Meritocracy in Singapore: Equality of Opportunities?

Two opposing letters on the value of meritocracy that recently appeared on the Straits Times forum pages. 

Address the Problems of Meritocracy

MR KOO Tsai Kee’s commentary on Tuesday (‘Social mobility carried three Tans to the Istana gate’) praised Singapore’s cornerstone of success, meritocracy.

In an ideal world, everyone would have access to vital resources like education and health care.

But in reality, meritocracy remains a limited system that does not, and cannot, benefit everyone.

This reality is even harsher in a country like Singapore, which is marked by a highly complex class system that divides the country based on economic power and cultural capital.

Mr Koo underestimated the importance of cultural capital in aiding an individual’s social mobility.

Cultural capital includes one’s social assets, such as social connections, access to popular culture, cultural knowledge, travel experiences and so on.

Compare a child who comes from an upper middle-class family, whose parents are high-level professionals and avid travellers, with one from a working-class family, whose father is a taxi driver and mother is a housewife, and who has three other siblings.

Of the two children growing up with differing cultural capital, who would be more successful?

Certainly, meritocracy lets a child from a working-class family climb the social ladder, but he will not go as far as the child from the upper middle-class family.

Another limitation of meritocracy is that it demoralises.

Those who are not socially mobile are looked upon as failures or rejects.

Meritocracy is an unforgiving system that does not consider the impact that social backgrounds can have on one’s chances in life.

While it is heartening to note that the presidential candidates come from humble backgrounds, they are the exceptions to the rule.

Meritocracy may be a lofty idea but it is flawed, and my hope is that leaders are aware of its limits and can help level the playing field for everyone.

Nurhidayah Hassan-Le Neel (Mrs)

Meritocracy is the Only Way to Tackle Inequality Fairly 

MRS NURHIDAYAH Hassan-Le Neel made two arguments against meritocracy last Saturday (‘Address the problems of meritocracy’).

According to her, meritocracy is flawed because it does not work in Singapore’s rigid class system that is based on economic and cultural clout.

Second, meritocracy demoralises those who fail to climb the social ladder.

Both claims are untrue. Meritocracy is the only way people break out of a rigid class system fairly and proudly, as affirmative action discriminates against another demographic group.

While failure can demoralise, could this be a chance to encourage hard work and some government intervention to equalise opportunity, rather than an excuse to throw meritocracy out the window?

Singapore’s Gini coefficient – a measure of income inequality on a scale of 0 to 1, with 0 denoting perfect equality – of 0.45 does indicate that there is a gulf within its society.

How to correct this is the first dilemma: meritocracy or affirmative action?

Redistributive justice is a difficult concept, but meritocracy is not mutually exclusive from the Government helping the poor. If a child of a taxi driver is poor but talented, one offers him all the opportunities he needs, not the outcome one thinks he deserves. Opportunities or outcomes, that is the conundrum of the second dilemma.

Should we aim for equality of opportunities or outcomes?

Communism tried to achieve equality of outcome, but we now know that it bred poverty and gross inequality.

A government’s role may simply be to provide the tools and ensure equal access to opportunities.

What happens next is as much nature as it is nurture, although this, admittedly, is a subsidiary debate in which the answer is likely to be a bit of both, plus diligence and luck.

The final dilemma is when to stop. Societies will always be unequal, with a bell curve of income and cultural capital.

Let us concentrate on moving the curve to the right, instead of focusing on making the curve narrower.

Micromanaging an entire country detracts from the proper focus on a rising tide that lifts all boats.

I call it compassionate meritocracy, which is still a government’s best way to ensure equality of opportunity.

What happens next is up to the kids.

Dr Khor Swee Kheng

Which writer are you more in agreement with? 

Additional links: 

Ex-Education Minister Ng Eng Hen on social mobility and education: A New Chapter in the Singapore Story

In response, the Online Citizen shares a lesson in citing irrelevant statistics

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