Tracing the Meritocratic Promise: A Study of Socio-Economically Disadvantaged Families in a ‘Meritocratic’ State

Wednesday, 18 July 2018: 08:30
Oral Presentation
Charleen CHIONG, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom
Singapore is a ‘strong’ developmental state (Castells, 1992) that exercises ideological leadership over economy and society. Paradoxically, however, the KOF Globalization Index 2016 ranked Singapore as 6th most globalised country, of 207 countries – using indicators such as participation in international organisations and trade. As with other developed economies, aspects of neoliberal logic are foregrounded in the Singapore education system that potentially amplify parental involvement: increased school choice, competition and the state’s subscription to a self-responsibilising meritocratic ethos.

This paper examines these seeming policy paradoxes, through the views and voices of low-income, ethnic minority families. As such, this paper attempts to map the complex relationships between neoliberal logics, state logics and the parenting approaches of disadvantaged families. Conceptually, possibilities for these relationships in descriptive literature outline how a near-nationwide belief in the power of education credentials in acquiring prestige, social mobility and global competitiveness, has generated an intensification in competition – which in turn precipitated an effective shift from ‘meritocracy’ to ‘parentocracy’ (The Straits Times, 2014). Within a ‘parentocracy’, a child’s educational outcomes are contingent upon parents’ capacities (or difficulties in this respect) to invest and strategise to enhance their child’s competitiveness.

Drawing on in-depth and focus group interviews, two key patterns of deviation from Western neoliberalism are explored: (1) Despite growing possibilities for parent agency, within a state that strongly advocates the ‘meritocracy’ doxa, profound trust in the government co-exists alongside an internalisation of a meritocratic, self-responsibilising ethos – and material and ideational reasons for this are offered; (2) However, parents are not devoid of agency, but engage with intensified competition through close family relationships that include components of control, surveillance, mutual support and emotional appeals to their children regarding the value of credentials. Empirical particularities are used to re-theorise a ‘Singaporean neoliberalism’ and to draw out equity implications.