The Straits Times
Published on Dec 20, 2012

Framing meritocracy as an either-or option unhelpful


MERITOCRACY has often been touted as a pillar of our Singaporean society, without which the less well off, the unconnected, the minorities and others like them would not have been able to succeed in life and move up the social ladder ("Reaffirming meritocracy"; last Friday).

While I agree that meritocracy may indeed be the "fairest and most efficient way of allocating resources", the question of whether society can ever be too meritocratic should be considered.

I doubt that detractors and critics of our meritocratic system are advocating throwing meritocracy out of the window altogether and moving to a system where wealth, connections or race are used.

It does not help the debate to demand an alternative to meritocracy.

Instead, we should focus on whether the practice, rather than the principle, of Singapore's meritocracy is still serving its purpose.

We should consider the impact of our national obsession to perpetually be No. 1. Every time we heap praise on and reward the person who has come in first, we forget the message it sends to the people who came in second, or third, or 151st.

For example, although our education system provides alternative paths for our students depending on their varying capabilities (which is an improvement to the one-size-fits-all system), following the principle of meritocracy, the path that the "top" students take is the one touted as the "best" - as evidenced by scholarship criteria, university admissions, employment practices and the like.

So, parents heap pressure on their children, right from the beginning of their educational journey, urging them to be the best and to see their peers as competitors in the meritocratic race to the top.

When I read of 12-year-olds seeking psychiatric help because they cannot cope with the stress, it tells me that we need to take a hard look at whether we have taken this meritocratic system too far.

Let us reframe this discussion away from the "if we throw meritocracy out, then what is the alternative?" argument, and consider one about the actual practice of meritocracy and about reducing the obsession our society seems to have with it.

Prakash Nair