MERITOCRACY: YOU SHALL SOW WHAT YOU REAP

For an island so small that you can't run a marathon in a straight line in without hitting the sea, Singapore has done extremely well by any account.  It has zilch natural resources but today, Singapore outstrips almost all other countries in the world, including countries which are many times its size and have a far longer history than this young nation that hasn't even hit 50.  If you want the facts, here they are:  Singapore is the 6th best country in the world to be born in (Click here) and it comes in fifth in the world on education (Click here).

How did Singapore achieve this?  It all began with the vision of one man who decided that the country should be ruled by nothing else except meritocracy.  You shall sow what you reap.  If you are excellent in your studies, your work, etc, you deserve to be richly rewarded.  Your colour, creed, culture, social rank and ethnicity do not count one bit.  It's a nation without aristocrats.  Everybody is given a clean slate and you are judged by your performance with the clinical fairness that no other nation on earth can equal.

But not everybody wants meritocracy as recent developments have shown.   We must not discount the power of jealousy, that green-eyed monster that gnaws one's soul deep within the breast.  People are clamouring for the abolition or the revamping of the PSLE, the bastion of Singapore's meritocracy.  The PSLE is the nation's most important examination for 12-year-olds; it's a just, fair and bias-free secondary school placement examination.  I have discussed the examination elsewhere in my blog and you may read about it in the following links:

PSLE – Let this be the final word
What do parents want?
The Road to Mediocrity
Choosing a secondary school


One can't blame the government for listening to the voice of the majority.  Naturally, as in any examination, the majority always occupies the middle ground.  That's what happens in a Bell curve.  The majority will be somewhere in the "average" or middle part of a graph.  That means the majority of students won't rank among the top 3% in the PSLE examination.  That means the majority can't get into the nation's top school.  That means the majority won't be featured in the local news after the PSLE results are released every year because the majority won't be among the top students.

Like most other people, I belong to the majority.   My kids did not get featured in the newspapers after their PSLE results were released.  But I'm different from the majority in that I'm genuinely happy for the top scorers.  I like to read about them, their grit and determination, their hard work and sometimes, their struggles against the odds.  I like to give them pride of place in the nation for achieving the country's top scores in our most important examination.  And I like them to be role models to younger students.

But not everyone shares the joy of these top students who aren't our own kids.  Some of us are bitter and jealous.  We want the PSLE abolished or its importance to be reduced.  We don't want publicity given to these deserving top students.  We suggest that secondary schools take in students based on criteria which aren't clear and well-defined (possibly in the hope that our kids can enter top schools based on the ambiguity of the rules since we feel certain that they can't get accepted into top schools if the rules are fair and clearly spelt out).

It's not just that we are being utterly selfish and unjust when we ask for all this.  We are also ruining the nation.  We are in fact uprooting the very thing that has ensured Singapore's progress and command of the world's stage.  We are asking for the abolition of meritocracy.

I don't think the government will abolish meritocracy.  Meritocracy is synonymous with Singapore and is so deeply entrenched and intertwined in our very nature and identity that it is inconceivable that the government will give in to however loud a voice of envy we can muster.  But what I fear is small inroads may be made into our bastion of meritocracy and this is never a good thing.  And I see a start of it in the blocking out of news on the top PSLE students.  All institutions, media stations and newspaper publishers have stopped publishing the top results. Would this abate the flame of jealousy that rages in the hearts of some parents?  Would this satisfy the bitter majority?  I don't think so.  My wife just informed me that at her yoga class, some of the parents were speculating on the "real reason" for the blacking out of news on the top PSLE students.  One mother said she was certain the Ministry of Education did this because the top PSLE student this year was a foreigner and the Ministry did not want to agitate some Singaporeans who were concerned about foreigners taking over jobs in Singapore.

Instead of being grateful that the Ministry is trying to soothe feelings of jealousy that some parents have of kids brighter than their own, some of us postulate a totally different reason and again, it's one that speaks of jealousy and flies in the face of true meritocracy.  So what if the top student is a foreigner?  He still deserves to be given full recognition for being the top.  Meritocracy does not look at a person's colour or nationality.

Ultimately, the path of meritocracy is the only path to take.  It's the path Singapore has forged on its own and we reap the rewards today, to the envy of the rest of the world.  Let us not change our course.

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