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The need for an evolving meritocracy

Meritocracy, an essential and integral part of Singapore’s political and social culture, has of late seen debate over its continued relevance here.

Singapore must retain the concept of meritocracy, but it must also tackle inequalities the system fails to address. TODAY file photo

Singapore must retain the concept of meritocracy, but it must also tackle inequalities the system fails to address. TODAY file photo

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Meritocracy, an essential and integral part of Singapore’s political and social culture, has of late seen debate over its continued relevance here.

In December, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong argued that while it was important to calibrate fundamental machinations of the system of meritocracy, there was no better option. “If we’re not going on merit, what are (we) going to look at?” he asked.

More recently, Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong acknowledged that Singapore’s system of meritocracy could be improved to ensure it benefits all segments of society. And academic Donald Low last month argued for, among other things, “trickle-up meritocracy”, which seeks to limit the rise of inequality by equalising not just opportunities, but also resources at the start for those with less.

All three views, while differing on the level of evolution needed, note the imperative to renegotiate the terms of a meritocratic system of governance.


The term meritocracy may be understood broadly as a system that rewards an individual’s merit with social, economic and even political accolades and rewards. The system hence accords all qualified individuals a fair and equal chance of being successful based on their own capabilities.

In a more limited political sense, a meritocracy describes a style of governance where the political system selects the most educated and capable personnel to rule or an “aristocracy of talent”.

A meritocratic system is coupled with the principle of non-discrimination, in which merit and talent alone determine selection.

It cannot be denied that there are fundamental benefits to a meritocratic system, which have been indispensable in the rapid rise of Singapore as a prosperous city-state. Meritocracy advocates fierce competition which pushes people to achieve the best that they can; regardless of class, race or creed they may find success if they get to the finishing line first.

A history of meritocratic success in turn creates a social culture in which individuals are driven to work beyond their comfort levels and in resourceful fashion, with sight of opportunities to rise above one’s socio-economic class. In a country bereft of natural resources, depending solely on its population, such a system has been paramount in achieving economic progress.


However, as Singapore continues to evolve, there must be continual attempts to assess if the system as it is remains relevant.

Selection based on merit and non-discrimination dictates that all differences, including race, gender and class, be ignored. But one must also consider the unequal backgrounds from which people come. To use the analogy of a race, it is like judging runners on who crosses the finishing line first although they all start off from varying points.

The pursuit of a “fair meritocracy” — which researcher R Quinn Moore defines as one in which “inherited advantages or disadvantages are compensated for” — has been the prerogative of the Singapore Government. In this, it has had success, but up to an extent.

We must account for the widening gaps of inequality that meritocracy creates, without destroying the competitive environment that meritocracy offers. More effort must be made to ensure that while everyone races for the finishing line, the starting points become more equal. It means, for example, ensuring that children compete in schools on a more equal footing.

There is a curious turn in the Singaporean logic of meritocracy, where it is ethnic-based organisations such as the Chinese Development Assistance Council, MENDAKI and the Singapore Indian Development Association, which offer subsidised tuition at cheap rates, primarily targeting the underprivileged. But inequality is not inherently a race or ethnic issue. The impetus of levelling unequal starting points needs to shift from these organisations to the Ministry of Education.

Perhaps more schools could offer small-group tuition at the same subsidised rates, with teacher-tutors paid the rates offered by these organisations. It would allow for a more systematic tuition programme that divides the children into classes based on the nature of tuition necessary — rather than ethnic-based programmes at various centres that sometimes struggle to offer the optimal service weaker students often require.


Education is the tip of the iceberg in a discussion about meritocracy in Singapore. The recent Punggol by-election saw Ms Lee Li Lian, a trainer with an insurance company, defeat Dr Koh Poh Koon, a consultant colorectal surgeon.

More than just the victory of one party over another, this might also be indicative that voters no longer accept wholesale the entrenched ideal of the technocratic politician in Singapore. A politician, in other words, need not be a doctor, lawyer, engineer or professor. Qualities like a history of grassroots leadership, service to the community and a warm, approachable personality are perhaps increasingly being seen as more important.

The definition of “merit”, in other words, is being challenged in socio-political spaces. The recent furore over the Population White Paper is perhaps indicative of this; it is reflected in some of the concerns of local-born Singaporeans.

Take this scenario: In 2030, a citizen, who is currently 20 years of age and about to enlist in the army, would be 37 years old by then. In this time, he would have served two years of national service and 10 cycles of reservist training. He would have worked for at least 15 years and contributed via taxes and other means to the economy.

He may have gotten married and had children (thus contributing to the country’s demographic needs). If, in his 37th year as a Singaporean, he is to compete with another 37-year-old with similar qualifications and who only became a citizen a year or two ago, should his “merit” be judged solely on the basis of academic qualifications and work-related experience?


To revisit the earlier analogy, what should count is not just about the starting point or the finishing line, but the way in which the race has been run.

Meritocracy in Singapore over the years has become an increasingly complicated ideology to juggle in a globalising city state. While Singapore must retain the broad concept of meritocracy in terms of non-discrimination and offering equal opportunity, it must also tackle inequalities that the system currently fails to address. And it must understand that the concept of “merit” will also evolve with the times.

George Orwell writes, in his political satire Animal Farm, that “all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others”. It is a cynical prophecy that Singapore’s meritocracy must strive to avoid.

Pravin Prakash is a political science graduate of the National University of Singapore. He currently tutors at NUS and runs a social commentary blog.

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