The concept of meritocracy, in which the ruling class is selected by merit or ability instead of sheer wealth or status by birth, has been used by the Singapore elite to justify the “gross inequality” that exists in the Republic, said People’s Voice Party (PVP) founding chief Lim Tean in a Facebook video posted on Sun (25 Aug).
In the first video of a three-part response to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s National Day Rally speech on 18 Aug, Lim argued that a negative side effect of a meritocratic system is that Singapore society tends to “celebrate a certain kind of academic achievement” and in turn “devaluing other talents that may lead to success”.
As a result, he opined, “too many of our political and business leaders are, indeed, smug and arrogant”.
“You can see this in the growing assumption amongst the political and business elite … Instead of recognising that their success is enabled by the masses who make up our nation, they tell themselves the lie that they are self-made, that their profits are driven exclusively by their own talent and judgement,” said Lim.
The lawyer also highlighted that the word “meritocracy” itself was coined by Michael Young, a British Labour Party Member of Parliament, in 1958 in a book called The Rise of Meritocracy.
The book, said Lim, paints a grim hypothetical scenario in which Britain in the future will be characterised by “great suffering and injustice” in which “intelligence and merit have become the central tenets of society”.
Meritocracy, he illustrated, will eliminate “previous divisions of social class” and instead create “a society divided between a merited power-holding elite and an underclass of the less merited”.
“The grand irony is that young intended to conjure a grim dystopia, not a utopia,” he argued.
Lim added that Young intended The Rise of Meritocracy to be a satirical piece “meant to be a warning” against what might happen if those who are judged to have merit of a particular kind “harden into a new social class without room in it for others”.
“How ironic, then, that for decades the PAP [People’s Action Party] have tried to drum into us this concept of ‘meritocracy’ when the person who had invented the term attached no positive connotations to the concept,” Lim said, adding that all Young had for the concept was “alarm and disdain”.
Lim also underlined other consequences that may take place in a society that relies heavily on the concept of meritocracy, such as the following:
- Only “a certain kind of merit” would be “celebrated” and “promoted” by the establishment via “a scoring system designed to favour the children of the privileged”, which will likely mean that meritocracy will only mirror to “the class hierarchy it supposedly replaced”, and;
- Those at the apex of “a society which considered itself meritocratic” will “inevitably end up smug and arrogant” as they may believe that they have earned and deserved “every luxury of their status” – according to Lim, Young predicted “the emergence of something like the divine right of kings” where meritocrats “would shrug their shoulders at the poor” instead of “recognising the obligations owed by all of us to society”.
Lim further charged that “worst of all, many Singaporeans are acutely aware that under the PAP government, there is no such thing as meritocracy”.
“There have been untold charts, diagrams, visual graphics showing how connected and convoluted the positions of power are in the Singapore elite system – husbands, wives, fathers, daughters …
“Connection after connection are found across numerous positions of power and influence in our nation,” he alleged, adding that in Singapore, “it is who you, not what you know, that matters”.
In order for a meritocracy to live up to its ideals, Lim argued, a meritocracy must comply with two principles, namely:
- The most capable person must be selected to do the task that needs to be carried out, and;
- There must be a process that ensures that performance is rewarded and failure punished.
However, Lim alleged that such is not the case in Singapore, as he cited the example of how Singapore’s national shipping company Neptune Orient Lines (NOL) was sold to a French shipping company after being “helmed for many years by incapable leaders which resulted in massive losses”.
“Within a year of taking over NOL, the French company turned operations around and started making profits,” he said.
“We have the same story with our MRT, which is continuously helmed by unqualified people resulting in frequent breakdowns and inconvenience to our commuters … Our ministers never have to take responsibility and resign, even when there are disgraceful episodes such as major health data breaches and multiple deaths of our National Servicemen,” Lim charged, adding that “in Taiwan, the defence minister resigned after one soldier died in peacetime training”.
“It is a case of the elites and the establishment protecting its own people – again, the very danger that Michael Young warned us about in this flawed concept of meritocracy,” he opined.
He called upon Singaporeans to work together with PVP towards a “fairer, more equal and decent society” in which “the worth of every Singaporean is valued and every drop of Singaporean talent is developed”, as opposed to “continuing with the delusion that we live in a meritocratic society”.
“We in the People’s Voice [Party] are the champions of the middle class and all those who aspire to the middle class,” he stressed.
Meritocracy today has given rise to “structural and cultural conditions that reproduce inequality”: NUS LKYSPP’s Global-is-Asian
Global-is-Asian, a digital publication by the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP), observed in Nov last year that while meritocracy in Singapore has “created a large middle-class” via “upward social mobility” among the majority of Singaporeans, the system also appeared to have given rise to “structural and cultural conditions that reproduce inequality”.
Citing a report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), in which it was revealed that 46 per cent of disadvantaged students in Singapore were attending “disadvantaged schools” in 2015 compared to 41 per cent in 2009, Global-is-Asian argued that this is an indication of an uneven playing field in terms of public education in Singapore.
“Disadvantaged schools” refer to schools in the bottom 25 per cent of the student population, and students from low-income socioeconomic backgrounds in such schools “face the disadvantage of not having access to the best resources”, according to Global-is-Asian.
Families who can afford to make greater investments in their children’s academic and extracurricular activities clearly have a greater advantage compared to those who do not, given that academic competition in Singapore is highly intense.
“The Institute of Policy Studies’ (IPS) Study on Social Capital in Singapore shows that societal divides lie less along race or religion, and more along class.
“For example, on average, Singaporeans who live in public housing have fewer than one friend who lives in private housing. Additionally, those who attend elite schools also tend to have fewer friends in non-elite schools, and vice versa,” Global-is-Asian noted.
Quoting Education Minister Ong Ye Kung, the LKYSPP publication pointed out that “the paradox of meritocracy lies in the fact that the more it works, the more it looks like systemic unfairness, as a growing upper-middle class means that poorer Singaporeans see their opportunities diminished”.
“The reason why this occurs could lie in the principle of meritocracy itself. If one succeeds, they are perceived to have worked hard. Conversely, it is assumed that if one fails, it is because of a lack of effort. This leads people to disregard individual circumstances that may hinder one from succeeding in a one-size-fits-all education system,” according to Global-is-Asian.
This mindset, as Lim Tean and Global-is-Asian both argued, extends to Singapore’s leadership, as ministers tend to be selected from “a relatively small pool of those considered the cream of the crop, and salaries are amongst the highest in the world”.
“In Singapore’s early years this may have allowed only the most talented to rise to these positions. However, as Professor [Kenneth Paul] Tan explains [in Singapore: Identity, Brand, Power], Singaporeans today express discomfort at the ministers’ million-dollar-salaries and how public service motivations are now equated with the ‘profit motive’ of the private sector,” according to Global-is-Asian.