Second Minister for Education and Finance Indranee Rajah said Singapore needs to build an “enabling meritocracy” that uplifts those at the bottom without capping the growth of those at the top.

Widening inequality in Singapore has triggered calls for a rethink of meritocracy, but the solution to the problem lies not in abolishing it altogether but to create an “enabling meritocracy”, Second Minister for Education and Finance Indranee Rajah said last July 18, 2019.

In such a system, those at the bottom are uplifted, without capping the growth of those at the top, she said.

She made these remarks in a speech at this year’s National University of Singapore’s Social Service Research Centre Conference, which was attended by about 300 participants including academics, policymakers and social workers.

In her speech, she outlined how the fourth generation of Singapore’s political leaders plan to approach the issue of inequality and social mobility.

The approach is two-fold, she said: First, the Government will continue to strengthen support for those who have less. Second, it will create opportunities for all at every stage of life.

“We must remember that meritocracy was adopted as an antidote to corruption and nepotism, and a means of ensuring that positions were obtained on the basis of substantive ability. Doing away with meritocracy would be an invitation for those ills to re-surface and weaken our system,” she said.

“The crux of the matter is not the principle of meritocracy per se. The crux of the matter is that while we have worked very hard to provide equal opportunities, those from the lower income and disadvantaged backgrounds might find it harder to access these opportunities.”

The Government’s approach, therefore, is “to improve access to these opportunities among the less advantaged and make the most of the opportunities on offer, to bridge the shortfalls and narrow the gaps so that all can rise together — an enabling meritocracy if you will,” Ms Indranee added.

In tandem with this, there must be “multiple pathways for achievement, success and careers to ensure continuing social mobility”, she said.

“Some may progress faster, others may take longer; some may take familiar routes, others the path less travelled, but ultimately all can have good outcomes — not necessarily the same outcomes — with effort on their part and, where needed, with support from government and others,” she said.

Why It Matters

The issue of social mobility has been a hot topic of national discussion in recent years, amid growing recognition that widening inequality, if left unchecked, can have dire social and political consequences for society at large.

In February last year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the issues of mitigating income inequality, ensuring social mobility and enhancing social integration are critical.

“If we fail – if widening income inequalities result in a rigid and stratified social system, with each class ignoring the others or pursuing its interests at the expense of others – our politics will turn vicious, our society will fracture and our nation will wither,” he had said in a written parliamentary reply then.

At the conference on Thursday, Ms Indranee said the complexity of social inequality is exacerbated by technological advancements, and some of the changes have caused worsening wage dispersion, with lower-skilled workers at risk of being shut off from the new opportunities being created.

These new trends pose challenges that did not exist in earlier decades, she said, adding that as the needs and viewpoints in society continue to become more diverse, such a situation will make it easy for new fault-lines to emerge between the haves and have-nots, or the will-haves and the won’t-haves.

“What is at stake therefore is the very nature of our society,” she said. “This is not just the task of the Government. It is the task of everyone because it affects all of us.”

What Has Been Done To Tackle Social Inequality

Ms Indranee highlighted several measures that the Government has taken so far to strengthen support for children from lower-income households and to help their families afford housing and gain access to better jobs and higher wages.

For example:

  • To subsidise the costs of early childhood education, the Kindergarten Fee Assistance Scheme and Basic and Additional Subsidies for childcare have been enhanced to extend support to middle income households.
  • To increase the availability, affordability and quality of preschool education for all, the Anchor Operator Scheme and Ministry of Education kindergartens were set up. Fee subsidies are also available for those in need.
  • KidStart was launched to provide targeted intervention for children from low-income households and their families.
  • The UPLIFT scholarship was introduced to provide an S$800 annual cash award to students from lower-income families who have performed well to be admitted into independent schools. This will help offset their out-of-pocket expenses, so that such students and their families will not be deterred from applying to these schools.
  • To better match community resources to schools and needy students, an UPLIFT Programme Office will be set up to strengthen support for disadvantaged students and families.
  • Since 2013, the Government has progressively set up Social Service Offices near housing precincts with residents in need of social services, making these services much more accessible.

Ms Indranee also highlighted the efforts of the community and individuals who actively reach out to those with less. One of them is Mr Lim Seng Kee, an airside operations manager who plays football with a group of youths.

She said that Mr Lim was not only the youth’s “football kaki (friend)”, but also a “role model and trusted mentor” who, through the sharing of his life experiences, motivates, inspires and encourages them to be resilient.

Such “ground-up volunteerism” is important as it strengthens the ecosystem of care and support for disadvantaged students and also offers people an avenue to give back, she said.

Source: TODAY Online

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