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Deconstructing Meritocracy

The following article was sent to The Straits Times's forum but was not published.

I refer to the report ‘Non-grad parents, but they made it to top schools’ (ST, 7th February 2011). Heartening as it is to witness these students prevail over socio-economic adversity, it represents a missed opportunity to critically examine the significance of class inequity. While credit is due to their resilience, the report fails to do justice to these ten students.

Source: sixthdecade.uwaterloo.ca

Their success stories may celebrate individual ingenuity and tenacity, but they also testify to the failure of meritocracy. Fundamentally, meritocracy is premised upon the equal point of departure. This is fanciful, and does not exist. What do exist are social, economic, and cultural capitals – the understated and latent lubricants of success. Graduate parents are indubitably in good stead to nurture their blossoming progenies – they possess the financial means to purchase the best private help and the right network of contacts to leverage upon. Their children will also pick up the correct ethos and cultural knowledge that will conduce their progress. Meritocracy as a crude aptitude filter is thus unfair: it overlooks distortions by socio-economic privilege that bestows fortuitous children a (sometimes overwhelming) headstart. Some would argue that those from disadvantaged backgrounds could still succeed, if only they would follow the example of these students and work harder. That is the nub of the point: if this is so, that children from poor families ought and need to strive much more, then we should abandon our impression that meritocracy is a fair system.

Meritocracy in Singapore has never been solely about individual initiative and merit. This is not a stunning revelation. Much scholarship has deftly deconstructed the myth of meritocracy. Academics like Michael Barr and Lily Zubaidah Rahim have contextualised these critiques to the Singapore system. To ignore these pressing criticisms, especially by invoking the spectre of bumiputra-styled affirmative action, is both churlish and irresponsible.

Human talent constitutes our greatest asset, but our meritocratic system ill-serves this potential. For the numerous benefits that it may have delivered, meritocracy has neglected a larger number of us. It is time we summon the moral courage to problematise meritocracy and talk about those who have been left behind unfairly.

Khairulanwar Zaini