#Inequality, the buzzword of the month – even in the Civil Service  

The Straits Times Forum section featured something interesting today. The Ministry of Education (MOE) and Public Service Division (PSD) wrote a response to a letter by a Mr Sreedharam Suresh on how the civil service needs to expand the way it recognizes talent.

This is Mr Sreedharan’s letter in full, but we summarise it here:

  • Many 4G ministers keep going on about how we need to consider talent, skills, vocational training equally – not just academic performance.
  • This is totally not the case for the civil service. Being a scholar is a “sure-fire” way to a successful career in the civil service and/or senior positions in a government-linked company. Scholars are placed on accelerated pathways to assume management positions based on their current estimated potential (or CEP), which is mainly attributed to their academic scores when they joined the service.
  • In schools, those who can afford good tutors do better – which leads to an unfair advantage for the well off and a rise in inequality in terms of opportunities for students from lower-income families.
  • Conclusion: In the civil service, academic results matter the most. And the civil service needs to lead by example, not by aiming for a “token non-graduate minister” (ouch), but by changing the talent and leadership is identified, recognized and promoted.

MOE and PSD replied. You can read their response here.

  • The public service awards scholarships to individuals who not only perform well academically, but who demonstrate “all-round qualities” like character, commitment to public service and leadership skills.
  • Scholarship holders start work at the entry level when they join the public service after their studies. They are not automatically given higher potential ratings or placed on a fast track where success is guaranteed.
  • Like everyone else, scholars have to prove themselves by their performance and show that they are capable of greater responsibilities. An officer’s potential is not assigned based on academic results.
  • While academic performance is one proxy to assess candidates with no working experience, work experience and acquired skills matter more. Once on the job, it is an individual’s performance and ability to take on greater responsibilities that matter most.

WHAT RUBBISH LOR! (Not I say one ah, is my civil servant friends say. 4G leaders, please don’t attack me)

Let’s have a simple illustration:

Student A and Student B are equally intelligent.

Student A was born into a privileged family, and had greater means and access to good tuition teachers from young, better study materials, schools and so on and so forth. Student B was born into a middle-class family with no access to the same opportunities or resources as his parents had other bills to pay and simply did not have the means.

Student A eventually gets into a scholarship programme and graduates from university to enter the civil service. Student B, while not a scholar, similarly graduates from university and enters the civil service on the same day as Student A.

The question is whether Student A is guaranteed to be more successful than Student B, by virtue of him holding a scholarship.

According to Mr Sreedharam, yes.

Of course PSD and MOE disagreed, zoomed in and anchored their rebuttal on his remark that being a scholar guarantees success in the civil service or government related companies. I may not agree with what Mr Sreedharam said about this in particular of guaranteed success (nothing is life is ever guaranteed), but let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room.

1) There is disparity between scholars and non-scholars, at the workplace

We cannot pretend it isn’t there.

What PSD and MOE neglected to mention is this – From their first day of service, it is assumed that Officer A will outperform other non-scholars like Scholar B – unless proven otherwise.

By virtue of him being a scholar, Officer A will be given more opportunities for training and exposure than Officer B to prove himself, particularly when they are both fresh officers. If Officer A does well, Officer A is ostensibly seen as more competent than Officer B and progresses on the career track accordingly. Officer B, who perhaps could have performed likewise if given the same opportunities, does not or may take longer to progress (but then the chicken drumstick was already given to Officer A yah?). Is this fair? You decide.

2) There is disparity between young children in their respective schools (who eventually become your scholars and non-scholars)

Mr Sreedharam made very valid points about how 4G leaders need to translate speech into action and expand how talent is recognized, starting with their own civil service and the people who staff them.

He diagnosed a key problem: scholars are selected from young, based on their stellar academic results at 16 or 18 years old – it may not be the only factor, but it sure is an important one. Due to circumstances, not every Singapore student is able to get there even if they had the ability to do so. Of course, MOE and PSD did not comment on this in their response.

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Sure, we can say that there are different pathways to success. But some have it harder than others. Some people’s paths are steeper than others. I am not saying we should eradicate inequality, because we can’t in a realistic world. It is human nature to want to strive above and beyond others, and to be rewarded for it. Nevertheless, we should be working to see how all paths should be straightened as much as we can, not just for the class below the poverty line, but for the middle classes too.

To MOE and PSD, on behalf of my civil service friends, I just have this to say:

No one is saying that you should bring down or take opportunities away from scholars, or that scholars who perform should not progress. All they are asking for is an EQUAL FIGHTING CHANCE to demonstrate that they could have the same ability and perform just as well as the “chosen ones”, if given the chance.  

What’s so hard about acknowledging that yes, our civil service system is imperfect, but we are working on it? No one’s really buying what you said can?