Imagine a typical classroom, where students are seated in rows with varying distance to the whiteboard. A single paper plane is issued to all of them along with a common task - to aim the paper airplane into the dustbin placed right below the white board at the very front of the class. Sweets are rewarded to those who are able to do so at the first attempt. It is almost certain that those seated relatively to the front will enjoy a significant advantage over the rest, who otherwise need a higher degree of precision and strength to achieve the same task.
The story above is extracted from a conversation between my friends and me. I found it an apt analogy for the application of meritocracy in our society. Despite appearing plain and intuitive, I found it surprisingly profound and thought-provoking.
In this analogy, it can be argued that meritocracy is indeed upheld. The same basis for reward - successfully aiming the paper plane into the bin - is being indiscriminately applied to everyone in class regardless of how far they are seated from the front. Equal opportunities are also presented to all, with everyone at least having one try. However, it is evident that meritocracy, in this case, is not absolutely fair.
Undeniably, meritocracy is a cornerstone of Singapore’s nation-building success and a fundamental organising principle of our society. In an ideal situation, it serves as a "social leveler" with equal opportunities to succeed presented to everyone regardless of their family background, ethnicity, or even gender. The most hardworking and capable individuals are able to rise to the top on basis of their "merit", which in this case equates to the combination of effort and ability. Hence, rags-to-riches stories are commonly heard in our society, with many high-ability individuals benefitting from the meritocratic system and succeeding despite their humble beginnings.
However, in recent years, the dark side of meritocracy has manifested itself, giving rise to a prominent social issue. The principle, while basing itself on the equality of opportunities, justifies unequal outcomes by offering greater rewards to the talented and hardworking. Consequently, the "equality of opportunity meritocracy offers tends to be subverted by the inequality of outcome that it legitimises" (Goldman, 2012). In essence, meritocracy may undermine itself.
We can see meritocracy giving way to "parentocracy", and one's family background has an increasingly large impact in the child's attainment in life. The parental advantage can be in the form of extra academic support and enrichment classes, better social connections and even a "more favorable learning environment at home", as quoted from Mr Lee Kuan Yew. He first raised this issue when he observed that more than half of students studying in perceivably top schools like Raffles Institution and Anglo Chinese School (Independent) had parents holding degrees, as compared to 13.1% at Chai Chee Secondary, the highest value obtained from the four heartland schools surveyed. Recently, this issue has been thrust in the spotlight again, with Raffles Institution's principal Mr Chan Poh Meng's warning the school against becoming insular and elitist. Arguably, this may have partly contributed to the widening socio-economic disparity in recent years. Our GINI coefficient has progressively risen from 0.425 in 2000 to 0.446 in 2010.
Personally, I have witnessed the manifestation of this issue in my community. In my course of volunteering, I have met children who, from an early age, lag behind their peers in terms of both learning abilities and basic knowledge, due to various factors such as lack of family support or conducive learning environments at home. Even before children step foot into primary school, they lag behind the starting line that their peers are standing on.
Nonetheless, it is evident that our society is now progressing towards a compassionate meritocracy. The direction of government policies shifting towards one that is more inclusive and supportive, with increasingly higher spending on social policies.
In 2014, I have had the opportunity to attend a policy dialogue with Minister Chan Chun Sing. Combining with his own experience as someone from a humble background, he elaborated on the extensive network of social transfers available to the bottom socio-economic strata, such as through housing policies, medical and education subsidies. He also emphasized on the utmost importance of the more well-off constantly remembering to give back to society. It was passionate and heartfelt, and I was deeply impacted and inspired by the talk.
Those who fortunately are on the right side of the bell curve due to meritocracy, he urged, should always keep in mind of their social responsibility, and contribute in their own means - financially, through volunteering, etc., helping to make our society much warmer and inclusive.
Another integral part of a compassionate meritocracy, in my opinion, is building up alternative pathways to success. Academic qualification can no longer be the sole “merit” by which people with vastly different strengths and aptitudes are judged based on. Talents in the arts, sports and even technological expertise and strong characters should be recognized and “rewarded”.
In the case of the dustbin story, it would mean setting up more dustbins in different corners of the room so that each child can throw the paper plane into the dustbin that is the nearest to him.