Meritocracy is Singapore’s core governing value. We even teach that in Social Studies. While most of us generally think that it is a good principle, some insist that meritocracy promotes elitism. This is in fact the argument that journalist Chua Mui Hoong made in 2006 after the infamous Wee Shu Min incident. There was a debate on whether or not Singapore had an elitist system, and whether meritocracy was to blame for it.
Her article was entitled “How meritocracy leads to intellectual elitism”. Her main position is that “Singapore is such an elitist society precisely because of meritocracy”. The logic she used runs as follows:
“Our ethos of meritocracy condones, indeed encourages, another form of snobbery: intellectual elitism. Singapore’s merit-based system hinges almost entirely on the meritocracy of academic achievements. Do well in school, and there’s a good chance the kid from a poverty-stricken background can break out of the poverty cycle. When education becomes such an important social leveller and vehicle for social mobility, is it any wonder that intellectual ability becomes imbued with such positive attributes that it nearly becomes associated with a moral virtue?? Subliminally, we imbibe the message that intellectual achievement is not only a mark of mental acuity, but it is also a reflection of character, strength of purpose, dedication, of moral virtue. This is not to say that we are so naive as to assume that those who get As are more saintly than those who fail their examinations. But I think many of us do assume that the A-getters are more disciplined, more hardworking, more driven to excel, more deserving of reward, than those who get Cs. And so academic achievement becomes conflated with character and moral attributes.”
To put it simply, she believes that our meritocracy is linked to academic achievements such that merit=academic ability. And because we link academic ability=moral virtues, we then conclude that merit=possession of moral qualities.
This issue of elitism is a serious one that demands our attention. In fact, very recently, Former Civil Servant Ngiam Tong Dow claims that the PAP government is elitist and has lost touch with ordinary Singaporeans. Today, many Singaporeans decry the PAP for “running the country like a business” and for “putting profits first”. All these are claimed to be in direct opposition to the public interest; only elite interests are served.
True meritocracy implies limited government
I strongly believe that meritocracy is indeed a sound principle to uphold in society, provided that it is understood and conceptualised properly. If meritocracy is established on free and fair competition amongst individuals in society, then that’s good. However, if meritocracy has been narrowly defined by the government to mean a specific type of ‘goodness’, namely, academic quality for the purposes of grooming them for higher offices, then this ‘meritocracy’ is just a façade that obscures class privileges given to some at the expense of others. As for me, I believe in a liberal society; in such a society no one gets special privileges, everyone competes fairly and equally. True meritocracy implies liberalism.
Singapore’s meritocracy is what I would call a “narrow meritocracy”, where ‘merit’ is defined specifically by the government. Ms Chua Mui Hoong is correct to point out that our system of meritocracy is linked to academic achievements. We see smart people and those from ‘top schools’ as having more merit than others. But why does merit refer simply to having many distinctions in school? Does a virtuoso pianist also not possess ‘merit’? Does a young student who struggle with traditional subjects like math and science but is otherwise very good with art and music not possess ‘merit’? The problem is not really with meritocracy per se, but rather with how we define ‘merit’.
In Singapore, the emphasis is on academic achievements; it is an “exam meritocracy”. This is structurally reinforced because of the various rewards and opportunities given to the top and brightest students, and the overwhelming recognition that the government gives to these individuals. Because of this, those who possess a specific type of ‘merit’, in this case, ‘academic merit’, are singled out over others for special praise.
In ‘broad meritocracy’, the government does not define merit. This is the type of meritocracy I like, and that we should have. Here, ‘merit’ is freely defined and contested in the market place. In this system, every individual really competes fairly and equally, without the State singling out one group for special praise. There will also be no one-sized fits all curriculum that squeezes every student within the cookie cutter that is the government school.
The PAP government is right to prefer meritocracy to other inferior alternatives. It is right for them to not want certain racial groups to get special privileges, for instance. This is all fine and good, however, they do no go far enough in this logic. It is in the spirit of meritocracy that we do not have policies like affirmative action, or forms of discrimination favouring certain groups. This is meritocracy indeed, but I want to widen it to “broad meritocracy in terms of the free market”. When the market is free and government is limited, politicians will not be able to pick winners and losers anymore.
The free market promotes true meritocracy because it is based on equality before the law, which bars all special privileges. Not only does it bar government from enacting policies like affirmative action, which is profoundly un-meritocratic, it goes further in saying that the government is strictly limited to providing the rule of law, basic justice, contracts and property rights. This means that the State does not participate in the business of allocating goods and services to particular people, and giving subsidies or tax breaks to specific groups. For instance, if the government grants a subsidy to group A, it means that that amount of money is taken out of the private sector, and goes to a narrow group of beneficiaries. On the other hand, the free market can be likened to a ship in which the consumers are at the helm. Consumers drive this ship, and whatever outcomes we see are purely a result of the free and equal decisions of all consumers “voting’ everyday.
Think of Apple in the smartphone market. Their dominance is a culmination of having emerged from stiff competition against other competitors, with none of them having gained any special privileges. Consumers perceived their ‘merit’ and thus ‘voted’ for them with their dollars. This is real meritocracy.
For more, read “The Elite Under Capitalism” by Ludwig von Mises, here.
Due to concerns about meritocracy, some have said that we need to modify it to better fit current challenges. One such view proposes an “evolving meritocracy”, which essentially seeks a more watered-down version to be ‘balanced’ with more affirmative action by the government, so as to resolve the “different starting points” that individuals start off in life from. Put bluntly, people with this view seek to move away from the concept of meritocracy and towards the direction of special privileges and handouts for some, however such groups are defined (Singaporeans first, the less well-off, etc.) Such a mentality threatens to bring Singapore towards a welfare state.
Welfarist thinking is already starting to coalesce within Singapore, as seen in the recent creation of the ‘Singaporeans First’ Party, which calls for policies like unemployment benefits and insurance, and “free education”. (There’s really no such thing as a free lunch) If many Singaporeans feel sympathetic to their platform, it really reflects a fatally misguided belief in the ability of government to “do more”, and their ability to deliver the good life for everyone.
Increasingly, those inclined to the welfare state like to cite the supposed success of the Nordic model. Sweden, Norway and other Scandinavian countries are held up as exemplars of welfare states that simultaneously attain high economic growth and welfare for all. But reality is farther from these popular illusions. Economic laws always puncture vain assumptions that fail to take into account trade-offs. Research has revealed that the good economic performance in these countries is a result of decades of economic freedom (prior to the creation of their welfare states) and that the increase of welfarism has correlated with a slowdown in growth. These countries have done relatively well, not because of, but despite their welfare states. Those who call for more government social spending and welfarism must realise that such actions inevitably come with negative ramifications; it is irresponsible to think otherwise.
The following video is a good lecture about the Swedish economy, which was hampered due to its experiment with the mixed economy in the latter half of the 20th century.
Other materials exploring the alleged successes of the Nordic Welfare States:
1) Analysis of Swedish welfare state by Professor Per Bylund of Baylor University on the Tom Woods Show.
2) In The Capitalist Welfare State, Lund University economist Andreas Bergh explains how Sweden has managed to increase economic productivity despite its large public sector. Bergh says that despite popular mythology, Sweden is not a socialist success story but instead owes its economic growth to the lowered tax rates and deregulation of the early 1990s, which allowed innovation and investment to flourish.
3) Reason.tv’s interview with Johan Norberg on “Swedish Myths and Realities”
4) The Myth of Scandinavian Socialism by Stefan Molyneux
5) Those interested in understanding the effects of the welfare state should also read Tom Palmer’s “After the Welfare State“.