Malay-Muslim Community / Meritocracy

Myth of Meritocracy

Mr Zainudin Nordin, Member of Parliament and Ms Charlene Chang, Director, Community Relations and Engagement Division, MCYS wrote letters to the Sunday Times/Straits Times (16 Sep 2012 and 12 Sep 2012 respectively), expressing concerns over remarks I had made at a Forum organized by the Centre for Research and Islamic Affairs (RIMA).

My replies to these letters were unfortunately not published by the Straits Times.  It is necessary for me to set the context for my remarks and to correct certain mischaracterizations.

RIMA had actually invited two PAP MPs (including Mr Zainudin Nordin himself), as well as a former PAP MP, as panelists for the Seminar. Unfortunately, none of them were able to join the Seminar. 

I had raised some fundamental issues on Meritocracy during the Seminar.  Meritocracy is celebrated as a core value of Singapore, but perhaps without sufficient discussion on some of its issues.

The lead in for the Meritocracy discussion was the following statement made by Minister Mr Heng Swee Keat during his National Day Rally speech:

Extreme meritocracy and competition can lead to a winner-take-all society, with the winners thinking little of others. We need to restore a balance to hard-nosed material pragmatism.”

The phrases “extreme meritocracy” and “hard-nosed material pragmatism” are probably oblique references to issues relating to Meritocracy. 

There is a wealth of literature, based on studies done in the US and elsewhere, on the myth or shortcomings of Meritocracy.

In his letter, Mr Zainudin himself actually referred to the need to temper Meritocracy with “Compassion”.  My view is that this is but an acknowledgement of a failing of Meritocracy. This is because by definition, Meritocracy is heartless.

Meritocracy has been criticized for ignoring and even concealing the real advantages and disadvantages that are unevenly distributed to different segments of an inherently unequal society.  This creates an unlevel playing field at the ‘start line’ of the ‘race’.    It also makes it difficult for disadvantaged communities in succeeding generations to compete. 

Meritocracy has been criticized for perpetuating this fundamental inequality.  In fact, it has been criticized in bringing about social stratification, and in breeding elitism. 

Michael Young, who had coined the term “Meritocracy” in his satirical essay in 1958, would later write , in 2001, as to how disappointed he was with his book, which was a satire “that was meant to be a warning against what might happen to Britain between 1958 and the imagined final revolt against the meritocracy in 2033”.  

Young further wrote:

“It is good sense to appoint individual people to jobs on their merit. It is the opposite when those who are judged to have merit of a particular kind harden into a new social class without room in it for others.”

Studies in the US have shown that meritocracy breeds perceptions that the poor and disadvantaged are seen as incapable of being economically productive and as fully responsible for and deserving of their own conditions of poverty. 

Interestingly, Madam Halimah Yacob, during her Malay speech during the National Day Rally, mentioned:

“Kita perlu beri sepenuh perhatian dan jangan jemu-jemu bekerja keras demi kebaikan semua.

Tuan-tuan dan Puan-puan, Saya yakin dibawah sistem meritokrasi, dan bermodalkan usaha gigih kita, masyarakat Melayu/Islam mampu mendaki tangga kejayaan yang jauh lebih tinggi.”

(English translation: “We have to give full attention and cannot shun hard work for the collective good.”

“Ladies and Gentlemen, I am confident that under our system of meritocracy, and based on our hard work, the Malay/Muslim community can ascend the steps of success”)

During the Seminar, I commented that this statement gives the impression that any lack of success within the community under our system of meritocracy is because of a reluctance to work hard.  I had argued during the Seminar that such a view is consistent with findings that Meritocracy breeds the perception of an inherent deficit on the part of disadvantaged communities.

Mr Zainudin had remarked that I had no confidence in my own Community. 

However, I made no such comment of a lack of confidence.  Worse, this remark misses the core point.

The issue is not about a want of effort or or any inherent deficit on the part of Malays.  On the contrary, my argument is that the core problem is a systemic one – meritocracy puts disadvantaged communities on the backfoot in competing for opportunities.  The system makes it harder for social mobility.

While Mr Zainudin paints a glossy picture of the Malay-Muslim Community, the hard truth is that there are gaps which have persisted despite decades of intervention. 

Whilst there are improvements in absolute terms (i.e. how the Community is now compared to how it was previously), the Community lags in relative terms, when compared against other communities. 

The more significant gaps are in education (across all major national examinations), a stagnating admission rate to university and an actual widening gap in household income. 

The Malay Community is over-represented in negative metrics – drug trafficking, delinquency, teenage promiscuity, divorce rates etc.  The data is clear.

And so, the Malay Community continues to play catch up in the meritocratic race.  In some metrics, it appears to have fallen a few steps behind.

Singapore, as a highly competitive and globalized city, has the 2nd highest GINI coefficient amongst  countries with high human development, according to a 2009 UN Development Program Report.  Issues of social mobility of disadvantaged communities, including the Malay community,  become of greater concern today in the highly stratified Singaporean community.

I had argued that it had become even more pressing now to discuss the many systemic issues linked with Meritocracy.  This is over and above any discussion on enhancing safety nets to facilitate social mobility.

Mr Zainudin criticized that I had asked for ethnic quotas and the “same outcomes”.  This criticism is misplaced. I had not proposed for any ethnic quotas or pushed for identical outcomes.

I had actually referred to the following remarks made by Mr K Shanmugam in 21 January 2003 in Parliament, which he had himself then described as being “mildly heretical”:

 “There must be opportunities, without affecting the core principle of meritocracy, for there to be some form of action which will see Malays in important positions in greater numbers than they are now,”… “successful role models offer hope” and “this will give a considerable psychological boost to the rest of the Malay society.”

 Mr Shanmugam reaffirmed this statement in Jul 2009 in a dialogue with residents of Punggol Central.  Mr Shanmugam had argued against ethnic quotas, but was a proponent of giving opportunities to qualified individuals:

“Assuming 10 have made the cut-off, try to look for some who are also from the Malay community”

We have seen an increasing stratification of Singapore since 2003, and the persistence of gaps between the Malay community and other communities. 

Mr Shanmugam’s proposal, in my view, has become even more compelling today.

During my presentation, I had also referred to Diversity practices practiced in many US companies, which are meant to encourage the hiring of qualified persons coming from minority or traditionally disadvantaged communities, as an example that Singapore can consider to facilitate social mobility.

Mr Zainudin mentioned that beneficiaries from affirmative action will not be respected. 

Surely, the thousands of persons – including Ms Condoleezza Rice (who was singled out by Mr Shanmugam as an example of someone who benefitted from affirmative action initiatives in the US and who “inspired a whole generation of people”) –  who have benefitted from diversity practices in the US are no less respected?

Relooking Meritocracy is far from a “quick fix”, as suggested by Mr Zainudin.  It is a difficult issue, but one which we must have the moral courage to do.

It is in the spirit of the National Conversation that we must address issues relating to Meritocracy and social mobility with honesty and sincerity.

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10 thoughts on “Myth of Meritocracy

  1. Pingback: Daily SG: 26 Sep 2012 | The Singapore Daily

  2. “Mr Zainudin mentioned that beneficiaries from affirmative action will not be respected.”

    Bingo Zainudin. You went in under GRC. No wonder the community does not respect you.

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