SINGAPORE (Nov 5): In 1957, while on a beach holiday in Wales, British sociologist and disillusioned Labour Party member Michael Young bumped into an old friend, who had started a publishing house. The following year, Thames & Hudson published The Rise of the Meritocracy, Young’s futuristic satire on the state of society in the UK. The thesis warned against allowing education to engineer a new social bifurcation — between the elites in power based on the notion of merit, and the disenfranchised masses of the less-merited.

Yet, Young’s cautionary tale apparently was not heeded. And, the term “meritocracy”, or social mobility based on merit, the combination of intellectual capacity and effort, has since been embraced as a central tenet of governance in Singapore.

In an essay in The Guardian newspaper published in June 2001, six months before he passed away, Young himself lamented how his thesis has had the unintended effect of turning meritocracy into a principle of governance in the UK. He railed against how his prediction that the poor and disadvantaged would be driven further down the ladder of social progress was realised, as a consequence of an education system that effectively separated people, according to a “narrow band of values”: in other words, the streaming process that parents and pupils in Singapore know so well. “If branded at school, they are more vulnerable for later unemployment,” Young wrote. “They can easily become demoralised by being looked down on so woundingly by people who have done well for themselves.

“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.”

To be fair, the Singapore government has been making changes to the education system. In 2004, the Ministry of Education (MOE) did away with the ranking of secondary schools based on exact academic scores. Schools were instead grouped into “bands” and their non-academic achievements were also highlighted. This was to signal that academic achievements were not the only measure of success. The official ranking of schools was done away with entirely in 2012, 20 years after it was introduced. Students are also able to seek admission into secondary school based on talent and other achievements — in music or sport, for instance — which would not be apparent in the Primary School Leaving Examinations results.

In March this year, it was announced that by 2023, all primary schools would have an Applied Learning Programme, which is meant to encourage experimentation and allow room for failure. Most recently, in September, in yet another move to de-emphasise academic grades, MOE announced that it would be reducing the number of exams at school, beginning in 2019. In addition, results will be rounded off, without decimal points, and the students’ report books would not carry their positions in class or cohort.

However, in a sign of just how deeply ingrained the idea that academic achievements are markers of success is, various interest groups have taken pains to develop their own school rankings. And, tuition centres have leapt into the gap left by the lack of exams, offering their own assessments in the name of assuaging parents’ anxieties over their children’s edu­cational progress.

It remains to be seen whether this fixation on grades and rankings will fade with time and policy changes. But along with that, we would do well to review just how the system of meritocracy functions here. For one, while meritocracy itself was not meant to guarantee equal outcomes, those that have emerged are exacerbating inequality. As such, recommendations to simply “tweak” the system will not be enough to fix the inherent biases that have formed.

For instance, students who are unable to afford the extra classes to help them catch up at school and subsequently fare poorly in standardised testing could stop schooling prematurely and end up in low-paying jobs. Their employers may have little incentive to raise wages, and these people, now adults, would have little chance of moving upwards to a higher social stratum. On the other hand, the children from wealthier homes, who had the advantage of tuition and scored well in those standardised tests, went on to so-called “elite” schools funded by more resources that helped them gain admission into top universities. Upon graduation, they accept well-paying jobs, and generally move up in life, becoming what society views as “elite”.

“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,” Young wrote in 2001. “The new class has the means at hand, and largely under its control, by which it reproduces itself.”

This story appears in The Edge Singapore (Issue 855, week of Nov 5) which is on sale now. Subscribe here