Singapore national record holder, Soh Rui Yong. (Image from Run Society. Photo credit: Romaine Soh)

The exclusion of runner Soh Rui Yong from 2019 SEA Games disrupts Singapore’s beloved ideology of meritocracy

Meritocracy remains a key principle for recognising individuals in Singapore despite weakening faith in the ideology, says Minister of Education Ong Ye Kung, stressing that although meritocracy is ‘under siege’, it has yet to fail.

In recent years, the idea of meritocracy and its effectiveness has been debated due to its association with elitism, adding to the discussions around the social divide in Singapore society.

Speaking at the Raffles Institution’s (RI) 196th Founder’s Day ceremony on 27 July, Mr Ong defended the concept, saying “Even those who rail against meritocracy struggle to come up with a better system.”

He also noted that this doesn’t mean the system cannot be improve, noting that it isn’t just on the government but everyone in Singapore to “overcome the limitations of meritocracy and consciously fight against the ossification of social classes.”

In his speech, the minister also pointed out that the definition of merit should be broadened beyond just academic achievement.

Meritocracy only when it suits them

Now, the recent news of long-distance runner and two time SEA champion Soh Rui Yong being excluded from representing his country in this year’s SEA Games in the Philippines seems contradictory to Mr Ong’s insistence that meritocracy remains a key principle.

Mr Soh’s record speaks for itself, being the national record holder for 10,000m, half-marathon, and marathon events while also being the first Singaporeans to win two back-to-back gold medals in the SEA Game marathon.

But despite his capacity to bring home the gold, Mr Song was denied a chance to represent Singapore apparently due to his prior conflicts with the Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC).

In a statement, the SNOC said they denied Mr Soh’s nomination to represent Singapore in the 2019 SEA Games as “there have been numerous instances where Soh has displayed conduct that falls short of the standards of attitude and behaviour that the SNOC expects of and holds its athletes to, considering that they are held up and seen as representatives of the country and as examples to our sporting youth.”

These conflict include a warning by SNOC to Mr Soh for a breach of regulations relation to the promotion of personal sponsors on social media as well as another incident in which Mr Soh’s actions of cutting holds into his race vest before the 2017 SEA Games led to a loss of sponsor.

This year, Mr Soh was served a legal letter of demand by the SNOC to retract his accounts of what happened at the 2015 SEA Games marathon in which he had recounted how his fellow Singaporean runner Ashley Liew didn’t slow down after a route-related error left the leading group trailing behind. Mr Soh’s accounts contradicted SNOC’s view of the incident. In fact, SNOC had nominated Liew for an international award for the act of sportsmanship during that marathon.

However, even with those disagreements, doesn’t the SNOC’s decision run contrary to Mr Ong’s case for meritocracy and how it should work? Or is Singapore’s current brand of meritocracy merely for those to conform to the authority and agree to toe the line rather than for those who are capable and have a mind of their own?