Saturday, January 07, 2006

Of Meritocracy... and what it means to singapore

Throughglassdarkly, The Students' Notebook
It seems regardless of whatever some contemporary statesmen might tell you about the idea of meritocracy, they deserve to be commended for buying into an incredible joke.

Regardless of anything you may have heard, the truth is that meritocracy originated out there as a joke in some Englishman's book. Michael Young, aka known as Lord Young of Darlington (1915-2005), arguing that the British school system created a greater level of stratification, however jokingly, than the old class system, in his book "The Rise of the Meritocracy" foresaw a society that, buying into the "scientific" methods of measuring a person's IQ in order to determine the station of life that person should reach, simply produced a change in the pattern of inequality ... yet in the end, a fundamentally unequal society remains. He believed there are certain human rights that shouldn’t be distributed on the basis of merit. These include health care, education and police protection ... which today are much more easily available to the rich. Young goes on to say that: “It is good sense to appoint individual people to jobs on their merit. It is the opposite when those who are judged to have merit of a particular kind harden into a new social class without room in it for others.”

“Ability of a conventional kind, which used to be distributed between the classes more or less at random, has become much more highly concentrated by the engine of education. A social revolution has been accomplished by harnessing schools and universities to the task of sieving people according to education’s narrow band of values. “

The Singapore education system deserves kudos for being one of the few in the entire world to actually think this is a good idea and implementing it for a number of years. Meritocracy has become a catch-all, a benchmark whenever it comes to assessing Candidate ability around election time to the existence of the GEP, to the advent of streaming. The kind of stratification becomes a whole set of articles to justify one's status in Singapore by, rarely in any other society does your education become a part of who you are when you introduce yourself.

And the ride is only about to get wilder.

And thus, if we listen to what another prominent intellectual, John Ralston Saul, has to say, it would be that meritocratic societies would grow increasingly mediocre. While meritocracy appears to mean that people of a certain calibre are placed together in order to learn from each other and improve together, the truth is that this system would only produce people who think increasingly alike. Sooner or later, that elite becomes cut off from the "unconscious society", the thoughts, mores and philosophies that make up the fabric of whole civilizations. We cannot have too many that think increasingly alike. Because if we do, we would create "heads and hands" without mediating "hearts" (to rather clumsily borrow an analogy from Metropolis.)
An education system, in bringing the children of the nation together, is in another way, not just a machine to create a workforce, but an ideal "heart" apparatus. It binds the citizens together in an unconscious, by highlighting their differences as well as their similarities. Actually, Singapore universities do know this, which is why at University there is a lack of streaming and the general student is more free to pursue a course of study according to his/her likings. That may be one thing that is still saving the best of Singapore's society as it stands.

The truth is: among ten fingers, none are the same on a single hand. Meritocracy does not realize that if you put thumbs together, you do not make a hand, you only make one all thumbs.


Blogger yusZ said...

i so agree with you, but what other alternatives are there other than meritocracy?

10:06 AM  
Blogger throughglassdarkly said...

I am all fine with meritocracy as an idea, it's just that the Singaporean brand stretches amazingly close to the type as defined by Michael Young and John Ralston Saul. I would suggest that SAP schools and GEP be eradicated in favour for more mixed streaming in general, a closer idea to the Western ideal of public schooling. At least where different streams and backgrounds are in close proximity with each other.

8:34 PM  
Blogger mad girl said...

Perhaps it is not meritocracy itself that has caused people to think like clones, but the way in which meritocracy is being dealt with.

2:34 AM  
Blogger Beach-yi said...

Hahahaha, scrapping the SAP and GEP, now where would the PAP get their potential new candidates from in their tea parties.

Hur hur hur hur hur, nice joke eh.

7:55 PM  
Blogger snow said...

Well, I share your thoughts.

I feel that our education system only values a particular kind of people, those who tend to be able to memorise faster, mug harder, and able to sit down and concentrate in the hot afternoon for hours. The top students in exams are not necessary all ground-breakers and pioneers in new creative fields.

In my opinion, this system has been very unfair to those of different unique abilities, but are seen as inferior because that their talents are not relevant to society. This has indeed been costly to singapore, for we have produced few outstanding entrepreneurs, activists and scientists.

However, if you ask the government, they would most probably argue that they have no choice in those earlier days of Singapore. We are subject to the mercy of world economic changes and we have to constantly train our workforce to suit the industrial needs. Thus, meritocracy, while not perfect, is the best available system we have then. Since no one could provide a better suggestion, they implemented theirs.

Nonetheless, nowadays, for S'pore to move to a higher ground we have to get rid of this age-old stigma and absolute worship of meritocratic system. Meritocracy at least, prevented singapore from sliding into the welfarism that many European countries have adopted, resulting in sapping of the national spirit.

9:47 PM  
Blogger sunnyislandsetinthesea said...

meritocracy, well, has its merits. the fact is, in an economy where specialisation is vital. meritocracy seems the best option. however, implementing such differentiation between the students in such early stages of their lives creates a huge problem: social classes and elitism. students who are smart, will not become magically stupid. therefore, from the beginning, streaming is unnecessary. however, slightly later in the education, streaming becomes essential to develop the minds of students. however, streaming cannot be confined to academic excellence. the fact is, nobody is good at everything. streaming should be field specific, rather than looking for people who at first seem good at everything. more could be done in this area. it is true that are simply better than others. but are we going to create a social class system that ostracises people who are not good enough in the limited fields they are allowed to explore the extent of their abilities in? certainly, more can be done to make meritocracy actually work. equal opportunities, more than anything else, is important.

6:02 AM  
Blogger [L]Ab|tx said...

I would say that the society is like a suspension rather than a solution.

Most people would propose the removal of SAP schools and GEP system. However, you must understand that a person's ability in academic is rather fixed. So what if the system does not contain SAP schools and GEP anymore? Lets assume that SAP and GEP are both abolished and the students are mixed up completely, creating a class-less education syetem. Over time, some schools would eventually edge out other schools and produce students with better grades. Humans by nature love to compete and try to be the best. Hence, they would try to enter that school. With a rise in popularity, the school would be spoilt for choice. Obviously they would choose the best among the applicants. If this were to continue for a few years, we would eventually get back the same old system. Birds of the same feather flock together. The output of the change would be the old system, without the differentiating terms.

Hence, we must understand that it is not the idea of meritorcracy that leads to the formation of classes in the education system. It is simply the human nature to compete and be the best that causes the education system to be 'classed'.

Not to be discriminating, but i feel that meritocracy is just like economics. The rich get richer and the poor gets poorer. People who complain about the meritocracy system i would say are mainly those who are not given the chance to climb up the ladder into the higher class in the educational system. Obviously those who are already up there in the system would have no complains. In fact, i would think that they are happy that the system is as such, because they think that they are fairly treated by the society for their level of intelligence.

Quoting from my ex-principal:"Nobody wants to be streamed, but it is society and human nature that streams people." This means that no matter how you try to mix the students up, eventually the flow of the students would create an environment such that the system showed classes just without the clear distinction of the brands SAP and GEP.

It is a matter of fact that we cannot completely measure talent of anyone mathematically or just based on a few subjects. Indeed there are people who are very talented in a non-academic field. I know the term non-academic is very vague. But sad to say, non-academic fields would include examples such as art and music. However, you must realise that we cannot grade everyone by their talent when they are still young. A person may have talents in different fields. Thus if we were to determine their 'talent' and 'scope of interest' in a premature manner, we may not be correct in that choice. Some talents of people may only develop later in their life, and that may be their desired path in life. Hence if we were to nurture them based on their talents when they were young, it would be too late to turn back when they realise their real interest is in something else later in their life.

Hence, a generic education system is needed to allow the students to grasp basic skills, and of course be promoted and awarded according to their abilities. The problem here does not lie with meritorcracy, but with what is encompassed in the scope of consideration. Currently, only academic subjects are considered when merits are given. However, to make sure that the system is fair, other talents that are non-academic should also be considered. This, of course, have to be done at a later age. The reason had been explained in the above paragraph. Hence, before such streaming can occur, merits can only be awarded academically.

Those who have been through their O levels would definitely have learnt about the education in Switzerland. I would think that the swiss education model shown to students is the source of this contention about streaming by merits. However, if you were to take a closer look at those who goes to polytechnics and those who goes to junior colleges, those who go to polytechnics are those who already have an idea in mind what is their desired career while those in junior colleges do not have a concrete concept on what is their desired career. I would think that in this consideration, the merits are credited fairly. People with vested interests in a specific course and with sufficient pre-requisite for that course are offered accordingly. In tertiary education system, we can see that courses and streaming are not purely academic anymore. Other talents are considered.

Primary and sceondary education serves as a stepping stone towards the desired course, and meritocracy would finally give you your fair share in life.

9:22 AM  
Blogger sunnyislandsetinthesea said...

Surely, you must realise streaming is unnecessary at the primary level simply because what is being taught is basic. the PSLE will provide a good enough gauge as to who is better and who isn't. At secondary level, there will certainly be a natural streaming as you said. but these are the years that a student truly develops. during this time, much more can be done to explore the talent of the student. at the o levels, there is the L1R5 for JCs and L1R4 for polytechnics. both of these methods of measuring academic performance fail to merit one's excellence in specific fields. in today's world, we employ people to do specialised tasks, not to be a jack of all trades. we want someone who is a master of his 'trade'. herein lies the failure of meritocracy. people who are able to excel at a certain field but not at others are unable to further explore and develop their talent. coupled with the fact that there are limited fields a student can explore, meritocracy, as it is practiced here now, fails to reward those who are capable.

granted, there are some who are simply better than others. but there are many who are excellent in specific fields, but are not all rounders. our system of meritocracy does not allow these people to develop their talents. surely, the system can be improved. meritocracy is an excellent system - just not the way we practise it at present.

6:32 PM  
Blogger yuez said...

The difficulty lies in the small population of Singapore. All roundeness in education has the function of facilitating adaptiblity in the workforce, to enable the future workforce to adapt and train for new skills. In today's KBE, and certain research fields, many jobs require cross-disciplinary* knowledge.

Unlike large countries like US and China, they have a huge population and a huge domestic market. The state can sieve out talented sportsmen/musicians from young and train in special schools. Singapore is quite impossible, for one the state might not support these musical schools, and many parents would not risk their children going into these fields, unless he is some prodigy. Even if you graduate with a music degree, you probably have to go overseas to find your ricebowl.

The basic problem lies in human nature and also our national situation. I agree to some degree about the human nature part. However, while there are some things that can't be helped, but it dosen't mean we should give up. We try to cater for the largest range of talents possible, but ultimately, we are limited by natural constraints.

Regarding streaming in primary schools, I also feel its too early too. Primary 4 is a little too early, but the educators assume around the age of 10, certain academic edges can be noticed, and the state, desperate to use every drop of human resource, probably want to sieve out these talents early. I would agree that PSLE and P4 streaming is to early to judge one's ability.

10:51 PM  
Blogger KiWeTO said...

why not then, a system of basics plus.

Every student is given grounding in subjects that are mandatory, and competency in these subjects are then determined at graduation from secondary level education.

Which means everyone should at leas comprehend the basics of physics, chemistry, art, music. The objective is NOT to sieve, but to expose. If by graduation age, you still do not understand that falling off a cliff will most probably kill you and some innocent passer-by below, then, you shouldn't be allowed to go out into society and kill other people!!

At the same time, students who show aptitude in various areas will be given time to explore those areas. The exact mechanics will probably revolve around the subject rather than around the student.
(meaning: teachers teach advanced subjects at certain times of the day. The student/parents learn to choose at a young age. This creates difficulties, but we all seem to be able to handle these contradictory demands in time/space at the tertiary level, so why not at the primary and secondary level?)

However, this would present a quantum change in our education system, which has long stood on the model of efficiency. This method creates tremendous potential for inefficiency. However, this slight inefficiency at the systemic level, will enable the actors within the system, to become more productive when they leave the system.

We should not be slaves to the education system. The education system should be slaves to its users. Anything less, would be to surrender to the tyranny of the system.


11:59 AM  
Blogger JKJC said...

Meritocracy can satisfy the country's basic needs such as economic stability, but it neglects the psychological needs of the people, such as the freedom of choice, and in this case, in education. The system is rigidly structured to suit a knowledge-based economy, instead of incorporating other fields such as arts and sports. However, not everyone can be a Yo Yo Ma, and not everyone can play like Ronaldo or Messi. Academics seems like the main option for most people to go in life as only a few people who are talented in arts and sports can actually make it big.

Oh, if only there was a way to balance the Singapore education system and the Swiss education system to allow room for creativity and innovation whilst providing students with the core skills they need.

4:24 AM  

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