Press Muse – Singaporeans dreaming
Writer and historian James Truslow Adams once imagined a meritocratic wonderland. A society defined by the noble aspiration he called the American Dream.
Drawing from the United States Declaration of Independence and its recognition of “inalienable Rights” to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”, he illustrated what was to become the ethos of a nation in his 1931 book Epic of America:
“…that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.”
“It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”
It is an intuitively attractive and nominally egalitarian idea, and a vibrant nation of immigrants, entrepreneurs and frontiersmen fell spellbound.
But beneath the veneer of liberté and égalité lay sinister undercurrents. Discerning the materialism, corruption and decadence permeating 1920s America, F. Scott Fitzgerald forestalled Adams. His 1925 classic “The Great Gatsby“ damned the egalitarian mythology of the American Dream, exposing it as a dangerous flight of fancy that valorises the unscrupulous pursuit of material success.
To be sure, ‘meritocracy’ has yet to enter the lexicon in the era of the Depression, Route 66 and Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath“. The honour of coining the phrase would fall to British Labour politician Michael Young, who in 1958 wrote the satirical “The Rise of Meritocracy, 1870-2033: An Essay on Education and Equality“.
Young’s prognosis did not stray far from Fitzgerald’s diagnosis. Rather than enhancing social mobility, he argued that the meritocratic logic would come to entrench the relative positions of the rich and poor. Its rhetoric legitimises social stratification and inequality – whether people sink, swim or soar, they all deserve their respective lots. As sociologist Laurie Taylor explained to the BBC News Magazine in 2004:
“The hideous thing about meritocracy is it tells you that if you’ve given life your all and haven’t got to the top you’re thick or stupid. Previously, at least, you could always just blame the class system.”
This hideous thing is unfortunately prevalent here – a city-state whose leaders constantly reify the illusory meritocratic dream. Back in 2008, in the midst of a debate over the scholarship selection process provoked by former A*Star chairman Philip Yeo, the Straits Times’ Lydia Lim related a revealing anecdote:
“One of my friends was shaken to the core when he realised recently what his daughter thought of poor people. They were stupid, obviously, she told him.”
Shocking? Hardly so. After all, our mass media largely buys into the meritocratic philosophy hook, line and sinker. And their job, as Chomsky and Herman would put it, is manufacturing consent.
Think the shorthand for excellence that is the ‘Raffles’ brand, the obsession with elite institutions, the veneration of academic qualifications. Think the annual press praise parade lavished upon top students, especially those who overcame personal hardship to achieve superlative results. Think the gushing coverage of scholarship winners bound for prestigious universities and promising civil service careers. Think the resonance of local films portraying the rat race and paper chase – the likes of “Money No Enough” and “I Not Stupid”.
For the most part, this media valorisation appears benign. But the loathsome hauteur Young feared would take hold in a meritocratic society is not easy to conceal. A leader column in Tuesday’s issue (9 March) by Straits Times senior correspondent Radha Basu betrayed this latent condescension:
“Unlike in some countries, where people are often too poor to rent – let alone buy – their first home, homelessness in Singapore is often the result of personal irresponsibility, stemming from avarice or divorce and dysfunction.”
“Some, like Mr Yusof, commit to homes more expensive than they can afford. Others sell their homes for cash to settle gambling or credit card debts, and end up on the beach.”
Firstly, the obtusely opaque epithet that is “unlike in some countries”, employed with a leering smugness. If she knows which ones, why not list them? Secondly, with only one anecdotal example to show, how does she conclude that homelessness here is ‘often’ a result of ‘personal irresponsibility’? Thirdly, how does she define divorce and dysfunction? How are they necessarily instances of personal irresponsibility? What resounding evidence she has, heavily burdened with weasel words and vague pronouncements. The accompanying illustration – aptly titled ‘Punchlines’ – is similarly reductionist, its portrayal of homeless Singaporeans as spendthrift and unrepentant betrays an unapologetic, supercilious scorn.
The narrative can also be perpetuated less distastefully, even if it remains unmistakably blatant. The Straits Times does this by incorporating the common man, adorning a factual news peg with normative moralistic musings à la Aesop’s Fables. One such news peg appeared last Saturday (6 March), quoting National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan’s childhood reminiscences.
“When I was young, I lived in various places with my mother, who was a domestic servant. I lost my father when I was three years old, so we moved around a lot.”
“We stayed in a kampung in Lorong Ah Soo, which today has HDB flats and is in Cynthia Phua’s (MP for Aljunied GRC) constituency. Every time I visit the flats there, I still remember where the kampung house was.”
“Then we moved to a shophouse in High Street. My mum was working for a High Street merchant at that time. Today, that is where the MTI (Ministry of Trade and Industry) and MOF (Ministry of Finance) are (in The Treasury building).”
“Then we moved to a room in Bugis Street. Today, it is Bugis Junction. There were 10 of us living in that room. We had one bed which slept five. It was raised so that another five could sleep underneath.”
“Then, I moved to Kim Keat Avenue with my aunt – eight of us in a three-room flat, sharing one toilet and bathroom, while my mother stayed in a one-room rental flat in Whampoa Road.”
“Later, we upgraded to a four-room flat in Toa Payoh.”
“That is a typical Singapore story for my generation. Start in a modest flat, work hard, accumulate savings, and upgrade over time. Then, if you need to, rightsize to a smaller flat.”
Suitably moved, Low Lee Siang penned a glowing missive to the Straits Times published Monday (8 March):
I AM a 58-year-old Singaporean who shed tears on reading last Saturday’s article, ‘Mah’s own upgrading story’, in which National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan recounted his difficult childhood years growing up in various housing types.
I have 11 siblings and, in the 1960s, we lived with our grandmother and parents in a three-room rental flat. But I did not realise until I read Mr Mah’s story that I was more fortunate than the minister.
This is the Singapore story: Study hard, work hard, and you can pull yourself out of poverty.
I wish to remind the younger generation of where we have come from, and not to take what Singapore is now for granted. Today, I live in an HDB maisonette. Thank you, Singapore.
Rounding off a one-two punch, reader William Tay wrote:
“National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan’s remarkable story about his childhood years is a lesson for the younger generation. Despite his humble beginnings, he was able to uplift himself to become a government minister. This is testimony to our system of meritocracy which has enabled talented young people from humble backgrounds to rise up and serve the nation.”
There you have it. A meritocracy narrative comes full circle, notwithstanding the inconvenient fallacy of citing anecdotal successes to back the notion of meritocratic social mobility. After all, those who don’t make it also don’t make it to the papers – classic publication bias.
This news-story-to-forum-page cycle churned out by the Straits Times national education machine is apparently a well-oiled technique. One might recall the tactic employed last November following Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew’s acknowledgement of mistakes in his bilingual education policy. That was the cue for Dr John Ng to pen an embarrassingly fawning letter, which appeared soon after the mea culpa, expressing unqualified admiration for MM Lee’s leadership qualities.
But there are times when outsourced moralising isn’t up to the task. Where sharper sticks threaten the idyllic bubble, the Straits Times rolls out its big-gun writers. In 2008, political scientist Kenneth Paul Tan offered such a threat in the form of a detailed academic critique. The associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy wrote in an article entitled ‘Meritocracy and Elitism in a Global City: Ideological Shifts in Singapore‘:
“Meritocracy, in trying to “isolate” merit by treating people with fundamentally unequal backgrounds as superficially the same, can be a practice that ignores and even conceals the real advantages and disadvantages that are unevenly distributed to different segments of an inherently unequal society, a practice that in fact perpetuates this fundamental inequality. In this way, those who are picked by meritocracy as having merit may already have enjoyed unfair advantages from the very beginning, ignored according to the principle of nondiscrimination.”
Troubled by the social implications of this tension between ideal and reality, he warned:
“As the economic and political elite are rewarded (or are rewarding themselves) with larger prizes, a vast and visible inequality of outcomes will replace the incentive effect with a sense of resentment, helplessness, social disengagement, and even envy among those who perceive themselves as systematically disadvantaged. As the elite class endeavors to renew itself, defining merit in its own image, it will become increasingly narrow, exclusive, and dismissive toward others, losing the benefit of a broader range of less traditional talent.”
After discussing specific inadequacies of Singaporean meritocracy, he concluded:
“Singapore’s meritocratic system has been practiced so extremely that it is starting to show signs of becoming a victim of its own success: unintended consequences may, in the near future, take off on sharp tangents as the unsettling power of globalization disarticulates the inherent contradictions in the meritocracy concept itself, mainly between its egalitarian and its elitist dimensions.”
Cometh the challenge, cometh Zakir Hussain, who acknowledged Tan’s critiques (and Young’s too) in a August 2008 commentary ‘Meritocracy’s hidden danger‘. But in ceding initial ground to critics, Hussain bought room to defuse the attacks. He rounded off with a reassuring list of government measures designed to alleviate social problems arising from the dark side of meritocracy – redefining merit, broadening the meanings of talent and success in education, schemes like the Workfare Income Supplement to boost wages of lower-income workers, bursaries for children from lower-income homes, and so on.
Then, with the ground prepared, Hussain deploys the ultima ratio – racial harmony:
“This emphasis on merit and fair play has helped to ensure racial and religious harmony because minorities feel they have an equal stake and equal chances in this country, even if imperfections exist.”
Status quo defended, QED. But only because Hussain ignored the elephants in the room that are Michael Barr’s ‘The Charade of Meritocracy‘ (yes, that Far Eastern Economic Review article) and “Constructing Singapore“ - a book-length study, co-authored with Zlatko Skrbis, arguing the significance of ethno-nationalism, among other factors like power, personal connections, social class and gender, in Singaporean elite selection and formation.
Selective vision, perhaps? That’s understandable. As far as the Straits Times are concerned, we’ve well on our way riding off into a glorious Gattaca-esque sunset and living meritocratically ever after.