What Both Sides Get Wrong in Singapore’s Meritocracy Debate

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In a recently published Straits Times op-ed titled Meritocracy and how to manage its downsides, veteran journalist Chua Mui Hoong reopened the evergreen debate on meritocracy in Singapore (Chua’s well-written piece quickly provoked a thoughtful response from NUS Professor Ben Leong).

Why is meritocracy such a big deal in Singapore? Local discussions of meritocracy are rooted in a unique context due to the heavy credit and emphasis the PAP government has historically placed on “merit” for guiding its public policy. There is no shortage of quotes and policy examples to showcase this, but for non-Singaporean readers, I will supply just two here. As early as just six years after independence in 1971, Lee Kuan Yew made one of his most infamous remarks:

“The main burden of present planning and implementation rests on the shoulders of some 300 key persons. They include key men in the PAP, MPs and cadres who mobilise mass support and explain the need for policies even when they are temporarily inconvenient or against sectional interests. Outstanding men in civil service, the police, the armed forces, chairmen of statutory boards and their top administrators — they have worked the details of policies set by the government and seen to its implementation. These people come from poor and middle-class homes. They come from different language schools. Singapore is a meritocracy. And these men have risen to the top by their own merit, hard work and high performance. Together they are a closely-knit and co-ordinated hard core. If all the 300 were to crash in one jumbo jet, then Singapore will disintegrate.”

Fast forward 44 years, and the rhetoric has not deviated much. Just before the 2016 General Elections, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, like his predecessors before him, extolled the virtues of Singapore society as:

“… one of our most remarkable achievements over these last 50 years… we have built a fair and just society, based on meritocracy, where ability and not your background or the colour of your skin, determines how well you do, determines what contributions you make, and what rewards you get”.

I think that most Singaporeans (including those from the anti-PAP camp) would agree that meritocracy, as a whole, has served us well. A civil service consisting of smart, honest and highly-driven individuals is a far superior alternative to the rampant corruption and incompetence that plagues many other liberal democracies in the 21st century.

Yet, Singapore’s meritocratic system is not invulnerable from criticism. Critics have argued that a truly meritocratic society should entail an equal starting line for all Singaporeans. But why such a standard to measure against?

Meritocracy is a theory of justice that sorts out the most deserving. Its key tenet does not concern itself with the end-state, but the process by which individuals play the cards they are dealt with in life.

For instance, someone who lived a rags-to-riches story (think Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling) is far more meritorious than the child of a billionaire (think Paris Hilton), because the poor person came from poverty and found success from nothing. That they both ended up as wildly successful individuals is irrelevant. (It’s the process, stupid!) Similarly, an unsuccessful musician or a physically-handicapped athlete may not be selling out packed stadiums, yet can be seen as highly meritorious for their unwavering determination and persistent grit to their craft.

That is why the equal starting line matters. Singaporeans who argue that our system is truly meritocratic should realise that these are the yardsticks they set themselves up with.

Hence why criticisms of Singapore’s meritocracy have frequently (and rightly) centered on the way richer Singaporean families have been able to “buy their way up” in the education system through supplementary classes and leveraging on social connections. The idea is that the eventual winners are not truly deserving of their success compared to the less fortunate because of — you guessed it — unequal starting lines.

This seems to be a controversial point to supporters of the PAP system, but it’s unclear to me why. It is hard to dispute that a child from a low-income family who needs to work part-time jobs to support their families or pay off university debt will have more setbacks and disadvantages in life compared to a child who is free of these financial burdens. Another way to think about this is to think of two identical average joes — one rich, one poor — and consider who has a higher chance to excel in life.

As a result, Singapore’s attempt at “meritocracy” has been polluted by advantageous wealth and social capital.

Critics also tend to point to the government’s traditionally narrow delineation of merit to mean academic merit and professional business expertise, while marginalising talents in the arts, culture and sports.

Based on this diagnosis, meritocracy in Singapore must be a charade. The obvious solution for the Left must be income redistribution to equalise the starting line, and a drastic widening of what our education system considers “meritorious”. After all, how meritocratic are we really, when the rules of the game are designed to accommodate only certain talents, and when the rich have a systematic advantage over the poor?

Why is meritocracy so hard to get right?

What these critiques really reveal is a fundamental tension between meritocracy and a capitalist economy.

When people are given the freedom to do what they so desire with their lives, it is inevitable that drastically different outcomes will transpire. As long as we desire a free market economy to attract investors and encourage entrepreneurship, we must also tolerate its accompanying income inequalities. This therefore entails the inescapable (and regrettable) fact that the privileged will have a greater head start than the less-privileged, violating the key tenet of a meritocracy — an equal starting line.

The meritocrat is then faced with an impossible task of equalising this starting line. How far should public policy go in persecuting the wealthy from passing on these unearned inheritances? Should we regulate supplementary tuition or ban the use of social capital to ensure admission? If he is willing to take that step, how might he control for the sociocultural circumstances of a child’s educational environment?

One might even push the envelope further to try and account for
genetic differences that individuals have no personal control over, what
the egalitarian philosopher Ronald Dworkin refers to as outcomes of “brute
luck”. People who are more talented, healthier, more charming,
or intelligent are sure to enjoy superior social advantages. How might a
meritocratic regime account for these differences in genetic make-up? (hint: the question is rhetorical)

Once we realise the potential extent of government overreach that the consistent pursuit of meritocratic principles might entail, the reasons become clear for why we should start shifting our thinking away from a meritocratic framework.

Don’t conflate capitalism and meritocracy

Market economies do not reward meritorious individuals, they reward those who produce consumer value. This is why the advertising entrepreneur Gary Dahl made millions off a silly (yet genius!) Pet Rock toy idea in the 1970s, or why an exceedingly hardworking and tireless inventor may not amount to anything in his life, but a lucky inventor might strike it rich with just one revolutionary and lucky idea. It’s not hard work and merit per se that pays off in a free market, it’s the entrepreneurial alertness to sense for and meet market demand.

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Advertising entrepreneur Gary Dahl made millions off the Pet Rock in the 1970s

As my coauthor and I argue in our upcoming book Liberalism Unveiled, both sides in Singapore get too caught up in this back-and-forth on meritocracy. Yes, the criticism of the existing meritocratic system is valid. Of course, Singaporeans do not all start from the same starting line (and the same is true for everywhere else).

But that is all besides the point. The more important goal is whether or not the existing arrangement is improving the lot of the least well-off. Do the material benefits of economic growth filter down to the average Singaporean? Is the poor in Singapore seeing improvements in standards of living? That should be the relevant yardstick. And as Ms. Chua pointed out in her op-ed, the answer is yes.

Overly fixating on whether or not our society’s winners are “meritorious” or not is to miss the forest for the trees.

As long as these winners — what David Goodhart terms the “peak heads” — are enlarging Singapore’s pie of wealth through their entrepreneurial talents, should we care so much about whether they truly “deserve” their rewards? Us upper-middle class yuppies might. But the poor certainly do not. That Jeff Bezos has 20 or 21 Rolex watches is fundamentally irrelevant to their lives.

What they care about are whether these benefits are spilling over in better paying jobs and more leisure time to spend with their loved ones. And yes it does. The Nobel Laureate economist William Nordhaus finds that most of the benefits of market innovation and technological change are passed on to consumers rather than captured by producers.

Ms. Chua also cites Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel, who urges us to think beyond the typical economic lens of material wealth, and how intangible forms of social capital such as dignity and respect are accrued to the common man in the modern economy,

I’m sympathetic to this line of argument. Certainly, material wealth is not everything. As an economist might say, there is a diminishing marginal return to utility from wealth. At some point, rich countries start to desire equity, dignity and an environmental cleanup over increasing GDP.

But there is no reason to believe that workers suffer from a “dignity deficit” simply because they command lower wages. Surprisingly for a philosopher, this seems to narrowly define contributions to the public good as purely economic.

Sandel is a communitarian and hopes to see the common man further empowered with a larger stake in society. But I would argue that market societies to a large extent have driven this change. Citizens in liberal democracies contribute to the common good in a multitude of ways through our local communities. Unless you are a recluse, most people join civic associations, religious institutions, philanthropic societies, internet forums and non-profit hobby/business clubs.

We participate in the public arena in many ways, but here’s the crux: It is precisely in rich capitalist countries that people have a larger scope of positive freedom to participate in such activities outside of work.

Sandel draws a distinction between material and social wealth (distributive versus contributive justice), but the engines that increase either are inextricably linked and cannot be untangled. Thanks to modern economic growth, we work about 25 less hours a week compared to workers in the 19th century. That is a non-significant 3.5 hours more of free time a day that people spend outside of work in contribution to a common societal good!

This widening in scope should be what matters, but Singapore continues to be trapped within a paradigm of meritocratic thinking, where the preoccupation is over whether society’s most successful truly deserve their success. The danger in this thinking is that trying to organize society based on merit goes against the foundation of a market economy where merit is besides the point.

The most successful recipe known to mankind which has enriched the common man, both in terms of material wealth and social dignity, has been free market capitalism. The economic historian Deirdre McCloskey puts it aptly in her book Bourgeois Dignity:

“(the poor today)… has gigantically greater scope, whether or not she has been persuaded to take full human advantage of it. She has hugely greater opportunities — scope, capabilities, potential, real personal income — for what Wilhelm von Humboldt called in 1792 that Bildung, that “self-culture,” “self-development,” life plans, second-order preferences, which is success in life. She can do one hundred times more of many things, leading a fuller life — fuller in work, travel, education, ease of housekeeping, ease of listening to “The Nut-Brown Maiden” in English and Gaelic on the Internet... What the modern world offers to men and women and children (as against cats and other machines for pleasure) is not merely such “happiness” but a uniquely enlarged scope to be fully realized human beings.”

It’s human nature to want hard-working people to be rewarded for their efforts. But we should be careful not to conflate that with what actually drives growth and improves the lot of the average man.

Donovan Choy is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Adam Smith Center Singapore. He is co-author of the book Liberalism Unveiled: Forging a New Third Way in Singapore, a classical liberal analysis of Singapore’s policy discourse.

Classical liberal. I love the Wu-Tang Clan, Spaghetti Westerns and anything Aly & Fila.

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