|University||Singapore University of Social Science (SUSS)|
Read Text A carefully and write an argumentative essay of about 600-700 words in response to the following question.
Meritocracy has been upheld as a significant tenet of Singapore society. However, many critics argue that the approach of meritocracy has brought more problems than benefits. To what extent do you agree with this opinion?
Use the information from the text below as well as your knowledge to support your arguments. When using the information from text A, you are expected to acknowledge the source of it.
Meritocracy: Time For An Update?
Meritocracy is an idea that resonates with most Singaporeans. As a principle, meritocracy speaks to fairness, opportunity, and the promise of social mobility. In general, meritocracy refers to the notion that individuals are appointed (or promoted) to positions on the basis of their ability to do the job, and not because of their family background, ethnicity, age, gender, or national origin. In the everyday experience of Singaporeans, however, meritocracy has come to mean many things, not all positive. While it remains an ideal shared by many, some questions have been raised about how well our meritocracy is functioning in practice, after fifty years of nationhood.
With the advent of globalization, labor flows, and rising social inequality in societies around the world, critics have come forward with several criticisms of meritocracy as it is conceived and practiced today.
One criticism leveled at meritocracy is that it offers the promise of equality of opportunity, but does not deliver. In Singapore, the end of colonialism and its institutional discrimination against non-Europeans brought about a “reshuffling of the deck”, and consequently high rates of social mobility. This was accelerated in the years following Independence by the emphasis on education: heavy subsidies for public schools gave many Singaporeans of humble backgrounds a chance to prove themselves and succeed. Today, however, some have expressed concern that the lines of wealth, status, and cultural capital are gradually hardening.
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Official statistics show that Singaporean households in the top income quintile spend on average $175 a month on private tuition and other enrichment courses for their children. This is five times as much as what the household in the bottom income quintile typically spends. The suggestion is that this could entrench the advantages enjoyed by children of the wealth, enhancing the likelihood that they can succeed and do better in life compared to their less privileged peers.
Maintaining a high degree of social mobility will be a continuing challenge for Singapore, as it is for most advanced economies. Nevertheless, compared to many other societies, however, social mobility in Singapore is still high. A child born to parents in the bottom quintile of incomes has a 14% chance of attaining an income in the top quintile by the time they reach their early 30s; in contrast, they only have an 8% chance in the US and 9% in the UK.
What does it mean to hire, appoint, and promote the “best” person for the job? One criticism of meritocracy in Singapore is that there has been an over-reliance on academic credentials as a proxy for merit, particularly in the early stages of a person’s career. This narrow view is changing. Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam has pointed out that “Singapore must become a meritocracy of skills, not a hierarchy of grades earned early in life”. When hiring fresh employees, the public service and firms are placing greater value on the non-academic elements in their track record, seeking candidates with a breadth of experience and the ability to work in a team.
Systemic discrimination could also go unacknowledged. Studies of the US job market have shown that for resumes of equal standard, one assigned a typically African-American name such as Lakisha or Jamal has a 50% lower call-back rate compared to one assigned a typically white name such as Emily or Greg. Such studies have yet to be conducted in Singapore, but unconscious biases (such as on the basis of age, ethnicity, or gender) could still be at play.
The need for safeguards to preserve meritocracy in the workplace concerns not only ethnicity but also nationality. Many firms in Singapore have a multi-national workforce; in some cases, Singaporeans may be a minority within the firm. Some Singaporeans have alleged discrimination by hiring managers who have a preference for foreign nationalities (such as their own compatriots). Indeed, to address such concerns, the Fair Consideration Framework was established in 2014 to help ensure that qualified Singaporeans are considered for jobs fairly.
Many Paths to Success
If meritocracy also implies contest, other policy interventions help reduce the uncertainties and anxieties associated with a competitive education system and labor market, and provide assurance that there are multiple pathways to success.
For instance, many Singaporean parents continue to regard the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) as a “make-or-break” milestone that would determine whether their children could enter a prestigious school (presumed to have a higher quality of education and outcomes). In response, there have been efforts to make every school a good school, for example, appointing the best teachers and principals to schools with poorer student outcomes, to raise standards. The PSLE scoring system is also being changed to create wider bands for grades so that there is less competitive pressure surrounding this educational milestone.
Greater flexibility across the various academic streams now allows students to take each subject at the level that is comfortable for them. Singapore’s ITE and polytechnic system today also offers excellent teaching, nurturing skills valued by industry, representing a real alternative to the junior college and university route.
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