Understanding the perceptions of meritocracy among Singaporean youth
Is there a shared perception or belief that upward socioeconomic mobility is attainable through the current practice of meritocracy? In-depth interviews with polytechnic students found that while the majority of them perceive socioeconomic mobility to be possible in theory, four demographic factors are seen to prevent Singapore’s meritocratic system from performing optimally.
Of late, political speeches and commentaries have sought to address rising concerns about income inequality and socioeconomic stratification in Singapore.
Underlying this apprehension about growing inequality and socioeconomic stratification is an unease over the health of meritocracy in Singapore.
The salience of meritocracy has been challenged on two fronts.
First, does growing inequality in Singapore indicate an underperforming system of meritocracy? Second, as meritocracy is intimately interwoven into Singapore’s social contract, how would its underperformance affect the social fabric?
While these questions certainly warrant attention from policymakers, there is one question absent from the current discussion. Is there a shared perception or belief that upward socioeconomic mobility is attainable through the current practice of meritocracy?
The importance of perception is a significant one. Perception influences action and, as such, the failure to believe in the possibility of socioeconomic mobility can challenge its very possibility.
Between 2016 and 2017, the Centre of Excellence for National Security at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies pitched this question to Singaporean youth.
The study, which involved in-depth interviews with 30 polytechnic students, provided an academically rigorous basis for conclusions to be made.
This was because saturation point — a situation where repetition in responses between interviews emerges —was reached. Each interview largely took up to an hour.
The study found that Singaporean youth believe in meritocracy, or at least, the principle of meritocracy. There is the dominant perception that upward socioeconomic mobility is possible in Singapore. In this sense, the national narrative of meritocracy generally holds.
Interviewees share the view that upward socioeconomic mobility, where reward is accorded based on capability and achievement, should be attainable.
There is an overwhelming belief that individual effort, hard work, and ability should determine job prospects and economic well-being.
With regard to their understanding of upward socioeconomic mobility, the majority of interviewees measured it in terms of financial success understood as purchasing power.
As such, financial success is exhibited through material possessions such as larger residential property, property in ideal locations, and car ownership.
Interestingly, while the majority of interviewees perceive socioeconomic mobility to be possible in theory, four demographic factors are seen to prevent Singapore’s meritocratic system from performing optimally. Specifically, interviewees stress class, education, ethnicity and gender as having a negative impact on meritocracy in Singapore and, following from this, opportunities for upward socioeconomic mobility.
In effect, interviewees articulated how intersectionality affects meritocracy and socioeconomic mobility – the system may not work as intended due to a combination of issues rather than a singular one.
First, class is perceived to have an unequal effect on upward socioeconomic mobility. While agreeing that meritocracy exists in Singapore, interviewees also believe better opportunities are available for individuals from wealthier families.
For instance, people are perceived to be accorded different starting points on the socioeconomic ladder as family connections are seen to present more job opportunities and promotions.
The amount of effort required is seen as unequal across socioeconomic groups, with those within lower socioeconomic groups having to work harder to achieve the same results or access the same opportunities as those in higher socioeconomic strata.
Second, education – specifically, the education system – is another variable seen to affect meritocracy as it appears to reward those who first succeed academically as opposed to late bloomers.
Students in the former category are understood to have more opportunities available to them because of how both society and the education system favour academic achievement.
Third, ethnicity – unpacked in the study as race, religion, and language – is viewed as part of an equation of inequality that negatively affects the possibility of upward socioeconomic mobility for all.
Interviewees observe that racial and religious stereotypes affect employment opportunities for ethnic minorities. In addition, ethnolinguistic minorities are perceived to be disadvantaged by hiring practices favouring Mandarin language-speakers.
While these reports are troubling in themselves, what is also of concern is the normalisation of this discrimination.
Interviewees see the selection process as acceptable given Singapore’s demographic and presumed ethnolinguistic bonds among the Chinese community, rather than exclusionary practices that negatively affect ethnolinguistic minorities.
Fourth, though interviewees maintain that gender does not affect job and education opportunities, a gender bias emerged nonetheless.
The different treatment of men and women in employment is held to be natural, with interviewees attributing favourable male biases to gendered stereotypes of physical strength and character traits, such as ambition and the capacity for leadership.
Overall, the positive finding of the study is that youth still perceive meritocracy to exist and upward socioeconomic mobility possible.
This said, upward socioeconomic mobility for all is perceived to be more difficult in practice for some due to a variety of demographic factors.
Admittedly, there is a need to triangulate the findings of this study with others to understand if perceptions of class, ethnicity, gender and educational disadvantages manifest in reality.
If further study does not reveal the perception as manifest in reality, there is a need to correct false perceptions. If studies do reveal the perception to be true in reality, policy attention is needed to redress inequalities in Singapore to arrive at a system of meritocracy that is both positively perceived and operating optimally in practice.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS:
Terri-Anne Teo is a Research Fellow and Norman Vasu is a Senior Fellow at the Centre of Excellence for National Security, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University. The report “Singaporean Youth and Socioeconomic Mobility” is available here.