Outcomes and critiques of the streaming policy: a moral political problem

While official discourse seeks to defend streaming as central to achieving academic success, ethnic-based results released by the MOE from 1987 to 2011 indicate that Malay students in Singapore have been underperforming when compared to other ethnic groups in core subjects like English, Mathematics, and Science (MOE, 2012c, n.p.; 1997, n.p.) for 25 years. Consequently, they are over-represented in the Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) streams in secondary schools6 (Barr & Skrbis, 2008, p. 163; Rahim, 1998, pp. 121, 127; Sharpe & Gopinathan, 2002, p. 158). Paradoxically, while the education system claims to implement meritocratic ideals, streaming appears to systematically reproduce Malay underachievement. As a large segment of the Malay population has continuously been channelled into the lower streams, this statistical representation not only serves as an indicator that an entire ethnic group is ‘less academically inclined’7 than the rest of the ethnic groups, but more importantly, raises the possibility of a politically induced, systemic inequality as a point of investigation. That is, instead of accepting this unequal representation as an empirical given, this paper questions or brackets this presupposition, taking it as a provisional base for the possibility of systemic discrimination. Exposing the assumptions underpinning structural proposals and propositions in policy discourse can lend weight to this presumption.

Persistent underachievement would then serve as an apparent indicator of the systemic meritocratic inequality' of the NES; that is, systematic inequality' is inbuilt into the system, and gaps between the more and less ‘academically inclined’ would persist, despite claims of equal opportunities. Indeed, former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew ‘asserted that the Malays would never close the gap in educational attainment with the Indians and Chinese because as they improve, the others also improve' (Lee, 2011 quoted in Lim, 2013, p. 4, emphasis included). If this argument is correct, then streaming can be seen as a sorting mechanism which serves to systemise and, more importantly, legitimise unequal access to knowledge according to whether a student is more or less ‘academically' inclined’, and consequently, systematic inequality'.

The common presumption about academic underachievement is that it resides primarily' in those students with inadequate capacity' to benefit from what the education system has to offer. Particularly, there has been a heavy' reliance on the cultural deficit thesis8 to explain the educational marginality' of the Malays (Rahim, 1998, p. 185). Exploring the historical, ethnic, and class-related factors to explain and address the Malay' educational malaise is not the focus of this study. This would relegate and deflect attention from its central concern in examining how structural inequality is built-in to the system. There is a need to explore policies and their implications for structural reforms, as part of the problem. Rather than viewing learners as the locus of the problem, which entails deficit thinking9 (Valencia, 2010), the analysis in this monograph points to the conditions under which unequal access to knowledge may occur.

In relation to systematic inequality, previous research reveals that the concept of an egalitarian meritocracy is unstable, as its constituent ideas, particular in relation to streaming within the education system, are potentially contradictory. Gopinathan (1996, p. 82) points out that by adopting streaming, Singapore abandoned the British practice of comprehensive schooling designed to equalise opportunities. Soon (1988, p. 19), in reviewing the public’s reaction to streaming, advances the argument that pupils channelled to a lower course would have reduced access to higher education. As such, it is debatable whether attempts by the Ministry' for equal opportunity (see previous section) characterised by levelling up academically weaker students (Heng, 2012, n.p.) have succeeded.

Cogently, Rahim (1998, pp. 120-124) argues that the PAP leadership’s educational philosophy is driven by eugenics notions which influenced the belief that the innately ‘talented’ minority should be invested with a disproportionate amount of the state’s public resources in order to lead and inspire the nation to succeed. Hence, various elite programmes for the educationally ‘talented’, as defined by policy, were institutionalised. The underlying assumption of this logic is that the more ‘talented’ students would generate economic growth for the nation in the long run. In his speech entitled ‘Core Principles of Government’, Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (1992, p. 22, quoted in Rahim 1998, p. 131) emphasises that, ‘Because we have invested more in the more able, all Singaporeans have progressed faster’.

In relation to this, Tan (2008, pp. 7-10) points out that Singapore’s concept of meritocracy that focuses on talent allocation, competition, and reward can obscure how an education system that emphasises efficiency systematically excludes particular groups of people based on race and class from the mainstream society, economy, and politics. He argues that a merit-based selection that focuses on the principle of non-discrimination may serve to both ignore and conceal the advantages and disadvantages of an unequal society. This practice perpetuates rather than levels inequality: those who are rewarded based on merit may already have a starting point of positional advantage. Further, compounded by policies such as the SAP10 (Special Assistance Plan) schools which favour the Chinese, Singapore’s choice of meritocratic action strategy' has continued to keep ethnic groups apart (Rahim, 1998, pp. 121, 127; Sharpe & Gopinathan 2002, p. 158). Due to the privileging of differential access, these studies highlight that the pursuit of securing equality of opportunity is conceptually untenable and will be severely underestimated within streaming policy and practice, even if the official justification was constructed as catering to the ability of the learner (see Teo, 2002a, n.p.).

Whilst researchers (Rahim, 1998, pp. 117-118; Sharpe & Gopinathan, 2002, p. 151; Soon, 1988, p. 19; Tan, 2008, p. 10) highlight the weaknesses of the education system and its role in sustaining academic or ethnic inequality, it is particularly instructive that such linkages between the system and the reproduction of inequality, particularly through education policy documents, remains unclear. That is, it is not clear how ability-based streaming is used as a mechanism through which inequality of educational opportunities is established, transmitted, and maintained. This is an especially important area of research given that educational and social consequences arising from underachievement can be severe, such as increasing income inequality (Sharpe & Gopinathan, 2002, p. 158). Although inequality has been defended by the government as an inevitable consequence of globalisation, critics have pointed to the inadequacies of the education and training system (Sharpe & Gopinathan, 2002, p. 158).

To add to the complexity of the issue, the field of Singapore’s education policy analysis (see Rahim, 1998, pp. 123-124; Sharpe & Gopinathan, 2002, pp. 155-156) has been dominated by commentary' and critique rather than empirical research. The lack of research using critical qualitative approaches that have the potential to challenge the ‘ideological’ premises of government policies is not surprising because of the political constraints on academic research in Singapore (Rahim, 1998, p. 8). The culture of self-censorship and lack of serious intellectual critique, particularly by' researchers employed by Singapore’s tertiary' institutions, is likely to have been reinforced by the dismissal of the Deputy Secretary General of the Singapore Democratic Party, Chee Soon Juan, in 1992, from the Psychology' and Social Work Department of the National University of Singapore on minor charges (Rahim, 1998, p. 8). Researchers tend to avoid investigating sensitive issues involving government policies such as the early streaming system (Gopinathan & Gremli, 1988 as cited in Rahim, 1998, p. 8). To exacerbate matters, this self-control is also exercised by expatriate academics based on the experience of those ‘who have been detained for questioning and sued for defamation or have not had their contracts renewed for publishing articles critical of the PAP government’ (Asiawatch, 1990, as cited in Rahim, 1998, p. 8). These substantive constraints against Singaporean scholars’ overt critique of the state are real and, without a thorough examination, will likely encourage a disturbing trend of speculative research about the effects of policies.

Policies have direct material force in Singapore society. In The Public Policy-Making Process in Singapore, Jon S. T. Quah (1984) points out that public policies are formulated by' the cabinet, which is the ‘supreme policy-making body of the government’ (p. 113). The PAP government as the directive authority then ensures the successful implementation of policies to achieve the desired objectives by providing the ‘necessary' manpower, legislation, financial resources and equipment to the relevant implementing agencies’ (p. 119). He highlights that the PAP government is ‘not very' tolerant of independent critics’ who criticise government policies (p. 117). Furthermore, the inability of opposition parties to provide intelligent alternatives and to point out the flaws in policies has resulted in little or no public resistance (p. 119).

Within these factors, the rhetoric of meritocracy seems to be holding back the education system as it first allows a certain group to be systematically disadvantaged, and second, it does not allow incisive critique or the questioning of prevailing notions and prior assumptions within the system by which to improve it - because of the belief in the system as being fair on the basis that it is meritocratic and that every child has the same opportunity to succeed, thus resisting evidence of incoherence which leads to problems of inequality (see Bohm, 1994, p. 28). The notion of ‘meritocracy’ as conceptualised by' official policy discourse as necessary' needs to be examined - that is, how has this concept been made necessary to the extent that ‘it cannot be otherwise’, which in effect is saying ‘It has got to be this way. We have to keep it this way’ (Bohm, 1994, p. 89). Employing CDA can uncover underlying assumptions in policy discourse that produce and sustain ‘what subsequently counts as being self-evident, universal, necessary’ (Foucault, 1991c, p. 87). The critical analysis employed here involves ideological deconstruction, which helps to discover underlying implicit assumptions of (absolute) necessity.

The central thrust here is thus concerned with how the ideological notion of ‘meritocracy’ is conceptualised through discursive processes in policy documents, rather than how it is theorised. The purpose here is not present what may be seen as a traditional literature review in the sense of summarising a series of mainstream perspectives on critical terms, but rather seeks to problématisé the construction and use of this term in the first place. This is at the heart of this book’s theoretical position. As such, to include the diverse theoretical groundings, which would constitute an ideal of what should be, or what has been stated of ‘meritocracy’ would be to undermine the conceptual integrity of the work. This analytical process which takes the problématisation of truth as a point of departure to examine what is Here and Now actually taking place within the policy data, rather than drawing on the historical, social, and political contexts to understand the object under investigation, provides a practical anchorage to the normative dimension of ideological critique. Here, the purpose is to examine how the idea of meritocracy works not as an abstraction, not as an idea, but in actuality. Further, a comparison with the situation in other countries in relation to meritocracy and education policy would not be of significant interest. It is not clear what is the basis or need for this comparison, or how differences could contribute to making up a coherent subject matter in trying to learn about Singapore’s education system and its problems. To make sense of things against some background of previous or existing expectations or situations may hamper the observation of what is, what is Here and Now actually taking place within the policy data, although it may seem as though they were helping that observation by providing possibilities of what should be or what has been.

 
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