By Lee Chin Wee and Jeremy Khoo (14A01B)
Additional reporting by Bryan Chua (14A01A)
“The human being is an unequal creature. That is a fact. And we start off with the proposition — all the great religions, all the great movements, all the great political ideologies say — let us make the human being as equal as possible. In fact, he is not equal — never will be.”
– Lee Kuan Yew
One wonders what our founding father thinks about the recently declared cuts to independent school funding. In private, he probably believes we are headed down the slippery slope of socialism. For someone who believed in policies like setting up dating agencies solely for university graduates, cutting back funding for top schools must be anathema. After all, it goes against the grain of the brand of economics that has defined Singapore’s success story — the best talent makes the best use of scarce resources.Today, however, as inequality soars, pressure continues to mount on the government to distribute resources more evenly. Perhaps we need to think about what is fair, not just what is efficient — we need to reexamine the meritocratic principles that we have grown to reflexively accept.
Therefore, the recent funding cuts cannot be viewed in isolation. They must be seen as part of a larger trend towards a more equitable spread of resources. Recent policy changes, like the introduction of a progressive wage structure for cleaners and the increased welfare benefits granted to the pioneer generation, have signalled a gradual shift away from the free market principles that the government used to espouse. To paraphrase an enamoured Foreign Policy correspondent, “At a time when big government is a four-letter word, Singapore continues to earn high praise for being run like a company. Its economic strategy reads like a business plan.” That was in 2011. Three years on, the government seems to have realized that the desk-bound everyman working for Singapore Inc. deserves a raise.
“The second major plank of the Budget has to do with our work to achieve a fair and equitable society.
We are driving important initiatives to help our lower-income families aspire for themselves, and enable every Singaporean to contribute to a better society.”
– Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam delivering the 2014 Budget Speech
In the same way that we are beginning to re-allocate economic capital to help the most financially disempowered, why not re-allocate educational capital to help students who are systemically denied the opportunity to maximize their potential? To fund better facilities and provide a diversity of educational opportunities to more students, it is only right to equalize the financial playing field for schools. We’ve been conditioned to believe that because Singapore is a meritocracy, the privileges we enjoy as Rafflesians are our just rewards. In order to understand why this does not tell the full story, we need to understand the distinction between equality in principle and equality in practice.
In principle, our education system is fair and equal. Every twelve-year old sits the same set of PSLE papers under the same conditions. Regardless of who his parents are or how much money they earn, he can still make it if he’s got what it takes. This is the meritocratic narrative offered by the government.
In practice, when John takes the PSLE, he has twelve years of accumulated privileges behind him. At the tender age of four, he was enrolled into a good preschool, giving him a head start in the educational rat race. At home, he was able to satisfy his inquisitive mind by delving into one of the many encyclopedias that his parents invested in. John’s parents signed him up for advanced chess classes to hone his thinking skills and drama classes to boost his self-confidence. By the age of nine, John was streamed into the ‘gifted’ programme and placed into an accelerated class. He was taught by some of the best primary school teachers, and was exposed to course material that thirteen or fourteen year olds were expected to handle. Unlike a vast majority of his peers sitting for the PSLE, John has benefitted from a uniquely privileged upbringing. Maybe anybody can make it, but John is far likelier to make it than many others.
If meritocracy is to mean anything in practice, the playing field has to be levelled so everyone gets a fair chance to compete. It’s only then that a meritocratic system is actually rewarding the best rather than those who’ve lucked out in the birth lottery. Yes, many, if not all, of us have worked hard to excel academically, but so have our peers in less prestigious schools. It’s indisputable that, for most of us, our being in RI has at least something to do with the circumstances of our birth. Not everything, to be sure, but enough to give us a host of structural advantages when it comes to academic success.
Thus, in order to make sure everyone is given an equal chance to succeed at every stage of their lives, government funding has to be distributed more equitably. Fact is, more funding directly equates to a better educational experience. And for schools which may not have strong alumni support or do not currently enjoy IP/GEP grants from the government, the pinch of tight budgets are felt most acutely. While we can afford to fund leadership institutes and subsidize overseas learning journeys, less privileged schools are forced to close down CCAs and trim enrichment programmes. We enjoy a remarkable range of privileges — think about the Gap Semester, the exchange programmes, the leadership camps, and the dozens of club and societies in RI. Perhaps taking away a few of these programmes and redistributing the money to ‘neighbourhood’ schools is the right thing to do. The more money a school has at its disposal, the less direct educational benefit can be reaped through additional spending. For instance, opening up yet another leadership programme might well give a few Rafflesian leaders a little more insight into the art of leadership, but the money could have gone to a government school instead, allowing them to enjoy some of the things we already have — like a dedicated leadership department.
The problem, though, is that the recent cuts to school funding don’t do enough, even though it is a step in the right direction toward a more equitable educational system. To quote a letter from the MOE, “[Out of the independent schools] three schools will see an increase in funding of about 5 per cent this year compared to last year, three schools will get between 1 per cent and 3 per cent more, and four schools will experience a reduction of no more than 3 per cent.” (emphasis added) In other words, although there is now a more equitable distribution of funds amongst the IP schools, this change doesn’t affect government schools, which are probably the schools that would make the best use of a budget increase.
On a related note, one wonders why independent schools have also been asked to limit any fundraising efforts for new facilities. On the face of it, it might look like a useful measure to narrow inequality within the education system, but the upshot of this policy actually seems to be that independent schools have less resources to work with without a commensurate increase in resources for government schools. By restricting an independent school’s ability to raise funds, the system is made more equitable, but only because there are now less resources on the whole. In short, this measure hurts independent schools without helping government schools, and seems to focus more on trying to make everything appear more equal. In fact, by forcing schools that want to upgrade their facilities to clear an even higher bar in order to justify the expenditure, we limit upward mobility significantly. If every school is to be a good school, we need to concentrate our efforts on making these ‘non-standard’ facilities and advantages a standard part of every student’s education, which will benefit one and all.
We do have one caveat: it’s important to acknowledge that there are some good reasons to allocate more resources to independent schools. While independent schools do receive grants for all IP and GEP students, they don’t just go towards funding new facilities. Within RI, for instance, the school budget provides for initiatives like the Humanities Programme and the Monday morning enrichment programmes (such as ISLE), which serve the important purpose of nurturing talent within niche areas. In these cases, it does seem as though some resources should be devoted toward helping talented students develop their potential. Shouldn’t education both serve as the great social leveller and help students achieve greater success? That’s why the government has spent taxpayer monies building up the Singapore Sports School, to help our most promising athletes develop in the best possible training environment. That’s why we’ve continually invested in niche schools like the School of the Arts, to equip aspiring musicians and actors with the specialized skills to help them succeed in the future, or even shine on the international stage. Only a minority of Singaporeans will get to use these facilities, but everyone’s taxpayer dollars are funding these programmes. Why? Because these programs serve other important national goals — encouraging interest in the Humanities, turning young sportsmen and women into world-class athletes and so forth. Whether you want to push the boundaries of modern economics or play football for the Lions, shouldn’t the education system also help you to realize these aspirations?
In principle, it is easy to say that we want an equitable distribution of resources. It is not much harder to elaborate the idea of equity — a comprehensive attempt to level the playing field so that everyone gets a fair shot at success in a meritocratic system. It is far harder to find answers in practice, when we have to balance the goal of equity against other worthwhile goals that require state funding as well. But the difficulty of finding the perfect answer does not stop us from trying to solve problems that we know exist. In the end, as the economist John Maynard Keynes might say, it’s better to be roughly right than precisely wrong.