Social Mobility

Surprisingly, I have been reading news. Yes, and I came across Soon Sze Meng’s article on our local school’s contribution towards social mobility. As a typical student myself, I shall leave readers to find out for themselves what exactly is social mobility. In any case, the article revolves around the discussion of meritocracy in Singapore and who exactly does our education system benefit.

For ages, we, belonging to the lower band of the society, lived with the idea that education is our key to penetrating the social ‘classes’, allowing us to attain ‘greater heights’. We believe, that wealth do not last more than 3 generations, with the second (in some cases) and third squandering away all the first generation have worked to build. We once thoughts, that as long as we slog and work, we will outshine the ‘rich’ students, who are characterised by their lazy, and apathetic traits. Unfortunately (or should I say fortunately), our society is not so ideal, and so is many others.

A nation founded upon the principles of meritocracy is successful because everyone starts off at the same point, the identical starting line. Whoever runs fast enough, have the perseverence to last till the end, emerges as the victor, and not forgetting those who have accompanied the victor all the way, whom themselves earn the rest of the honour. Others are left scattered around the track – some gave up halfway, some sink into some kind of crisis purely by chance, while others who may have tried the shortcuts got lost. For this point, I am also suggesting that people do win with shortcuts.

That was then. The second generation don’t differ much from the first except that they had a more stable life, and were able to enjoy what the previous generation know as luxury. They are able to enjoy in their late 50s or so. But as we step into the third generation, the disparity is getting wider. We see that everyone has a different starting point; you have a guy from a tycoon’s family, another is the son of an official (this kind of people are known as white horse in Singapore context), and who knows, you get a peer who has just migrated to Singapore from Australia and he’s an excellent speaker. You get different competitors, and so on the other hand, there are the sons and daughters of hawkers – the mini rich class; finally, there is the lower income group, supposedly characterised by the fact that they qualify for financial aid. I have to stress this point that there is no discrimination intended.

What I am trying to say here is that you now need to introduce ‘Selective Meritocracy’. This has been in practice and this is not something new at all. It involves the addition of filters to prevent ‘well-fed’ people who has the ability to fund their own studies from obtaining scholarships or monetary rewards for academic achievements, thereby robbing the deserving, and in a way, less fortunate of the opportunity to ‘move up’ (to quote from Sze Meng’s words). Paradoxically, this system of selective meritocracy is only used in scholarships or cash grants involving money that usually does not exceed SGD$1000. The scholarships that goes up to hundreds of thousands do not work with this system.

The vicious cycle is turning, in fact spining. The rich get the appropriate help, the right contacts, and the resources required to do whatever known as ‘projects’. The poor, with less exposure to the academics, and having a need for extra income, would rather address to the immediate problem by working part-time, than to work on his ‘project’. The system, acknowledges the efforts of the rich boy, praising his efforts to contact a renown professor to aid in his ‘project’ while dismissing the poor student as a rebellious, undisciplined and ‘good-for-nothing’. This is getting fearful. Well, the situation is not as extreme as the analogy I have drawn, but the actual is very close. Extremely close indeed.

There are, in fact, presence of students who have excel academically and present himself as being an outstanding and ‘high-class’ student despite his humble background and manages to obtain the scholarship that they are pursuing at the end of their ‘learning journey’. But they are rare. Let’s put this fact aside and imagine, for Einstein has mentioned how imagination is more important than knowledge: If the ‘rich’ guys who have obtained scholarships are erased from the big picture completely, how many ‘poor’ others would have been able to ‘move up’? And in turn, they would be able to aid how many others ‘move up’? This would eventually close up the income gap that we seem to have now.

Think about how the small gap between obtaining the scholarship and not for both the rich and the poor would alter from cases to cases. A ‘rich’ who grasped it feels happy, go on the study, come back to adhere to his bond (alternatively, he might decide to break the bond and even compensate with his own money if he is really rich enough), and then live on. The ‘poor’ who missed it would have spent his slogging on his studies seemingly useless. Well, he can continue with his academic career and alter his future a little, but will never be able to make the difference that he would have if he manages to obtain the chance to pursue what he initially wanted.

This is getting long and I probably would continue with this talk in the next few posts.


  1. Good valid points….the starting line is indeed very different for different Singaporeans as Singapore moved into a developed country status…the key is whether those who benefit from the system will turn around and help the rest (rather than assuming others, including the government, will help the rest) . This mindset is extremely important.

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