This post has nothing to do with the political ideas series that I’ve been doing. Instead, I’d like to take this transitional phase from ancient to medieval political thoughts as an opportunity to “take a break”. Due to circumstances, I recently came across this new reading by Dr Kenneth Paul Tan – a local professor who is relatively well known in the academic field of political science. This set me off on a research into Singapore’s meritocracy and hence the formulation of this blog post.
The Dichotomy of Equality and Efficiency
A dichotomy is analogous to a string being pulled on both ends, with 2 forces pulling in opposite direction. Hence:
More equality = Less efficiency
Less equality = more efficiency
The reason for such a dichotomy is that:
More equality = less motivation to work hard because people generally work hard to become more well-off than others = less efficiency
From this word equation, we can see how there is this fundamental conflict between the 2 outcomes, which is historically and ideologically accurate because the communist – an ideological leaning towards the striving of equality – Soviet Union fell in 1991 due to economic inefficiency. Today, the capitalist western world – which is ideologically leaning towards the striving of efficiency – is suffering from chronic income disparity, causing political backlashes from the disgruntled middle and lower class against the upper class. This is the main force driving the wave of populism in the USA and Europe today. This dichotomy, however and theoretically, can be resolved in a meritocracy.
Definition of Meritocracy– A system that rewards individuals with social, economic and even political accolades and rewards based on merit.
Meritocracy as the “reconciling factor” between equality and efficiency
Meritocracy is lauded as the panacea that marries the two historically conflicting outcomes of equality and efficiency. However, this requires a revamped of expectation on the side of equality.
It is Equity, not Equality
When we strive for equality, we are striving for an outcome; an outcome where everyone is equally well-off. Efficiency is also an outcome, hence it is not surprising that these 2 concepts clash in a zero-sum game / dichotomy. To resolve this, we can introduce a paradigm shift of equality into equity – a shift of focus from outcome / end-point, to start-point – while maintaining the fairness that equality qualifies for. Equality is about everyone being equally well-off in the end. Equity is about everyone having the same amount of resources – without anyone having an advantage over each other – in the beginning, in other words, a level playing field and equal opportunity. This is arguably fairer because we are all born with different sets of resources and genetic disposition. This meant that some of us have a natural advantage over others. This can be illustrated in the picture below:
Assuming that all three men are of the same age, the first guy from the left is taller due to genetic reasons. This isn’t very fair as the shortest guy did not choose to be short, he was born with it. Hence, equality is an outdated benchmark for fairness. A level playing field is fundamentally the better approach to ensure fairness. Humanity has undergone almost a century of an ideological Cold War to realize that we must do something about the 2 irreconcilable outcomes of equality and efficiency that divide us. This has led to the widespread recognition that we must strive for equity rather than equality. So, just to be clear, meritocracy does not actually resolve the dichotomy of efficiency and equality. Instead, it is a solution that seems to do so because we have redefined what is considered fair in society, because we accepted equity as a benchmark instead of equality.
Mechanism of Meritocracy that makes it seem like the reconciling factor
Meritocracy marries efficiency with equity by being the social elevator. The principle of meritocracy is simple: reward hard work only. Theoretically, by doing so, people will work hard to fulfill their best potential. With a proper criteria-based system to measure the best performance of individuals – in Singapore, we use the education system- we can then identify the best men for each job, thus allowing the economy to allocate human resources efficiently. At the same time, the idea that meritocracy rewards hard work exclusively has the egalitarian undertone that disregards race, religion, ethos, height etc. This seeming disregard of static factors that are out of individual’s direct control and the rewarding of hard work instead gives us the perception that meritocracy can produce the outcome of equity. All in all, meritocracy can, ideally, marry equity and efficiency, ending the historically long ideological conflict between the capitalists and the socialists.
Reality: Equity is an illusion in Meritocracy Today
Equity, as mentioned above, is about leveling the playing field for all individuals in a meritocracy. However, maintaining a level playing field for everyone is a tall order in today’s reality, although this might change as further technological progresses are made in future. The following are advantages that the governments, with a particular focus on Singapore’s government, can either do nothing about or are challenges faced by the governments.
Advantage #1: Genetic Disposition and Talent
This is pretty straightforward. Yao Ming being both a basketball legend and one of the tallest man is not pure coincidence. Popular song artists such as Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift are not “pretty” and famous out of coincidence. I am not discrediting the efforts of these people, as I have no right to do so. But rather, I am stating the reality that their successes are combinations of efforts and genetic advantages and talent -Yes, talent, some people are just born more talented than others, that is also an unfair disadvantage. There is no use denying that their genetic advantages and talent prove to be an edge that aid their success. Meritocracy is incapable of distinguishing talent and genetic dispositions from hard work, hence it ends up awarding all three rather than just hard work alone. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t anyone’s fault. The point I’m trying to drive through is that there is a limit to how much the government can do to level the playing field. Until the social mores can shift to become ethically tolerant of the use of gene-editing technology, I sincerely believe that true equity, even in a successful meritocracy, can only be an illusion at best.
Advantage #2: Family’s Wealth
This can be explained through the observation of the poverty cycle in a country where poverty is profound. In a system of meritocracy, there are winners and losers. The winners get to escape from poverty or advance to higher social classes, the losers will not gain anything. All these sounds fair and justified until you realized that social mobility isn’t happening much at all. Why? Because the poor are malnourished, undereducated, and are forced to work at a young age due to family circumstances. The richer ones do not have such issues, giving them the distinct advantage of conducive environment to perform over their poorer counterpart.
If meritocracy is taken too far without addressing the unfair advantage #2, the meritocratic system becomes a justification for the winners, who presume that they are more hardworking and dedicated than the poor, to refuse help to the poor as “they are too lazy to help themselves”. This is, as many Singaporeans will call it, elitism. Elitism is dangerous because it creates an inter-class tension that would at best create political instability, and at worst becomes a precursor to a violent revolution – the type that Karl Marx and Dr Kenneth Paul Tan had prophesized. On the bright side, the government can actually do something about this as wealth, unlike talent and genetic disposition, is fluid and is within the government’s jurisdiction. This is done so through redistribution of income, imposing less tax on and providing more social welfare programs for the poor while doing the opposite for the rich. These are robinhood policies that are in the government’s toolbox and thus the perils of elitism can be contained if there is a political will to do it.
Narrow Meritocracy in Singapore
With a meritocratic system that narrowly defines academic qualifications as the measurement of hard work and dedication, many others who are naturally untalented or dispassionate in the academic fields are inevitably alienated. Albert Einstein once said:
“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree. It will live its whole life believing it is stupid”
The fact that different people have different passions and different talents in different fields suggests that a meritocratic system that only awards one form of talent is not equitable.
The Choice, the Dilemma
The Singapore government did not adopt a narrow form of meritocracy arbitrarily or based on any elitist-based conspiracy theory, but rather; it was a difficult choice made from a dilemma.
The Dilemma between the 2 kinds of fairnesses when choosing to standardize or not
Standardization is a practical apparatus used to level the playing field as much as possible to ensure equity. If we do not standardize the way we measure hardwork and dedication, it becomes very tricky to determine who is better than who and thus who should get more reward. For instance, we use 2 separate criterias of academic performance and artistic talents to measure hardwork and dedication in a meritocracy. Let’s say we have student A who scores 78% in his academic exam and student B who scores 90% in his art assessment. Who deserves more reward? Instinctively, you would say B but is that fair? There’s different exam standards here. The academic field may have a bigger pool of students, making it competitive while the arts field may only have a handful of students, making it less competitive. What if, student A put in more hours of work than student B, but was bogged down by the competitiveness of the academic bell curve? Isn’t that inequitable since the playing fields are not leveled? The choice of one particular form of criteria in Singapore’s meritocracy – some call it narrow meritocracy – is therefore a choice made out of the mindset to make meritocracy work the best that it can be given our limitations. Of course, this choice of one criteria may still be disagreed by some nonetheless as they value the fairness in not “judging a fish by its ability to climb a tree” more than the fairness of having a standardized, hence level playing field. As a founding father of a nation, you had to make the hard choice between one of these fairnesses, there’s no way of getting both back then or even in our current reality. No matter which choice you make, there will be haters, and our founding fathers made the choice to standardize and streamline educational qualifications as the main form of social elevator because they believed that it will work better for the survival of a Singapore that was not meant to be. If our founding fathers were here today to look back at how far we’ve gone as a country, I don’t believe they will say that they’d made the wrong choice.
Elitism in Singapore by Dr Kenneth Paul Tan
Despite my obvious defence of our founding fathers’ collective choice to adopt a “narrow meritocracy”, there remains the profound problem of elitism in Singapore. According to the 2008 paper, Meritocracy and Elitism in a Global City: Ideological Shifts in Singapore, by Dr Kenneth Paul Tan: Elitism has already taken root in Singapore. He cited examples such as the infamous blog entry of Wee Shu Min. The blog entry revealed the starkly elitist viewpoint of the teenager. This drew public outcry, especially given her background of having the president of a government-linked company as her father and she possessed educational qualifications that suggested her potential entry into PAP. He also justified in the same paper that Singapore became an administrative state where the public service held power over the parliament, with some chiefs of public service holding multiple directorship positions – a political hegemony that raised the eyebrows of critics like him. He also observed how elitism is a negative force that’s corrupting our society through examples such as the NKF scandal in 2005. The scandal revealed the corruption of the charity organization where only a meager portion of the donation goes into truly helping the kidney patients. A significant portion of the donation was siphoned out to meet the lavish spending habits of the executive officer, T.T Durai. In essence, he was arguing that elitism has taken root and is already beginning to corrupt our society. Most importantly, he warned that the facade that the elites are building up to legitimize themselves through Meritocracy is a facade that is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain than ever due to globalization. He was calling for a shift in mindset of the political elites before they face political backlashes. True enough, 3 years later, the 2011 General Election saw the greatest loss in number of parliamentary seats by the PAP since Singapore’s independence.
Shift in mindset of the PAP
Probably because of the significant loss they’ve incurred in 2011, PAP has shifted its mindset to some extent. Initially, they were technocratic leaders who run the country like a business, like an administrative state, championing the idea that they must do what is right, not what is popular. This ethos led the government to be “prudent” in social spending. This was where the government was lacking in terms of the Robinhood policies that can be used to keep elitism under control. Although the progressive tax system was already in place, it wasn’t enough. Singapore healthcare schemes such as medisaves and retirement schemes such as the CPF made Singaporeans responsible for their own health and retirement, alleviating huge fiscal burden on the government which are otherwise borne by governments in the western world. According to a report by Asian Development Bank, Singapore spent only 3.5% of its GDP on social welfare programs in 2009- one of the lowest in the developed world. Although prudent policies can effectively cultivate good habits and accountability in Singaporeans, it also obscured the government from the fact that the people of lower income are not experiencing an equitable environment that can facilitate their social mobility. Although it may be true that, when compared to other countries, our low spendings in these areas have paradoxically led to better standards of healthcare, suggesting that the policies of accountability over welfarism creates maximum efficiency; we must go beyond comparison with other countries to solve the issue of elitism that has taken root in our own society. In 2013, the government’s social spending rose to 14% of GDP and it continues to increase till today. In recent years, the government has adopted a consultative approach towards policy-making, actively promoting platforms such as REACH to allow for public discourse on government policies. The most evident use of this platform can be seen by the public dissent recorded in the REACH forum in response to the hike in water price. The Prime Minister encouraged such discussions and seek to raise awareness and have proper democratic exchange with the public to explain the government’s concerns and also address the citizens’ concerns. This emphasis on the consultative approach signified the recognition of the PAP that they no longer have the monopoly over knowledge anymore; and that it true because Singaporeans are now generally more educated and globalization has made us better informed citizens. After 6 years of shift in mindset by government, is it safe to say that our society has uprooted elitism? The answer is no, because it takes more than just a shift in government policies to change the society. Besides, changes made are understandably gradual, especially structural ones. Our education system is still much too focused on grades. Good grades, in our society, is almost synonymous with a virtue. This is dangerous because then the ones with good grades are seen and see themselves as morally superior, creating elitist mindsets. However, changes are implemented gradually. New education ministers are rolling out changes such as the revamped of the PSLE scoring system and the ministers are at least on the right mindset that we should not take the glorification of grades too far. Recently, the government also mandated the fixed reserve of affiliated schools to students without affiliations. Even in the public service where it is often accused of being the spawning ground for elitism, the government is calling for more compassion within the institution, which can be one of the social antidotes for elitism. Shift in social mores often come long after government policies, that is the natural law of human society. Hence, 4 years may still be too early to conclude that elitism has been uprooted from our society. But we can at least conclude that the PAP has heard Singaporeans voices through their votes in 2011 and has shifted their mindset to fight against elitism. The moral courage to purge elitism from their own ranks, however, remains to be seen.
Warning against populism
I believe in all things good as a balance between 2 extremes, aka the Golden Mean as advised by Aristotle when he talked about virtues. From this episode, I see that the government has shifted from the political right – where it is focused on prudent spending, encouraging freedom and independence in the citizens, and thus the efficiency aspect of Meritocracy – towards the left – where it is more focused on helping the needy ones in the society, fairness, thus the equity aspect of meritocracy. Both are, in my opinion, analogous to the rational and emotional sides of a person. A person who is too rational can be cold, immoral and disoriented while a person who is too emotional can be unstable and self-destructive. On one hand, a government that veers too far to the right is much like a system where the people are just cogs in a machine. On the other hand, a government that veers too far to the left is no longer just a champion of welfarism, it is also a champion of populism and mob rule. As of now, the government is in a proper balance where it spends within its limit, with both the considerations of prudence and compassion in one single mindset. However, should the trajectory of increasing social spending and slowing growth continues, the government might go astray. This is my warning against populism, and populism will destroy this small country for the obvious reason that populism is usually anti-business, anti-trade – which equates to anti-survival for Singapore, a country that was never meant to be, but emerged anyway due fundamentally to a post-WWII American-led trade liberalization new world order.
Meritocracy is, on face value, the reconciling factor between the historical dichotomy of efficiency and equality. More accurately, we have calibrated our concept of fairness and accepted equity, instead of equality, as the benchmark of fairness instead. This shift in focus from outcome to start-point and thus from equality to equity is the much needed ingredient for meritocracy to work. Meritocracy, in theory, marries equity and efficiency. However, equity is unlikely to be achievable in our current reality due to static factors such as genetic dispositions and talents that distort the level playing field which serves as the condition needed for an equitable environment. What we can focus on is what we can control. What we, as in our government, can control is wealth. Hence, we should, in the short term, focus on investing state resources to redistribute income in order to level the playing field which is chronically distorted by income inequality. A neglect of this by any government in a meritocratic society can dangerously lead to elitism – which is the precursor to revolutions and political instability. Singapore has the profound problem of elitism as argued by Dr Kenneth Paul Tan in his paper on Meritocracy and Elitism in a Global City, and it is also beginning to unravel the fabric of our society. This is manifested in the election results of 2011 General Election which necessitated the change in mindset by the PAP. PAP used to be too politically right, championing prudence, pragmatism and made our social welfare sector worked with minimum resource expended, indicating high efficiency and sound policy making. However, this also meant that it was too focused on efficiency, compromising equity as a result. The political backlash led to increased social spendings and gradual systemic change in the education system, which are evidences for a shift in mindset of the political elites. However, as with all things, a balance is always ideal. Hence, I warn against the government from veering too far towards the equity aspect of meritocracy and to end up neglecting efficiency. Meritocracy, after all, is an ideal that achieves both. We don’t want to become an economically inefficient Soviet Union nor an inequitable America, we want to be a meritocratic Singapore.