If there was one thing you could change to improve education in your country…

By Timothy Kwok. Timothy, 21, lives in Singapore.

The Singapore miracle – the story of how a Third World backwater transformed into a world-class state at startling speed – is a familiar narrative to its citizens. Those old enough lived through and witnessed this magical metamorphosis. Those too young simply learn about it second hand through social studies lessons, during which they are regaled with tales of astronomical economic growth, of meteoric rises in living standards, of stellar improvements in infrastructure – but, ironically, not of the giddily high quality of education they enjoy during the very lesson.

For such is the heartening reality of the Singaporean education system: the classrooms are well-equipped, the teachers are well-qualified, and the students perform well in international assessments, with regular top three placements in mathematics and science.

Although the success of so multifaceted a system as education cannot be completely ascribed to any single cause, a prominent factor does stand out: the principle of meritocracy that guides policymaking in education. Under this framework, sedulous students who achieve good grades upon graduation are rewarded with greater priority in their choice of further education. Meritocracy owes its effectiveness to its even-handedness and its prodigious potential to inspire hard work – which is why recent policies that undermine this principle prove especially alarming. There is a strong need to make a renewed emphasis on this principle of meritocracy, should Singapore hope to keep its competitive edge in education.

To be sure, this is not a popular stand. There are complaints, both constant and clamorous, of the pressure-cooker environment excessive competition encourages. This was precisely what prompted the concessions in education policymaking during recent years: To guard against feelings of inferiority in the academically inept, the names of top scorers in national examinations will no longer be announced. To spare students from the stresses of scrutiny, only letter grades will be awarded in the Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE) instead of precise numerical scores more indicative of performance. To free students from the fear of failure, more and more top schools are converting to an Integrated Programme (IP) system, which allows pupils to bypass the ‘O’ Level examinations. This last policy is especially troubling, because of how it undermines meritocracy through interference with social mobility. Under the system, pupils receive places in the particular IP institution for six years instead of four, allowing them to “hitch a ride” to the tertiary school level without having to be evaluated in another national exam. While this may be advantageous to IP students, it locks late-bloomers taking their ‘O’ Levels out of these top IP institutions due to the diminished number of vacancies in the schools. Put simply, for there to be meritocracy, there must be social mobility. And for there to be social mobility, there must be both upward and downward mobility.

It has thus been shown how recent policies hinder meritocracy, but perhaps an even more fundamental concern needs to be addressed. Why, for example, are these policies necessarily a bad thing? What is wrong with doing away with meritocracy in the educational system?

Just as policymakers are aware of the benefits these changes will bring, so too must they be cognisant of their costs. When people think of meritocracy and the competition it entails, they frequently fixate on the fear of failure. It is easy to see why. Failure could mean being shunted off to tiresome, time-consuming remedial classes; failure could mean being denied entry to one’s dream school; and failure could also mean having to face a shameful results slip and the concomitant accusatory, judging stares of teachers, classmates and parents. The fear of failure is very, very real. But, too often, its twin, the energising expectation of success, goes unnoticed. Because all graded assignments and examinations will end in one of two outcomes, success or failure, the anticipation of success and the fear of failure are but two sides of the same coin.

What this means is that this more positive aspect of competition should be paid at least as much attention. For this is the truth of things: There is nothing quite so richly fulfilling, so wonderfully intoxicating as working towards a goal, and then seeing one’s efforts vindicated at the end. Meritocracy encourages this. A meritocratic system promises that diligence and intellect and talent will be rewarded, and in so doing, provides a powerful incentive for students to continually learn and grow and improve. There is a tendency to ridicule the relevance of examinations in the real world, to oppose the oppressive practice of evaluation under a bell curve. But look past the surface and one will find that pressurising competition teaches students an important lesson – that diligence is an invaluable virtue, that it is not enough to have goals and dreams but to also actively chase them.

There is something to be admired – even envied – too about the fear of failure that competition elicits. With a gentle but firm hand, the fear of failure forces students, at an early age, to confront the sobering reality that their actions have consequences. There are, of course, those who disapprove of such early exposure to the pressures of competition. Childhood, these naysayers contend, should be kept carefree – it should be rapturously relished and cheerfully cherished. They are, however, only half-correct in their assessment. Childhood indeed should be a time of fun, but it should also be treated as a rehearsal for the inevitable transition into adulthood. Children need to be taught responsibility and accountability. Children need to understand that life is itself a test. Children need to realise that if they choose to be lazy and idle, that if they choose to live a lifestyle of irresponsible excess, they will fail – not just in the exams their teachers set for them, but in each and every one of their endeavours.

To do away with meritocracy in Singapore’s education system would be to do away with this cautionary fear and uplifting motivation. It would mean protecting students from small problems, at the cost of not preparing them for the bigger challenges later in life. What, then, should be done about the system? The reversal of the aforementioned three policies would certainly be a good start, but this must also be coupled with the implementation of measures that actively reinforce meritocracy. Such changes need not even necessarily result in meritocracy’s typical drawback of causing excessive stress in students.

To illustrate with a concrete example, consider the widely adopted system of grouping students into classes based on their overall academic ability. This is a sensible, meritocratic policy because it allows students to be taught at a pace which suits them. However, such a practice still begs for further refinement. As a hypothetical example, a student who does poorly in mathematics but does well in English could end up in a middle-band class after his scores are aggregated. Consequently, he will be taught both disciplines at an intermediate speed, even though he would, in actuality, benefit more from accelerated lessons in English and slowly paced ones in mathematics. This practice of student grouping, therefore, should be modified by placing students into specific subject classes based on their respective aptitudes in those disciplines. Such a measure keeps to the spirit of meritocracy, is more efficient and does not contribute to needless stress in students.

Truest meritocracy, in its even-handedness, even possesses an element of compassion. The Singaporean brand of meritocracy is by no means perfect, and is currently faced with a serious challenge – that of increasing income disparity. If a student’s academic standing is determined by the wealth and educational resources showered upon him more so than his own efforts, the system he is under ceases to be a genuine meritocracy. Such a problem cannot be overstated – what with the extravagant costs of private schools, tuition and supplementary study materials, this poses a very real threat for Singaporean education. To deal with this issue, Singaporean meritocracy needs to evolve. It needs to take into account the poor, level the playing field, and be compassionate. In practical terms, this could mean offering school fee subsidies to the destitute, or even something as simple as supplying needy students with free textbooks and school uniforms. Singaporean meritocracy, ultimately, needs to be a meritocracy of equal opportunity.

The way forward is clear. Singapore’s education system must uphold the meritocratic values of equity and recognition of talent to prepare students for the working world – a priority especially urgent today, given the present backdrop of an increasingly educated global workforce. Going down this path will not be easy for students. Indeed, it is not supposed to. Like a diamond, to produce a learned citizen takes time and pressure. Of those under the system, meritocracy demands perpetual self-improvement, consistent diligence, and constant learning. It will be exhausting, it will be challenging, but it will be worth it. Singapore’s success story is owed to its industrious, intelligent citizenry. Only with an effective education system will this small island state have its happy ending.

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