Commentary: Why Singapore needs to move towards a meritocracy of skills and contributions
An educational meritocracy aims to reward on the basis of two ingredients: efforts and abilities.
An educational meritocracy aims to reward on the basis of two ingredients: Efforts and abilities.
While these are not always directly observable, it is assumed that they would eventually translate into grades attained in school.
Yet the problem with grade fixation is that efforts and abilities are themselves mediated by a third ingredient: Class background.
That in turn can be tied to things such as the home environment and exposure to private enrichment, which can increase the odds of the accumulation of the first two ingredients.
In this manner, educational meritocracy, as it stands, would seem to advantage wealthier families in particular who have resources to acquire diverse forms of capital.
WHY INEQUALITY IS A WICKED PROBLEM
Inequality presents a wicked problem precisely because capitals compound to accelerate status and widen inequality.
For example, wealth as “economic capital” can be converted to other forms of capital such as “human capital” (for example, obtaining an overseas education), both of which might translate to “cultural capital”, referring to the accumulation of styles of speech and behaviours that conform to high society.
In truth, the wealthy have more of each type of capital, and are able to use them synergistically to advance over the rest.
Meritocracy worked well in the past as a great source of social mobility.
In the early years, it started off as a means of social mobility, but over time, it evolved to become, unwittingly, a means of social reproduction.
This meant that once unequal lines have been established from past competition, exercising meritocracy today would merely extend the lead of earlier winners.
Materially, there was no better time to be transitioning into adulthood than in the 1960s and 1970s, especially if one were a tertiary graduate.
These early winners formed a blessed generation. They would have been able to create a significant lead for their own children. It is hard to wind that back.
A MERITOCRACY OF SKILLS
In her opening address to Parliament on April 10 at the opening of its second session, President Halimah Yacob said there was a need to “broaden meritocracy”.
She also said the Government must “rethink its approach to education and work” so that advantages and privileges do not become entrenched and persist over generations.
As to what exactly this means needs a fuller articulation from the Government. But this is what I imagine it to mean for now.
First, if not a meritocracy of grades, what then?
There seems to be a growing consensus about the growing importance of a skills meritocracy. Focusing on skills can mitigate inequality in at least two ways:
- It exposes grades for what they sometimes are, as mere credentialism, more ceremony and signalling than a true reflection of acquired abilities
- It gives people with less sterling grades a chance to prove themselves through their talents, acquired skills and contributions
Second, to the extent that society is paying more attention to skills, it challenges students to redefine their own measures of success and view their respective futures in broader terms.
This would pave the way for society to recognise a diversity of skills as worthy of being celebrated as opposed to the veneration of a singular marker of success.
As a society, we stand at the cusp of a golden opportunity to rethink our definition of success, not in terms of individual achievements (which a culture of grades competition fosters), but in terms of our contributions to society in the form of exercising our special talents and skills to make society a better place.
This requires a serious rethink of what “skills” mean, and some soul searching.
The value we put on skills is different not in the sense that some skills are inherently superior and others inferior, but in how we as a society have constructed some skills as being more respectable than others.
It is understandable that some skills will need to be paid more because investments in training and skill complexities can be vastly different.
But the gap between “high-skilled” and “low-skilled” jobs (if it must be called such) can at least be narrowed.
The Progressive Wage Model (PWM), which sets out salary benchmarks commensurate with rise in skills across various sectors, makes a good start with aspirations of turning low-wage jobs into crafts and careers.
In short, it recognises the importance of skills and celebrates their rich varieties.
A MERITOCRACY OF CONTRIBUTIONS
Progressive wages invite us to challenge pre-existing notions of skills not as capabilities ordered by hierarchy, but as capabilities recognised for their diversity and unique contributions.
In pursuing progressive wages, we ultimately acknowledge, soberly, that there are no “poor” skills per se but only poorly-paid workers.
This discussion calls into question our obsession with status hierarchies.
As long as we view skills in terms of hierarchies (instead of skills in terms of diversity of contribution), the consequence is that we tend to fixate on symbol, ceremony, and comparison, which can turn out to be psychologically and socially detrimental.
The call to better wages for low-wage workers not only boosts their economic well-being, but also their social standing.
When income inequalities between groups are narrowed, they reduce social comparisons and shift hierarchical patterns of thinking into more collaborative modes of imagination.
An educational meritocracy perpetuates a situation where perceived lack of academic success is attributed solely to personal failings in efforts and abilities, thus undermining the value of unique contributions that are not strictly tied to grades or academic success.
On the other hand, a meritocracy of diverse skills and contributions reframes this entirely, shifting the emphasis from competition to collaboration.
In her speech, the President said that “ultimately, our refreshed social compact is about a shared understanding of how we relate to and support one another in our next phase of nationhood”.
To me, broadening meritocracy would mean precisely the imbibing of a diverse interpretation of skills, a focus directed towards unique contributions, as well as concerted efforts at attenuating psychological and physical hierarchies, of all which I believe, creates a more cohesive society.
The suggestion is made here for a meritocracy of contributions to displace a meritocracy of grades, where each person is valued for their vocation and not their victory over others.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Vincent Chua is Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at National University of Singapore. His research interests are in social stratification, with a focus on how social networks have extended durable inequalities at workplaces, schools, and along categorical lines such as gender, race and class background.
Related topicsmeritocracy inequality education
Read more of the latest in