story | Justin Ong, Executive Editor

photo | Bozy Lu

On Oct. 16, Elm College hosted former People’s Action Party (PAP) Member of Parliament (MP) and former presidential candidate Tan Cheng Bock during a Rector’s Tea. His talk, titled “Singapore—a Meritocratic Society,” was held at the Tan Chin Tuan Lecture Theatre to a full house of Yale-NUS students, faculty, staff and members of the public.

Reactions to the event were mixed, with some students interviewed by The Octant hoping to have learned more.

Mr. Tan was formerly a member of the PAP and an MP from 1980 to 2006. He stood for the 2011 presidential election and lost marginally to winner Tony Tan, with the second highest number of votes.

In July this year, Mr. Tan was invited to lead the opposition coalition — a coming together of seven opposition parties — called The People’s Voice party.

In his talk, Mr. Tan said that meritocracy is “about fairness, giving equal access to opportunity … regardless of race, language, income and religion.”

However, even though education and living conditions have improved since the nation’s independence, Singaporeans still feel “disillusioned because they see gaps between the idea of meritocracy and the actual practice of [it],” said Mr. Tan, “so they question the government for answers to reduce these gaps.”

He then raised issues that challenged the meaning of meritocracy, in areas of education, national service and the recent presidential elections.

He highlighted the example of the presidential election in 2017, which — due to constitutional changes — was reserved for candidates in the Malay community. He said he often receives questions from his supporters asking “why the Singapore President was chosen on grounds of race, and not ability.”

“What does this say about meritocracy when Singaporeans are made to choose the highest office of the land and the symbol of the nation’s values based on race?” asked Mr. Tan, who also said that Singapore has developed its nationhood to a point where citizens are able to see past racial lines and recognize ability.

Some students who attended the talk appreciated Mr. Tan’s willingness to talk about a difficult topic, but felt that there was more that could have been expanded upon.

Chew Hui Jun ’22 said that Mr. Tan’s talk on meritocracy was “largely correct,” but that to him it was “nothing novel.”

He added that the points in the talk “were quite cookie cutter,” and could be gleaned from mainstream media or after-class discussions.

An Elm sophomore, who only wanted to be known as Kay, said that it was “very courageous of [Mr. Tan] to talk about race” but was troubled by his ideal of “one Singapore, regardless of race.”

She said that the ideal of nationality and ability over race is “ignorant of the divisions that are more subtle in society” and “what needs to happen is the acknowledgement that we are different and to work with that rather than going ‘we are the same,’ because that’s not very productive.”

After his talk, Mr. Tan addressed questions from the audience that ranged from race, to climate change, to Section 377A. However, most of the questions were about education.

Mr. Tan was asked about whether he could envision a tuition-free society, to which he answered that given the stressful Singapore context, he was “not sure whether parents will be able to do away with the tuition” but said that there was an overall need to improve the school curriculum so there would be a lower tendency to depend on tuition.

The questions then shifted to inequality inherent within the school system. When asked about his thoughts on independent schools being able to hire their own teachers who were not trained at the National Institute of Education, Mr. Tan said he was not familiar with this system.

Kay — whose area of interest is in education — said that “it isn’t unexpected that he’s no longer in touch with the way the education system works” but that it was “a bit disturbing” that Mr. Tan “has not thought about these issues and is so interested in meritocracy.”

Chew said that in answering some of these questions, Mr. Tan was lacking in a “general philosophy” behind his responses, and had limited “policy options” or “political solutions.”

For example, when Chew brought up the question of automation in Singapore shifting job markets away from the less-educated, Mr. Tan mentioned that there had to be “a special plan” to help them, but did not elaborate on what this plan might have looked like.

The question about Section 377A also brought out the ire of some students, when Mr. Tan said that he accepted homosexuality but that he didn’t want their “lifestyle” to be “imposed on [him].”

A follow-up question by Shawn Hoo ’20 about equal access to opportunities of the LGBT community prompted Mr. Tan to answer that he “can’t change people’s prejudices.”

Hoo said that though he was “initially disappointed to hear of [Mr. Tan’s] thoughts on Section 377A and homosexuality,” he was glad when Mr. Tan eventually changed his stance to say that he did not support the criminalization of homosexuals.

Hoo said that “if progressive politicians wishing to challenge the political norm of today want to champion equality of opportunity for all,” they cannot “afford to leave out a growing LGBTQ+ voice and population.”

When asked if she felt Mr. Tan was too focused on ideals rather than policies, Kay said that Mr. Tan was in a position to do this, having served in the government for so long, yet not being as in touch with on-the-ground issues as younger politicians might be.

“I actually like that he’s more ideals orientated, because a mindset change needs to happen,” said Kay. “If anybody should be talking about ideals, it’s him.”

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