‘Tweaks’ won’t fix S’pore meritocracy

Apr 28, 2016 10.59AM |

by Kwan Jin Yao

SUGGESTIONS that Singapore is fixing its meritocracy – mooted in an commentary by Professor Kenneth Paul Tan of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore – implies that something must be broken.

“The Singaporean idea of meritocracy,” wrote the professor in a commentary published in The Washington Post on April 16, is now criticised “for entrenching structural limits on mobility; for its overly narrow idea of merit and success; and for an increasingly self-regarding elite that seems too interested in staying in power and that citizens perceive as arrogant and unresponsive to their needs.”

Through small changes to the education system, continued affordability of national universities, and the new SkillsFuture movement, the G may be making Singapore’s meritocracy more “compassionate”, “inclusive”, and “lifelong”. Yet beyond these “tweaks”, a more “radical overhaul” – in the words of Prof Tan – is perhaps necessary: first, with evidence-informed evaluations of socio-economic mobility, wherein data and information on low-income households are also provided; and second, a broader discourse on egalitarian considerations and their policy implications.

The political philosophy of meritocracy holds that individuals get ahead based on their abilities, effort, and achievement, and that they – best-placed to maximise the performance of an organisation or the G – would therefore assume positions of power. This philosophy only holds, however, if there are equal opportunities. In fact, in an earlier academic paper published in 2008, Prof Tan highlighted what he saw as an “inherent contradiction” of meritocracy:

“Meritocracy, in trying to ‘isolate’ merit by treating people with fundamentally unequal backgrounds as superficially the same, can be a practice that ignores and even conceals the real advantages and disadvantages that are unevenly distributed to different segments of an inherently unequal society, a practice that in fact perpetuates this fundamental inequality. In this way, those who are picked by meritocracy as having merit may already have enjoyed unfair advantages from the very beginning, ignored according to the principle of nondiscrimination.”

In other words, meritocracy in an unequal society could reward those who are already ahead. The oft-cited running-track analogy comes to mind: under meritocracy, a distributive system which rewards abilities, effort, and achievement, the fastest runners should win the race, because it is assumed that they have worked hard for their success.

But besides the obvious problem of defining “merit” – that not all individuals may be suited to running – meritocracy is blind to income and wealth differences, which means these runners are not at the same starting line. Maybe the runner on the left has had training with a coach, the runner in the centre has athletic parents pushing him every day, while the runner on the right is just struggling to make ends meet.

Indicators such as the Gini coefficient – a figure which shows the income distribution within a country – could be used to quantify these disparities. Yet to fix Singapore’s meritocracy, first, more empirical observations in the form of research data and information on the extent of socio-economic mobility should be used to evaluate the equality of opportunities.

“With full equality of opportunity,” former World Bank Chief Economist and recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences Joseph Stiglitz wrote in his 2012 book The Price of Inequality, “20 per cent of those in the bottom fifth [of a country] would see their children in the bottom fifth … So too, with full equality of opportunity, 20 per cent of the bottom would make it all the way to the top fifth.”

Citing a 2012 research which compared inter-generational income mobility in the Nordic countries, the United Kingdom, and the United States, Mr Stiglitz noted that chances of moving up are smaller for American households, and that the disadvantageous positions of poor households can also be observed through education opportunities and outcomes.

In Singapore, 14 per cent of those in their mid-20s to early-30s who started out in households in the bottom fifth moved into the top fifth. This is almost three percentage points higher than Denmark (11.7 per cent) and almost seven percentage points higher than the United States (7.5 per cent), and hence reflecting “a more fluid society”, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said when he revealed these figures in Parliament in March last year.

These trends were stressed in a paper published by the Ministry of Finance in August 2015, which also noted that low-income households saw faster real wage growth from 2009 to 2014, and that in terms of inter-generational income mobility Singaporeans in their thirties have seen higher mobility compared to other countries.

But “it gets more difficult as society gets more settled,” Mr Shanmugaratnam conceded, and inequality may not show up in these mobility figures. And beyond figures on income and earnings, understanding the distribution of wealth would also be helpful, along with data on the following:

  • Composition of university undergraduates and graduates, based on income groups, and whether more students from the bottom fifth have secured admissions in recent years;
  • Composition of students, again based on income groups, who receive publicly funded scholarships (in 2008 the Public Service Commission revealed that 47 per cent of its scholarship holders live in public housing apartments, and any changes to this statistic would be interesting);
  • Adequacy of financial grants and assistance schemes in the universities – even if they are “made readily available to students who are unable to bear the full costs of their education”, as Professor Tan wrote in his commentary – especially in comparison to rising tuition fees; as well as
  • Correlations between standardised test scores of students – such as the Primary School Leaving Examination and the O or A level examinations – and the wealth or education of their parents.

In addition to these evidence-informed evaluations of socio-economic mobility, on the second note to fix meritocracy, what about a broader conversation about egalitarianism in Singapore? Or even just problematising assumptions or features of our meritocratic system?

In its Reflections report at the end of the Our Singapore Conversation process, opportunities was one of the five core aspirations that citizens feel should guide our society. They said: “We need to re-calibrate how we define merit today [because] our system rewards too narrow a selection of abilities,” and that as a society “we should ensure that opportunities do not stay entrenched among the more privileged”.

Professor Michael Sandel of Harvard University, in his “Justice” course which was made into a 12-episode television series, summarised in an episode three different theories of distributive justice: libertarianism (a “free market system”), the meritocratic system (“fair equality of opportunity”), and the egalitarian theory (in which “people may gain, may benefit from their good fortune, but only on terms that work to the advantage of the least well-off”).

Egalitarianism in this regard is not necessarily a call for guaranteed equality of outcomes, and the recognition that personal abilities, effort, and achievement cannot be solely attributed to personal endeavours means that the socio-economic gains should be shared with the society.

Not all may concur with this theory of distributive justice. In a ST letter on April 12, I warned of the opportunity gap between different households – “that students from more well-to-do families would have been privileged with more resources and options to pursue [abilities and interests]” – and how those from less well-to-do families may thus be disadvantaged at aptitude-based admissions in the universities and at the workplace.

In response, letter-writer Ms Qu Aohan wrote on April 18 that “we cannot penalise the well-off ones just because they have more opportunities to succeed… rather, more effort should be put into levelling the playing field.”

Her argument that penalising those who are more well-off would create new inequalities, especially on the notion of “penalising”, is puzzling to me (does she, for instance, perceive taxation as a form of a penalty?), yet our conceptions of socio-economic mobility may stem from dissimilar beliefs and backgrounds.

Understanding and talking about these differences – I believe – are important. With the aforementioned data and information, is our society truly fluid? To what extent do we agree in the equality of opportunities? And do policies reflect our beliefs – or the beliefs of the G?

At the end of his commentary Prof Tan said that recent policies – the “tweaks” to the education system, in the universities, and with SkillsFuture – “may start to free up the institutional rigidities that hinder social mobility and restore a public sphere disenchanted by elitism, mistrust and envy.”

The reference to “institutional rigidities” implies the need for action by the G. But if a more “radical overhaul” is to happen, Singaporeans must reflect – using research information and the perspectives of other Singaporeans – more deeply about meritocracy and its implications.


Featured Image by Sean Chong.

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