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Singapore Policy Journal

Topic / Education, Training and Labor

Mending our Meritocracy: Socioeconomic Affirmative Action in School Admissions?

The Channel NewsAsia documentary “Regardless of Class” brought key findings from the Institute of Policy Studies’ research on social capital to the fore: Singapore’s societal divisions lie to a greater degree along perceived socioeconomic class rather than race or religion. The documentary shed light on how socioeconomic class can strongly influence one’s level of educational attainment, which correlates with one’s potential for upward social mobility.

It is interesting to consider how other countries are addressing similar challenges. In the United States, for instance, the notion of “affirmative action” has re-entered public discourse in the wake of the recent Harvard v. Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) case. As a policy, affirmative action aimed to improve educational and consequently economic opportunities for historically disadvantaged groups in the country through preferential college admissions for individuals in these groups. Singapore could consider policies analogous to these to mitigate rising socioeconomic inequality.

Meritocracy in Singapore

Historically, meritocracy in multicultural Singapore – a national organizing principle that has only recently started coming under scrutiny – has provided an effective, non-discriminatory way of incentivizing hard work founded on the principle of equal opportunity. While this has served us well as a young, developing nation with a largely homogenous working class, it has insidiously fostered a class divide that has curtailed social mobility as an unintended consequence.

Meritocracy has strayed its course for two reasons: first, it no longer provides a fair and equitable starting line for all Singaporeans, and has evolved into a system that single-mindedly incentivizes and rewards paper qualifications over other classes of skills. Second, it disregards the inequalities in opportunity created by social capital that have been compounded and accrued from previous generations.

Mending our Meritocracy: Socioeconomic “Affirmative Action”

Singapore has attempted to return its meritocratic education system to its egalitarian roots by implementing redistributive measures, such as the Direct School Admission (DSA) scheme, SkillsFuture, the MOE Financial Assistance Scheme, and KidSTART. While laudable, these policies do not address the root of the problem: that exogenous, inherited environmental circumstances strongly influence one’s ability to succeed in school in the first place.

Singapore needs to consider alternative policies – even ones that could appear un-meritocratic at first glance – to bridge the growing class divide. We propose that familial circumstances be taken into account in early school admissions as a form of socioeconomic affirmative action. Currently, schools in Singapore use familial income information solely for the purposes of awarding financial aid. This information can be repurposed as an indicator of familial circumstances, which schools will otherwise find hard to assess, in school admissions.

Our proposal is based on several considerations. First, the level of family wealth that one is born into is purely circumstantial. It is no secret that wealthier families are able to give their children a head start in life: engaging external tutors and professional sports coaches, or using social connections to procure otherwise unavailable internship opportunities, to name a few advantages. Considering that private tuition is a staggering $1.1 billion industry in Singapore, with over half of Singaporean families spending over $500 per month per child, it is easy to see how wealth can become a powerful determinant of early success. These extracurricular accomplishments, when translated into a well-decorated résumé, create the illusion that these children are inherently smarter and more capable than children from less well-off families who simply do not have the same financially-enabled opportunities.

Second, our meritocratic system has an insidious compounding effect: better educated and more well-off parents are able to invest in their children’s education and pass down their socioeconomic advantage, and the cycle repeats every generation.

Lastly, since social stratification starts young, early intervention can tackle the problem of compounding disadvantages more effectively to avoid unfair determination of one’s life prospects.

Policy Ideas: Quotas and Nominations

Admittedly, there is no simple solution. But until Singapore’s deeply entrenched fixation with academic performance eases up, we need an institutionally-implemented solution to provide a reasonable chance for disadvantaged groups to succeed.

Quotas are an obvious first step by which this socioeconomic affirmative action could be implemented: they would essentially guarantee representation from underprivileged classes. The key advantage of using familial wealth as a qualifier is that it is the defining parameter that cannot be turned into an advantage by wealthy families. However, implementation is arguably trickier, as contentious details such as income threshold and the size of the quota reserved need to be openly discussed. Furthermore, quota-based admissions need to be well-considered and supported by appropriate selection criteria or risk becoming a form of tokenism in Singapore’s education policy, hurting students and schools alike in the event that the former are ill-suited to their newly enrolled institutions.

Another means of selecting candidates for affirmative admissions is the introduction of nominations by school teachers and principals. If we consider socioeconomic status as a form of extenuating circumstance for school admissions, then we could correct for this with testimonials from teachers who have an intimate understanding of a student’s innate academic ability. Such endorsements would sidestep the need for disadvantaged students to self-advocate, a process in which less-developed language abilities or unfamiliarity with interview skills could greatly influence the perception of students’ competency. This was in fact raised as a solution by MP Mr Ang Wei Neng during the President’s Address 2018. Major drawbacks that are immediately apparent are the logistical challenge of incorporating recommendations from teachers and principals in the admissions process, and the fact that this policy would only be relevant for admissions to secondary and higher levels of education.

How Feasible for Singapore?

Seeking to solve the insidious problem of social inequality through meddling with merit-based school admissions may seem heavy-handed, but Singapore is no stranger to employing social engineering to achieve her goals. Ethnic quotas on the purchase and occupancy of HDB flats and our choice of English — mother tongue to no major ethnic group resident here — as the working language illuminate this point, especially in the context of seeking racial equality and harmony. Our past experience in successfully implementing these policies in pursuit of our national interests is a strong precedent that drastic institutional change, such as what we are proposing, can heighten awareness of a delicate issue and even change mindsets over time.

Socioeconomic inequality is a very real problem with the very dire consequences that we, as a small, multicultural nation, cannot afford. If our original conception of meritocracy needs a tweak to help level the playing field for those who have been handicapped by socioeconomic circumstances they were born into, then it should be made in the spirit of justice and equality, the two values sanctified in our national pledge. As a young nation already hyper-aware of her class divisions, conditions are ripe for the implementation of policies that will ease divides before they become a permanent facet of our society.

Image Credit: Today Online