Danger of being engulfed by meritocracy

One ideology that has firmly penetrated the Singaporean psyche is that of meritocracy.

Countless articles have debated its shortcomings and successes, and it is ultimately accepted as a theoretically perfect philosophy in a work-in-progress situation.

However, one worrying fact is that this system appears to have swallowed its citizens whole, creating a competitive, individualistic people who take it beyond a progressive belief - instead adopting it as their lives' mantra.

Rewarding merit has devolved into looking down on lack of achievement - meritocracy implies that those who fail in its system are undeserving.

Among many valuable insights in her book This Is What Inequality Looks Like, sociologist Teo You Yenn explains the dangers of internalising meritocracy as a monolithic narrative. She warns that "our national narrative and our internal biographical narratives… are all implicated and entangled".

Individually, Singaporeans are obsessed with merit, tying a large portion of their self-worth to it.

Structurally, this is perpetuated through salary increments given to the higher-educated, higher honours-class student.

Society correspondingly worships the rich and has less respect for those in the service industry, or blue-collar workers.

There must be losers for there to be winners. The playing field was never level.

Even in expanding areas of recognition to sports and arts, privileged families will always have better means to access them (Move beyond focus on grades to embrace skills: Ong Ye Kung; July 12).

It is an indisputable fact that inequality will always exist - even as society continually takes measures to ameliorate the less privileged position of those who fail to win the birth lottery.

What matters is to not be engulfed in this narrative and believe that quantifiable achievement is everything.

In many other countries, cleaners and bus drivers are respected and loved. People earn less but are happier. Success, wealth, happiness and respect differ in definition and are tied to intrinsic value rather than extrinsic achievement.

It is very important to learn from this humane mode of embracing others.

Donna Yip Si Yuan (Ms)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 14, 2018, with the headline 'Danger of being engulfed by meritocracy'. Print Edition | Subscribe