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Meritocracy right approach, but could become 'dirty word': Education Minister Ong

SINGAPORE — Meritocracy remains the right approach for Singapore's education system, though there is some danger that it is becoming a "dirty word" because it may have given rise to systemic unfairness, said Education Minister Ong Ye Kung in Parliament on Wednesday (July 11).

Woodgrove Primary School students participating in a Mathematics class.

Woodgrove Primary School students participating in a Mathematics class.

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SINGAPORE — Meritocracy remains the right approach for Singapore's education system, though there is some danger that it is becoming a "dirty word" because it may have given rise to systemic unfairness, said Education Minister Ong Ye Kung in Parliament on Wednesday (July 11).

Still, banning tuition or redistributing resources from popular to less popular schools — as suggested by some sections of the public — is not the way to go, he stressed.

Mr Ong was responding to a motion on the future of education which was moved by five Nominated Members of Parliament (NMPs).

Thirteen Members of Parliament (MPs) and three political officeholders rose to speak during the debate, which lasted over four hours. In his speech, Mr Ong also rejected suggestions to abolish the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), and set quotas for low-income students in popular schools.

The latter would send the wrong signal, and goes against Singapore's societal ethos. "It can even be seen as patronising," he added.

Several MPs expressed concerns that Singapore's education system, which they said no longer had a level playing field, would give rise to "parentocracy", and could impede social mobility.

Offering several examples on how children from low-income families were at a disadvantage, NMP Azmoon Ahmad said their performances in school could be affected by personal circumstances that do not allow them to study at home – such as cramped living conditions or having to care for younger siblings – despite assistance.

"These are the very real circumstances that our students are going through and something needs to be done to help them," said Mr Azmoon.

"As Singapore progresses and develops further, we must ensure that every individual is sufficiently equipped to face the uncertain future."

Mr Ong acknowledged that there is an achievement gap between the rich and poor. Unlike the first generation of Singaporeans, subsequent batches are "pushing off blocks from different starting lines, with students from affluent families having a head start", he added.

While he said the "easiest way to close the gap is to cap the top", limiting opportunities is not the right approach, as this ran against "a fundamental philosophy of our education system".

Stress among students was another common concern, as MPs said bold changes were needed to reduce stress and provide more pathways for them to realise their aspirations.

Singapore continues to be a "tuition nation" driven by the need to score well in exams and outperform others, said Ms Denise Phua, MP for Jalan Besar Group Representation Constituency.

There is an underlying fear in the system of "high-stakes exams", including the fear of failing and not being able to get into preferred schools.

Singapore cannot "go on helplessly accepting" this, she said, and "more of us have to stand up to seek and articulate a more compelling and hopeful vision".

To that end, Ms Phua called for a joint development of an education masterplan.


NMP Kok Heng Leun questioned whether it is time to do away with the PSLE, as children might already feel the pressure in pre-school, and could lose a sense of curiosity by the time they are in primary school.

Describing the PSLE as a "sacred cow", Mr Ong admitted that the exam was "far from a perfect system", as it gave parents and students a lot of stress at times.

He added: "But it happens also to be the most meritocratic, and probably the most fair of all imperfect systems. If we scrap it, whatever we replace it with to decide on secondary school postings, I think it is likely to be worse."

Mr Ong noted that in Switzerland, students do not get to choose their secondary schools, and affluent families can send their children to private schools. In Hong Kong, national exams for 12-year-olds were abolished, but the stress kicks in later as exam scores in Primary 5 and 6 — which are benchmarked against how their seniors perform in standardised sample tests — decide secondary school postings.

As Singapore confronts issues arising from meritocracy and inequality, Mr Ong said that the Government has questioned whether its policies and approaches have run their course, and if it is time "to slaughter some sacred cows and take a fundamentally different approach".

He added: "It depends on which cows you are thinking of slaughtering. For some, 'maybe', for others, the answer is 'no'."

Mr Ong said they had received feedback that children from rich families had an advantage, but instead of scrapping the PSLE, some had asked for more support for weaker students.

Stressing that this was not "a straightforward matter", he said the ministry needs to "reduce the stakes of this examination" such that it becomes "a less do or die" test.


On allocating resources to schools, Mr Ong said that the highest level of funding – about S$24,000 per student – goes to specialised schools, including Crest and Spectra Secondary Schools, as well as NorthLight School and Assumption Pathway School.

The next highest levels of funding of about $20,000 and $15,000 per student are given to Normal (Technical) and Normal (Academic) streams respectively.

A student in other courses in Government and Government Aided schools, and Independent Schools, get under $15,000 in funding.

Other efforts are also in place to level the field, such as overseas learning experiences, free sports development programmes for talented students, and providing access to a wider variety of co-curricular activities such as equestrian and fencing, which are perceived as sports for the rich.

The Public Service Commission (PSC) has been paying special attention to applicants from lower-income households when awarding prestigious government scholarships, said Mr Ong.

The number of scholarships awarded to students from Raffles Institution and Hwa Chong Institution dipped from 80 per cent in 2007, to 60 per cent last year.

As students from poorer families tend to be less articulate, the PSC is tweaking its interview process to assess them beyond communication skills, and to evaluate their ideas and thinking.

In his speech, Mr Ong also explained why his ministry has been "cautious" about the issue of class sizes, stressing that the quality of teachers made a difference.

While he admitted that smaller class sizes benefited students, Mr Ong stressed that "how it is implemented makes all the difference".

Studies in countries such as Hong Kong, the United States, and Israel found no significant differences in performances of students placed in smaller classes, he said.

Singapore's schools do not have a "single class size", and Mr Ong said they have the flexibility to tweak sizes based on students' learning needs.

Acknowledging that there are doubts over "whether meritocracy still works, whether inequality is worsening", Mr Ong said there is "no contradiction between meritocracy and fairness, nor reducing inequality and raising our collective standards".

He added: "Instead, we should double up on meritocracy, by broadening its definition to embrace various talents and skills. We should not cap achievement at the top, but try harder, work harder to lift the bottom."

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