Tagged: meritocracy

The Current 5-Trick Pony

I realise that I keep using 5 frames/logics/lines of argument whenever I discuss issues to do with Singapore.

1. Spectrum: Everyone for him/herself or community of fate

I use this frame to go through the substance and the rhetoric of new policy moves. ‘Everyone for themselves’ is the usual rhetoric of self-reliance, and not to depend on the state (which assumes other things below). I picked up the notion of ‘community of fate’ from a Danish contributor to Ethos – the publication of the Civil Service College. The idea is that there is a collective good that every social actor is striving for, and compromises have to be made to aim for that. The whole article is here is called “The Danish Negotiated Economy.  Apparently, this also translates to the German notion of Gemeinschaft (an ‘ideal type’ in the early 20th century Germany sociology tradition).

I also apply this more broadly, in thinking about say, the acceptance of employers for the disabled, or the elderly. This really is applicable for all of us – in deciding how much we want to care about others, and how to care for others, instead of putting it in a zero-sum frame.

Edited 25 Nov 2015: I say this is a spectrum because individualism and the broader social collective view are ends on a spectrum, and that communities and polities are really deciding which point to move closer to. These are negotiated positions, and societies fall along this spectrum (as with many things).

2. An opinion: The ‘Race for Talent” is a shorthand for corporate laziness.

My own sense is that ‘talent’ is a shorthand for corporate laziness. I use the word ‘corporate’ in the broader sense of the term to indicate organizations, whether private or public (or people sector). I use this also in the context of ‘the race for talent’ – the notion that there are only a few brilliant people in the world, and that organizations have to race to grab them with high pay, privileges and responsibility. Reality is of course, much more nuanced, but I want to point out that there is obviously more than individual ability at work, and there’s a whole bunch of factors, such as the company’s willingness to train people, the culture of job-hopping, the organizational culture – if it is nurturing or not, and most importantly, whether there are capable supervisors in the organization. Just focusing on the ‘race for talent’ is misleading and unhelpful, when there’s so much more that could be done in ensuring there are capable supervisors, managers and leaders in the an organization, and to also improve the capabilities of existing staff.

As a starting point, Geoff Colvin’s article in 2008 emphasizing the importance of deliberate practice is very useful.

3. Myth: As social spending goes up, taxes must eventually go up, and as a result, our economy will suffer. 

This is in relation to spending, especially on what seems to be ‘costs’. Donald Low, in one of his Facebook notes/updates (here) already note the fallacy of this framing – all spending is costs anyway, and it really is normative in how people define social returns.

So yes, more spending means at some point, higher taxes will probably be necessary. I guess I’m also constructing a straw-man, but the notion of increasing taxes seems to trigger a large reaction, and the usual fear from increasing taxes is the erosion of competitiveness.

At this point, I’m scratching my head because:

  1. Competitiveness is really a collection of a bunch of indicators;
  2. If the economy is dependent on one indicator (taxation rates) to be economically viable, then that economy is in a bad shape. Besides, as this guy has pointed here, the sky-high taxation rates in other countries are not really that high in practice.

4. An opinion: Between the state and individual there are organizations and associations.

This is in response to a Margaret Thatcher quote, who reportedly said the following:

‘I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand “I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it!” or “I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!” “I am homeless, the Government must house me!” and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first… There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.’ (emphasis mine; quote taken from here)

This is a wonderful quote, with the highlighted section the oft-quoted section. The rest of it is also nice too, and many people subscribe to this view. This is a powerful reflection of the notion of self-reliance and individual empowerment, although there is also a little flaw with this view, as described below.

Where this applies to: associations and civil society

In Singapore we are very used to thinking in terms of self and the state and society. We fail to consider that that between self, society and state, there are all kinds of organizations and associations for people to come together and discuss all sorts of things. Some of them are nice, some of them are not-so-nice, and all of them are avenues through which individuals can exercise their influence. Just as with the economy we talk about expanding the pie and then think about distribution, surely the same can be said that the socio-political arena is one where we can expand the common space for social discussions, and then negotiate compromises for the greater good.

25 Nov 2015 update: Margaret Thatcher should have considered organisations in between family and the state.

5. An opinion: Not everything is about individual choice. Culture also shapes behavior.

Self-reliance and individual choices are not the only source of social outcomes. I mean, just look at rush-hour traffic. If everyone had real choice, everyone would avoid going out at the same time, right? Rush-hour is a half-absurd example, but surely the traditions and norms shape the way we make decisions too.

Where this applies to: thinking about poverty

People hardly have choice in growing up in poverty or in privileged backgrounds. People are almost not poor by their own choices, and everyone makes mistakes too, its just that some mistakes are more irrevocable than others. To paint broad-brushstrokes of poor people as deserving of their situation also fails to see how people are also trying to struggle out of their situation, and obscures institutional shortcomings. Besides, being poor can be a tax on mental capacities.


So there you go, my 5 ‘tricks’. If there are serious flaws, let me know, and I’ll think about if I need to change my mind.

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.

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.