Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Balancing the benefits and downside of meritocracy

By Soon Sze Meng, Published The Straits Times, 19 Nov 2012

MERITOCRACY has been a key value that helped Singapore transform from a Third World to a First World nation.

Meritocracy has many good results but also some negative ones. It is important at this juncture in Singapore's history to consider and ameliorate the pernicious effects of meritocracy.

Meritocracy, entrenched by early Singapore leaders, has ensured that Singaporeans with competent abilities have governed the country since independence. A meritocratic system prevents the most debilitating excess - the transfer of positions of power to one's kin regardless of capabilities, which would cause most government and enterprises to lose their effectiveness.

The current governance system is sustained by our merit- based public education and competitive scholarship system. The majority of today's Cabinet are former public scholarship holders.

But meritocracy has its ugly sides too. With better education and earning power, many winners of today's meritocratic system use their resources to ensure that their children remain winners. The tuition industry and alumni preferences for admission to popular primary schools propel forward those who have much in our merit-based education system, widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

The outcome - a more unequal society, with slowing social mobility. Already, six out of 10 students from the six most popular primary schools live in private property, disproportionately high when you consider that across the country, only two out of 10 students live in private housing.

Singapore lacks definitive comprehensive studies on inter-generational social mobility. In the absence of these, anecdotal evidence and public perception have become a substitute for data. Many Singaporeans wonder if those who start at a lower station in life today are more likely to stay there, compared to 20 to 30 years ago, when many believed a rising tide lifted all boats.

Apart from inequality, another ugly aspect of meritocracy is the rise in social distance between the winners of the system and the rest. The term "social distance" - expounded by Christopher Hayes in Twilight of the Elites - refers to a widening gulf as winners enjoy different daily living experiences and social norms.

In the past five years, many Singaporeans have experienced the frustration of overcrowding on buses and Mass Rapid Transit trains during peak hours, of being unable to communicate with foreign workers serving or cleaning at coffee shops and hawker centres, and have had to put up with long waiting times at the polyclinics. Young couples despair as prices of Housing Board flats on the resale market soar on the back of rising demand, in part from foreigners.

Singapore's decision-makers meanwhile are top earners in the public and private sectors, with incomes multiple times that of an ordinary worker. Their lifestyles may not involve jostling with crowds on the bus or MRT, waiting at polyclinics, or living in an HDB flat.

To be sure, Singapore's meritocratic system has benefited the country and citizens. But we must also acknowledge the consequences of the ugly sides of meritocracy.

Singapore's meritocratic system worked well when we started from a lower and more equal base years ago. Today, income inequality is high. Social mobility is believed to be declining. There is a need to be conscious of how Singapore has changed, as we adjust policies.

Policymakers must continue to proactively step up their efforts to solicit inputs of ordinary Singaporeans on policies. Latent elite bias must be consciously guarded against - senior policymakers must not look at how policies contemplated would affect their peers or people like their family members or friends. Instead, they must consciously don the lens of the ordinary Singaporean worker earning a $3,249 monthly wage, which was the median last year. Half of all Singaporean workers earn below that amount, and 100,000 Singaporean workers who work full time earned less than $1,000 a month as of June last year.

Next, we must affirm the importance of social mobility, giving it the same arduous attention as our system of meritocracy. We must ensure that social mobility does not decelerate despite greater resources available to the winners. Otherwise, a self-perpetuating group of winners may withdraw support from institutions that promote meritocracy.

If that sounds far-fetched, consider the negative response to suggestions to review primary school admission. Reducing the quota for alumni or for those who live nearby will likely help enhance diversity and allow a wider cross-section of students to study at those schools, especially as many are situated among private housing estates.

The suggestion to use criteria beyond Primary School Leaving Examination scores to allocate places to secondary schools may also draw opposition from well-to-do parents who have significantly more resources to help their children excel academically.

In this way, a merit-based system, which allows parents to confer their advantages to their children, becomes a means to lock out those who have not accrued those advantages.

At the individual level, winners in our meritocratic system must be aware that their achievements are enabled by the society they live in. Investment guru Warren Buffett has said he was lucky to be born in the United States where his skills in allocating capital are well-rewarded. He wryly shared that he could easily have been some animal's lunch if he was born a few thousand years ago because he cannot run fast or climb trees.

Winners of our meritocratic system who feel they deserve their success because they worked hard - and the rest deserved their places in society because they didn't - should ask themselves if their success might be due to their different starting points in life in an increasingly unequal Singapore.

As a society, we need to be conscious of the ugly side of meritocracy, and work assiduously to promote social mobility, rather than accept that rising inequality is an inevitable consequence of meritocracy.

The writer, a Singaporean, works for an MNC and is a board member of the non-profit Halogen Foundation.

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