Redefining meritocracy

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By Augustine Low

meritocracy cartoonElitism and meritocracy have suddenly become buzzwords.

Public Service Commission Chairman Eddie Teo said on Tuesday in an open letter on the PSC website that the PSC will continue to guard against elitism by having scholars from different socio-economic backgrounds as “a public service comprising only the privileged and upper classes will add to the impression that meritocracy leads to a lack of social mobility in Singapore”.

In July, Mr Goh Chok Tong had warned in a speech at Raffles Institution that “when economic inequality gives rise to social immobility and a growing social distance between the winners of meritocracy and the masses; and when the winners seek to cement their membership of a social class that is distinct from, exclusive, and not representative of Singapore society — that is elitism.”

Both warnings are strikingly similar.

In his recent National Day Rally, PM Lee Hsien Loong spoke about compassionate meritocracy, and he choked back tears in recalling the story of Dr Yeo Sze Ling who was blind since the age of four but went on to win the Singapore Youth Award and contribute to society.  His point: That people can rise above circumstances and the system has to be kept fair for all.

The question is, could the relentless pursuit of meritocracy itself be the cause of elitism creeping into Singapore society?

In fact, the word “meritocracy” was coined by a man who used it to conjure the image of a society obsessed with talent, to its detriment. In 1958, British sociologist and Labour Party activist Michael Young wrote the book “The Rise of the Meritocracy.” Meant as a satire, events in the book took place in 2034, when psychologists had perfected the art of IQ testing. But far from promoting social harmony, the preoccupation with talent had produced social breakdown. The losers in the talent wars were branded as failures deserving of their fate. Eventually they revolted against their masters.

Some 43 years after his book came out, Michael Young wrote an article in the British newspaper The Guardian, affirming that much of what he predicted had come true. On British society, he said those left behind “can easily become demoralised by being looked down on so woundingly by people who have done well for themselves . . . It is hard indeed in a society that makes so much of merit to be judged as having none. No underclass has ever been left as morally naked as that.”

PSC Chairman Eddie Teo has asserted that “we continue to subscribe to meritocracy”. The focus is on refining the concept of merit and the PSC now uses psychological interviews and psychometric tests to determine traits such as leadership, character, interpersonal skills and stress tolerance.

Michael Young (who coined “meritocracy”) takes a more humanist approach, eschewing more and better testing for a “tolerant society, in which individual differences are actively encouraged as well as passively tolerated . . . Every human being would then have equal opportunity, not to rise up in the world in the light of any mathematical measure, but to develop his own special capacities for leading a rich life.”

Often cited by observers as possibly the best way to head off a meritocratic backlash is to give everybody equal opportunity, by intervening much earlier in life to boost the chances of those from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds. This starts with setting them on the right path through good, accessible early childhood education.

This is something the government is taking to in a big way. The Singapore Budget 2013 includes more than $3 billion extra funding for expanding the number of pre-schools and improving the quality of pre-school education. For parents, this will mean having more pre-school centres closer to their homes and workplaces and better quality teachers in these schools.

The recent warnings about elitism show that the government has perceived a fault line in Singapore society. There are signs that it doing its part to level the playing field across the board, to ward off any backlash from decades of meritocracy.

The bigger challenge is to effectively address the sense of entitlement that will drive a wedge between the haves and have not. The idea that “I made it because I’m smart, driven, and hardworking and you messed up because you lack intelligence and work ethic and therefore you deserve your fate.”

Augustine Low is a communications strategist. He is a former journalist with The Straits Times and The New Paper, and also managed public sector corporate communications.