickly overtake us, and we will be relegated to the has-been.
  2. But if we get it right, we can overcome the constraints of our size and geography many times over, by growing our pool of talent and networks even more to support our continued success.

21. Meritocracy is what helps us to attract, deepen and widen our talent networks.

  1. By giving good people from Singapore and beyond the chance to realise their potential, rise up, and contribute to our continued survival and success,
  2. And by attracting those who want to connect, collaborate and compete within a rules-based system that is not beset by corruption, nepotism or cronyism.

22. We may take this for granted,

  1. But in many other systems, success in business, and even political leadership, is very often determined not by the quality of one's ideas,
  2. Instead it could be determined by the depths of one's pocket and the networks of one's family.

23. When we think of a place for the best and the brightest, for many years, the US has occupied a special place in the popular imagination.

  1. Not because Americans had the best test scores or the most naturally talented people;
  2. But because people believed that regardless of who they were or where they came from, they had a fair shot of the American dream.
  3. And this is perhaps America's greatest competitive advantage – that vast numbers of people around the world aspire to be Americans, or to partner them and contribute to their continued vitality.

24. Here in Singapore, we have also worked hard to build a principled and fair system, founded on the meritocratic principle.

  1. People want to commit their future here and do business here because they know that what matters here is the quality of their output,
  2. And that they will find a fair and open platform that allows the best ideas to thrive.

25. So while we may only be a society of four million Singaporeans here as family, we can aspire for 40 million friends of Singapore and perhaps 400 million fans of Singapore.

  1. Because we aim to be a beacon of fairness and opportunity, whose influence can multiply our population many times, beyond our shores.

Meritocracy to Keep Singapore Business Competitive

26. That brings me to my second point.

27. Meritocracy is essential to keep us competitive, to remain relevant in a fragile economic global environment.

28. While meritocracy will help us attract the best, that is not the end goal. Instead, we want the best to also emerge from Singapore.

29. The meritocratic principle is key to making this happen:

  1. If your ideas are fairly rewarded purely based on their quality, rather than your connections or wealth,
  2. Then people and businesses will be driven to create new and better ideas, and to put their intellectual property here.
    1. Ideas that are safer, more efficient, and more innovative,
    2. That have a greater value proposition for others,
    3. That efficiently meet new needs and demands.

30. In our business landscape, we do this by designing a fair regulatory environment, and leaving the market to reward ideas that have value.

31. But we need to do this for individuals too:

  1. Firstly, by ensuring that our meritocracy is fair, and rewards people based on their talent and ability, and not their wealth or family background.
    1. By giving those with less every possible support, so that those who start with less in life can also make the most of their abilities and talents;
    2. And by investing in our people for a longer time - not just in their first 15 years of life in school, but also in the next 50 years of their life beyond school.
  2. Secondly, as the world becomes more complex, by moving to recognise excellence across a more diverse range of abilities and talents that are important for our society, and in turn, make us a much more resilient society with a diversity of strengths.
    1. This allows us to draw from a wide pool of talent rather than a privileged few,
    2. And to find the best of a diverse range of strengths.
    3. These strengths will form the basis of our resilience.

32. If we can get these meritocratic principles right, we will create a virtuous cycle,

  1. Of finding and attracting the best people and ideas from both a local and global pool,
  2. And allowing the best in diverse areas to compete with each other, so that they can become even better.

33. So despite the fact that others might be bigger than us and have more resources, even as we face new changes and new shocks,

  1. We will not be displaced,
  2. Because we have built an adaptable, resilient economy with the capacity to innovate,
  3. By giving people the opportunities and businesses the ability to realise their potential and compete fairly based on their capabilities and the quality of their ideas.

Meritocracy to Keep Singapore Cohesive

34. Finally, we need meritocracy to keep Singapore cohesive – to unite us, and not to divide us.

35. In many countries, a narrow definition of merit – based on credentials and college qualifications – has bifurcated society:

  1. Into the elites and the non-elites, the haves and the have-nots.
  2. These fractures have grown to form deep political and social divides.

36. But this is not the inevitable outcome of meritocracy.

37. A more encompassing definition of merit can instead unify us:

  1. As it allows us to respect and reward different abilities, and to build dignity for each other's strengths,
  2. So that diversity is a source of unity for us, rather than a source of discord.

38. To broaden our definition of merit,

  1. We have been moving away from defining success by any single, static, and narrow metric,
    1. Including the PSLE results, grade point averages, or whether one holds a degree or diploma.
  2. We must also fairly reward and remunerate different kinds of work, including technical, or service and community care roles – or what we call the "heart" and "hand" work – to a level that is commensurate with the more recognised cognitive "head" work.
    1. We are working to uplift the wages of lower-wage workers, and investing more in the quality of vocational instruction, not just in the schools, but also for lifelong learning.
    2. 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.

39. But beyond wages, it is also about the respect and the dignity we afford to our people.

40. Many of us here may remember Jack Neo's film 'I Not Stupid', 小孩不笨. I hear that there will be a third film soon.

  1. For those who have not seen it, it is about the struggles of three students with weaker academic ability.
  2. Because they did not do well academically, they were looked down upon by their schoolmates, not respected by society, and seen as failures in life.

41. The first film was released more than 20 years ago. But these anxieties remain very real for many today.

42. If our society continues to respect only those who have the highest test scores and perhaps the most impressive academic credentials,

  1. There will be many more 'I Not Stupid' films reflecting these concerns,
  2. Because the schools you went to, to how much you earn, will continue to be a deep fissure that divides society.

43. Instead, my hope for Singapore is that we can be at peace with each other's diverse abilities, by

  1. Respecting one another for their diverse contributions to our society, and
  2. Having confidence in our own respective abilities, knowing that we are each contributing to the best of our ability.

44. A final word on success – no matter how perfect a meritocratic system, there will still be those who gain and those who gain less.

45. But although meritocracy promises rewards for our talent, ability and hard work:

  1. We must not fall into the trap of believing that we are the sole masters of our own successes,
  2. And look down on those who have not done as well in life.

46. In fact, we are indebted to the support of those around us – parents, mentors and friends, who have shared their life advice and connections with us, and supported us emotionally, and even financially.

47. But not everyone may have been so equally blessed.

48. So even in a meritocratic society, let us take care of one another.

  1. Let us recognise that our individual success is not just due to our own abilities and hard work, but also due to the opportunities given to us by the system and the support of those around us.
  2. And give back, so that others will be uplifted too and may seek different and better lives.

49. If we can all do this, then Singapore's brand of meritocracy will unite us instead of dividing us –

  1. By encouraging us to strive together for success in our own diverse ways;
  2. And by inspiring us to look not just ahead at our own path to success, but to look around, to see how we can help those striving alongside us. It is not just about us pulling ahead of the crowd, but it is about us bringing everyone along together.


50. So, allow me to conclude.

51. Meritocracy has been and will continue to be a core pillar of Singapore's survival and success.

52. But while meritocracy has worked well for us for the last 50 years, meritocracy without continuous evolution will not be sufficient for the next 50 years.

  1. It must be tempered by well-designed systems to recognise and reward merit fairly and broadly, while leaning against the natural tendencies for humans to stratify because we all want to pass our wealth and privileges to the next generation.
  2. And it must be tempered with nimbleness and adaptability such that our diverse dimensions of merit evolve to meet the needs of the times, instead of remaining static and narrow.
  3. And most importantly, meritocracy must be combined with the right values – gratitude for what we have received and compassion towards those who have not had these advantages in life and a collective sense of responsibility for us to uplift everyone together.

53. This will be key to Singapore's success if we continue to seek to defy the odds.

54. With that, I look forward to our discussions on how we can continue to evolve and improve our meritocratic system to ensure that Singapore remains attractive, competitive and cohesive for us to defy the odds of history for many more years to come.

55. Thank you.