Even failed presidential candidates prove Singapore’s meritocratic system is alive and well, says Koo Tsai Kee. This commentary is a 60-second reduction of the original published in The Straits Times on Sept. 6.
One recurring theme for me, as a result of this presidential election, was about opportunity and social mobility.
The three candidates who failed in their bid for presidency – Tan Cheng Bock, Tan Jee Say and Tan Kin Lian – came from humble and deprived economic backgrounds.
They might not have become presidents, but their triumphs and tribulations speak of the Singapore Dream.
This year’s presidential race should reinforce our belief that the Singapore system of meritocracy is working well, and needs to continue to evolve to be relevant.
Because ultimately, the poor can still dream big.
This is evident when you consider the three failed candidates: All went to Raffles Institution and rose to their respective careers.
Jee Say, a washerwoman’s son, went to RI and then to Oxford on a government scholarship.
His path to the Istana is a vindication of the meritocratic system.
Cheng Bock lost his father as a teenager but he went to RI and later graduated from medical school to become a general practioner.
Although he laments that the system robbed him of the chance to become a specialist, history will remember him for his contribution to society.
Kin Lian was so poor that he didn’t complete his A Levels, he still managed to acquire professional actuarial qualifications and led NTUC Income as the CEO of a working man’s cooperative.
These three Tans are evidence of the success of social mobility, which is what gives hope to people.
With the aspiration these three Tans showed in wanting to become president, they have showed hope – a virtue that keeps society afloat and will raise it to a higher plane.
Moreover, social mobility is even greater these days as more students go to polytechnic and university, more scholarships are on offer and better paying jobs are available.
RI still has the lowest number of students wih graduate parents among the top schools.
But if there are fewer poor students in RI today, it is because there are fewer poor people in Singapore overall.
Social mobility must be alive today because that is also what explains the success of today’s immigrant children.
Their parents came to Singapore with old clothes and little money but the determination to succeed. And they succeeded because social mobility is alive and thriving.
And also because Singapore’s meritocratic system is blind to economic background and country of origin.
With the presidential election over, let us celebrate the Singapore Dream.
The writer is a former minister of state for defence.