Monday, July 11, 2005

Singapore's system of talent production (SSTP) Part II

My earlier article had one central aim, which was to describe the central paradox of Singapore's meritocratic system. It did not take on the difficult task of elaborating on the meaning of true talent, apart from highlighting that there is a difference between extraordinary supertalent and ordinary competence. It was also not a critique of the scholarship system per se (contra Elia Diodati's interpretation), even though this system is part of the meritocratic system.

The word 'system' as used in the earlier article refers to all those institutions responsible for producing as well as sorting out talent in Singapore, as well as three other aspects of society that contribute to the proper functioning of the meritocratic system as it currently stands - namely, culture, ideologies, and the system of rewards (i.e. institutions responsible for rewarding talent) - all of which interact and produce through their complex interactions the paradox that I have described. The earlier article focused on the culture and the ideologies which sustain this meritocratic System (with a capital 'S'); the system of rewards (including the scholarship system) was not discussed, since extensive discussions have already been presented at Singapore Angle, Commentary Singapore, and Random Thoughts on Public Policies.

This article will discuss just one issue - how should we adjust the Meritocratic System (henceforth 'MS') so that it can:

  • (1) allow young potential supertalent to realize their fullest potential and support them as they struggle to do so, and
  • (2) achieve (1) with high morale across the whole society.

Full potential of young potential supertalent
Imagine that a person is a young potential supertalent in two fields, X and Y, but only these two fields. He is mediocre or even terrible at everything else, but he displays an unsual flair in certain areas and is deeply passionate about them. Alternatively, we can imagine him to be an extremely intelligent person with nearly perfect IQ scores who realized that his real passion lies somewhere else after trying out a particular field for a few years - such a person is also likely to excel in the field that he decides to venture into subsequently, since he definitely has the intellectual abilities. At this point, I will clarify what I mean by a supertalent: he is someone who can go far in a particular field; in other words, a supertalent is either (a) a gifted person with nearly-perfect IQ scores who can excel at almost anything if he has passion in it, or (b) a supertalent for a particular field who might not be a super-jack-of-all-trades with straight A's throughout secondary school, JC, and university as well as outstanding extracurricular records. In fact, (b) is likely to be the more common type. But regardless of whether the young potential supertalent belongs to type (a) or type (b), it is crucial that he displays immense passion in his desired field, because that is the fuel that will take him far for the next two or three decades...

Unfortunately, a type (b) young potential supertalent is rather unlikely to shine in the current Meritocratic System. He may be a not-so-well-rounded bookworm who is supremely gifted in only one subject (e.g. economics or literature). Or he might be someone who scored mediocre grades for his A-level subjects, only to emerge with a stronger determination to excel at university, thus topping the university with first class honours and a few prizes; this person, again, is viewed (wrongly) as 'not-really-that-impressive' in Singapore compared to scholars with straight A's for O- and A-levels and 2nd class upper honours degrees.

Type (b) supertalent might emerge out of the Meritocratic System feeling great resentment. Also, he will almost certainly fail at any attempts to get any sort of scholarships to pursue his chosen field, for which he has passion. This would be a great problem if he does not come from a rich family, because he has bread and butter issues to worry about. Paradoxically, it is precisely because he is so passionate about his field that he might feel that Singapore is not the place for him if he wants to persist in his chosen field. If he were less passionate and take things easy, he might have felt a lot better. So the greater the intensity of his passion, the more resentment he feels - and probably, the more he feels like going to a place that is willing to give him a second chance, and/or a place where he can hear or read nicer things about what he does from the newspapers, his peers/relatives, and other sources of representation. Let's face it, the kinds of things you hear or read, really do affect how you feel. Talented people are human beings with emotions too, are they not?

What Singapore can do is to offer a system of loans to people who really want to pursue their ambitions through further studies (e.g. Ph.D., M.Mus./D.Mus, M.F.A (master of fine art), etc). These need not come from the government; they can come from the commerical banks. Scholarships and bursaries would be nice too. Loans, scholarships, and bursaries would have two functions of (a) preventing resentment from arising (and maybe even cultivating gratitude), and (b) allowing young potential supertalent to go for the necessary training in their chosen fields. Function (b) will usefully provide a second chance to those who have not been able to shine at O- and A-levels. Excellence at O- and A- levels is an indicator of potential genius, but it is definitely not the only indicator. The view that says "but we want consistency!" is flawed in so far as it assumes that a person who has suffered setbacks before is never going to be better than one who has had a smooth journey throughout his life.

High morale across the whole of society
I will move on to my next point, which concerns morale. Who says morale is not important? As every general in the past or present will know, morale can determine the victory or defeat of an army. I sometimes hear Singaporeans say, "Keep quiet, don't complain!" whenever they hear something vaguely critical of anything about Singapore - anything at all, even if all I'm saying is that the public toilets here are not clean enough, or that the char kway teows are not tasty enough, or that the customer service in the country is not good enough in general.

This is a very wrong way of thinking which should be abandoned in the knowledge economy. In this knowledge economy, it is new knowledge, ideas, and suggestions that are crucial for moving society forward. It is only with civilized discussions between citizens that we can derive novel understandings and interesting perspectives on certain issues or policy problems. New knowledge cannot emerge when there is 'groupthink' on a societal scale, with self-appointed moral guardians labelling people with their unique views as overly critical or whining deviants who need to be told off. This is a sure way to dampen people's morale. Even if things in the country are generally okay, there is no reason why discussions cannot aim for further refinement of various aspects of society. So this is what I recommend - a change of mindset so that people will be welcoming of discussions, as long as these are delivered in a polite manner and originate out of the desire to improve the country.

Secondly, as several readers pointed out in the comments section of my earlier article, what the government says often has immense influence on people's decisions about what to study, which career to pursue, and so on. This is not entirely the government's fault; in fact, one can argue quite convincingly that it isn't government's fault at all, since it is merely doing what is right when it encourages people to go into the fields that will reap the most benefits for the country in the long run. What should we do, then? I suspect that we need to point the fingers at ourselves instead, for not following our hearts' desires! Parents, too, being the closest advisors to their children, should also encourage their children to pursue what they like, or at least lay out the options clearly on the table for them to see, so that they do not grow up thinking that they are doomed just because they did not study medicine, law, accountancy, finance, engineering, computer science, or biomedical science.

Having said that, one might argue that many people only realize what they are truly interested in (a) halfway through their undergraduate studies, (b) right after they have graduated, or (c) a few years after they have entered the profession that they thought they liked. These three scenarios are common enough, and it is not really their fault if any of the scenarios transpire. This leads me to propose the third solution - which is described in detail in an earlier article, Tried and Tested Routes, which focuses on the employers. This also leads me to think that more scholarships should in fact be given for postgraduate studies, rather than for undergraduate studies. And for postgraduate studies, it is doctoral studies that produce new knowledge and train new producers of knowledge, although in some fields, a Masters would be sufficient (e.g. L.L.M. for law, M.F.A. for fine art, etc).

I have thus presented my views on Singapore's system of talent production (or SSTP) in two parts. This system, as readers will know by now, needs to place great importance on morale, emotions, and passions, which are all affected by culture, ideologies, and system of rewards.


Blogger Huichieh said...

I am very curious as to what's going on in the event that (b) feels resentment. Who or what would he resent, and what does that say about him? Still thinking. Good stuff!

Tue Jul 12, 12:56:00 PM 2005  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

Thanks, Huichieh. I have edited this post slightly...

Wed Jul 13, 10:06:00 AM 2005  
Blogger lakeside girl said...

Good read :) I agree that without the influx of new suggestions, ideas albeit they may not be pleasing to the ear, are essential for Singapore's growth and progress..

Thu Jul 14, 01:35:00 AM 2005  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

Hi a crunchy green apple! Thanks :)

When I was younger, I like to tell my father everything. At one particular phase of my life I encountered a lot of problems in my life (e.g. something like a 'quarterlife crisis'; there's a book on this), and wanted desperately to confide in people close to me. But he always tells me, "Stop complaining. Don't whine. Learn to be grateful. The problem lies with yourself, and no one else."

And so I kept quiet, and until now still find it quite hard to chat with him, even though my heart wishes to.

Thu Jul 14, 01:55:00 PM 2005  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

Re Huichieh's question in the 1st commment - "what's going on in the event that (b) feels resentment. Who or what would he resent, and what does that say about him?" - I'll need to think about this for a while... :)

Sat Jul 16, 08:00:00 PM 2005  
Blogger Anthony said...


Was referred here by the ubiquitous Huichieh. Great article. Might I suggest a species (c), the reasonably intelligent person reasonably competent at most fields but is searching for the one true thing that will really rawk his world?

It's something that happens regularly in Singapore as well - given the preponderence on adequate proficiency in many fields.

Sun Jul 17, 02:00:00 PM 2005  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

Hi anthony :)

"...species (c), the reasonably intelligent person reasonably competent at most fields but is searching for the one true thing that will really rawk his world?...something that happens regularly in Singapore as well - given the preponderence on adequate proficiency in many fields."

Brilliantly phrased! I like species (c) that you've suggested! It's a bit like me! ;)

Sun Jul 17, 09:35:00 PM 2005  

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