Meritocracy and collaboration in post-pandemic Singapore

Singapore Perspectives IPS

These were my opening remarks at the panel discussion on Politics in Singapore 2030, at the Singapore Perspectives 2021 conference organised by the Institute of Policy Studies, on 25 January 2021.

I would like to thank the Institute of Policy Studies for inviting me to be here today. Thank you, Dr Gillian Koh for moderating this panel. And I thank most of all those of you in the audience, including those at home, for spending your Monday afternoon with us.

I joined Workers’ Party three months after first child was born. My daughter is now in secondary one, which means this is my 13th year in politics. There have been many ups and downs during this time, but one of the most rewarding activities I have participated in is contributing to three Party election manifestos, which outline our vision for the country and our proposals for a better future.

WP’s vision for Singapore is for all Singaporeans able to achieve their dreams in life. That we can forge a dynamic economy with more competitive, homegrown firms. That Singaporeans will work together to build the home we want. And that we can have an accountable democracy with robust institutions that outlast any political party.

Many conditions are needed to achieve this vision: Families need to be resilient to weather storms of life. Schools need to prepare students for life, not just exams. Our social safety nets need to assure citizens that someone will catch them if they fall. Our companies need an environment where they can thrive, so that they can provide rewarding jobs for our workers. And we as a nation must embrace a diversity of views and encourage robust but responsible debate about the way forward.

Our common goal is to achieve a better quality of life for all Singaporeans, and for life to improve for each successive generation. Most Singaporeans already enjoy good quality of life, but for some, life is still quite kang kor (difficult). We meet these Singaporeans during house visits, at meet-the-people sessions, and through the many phone calls and messages we receive. For a few, their situation may be a result of bad decisions they made, like committing a crime. But most of them struggle despite their best efforts to improve their lives. We need to better understand them without judging them, and find more ways to help them. We should do this not just to achieve justice and equality, but because our collective happiness, prosperity and progress as a nation depends on all Singaporeans having a share in our success.

Meritocracy is often touted as being a guiding principle of our country, even though it is neither in our Pledge nor in our National Anthem. Meritocracy is a good guiding principle for combating corruption, cronyism and nepotism, but I believe it leads to sub-optimal outcomes if every citizen is seen through the lens of their abilities and achievements. Do we practice this type of meritocracy with our children? If our child comes home with bad grades, do we make him sleep in a smaller room or eat only Maggi mee for dinner? No. Yet, this is what we take as a given in our society: If you don’t earn as much, you have to settle for a poorer quality of life

Now don’t get me wrong: I am not expecting equal outcomes, but we cannot be content with providing only equal opportunities. Not everybody is able to seize these opportunities because there may be complex factors working against them. In the race of life, some people start 10 metres behind the starting line and some 20 metres in front. Some may have their path cleared for them, while others may have to leap over high hurdles all the way. Some have good coaches or mentors, while others have none.

In a meritocracy, we are rewarded solely for our achievements. But we are a nation, not a corporation. We are our brothers’ keeper. We need to pick each other up and finish the race together.

Problems we face today are more complex than before. There are so many more factors to take into account, and so many more stakeholders to bring on board. There are also legacy issues stemming from previous policy approaches. Complex problems require deeper brainstorming to come up with solutions. These solutions may not come from only the government. Neither do they come only from academia, civil society or political parties. They require contributions from all stakeholders. This can only come about if all stakeholders, including the government, are prepared to listen, explain themselves clearly and adjust their position where necessary.

This is not a gameshow to see who has the best idea and can hit the buzzer first. It is also not a fairy tale where there is a hero and a villain—the villain being the person who opposes your point of view and must be demolished. Those who hold different views do not deserve to be called names or accused of impure motives. All stakeholders should be collaborating—not competing—to find optimal solutions to the challenges we face.

Unfortunately, the headlines are dominated by negative examples of how other countries muddle their way through problems. Some powerful countries are allowing political tribalism to tear themselves apart, while others are suppressing all dissenting voices and creating a pressure cooker which could explode in the future. We in tiny Singapore have the opportunity show the world a better way to respect each other and resolve our differences.

In a post-pandemic world, it is more vital than ever that we make a greater effort to craft a new chapter in our history without being inhibited by a preference for the familiar past. I thank you for hearing me out and look forward to taking your questions later.

Author: Gerald Giam

Gerald Giam is the Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC. He is a member of the Workers' Party of Singapore. The opinions expressed on this page are his alone.