Meritocracy in Singapore

It’s funny how oftentimes some words we had never really thought about suddenly make us reflect on topics and issues we’d never even considered.

A colleague recently sent me this interview in which DPM Tharman discusses something I’ve always taken for granted: meritocracy.

We’re all familiar with the notion of “meritocracy”; it’s a system in which people advance thanks to their own personal merit, whether it’s their expertise, their experience, or their natural abilities.

Singapore has always been proud of the fact that anyone who works hard can and will succeed. Similar to the notion of “American Dream”, we’re all raised with the basic idea that if we really want something, then we should work for it.

Which begs the question: if I don’t have what I want, does that mean I’m not working hard enough? If I can’t afford a house, a car, or children, does that mean I’m not really pushing myself to get them?

That’s when you end up with a torrent of follow-up questions: who’s to say if I’m working hard enough or not? Who decides? Using what criteria? What if I don’t want the same thing as everyone else? What if what I want isn’t something that can be “bought” or “owned”?

These may seem like silly or nit-picky questions to have, but they actually have an impact on the way society works; mainly because there’s a risk of putting everyone against each other:

“If I work harder than this guy, then I’ll have a bigger house than him, and I’ll be able to get it faster than him too!”. “If I neglect my personal life and spend all my time at the office, then one day I’ll be someone else’s boss!”. “Look at that guy, he doesn’t even have a car. He must not work hard enough!”.

By telling people that everything they have – or don’t have – is due to the amount of work, effort, or will they have, you’re basically telling them that it’s everyone for themselves.

Why would people help each other, if by doing so they think they’re losing out? Why would anyone strive to get to know their neighbour, if all they see in him is a competitor who’s out to out-work and out-succeed him?

Another negative side effect is the fact that we’re basically setting ourselves up to automatically stigmatise and chastise people we don’t consider “successes” by assuming that the situation they’re in is all their own fault.

If, for instance, I am a white-collar manager in a bank, and for me personal success means a high salary, a trophy wife, and a shiny red car, then I’ll see most everyone as a failure. Especially people in blue-collar professions who do all the jobs I consider “beneath me”. And especially anyone I consider to be “poor”.

Poverty, in this manager’s meritocratic mind, is the product of people’s own laziness or incapability to adapt. “What, you can’t go out and get a proper job like the rest of us? You’re lazy! You deserve to be a cleaner!”

Of course this is an exaggerated take on some people’s mind-sets, but the selfishness and rudeness I see every day around me shows me that people may have such thoughts deep inside them.

Such an attitude completely ignores the fact that poverty, exclusion, and suffering are not individually chosen states, but rather the product of complex social processes.

If someone is born in a humble household, chances are they’ll be expected to leave school at an earlier age and enter the workforce as soon as possible to help out with expenses. If someone leaves school earlier, the likelihood of accessing highly paid jobs diminishes significantly. Once one is stuck in the cycle of low-paying job, poverty, and debt, it’s very hard to get out of it, no matter how hard one works.

“Ah, but what about those success stories of people from poor backgrounds who became millionaires, or those that flunked out of University and went on to found huge companies?”, you may say.

Well, that’s exactly what they are: “success stories”. “Success”, because they are highly unlikely exceptions that turned out great despite unfavourable odds. They are not the norm, which is why they make headlines. “Stories”, because just like most rumours or urban legends, they are usually greatly exaggerated. Sure, Bill Gates flunked out of University, but he wasn’t from a poor household to begin with. Steve Jobs’ real talent was surrounding himself with talented individuals. Chinese and Russian millionaires make their money through very exclusive government contracts and very controlled public funds. Etc.

So what am I trying to say with all this?

Basically, that I agree with DPM Tharman: “meritocracy” as its been taught to us over the past 50 years is no longer relevant.

There are strong and unpredictable external forces at play in our lives, and more so in a highly capitalistic society such as ours. No matter how hard we may work, we may never get what we want. No matter how little others may struggle, they may always get things they don’t deserve.

Of course changing our economic system is out of the question; we can’t go back to bartering sheep and we can’t close ourselves to the external world. Even if we wanted to, it’d probably be technically impossible.

The only thing we can strive for is changing the way society looks at “merit”, “equality”, “success”, “failure”, “want”, and “need”.

It can’t be that hard to accept that we don’t all want or need the same things. It shouldn’t be too complicated to grasp that one man’s success is another man’s failure, and vice-versa.

So how about it? Let’s work on making nicer for everyone!


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