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.