SINGAPORE: Will the new generation in Singapore have the same spirit of giving back as its pioneers?
That was the question posed by Minister for Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli in his speech during the debate on the President's address on Monday (May 14), as he discussed Singapore's brand of meritocracy and how it can and should help mitigate social inequality.
In examining the concept of meritocracy, he said that the system, when working properly, is the fairest allocation system imaginable.
He added, however, that meritocracy is not a perfect system and does not work properly, especially when it is focused on outcome or engenders ruthless competition at the expense of cooperation. Over time, this can increase inequality and polarise society into the haves and have nots, he added.
"At the root of it is this: It just gets harder for them to succeed, and eventually, it becomes almost impossible. Slowly and quietly, society will break up within," Mr Masagos said.
As such, he advocated for a Singapore brand of meritocracy - one that balances economic and social policies. "We cannot drive our economic policies on fierce pursuit of economic gains, but neither can we design our social policies with bleeding hearts," he said.
One characteristic of Singapore's meritocracy is for the successful to give back to society. The minister said: "Meritocracy can only be moral when those who take the most from the system also put the most back into it."
He said that those who are successful should realise how lucky they are and not forget the support society has given through a good education, a safe and secure environment and the mental and emotional support. Remember to give back, he exhorted.
"In our meritocratic society, we must ensure that the spirit of giving back is most apparent in the successful," Mr Masagos said, highlighting the examples of the late Dr Ee Peng Liang and his son Gerard Ee, as well as Mr Mohamed Abdul Jaleel, among others.
He added that only when the successful give back will society accept, rather than envy, their successes.
"Success that benefits others is success which we can all be grateful for," he explained.
The second characteristic of Singapore's meritocracy is the creation of essential common spaces and experiences for all, Mr Masagos said.
"No other country or city shares common spaces like Singapore. We live together in shared neighbourhoods, eat at the same hawker centres, exercise in the same parks and waterways, and bring our children to the same libraries to read. This is special," he said.
More than just spaces for the community to come together and interact, regardless of race, language or religion, these places guarantee common access to quality public services and infrastructure, the minister pointed out.
As the Government shares the country's urban landscape, it must distribute rental housing across the island and mix public and private housing more deliberately, so that the most needy among us - those "who have not yet done well in our meritocracy" - are not deprived of access to good quality public facilities, he said.
Mr Masagos added: "The successful and yet-to-be successful will live equally far or near to new nodes of economic activity in Jurong and Punggol, to hawker centres, eldercare facilities and schools."
Lastly, a feature of Singapore's meritocracy is how the Government supports this effort through its policies, which the minister described as "ladders and bridges" for people to move up in society.
"The Government must therefore not allow meritocracy to reward narrowly, and instead broaden and make alternative routes available," he said.
These policies must also enable self-reliance by supporting and encouraging work, so that they can do well for themselves and their families regardless of where they are in Singapore's system of meritocracy at that point of time.
He added that the Government is not stopping there, and already recognises that the country's workforce must be ready for future opportunities.
"We are investing in SkillsFuture to support the lifelong development of skills and knowledge, and Industry Transformation Maps to enable our workforce to seize opportunities in the future economy," the minister said.
"This will also ensure that our meritocracy does not become a static snapshot, but a dynamic one where everyone has the opportunity to reap success throughout his life journey."
It is, ultimately, trust between citizens and institutions that will strengthen the Singapore brand of meritocracy, Mr Masagos said.