Meritocracy and its flaw

I consider meritocracy a “sacred cow” of the Singapore society. For the sake of clarity, allow me to define meritocracy as a system under which people are differentiated by their individual abilities. And by “abilities”, I refer to skills and characteristics displayed by an individual which are considered to be useful and beneficial by the ruling strata in society.

Undeniably, meritocracy accounts for a key component of what we can lay claim to as the “Singaporean identity”. As the conceptual underpinning of various institutions and mechanisms in society (such as the educational system, scholarships, the civil service, etc), it has provided some semblance of fairness and equality for all Singaporeans. The maxim for the defenders of meritocracy would be “equal opportunity for all”.

Over the course of this essay, I seek to highlight a flaw of meritocracy, particularly in the context of Singapore. However, before I begin, allow me to clarify that I do not deny that meritocracy does have its own merits too. As a scholar (albeit a poor one), I am a beneficiary of this system of meritocracy too. Nonetheless, I stand by my position that meritocracy is flawed, and while such flaws may appear to be insignificant as of now, if we allow these failings of the system to persist, they would eventually culminate in severe social inequity, which is particularly ironic, seeing as that the purpose of meritocracy is to level the playing field in society.

The main contention that I can post against meritocracy in Singapore would be what I’d term an “ideological gap”. What do I mean by this?

I would give that meritocracy ensures equal opportunity to all. A system of meritocracy is able to provide the same testing ground to all, regardless of your family background, your wealth, etc. In other words, a system of meritocracy only assesses an individual based on his or her skills and abilities. This is, after all, a common sense conception of what we know by “meritocracy”. So, in this case, meritocracy seems to arrive at its end goal of ensuring social equity, since society only rewards people based on their demonstration of certain traits and competencies and ignores all other irrelevant factors. Through meritocracy, both a rich and poor person stand equal chances of being rewarded by society if they are able to show that they deserve it, and society would reward the poor person if the poor person proves worthy. Similarly, society would not hesitate to reward the rich person if the rich person proves worthy too.

It would almost seem as if meritocracy is the best answer to other flawed systems, such as nepotism, autocracy, plutocracy. Perhaps it is. But allow me to first highlight a crucial weakness in meritocracy.

I would first point out that “equal opportunities for all” is insufficient to ensure social equity. The dogma “equal opportunities for all” falls short of what it claims to achieve. Consider the case where you have a poor person and a rich person, and society would proclaim that it offers a job in the civil service to both the rich and the poor; and the job would be rewarded to whoever proves himself to be more competent for that job. This seems consistent with the meritocracy that we claim to practise.

However, what if we postulate further conditions: what if the poor was helping out at his parents’ hawker store and does not hear of this supposed “equal opportunity”? Or what if this piece of news was announced through televised media, and the poor person is unable to afford a television? The poor person would not even know of this opportunity, much less say be able to enjoy this supposed “equal opportunity for all”.

Let’s assume further that this poor person is as skilled and competent as the rich. It would seem then, given that this poor person lacks access to this “equal opportunity”, meritocracy fails because even though the poor person is as worthy of the job as the rich person, the rich person got the job, not because the rich person was more worthy of it, but simply because the rich person was better able to access this opportunity.

The reason for this is that in order for equal opportunities to be ensured for all in society, the pre-requisite would be that people in society enjoy equal access to these opportunities. And this is what I term the “ideological gap”.

To put it down in more concrete terms, what do I mean by “equal access”? It simply means that people are able to receive information of opportunities provided by meritocratic institutions and mechanisms, and they are able to then act on these information using the same methods.

My position then is that equality of access is an unfulfilled pre-requisite for the Singaporean version of meritocracy. The implications of not ensuring equality of access while providing supposed “equal opportunities for all” is that those who are better positioned will have an advantage in accessing and making use of these opportunities. To put it more bluntly, those who come from a wealthier and richer family benefit more from a system of meritocracy than those who come from a poorer background. This is a self-defeating flaw in this system of meritocracy, because then, meritocracy is no longer blind to the family background of each individual and it would seem that the benefits one reaps from a system of meritocracy has a positive correlation with the wealth one’s family possesses.

And I think it is only reasonable that we realise that this problem of an ideological gap eventually leads to a problem of elitism, of class stratification, which is, as I write this out, still a persistent talking point in our society. The inequality in access advantages the rich over the poor, which would eventually lead to the consolidation of power in the hands of the rich. I suppose this is what we are witnessing in our society of today.

In our pursuit of equal opportunities for all, I think we have also forgotten that opportunities do not come to people on magically levitating plates; people need to know and people need to be able to act on these opportunities in order for these opportunities to be considered equal.

However, this is not to say that we should redistribute wealth in society to the extent that no single person is richer or poorer than the other. It wouldn’t be realistic, and personally, I am averse to degenerative egalitarianism of this sort. I am, however, of the opinion that we need to be cognizant of the fact that meritocracy may not work out the way we often want it to be. And I am saying that this is not an one-off occurrence or a fluke accident; I am saying that mistakes of this sort happen on a consistent basis and it the result of an ideological gap which we need to patch up because we are not cognizant of its very existence.

Nonetheless, I still place a certain premium on meritocracy. By far, it’s the fairest system that we could possibly implement. But that does not excuse us from wilfully ignoring the flaws with it. Just because we can’t ensure equal access for all, doesn’t mean we don’t try.

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13 Responses to “Meritocracy and its flaw”

  1. [...] Discourse – Blog of The Not So Sensitive New Age Monk: Finding love in SG Inc – A Poor Scholar: Meritocracy and its flaw – The boy who knew too much: The uncooperative banks of [...]

  2. you are rather confused in your position on meritocracy. you claimed to see its flaws, but nevertheless, you have no shame to embrace it for the all the benefits you can milk out of it because…you are still a deserving poor scholar aren’t you – your attempt at self depreciation i suppose?

    put it this way,every meaningful endeavors of men will have its evil. the evil in meritocracy is that it is a breeding ground for megalomaniacs, self absorbed and self serving beasts. the world in conflict and all the human carnages are caused by mostly people who rose from the meritocratic system. no doubt there are good that comes out of it. but good has not been good to our weaker brethren has it?

    and there lies the evil of meritocratic system you failed to address.

    and the evil is in how we treat those weaker than us since none are born equal. so should the weak and disadvantage end up being lowly paid servants and doormats to self serving elites?

    i think not!

  3. A Poor Scholar Says:

    All human constructs are susceptible to flaws of one type or another. I think most, if not all, people can agree on this. And I’d suppose meritocracy is not exempt from this either.

    This, of course, begs the question: on what grounds would one persist in one’s support for meritocracy, despite its flaws? The simple answer lies in the simple weighing of benefits versus the detriments of a meritocratic system, such as the one we used in Singapore. This is to say, just because meritocracy is flawed, as I would acknowledge it to be, doesn’t warrant the complete rejection of the system.

    I will not deny that meritocracy often leads to the formation of an elite social class, like what we are currently observing in the Singapore society. In fact, the propensity for meritocracy to lapse into elitism was the first major challenge leveled against such a system made by Michael Young’s in his book “Rise of the Meritocracy”.

    Elitism brings along with it a whole set of problems, ranging from an increasing income disparity to severe social inequity. And being a poor scholar, I do experience these problems from time to time. But what is more important is that, keeping in mind that it is impossible to have a wholly egalitarian society, the rift that has arisen between the two ends of the society seems to be bent crossing the boundary of what we would consider to be “tolerable inequity”. These are problems which we are going to face in the near future, if we remain stubbornly blind to this “ideological gap” which I’ve pointed out above.

    In other words, I fully acknowledge the problems that meritocracy can create.

    On the other hand, lest I be accused of being lop-sided in my argument, I think we also have to realise that meritocracy is probably the best that we can have at this point in time, until the next John Rawls comes along and gifts us with a much better system. Simply put, compare what would you rather have: meritocracy, autocracy, plutocracy or nepotism? Keeping in mind the failings of meritocracy, the fairest system, as it appears to me, would be meritocracy. At the very least, meritocracy provides us with some semblance of equal opportunities for all; suffice to say, alternative systems fail to even fulfill such a basic characteristic of social equity.

    As Churchill ever so famously quipped:”Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” I think the same principle applies to meritocracy.

  4. the better system would be one that denies them absolute power. incidentally, if you think about it, autocracy,plutocracy and nepotism are close cousins or sisters of meritocracy.

    tolerable equity? says who? the janitor? the factory workers? the regular joes and janes who are struggling to keep themselves afloat? the ones that are mouthing ‘tolerable’ are the ones with their mouths full!

    and the not so famous quip: democracy if practiced correctly is in fact the best form of government except, meritocracy would derail it!

  5. A Poor Scholar Says:

    In an ideal world, we would be able to construct a society in which social equity is the norm, and all are equal on the very basis that each one of us is a human being.

    Sadly, we do not exist in an ideal world. This world we live, this society we live in, is flawed and this is the reality that we need to recognise. Inequity will be permanent as long as human beings are diverse and heterogeneous.

    Even in a functioning Communist state, which is often hailed as a model of society that best guarantees social equity, inequity is still bound to exist; perhaps in the different status enjoyed by members and non-members of the ruling Communist party.

    Much less say ours. And it’d be fallacious to simply discard inequity as the malaise of society. Whether we like it or not, inequity powers the progress of society. When a poor child wishes to break out of the poverty cycle and become as rich as his friends, he knows that he needs to study hard, end up with a respectable university degree, and get a well-paying job. If the child manages to accomplish it, the value and benefits he has created for himself is substantial; the value and benefits he has created for society will be even greater.

    But eventually, we need to draw a line. A line which tells us where inequity is too extreme for it to have any positive effect on society. And this is the line which I am referring to. I don’t think I am in any position to tell you where this line lies, but I think the signs would be clear if the inequity is so severe that it no longer creates any sort of positive effects for society.

  6. the ideal world is now. the social philosophers of yesteryears do not have the benefit of 21 century technological advantages to bring about this ‘ideal world’. so are our elites hampered by historical knowledge or living in the past and therefore, unable to break into this ‘ideal world’?

    inequity ravages the progress of society when the gulf widens between those with plenty and those barely surviving. thus, the progress that you claim is only superficial and not widespread enough. even then, progress at what costs? many advance countries are not seeing the benefits of higher learnings in their people because, there are simply not enough jobs created for graduates. so how equitable can that be? does equity now falls on the dice?

    communist failed for many other reasons. we are not going back there, thank you.

  7. A Poor Scholar Says:

    I think you are missing my point.

    Firstly, I agree that severe social inequity does not fuel social progress. So no disagreement there.

    Secondly, I don’t see how your point about a lack of jobs for university graduates relates to social equity.

    In fact, it would seem to be that it proves social equity – economically developed nations are able to ensure that majority of their population receive a minimum of tertiary education and thus, with education as the great leveler, the poor are empowered to break out of their poverty cycle. With most, of not all, of their people enjoying unhindered access to higher education, it would seem that the social playing field is leveled. How far one would then go in one’s life then depends on one’s abilities, which is, honestly, beyond the government’s control.

    I think a low rate of jobs creation for an increasing number of university graduates is not a problem that pertains to social inequity – I think it has more to do with the economic policies of the government, no?

    Thirdly, this I do not understand – how are technological advancements supposed to assist in the construction of this ‘ideal society’? I suppose you are referring to more recent inventions, like the computer and the internet (I don’t think the Large Hadron Collider could be the elusive key to utopia right?). I’m not really sure how the computer and the internet are supposed to help us construct this ‘ideal society’.

  8. yes, partly due to economic policies. but if you are looking at SIN success to substantiate your argument on education as the ‘great leveler’ of society, i think that’s a bit naive.for the sake of argument, what if we managed to educate all our citizens to tertiary level? our kind of economy requires plenty of support from low skill workers, who is going to fill those posts? forever rely on foreigners? you must be kidding right? would our tertiary educated fill production work etc? you must be kidding again right? what great leveler are you talking about? it all boils down to the dice.if at the end of the day, more are just getting by, we are in trouble because, those just barely surviving may not weather more bust than boom in our economy.

    i am skeptical about our economic and political model. can it be transplanted elsewhere? it maybe too premature for such presumptuousness. china, who mirrored us, is paying a hefty social price and the unraveling maybe their unmaking too – for good or for worse, depending whose report you are reading.

  9. [...] September – Blog of The Not So Sensitive New Age Monk: Finding love in SG Inc – A Poor Scholar: Meritocracy and its flaw – The boy who knew too much: The uncooperative banks of [...]

  10. Re: equal access to opportunies

    Can you clarify further on what you meant by access to opportunies? Going by your example, I assume that the poor hawker’s child is going through a state education. With various streamings going on at various stage, not to mention the Cambridge examinations, I hardly think the poor child is going to be ‘unnoticed’ by his or her teachers and school administrators if he or she truly shines academically.

    There are faults to meritocracy. Just that I can’t find it in your essay above.

  11. A Poor Scholar Says:

    Hrm. Allow me to first draw an analogy to exemplify this relation that, I think, exists between what I term ‘equal access’ and ‘equal opportunities’.

    Not all rights exist by themselves in a vacuum. More often than not, rights are built upon one another. For instance, the right to life can be considered the most foundational right of all, since without life, you can’t really enjoy your other rights.

    Similarly, ‘equal access’ here is a necessary condition to be fulfilled before we can claim that we provide ‘equal opportunities’. In other words, if we are unable to ensure that everyone has equal access to opportunities, we cannot claim that we are providing equal opportunities. I think this is the role that equal access to opportunities plays in ensuring that equal opportunities are provided under a meritocratic system.

    To apply it to the instance of the poor hawker’s child: indeed, we can assume that the child is undergoing state education, and the State attempts to level the playing field for all by providing affordable and subsidised education for all citizens. This all good and well.

    However, if you think carefully about it, you realise that there is a problem here. First, let’s assume that the poor hawker’s child demonstrates a certain ability in academia amounting to a certain degree, and we we will just term this ability as X here. If we juxtapose the poor hawker’s child alongside the child of an oil tycoon who demonstrates the exact same X, I would think that it is far more likely for the child of an oil tycoon to fare better under the educational system, as compared to the poor hawker’s child. This is because the oil tycoon’s child is better equipped and position to access these opportunities which are provided to both the rich and poor child under the meritocratic system. Immediately, we realise that, for instance, the rich child’s mind is better focused on academia because he does not have to worry about tomorrow’s meal and other things like that; and these are the precise concerns which would affect the poor child’s mind and distract the poor child from his studies.

    Given that a child who is better focused on his studies is more likely to do better in the examinations, a better score in the examinations would also mean that the rich child is better able to access opportunities provided to him as a result of his outstanding performance in his studies, whereas the poor child is denied such opportunities because he doesn’t make the grade. And let’s keep in mind that both the rich and the poor child are similar in terms of the type of ability that they demonstrate and the degree to which they demonstrate it.

    How is this then a problem with meritocracy? This is a problem because meritocracy puts forth this claim: given that two individuals demonstrate the same type of ability and the same degree of it, the meritocratic system has no reason to reward one and not the other; the meritocractic system either rewards neither or it rewards both. And there is an inconsistency here, if we apply the above example I’ve raised: if the meritocratic system claims to reward the equally talented, why is it that the rich child has access to opportunities that the poor child doesn’t, even though both of them demonstrate X?

    In this case, meritocracy fails to live up to what it has promised because even though it has provided equal opportunities, equal access hasn’t been ensured, and as a result, there exists an inconsistency between the claim put forth by meritocracy and how meritocracy actually works out in real life.

    I hope this clarifies things.

  12. It does thank you.

    You are right. They do not have access to the same opportunities in that they do not enjoy the same socio-economic background, privileges or lack off etc. So not surprising to see most prestigious scholarships going to the middle and middle-upper crust of the society.

    When I see the below

    However, what if we postulate further conditions: what if the poor was helping out at his parents’ hawker store and does not hear of this supposed “equal opportunity”? Or what if this piece of news was announced through televised media, and the poor person is unable to afford a television? The poor person would not even know of this opportunity, much less say be able to enjoy this supposed “equal opportunity for all”.

    I intepret it as, the poor do not know the opportunites avaliable to them. Which of course not really the case, the poor in Singapore knows exactly where and what they need to do to get ahead. It’s a matter of whether you are in the first lane or the 15th lane before the flag is waved.

  13. A Poor Scholar Says:

    Oh right. I apologise if my lack of clarity has led to any confusion. :)

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