Judge people's merits in 'real time'

Since the principal of Raffles Institution warned the school to guard against being elitist, there have been counter-arguments that if we try to avoid elitism, Singapore could turn from a meritocracy into a "mediocracy".

"Elitism" and "meritocracy" have been used interchangeably - and wrongly - too often.

Meritocracy implies selection or reward on merit.

Elitism, on the other hand, implies membership in a formal or informal class that is looked upon as superior in some way and whose members are deserving of favoured treatment in life. Inclusion is often based on lineage, social standing, wealth or intelligence.

Even if inclusion in the elite is based on intelligence or initial demonstration of merit, there is no good reason why someone who was very well-versed in a narrow range of skills at 12, 16 or 18 years of age, or who attended a brand-name school, should be deserving of favoured treatment in life.

People's merits should be judged in "real time" - how good they are at the time they apply for a job, not how good they were, say, 20 years ago, when they won a scholarship.

So, we should not try to justify elitism by justifying meritocracy. They are not the same.

Soh Gim Chuan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 31, 2015, with the headline 'Judge people's merits in 'real time''. Print Edition | Subscribe