Changing the Approach to Meritocracy in Singapore

Kat Stokes/Unsplash
Kat Stokes/Unsplash

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In the recent parliamentary sitting, Member of Parliament (MP), Wan Rizal Wan Zakariah talked about the lived realities of primary school students in Singapore as they scramble to compete in a rat-race, meritocratic system, where one’s success is attributed to their merits. Primary school students, he added, are expected to read and write by the age of 7 when they take their first step to formal education in Singapore.

Students without pre-school education struggle to keep up with the extensive curriculum in primary schools. Expectedly so, students who are able to fork out more financial resources to fund for their pre-school education are a step ahead over others that are not. This is an epitome of our so-called meritocratic system in Singapore.

Introduction to meritocracy

Meritocracy has always been the backbone of Singapore’s rhetoric and constantly reiterated in every aspect of our lives such as job opportunities and enrolment to schools. Meritocracy is defined as a reward system where individuals are awarded based on their own merits, theoretically, rendering the whole system fair and just. In theory, meritocracy is an idealistic concept aimed at minimising inequalities in Singapore but, reality starkly differs from this; Singapore perpetuates inequality in the name of meritocracy where we see individuals from better backgrounds with better resources attain better education, better jobs, and even better pay than individuals with relatively poorer background.

The prevailing narrative has been to uphold the values of meritocracy in all aspects of our lives despite obvious disparities between the privileged and underprivileged. As such, we often feel that inequalities that result from upholding meritocratic values go unaddressed by the state since ministers like Masagos Zulkifli believe that meritocracy works on the premise that individuals who achieve success give back to society and the underprivileged. The question then stands: is it in the prerogative of the rich to give back to the poor or can the state equalise opportunities, as suggested by MP Wan Rizal, by leveling the playing field from the get-go?

Interpretations of meritocracy

An important distinction that we should make is the definition of meritocracy since this will have a direct impact on the kind of results that will ensue; is Singapore a meritocratic system that creates equality in outcomes or equality of opportunities?

Rewarding type or rewarding effort?

Professor Donald Low coined two definitions of meritocracy: rewarding type and rewarding effort. Since rewards are tied to one’s abilities and achievements, he noted that the primary reason in adopting meritocracy is to motivate individuals to strive and be the best that they can be. This, he implied is positive.

Conversely, when rewards are tied to the wealth, connections or race, people engage in societally disruptive behaviour such as corruption and rent seeking where people channel more resources to unproductive activities to benefit themselves. Understanding the nuances in meritocracy instead of defining meritocracy as a single entity is important so that we can minimise the associated repercussions of it. We have to acknowledge that in Singapore at least, it appears that meritocracy rewards the right type of individuals and does not incentivise individuals to do better.

Consequences of different approach to meritocracy

When meritocracy rewards a particular type (wealth, connection or race) of individuals, these same individuals inherently believe that their success is attributed to their own merit, without looking at other factors. Similarly, individuals who fall through the crack in the meritocratic system are often dubbed as failures; we blame them for not working harder, for being lazy, and simply not trying hard enough.

A meritocratic system like Singapore that emphasises on sorting the best from the rest run into problems of channeling rewards to the former, encouraging struggling individuals to gain a competitive edge through non-meritocratic means.

Uneven playing field

Connections, parental backgrounds, and even starting positions begin to matter more and inequality persist. For example, in an education system like Singapore, students from higher socioeconomic status get preferential access to schools, higher concentration of good schools in affluent neighborhoods, and greater resources for enrichment and tuition classes. These resources are not readily available for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

Why then do we emphasize on creating the best and singling individuals who fail at competing in the meritocratic system that is inherently flawed?

Creating a pool of elites

Professor Donald Low surmised that meritocracy in Singapore aims to continuously create a pool of elites — the best and the brightest — because we genuinely believe that these individuals are the ones that create jobs for the rest. As such, more resources are channeled towards the elites. He described this effect as the trickle-down meritocracy; the state isn’t concerned with equality in outcomes as much as they are concerned with ensuring that talented individuals have the room to achieve and excel.

Conversely, meritocracy can be encouraged if it trickles up; meritocracy is only legitimate if it seeks to benefit the bulk of society in absolute and relative terms. A trickle-up meritocracy encourages the state to redistribute policies accordingly because they believe that different individuals have different starting points. As such, redistributive policies are initiated to kick-start competition on an equal footing.

What can we do?

Understanding that Singapore operates in a system where those without the right resources are disadvantaged in the race is important and vice versa. There is no single definition or entity of meritocracy and in fact, the different interpretations of it reinforces that we, as a society, should think critically.

Is the meritocracy in Singapore fair in the first place; do those from higher socioeconomic backgrounds get better chances than those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds? Meritocracy creates and breeds inequality and we should progress by being open and raw to acknowledge the differences. We should stop adopting meritocracy extensively since we are only reinforcing a utopian world which is unable to openly accept faults in our system. Only then can our society seek to find solutions to mitigate this.

 

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