Meritocracy Gone Wrong: Work for Reward, Reward for What? Examining the justice of exam-based meritocracy in Singapore from a Rawlsian perspective


Despite Singapore’s high literacy rate of 96.8%, she also has one of the highest wealth inequalities in the world[1]. Given that education, especially when successfully administered nation-wide, is supposed to play a huge role as a social-economic leveller, it is clear that somewhere, something went wrong. Is Singapore’s huge wealth inequality a result of some hidden injustice embedded within her merit-based education system?

One of the most prominent conceptions of justice in the 20th century was formulated by John Rawls in “A Theory of Justice” (1971). Rawls was concerned with distributive justice i.e. whether the distribution of primary social goods such as wealth and opportunities by the major institutions of society is fair, and therefore just[2]. Singapore’s education system can be considered a major institution, since the distribution of opportunities within the education system eventually determines the distribution of primary social goods to members of society. Hence, Singapore’s education system is a suitable candidate for examination using Rawlsian lens.

Assuming Rawls’s first Principle of Justice (i.e. equal rights and liberties for all) has been ensured by a fairly just political system, it remains to be determined whether Singapore’s meritocratic education system satisfies, or leads to the satisfaction of Rawls’s second Principle of Justice. Is there equality of opportunity within Singapore’s education system, and do the socio-economic inequalities that result benefit the least advantaged?


A defining feature of Singapore’s exam-based meritocracy is its streaming policy, where students are streamed into different schools and learning pathways based on their academic ability. Nationwide streaming takes place via national examinations such as the Primary School Leaving Examinations, GCE O Level Examinations, and GCE A Level Examinations.

Ideally, streaming should allow students to pursue learning at their own pace, while maintaining “equality of opportunity”, such that students of similar ambitions and abilities are able to enter any institution they desire provided they meet the entry requirement – regardless of their social background.

However, “equality of opportunity” fails in Singapore for two primary reasons:

Firstly, using examinations as the primary determining factor of an individual’s placement within a merit-based system means that the definition of “merit” is narrowed down to one’s academic ability. One of Rawls’s fundamental premises for a just society, and hence its constituent major institutions, is that the distribution of primary social goods should depend neither on natural and social contingencies[3], nor on any notion of intrinsic moral worth[4]. Hence, an exam-based meritocracy is problematic from a Rawlsian perspective, because academic ability is strongly determined by one’s natural contingencies e.g. one’s natural ability to memorise. More crucially, academic ability is highly influenced by social contingencies such as one’s socioeconomic background. Students from wealthier families can afford tuition and enrichment classes, and have an optimal study environment at home. The influence of social contingencies on academic performance is tried and true – students of elite schools come from families with double the monthly median income of those from non-elite schools[5].

Hence, contrary to Rawls’s conception of justice, Singapore’s meritocratic education system not only takes natural and social contingencies for granted, but uses these contingencies as a basis to determine the distribution of goods within the education system. Students who perform well academically are “rewarded”[6] for their efforts – in the form of bursaries and advancements to better schools. The provision of “reward” for students’ effort not only implies that such efforts are due to an individual’s intrinsic moral worth i.e. possessing the virtue of hard work, but also neglects to take into account the role of social contingencies in shaping these efforts.

Secondly, since it is impossible to mitigate natural contingencies, the best that the Singaporean government can do to ensure “equality of opportunity” is to mitigate social contingencies. Yet, schemes that attempt to do so often do too little, too late:

Provision of financial resources for the less well-off

Financial aid is provided as a primary source of aid to ease the financial burden of school fees for students from less well-to-do families. However, considering the already heavily subsidised school fees for local students, financial aid does not make a significant difference in mitigating financial disparities amongst students because well-to-do students pay similarly low school fees.

Expanding the definition of “merit”

The Direct School Admissions (DSA) scheme was introduced as a way of expanding the definition of “merit” to include non-academic achievements, such as sporting ability. However, non-academic achievements also require effort, talent and sufficient financial support to cultivate. Hence, one’s possession of such achievements remains dependent on one’s natural and social contingencies. Furthermore, the limited number of DSA spots means that ultimately, steaming is still primarily exam-driven.

Less and later streaming

The introduction of the Integrated Programme (IP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) were meant to reduce streaming, but actually further undermined equality of opportunity. Students who performed well academically, or through DSA, were guaranteed spots in top secondary schools and junior colleges. However, the introduction of such programs leave even fewer spaces in top schools for other “mainstream” students, who go through the traditional streaming examinations.

Hence, “equal opportunities for all” becomes “equal opportunities for those of similar academic ability and family background”. Even the principal of Raffles Institution (RI), an elite institution in Singapore, called out this flaw of the system; commenting that RI had become a “middle-class” school that “largely caters to an affluent segment of the population”[7].


The inequality of educational opportunities within Singapore’s education system eventually results in an un-egalitarian distribution of primary social goods within society, especially “free choice of occupation against a background of diverse opportunities”[8].

Due to Singapore’s stringent streaming policy, only around 30% of Singaporean students eventually enter a local university[9]. Yet, university graduates tend to have more job opportunities, as well as higher employment rates and starting pays than non-university graduates[10]. The lack of inheritance taxes in Singapore means that the economic and cultural capital of one generation often converts into the educational capital of the next generation, such that socioeconomic inequalities are maintained or even exacerbated with each passing generation. This phenomenon is evident from the fact that up to 70% of parents in some elite institutions are university graduates, compared to 7-13% of parents in other schools[11].

Hence, it is apparent that inequality in opportunities within the education system eventually translates to socio-economic inequalities in society; due to an exam-based meritocracy that does not sufficiently mitigate differences in social contingencies. Fair “equality of opportunity” becomes a pipe dream; having been devalued by the socio-economic inequalities that an exam-based meritocracy both feeds on, and exacerbates.


One often-cited defense of Singapore’s meritocratic education system is that it ensures, through highly selective streaming, that the best people attain the best jobs, such that society as a whole will benefit economically. According to Emeritus Senior Prime Minister (ESPM) Goh Chok Tong, “if […] unequal rewards did not exist, those with initiative and skills will lose incentive to contribute their utmost to economy. Then everyone will be poorer off[12].

This optimistic perspective of a meritocratic system echoes Rawls’s Difference Principle[13], and there is substantial economic evidence to validate its effectiveness. Singapore’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has grown manifold – from 974.2 million USD in 1965, to 297 billion USD a mere 50 years later[14]. This economic growth is undeniably mostly attributed to Singapore’s labour resource, which consists primarily of citizens who have been filtered through Singapore’s exam-based meritocracy.

Yet, the true test to determine if the Difference Principle has been satisfied is: Does the money from an education system with “unequal rewards” benefit the least-advantaged in society?

The definition of “least-advantaged” in society is debatable. Without taking into account those who are handicapped (Rawls does not), one may use the uneducated elderly as a gauge due to their relative disadvantage in the job market and increasing healthcare fees.

The relative poverty rate among the working elderly jumped from 13% in 1995 to 41% in 2011; mainly due to inflation and increasing wages in the rest of society[15]. This trend could be an indication that while Singapore has grown wealthier, its wealth may not have been channelled towards the benefit of the least advantaged.

Furthermore, since primary social goods includes the “social bases of self-respect”[16] as well, it is arguable that many elderly are impoverished in this respect. Although most elderly in society receive some form of net income from the government to meet their minimal needs, many still face social isolation and discrimination from the rest of society[17].

Does this mean Singapore’s education system has failed the Difference Principle?

It is difficult to determine whether Singapore’s education system has satisfied the difference principle using an arbitrarily-determined “least-advantaged” group as the basis for judgement, and with no other alternative educational arrangements for comparison. Hence, it is still possible to argue that even if Singapore’s education system resulted in socio-economic inequalities, the “least-advantaged” are receiving more benefits than they otherwise would have under any other less meritocratic, more egalitarian system that generates a lower GDP.

However, even if ESPM’s statement is true, and unequal rewards do ensure that “those with initiative and skills” will work hard and generate more income such that everyone in society is economically better off as a result; such a system will still be considered unjust for aggressive adherents of the Difference Principle such as G.A. Cohen[18]. According to Cohen, ESPM’s “incentives argument” is not an appropriate justification for “unequal rewards”, because it undermines the ethos of a truly just society if the talented are working hard primarily to benefit themselves rather than the least advantaged of society.

Hence, we need to ask ourselves: do we want to live in a society in which the talented work hard solely to benefit themselves, with any economic benefits to society being a lucky by-product?


Rawls’s conception of justice serves as a useful framework to analyse and improve the current education system. In the short run, the introduction of inheritance taxes, or graded school fees (where the rich pay higher school fees and vice versa) may potentially help to mitigate social contingencies, and hence provide fair “equality of opportunity” within the schooling system. However, ensuring long-term justice of the education system requires students and the entire society alike to undergo a radical shift in mentality. Instead of an emphasis on “work for reward”, there should be an increased emphasis on working hard to help those in need. Only then, perhaps, can Singapore claim to uphold her foundational ideals of building a society “based on justice and equality”[19].


  1. Channel News Asia, Lonely and Waiting to Die (
  2. Channel News Asia (May 7. 2017), Ploughing on: The faces and insecurities of Singapore’s elderly working poor (
  3. Cohen, G. A. 2008. ‘The Incentives Argument’, in Cohen, G. A. Rescuing Justice and Equality. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, pp27-86.
  4. Leonel Lim (2016), Analysing meritocratic (in)equality in Singapore: ideology, curriculum and reproduction, Critical Studies in Education, 57:2, 160-174, DOI: 10.1080/17508487.2015.1055777
  5. Rawls, J. (1999). A Theory of Justice. Cambridge: Belkinap Press of Harvard University Press.
  6. The Straits Times (March 2, 2016), Higher salaries for university graduates from NUS, NTU and SMU in 2015 (
  7. The Straits Times (August 4, 2015), Raffles Institution now a ‘middle-class’ school, says principal (
  8. Today Online (May 8, 2017), ‘Skills, not degrees, at a premium now’ (



[1] Singapore had a Gini Coefficient of 0.458 as of 2016. The Gini Coefficient measures the dispersion of incomes on a scale of 0 to 1. A Gini of 0 means that every household has the same income, while a Gini of 1 means that there is perfect inequality whereby one household has all the income.


[2] Rawls TJ, pp. 400

[3] Rawls TJ, pp. 88

[4] Rawls TJ, pp. 289

[5] Lim, Analysing meritocratic (in)equality in Singapore: ideology, curriculum and reproduction, pp. 163

[6] “Work for Reward, Reward for Work” is one of the four core governing principles in Singapore.

[7] The Straits Times, Raffles Institution now a ‘middle-class’ school, says principal


[8] Rawls TJ, pp. 244

[9] Today Online, ‘Skills, not degrees, at a premium now’


[10] The Straits Times, Higher salaries for university graduates from NUS, NTU and SMU in 2015


[11] Lim, Analysing meritocratic (in)equality in Singapore: ideology, curriculum and reproduction, pp. 163

[12] Lim, Analysing meritocratic (in)equality in Singapore: ideology, curriculum and reproduction, pp. 162

[13] According to the Difference Principle, socio-economic inequalities in society are only permitted if they are to the benefit of the least-advantaged in society.

[14] Source:

[15] Channel News Asia, Ploughing on: The faces and insecurities of Singapore’s elderly working poor


[16] Rawls TJ, pp. 501

[17] Channel News Asia, Lonely and Waiting to Die


[18] Gerald Allen “Jerry Cohen”, ‘The Incentives Argument’

[19] From Singapore’s national pledge, created in 1966.

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At Yale-NUS College, we are thinking about ideals of equality and democracy, and how they relate to practice, in Singapore and in the wider world.

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Articles were originally submitted as course papers for Professor Sandra Field’s classes Contemporary Egalitarianism and Democratic Theory.

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