Meritocracy Has Failed in our Education System

Meritocracy is the core principal guiding Singapore’s education system. From Primary school, students are banded in their early years according to learning ability, with the good and slower separated into different classes to cater to their various learning styles and speeds. The system makes perfect sense theoretically: You reap what you sow. If one puts in the effort and time into studies, you will get the good grades you need to advance. However, this system allows too many to fall through the cracks, cracks which appear due to the blunt tool of examinations used to measure this ‘merit’. Singapore’s use of a one-size-fits-all policy has unfortunately created a society of inequality and has, more than anything, failed our students almost completely.

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In Singapore, the only tool by which ‘merit’ is measured is through major exams, in the form of PSLE, N levels, O levels and A levels. But not only is this an extremely narrow measure of merit, it’s importance has also lost its relevance in the world today. Singapore’s education system, despite years of complain and protest, is still by and large focused upon rote-learning, as opposed to creative thinking and problem solving. These are the real skills favoured by employers today, which students are not taught. It has become a common observation by local employers that the best graduates with top grades do not translate to the best employees. While able to do their job, they are unable to think outside-the-box and lack the initiative to solve problems outside their prescribed domain.


To me, a student within the system, I couldn’t agree more that I stop learning anything after awhile in school. When presented with a new topic, I am initially challenged by the new concepts taught and learn a new perspective. But that is not what the system cares about. The A level exams requires that not only do we understand this concept, but the majority of the time spent in schools and lessons are on memorising the content, and how to apply them in various scenarios. Over and over and over again. Until it becomes second nature. To me, this rote-learning is useless when the proliferation of Google search has made memorisation obsolete. If you think I’m just an idiot who doesn’t know what I’m talking about. Maybe this guy will convince you.


Albert Einstein – “Never memorize something that you can look up.”


Under our system, anyone with access to an internet connection during a national exam can compete with our top scorers with ease. There is no point in forcing students to memorise concepts and content in this day and age when any dickhead with Google can do the same thing at 1% of the brainpower. These skills are simply not important anymore, not with the new technologies we have.


Students in this system become proficient in only using someone else’s theories, someone else’s ideas, someone else’s problem-solving method to cater to different situations. Not once, in my entire education in Singapore, have I been asked to come up with a completely new theory, or a new method to solve even the most simple problem. Even projects, which are actually a A level subject known as Project Work, which are meant for students to come up with ‘creative’ solutions, are bounded by rigid rubrics that demand students use precedents and existing measures and again, merely adapt them to suit the project’s target. The creativity of students are again severely limited by the unbending strictures of an uncompromising education system.


So our students graduate with a sense of irresponsibility. The responsibility to think of solutions, to think of new theories and methods of doing things elude us. We have been designed to search for the best method available, adapt, and reuse. Is it any wonder why our top jobs which require precisely these creative skills are taken up by foreigners?


Sure, we may beat them hands down in Maths and Sciences, but who cares? Proficiency in these fields only get you so far without creativity to channel your brilliance through to new discoveries. Science has always been driven by thinking of new methods of doing stuff, not doing the same thing again and again until you’re the best at it. It’s known as innovation.


And what happens to people not suited to such a method of rote-learning? They are simply left behind to be caught by a safety net of ‘less intensive’ or ‘more technical-based’ programmes exists to ensure those that fail do not become bums. These programmes start from Primary school, where students are banded at Primary 3 (about 9 years old) into Higher Mother Tongue classes and those who don’t take them, and continue to higher education where Normal Academic and Normal Technical streams in Secondary schools cater to these students, with the Institute for Technical Education(ITE) bringing up the rear. Again, this sounds excellent in theory: “We have a comprehensive programme to ensure inclusiveness blah blah blah…”


But ask yourself, who the hell wants to go to these programmes? Given the choice, everyone wants to do well, or at least average. Nobody wants to be dirt bottom, to be harshly judged at. Firstly, don’t even pretend you don’t judge people the moment they say “I’m Normal Tech” or “I’m from ITE”. We all do it. We can’t help it. It has become ingrained in us that these people are second-rate and are where they are because


1. They are lazy and don’t study.


2. They are gangsters and don’t study.


3.They are less intellectually capable.


It’s got to be one of these three right? After all, if the majority of society can get through the system, and these people can’t, there must be something wrong with them, right?



The fact is that no matter what your ‘ learning style or speed’ is, we all sit for the same exams. This one-size-fit-all policy thus obviously benefits the privileged few in the GEP or ‘smarter’ classes, who are given much more opportunities to learn and improve, as compared to the average joes. And thus, when it comes down to the national exams, it is no suprise these students do better, surely because they work harder, but also because of the uneven training grounds we have for our students.


We have to recognise that our education system is flawed and skewed towards the more well-to-do, and to those who show potential early on. The poor and late-bloomers are disadvantaged from the start. If you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll believe Today.


Click to enlarge (That’s what she said)


The Bald Truth

80% believe tuition helps children do better in schools, but only 4% in lowest monthly household bracket do so. The fact is that our education system can no longer cope with the syllabus it draws up for itself. It has packed so much into our syllabus that there is not enough time for teachers to adequately teach each and every student sufficiently, and this shortfall in teaching is picked up by the increasingly lucrative private tuition business. To me, the mere fact that this sector is growing is an indication that parents are losing faith in the ability of schools to secure good results for students, and it’s a worrying symptom because tuition is not cheap. This instantly disadvantages poor students who can’t afford tuition, which half the respondent in Today’s study pay more than $500 a month for.


Late bloomers are also disadvantaged by the banding of students so early in their education. Slower students are banded together, and for all the rhetoric about catering to learning styles, we all know that’s bullshit. Kids feed on each other’s examples. If a class is filled with lazy kids, you can bet your late-blooming child, no matter how intelligent or initially hardworking, will be sucked into this vortex. And this starts a cycle that determines the fate of our students.


If you are placed into an poor class, you get a poor work attitude and thus get poor results, that bring you to a poor school, in a poor stream, where your attitude continues to be poor… Sure, there are exceptions to this cycle, but don’t you think it takes a hell lot of exceptional effort and character for one to transcend this overwhelming peer pressure to do well? For those that did it, I salute you. Respect max seriously.


But what this actually does, is it discounts a lot of capable students who just didn’t bloom early. And by sieving them out so early, the education system has doomed them to a life of mediocrity.


The opposite is true for our early geniuses, of course, a fact recognised by all parents, which is why they’ve been pushing their children even harder at an earlier age, as seen from how the article shows that 30% of parents feel that tuition should start in pre-school.




Do you remember when you were in pre-school? I played Pokemon, used my Digivice, watched cartoons in the morning, and played in my estate playground in the afternoon. Now, they study, learn to count to 100, addition, subtraction etc. by the time they’re 6. Those who step into Primary school the first day not knowing all these are instantly behind.


What have we become? In our drive to make sure our children don’t fall behind others and become second or third-rate in society, to make sure our children never have to suffer the indignity of being caught by our education’s safety nets, we take away the joys of childhood, and tell our toddlers to start competing with future peers they haven’t even met yet. All for an arbitrary certificate.


The Ultimate Fact of our Education System

The ultimate fact is that, our examinations, our certificates that we fight so hard for, are NOT a good measure of merit. It really isn’t. If we strip down everything else about it, all the certificate says is that “You have excelled in rote-learning”.


That’s it.


The countless hours you have spent doing community work, even outside school-demanded CIP hours, are secondary, the lives you have touched in school are superfluous, and all the non-academic activities you have ever done in school is discounted. And is excellence in rote-learning a really good measure of merit?
How about the creative problem solvers? The philosophical thinkers amidst us? Their abilities are perhaps admired by peers, but in the end, these people who could have contributed so much are left to flounder in the system. All because of the system’s ridiculously narrow definition of merit.

What now?

I think it’s high time the government recognises that the fact that our education system has won numerous accolades and commendations from USA, UK alike means nothing. We have cultivated a nation of overly-competitive, childhood-deprived students who have not learned anything, and we have to start cultivating the real skills of creative problem solving using unique methods, not other people’s.


It’s time the government recognises that it’s one-size-fit-all method of measuring merit is failing our students. The fact that most of us make it out of the education system okay does not mean it is good. It is time we recognise that merit can be measured in so many more ways than it is done so far. It is time we abolish arbitrary banding programs in schools, especially at young ages, that simply let so many fall through the cracks when they could have risen to the top. It’s time to recognise that there are those in our society who are not doing well under this academic system because it is not suited for them, not because they’re stupid or lazy.


It is time to slow down, and recognise that more is not better. Let our children play. I’m 18, I recognise my time to play is over. But I’m speaking for my future children, and that too of my peers. I don’t think any of us want our children to go through the same stress that we do.


Most of all, it is time to change. Because parents won’t stop competing, students won’t stop mugging and cramming useless information into their heads, teachers won’t start encouraging creativity unless it starts from the top. Policy-makers have to wake up to reality and stop patting themselves on the back and recognise that their are fundamental problems in the system. We can’t change the players without changing the game.
As a wise guy once said, “Knowledge is not Wisdom”. I’ll take a stab in the dark here, but I think most will pick wisdom. And unfortunately, that is not what we learn in schools.


Don’t ignore this call, it is really time to rethink education in Singapore.

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9 thoughts on “Meritocracy Has Failed in our Education System

  1. Joel Long says:

    A system change in Singapore is a must, but it is hard to work on changing very fixed mindsets. We’re talking about half-century-old mindsets stemming all the way from *before* Independence.

    It took a serious run of poor results for me to convince my parents that JC wasn’t for me; now I’m a Poly graduate and I was able to find a decent starting job as soon as I got out, though only for a short while since I am going to continue my education at SIT.

    Hope that helps in galvanising any points raised here.

    • cdoubleuj says:

      I agree there’s a lot of inertia regarding change in government policies. I’ve actually been to a grassroots meeting before and every new idea or initiative gets 10 “why we shouldn’t do it” for every “why we should”.

  2. Ng Justin says:

    Good post here; you are right and wrong.
    The education system is flawed, yes.
    There are a number of Singaporean parents that push their kids too hard, yes.
    This needs to change, yes.

    Failing the nat. exams dooms you to a life of mediocrity, no. We have internships, competitions and communities for stuff that fall outside of what Singapore considers “academic” study.

    Advice to give out: Do badly for the nat. exams if you have to but make sure you know what you want in life and get some experience in it before you have to tough it out in the real world.

    Anyone worth talking to is going to spend five minutes with you before deciding if you’re mediocre. “You’re in N.A./N.T.? You must be an idiot!” <– Don't talk to these people

    Frankly, I believe labeling someone negatively every now and then is a good thing; builds character. Saying, "no one is stupid," is bullshit and, as George Carlin would say, "It's bad for you!"

  3. Lexis says:

    What I would like to know is what a formal education is supposed to achieve. Without defining this, there is no way to judge if it has succeeded or failed. As far as I am concerned, formal education *is* about rote learning. The focus is on facts, on drilling, on application, on building a foundation for further study into a subject.

    What Singaporeans need to accept is that formal education is not the be all and end all of learning. What the government needs to do is stop feeding people the message that education is the be all and end all of life. What people need to do is to start thinking, instead of just blindly following the crowd, about their goals in going through school.

    What the government needs to do is to privatise education and leave the national exams in place. Let the people figure out how to get through them. Let us skip grades if we can, let us take longer to get through them if we need. Make everyone take responsibility for their own education, rather than prescribe it as panacea.

    I hated school. I hated that the teachers went off on tangents to get us to do our own learning instead of spoonfeeding us the necessary information for acing exams. Because as far as I was concerned, I was under no illusions of why I was in school. I was there to clear the damned exams so that I can have the freedom to go learn what I want to learn. I would rather that they stop trying to pretend that there is some other purpose to formal education. We learn in economics (GP? I wasn’t paying attention to individual subjects, only what I learned as a whole) that centralisation is inefficient, so, naturally, the solution is to decentralise formal education and leave the exams as checks and balances rather than goals and objectives.

    And darling, 18 is not too old to play. Never tell yourself you’re too old to play. Life is to be enjoyed.

    • cdoubleuj says:

      I think your definition of formal education by the public system now is correct, in that it is really just about rote-learning. But what I want to advocate for (or at least get people to think about) a different way of approaching education. To me, the purpose of education should not be to make us walking encyclopedias, but critical thinkers and problem solvers. Bill Gates, Einstein etc. all didn’t get to where they did by memorising step-by-step why a river meanders, or how to do a cost-benefit analysis.

      They became successful by actually engaging their *real* thinking processes, and coming up with new theories, new algorithms, new paradigms. The education system has stifled that in us, by teaching theories as facts that you do not challenge and by having arbitrary national exams that discourage any thinking outside of the curriculum, since it won’t be rewarded in any way, And that’s simply stupid in my opinion.

      And ah well, My statement of “18 is too old to play” was kinda ironic considering I spent the whole of last night on Skyrim. Haha.

      • yt says:

        I actually think that while rote learning shouldn’t be everything, but that it does play a huge role in laying down your foundations. People can argue that any information you need, you can google, but the truth is that creativity must have some basis, some background.

        For example, I took part in the TKK young inventors award some time ago. I was trying to make an electrical appliance. My group members and I tried various methods for half a year, but were unable to come up with anything feasible. A while later, a senior in school heard of our dilemma and immediately pin pointed the problems came up with a better solution. The only reason he was able to do so was that he had content knowledge on physics and manufacturing methods and the like, while our group didn’t. We simply couldn’t innovate without having a good understanding of these concepts.

        I just think that rote learning is also important in the acquisition of knowledge. Sometimes, there’s really no other way, you’ve got to memorise it first. Maybe you don’t have to remember it forever, because you can always google in the event you forget, but the in the first step of understand, teaching the foundations by rote learning is really efficient and effective in getting you to grasp a basic understanding.

        Just my opinion.

      • Joel Long says:

        The problem is with the O and A level methods of assessment, we’re reduced to memorizing for the sake of examination scores rather than actually learning anything fruitfully. Kudos to you for being able to apply your knowledge directly, but realize that you’re in the minority and that you will stay there for a long, long time to come.

        I should know about learning, because 16 months of education at an American college subsidiary made me realize just how far we lag in terms of having practical knowledge of anything.

  4. Splendid article.

    Singapore’s education system is a highly-efficient factory of compliant, order-taking students and a good eliminator of innovation, creativity, and self-worth.

  5. Hewlett Chew says:


    I guess one wouldn’t expect to see a comment appearing on a blogpost more than a year after its posting. I’m an undergraduate currently studying in NUS, and I wanted to drop a message to say that I like this essay of yours. I stumbled upon it while I was searching for articles for a module on education policy I’m taking at the moment.

    Your post focuses on a number of issues, particularly the function of education in Singapore, meritocracy and its tenuous relation to the existing education system, and… I guess the influence the system has in gearing the mindset of all competitive Singaporeans out there.

    I agree with the point you made about the national exams. I think in this regard, all the other shifts in education policy to encourage creative or critical thinking, self-initiated learning etc have been severely hampered. Further, this ties academic achievement to an individual’s self worth, which is problematic and especially damaging, and (as you noted) demoralising for those who are late bloomers.

    I’m not too sure how much comfort it is for you, but I believe you’ll be able to find a little more freedom (and structure) to learn in university than rote learning. However, I think you would find that some mastery of content is going to be necessary in order to guide one’s own learning.

    I have to stop myself here from making a full commentary on your article, because 1. it’s not necessary, 2. I have an assignment to complete T.T … But I’d really like to talk more some day.

    Cheers, and I hope you’re doing well in NS (I assume that’s where you are in your current stage of life).

    P.S. on a side note, preschool education is rather important, especially considering what is known about child development. I think providing quality (again I emphasise, quality) preschool education that is subsidised may be able to mediate the effects of growing up in families of lower socio-economic status. After all, in such families parents would most likely be more concerned with bread-and-butter issues, struggling to make ends meet, and would be less able to provide a positive learning environment for the children.

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