Understanding meritocracy

~by Elvin Ong~

Meritocracy has often been viewed as one of the key tenets of Singaporean culture and local identity. We strive to reward people who are best for the job regardless of their economic or family background, race, or religion, as compared to other countries around the world that reward nepotism and cronyism.

Yet, most recently, there has been some controversy in The Straits Times forum pages over the idea of meritocracy, and its relationship with social and economic inequality. Some commentators continue to argue that Singapore’s version of meritocracy provides the right incentives for an individual’s competitive drive, that it can promote social mobility, thus putting at bay fears of the consequences of social and economic inequality in Singapore. Yet many other commentators feel that meritocracy is elitist and heartless, impinging on their personal notions of fairness and social justice, thus justifying the need for “compassionate meritocracy”.

This debate is to be welcomed, for it signals that a maturing Singapore society is willing to challenge conventional narratives of time-honoured values in order to forge a new consensus for itself. But this debate also reveals that meritocracy is a concept that lacks clarity, and can be subject to intentional or unintentional misuse and abuse. Proponents on both sides often argue past each other, rather than engage each other in constructive dialogue.

Hence, there is an urgent need to understand the inherent assumptions and nuances within the concept of meritocracy before we use it. There is also a need to understand the consequences of adhering to pure meritocracy, for it entails subsequent attitudes towards the rest of society, which, if taken to its extreme, is highly undesirable to say the least.

I propose five self-reflective questions that can help in understanding and clarifying the assumptions and consequences of meritocracy.

First, what counts as merit? For example, when companies recruit, most have a list of objective and subjective criteria to evaluate candidates. The merits differ from position to position, and from company to company. What is required to succeed for a sales executive for a neighbourhood florist is different from a sales executive for a boutique shop selling luxury watches.

At the national level, the Ministry of Education (MOE) has been at the forefront of attempting to broaden the definition of what counts as merit, beyond the conventional notions of academic merit. MOE’s efforts to encourage “multiple peaks of excellence” have resulted in the creation of the Singapore Sports School and the School of the Arts. There are also schemes in place to allow students who have music and sporting merits to enter their choice of secondary school to fully develop their talents.

Second, who determines what counts as merit? In their process of recruitment, different company executives may differ in their expectations of what is desirable and therefore what counts as merit. Multiple studies have shown that when senior management interview candidates, they choose to give the jobs to people like themselves, and not according to any lists of criteria. This is a by-product of confirmation bias, where successful people believe that choosing others with similar attributes to themselves will be successful too.

Turning back to the example of MOE’s policy making, civil servants are the people who have the power to determine what counts as merit. They can either enact policies to push a diversification of what counts as merit, or be pushed by society to enact policies that reflect society’s diverse conceptualization of merit. Either way, enlightened civil servants are crucial.

Third, should uneven starting points be taken into consideration? In an ideal 100m race that evaluates the individual merits of speed and talent, and rewards the competitor who crosses the finishing line first, all competitors begin along the same starting line. Yet reality is much more complex. Individuals begin the race of life from different starting lines, with some much closer to the finishing line and others much further away, by virtue of their family backgrounds.

Whether the positioning of starting lines matter depends on the aim of the organization offering the reward. Different organizations have different goals when offering different rewards (e.g. a job, a scholarship, a bursary, admission to university) to different segments of the population. A foundation may legitimately choose to award bursaries to students from low-income families rather than someone from a wealthy family, even if both obtained admission to university. Likewise, a company may legitimately hire a person based on looks, if it requires the employee to look good for the job.

Fourth, what is the size of the prize? Should someone emerge the winner in the evaluation of merit, different prizes await him or her for their efforts. Yet excessive rewards threaten to spill manifest itself into an issue of moral hazard. The debate over the excessive pay of chief executives in the private sector and of bankers in the financial sector is indicative of this. To be sure, chief executives and bankers possess meritorious qualities that warrant high pay packets, but the substantial concerns over the moral hazards of excessive pay should not be dismissed lightly.

Fifth, what is the appropriate response to losers? If the evaluation of merit results in both winners and losers, then we must necessarily consider its impact on both groups of people. As noted, we readily acknowledge the rewards awaiting the winners, yet scarcely any attention is paid to the losers of a race. Some societies choose to declare, “Tough luck. Try again next time (but you will keep on losing)” whereas other societies choose to say, “We’ll help you in any way we can so that you may win a race one day.” It is unclear where Singaporean society stands on this matter. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between.

At the end of the day, these tough questions to be asked of meritocracy have no easy answers, for they involve further debates about one’s notions of social justice, fairness, morality and power. Yet in any discussion of meritocracy, we must necessarily confront them, for it forces us to understand our own preconceived values and the values of fellow Singaporeans.

The writer is undertaking the MPhil in Politics (Comparative Government) programme at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford.