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Not confident but not too shy; Not White but definitely not quite Oriental; Not religious but also not an athetist; Not sure whether 'athetist' is spelt correctly, but not that bothered about it; Not a naysayer, but not averse to saying no.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Singapore Educational Elitism

The elite, the gifted, and the scholar-bureaucrats of Singapore: the hows and whys of this educational elitism

Weijie Ng
MA Economics of Education

Aug 2005
Education and Development in Asia (MMACOM_25)
Tutor: Dr. Ed Vickers

“Students should … believe in our principles of multiracialism and meritocracy, appreciate the national constraints but see the opportunities.”

MOE, (1998). Desired outcomes of education.

“…elite in Singapore who speak English, who read many different newspapers and watch foreign news.”

Yeo, Minister for Trade and Industry in speech at
News World Asia Conference, 11 May 2001

“We are continuing to groom a new group (of elites), as able as previous generations, but more diverse. … In turn, (the broad elite’s) key responsibility is to continue to uphold the values of openness and inclusiveness, and dedication to community and nation.”

Lee, Prime Minister in speech at
The NUS Society Lecture, 19 Mar 2005

Section A: Introduction

According to observers both on the outside (e.g. Green 1999) and the inside (including Khoo and Neo[1] as argued in Chua & Yeo, 2003), Singapore has an elitist education system. Educational pathways are stratified according to ability and aptitude, and this stratification may be deemed to be highly hierarchical. Arguably, right at the top of the educational ladder and thereby occupying the status of ‘elite’ and crème de la crème (de la crème[2]), are pupils in the Gifted Education Programme (GEP) and sponsored scholars that are recruited by the government and government linked companies (GLCs) as civil servants, administrators and researchers. This essay will examine the hows and whys of this educational elitism, and focus on the analysis of both the GEP, and various scholarship programmes that can also be seen to be a tool of manpower planning with which to ensure that the civil service is continually and effectively refreshed by infusions of talent (Teo, 2003). It will not be the remit of this essay to analyse other aspects of the education system which may also be regarded as elitist, such as the divide between academic and vocational education, etc.

Section B will be a broad but brief exposition of the Singapore education system. It will include the history of educational streaming, and will discuss the Gifted Education Programme (GEP) as well as the scholarship programmes used for recruitment into the civil service. Then, Section C will deal with the whys: the rationale behind streaming, the GEP, scholarship programmes and elitism, and especially with the government’s conviction in meritocracy. Section D will follow up by questioning Singapore’s educational elitism, e.g. with respect to conceptions of meritocracy. Finally, evidence and perspectives will be weighed against each other in Section E while summing up.

Section B: The Singapore education system

MOE (2004a). Education in Singapore.

This diagram above succinctly summarises the educational landscape in Singapore in 2004 and remains largely as it is today[3].

Typically, pupils in Singapore go through six years of primary education, which are compulsory since 1st January 2003 with the enactment of the Compulsory Education Act passed in 2000. In the first four years, ‘all pupils follow a common curriculum that provides them with a firm foundation in English Language, their Mother Tongue and Mathematics’ (MOE, 2004). Then, at the end of the 4th academic year, formal academic streaming examinations have been used to test pupils’ aptitude, especially that in language, and to sort them accordingly into EM1, EM2 and EM3[4][5]. The majority attend EM2 while more able pupils go to EM1, and essentially study both the English and Mother Tongue languages as first languages. EM3 students are ‘those who are less able to cope with Languages and Mathematics’ (MOE, 2004) and their syllabus would be that of a lower level set of Foundation English, Foundation Mathematics and Basic Mathematics. Furthermore, unlike their EM1 and EM2 counterparts, they will not be examined in Science, although they will still study it in class. Educational streaming in Singaporean primary schools has existed as an official Ministry of Education directive, at least from the late 1970s, with the implementation of the New Education System (Soon, 1988). There were also three language ability based streams as well at the time: the Normal Bilingual, the Extended Bilingual and the Monolingual courses. The first two were academic, while the latter was non-academic and was to ensure basic linguistic and mathematical literacy for the less academically inclined (Soon, 1988).

In the transition from primary to secondary schooling, the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) at the age of 12 is used to further sort pupils, into the Normal (Technical), Normal (Academic), Express and Special streams. Though MOE (2004a) states that ‘students have the choice’ between these streams, in reality, ‘choice’, not only of stream, but also of schools is dictated by their PSLE scores. The higher his score, the more likely a student is of entering a prestigious ‘specialised independent school’ or Integrated Programme School (IPS), such as the Chinese High and Raffles Institution, and the more likely he is of entering a stream preparing for the more recognised Cambridge GCE ‘Ordinary’ Level examination than the lower status ‘Normal’ Level one.

After secondary school, pupils go on to junior colleges (, polytechnics and Institutes of Technical Education), where entry is based on a points system calculated from their results at ‘O’ Level and administered centrally by the MOE (MOE, 2005). Once again, there is streaming, but this time, it is primarily subject-based and pupils are split into faculties. The top and elite junior colleges include Raffles Junior College (RJC), the ‘“super-student” producing machine’ which is the ‘peak of a government-controlled pyramid-style school structure that unabashedly pushes the cream to the top’ (Prystay & Bernstein, 2004) and is fond of comparing itself to the elitist Eton and Harrow public schools of England, while other junior colleges (JC), such as Jurong JC (JJC), are not dissimilar to state 6th-form colleges in the UK. Entry to RJC’s science stream in recent years[6] usually requires the right combination of 6 A1[7]s at ‘O’ Level, while that into JJC is achievable with a string of A2s and Bs[8].

Effectively, yet another stream exists in the Singaporean educational system, though it does not seem to be officially called a ‘stream’. Instead, it is a ‘programme’: the Gifted Education Programme. Its history dates from 1983, when the ‘Gifted Project’ Concept Paper was approved by the Ministry of Education, and it was first implemented in two primary schools and two secondary schools in 1984. GEP students would attend classes specially prepared for them on a tailored curriculum, separately from other pupils in the same school. Its mission is to ‘provide leadership in the education of the intellectually gifted’ and to ‘(nurture) gifted individuals to their full potential for the fulfilment of self and the betterment of society’ (MOE, 2004b). Selection for the GEP was based on a nation wide intensive battery of IQ based selection tests to identify the top 1 percent of pupils[9], at the age of 9 for the primary school programme and at the age of 12 for the secondary school programme. The curriculum is enriched and the teachers are specially trained (MOE, 2004b) as might be expected in a programme for pupils deemed to be gifted. What the GEP is known for is perhaps its broad array of special programmes designed and run in collaboration with local (and sometimes international) universities, polytechnics and other research institutions. Key examples would include the Science Mentorship Programme (SMP), whereby selected GEP pupils are provided ‘with the opportunity for scientific investigations in research laboratories and interaction with scientists from institutions of higher learning’ (MOE, 2004b) and the Humanities and Social Sciences Research Programme, which is the social science counterpart of the SMO. These pupils typically undertake a project under the supervision of a mentor involved in university level research work and publish a paper for a youth conference. Topics have included: Ion emission studies in plasma focus device[10] and The unbearable lightness of being: an analysis of the individual in society[11]. Particularly successful participants have published in international journals and presented at international conferences, such as at the Audio Engineering Society 104th Convention in Amsterdam (Tan, 1998).

The GEP has been continually reviewed, and today, the selection test at the age of 12 has since been discontinued, The Integrated Programme has largely taken its place at the secondary level since the beginning of 2004. In essence, the Integrated Programme (IP) may be viewed as an extension and expansion of the GEP to include all pupils who have qualified for places in 5 of the top ranked secondary schools in Singapore. As the IP is very new, and is still in the initial stages of development, it will not be further elaborated upon in this essay, other than it is likely to take up many of the recommendations made in the Report of the Junior College / Upper Secondary Education Review Committee (Shanmugaratnam et al., 2002), such as allowing for more flexible or alternative curriculum and qualifications, etc.

Elitist elements may arguably also be found in the Singapore government’s scholarship policies. Every year, based on merit indicated not just by academic performance in the Singapore-Cambridge GCE ‘Advanced’ & ‘Special’ Level examinations or the American Scholastic Achievement Tests (SAT) I and II, but also non-academic and character-related criteria such as leadership ability and commitment to community service (Lee, 2000), the ministries through the Public Service Commission, statutory boards including the Singapore Tourism Board, and government linked companies such as Singapore Airlines offer hundreds of college bound Singaporean students scholarships, both at local universities and institutions abroad in China, Japan, Germany, UK, USA, etc. These scholarships are similar to the United States (US) Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) college scholarships, in that recipients of the scholarships have their tuition fees paid for, and receive allowances such as for living expenses, in return for a ‘bond’ that requires the scholar to work for the sponsoring body for a number of years, depending on the country in which the scholarship is tenable (Soon, 2001).

Scholars are groomed not just to be bureaucrats, but to be leaders, the leaders of Singapore, for the civil service, the military, the corporate world, politics and society, through development programmes before, during and after their years in university.[12] Some prominent leaders of Singapore who were recruited through scholarship programmes include the former Prime Minister & present Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, Rear Admiral Teo Chee Hean, Mayor Heng Chee How of Central Singapore CDC, and CEO Benedict Cheong of the National Council of Social Services (NCSS) (PSC, 2005).

The history of scholarships in Singapore may be traced back to the 1880s, when British colonial authorities awarded top pupils in the Straits Settlement of Singapore Higher Scholarships, later renamed Queen’s Scholarships, to study at selected English universities, in order to reap ‘the benefits of educating a select group of elite who could serve in the ranks of the public service’ (PSC, 2005). Later, with changes in Singapore’s governance and sovereignty, the Queen’s Scholarship was replaced successively by the Colombo Plan awards in 1959[13], the Singapore State Scholarship in 1959[14], the Yang di-Pertuan Negara in 1964[15] and the President’s Scholarship in 1965[16]. Since Singapore’s independence, scholarship schemes have multiplied and developed into a huge recruiting exercise pitched at 17 – 18 year olds in junior college (JC), with such a bewildering plethora of options and opportunities that guidebooks and newspaper pullouts[17] are published every year to advise JC pupils. Among these scholarships, there is a certain hierarchy that may be perceived by Singaporeans, with particular scholarships such as the President’s Scholarship, the Government Investment Corporation Scholarship and the National Science and Talent Search Scholarship perhaps deemed by many to be more prestigious and desirable than those awarded by the Ministry of Education or Sembcorp[18].

Section C: Why this educational elitism?

There appear to be at least two main streams of thought that is brought in support of Singapore’s educational elitism: a) that meritocracy is desirable, b) that the emergence of elites is perhaps inevitable, but an elite, with proper characteristics, is beneficial to society.

C.1: Meritocracy as desired element in Singapore

Broadly, meritocracy refers to ‘government by those regarded as possessing merit’ (Bullock, 1988), and is a creed that lies at the bedrock of Singapore’s educational system. Indeed, it is even cited as a desired outcome of education (MOE, 2004a) in Singapore:

Students should … believe in our principles of multiracialism and meritocracy, appreciate the national constraints but see the opportunities.

The term ‘meritocracy’ was first coined by Michael Young (1958) in his influential and thought-provoking satirical novel The Rise of Meritocracy, 1870 – 2033, set in a future where one’s place in society is determined solely by one’s IQ and effort. According to Young (2001), his book was intended as a warning of what might happen to Britain if the British placed gaining formal educational qualifications over all other considerations.[19] Young (1958) seems to suggest in his satire that this would lead to the permanent and unfair rejection of anybody who was unable to jump through the hoops in the education based meritocracy, including many otherwise able working-class people, and therefore would result in the rise of a new exclusive social class as discriminatory as the older ones.

Despite its negative origin, meritocracy as both a word and a concept has been used favourably in the United States and also in the discourse of British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government (Young, 2001). Meritocracy as a desired principle, has been extolled again and again, in over a hundred key speeches by leading Singaporean politicians as well, from the then Prime Minister Goh’s National Day Rally Address in 2000, where he asserted his belief that with meritocracy, ‘(one) can get ahead in life if (one) work(s) hard … regardless of … background’ to the then Prime Minister Lee’s 1971 speech at a university alumni meeting, where he argued that meritocracy is a key factor to leading Singaporeans to ‘climb up the cliffs to higher levels of achievement’. Therefore, Singaporeans should continue to be rewarded for their merit. Of course, in Singapore, meritocracy is more likely to be traced, not to Young’s (1958) pejorative usage, but rather to ‘Asian values’ (Bell, 2000) and the analects of Confucius (1995), who asserted that nobility lies in virtue and not in blood. After all, it has been suggested that Singaporean society is not only Confucian in its value orientation, but also latently so in its hierarchical structure (Kuo, 1996).

Many successes in the Singapore educational system have been attributed to meritocracy. For example, Prystay & Bernstein (2004) wrote in the Wall Street Journal that the afore-mentioned Raffles Junior College,

‘… established in 1982, has its roots in Raffles Institution, a secondary school for boys established in 1823 by Sir Stamford Raffles, the colonial Briton who founded the city-state of Singapore. Raffles Institution, which still exists, built its reputation as a bastion of meritocracy, accepting gifted children from all socioeconomic classes and producing dozens of leaders over the years -- among them, Lee Kuan Yew, the patriarch of modern Singapore.’

Also, both Singaporeans (Wong et al., 2000) and outsiders (Ginsberg et al., 2005) have ascribed at least part of the sterling performance of Singapore’s pupils in the recent comparative, benchmarking Trends in the International Mathematics and Science Stud(ies) to Singapore’s cornerstone principle of meritocracy, which can be deemed to have contributed to students’ high educational aspirations and attitudes, and good school climate (MOE, 2004c).

Additionally, meritocracy may also be seen as socially just, because in such a system, educational opportunities and rewards would be allocated on the basis of ‘demonstrated competence rather than through nepotism, patronage, bribery, purchase’, according to ‘what (individuals) have shown that they can do, rather than their social provenance’ (Goldthorpe, 1997). Furthermore, in matching educational opportunity to ability and merit, it may be argued that those who are most likely to benefit from such opportunities will receive them, and in so doing, also serving to maximise efficiency. If efficiency is a component of social justice, as according to Konow’s (2000) integrated social justice theory[20], then a more efficient system of distributing educational opportunities is also a more socially just one.

C.2: Positive official discourse of the Singaporean elite

‘Elite’ in the 17th century was used to describe goods and commodities of exquisite excellence, and its usage has since then, by 1823[21], been extended to refer to superior social groupings, such as higher ranks of the aristocracy and crack military troops (Bottommore, 1967). The term, though, only became widely used in and after the sociological works of Pareto (1935) and Mosca (1939), whereby they both argued that the formation of an elite class and the rule of the few over the many were inevitable in all societies. In particular, Pareto (1935) asserted that forceful and coercive ‘lions’, and cunning, stealthy and persuasive ‘foxes’ would make up the elites that govern the inarticulate and apathetic masses. With such elitist sentiments so inimical to ideals of both socialism and democracy, it perhaps is of no surprise that Pareto later went on to join Mussolini’s Fascist government.

Lee’s (2005) recent speech The Singapore elite, in which he persuasively argued that an elite is not only benign, but if carefully cultivated, may be good for society, is a good example of official discourse that clearly shows the elitist beliefs behind the Singapore government. In this speech, he referred to ‘the core group of people who occupy key positions of power and influence, and set the direction for the whole society and country’ as the elite. Drawing from the experiences of Britain, China and the US, he then attempted to show that ‘every society will have an elite’, even if they aim to be classless, and that elite groups have a tendency to ‘entrench themselves over time, and become more closed and exclusive’, through the ‘development of social norms, behaviour or codes’. He also argued that the elite of Singapore, i.e. his and his father’s generation of leaders, have done well for Singapore. The key message of his speech was that education is crucial in shaping the elite, and that Singapore’s future depends on ensuring, through education, that the elite benefits society.

The education system, according to Lee (2005), has to be firstly kept open and inclusive, and demonstrate that one can make it to the top if ‘one works hard and do(es) well’. Then,

‘(a)n open and inclusive elite is thus a reflection of our system of meritocracy, as well as an essential part of it.’

(Lee, 2005)

For this open and inclusive elite, a high quality education system would be needed: all schools must be good schools with high standards. No student should be deprived of a good education for lack of financial means. To ensure that social barriers do not grow, education must furthermore discourage ‘ostentation in lifestyles, dress or social norms’ (Lee, 2005). The political elite would set the tone,

‘We dress down; we do not wear expensive designer suits; and we have meals in hawker centres. We must maintain this informal tone, in order to keep this an egalitarian society.’

(Lee, 2005)

Guaranteeing that Singaporeans have a shared purpose is another necessary goal for the education system (Lee, 2005). For Singapore to continue to do well, everyone, perhaps especially the elite, would need a sense of obligation to give back to society, as well as strong patriotism.

From such official discourse, it may be seen that the ‘elite’ has been conceptualised to be a good thing and indeed necessary, provided that it possesses the necessary characteristics of open-ness, inclusiveness, common identity and purpose. Elitism, in this respect, is therefore also seen to be benign.

C.3 Other arguments

Soon (2001) has also outlined a plausible economic rationale for the use of scholarships as a necessary tool for manpower planning. As he argued, the government may be maximizing the economic welfare of the country by offering bonded government scholarships to not only attract but also lock in talented Singaporeans into the public sector for a stipulated period of time, in an attempt to ensure the sustained growth of Singapore's economy. In a sense, according to Soon (2001), a government sponsored scholarship to the US for a period of four years is implicitly equivalent to a wage premium of around US$1500 per month discounted over a typical bond period of 6 years. This pecuniary edge, coupled with the prestige associated with working in the civil service, has undoubtedly aided recruitment and retention efforts in an increasingly globalised labour market. Brain drain cannot be tolerated by a nation that has been aware since its inception that it not only has little or no natural resources, but also has among the smallest populations and pools of human resources in Asia (Lee, 1966).

Section D: Questioning this educational elitism

D.1 Gifted programmes as negatively elitist?

Some laymen and educationalists contend that the establishment of intellectual elitism through the provision of special educational programmes for the gifted and the effective creation of a non-elite class of pupils and citizens is inimical to a socially just education, primarily on the basis of three arguments: that a) gifted education programmes play up intellectual snobbishness, that b) gifted children in being deprived from interacting with non-gifted children would grow up socially maladjusted and that c) non-gifted children would not be able to learn from or be stimulated by the gifted (Newland, 1976). Newland (1976), sceptical of these views, argued that these arguments might only have some degree of validity if the gifted are actually educated in separate schools, or spend all, if not most of their time separately from those deemed to be non-gifted. This is precisely the case in Singapore. Students in the GEP in Singapore do attend separate classes from pupils in other streams. With the recent introduction of the Integrated Programme, more of the educational elites will actually be taught in separate schools.

Last year, a full-blown internet debate that highlights the divisiveness and elitism in Singapore schools started after a Raffles JC school-boy advised boys from ‘neighbourhood’ schools to ‘quit trying to climb the social ladder by dating students from top schools’ (Seah, 2004). The debate, stretched over four months, included more elitist comments:

"The one weaker in academics will not be able to provide nourishment for the mind and cannot engage in intelligent discussion on politics, for example. … And the more intelligent one will probably have to lower his / her standards and eventually will degenerate to the same level. … We are afraid of genetic dilution."
(Seah, 2004)

‘Leave the RGS[22] girl alone-lah! Leave her to other high-flying guys. It's good to know one's limits once in a while.’
(Seah, 2004)

In Figure 1, another account, steeped in Singaporean satirical humour, of a GEP student is extreme, but may uncomfortably bear a tad of truth:

Columns: A Gifted StudentPosted on Monday, June 04, 2001Topic: We,The Citizens
HAO XUESHENG, gifted student at Stamford Institution Independent Secondary School
Woke up this morning at 6.00 am, and as usual, was filled with the urge to study.So like I do every day, I propped my science textbook up against the bathroom cabinet as I brushed my teeth.Occurred to me that because of this, I haven't seen my face in the past two years.Intend to write a letter to the Ministry of Education urging them to print pictures of students in the margins of all textbooks so that this doesn't happen to future generations.It's great to be a gifted kid, because you think of innovative solutions like this.Ahmad drove me to school again today.Reflected on the multi-racial society in which we live, and the progress of Malays in our society.Isn't our country wonderful, that Ahmad gets to drive a luxury car everyday?Clearly, we are a prosperous nation.School was typical: Got top marks in Maths again. Most GEP kids are great in maths.It's because we're intellectually gifted, you see. The maths problems are just so easy to us.I wonder why other kids find it tough? Well, they have only themselves to blame! It's all so easy to become intellectually gifted at maths!Just hire tuition teachers.They must be cheap, because Daddy got me one for every subject.Sometimes I think we're gifted because we have tuition teachers.After all, despite what the school teaches us or says they want to teach us, we're ultimately graded on the basis of standardised tests, and it's the tuition teachers who drill us for that.I think we should replace all the regular teachers with tuition teachers. I mean, why waste time? Let's just focus on what counts!They say the GEP was set up so we faster kids don't get held back.But I must admit, I feel held back even with the GEP. I guess I'm really light years ahead.Maybe to slow things down, I'll ask my tuition teachers not to teach me so far ahead of my school, and also to ease up on the drilling a bit.As it is, I can pass the 'O' Levels, but Dad said I should do it next year instead.He said, "What's the rush? Enjoy your childhood. Anyway, you're already taking your SATs."When Ahmad drove me back from school, I saw some kids running around in a field, kicking a spherical object.It saddened me to think that even though they appeared to be my age, they were indulging in such primitive hobbies.I mean, why aren't they splitting atoms like we GEP kids?Surely their parents can afford particle accelerators too!But I guess this is why we're gifted and they're not.Sad, but true.
Figure 1
(, 2001)

Therefore, the three arguments may bear true, and to many, are perhaps ‘common sense’. However, as Newland (1976) pointed out, aside from anecdotes, there is still little research evidence to support them, and certainly there hasn’t been any convincing evidence in the Singapore context. ‘Common sense’ is not robust, and is definitely insufficient to prove that in a heterogeneous, non stratified educational system, the ‘gifted’, i.e. those that would have qualified for a special programme for the gifted, would be less snobbish and better socialised, and the non-gifted would be more motivated and do better. Moreover, when a closer look is taken at the results of the 2003 TIMSS, Singapore’s top ranking in the study was arguably not because its top students brought the overall average up. On the contrary, top students from countries like the US and Japan were far more brilliant. Instead, Singapore’s average score was high because the vast majority of Singaporean students attained the intermediate benchmarks and high benchmarks: 91 percent and 77 percent in Grade 8 mathematics, significantly better than the 49 percent and 23 percent international averages (MOE, 2004c). This would suggest that Singaporean students, on the whole, are doing better than their international counterparts either despite of or because of the educational elitism.

D.2 Debating conceptions of meritocracy and the elite

In a challenge to widely held views of meritocracy, Sen (2000) pointed out that merit has typically been under-defined, or if appropriately defined, is necessarily a normative concept, based on subjective opinions of what a good society is. Given that there are alternative views of what is good or right, inevitably there would be different views regarding the ‘precise content of merit’ (Sen, 2000), or what merit constitutes. He (2000) then argued that there are at least two competing ways of thinking about merit and merit systems: incentives and action propriety. The former means that actions should be rewarded for the good that they do, i.e. for the result, while the latter judges actions by their propriety, independent of the result. In education, the incentive conception might mean that educational rewards would be disbursed according to examination results, while the action propriety conception might mean that effort alone is used in judgement.

The Singaporean approach to meritocracy appears to be based more on the incentives approach. Entry to the Gifted Education is based on the IQ selection test. Streaming is based on streaming examination results. As discussed above, admission, or at least the preliminary procedure for admission, to the civil service through scholarship programmes, is also based on a mixture of academic and non-academic indicators of merit.

In Singapore, there is little public debate over what constitutes meritocracy, except perhaps on the blogosphere, where Huichieh[23], a Singaporean graduate student in Toronto, has been vocal. With respect to scholarships, Huichieh (2005) outlined two different systems that may each be deemed to be meritocratic: the first is a ‘money tree’ (摇钱树) system, whereby only scholarship recipients themselves benefit; the second is a ‘freakanomical’ model, in which everyone benefits, because awarding the scholarship to those who merit it is part of the means by which everyone benefits. In the latter perspective, the scholarship system and its attendant prestige and promise of social advancement act as a powerful incentive to draw out the efforts of the talented, and channel this effort to benefit society as a whole. Paraphrasing Adam Smith (Huichieh, 2005):

"It is not from the benevolence (or altruism or social consciousness)[24] of the talented that we expect our economic development, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages." Of the two systems, the ‘freakanomical’ model is socially preferred.

Huichieh (2005) was writing in response to a forum article in the Singapore Straits Times, in which Soon (2005) pointed out that the main beneficiaries of meritocracy in Singapore appeared to be the rich, because they have had the privilege of ‘access to tuition, enrichment classes and a better studying environment’, which unfairly puts them ahead of their poorer classmates in the race for academic attainment and prizes. According to Soon (2005), for example, a majority of Singaporean students sponsored by the government to study at Stanford University came disproportionately from those of higher socio-economic background. This could mean that educational rewards and opportunities are de facto distributed according to family income and wealth rather than pure merit. In this light, Singapore may not really be a meritocracy, or be as meritocratic as both government officials and some observers like to think.

Section E: Summing up

‘Come visit Singapore, not just to visit me of course. Visit Singapore because it is clean and green … but only on the outside.’

(Paraphrasing Kumar[25], 11th March 2005,
in drag comic performance,
at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London)

It appears that there is no question that the Singapore education system is elitist. After all, even the government has argued forcefully not only that the formation of an elite group in Singapore is inevitable, but also, if open, inclusive and sharing common goals and beliefs, e.g. in meritocracy, be necessary for both survival and development of the nation. The Singapore government’s brand of elitism is not so much one of the conceit of the leisure classes in Veblen (1924), but one based more on pragmatism. It is therefore perhaps a relatively benign form that does not wholly deserve its negative connotations.

However, it may not be an easy task to achieve the government’s goal of moulding its ideal elite. Education based divides, exclusiveness and social barriers are already in place, as evident from the school-boy dating internet debacle and the satirical account of the GEP student above. Furthermore, younger Singaporeans these days are arguably more cynical of the government’s attempts to inculcate patriotic fervour through National Education initiatives and public campaigns.

Meritocracy, seen as socially just and common sense, has been a key justification for the structure and hierarchies present in the education system. However, as argued above, meritocracy is not a concept without flaws or contestations, and is also therefore not a banner that one should blindly swear allegiance to.

Perhaps, as Goldthorpe (1997) observed, meritocracy is a necessary myth. Since the idea of merit as the basis of reward has a wide appeal, to question meritocracy’s desirability might appear to be not only perverse in most modern societies, but also ‘leave the way open to all manner of discriminatory practices in education’ (Goldthorpe, 1997) and everyday life. In fact, according to Hayek (1974), it might be necessary, in order to sustain the operation of societies, perhaps including that of Singapore, to encourage through ‘education and governing opinion’ a belief in meritocracy, such that individuals believe that their own merit and decisions determine their own welfare.

In this light, some may allege that an arguably fox-like government is using ‘meritocracy’ as a shroud to pacify the ignorant masses. However, this claim probably goes too far, and I am disinclined to think that it holds much credibility, for it smacks rather too much of conspiracy theory, and paternalism in asserting that the well educated and articulate Singaporean masses are indeed ignorant sheep.


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Ministry of Education (2004c). Singapore tops the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) 2003, Singapore: Ministry of Education Press Release

Ministry of Education (2005). Joint Admissions Exercise: advice for candidates, Singapore: Ministry of education.

Mosca, G (1939). The ruling class, London: McGraw-Hill

Newland, TE (1976). The gifted in socioeducational context, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall

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[1] Khoo, Eric and Neo, Jack are two popular local media celebrities and film directors
[2] As GEP teachers seem to be fond of stressing
[3] There have been various changes since the end of 2004.
[4] Fellow Singaporeans and I have little idea what the acronym EM officially stands for. Maybe English & Mother Tongue?
[5] As mentioned in Footnote 1, there have been changes since 2004. From the end of 2004, the Ministry level distinction between EM1 and EM2 has been abolished but schools have been given the discretion to continue banding if it is deemed to be educationally valuable.
[6] 1998 - 2003
[7] A1 is the top grades at ‘O’ Levels. It is followed by the A2 grade, and then the B and C grades.
[8] Equivalent to 6 English GCSE A*s and a string of As and Bs respectively.
[9] Top 0.5 percent in earlier years
[10] Project title and abstract available on National Institute of Education researcher Dr. RS Rawat’s website:, Accessed 11th July 2005
[11] Project title cited from staff profile of National University of Singapore Assistant Professor AL Rappa, Accessed 11th July 2005
[12] For examples, the PSC has outlined some development programmes in its 2004 annual report, accessible at Accessed 12th July 2005
[13] Until 1988
[14] Constitutional change in Singapore’s status from colony to self-governing state
[15] Merger with Malaya
[16] Separation from Malaysia
[17] For example, Scholars’ Choice in the Straits Times. Sample article available at, Accessed 12th July 2005
[18] Government linked industrial firm
[19] In the novel, the masses revolt against the meritocracy in the year 2033.
[20] In Konow (2000), Need, Equity and Efficiency are the three components of social justice
[21] In the Oxford English Dictionary
[22] Raffles Girls’ School, sister school of Raffles Institution and Raffles Junior College
[23] Pseudonym
[24] Huichieh’s own brackets
[25] One of Singapore’s foremost drag queens and comedians


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I found this blog entry really useful because I am doing a project on Elitism in Secondary Schools in Singapore.

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