The notion of meritocracy has always been drummed into our heads by the ruling People’s Action Party government. While meritocracy is a laudable goal, can we really have meritocracy without equality in the first instance? Are we jumping the gun by banging on about meritocracy when there is no equality to pave the way to a genuine meritocracy in the first place?
Speaking at this year’s Public Service Commission (PSC) scholarship recipients at the Grand Copthorne Waterfront Hotel Minister-in-charge of the Public Service Chan Chun Sing urged attendees to continue to “uphold the values of meritocracy that have allowed Singapore to come so far”. He also alluded that the continuation of meritocracy in our current system will “allow people to succeed regardless of race, language, religion, ancestry or connection”.
While Chan’s intention may have been a positive one aimed at encouraging the scholars, I am not sure that our system has done what it can to render race, language, religion, ancestry or connection irrelevant to success. Let’s start with race and language. How many job advertisements require Chinese speakers as a job requisite?
Effectively, this rules out entire racial groups from employment. Detractors might argue that language requirements are standard and not intended to be racist. However, many incidences have transpired to indicate that despite mastering the Chinese language, the non Chinese person still does not get the job. The job situation is just an example of what non inclusion looks like and this translates to every day life ranging from school to the selection of our President. (Note, the word selection is used deliberately for there was no election)
What has the government done to address this ongoing and nuanced racial issue? Or perhaps, are acts of tokenism applied to distract the public from the issue? Chan should note that there cannot be meritocracy if candidates are not competing on equal footing in the first place.
At the same event, PSC chairman Eddie Teo highlighted that several recipients of the scholarship “come from challenging family and personal circumstances”. While these recipients are worthy of praise, Teo is ignoring a very important fact. Those from less privileged homes that succeed against all odds are the minority. The majority of high achievers do come from supportive and privileged backgrounds. While crediting those that have done well despite difficulties, what has the government done to ensure that the playing field is as equal as possible in the first place? Is the fact that some less fortunate recipients have succeeded more a credit to their own mete and mettle than the government’s efforts?
Then there is also the issue of affordability. It is likely that those that can afford more will achieve more in our current standard of meritocracy. Take PSLE for example. We call this exam meritocratic because it is the same exam for all. But it is still unequal because the more fortunate children will have access to greater support ranging from tuition to a more conducive home environment. Equality and meritocracy are therefore not the same thing. To equate the two is a misrepresentation. Meritocracy does not help unless there is also equality.
I understand that complete equality is a pipe dream but there are still steps that can be taken to make society as equal as possible. An obvious way to create equality is through managing the prices of necessities. To what extent has the government done this? As we speak, the government has permitted the double increment of water and electricity on the same day. These are necessities and who will end up suffering more? Clearly, the poorer ones among us.
Then you have the GST increments that have been announced. Being a consumer tax with no exemptions for basic items, it is again the poor that will end up paying the price (literally).
I would urge Chan to think about these issues before making broad pretty statements.
True meritocracy cannot exist without there being equality in the first place.