Recent Debates Highlight the Negative Side of Singapore's Meritocracy

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Income inequality and growing elitism threaten meritocracy.


Recent debates on meritocracy raise questions as to what Singapore regards as merit. Several concepts have emerged reflecting how meritocracy is evolving in the Singaporean context, such as ‘compassionate meritocracy’, ‘trickle up meritocracy’ and ‘meritocracy through life’.

The 50th anniversary of independence is an opportune time for Singaporeans to deliberate; how they understand the country today, its driving forces, and the idea of meritocracy.

Described as a national core value, meritocracy has been justified as a practice that rewards the hardworking and deserving with economic success and social mobility. Meritocracy provides equal opportunities to all in Singapore’s multicultural society.

But recent debates highlight the negative side-effects of meritocracy in Singapore, which include a widening income gap and growing elitism. These issues largely revolve around how to understand the term merit and whether the effects of meritocracy are congruent with Singapore’s desire to be an inclusive society.

In Singapore, meritocracy largely rewards academically inclined individuals. These individuals receive economic rewards in the workforce and socially in terms of status, as academic excellence plays a large role in determining career trajectories.

But the practice of meritocracy has come under fire. Excessive emphasis on academic achievements may stigmatise the less academically inclined. And the income gap widens when rewards favour the academically strong over the rest. Elitism among those who have succeeded in the system is also probable and likely accompanies stratification according to educational achievement and class.

The effects of ‘non-merit factors’ may also be disregarded due to the emphasis on meritocracy. Professors Stephen J. McNamee and Robert K. Miller Jr of the University of North Carolina define ‘non-merit factors’ as circumstances that ‘suppress, neutralise, or negate the effects of merit’. This can intensify inequalities within society. For example, having limited access to social capital and resources undermines merit-based mobility.

It would be simplistic to assume Singaporeans disagree with the emphasis on meritocracy. Meritocracy is a cornerstone of Singapore’s success. But the negative effects of meritocracy have become more apparent as new challenges develop within society. The principle of non-discrimination should also acknowledge that the less fortunate, able or academically inclined, might not benefit as much under the dominant idea of meritocracy.

The recent emphasis on improving schools, polytechnics and the Institute of Technical Education are examples on how to pave the way towards expanding our understanding of merit. Merit is an alterable principle according to the changing needs of society.

So, what happens now?

Government leaders and academics have suggested several new concepts that exemplify a renewed effort to contain and soften the negative effects of unchecked meritocracy.

The government supported notion of ‘compassionate meritocracy’ pushes for Singaporeans who have benefited from the system to contribute back to society and assist the less able and less fortunate. Donations, skills sharing or encouraging those in need carries this out.

‘Trickle-up meritocracy’ understands that government redistribution can complement current practices of meritocracy. This can equalise the effects of non-merit factors by providing resources for less privileged Singaporeans. For example, offering scholarships for higher education to promising students from less affluent backgrounds.

In 2014, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam proposed ‘meritocracy through life’, evaluating individuals throughout the different phases of their lives in their fields of endeavour. Most recently, enhancement of this notion came in the 2015 Singapore Budget, where Shanmugaratnam reiterated that Singapore needed to be a ‘meritocracy of skills, not a hierarchy of grades’. This would allow more recognition for different niches and would ensure appropriately measured talents.

The establishment of the Skills Future Council is telling of this commitment. It encourages constant learning by integrating education, training and industry support for career advancement. These initiatives encourage a more holistic understanding of merit — one which goes beyond academic qualifications and emphasises hard work and competition.

These concepts are all steps in the right direction. They acknowledge the inequalities that may hinder some from thriving in an academically driven meritocracy, and recognise and develop other niches to provide more opportunities for Singaporeans to compete.

Enhancement of Singapore’s understanding of merit is important. ‘Compassionate meritocracy’, ‘trickle up meritocracy’ and ‘meritocracy through life’ illustrate how meritocracy is evolving to suit a changing Singaporean context.

Negotiating Singapore’s meritocracy is republished with permission from East Asia Forum

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