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Meritocracy is still the best model

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Education Minister says system has to tackle new challenges

While the ongoing debate over social inequality has led to some valid criticism of meritocracy, it is still the best model for Singapore, said Education Minister Ong Ye Kung.

But the system has to evolve, he said, to tackle new challenges and move away from a narrow focus on past academic merit, to recognise and celebrate a broader range of skills, talents, and strengths.

"It should translate into tangible changes in the way we hire people, admit students to tertiary institutions, grant awards and scholarships, and accord respect to fellow Singaporeans," said Mr Ong.

He was speaking yesterday at an event by charity Equal-Ark, a day after the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development released a report on equity.

The report found Singapore to be one of the most successful countries when it comes to uplifting successive generations through education. But it noted that disadvantaged students seemed to be concentrated in certain schools, and that they found it tough to match their local well-to do peers, despite outdoing students on the global stage.

Addressing the report, Mr Ong said that meritocracy has helped hundreds of thousands beat the odds - 15 years ago, half of students from the bottom 20 per cent on the socio-economic scale went on to post-secondary education.

Today, nine in 10 do. Over the same period, the proportion of those from this group who went on to get a publicly-funded degree or diploma has risen from 40 to 50 per cent.

But "what used to work for us is starting to work against us", said Mr Ong.

"As families do well, they spare no effort in investing in the abilities of their children, specially when they believe in meritocracy. As a result, children from different family backgrounds are pushing off blocks from different starting lines."

The proportion of students from lower income families is shrinking.

"Ten years ago, about 20 per cent of our employed households had an income of $3,000 or less... Today, this has gone down to well below 15 per cent. But that also means that the smaller group of families that continue to remain poor are facing more difficult challenges.

"Every time we read stories about these families, we feel a strong sense of sympathy, and even injustice. But they have always been there through the decades, except that in the past, they were part of a much bigger group that many of us belonged to as well."

Mr Ong stressed the need to recognise that challenges have arisen not from meritocracy's failure but from its success.

"So let us not discard meritocracy, for I don't think it has finished running its useful course."

The ministry already provides more resources to weaker students. And it has been investing heavily in kindergartens to help lower-income families access quality early education.