My Thoughts on National Day Rally 2012

Excessive meritocracy, higher learning, preschool education and national conversation

There were several policy areas in the National Day rally speeches that caught my attention last evening. First was hearing Education Minister Heng Swee Kiat speak of the dangers of extreme meritocracy, which had led to holistic education being sacrificed, amongst others. It brought my mind back to my maiden parliamentary speech in October last year. I had used the term “hyper-meritocracy”. Subsequently, I made various blog posts on this topic as well. It refers essentially to the same thing as what the Minister spoke about, that we have relied too much on performance in academic tests to judge abilities and this has led to a winner-takes-all society.

Acknowledging that there is a serious problem is a start. There have been some good initiatives by MOE, but set against our reliance on a stressful examination culture, many of the programmes fail to deliver the outcomes hoped for. I hope the Minister will show he means business and tackle head-on this phenomena of extreme meritocracy, dealing even with sacred cows in the education system if he has to.

Next, I am glad to hear that the year-long study on higher education has led to more places for Singaporeans and to the formalisation of SIM and SIT as the 5th and 6th universities. In October last year, I had sought to find the gap between Singaporeans’ aspiration for a university education and the places in our autonomous universities. The answer is a staggering 41,000 locals in private universities in Singapore. This number excludes Singaporeans studying in overseas universities. The number of Singaporeans studying unsubsidised could be as high as those in the autonomous universities. That signalled that we have been significantly underproviding in this area.

The preschool initiatives were of great interest to me too. I was a member of the REACH Policy Study Workgroup on Education that in 2009 had made various recommendations in preschool, including asking for preschool education to be put under one ministry – MOE, greater funding to support preschool operations and for the government to run some preschool centres especially for the lower income group. I was then disappointed that these views, painstakenly gathered from two years of interviews by the committee, were rather quickly dismissed. From time to time, various groups have surfaced somewhat similar views; and this time, more actions were finally taken.

The new initiatives also called for more anchor operators other than NTUC and PCF. I have been a long-time participant and observer in various capacities in this industry. I think it is high time that the industry be more inclusive of all operators, including private operators. Operators other than the pre-selected anchor operators have long operated under challenging conditions, hampered by an unlevel playing field. I had raised various questions and speeches in parliament over the past year  regarding the way this industry has been structured. I reserve additional comments on this topic until further details are out. I hope any government policy in this field can be more inclusive than what it has been in the past.

Finally on the National Conversation, I think there are already many views out there, especially online, if the government is to listen more carefully. And some views are quite sensible, contrary to what some  policymakers may sometimes say about online feedback. What I am more interested to know is, how will the sacred cows be dealt with? We have many. Former Straits Times associate editor Bertha Henson listed some interesting ones on her blog: ISA, detention without trial, death penalty, annual licensing requirement for newspapers, and others. I will say the proof of the pudding is in the eating. How seriously will these sacred cows be dealt with? Time will tell.

Note: An earlier version of this post is also published in



7 comments on “My Thoughts on National Day Rally 2012

  1. I am happy that meritocracy has been questioned. Now its time to include CCA as a substantial component of the final grade. CCA is the only way we have of gauging the intangibles like character etc. It should account for 40 % of the final grade.

    • We are quite far from South Korea’s situation. I have hired many who graduated from private universities and from overseas universities, they having not been able to meet the entry for local autonomous universities. They do their work well and some even outstandingly. I think we have been way too cautious and underinvesting in this area for too long.

      Each university will define itself and employers will know how to decide. Even right now, there are 4 local universities and starting pays are not the same for graduates of same type of programmes. Those who do private fulltime or parttime degrees often have to struggle with high expenditure because government’s investment in this sector was previously insufficient.

    • @sleepy
      what would all the graduates do?
      answer: insurance agents, ppty agents, bank execs, MLM agent, land banking agents etc etc etccc.. HAHA..

      tackling the number of uni places is one thing. matching with job demand is another. how many times have we seen engineer-trained joining banks?? arts degree holder becomes sales agent (whatever product), science degree holder lands into an unrelated field? – 1) waste of uni resources 2) waste of tax monies 3) waste of the individual’s time!!!

  2. Have a degree will travel, true? But not all graduates from the same cohort or academic year make it to the top as the pyramid shape will show up that many are mere followers at the base. Not all doctors, dentists, architects, lawyers, engineers, accountants, etc. are the same. Not all scholars ended up the same too. Some are forgotten. Have the degree but one must be outstanding to be the leader of the pack, competition notwithstanding, and be at the summit of the group, and not as an also-ran languishing at the bottom blaming others for one’s plight or failure in life. Worst still, some have excellent degree but have ended up in jail due to criminal wrongdoings because of greed and lust. Only in gratitude and humility, will one rise and be an exemplary model for others and the young. The opposite is ego, which is the sure path to decline or even ending in self-invited disaster. Some ended in grief, empty handed, though armed to the teeth with excellent degrees believing that the world is an oyster owing them a living and others are fools for them to step upon. In this www world, all good or bad deeds will be exposed very fast. I hope scholars and the well-educated with degrees will not end up on the wrong side of the law. They owe it to many to make it to the top of the society with a degree in tow.

  3. What is Complete Education not just the training of the mind and acquiring skills? If that is all to be done in education, many countries will be well ahead of Singapore in this. I hope the new stat board and all those interested in education will learn what is Complete Education as it is more than meet the eye.

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