Wednesday December 22, 2010
Social justice for all
EVEN the most fervent supporter of meritocracy will know that a truly level playing field is not possible in real life.
Whether one is choosing a person for a scholarship or a promotion, it is not realistic to say that the candidates are starting from the same point and can, therefore, be judged strictly on merit.
Using a tangible set of criteria — like the number of As, coupled with extracurricular scores — provide a guide, but the system cannot be foolproof.
Which is why we have this perennial problem whereby many who feel that they deserve a scholarship because of merit cry foul when they don’t.
There are, of course, some scholarships, particularly those that are industry-driven, which only target the academically brilliant so that they become real assets to the companies after they graduate. Even if you were a billionaire’s son, you would still qualify, provided you can prove that you are truly made of the right stuff.
Then there are the socially-driven scholarship providers where the disadvantaged will get the edge.
Somewhere in the middle are government scholarships. The dilemma is that all of us believe we are stakeholders because we are taxpayers and therefore must have an equal chance when it comes to such official largesse.
The Prime Minister’s remarks that the Government will strike a balance between meritocracy and social justice when rewarding students for outstanding academic achievements must be seen in this context.
He is correct to say that while rewarding students based on meritocracy is important, it is also imperative not to sideline others who come from low-income families and still achieve fairly good results despite not having the advantage of studying in a dynamic or conducive environment.
“We will continue to recognise those who are outstanding and excellent. However, while we aim for excellence, we need to find a good balance between meritocracy and social justice. We need to give opportunity to students from rural areas or from low and middle-income families the same opportunity when their results are fairly good,” Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak said on Monday when presenting education grants and financial assistance from 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) to 330 students who excelled in their STPM and SPM examinations last year.
“We need to give the same opportunity to a student from Kampung Bantal in Ulu Tembeling (Pahang) who obtained fairly good results as is given to a student whose results are better and lives in Kuala Lumpur.”
We also have to understand that it is not just about the geographical divide, where students in the rural areas are at a disadvantage compared to their urban counterparts.
Even in an urban setting like the Klang Valley, for example, there is no equal access for everyone. A student with a highspeed broadband connection being chauffer-driven to a tuition centre can happily co-exist with a student staying in a longhouse just down the road.
Both may get the same number of As in the examination, but the effort they each have to put in cannot be considered similar.
The fact remains that we are not quite a land of limitless opportunity in which individuals can go as far as their own merit takes them.
Which is why a commitment to social justice is one way to balance out the situation.
Social justice is always about addressing needs. Just as there are the very rich and privileged among all ethnic communities, likewise there are the poor and underprivileged among all of them as well.
Be that as it may, transparency is important so that no one uses the “social justice card” to trick the system into believing that he is the more deserving candidate.
Likewise, we cannot continually play the “ethnic card” to suggest that only one community is socially disadvantaged.
A fair and just nation is one where justice is tempered with mercy. Meritocracy can only be considered fair when it is tempered with social justice.