The Straits Times
Published on Nov 22, 2012

Meritocracy works, so review it with care


MR SOON Sze Meng ("Balancing the benefits and downside of meritocracy"; Monday) notes that meritocracy is not the great social leveller as normally presumed, and that even in the most egalitarian of societies, there are in-built advantages accrued to the rich.

One cannot argue with the obvious, so if resources are well marshalled and applied in equal measure by all, then, theoretically, the more one has at one's disposal, the better the outcome.

Yet, a Chinese idiom that wealth and prosperity do not stay within the same family over more than three generations repudiates the cynical saying that the rich can only get richer. That Chinese adage implies that the concentration of wealth within oligarchies and rich families dissipates over time.

Does this happen because rich children are also saddled with disadvantages that impede their development and drive? One can think of a cushy life, facilities at their beck and call, and luxurious accoutrements for rich children leading to dissolution, indolence and presumption.

Meanwhile, the financially deprived ones are assiduously hauling themselves up by their own bootstraps, continually looking out for advancement avenues, recognising them and exploiting all these occasional opportunities for all they are worth - for only by doing so can they escape their middling circumstances or grinding poverty.

Many modern rich parents realise the folly of pandering to their children and are insistent that they stand on their own two feet to perish or to flourish. Some make well known their desire to leave all their wealth to charity, so that their children are as lean and hungry in their daily applications as their poorer peers. Do we need to negatively discriminate against them?

As with meritocracy, which clearly has its darker side, positive affirmation or discrimination for minority groups, the disenfranchised and the not-so-needy has its negative aspects too. These include low self-esteem and the development of a crutch or entitlement mentality for their beneficiaries, which are ultimately detrimental for development.

If I sound confused, it is because the situation clearly is so, with social research unable to reach a definitive conclusion as to the effects of positive discrimination, the milieu of factors involved being too complicated to study in isolation.

Meanwhile, the tested model of meritocracy, beset with some flaws as it were, has served us well and should be adjusted only with great circumspection.

Yik Keng Yeong (Dr)