Connecting towards success – Where meritocracy takes a back seat

By January 15, 2019 September 11th, 2019 Research Publications

Credit: Kent Lee

Since CNA aired the documentary titled “Regardless of Class” in October 2018, the spotlight has been thrown on various potentially divisive fault lines in Singapore.

Commentaries on social mobility, stratification, and education inequality have made headlines in online and mainstream media in recent months. Black Dot Research, a local market research firm, took the discussions further by surveying 50 tertiary students to examine the issue of class divide in Singapore. The survey uncovered different perspectives from Singapore’s next generation of workforce and future leaders.

In a recent commentary by Professors Pang Eng Fong and Linda Lim (Meritocracy and its toll on our students, ST), it was highlighted that tertiary students are pressured to excel in their academic pursuits as success in Singapore is derived from doing well academically through dint of hard work. Dual pressures from family and school to perform well were also underscored as contributing factors to depression cases, including suicidal thoughts in students.

Inequality Through the Lens of Tertiary Students

Interestingly, one of the findings from our research supports ST Opinion Editor Chua Mui Hoong’s coining of the term “casual snobbery”, which refers to the increasing tendency among the well-heeled to assume that people around them earned as much, or lived in a similar lifestyle as they did. Such hints of self-centeredness would widen the divide between the classes. Interviewees agreed that personality traits, especially self-centeredness from the higher class would exacerbate the divide. However, they felt that the social perceptions of class divide in Singapore are not apparent from their current phase in life.

The monitoring of inequality in education is critical for us to understand the role of education in more equitable societies. Through the interviews with students from Institute of Technical Education (ITE), polytechnics and universities, with varying household monthly income levels, more than half of the respondents have the perception that students from well-to-do families have a headstart in their education journey, and that this could have begun as early as in pre-school. Branded pre-schools were thought to give children a headstart in their learning journeys which are not within reach for most families in Singapore. This begs the question of whether inequality of opportunity for learning exists in Singapore.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations stated education as a fundamental human right. Yet, given that individuals have different learning competencies, it is unrealistic to expect education outcomes to be equal. Interviewees in our study also expressed their views on the branding of schools and how certain schools connote elitism in Singapore, and how divergent educational outcomes can be based on the schools students attend. Within the various streams in schools, interviewees highlighted the tendency for students with similar academic performance to stay within their circles or streams, thereby widening the gaps and limiting social mixing across streams. The perceived class divide in Singapore appears to start from the education system and the way students are streamed in schools, regardless of how classes were named, which does not change the perceptions and emotions of students knowing that academic streaming exists, even though this was designed to cater to different learning pace and needs. Educators have an important role to play in order not to let social distinctions coagulate. However, interviewees in our study quoted some of their teachers who have “brainwashed” them to think that being streamed to Normal (Academic) or Normal (Technical) signifies the downward spiral of their academic journeys.

In a commentary on Singapore’s education system (Two ideas to level the education playing field, CNA), former Nominated Member of Parliament Azmoon Ahmad shared that the downsides of streaming is its broad-brush approach to assess students in the same academic level through a common yardstick even when there could be late bloomers, those who are socioeconomically challenged, and the hands-on learners. Our interviewees’ also felt that affluent parents in Singapore have a significant advantage in strategising for their children’s educational successes. Interviewees for Black Dot Research’s study also brought up that they should not be “labelled” at the age of 12 through Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) when most of them would not have decided on the path to take in life. With the academic branding since PSLE, many of the interviewees felt that breaking out of their circles and the academic branding at high-stakes examinations like PSLE and the GCE ‘O’ or ‘A’ Levels became ever more elusive. The move away from T-score for PSLE might eventually see the shift of labelling towards the high-stake examinations in secondary school or junior college when students get a better sense of what they want to achieve in life.

Meritocracy Takes a Back Seat

Contrary to deep-seated beliefs that meritocracy levels the playing field in Singapore, especially elevating those in the lower income percentiles, interviewees in our study felt that there are other avenues to attain success and meritocracy could be pernicious. Education and hard work did not rank high under factors for success in our survey, dispelling the dominant national and family narratives. Interviewees highlighted the financial ability of affluent families to ensure their children score well in the meritocratic charts be it in school or co-curricular activities. In October 2018, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung commented on the paradox of meritocracy in causing systemic unfairness. Mr Ong shared that the system of meritocracy in Singapore had recognised talent and ability over wealth and circumstances of birth, bringing up people from the lower percentiles and beating the odds with the hand that life dealt them. However, as families do better, their ability to invest in their children’s grooming towards success also pushed the younger generation towards different starting lines, widening the inequality.

The term “meritocracy” was first coined in 1958 by Michael Young in his book “The Rise of the Meritocracy”. Young’s predictions of a mature meritocracy allow no alibis for failure as social status is determined through a narrowly defined system of merit where social inequality for those who are unable to meet the mark is a necessary byproduct. Is such a meritocratic society what we are seeking in Singapore? Would this be a more unforgiving and harsher class society than what we had wished for? It appears that people are more accepting of the notion of improving equality of opportunity. As observed in our study, interviewees welcomed the opportunities for late bloomers to enter university through the professional track, and they feel that the selection of undergraduates should go beyond their academic performance for polytechnic graduates. Our findings also hold out little prospect that meritocratic forms of selection can guarantee equitability.

What most commentaries and studies have not revealed, particularly through the lens of the next generation workforce, is the importance of connections.

Connecting Towards Success

When asked what the reasons for people to be in the higher social class were, the majority of interviewees mentioned inheritance and connections. We focus on why connections stood out among interviewees instead of the national narrative of education and hard work.

Interviewees, particularly those who had taken up part-time work, shared how they could get a job with connections even without proper academic qualifications. Connections, which is a colloquial form for business relations, is the most important aspect of building a business. Singapore’s economic success over the years could be the reason why the core value in the commercial world trickled down to students. Increasingly, we have seen how technology changed the game for business relationship-building. Platforms like LinkedIn, Slack and even Facebook are connecting people professionally. Interviewees also cited referrals as a more powerful means of securing a job than having a high GPA in college.

Apart from intelligence and emotional quotients (IQ and EQ) which are socially entrenched yardsticks, it appears that the next wave of intelligence has hit Singapore. “Connectional intelligence”, which is the ability to innovate and drive breakthrough results by harnessing the power of relationships and networks. The interviewees for our research, who are young millennials, have a greater inclination towards connectional intelligence than any other generation. This is not a surprise given their exposure to communication technologies and innovations since young, and the explanation from our study that connections will, and could possibly already have, taken over meritocracy as a social mobility enabler.

With connections being the new game changer, it is critical for Singaporeans to continue embracing the essence of meritocracy that has been imbued in our society. Connections replacing paper qualifications does not mean an easier way out for Singaporeans, but the need to take a step back from the paper chase or rat race to establish deep and meaningful relationships with people around us.

Connecting the Dots

Social inequality and mobility are topics of importance in contemporary sociology which are increasingly discussed in Singapore. By examining this issue deeper, Black Dot Research found that the education system in Singapore is a cause for the divide and it is exacerbated by educators’ influence in schools. Contrary to entrenched thinking that Singapore’s meritocracy provides a level playing field for Singaporeans by uplifting the lower percentiles in the population, tertiary students in Singapore feel that connections are more important in achieving life and career successes. Such deviation from the national narrative of education and hard work towards success is worth the attention of sociologists and policymakers and could be the focus of future social research.

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