I READ with interest Mr Muhammad Farouq Osman's letter, 'Elitist danger in Singapore education' (Aug 21), and the Ministry of Education (MOE) reply on Monday, 'Singapore education: Equal chances for all'. Mr Osman's prophecy of growing elitism in the education system engendering an anti-elitist siege mentality among the non-elite is unwarranted. The MOE's attempt to debunk any lingering doubts about the meritocratic nature of the education system is not without blemish.
Based on his observation that about half of Public Service Commission scholarship holders live in private property, Mr Osman concludes that Singapore's education system is not meritocratic.
As highlighted by MOE, such a conclusion is an extrapolation based on a statistic that is narrow. But, in its argument that students of varied socio-economic background have excelled in the system, the MOE cites the diverse family background and schools from which the top 5 per cent of pupils in the 2007 Primary School Leaving Examination hail as evidence to substantiate its claim.
The statistic is not only narrow, as it is based on a single year and is an extrapolation, it begs the question as to whether the figure of 5 per cent is justifiable. After all, it is logical that the greater the figure, the larger and more diverse the number of schools and background of students it will encompass.
More important, this debate on meritocracy in the education system has led to questions on the nebulous notion of equality. As argued by MOE, there are equal opportunities for everyone to excel, citing its annual expenditure on junior college and Institute of Technical Education students. However, equality is broad in definition and equal opportunities in the education system cannot be simply pegged in terms of dollars and cents or the quantity of co-curricular programmes.
What matters most is uniform quality of teaching methodologies, curriculum and alternative academic routes across all institutions, which are arduous to quantify objectively.
Moreover, the abundance of value-added educational opportunities for more academically gifted students, such as the Gifted Education Programme and Integrated Programme, is due to the Government's focus on this elite group as it is believed that they are the future heirs to the leadership mantle of the nation and they can further propel economic growth.
Likewise, it is imperative to provide and promote more value-added educational opportunities for the average or less gifted.
One should never neglect those who have fallen at an academic hurdle. But maintaining a delicate balance of equitable opportunities for all stakeholders will remain a challenge for the Government.
This article was first published in The Straits Times on Aug 29, 2008.