Moving beyond meritocracy?

MARCH 4 — Is Singapore a meritocracy? What does the word even mean? I guess in principle it means that people must succeed and achieve based largely on merit i.e. regardless of (or with as little reference as possible) to social status, geography, race etc.

Now in reality we know that everywhere in the world, social status — the lottery of birth — plays a large role in where you end up in life.

The connections you are born with, the resources your family can put into your education, the prosperity of your friends, relatives and neighbours make a big difference.

In Singapore, we say we have affordable education and systems that reward those who are willing to work, strive and win.

So, let’s simply accept that’s true. Singapore’s wealthy and powerful are who they are because they deserve it. Because they worked harder, got better grades, rose through the ranks in their places of work.

Then the aunties picking cans, the exhausted Uber/Grab driver who works two other jobs to ensure he can pay his mortgage and support his parents... the thousands of strugglers and outliers, well they deserve it.

Does the idea of meritocracy still hold as Singapore surges forward and more of its citizens are left behind?  — Picture from commons.wikimedia.org
Does the idea of meritocracy still hold as Singapore surges forward and more of its citizens are left behind? — Picture from commons.wikimedia.org

Now that just doesn’t seem right. Can it really be true that less successful people have no merit?

This rather obvious shortcoming of the common interpretation of meritocracy has been pointed out several times before and the government does seem to have softened its position.

More support has been introduced for lower income elders and education has become a little less focused on rankings and tests.

In recent parliamentary sittings, a number of MPs have also begun to raise the issue of the form or reform of our meritocracy. Ong Teng Koon, MP for the Marsiling GRC, in his response to the Budget pointed out that many workers (especially older workers) don’t have a tertiary or even a complete secondary education.

He raised the question as to what will happen to these thousands of less skilled workers as the economy becomes rapidly more competitive.

The reality is that Singapore is a knowledge economy. We no longer have the jobs in manufacturing that once absorbed hundreds of thousands of workers.  

Today a small number of highly-skilled employees can achieve a great deal which means a lot of people are going to need a lot more support to make it and to achieve a reasonable standard of living.

Nominated MP Kok Heng Leun went even further to argue that we should actively look to incorporate an element of equality into our meritocracy,

And this is an argument that cuts to the very heart of our nation.

Singapore has always eschewed the socialist quest of equality in favour of meritocracy. The argument being that the former would create a culture of entitlement and bloated governments that lead to underperformance and failure.

The failure of so many socialist experiments in Asia, Latin America and Africa vs the success of Singapore makes it clear that the government’s decisions have been broadly the right one.

But it does seem that we are reaching the limits of this model. 

To preserve basic harmony and a social contract that ensures millions aren’t left behind, we may have to consider positive discrimination (for low income households), welfare support for the unemployed and financial support for the elderly.

These ideas were anathema in Singapore just a decade ago. But if we imagine, for example, self-driving cars make taxi drivers redundant in the next few years is it not unfair to expect today’s drivers to receive some support until they are reskilled, retrained or retired?

But to do go down this path — the path of the European social democracies — would be an enormous change for our nation. Beyond parliament, citizens too must ask themselves: Is this what we want?

While the of idea of turning Singapore into a Norwegian-style welfare state -- with our citizenry supported actively by huge wealth funds and a range of benefits -- sounds appealing (and we do have the capital, and wealth funds/resources to support it), it is important to remember a lot of equality-based projects globally have gone badly wrong.

Our current system — while not perfect — has served us well.

But I think Singapore needs to decide what road we are on. Is it the road to meritocracy, equality or maybe it is time to carve out a different path?

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