I couldn't agree more with writer Wong Horng Ginn's (Wong) opinion in The Straits Times that we need to broaden the scope of meritocracy and acknowledge its limitations. I would, however, take it one step further and propose that the concept of meritocracy has been misunderstood and that misunderstanding needs to be addressed.
Many people would consider meritocracy to be fair - i.e. that it somehow negates the effects of inherent societal privilege by allowing able individuals to rise up in the social and economic ladder despite coming from a lower socio-economic background. It is premised on the inherent belief that the best will succeed and socioeconomic status is irrelevant. It is my opinion however that the concept of meritocracy is a false premise to begin with.
We cannot dispute the fact that genetic makeup and family environments are situations that we are unable to control. Yet, they are also of primary importance in determining how well we perform in accordance with society's current benchmark for success. While hard work plays an integral part, its importance has been overstated.
At the end of the day, one's inherent intellect is a matter of genes and not hard work. Secondly, there is obviously going to be a difference between someone born in a stable, supportive family structure with the financial means to provide opportunities and someone who is born in poverty in a dysfunctional home. An overemphasis on meritocracy could create an environment whereby those who were born with better means and into better homes feel that they have somehow achieved their success all on their own and those who are born in poorer less stable homes are programmed into thinking that their lack of success is due to a lack of effort on their part.
This mode of thinking is not just manifestly inaccurate but is also damaging to society as a whole. The "haves" may feel that there is no responsibility on their part to share or help because it is the "fault" of the "have nots" that they have not achieved success, completely disregarding the element of good fortune which in reality contributes significantly to success. The problem with an over focus on meritocracy is that it completely disregards good luck and places too much responsibility on the individual for events that the individual has little or no control over.
For meritocracy to deliver the promise of equal opportunity for all, society needs to acknowledge that the majority of those who are deemed successful are successful because their environment helped them to succeed while those who have not been successful were let down by the environment they were born into and not because they were lazy or irresponsible. The government often throws in examples of scholars who have succeeded against all odds as examples of how meritocracy has worked but have these scholars succeeded because of the system? I doubt it. They succeeded in spite of the system and not because of it!
Besides, these examples are a needle in the haystack. What about the general average?
For society as a whole to truly benefit from this so-called meritocracy, the playing field has to be as equal as possible for the majority and that is what our current model of meritocracy does not provide. Arguably, it is a selfish meritocracy and not a system that aims for equality.