Why Singapore Needs To Change Its Approach To Tackling Inequality

Inequality is a hot topic in Singapore, triggering calls to rethink meritocracy and improve social mobility.

The latest government buzzword is “enabling meritocracy”, explained by Second Minister for Education and Finance Indranee Rajah as uplifting the bottom (not capping the top) – 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.

enabling meritocracy
How Singapore plans to reduce inequality, ensuring social mobility

A question posted on Quora on what should be done to build “enabling meritocracy” in Singapore elicited a reply from Mr Patrick Liew, whose answer deserves a mention in entirety below.

Meritocracy should not be about winning but about leading others.

Winning is about playing a short-term zero-sum game.

Forging ahead at the expense of others, and achieving better results and leaving others behind.

In short, others would have to lose for someone to win.

On the other hand, leading is about playing a positive-sum game.

It’s about leading others in the process of leading oneself.

Sharing the responsibility of helping others who do not enjoy the same position and advantage as oneself.

And producing better results while reaching out to help others raise their level of performance and achievements.

In doing so, nobody has to undergo a struggle of comparing with each other and develop an unhealthy competition to be ahead of each other.

There’s no need to tumble over each other and get stressed out to reach a lose-lose destination.

The end result of playing a positive-sum game is that both the leader and his team can accomplish more, and help to make a more positive impact on the people and environment around them.

Effective and compassionate meritocracy is about recognizing and honoring such leaders who serve a greater good.

Unfortunately, the concept of meritocracy has largely been based on students’ achievements in developing their logical and linguistic intelligences.

However, many educational researchers such as Howard Gardner have posited that there are multiple intelligences.

Case in point, moral intelligence can be more important than intelligence of the intellect.

Altruistic intelligence can be just as important as logical intelligence.

Creativity in resolving problems and innovation in developing solutions can be more important than just acquiring and reproducing content knowledge.

Helping students to discover their unique set of gifts, talents and aspirations, and be able to leverage on their strengths to contribute to their future workplaces and society can make for a better Singapore and brighter future.

If we become overly-focused on academic results, and students pursue grades at all costs and without considering for others, we may end up with social issues such as the not-in-my-backyard syndrome that we are witnessing in many corners of our communities.

To improve social mobility and increase Gini coefficient, we need to start from young by inculcating in students the importance of helping each other address these issues and to work as a team to address other social injustice.

We need to broaden our perspective of meritocracy to ensure that it becomes a more compassionate, inclusive, and effective meritocracy.

In this regard, I would like to propose that the government intervene and take a more active role in the upbringing of children from broken and disadvantaged homes.

There is a common saying: “Inequality starts at birth.”

To resolve social inequality, we need to start helping the disadvantaged early and if possible, right from birth.

Research has shown that children whose parents are unwedded, divorced or separated tend to have lower emotional and social quotients.

These and other deficiencies can affect their educational attainment and social mobility, and distort virtues of meritocracy.

For us to achieve “progress for our nation,” we need to eradicate such an inequality.

Ensure that vulnerable children are not directly or indirectly disadvantaged because of their parents’ decisions and behaviours.

In addition, we need a more concerted effort to help vulnerable children enjoy healthy growth, including targeted interventions in the areas of quality intellectual and emotional care, nutrition, health care, and pre-school education.

Provide adequate nutrition to the children and ensure proper physical development, and also social protection to support proper care and growth.

Promote a healthy childhood experience and environment so as to enhance socio-emotional, cognitive and linguistic developments.

The quality of our nation-building process depends on quality of our early childhood development for every child in Singapore, and especially for the last, the least, the lonely, and the lost.

Meritocracy should be about developing every person to his or her maximum potential in accordance with his/her talents, strengths and passions.

Helping them to pursue multiple pathways to achieve peaks of excellence that will contribute to greater good.

The purpose of meritocracy is therefore to unite and not to divide the people, and to advance their interests and not to serve any personal interests.

It is to raise the tide for all – and not for any exclusive groups – to achieve a better standard of living.

How can workers experience “enabling meritocracy”?

The Progressive Wage Model is one way that workers (especially low wage workers) can climb upwards based on their skills, productivity and career responsbilities. Combined with Workfare, low wage workers have additional income supplement to manage rising costs of living.

Enabling Meritocracy
Basic wage floors will rise every year, as a result of negotiations by the Union of Security Employees with security agencies and government. In the Security Progressive Wage Model, security officers can also get promoted from one level to another, hastening their wage increase. (Graphic: MOM)

Unions negotiate wage increases in Collective Agreements with companies, and form Company Training Committees (where representatives from the union, government and management are involved) to uplift the skills of workers.

There is also more support for job seekers via the myriad alphabet soup of e2i, WSG, job agencies, headhunters, and even SGEnable to place people with disabilities into jobs.

Working mothers have access to childcare subsidies to place their children in preschool while they work, with social enterprises such as NTUC First Campus setting aside 15% of places in My First Skool for children from underprivileged families, with its Bright Horizons Fund to further subsidise preschool fees.

However, what can Singapore do to change its approach towards tackling inequality?

Although the Progressive Wage Model is in force in the cleaning, security and landscape industries, more low wage sectors should be covered by it. There is also cheap-sourcing of freelancers and contract staff who are offered a few dollars per hour of work.

Not every company recognises the union, so workers can be left stranded when companies close or retrench without warning.

What help retrenched workers get (Graphic: UWEEI)

In fact, workers can approach NTUC to learn how to unionise their company, and get workplace advice from the union.

Unfortunately, some companies still see the union as a zero-sum game when in fact, the union can help the company’s staff undergo training and collaborate to uplift their staff’s skills to meet market skills demand via Company Training Committees.

Jobless parents may feel overwhelmed in the job search and prioritise finding a job before committing to a preschool for their children due to fear they need to pay preschool fees (when they’re already struggling with household expenses). Having more outreach to assure these jobseekers of subsidised childcare and places for their children could facilitate their child’s enrolment earlier so his/her parents have more time to attend interviews, job fairs and career coaching to find a job.

Building communities instead of expecting quick-fix solutions from agencies also provide multiple support for workers, as they learn to trade skills and knowledge with each other, keep a lookout for their fellow community members and connect loose ends to help their friends find jobs. Engaging the beneficiaries, jobseekers, stakeholders and organisations (instead of each operating in a silo mentality) increases synergies of our resources and networks.

There is quite a bit of work to be done to build enabling meritocracy, but with a collective effort of the people of Singapore, we have some chance of uplifting those at the bottom to be co-creators of their future too.


Featured photo: From Indranee Rajah’s FB page. My First Skool sets aside 15% of spaces for children from low-income families and subsidises their preschool fees via its Bright Horizons Fund.

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