Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Meritocracy's shortcomings

Sep 20, 2011

THE bottom line is that meritocracy is a euphemism for institutionalising a caste system ("Meritocracy is the only way to tackle inequality fairly" by Dr Khor Swee Kheng and "Level playing field" by Mr Alex Tan; Sept 13).

[Hyperbole. A caste system is one where your position in society is determined by your parentage. The ideology of meritocracy is that one can find one's place in society based on merit. A poor student who can score as high or even higher than a rich student would have as many opportunities as the rich student based on merit.

Now we can agree that the rich student probably have more opportunities because daddy can buy him a place in some foreign university, but that is not because of meritocracy.

And meritocracy is not an euphemism for a caste system. That's just demagoguery.]

The corollary of the so-called positive aspects of meritocracy is that it provides an equal opportunity to also dump the least advantaged into socio-economic badlands in pursuit of individual advantage and influence for oneself above all others. Some call this elitism.

[Explain these  "socio-economic badlands" you speak of. A student who cannot make it to JC, has Polytechnics as an option. If that is also beyond his ken, there is ITE. Have you seen the ITE campus at Choa Chu Kang?  A veritable monument to the "economic badlands".

Or is everyone suppose to be University graduates? In the 70s, less than 5% of the cohort made it to university. Today, I believe the figure is closer to 26%, with another 43% going to polytechnics. 20% goes to ITE. There is some overlap (ITE may go onto Poly, Poly may go onto University). But taking this as an illustration, almost 70% of a cohort goes to university or polytechnic. This is elitism?

I must have been sick the day they redefined elitism.]

To claim that the alternative to meritocracy is communism is bizarre. Why would Singapore want to be communist?

[I'll accept that is also hyperbole. But the correct response is, then what is this alternative to meritocracy?]

To state that there is such a thing as "compassionate meritocracy" is to make as much sense as former United States president George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism". Putting the term "compassionate" before an ideology does not suddenly add heart power to it.

Coming up with alternatives to a meritocratic system would involve allowing as much freedom to others as we would allow for ourselves, free and equal opportunities for all, and ensuring that we look out for the interests of the least advantaged in society.

[I have taken and defended a very narrow aspect of meritocracy - that of educational meritocracy. This is because this is public policy and practice, figures and statistics are open and transparent, schools are governed by govt policies and in particular the ideology of meritocracy, whereas trying to argue meritocracy in the workplace is a minefield of ego, perception and beyond the direct control of govt policies.

So when someone suggests alternatives to the meritocratic system, the first question is, "so we don't use grades anymore?" The danger is not communism, but American Liberalism. The US education system is still great - people still want to go study in their top universities. But many universities are average, and many schools are not working, particularly for the average children. Where the schools are more concerned about the self-esteem of the child rather than teaching the child skills that the child can be proud to master (and thus solving the self-esteem problem).

So what is the alternative to meritocracy? Assume everyone is equally good (and equally average) and teach at an average level? Or drop standards so even the least able can graduate?

Looking out for the interest of the least advantaged, heck let's call a spade a spade, the most disadvantaged in society is not an issue for meritocracy to address. That's barking up the wrong tree. An abused child is an abused child and the issues are abuse, neglect, absentee parenting, parents addicted to drugs, alcohol, gambling, work, success, etc. That has nothing to do with meritocracy.

An intellectually or developmentally  disabled child is a disabled child and yes meritocracy is going to leave him behind, but the problem is not going to be addressed by de-institutionalising meritocracy or leading an ideological charge against meritocracy as an unthinking, unfeeling, impartial, objective, heartless ideology. It is all that and all that is irrelevant. The disabled child needs specialised help and that is beyond the scope of meritocracy.]

We have to work these ideas out in a constructive manner between the citizenry, government, bureaucracy and other interest groups. This social, economic and political constructivist approach will allow us to create the reality we want.

It is this attitude of being free from ideological obsessions that helped make Singapore a successful state. But as we evolve into a well-ordered society that recognises the value of human beings beyond their talent or so-called economic merit, then we are on the path to creating a just and fair society.

[I suggest you get free of your obsession with meritocracy as the bane of Singapore society. Your concern is valid. Your solution, no so much.]

When we recognise the intrinsic worth of a human being irrespective of race, language or religion, then we are also learning tolerance, kindness and compassion.

Sanjay Perera

[When you can prove that meritocracy is also an euphemism for racism and religious intolerance, in addition to institutionalising a caste system, then we'll talk some more.]

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