Yet more fodder for the outrage crowd, where the harsh and damning criticism fell upon NUS, AGC and the courts for such a ridiculous excuse for letting the culprit walk free. Yet while the discourse is conveniently surrounded around the legality and the judicial process, has anyone stopped to think why the judge made the decision? It is meritocracy! After all, is he not wrong to assume that a university student did not have such a great future ahead of him? This student have proven to have merit and punishing him would be wasting it. Should he not be rewarded for his merit? Why is the judge wrong then? It might be an extreme, but one cannot reject the judge’s ruling and still accept meritocracy.
Meritocracy’s original sin
The most indicting flaws and criticism of meritocracy perhaps lie with its creator, Michael Young. A socialist sociologist, he saw Fabian socialists salivating at the prospect of an improved school system that could equalize the playing field. After all, wouldn’t it be fair if one could measure and reward merit in every children? Young however saw things very differently. He wrote a satire, The Rise of Meritocracy, to mock such wishful and naïve notions. In this satire, he wrote as a sociologist and member of the meritocracy from the future, describing and praising the current meritocracy.
The sociologist wrote about how the meritocrats perpetuate itself, ensuring their children get the best opportunities in the education system that their status can acquire. Their children given more opportunities and resources once they proven their merit, snowballing from their original head start. After all is it not meritocratic to reward and ensure that our best are given the best? And finally these new meritocrats can look from up high and proclaim that they made it and deserved the position and opportunity that they had been given. Meanwhile the under-class are labelled déclassé, their opinions and wants ignored by the meritocracy.
While everyone now remembers the word, so few remembers the satire behind it. (Although to be fair, it was really long and meandering in trying to create this alternate future and should have been shorter by at least 75%). The ‘meritocrats’ of today are Young’s original criticisms made flesh.
For the former, Singapore has refined that process to perfection. The cream of the crop has their life set out for them as if they are boarding an ‘It’s a small world after all’ theme park ride. Moving slowly and slavishly from lavish scholarships, bonds to technocratic positions and finally future leaders of the country. Yet these leaders are isolated from the masses like plants grown artificially in a greenhouse. Rich and educated parents pour their wealth into buying an estate near the infamous Sixth Avenue saturated with branded schools, leveraging their privilege into giving their children a head start in acquiring theirs. In his satire, Young exposed a truth that is all too often ignored or forgotten, that giving a fundamentally unequal society equal opportunities is not equality of opportunity.
The New Aristocracy
Unconsciously or perhaps consciously, our rulers have already noticed the growing elitism, coining the term “compassionate meritocracy” to renew meritocracy’s appeal to the people and rejecting elitism. But such an action is already an admission of meritocracy’s failure, a repackaged noblesse oblige that acknowledge the creation and enforcement of a new aristocracy. Yet when the mask slips, instead of acknowledging class differences, the focus is instead shifted into something inherent, often good genetics and upbringing.
Young feared that harsh inequalities would be explained away or even increased, justified and acquiesced to in the name of meritocracy, as they would lack the capacity or even the will to speak up on their behalf. After all, a trait of a good government is to do what is right (meritocrats) instead of what is popular (masses), isn’t it? Instead of creating actual equality of opportunity, such a meritocracy would merely legitimize pre-existing inequalities and browbeat opposition as mere populism. As Young suspected, growing number of meritocrats that grew under and were groomed by the meritocracy treat the masses no different from how nobles look down on peasants.
We live in a meritocracy?
So what is to be done? Like our new education minister, one can tweak the education system and even improve it. But no matter how much streaming you take out of the education system, how holistic you can make it, or even how ‘middle class’ you make Raffles Institution, none of this would change the inequalities in our society and how the wealthy and meritocrats would leverage it to their advantage. The road to an actual meritocracy would have to go beyond the education system to our economy and society. Nor would it be easy or welcomed by the beneficiaries of the current system.
But nevertheless this road must be taken. But this has to start with rejecting and dispelling the notion and illusion that we live in a meritocracy. Social mobility and equality.
At the end of his story, Young wrote about a female-lead socialist revolution in 2030s that critiqued and finally toppled such a government, killing the author in the process. If Singaporeans really want to conform to this satire, can we at least play our parts dutifully to the very end?
Written by anonymous