Meritocracy works but beware of elitism: ESM Goh

ESM Goh Chok Tong (L) shakes the hand of alumnus Dr Albert Hong after arriving for the Raffles Homecoming Dinner for alumni on 27 July 2013.

SINGAPORE - The danger of Singapore's best and brightest young people thinking they are naturally superior and entitled to their success worries Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong.

Singapore needs to guard against such elitism in schools, public institutions or society at large, because it can divide the inclusive society the country is trying to build, he said on Saturday.

To guard against that, he recommended sticking with meritocracy, which has served the country well. But there is a need to adapt and strengthen meritocracy to ensure everyone in society benefits.

"What we need is to get the successful to understand that they have a responsibility to help the less fortunate and less able with compassion," he said. They can do this through cash donations, sharing skills and knowledge, and serving the country.

At the same time, the Government needs to continue to help families that have fallen behind, through its policies and programmes, he added.

"Together, these efforts will ensure that our brand of meritocracy remains compassionate, that it is fair and inclusive for all - not just those who are lucky in their backgrounds or genetic endowments."

He was speaking at the 190th anniversary dinner of his alma mater, Raffles Institution, which honoured him with the Gryphon Award for distinguished alumni. It is named after the mythical creature on the school crest.

He is the second recipient after former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew in 2011, who had urged RI then to maintain its longstanding traditions of meritocracy and multiculturism.

Mr Goh made a similar call on Saturday, saying: "Our top schools, including RI, must play a key role in ensuring that elitism and a sense of entitlement do not creep into the minds of their students."

"Those of us who have benefited disproportionately from society's investment in us owe the most to society, particularly to those who may not have had access to the same opportunities. We owe a debt to make lives better for all, and not just for ourselves."

Recalling his schooldays more than half a century ago when RI was in Bras Basah, Mr Goh, 72, said it was then a melting pot of the best male pupils from primary schools all over Singapore, boys of different races and religions, rich and poor.

Like him, most were poor or from lower-income homes, and meritocracy worked for them, leading them into the top boys' school.

But as society matured and became more stratified, families who had done well could give their children a head start.

"It is not surprising that many who have not done so well see meritocracy as a system that is biased towards those with better resources, and one which impairs their social mobility," he said.

He recalled that as far as 30 years ago, Singapore's leaders recognised such downsides of meritocracy.

He had listened in as then PM Lee, in a discussion with Dutch economist Albert Winsemius and then labour MP Devan Nair, argued that ideally and philosophically, all wealth should revert to the state on the owner's death so that each successive generation would start on an equal footing, and success would depend on hard work and ability, not inherited wealth.

But that idea was impractical, Mr Goh recalled.

Instead, the Government has tried to level the playing field by putting more resources into education, including pre-schools, and giving financial aid to needy students.

Mr Goh also launched a Raffles Community Initiative to provide seed money for students, alumni and parents to do community projects locally and in the region.


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