The Unintended Consequences of Meritocracy in Singapore

I alluded to the subtle consequences of meritocracy in Singapore previously, and I mentioned how the meritocratic process in Singapore makes people lose their sense of initiative because it divides people into two main groups – “people who’ve made it”, and “people who don’t”.

The other aspect to this, is to think about how people are divided – what are the indicators that divide people into these two groups. The chief indicator in Singapore, is obviously material wealth. That is by far the most important indicator, and it’s also the way how people compare.

The other aspect to this is the zero-sum perceptions of meritocracy. If there is only one dimension of comparison, then inevitably, someone has to win at the expense of others. If there is only one scale, someone has to be at one end, and someone else has to be the other end.

So this is a incentive structure that we’ve set up. Establish only one scale of comparison; have a process that makes people fight for their own position, and then rank them according to the material wealth that they’ve achieved. We all know this very well – the rat race.

When attention is focused on only one thing, inevitably other things get left out. The focus on material and measurable attributes that can be measured comes at the expense of the other things that are not so tangible. Funny, we all know there are varying levels of satisfaction in life, but we aren’t so focused on it to measure it.

Then there’s the other thing – measuring material wealth is deemed as an objective measure. It’s hard to argue that someone with $1 is better off than someone with $10, or $100 and so on.

I think at the heart of all these, there is a very basic mistrust of people. Having a meritocracy means that 1. you want to focus on only one aspect of people’s performance (or a few); 2. there is an objective measure out there that can be definitively measured.

Those points of attention also obscures: 1. All the other parts of a person’s attributes are worthless; 2. The incentive structure ought not to care about the subjective, personal measures.

The point in the previous point that people don’t feel capable of taking initiative, is I believe the result of all that meritocracy obscures and reveals. As a result, people don’t feel they ought to participate fully. In the end, you get people feeling like mere cogs in a bureaucratic machine.


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