Distortions of Meritocracy

In Singapore we’re always told about how we’re a meritocratic society. There have been criticism about that, most notably, by Kenneth Paul Tan at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

I’m not going to repeat their powerful arguments, because I can’t, but what I would do is to think about the less-looked consequences of meritocracy.

As a starting point, Tharman Shanmugaratnam said that Singapore was an “exam-meritocracy” in contrast to the US’s “talent meritocracy” – this back in 2006 when Tharman was still the Education Minister. A lot of things have changed since then in Singapore. There has been a broader definition of excellence other than grades alone, but culturally, the obsession towards grades remains, attested to by the proliferation of increasing-sophisticated tuition centres.

To me, there could be another insidious way in which this examination/grades-based obsession impacts our culture. Here is the hypothesis:

The examination-based meritocracy creates a clear sense of “people who have made it, and people who don’t”. Our education system incentivises the people who can continuously jump through the hoops – constantly scoring distinctions and all. However – and this is the oft-neglected part – that the education structure disincentivises people who don’t make it at any stage. The end result, after a while is that people lose interest and stop participating fully in anything later on.

That’s the power of the incentive structure that we’ve set up in Singapore society. I suspect that the impact of the education system goes beyond the display of grades as signals to other institutions and companies. I suspect that there is also a neglected side in this discussion, in how the examination-obsession shapes our behaviour in subtle ways.

I think the incentive structure finds its way into the workplace – people who have jumped through hoops want to continue jumping through the various hoops – the everyday work assignments; the projects that they do, and who continue to do them in engaged, and enthusiastic ways. And then there are the people who drop out – people who have not cleared hoops and decide to drop out and refuse to participate beyond the necessary – as what happens when there are no more incentives to aim for in the education system – no more distinctions required, no “good stream” to enter into.

But life is not a serious of hoops to jump through. Life is a series of experiences, and it can be made into a process of continuous growth and possibility (just read The Art of Possibility by Rosamund and Benjamin Zander). Our exam-based meritocracy shapes our cultural ethos and behaviour in more ways than one, and we should acknowledge that influence before moving on to think about routes to change.

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One comment

  1. Huw Thomas

    Interesting post. For some reason made me think about language. French was once seen as the language of diplomats and sophisticated people but is now of limited importance internationally.
    English is now far and away the dominant world language. The economic power of the US is certainly one reason for this. But there’s another: English is a flexible language that adapts and shifts over time, taking on new words to reflect changes in the world. The French language is protected by an academy that lays down rules about what is permissible and what is not.

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