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Sunday, January 13, 2013

About Meritocracy

A few heartwarming articles have appeared in The Straits Times this past week. I've been tying myself up into knots trying to explain on my blog "how a meritocratic system based on academic ability breeds a new elite which passes on their advantages to their children. This creates an uneven starting point for children from homes with less money and poorer social capital." (Chua Mui Hoong, Opinion Editor, Friday, 11th January 2013, The Straits Times)

Oh well said Chua Mui Hoong!! In so few words too! Unlike the reams I spew!!

Further, Soon Sze Meng (Friday, 11th January 2013) wrote "The relentless focus on meritocracy, market-driven policies and economic growth have resulted in Singapore topping the charts in both GDP per capita and income inequality... If growth is pursued without effort to narrow income inequality, social distances result. This refers to the difference in lifestyles and experiences between the haves and have-nots, evident in different strata cocooned in increasingly separate living environments with limited opportunities to interact, thus fraying social cohesion."

Reading the words of Soon Sze Meng, I cannot help but think of the horrendous rape of the 23 year old physiotherapist by 6 men who waylaid her on a bus. If you think carefully about it, that was a crime of hate NOT a crime of lust.

Nowhere else in the world can one find such abject ignorance as in the slums of India. A young Indian who found himself locked into a container where he was napping (having no home to stay in) was shipped to Singapore where the newspapers reported that he had never been taught the notion of time. Yet, Indians form a disproportionate number of PhD candidates in many USA and British universities. These are the academic elite.

The reality in India is that if you have family resources (intellectual and material) you can help your next generation gain MORE resources. We all know that money can be used to make more money. More money can be used to make even more money. Well... that principle holds for every type of resources from emotional to social to academic, and is very well-documented in research on Conservation of Resources Theory, by Dr Stevan Hobfoll.

Over a few generations, social inequity becomes more and more apparent. Indian society today is fraught with social fault lines. The rich try as best they can not to hang out with lesser quality people. The poor look upon the rich with envy and hatred. Envy that the rich are so blessed from generation to generation. Hatred because there are obstacles everywhere to their attempts at making a better life for themselves... social obstacles (social class prejudices) economic obstacles (lack of money) and intellectual obstacles (the poor go to poor schools, if at all, and some don't go to school at all). What is worse is that, very often, crimes against the poor go unpunished. The hate build up in the poor.

The male psychology possesses immense drive to acquire status and wealth. Here you have a bunch of working class men who hate the world for having denied them opportunities, consigning them to a lifetime of hand-to-mouth existence. They have less mating rights than others simply because they are poor. Others, better educated and better connected, can exploit these folks legally (and often illegally). Rich folks often use poorer women for sex and buy them off with money. A lot of anger builds up over time. Then they see these well-educated young ladies traipsing around earning more than they do (girls that such men will never have to hold and cherish to death do them part)... and some primeval urge to master and conquer takes over. Infuse that urge with a miasma of anger and hatred handed down through generations... and you have the horrendous crime against a young lady of a better class... A crime so terrible that it involved inserting a sharp object into her vagina to pull out her intestines.

It was a crime of hate, NOT lust. But heightened emotions in their rawest form can get confused in the human mind. The hate and lust mingles and comes forth in a violence that both exhilarates and satisfies.  Until social inequity is reduced and class hatred simmers down, it would be hard to ensure the safety of women from good families in India. Any other solution addresses the symptoms and won't be the cure.

Then along comes Donald Low who makes the following suggestion for a cure..."Because people start with differences in talent and resources, equalising resources at the start to some extent is justified on the grounds that this is necessary to ensure equal access to opportunities. Such a system is still meritocratic as the equalisation is done at the start of the competitive race and does not diminish incentives for everyone to run as fast as they can. The race is competitive and meritocratic but the state has intervened to adjust starting positions and given those with fewer resources a head start" (Donald Low, Friday, 11th January 2013).

It is my opinion that there is nowhere more important than in education where this must be done. Give every child rich or poor the SAME quality of teaching (not just have brighter and better-trained teachers go to GEP). Ensure bright children in EVERY school have easy access to HOT skills teaching (not just GEP). Ensure all classes are small enough to properly teach thinking skills (not just in GEP). Ensure high and consistent quality curriculum in every school (i.e., not have a dedicated branch write high quality curriculum AND exams ONLY FOR GEP). Let's not stream children by raw results ALONE because then children with rich parents who can afford enrichment will always get to the best teachers and schools. More resources begets even more resources.

We are not like India. Yet. But we could get there in a few generations.

I must say that I am heartened that there are so many successful and intelligent people who are not moved by self-interest to protect the rights and privileges of the "new elite" that they are part of. Lydia Lim, Chua Mui Hoong, Soon Sze Meng and Donald Low are assuredly part of this "new elite" - well-paid, well-educated and cosmopolitan. Fortunately, they not only have clear thinking, they also have good hearts.


Open Kitchen Concept said...

Well said! I agree wholeheartedly

Gary said...

Thought provoking and calmly insightful. If only human beings could be as altruistic as it would require for such sentiments to guide their many and varied actions.

Hopefully, the said journalists, esp. Chua, have been allowed to be themselves for once?

sivakumar said...

Your comments about improving the teaching environment will probably increase the likelihood of equalization but regrettably the State has finite resources. There are only so many teachers, administrators and principals available. Even if the hardware in terms of the syllabus and materials are available to all, the heartware in having the right teachers in the right numbers along with school leaders in every school having the same forward thinking ability, dynamism and drive is impossible to find.

The same thinking would extend then to every child who starts on the education path being assured of a place in university. That would be the ultimate goal of equalization through education, that every child who starts Primary 1 will graduate from university. But this never happens in reality and that is due not only to the social or educational obstacles but the inherent differences which equalization cannot paper over.

And even with the suggestions you make, the richer parents will still have the edge through enrichment programs which will seek to fully utilize the resources given in the schools to give the richer children the edge.

Petunia Lee said...


Point 1
If you don't have the wherewithal (Principals, Administrators and Teachers) to teach to the current level of difficulty, then test to the level you CAN teach to.

Testing beyond what the system can teach to encourages a whole nation to send kids to after school classes to make up the gap in teaching. Only well-off can afford to bridge this gap in teaching properly. The system has been so ambitious it bit off more than it could chew and a whole parallel education system has grown up to help it chew.

Point 2
At this point even access to learning materials and syllabus is lacking. Some parents sign up for enrichment just to get materials. Don't underestimate some children's propensity for independent learning. However without materials even... there is NO independent learning possible.

Point 3
I have not said that each child deserves a place in uni. However, I do think that if a child has the intellectual bent for uni but doesn't have access to right teaching and proper materials, and doesn't get to uni as a result, then that is an obstacle to social mobility.

Point 4
Even with the suggestions I make, richer parents will have an edge. So then, dun even try? Hmmmmm... even with an umbrella, I will get wet in the rain. So, don't carry an umbrella?

Point 5
I suppose LKY and GKS could have looked at the acres of marshes and lowly educated people in Singapore in 1960... and said, "We have no resources to work miracles" and "No matter what we do, we won't get perfection... so... give up now."

Celine said...

The SG education system is set up to benefit those with wealth and influence and power. Starting with getting into pri school at age 6, and throwing children into the gladiator PSLE arena at age 12 to battle for scarce resources (the absurdity of the bell curve!).

The Singapore dream is that even if you start off in one of the occupations that is lowly paid (hawker, taxi driver), your children will still get a chance through education to be in a occupation that is highly paid. Social mobility through education.

Rich (comparatively), educated and hence influential Singaporeans, remember well the lessons of history.... that the poor once denied social mobility for themselves and more imptly, their children, will rise up in revolution. A person without hope, with nothing to lose, with generations of envy/hatred seared into the psyche... Petunia you have articulated well what they are capable of.

Call me pretty naive, but I have faith in Singaporeans, that we will implement good ideas to push back the tide of global stratification of society. Just like the Dutch used their engineering mindset to build dykes and reclaim arable liveable land from the sea, where others saw only water.

Petunia Lee said...

Celine - Yes. We are a country that accomplished the impossible by growing out of the tropical marshes. Nothing that is worth doing in the history of mankind was a realistic goal... so I dun buy all the arguments from the current paradigm (or box) that says "Let's be realistic. There are trade-offs. There are implications. There are costs."

Think outside the box and find a solution.