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Singapore Wants Meritocracy? It Must First Level the Playing Field

Hard-road meritocracy, from the log cabin to the White House, is said to have made the United States the superpower it is today.

This should not be equated with a limousine ride to the best school and university, then on to an executive position in the family firm.

Billionaire Warren Buffett cannot be called condescending for his cross-class philanthropy.

His view is that one is as probable to get a smart, new idea from a poor child as from a rich one; therefore, they all deserve support.

Where that support is unavailable in the family, the obligation rests with the community at large to not waste hidden talent.

But many Singaporeans confuse the origins of meritocracy at this nation’s birth with the benefits of privilege prevailing today. (“Beware overcompensating in rush to recognise less academically inclined”; Jan 8)

I do not deny that many less-wealthy families struggle hard and sacrifice much to ensure their children have the best opportunities they can afford. But this sometimes leads to debt spirals that trap the student for years to come.

If it were sport, rather than education, we would take a different view. In athletics, runners start from the same line.

If they enhance their potential with artificial stimulants that improve their performance, we are outraged and they suffer eventually. Coming off a common base is our accepted measure of sporting merit.

Singapore risks accepting a flabby meritocracy if it does not applaud initiatives that open up access to the best educational opportunity for all, to reach their maximum at the appropriate levels.

Polytechnic study, for instance, is not evidence of lower levels of academic inclination. Nor is a layered approach to meritocracy any recipe for dumbing down a knowledge society.

The challenge is to let merit grow out of common soil, fertilising each plant with the best nutrients on offer. We might need to put a little more effort into fields where the soil has been parched, but in so doing, the harvest is richer.

In a small state with an ageing population, the future is not only in elite youth, but in every young citizen who is offered the best start possible. From an economic viewpoint, putting all your resources where success is already probable is bad business.

We must ensure that Singapore-style meritocracy does not contribute to yawning wealth gaps, but rather, adopts the Buffett philosophy of levelling the playing field.

This letter was written by Mark Findlay.
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