Why you can’t separate equity from equality


I was at work today when my Facebook news feed sprang to life. Someone I knew from school had written in to the Straits Times about elitism, in the most ill-considered and naive way possible. For those who have yet to read it, please take some time to digest it here.

The letter makes three broad claims:

  1. Equality is making everyone stoop down to the lowest common denominator of society. Equity entails everyone doing what their abilities allow them to do.
  1. We will have to give up equity for the sake of ensuring equality. In other words, bad things happen when everyone is the same.
  1. The best and the brightest should be lavished with resources, so they can use their big brains to create jobs for the unwashed masses.

Russell is partly right on his first claim that Singapore is a nation built on equity, rather than equality. Lee Kuan Yew once argued that “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 ideology, say let us make the human being as equal as possible. In fact, he is not equal, never will be.”

But the problem is that Russell is attacking a straw man – no one is saying that people should be paid the same wage, or work in the same job. We recognise that there is variance and texture to human existence. The point is not to make society perfectly equal, but rather to make society less unequal. It is only when the gains of economic growth are spread more evenly, that equity can truly be achieved. Russell himself acknowledges that “equity (is about) everyone being given equal opportunities to succeed”. Where is the equal opportunity when a child who attended Montesorri is compared against a child who didn’t attend preschool? Where is the equal opportunity when privileged students get to attend expensive music courses, drama lessons, and branded tuition classes? Where is the equal opportunity when students are accepted by top foreign colleges, but can’t go overseas because it’s just too expensive?

Evidently, inequality begets inequity. Russell assumes that by making society more equal, “We are taking people with the capability to be … lawyers and doctors, and making them do the same menial tasks as everyone else.” As someone currently working in human resources, this is really simplistic. This argument assumes that those studying law or medicine right now are just more talented and brilliant than others, and that those who didn’t make the cut are just incapable. That’s possible, but highly unlikely.

More plausibly, there are thousands of young adults out there who could have become top doctors or ace lawyers, but were dealt a harsh hand by circumstance. A bright kid born into poverty could have scored well in the PSLE, but had to drop out of school to support his family. Someone who failed to meet the unforgiving A Level cut-off for medicine might have done better if her family could afford intensive Math or Chemistry tuition. These are people who, if given a second shot – born into a life of privilege or blessed with parents who kept them on the straight and narrow – would have gone to college. The great irony of Russell’s argument is that he is the one who takes people with the potential to be lawyers and doctors and forces them into “menial tasks”.

On that note, a danger of unchecked elitism is that it breeds a toxic culture of entitlement. People start believing that they succeeded because they were virtuous, or hardworking, or innately awesome – whitewashing the environmental and social factors that contributed to their success. More insidiously, those at the top begin to think that everyone else failed because they were unworthy. The lawyers, doctors, politicians, business executives, and investment bankers represent the best of humanity. Everyone else who doesn’t breathe the rarefied air of the nation’s elite is relegated to performing “menial tasks”. In a way, many of us have internalised this attitude. It becomes harder to broaden our definition of success, when we instinctively associate certain professions with failure. It becomes harder to push for policies like a minimum wage, when we think that fast food cashiers or deliverymen are getting the salaries they deserve.

This brings me on to the final claim made in the letter: that the most able students should also be receiving the most resources because they can best benefit the country. On paper, meritocracy should indeed be about developing the meritorious to the fullest of their potential. But how do we go about defining “merit”? One shouldn’t take it for granted that those with the best academic grades will then go on to be the most competent leaders. Outstanding politicians are more than just intelligent – they tend to be people who can inspire, who can persevere, who can reject populist decisions, who care for others first, who are incorruptible, who can temper economic realities with human sentiment. Rather than artificially constricting our talent population by assuming that MPs and administrative officers can only come from elite schools, we should consider that increasing funding to other schools might help groom future leaders as well.

But even if this weren’t true, one must consider that plans and policies do not happen in a vacuum. Talented leaders can only go so far with an under-educated populace. In light of tightened immigration quotas and a shrinking tax base, labour productivity has become incredibly important for Singapore’s continued success. And education plays a key role in facilitating labour productivity – from skills-based technical education to broad-based academic enrichment, all schools are essential in equipping our workforce with the right skills and attitude to thrive in the modern economy.

I fear that Russell’s letter will lead to members of the public once again claiming that RI breeds uncaring, self-interested elitists. As a former RI student, I have made numerous friends who have impressed me with their intellect, drive, and passion. These are people whose hearts are genuinely in the right place, and want to work in the civil service even though they could earn much more in the private sector. It would be a pity to see all Rafflesians tarred with the same brush just because of one careless letter.


10 thoughts on “Why you can’t separate equity from equality

  1. On a different thought, how does one value success? Wealth, status, reputation and education? Or is it a multi-faceted life wrought out of servicing society? Instead of trying to make the best circumstances to achieve equality, I think it is far better to make the best out of our circumstances. For example, minister Chan Choon Seng had a humble background but he was successful in his career and is doing a good job of serving the people.


  2. Hi,

    I agree entirely with most of your article. However, I do believe that we sometimes get carried away in this debate about inequality, trading real analysis for feel-good political correctness. The debates about how elite schools are ‘unrepresentative’ of Singapore and the overrepresentation of the affluent have been misguided and simplistic, because of the age old failure to distinguish correlation and causation. I’ll let Steven Pinker’s words illustrate this in the US context:

    “As for Deresiewicz’s pronouncement that “SAT is supposed to measure aptitude, but what it actually measures is parental income, which it tracks quite closely,” this is bad social science. SAT correlates with parental income (more relevantly, socioeconomic status or SES), but that doesn’t mean it measures it; the correlation could simply mean that smarter parents have smarter kids who get higher SAT scores, and that smarter parents have more intellectually demanding and thus higher-paying jobs…………….. Matt McGue has shown, moreover, that adolescents’ test scores track the SES only of their biological parents, not (for adopted kids) of their adoptive parents, suggesting that the tracking reflects shared genes, not economic privilege.”

    This is not to say that that is the only reason why overrepresentation exists; the factors you’ve described definitely do matter, though I would cast doubt on the number of students forced to help out their parents in work and the effectiveness of tuition. I merely wish to point out that the most important factor accounting for the statistical aberration in elite schools is almost never discussed or acknowledged, and that makes debates about inequality facile and schematic.


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