Meritocracy PAP style. Do they walk the talk?


By Jen

This article was first written in December 2012 and published on Jentrified Citizen, but republished in reference to the recent appointment of the new NEA CEO, Mr Ronnie Tay. (link

Much has been said about meritocracy as a bedrock principle in Singapore. In theory it sounds persuasive, best man for the job, may the better man win, etc. But just how far does the PAP and related government companies go in walking the talk and practising this principle? And what is their interpretation of meritocracy?

PM Lee Hsien Loong, who spoke at a PAP conference earlier this week, said meritocracy must remain a fundamental principle here and he questioned if Singapore would want a society based on wealth, connections or race instead.

For emphasis, he had asked:”Do we look at wealth? Do we want that! Or guanxi, connections? Or you can go by race – so he gets extra marks in the exam, extra advantage for schools admissions and for jobs.  Is that the Singapore we have fought to build?”

Personally, I am not against meritocracy if it is practised in the right spirit with checks and balance in place,  although one wise man once noted “meritocracy co-opts people who might otherwise become its critics”.

Where it sickens me and many other Singaporeans is when we see the supreme hypocrisy of how it is selectively practised by the fervent advocates of meritocracy.

Let’s look at what meritocracy means in the first place.

As defined by, meritocracy is: “Governance by elites who deserve to wield power because they possess merit (defined as ‘intelligence plus effort’) instead of by those who merely possess wealth or belong to privileged classes. Such a system, in theory, forms the basis of an ‘equal opportunity’ society. But, in practice, unrestricted meritocracy may result in a society without rules and concentrate power in only a few hands.”

In brief, meritocracy is supposed to be a system whereby responsibilities are given based on one’s tested ability, talents and proven merits rather than by wealth or family status.

Let’s now examine some of the points that PM Lee raised which he seems to take issue with as a means of climbing the ladder and moving up in society. On the matter of wealth, it is true that blatant corruption is comparatively low in Singapore. But  let’s be honest and acknowledge the fact that having money helps and often wealth, power and connections come as a package.

With wealth such as the money to invest in Singapore, it seems one can quite easily get Permanent Residency here (criminals aside). Just look at the large number of the ultra rich who have been welcomed here with open arms. With wealth, one can afford the best education and to hire the best private tutors for the children and give them a life that is privileged complete with tonics and branded schools. With wealth, one has the money to invest and make more money and more importantly, gain power and build valuable connections.

This is not to say that one cannot climb up solely through hard work and with some luck. One can but the climb is certainly faster with connections.

Connections is the all important oil that greases the path to fame, fortune and power. Indeed, guanxi plays an important part in an Asian society. Having  the right connections is often key to landing a business deal or scoring that all important job interview.

It is well known in the business and corporate world and at GLCs and TLCs that it is not always the best qualified person with the most relevant experience who gets the job but often, the one with the right connections to open the right doors. Indeed, we have witnessed how, through the years, many senior people have been appointed in companies (including at GLCs and TLCs) partly because of their guanxi with the top guns.

This meritocracy question has been asked over the years on the brow-raising senior appointments of various government-linked people in the private sectors (just think of the number of inexperienced ex-civil servants and  ex-military, navy and airforce personnel who were hired by some prominent GLCs and TLCs and the number of MPs without business experience being invited to sit on the boards of listed companies).

The recent appointment of Desmond Kuek as the new CEO of the beleaguered SMRT is yet another interesting example. Desmond’s experience in a nutshell before becoming the head of a public-listed transport company can be summed up as ex-civil servant and  ex-army man. He was Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources and Chief of Army prior to that. Did he have any business or corporate experience in running a public-listed transport company? The answer is No.

In many other developed countries, there would have been a proper recruitment process to headhunt candidates with the relevant experience and merits before the CEO is appointed to a public-listed company. Was this done by SMRT which is 54% owned by Temasek Holdings? Is Desmond the best man for this difficult job to take care of the nation’s transport issues and to ensure financial returns to the company’s shareholders? On what merit was he appointed? And by whom? And today’s Straits Times reported that Desmond may be appointing more of his own kind by tapping some senior Singapore Armed Forces officers to join SMRT. How qualified are they?

Going by what we see happening in Singapore, one really wonders how the PAP defines meritocracy. Its claims that wealth and connections should not play a part here is most odd, a hypocritical denial of the realities of life when we see their own clear preference to hire people cut from the same cloth , of the same mind and “colour” and sometimes from the same extended family. Where is the equal opportunity for the rest?

From the nature of some appointments, it seems obvious that meritocracy in Singapore also refers to loyalty. Much merit is accorded to loyal “soldiers”, people who have proven their unquestioning loyalty to the masters or top guns and who will never challenge enshrined doctrines. When they are told to turn right, they will never turn left. When the boss makes a dumb suggestion, they will not dare to challenge him.  Such loyalty is very well rewarded as the anointed gets placed on the fast track and is given plum appointments regardless of whether there are other candidates with far better experience and merits for those jobs.

In politics, the PAP has consistently placed well-trained ex-military men as their candidates in elections. Several have coasted into parliament on the flawed GRC system and made quantum leaps into senior positions within a short timeframe. Were these candidates selected because they had the relevant experience and talents and were the most qualified to run a country or were other factors like “connections” and proven loyalty at play?

With so many uniformed men and Generals in the government and in major corporations, the joke is that our country is beginning to look like it’s under military rule.

The meteoric rise and rise of the unpopular Chan Chun Sing is one that continues to baffle many Singaporeans. It is highly doubtful that he would have gotten into Parliament on his own if he had stood in a single member constituency. Truth is he got in because he was in the unchallenged Tanjong Pagar GRC helmed by Lee Kuan Yew. Within 16 months, he shot into prominence and made the transition from being Chief of Army to Acting Minister for Social and Family Development and Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Defence.

Since then, he has often been in the limelight and many Singaporeans have cringed at his shockingly poor English and his inane sayings. Who can forget his head-scratching carrot cake metaphor?  He once said, when commenting that money is not the factor that draws people to join PAP :”You go to Peach Garden, you eat the S$10 XO Sauce chye tow kuay (fried carrot cake), you can be quite happy right? Because you are satisfied with the service and so on. On the other hand, you can go to a hawker centre, even if they charge you S$1.50, you might not want to eat it if the quality is not good.” Huh? Gong Simi???

Chun Sing had also lashed out publicly at Singaporeans for their vocal online criticisms of the MIW party and he had arrogantly dismissed these netizens as the “lunatic fringe”.

Since his debut as a politician, CCS has not impressed as he continues to parrot and market stale doctrines without showing any noteworthy original thought. Yet, this man is supposedly a princeling who’s being groomed to possibly become our country’s future Prime Minister.

God help us all if this is the best that PAP’s brand of meritocracy can produce in our country.