Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Kwek Jian Qiang, of Equality and Equity

It's human nature to want the best for ourselves and perhaps that was the reason behind Kwek Jian Qiang's now infamous letter lamenting the fact that the ITE students, who are considered weaker academically, are given better facilities than students in JCs who are considered better. To quote him, he said that "Our brightest students, who will become Singapore’s future leaders, should get the best facilities in order to excel and grow. We should reward according to merit."

Looking at this reminded me about one of the classes that I took under Psychology once upon a time ago that talked about something called Equality and Equity.

In broad terms, when it comes to allocating rewards or in this case, facilities, to people, there is two methods in which one can choose to do it. In the first method, rewards are allocated based on the principle of equality, in which everyone gets the same allocation of rewards no matter what their contribution. In the second method, also called equity method, rewards are allocated based on the individual's contribution, meaning that the individuals who contributed the most should get the largest portion of the reward while the same goes vice versa.

For example, imagine a group of hunters who are going out to hunt for food. One of them decides to stay back because he is injured and could not hunt as properly as the others. And so the rest of the hunters went and looked for food while their injured friend stay behind. When they finally returned with the kill a few hours later, one question comes to mind. How should they divide the kill?

Should they divide the kill equally, where each of them gets the same amount of it or should they divide it based on the principles of equity, where each of them gets the portion according to their efforts, with the injured hunter getting the least or none at all, because he did not participate in the hunt? Now if I change the details of the story from an injured hunter to a lazy hunter, which method should they now use?

Depending on how you see it, there's no obvious right or wrong when it comes to choosing between equality or equity. Both can be fair and unfair in their own way.

While many people who criticized Jian Qiang called his way of thinking as elitist (and therefore putting it in a bad light), in a way, he was only basing his arguments on the principles of equity. In his mind, he might think that the path of JC is much harder than ITE and therefore, they should deserve better facilities in accordance to their contribution.

On the other hand, people who criticizes him are thinking in terms of equality, where each and every student should be allocated a fair share of the facilities because not everyone can make it into JC and the students of ITE contributes to the society too. And after all, it is not ethical to group people according to the contribution that they make. It's against human rights to do so.

There's no right or wrong in this matter and I believe that you have used both methods before in your life. A very good example would be the issue of Singaporeans versus the foreigners. Although both contributes to the country, Singaporeans thinks that the benefits should be awarded according to equity, ie citizenship rather than equally, where everyone gets the same benefits.

So before you get hyped up about this issue, Kwek Jian Qiang has a point. After all, isn't this the meritocracy principle (or the equity principle in other words) that the government constantly espouses? That the rewards that you'll get in life is proportional to the effort that you put in? And for a lot of students, not putting in enough effort means a shitty result which ultimately culminates in the student dropping out or ending up in ITE?

I for one, have really no idea which sides to take in this issue. While a part of me agrees with him that true, students should be rewarded according to the effort, another part of me disagrees because ultimately, the true measure of our rewards is not seen through the facilities that we enjoy but our jobs and our life's subjective well being in the future. But then again, this is a hard topic to find an objective argument to begin with. So there's really not much point arguing about it.


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