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Lawrence Wong: S’pore’s concept of meritocracy ‘too narrow’,need to expand its definition of success

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong lamented that Singapore's concept of meritocracy is “too narrow”.

During his speech at the debate on the President’s Address, he said that “many feel caught in a rat race from a young age – under pressure to get the best grades, get into what they perceive to be the best schools, so that they can get the best university places”.

Other than children, Wong said that parents too were anxious about their children’s future.

“Some go to great lengths to maximise their children’s chances to get into perceived brand-name schools, even preschools,” he added.

A key mindset shift is needed to recognise that formal education early in life is not the endpoint of Singapore’ meritocracy, Wong said.

“Our refreshed meritocracy must be a continuous one, with learning opportunities, milestones, ladders at multiple junctures,” he explained, and added that everyone must have the chance to try again, do better, and move forward in life, years after leaving school.

“The skills journey begins in schools, but it does not end with schools,” he highlighted.

“We are more than our grades”

Wong concurred with DPM Heng Swee Keat’s saying that “Every School is a Good School”.

According to him, in Singapore, everyone can be assured that, no matter which schools their children are admitted into, they will receive a good education, and they will be well supported by their teachers.

“Remember, at the end of the day, we are more than our grades; we are more than the schools we go to,” he said.

Such sentiment is an aspiration that Singa­poreans have voiced for some time, according to Wong.

He further explained that the Government has made significant moves to address the issues, and slayed some sacred cows, such as abolishing the PSLE T-scores and removing streaming labels (NA, NA(T), Express) .

“We hope these moves will go some way to remove the stressors in our education system. But more importantly, we hope they will signal to all in society that we are serious about refreshing our system,” he added.

Expand the definition of success

Beyond a mindset shift in addressing meritocracy, Wong also touched on a shift in Singaporeans’ definition of success.

“Naturally, [success] means different things to different people, in different places,” he said.

“Yet somehow, as a society, we tend to converge around material definitions – the size of the paycheck, or the property we own,” he added.

He then called for Singaporeans to adopt and embrace “wider definitions of success”.

“We should not feel pressured to compare with others, or to conform to preconceived notions,” he said, and gave the example of “ikigai” – something that gives one a sense of purpose and joy.

“We should strive to be a meritocracy where everyone can be the best possible version of themselves; and where there are many ways for diverse talents to contribute and earn respect in our society,” he added.

As such, Wong viewed that mindset shifts are necessary, but that alone will affect societal change.

Government to consider ways to “tilt the scale”

“Our economic structures, remuneration, and career prospects in various professions must also be consistent with what we value,” he said.

As such, the Government will consider ways to “tilt the scales, and narrow the wage gap across professions”.

Beyond that, the Government would want to give Singaporeans who graduate from ITE and polytechnics stronger assurance.

In a sense, their wages and career prospects will not be too far below their university-going peers, and will not be permanently conscribed to be below.

“They don’t have to succumb to a paper chase to secure a good salary and a viable career path. They can excel in the professions that they have trained in and have the aptitude for,” he said.

Nonetheless shifting the definition of success would have an impact on cost.

“Here I have a plea to all: For a new definition of success to become a reality, all of us – as consumers – must be willing to bear a higher cost for the goods and services we consume”, he said.

He added that Singaporeans “must recognise the important work that our fellow citizens undertake to keep our society going, and do our part to uplift and boost their wage prospects”.

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