Meritocracy’s demerits

In News Reports, Politics, Society on August 28, 2012 at 7:19 am

This is the one big value I would fight to keep: Meritocracy. It is the one big reason this kampong girl is now a well-educated, financially-independent woman. No matter what the background, you study hard, work hard, live honestly – and you will be recognised and rewarded. You will get somewhere. Now meritocracy is getting a bad name.

Mr Heng Swee Keat put it this way: Extreme meritocracy and competition can lead to a winner-take-all society, with the winners thinking little of others. We need to restore a balance to hard-nosed material pragmatism. As Gandhi put it, we must not have commerce without morality, science without humanity and knowledge without character.

Last week, I was at the Inter-JC Current Affairs Quiz hoping against hope that Raffles Institution would NOT win the competition. It did. Sheesh. The only consolation is that the team won by one point. Hwa Chong was second. I was rooting instead for River Valley High, for no other reason than I did not want the usual suspects to sweep the podium. Why can’t we have an “underdog wins’’ story? Why the usual story of an already good school taking the prize? Why oh why couldn’t the competition be fixed?????!

Yup. Not very meritocratic of me.

But I am not alone in feeling this way. Call it envy but I bet a lot of students and parents want a different story to emerge, a story that will give hope to not-so-smart.  I have seen teams from good schools being shunned by other teams. I have watched as other schools gang up or have an informal pact not to let “that one’’ win. Is this competition? Is this about setting the bar high? Or is it resentment?

I have also watched how supposed ‘’scholars’’ group together, speaking a different language about the foreign schools they’ve been too. How others get pissed off at what they perceive as attempts to keep them on the outside. Not enough sensitivity? Or being too sensitive? I have heard the usual talk about how scholars have it easier ; career path laid out. I have the heard the talk from the smart ones too: that they SHOULD be given the breaks.

I don’t think anyone would deny that our smartest students have the brains. But it is no longer the case that we admire them because they  do well by dint of their own hard work. We grumble that they are exam-smart, not street-smart. From the sides of our mouth, we mutter about family connections, father is a doctor, mother is a lawyer, got into a good school, money for tuition etc. And because they somehow seem to congregate in some places, whether by choice or design, the word “elite’’ is used to describe the tribe. Bad word, that.

That is why no matter how hard the PM pleads with parents not to “over-teach’’ their young ones, they are not going to listen. No matter how much they resent the elite, they want their children to belong in those circles. I believe that this pressure on parents to make sure their kids lead a better life than they do is probably a factor in their calculations on whether to have one or two more. They do not want the Singapore story to end with them. They want their children to continue the story. But how?

Because we are such pragmatic people, we do the stuff that would be good for ourselves, sometimes stepping on people along the way. Pragmatism trumps principle. We calculate our worth by the cars we drive, the house we live in, the holidays we take. And smart people talk to smart people, smug in the notion that because they are smart, it is society which owes them and not the other way around.

Maybe we should start thinking about teaching humility. Disband the smart ones and put them among the rest. Break the systems that have been designed to supposedly make sure they can push each other to their limits. I don’t doubt that we will still continue to win prizes at the international level. And even if we don’t, it might not be too bad a price to pay if we build smart people with character and with empathy.

Yes, I know there is this CIP programme where students go visit the old, the sick etc. And while it’s good experience, it’s too programmed. So, you are young and healthy and these are the old, sick, infirm. We’re boxing people. Might be better simply to have students from different schools mix around with each other. . The bright ones must realise they have peers who lead different lives from them and have different needs.    Meritocracy should remain the avenue for social mobility. But people with “merit’’ should not be blind to their own de-merits and the merits of others who are less favoured.

I know the call has always been that the brightest must give back, and how they have an obligation to the society and the system. I am not comfortable with this approach, reducing the need to be nice/kind/charitable to an obligation or duty.

At the end of the day, it’s just about being a decent human being.

  1. The phrase you used in your third para from the bottom “boxing people” is apt but I am thinking of it as applied to meritocracy itself as suggested by Alian de Botton’s ” Status Anxiety”.

    As summarized by Michael Upchurch, “In feudal societies, de Botton suggests, social rank was viewed as predestined, and changes of rank were rare. But with the emergence of a meritocratic ideal in the 18th century, all of that changed. The dream of extending equal opportunity to every member of society was a good thing, of course. But it came with a sting in its tail.

    ” The rigid hierarchy that had been in place,” de Botton writes, “was unjust in a thousand all too obvious ways, but it offered those on the lowest rungs one notable freedom: the freedom not to have to take the achievements of quite so many people in society as reference points – and so find themselves severely wanting in status and importance as a result.”

    That shadow side of meritocracy, in short, was that those who got stuck at the bottom would get the message, subliminally or overtly, that they had only themselves to blame. And in a money-oriented society like ours, 90 percent of us can’t help but feel we’re at or near the bottom.”

  2. Is what you want meritocracy or social mobility ? The term meritocracy was first coined by Michael Young as a warning against the creation of a new ruling class who justified their position on the basis of educational superiority. In the beginning, this looked better than the old aristocracy who justified their position on the basis of birth, but as we are now seeing, birth is becoming one of the key “merits” in a meritocracy.

    Sad to say, I see no easy solution to this other than War or Revolution. Remember that social mobility means one person goes down for every person going up. The historical social mobility that Singapore experienced was a consequence of decolonization (which opened up positions in govt) and the massive changes in economic structure post-WW2 which created many new winners but also some losers. Are there any tectonic shifts in the economy coming which could have a comparable effect ? If not, it will be very difficult to recreate the social mobility that Singapore had in the second half of the 20th century.

  3. Hi Bertha, sorry for the irrelevant comment! My name is Raymond, and I’m a student at NUS. I’d like to pick your brains on student journalism, and maybe current local affairs, if possible. How may I contact you so I can give you more details?

    Great blog, been reading since the first post! Cheers!

  4. Brilliant. Love this. Worth should never be measured by the cars you drive, the house you live you nor the bags you carry. There are innumerable measures of worth and if you see the worth of each and every person, you will know humility.

    The last 2 paragraphs of your post reminds me of my favorite author Steven Erikson whom I paraphrase – he wrote that in assigning a value to compassion, we hoard it, as if the giving of it needs to be earned when in truth it should always be given freely.

    On parenthood, I have serious reservations about hoping that one’s child can live a ‘better life’ than the parent. I think each parent should ask him/herself why can’t I try to live a good life myself? Especially by not letting my happiness be driven by dubious measures of worth. What is better anyway? Aside from clear cut cases of slavery, starvation, extreme poverty, etc., I am not sure what you define as ‘better’. Are they asking their children to realise their dreams for them? Should the children not live their lives as fulfillingly as possible – a life that the children chose and not the parent?

    My only hope for my daughters is that they can learn to live their own lives at some point before they die.

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