Acknowledge limits of meritocracy and broaden its scope

Meritocracy's main appeal lies in rewarding hard work and giving recognition to people's talent and abilities.

Its downside is an unequal outcome and, hence, the high inequality it produces.

Must we accept this trade-off as inevitable?

Much has been said about it recently by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Education Minister Ong Ye Kung (S'pore must ensure no one is left behind as country progresses: PM, Oct 23; and Meritocracy and the paradox of success, Oct 25).

We need to relook how we have been doing things, like the "trickle-down meritocracy", for example, which has hitherto dominated our social policies.

Trickle-down meritocracy contends that the poor are best served by providing the brightest and the best with the maximum opportunities to succeed, as they are the ones deemed able to create jobs for the rest.

The danger of this is that economic efficiency may take precedence over distributional considerations of social equity.

We must be careful not to be blinded into being more concerned with growing the pie and less with how the pie is distributed.

We certainly must ensure we do not create a "Wall Street meritocracy" in any case, where losses are socialised and gains privatised.

Rules should govern and constrain those who have done well in the meritocratic system.

Meritocracy is legitimate only if it benefits the bulk of society; a meritocracy siring a high and rising inequality sows the seeds of its own demise.

We must acknowledge the limits of meritocracy and broaden its scope.

For instance, we need to recognise that while ensuring equal opportunities is necessary, it is not sufficient.

Equalising resources as much as possible is justified on the grounds that this ensures fairer access to opportunities later.

Spending on social programmes is likely to involve vigorous fiscal redistribution in today's context, but it is necessary if we are to save meritocracy.

Without these redistributive measures, meritocracy stands on a shaky foundation.

Wong Horng Ginn

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 05, 2018, with the headline 'Acknowledge limits of meritocracy and broaden its scope'. Subscribe