Inequality is meritocracy's unintended effect

As the debate on inequality continues, much has been discussed recently on education and how Singapore needs to evolve in its paradigm on assessments.

Central to this is the idea of meritocracy, which rewards merit and, by contrast, indirectly punishes inferior performance. This is an unintended effect.

The conventional paradigm of meritocracy has no room to incentivise values such as best effort or ethics because the outcome is measured by performance.

This remains prevalent in any competitive society in its bid to thrive and be allocated the best share of global wealth.

Swiss-born British philosopher Alain de Botton noted this phenomenon in his book Status Anxiety, published in 2004.

He observed how views towards inequalities and notions of being rich or poor have evolved in Western societies.

In his 2009 TED talk, he suggested that, in meritocracy, the most skilled and driven will get to the top. However, this also implies that anyone at the bottom deserves to be there - they are the worst.

In the Middle Ages, a poor person was called an "unfortunate", whereas now they would probably be called a "loser".

The bedrock of Singapore's success has been the architecture of meritocracy and this must continue.

There is no alternative and this architecture needs to adapt to the social outcomes it may have produced and not be abolished simply because of its unintended effect of inequality.

Alvin Chow Keat

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 29, 2018, with the headline 'Inequality is meritocracy's unintended effect'. Print Edition | Subscribe