In response to Public Service Commission (PSC) chairman Mr. Eddie Teo’s proclamation that the PSC is seeking for greater diversity, Mr. Devadas Krishnadas argued that “[g]overnment scholarships should be engines of social mobility and be awarded based on a mix of merit and need, and not just different kinds of merit”. That proposition could have generated some dissonance a few years ago (after all, it has been the guiding pillar within the public sector) but against a background of rising socio-economic inequality, Mr. Krishnadas’s perspective is steadily gaining traction.
Many, in the past year, have offered variations of “meritocracy”: a “fair meritocracy”, a “compassionate meritocracy”, a “Singaporean meritocracy”. It is perhaps fair to assume that the PSC has moved beyond the convenient equation of merit with scholastic performance, to take into consideration different achievements or contributions of its applicants. While our education system has always been fixated with academics, perceptions are shifting slowly – but surely.
So the definitions of “merit” seem to be changing; yet, the more fundamental question here is whether this notion of “need” should feature in the selection of our public scholars. Of course, knowing the household income distribution of past recipients would inform this discussion better (I only recall a 2008 Straits Times piece revealing the types of houses its scholars lived in, for that particular year), because a move to include “need” represents quite a significant shift from the status quo. One could argue that a “need”-based system discriminates against students from the well-to-do families (who never had a choice), especially since government scholarships offer more than just financial compensation. Should we – and is it even possible to – fairly quantify inherited advantages and disadvantages?
The perceived incompatibility between “merit” and “need” at this level means that there will be political costs for the government to bear. Should it retain what has worked with tremendous efficiency, or should it pander to the growing voices of dissent?
Some might also postulate that the purported stratification of PSC scholars seems to be the product – and not the cause – of our inequities. What can the PSC genuinely do in the face of these entrenched differences, made more pronounced over the years? The individual scholarship sum is substantial (and symbolic), but policy interventions against these collective disparities should have emerged much earlier on. These would mean diversifying how we and our schools view “success”, and strengthening our pre-school education. Surely that is more manageable and productive in the long run.
Will the PSC take this risk? I doubt it. It can staunchly maintain that these are scholarships, not bursaries.
Maybe the anxieties of race-based affirmative action across the Causeway has convinced many that preferential treatment is necessarily deleterious. But can we approach this from a socio-economic angle? If applicant A and B display similar levels of competencies – results, co-curricular accomplishments, leadership or community service – but A has conscientiously worked his or her way up through dysfunctional or disadvantaged circumstances, why shouldn’t he or she be given the edge? If this act implies a need to move away from a pedantic (albeit long-standing) focus upon “merit” per se, especially in the face of apparent helplessness against income disparities in Singapore, then why not?