S'pore's meritocracy can be improved to become more open & compassionate: Lawrence Wong

One of the ways he suggested is to do more in the early life of every child, "especially those from less well-off families so that the circumstances of their birth do not determine their future in life".

Lee Wei Lin | June 28, 2022, 04:49 PM

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Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) Lawrence Wong launched the "Forward Singapore" exercise on June 28, saying that Singaporeans will always be at the centre of everything the government does.

Wong speaking at a dialogue organised by the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) at the NTUC building at Marina One Boulevard, outlined the challenges and anxieties faced by Singaporeans about the future, and said that our meritocratic system can improve.

Refreshing the social compact

Wong referred to his May Day rally speech on May 1 earlier this year, where he mentioned that Singapore's 4G leadership team will develop a Forward Singapore agenda that will examine how to refresh Singapore's "social compact".

Back then, Wong said, "We will consider what we need to do differently but also affirm what is being done well and how we can do it even better."

In his June 28 speech, Wong said that it is important to "refresh and update" the social compact to fit with the changing times.

He said that Singapore is at a crossroads as the strong post-pandemic recovery has been met with "strong headwinds", such as global inflation and a possible recession -- if not, stagflation.

Recognising the fears of a stressful society

Wong recognised that there are "very real fears in our stressful society – the fear of not doing well enough, of being left behind".

He spoke of students who feel pigeon-holed from very early in their lives, graduates and workers who are anxious about their careers and property, older workers who may struggle with finding new employment after losing their jobs.

Wong said:

"Sometimes, those who do not meet the traditional yardsticks of merit may find opportunities closed to them. They may feel beaten down by early failure, and feel discouraged from trying again.

I know these are genuine struggles that our people face – perhaps more so today than in the past.

I hope we will have honest conversations about these concerns, and how we can tackle them together."

Singaporeans will always be at the centre of everything we do: Lawrence Wong

Open and free economy for growth, but temper its excesses

Wong stressed that Singapore will continue to maintain its stance on having an open and free market to grow the economy while tempering extreme market outcomes and resisted a winner-takes-all economic regime.

For example, being an open economy means having competition from foreign workers and professionals, which may cause anxiety. The government seeks to alleviate this by investing heavily in skills training for Singaporean workers.

Wong also mentioned passing a new law to ensure that all employers uphold fair employment practices.

Wong said, "We will not hesitate to take action against any employer who discriminates on the basis of nationality -- or other factors, namely, age, sex, disability, race and religion."

Work pass holder policies will continue to be updated to ensure that they complement, not displace, our local workforce.

Pledge to ensure that income and wealth gaps do not widen

Wong said he will ensure that public housing remains affordable, in particular for the young and first-timers, and uplift vulnerable workers through schemes such as Workfare and the Progressive Wage Model.

The tax and transfer system will be further strengthened "so that everyone contributes something, but those with more contribute more, to help those with less".

Wong pledged to ensure that our income and wealth gaps do not widen, and every Singaporean has a fair share in the benefits of growth.

How meritocracy can be improved

Risk of privilege entrenched across generations

Wong then turned to the topic of meritocracy, and shared his belief that meritocracy is "still the best way to organise our society", but acknowledged that the way things are done could still be improved.

While rewarding Singaporeans on the basis of merit encourages people to strive to make the best use of opportunities made available, the downsides are that the rich can give their children more opportunities.

He said:

"Those who have succeeded by their merit naturally seek to pass on their advantages to their children by any means possible.

So there’s a risk of privilege being entrenched across generations."

A more open and compassionate meritocracy

Wong believes we can improve by making ours a "more open and compassionate meritocracy".

One of the ways he suggested is to do more in the early life of every child, "especially those from less well-off families so that the circumstances of their birth do not determine their future in life".

"This way we can better ensure that all Singaporean children, no matter their social background, can fulfil their potential."

Another approach is to "broaden our conception of merit beyond academic credentials: to recognise and develop talents in diverse fields, and give our people opportunities to advance at multiple stages of their lives."

The government will work closely with employers and unions to get employers to hire and promote staff not just on the basis of credentials, but on skills and actual work performance.

Singapore's overall system of learning will also be strengthened so that Singaporeans can continually upgrade their skills and secure better jobs.

Learning to value the contributions of every worker

Wong urged Singaporeans to respect all – including those in lower-income jobs – who he says “keep society going in so many ways”.

Calling this the “most important change”, he added that this is not something that the government can legislate into reality. Instead, society as a whole must learn to value the contributions of workers from all fields, including the “unassuming” but “essential” hawkers, cleaning workers, food delivery riders and security officers.

Wong said:

“Let us recognise them, treat them kindly, never turn up our noses up at anyone – and pay them well.

This way, we can accord these workers a greater sense of dignity and sufficiency in life, and the opportunity to improve their lives.”

His vision for the Singapore of tomorrow

Wong said that the 4G team are both "excited and honoured" about this "major undertaking".

He gave his word that the team is "sincere and committed to listening to and partnering Singaporeans", and "will engage in good faith; consider all ideas; and work alongside our people to achieve our shared aspirations".

Wong spoke of what he wishes to see in the Singapore of tomorrow, which is one where:

  • Opportunities are open to all, no matter who they are or what their background is.
  • All are assured of access to basic needs like education, healthcare and housing, and everyone can chart their own path to live a fulfilling, dignified life.
  • We can build the best home, not just for ourselves but for generations of Singaporeans yet unborn.
  • All Singaporeans contribute their fair share to the common good, with those who are fortunate to do well in life willingly contributing more to uplift their fellow citizens with less.
  • Where every man and woman is valued, every child treasured, and every senior respected.

Top image from Lawrence Wong's Facebook page.