By Invitation

Pushing back on privilege and meritocracy

Don't take privilege for granted; instead, work to improve lives of the less privileged at the policy and personal level, and by volunteering.


The YouTube clip that left the deepest impression on me this year was "$100 To The Winner Of The Race". It brilliantly explains privilege and how insidious it can be in everyday life.

In the viral video, a teacher at a US college lines up some 30 youths at a school field and tells them to race to the end of the field. The winner will receive a US$100 (S$134) bill. But there is a catch. Some will get an advantage based on their backgrounds.

"Take two steps forward if both of your parents are still married," he says. "Take two steps forward if you had access to private education."

He continues in the same vein for another six questions. By then, the student body has separated, with several still at the initial starting line, a handful right in front, and the rest spread in between.

Before the race begins, he instructs everyone in front to look back, and drops the hammer on them: "Every statement I have made had nothing to do with anything any of you have done, has nothing to do with decisions you have made," he says.

While those nearer the front have a big head start and a better opportunity to win the race, he points out that they "would be fools" to not realise that they have been given more opportunity.

Noting how unfair the race is with different starting lines, the teacher says: "This is a picture of life, ladies and gentlemen."


The video presented an "aha" moment that helped me to understand a gnawing concern I have had with meritocracy in Singapore.

As Donald Low notes in his book, Hard Choices: Challenging The Singapore Consensus, meritocracy has long been widely regarded as "a core principle of governance in Singapore", and one that is close to "being a national ideology".

The principle of meritocracy, he says, is about "equalising opportunities not outcomes, and allocating rewards on the basis of an individual's merit, abilities and achievements".

However, as we can see from the US$100 race, equal opportunity (every student can run and win the US$100) is not always fair if the starting lines are different, since those in front are often (unfairly) advantaged.

And the starting lines can be far apart in society today; in fact, they are markedly more so than in previous generations. Perhaps in the pioneer generation where the starting lines were not so far apart, since everyone was poor, meritocracy worked well and was seen as less discriminatory.

The concern with different starting lines is almost universal.

A recent Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report, Excellence And Equity In Education, indicates that students coming from poorer families are over four times more likely to be low performers compared with their more affluent peers ("Poorer kids more likely to underperform, but Singapore has many resilient students, global test finds"; ST Online, Nov 24).

The survey, which is based on the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) 2015 tests, shows how pervasive the impact of socio-economic circumstances is on student achievement, "no matter the level at which school systems perform as a whole".

However, the divide seems more marked in Singapore.


The OECD report notes that socio-economic differences account for 17 per cent of the variation in students' science performance in Pisa, compared with the OECD average of 13 per cent.

The good news is that research has shown that hard work can, in certain circumstances, trump privilege and talent. Think of the fable of the tortoise and the hare. American professional basketball player Kevin Durant famously said: "Hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard."

In the same way, those who are too complacent with their privilege could lose out to those coming diligently from behind.

Thus, the OECD data also shows that 49 per cent of the disadvantaged students (those in the bottom quarter of the socio-economic index in Singapore) emerged in the top quarter of performers worldwide, outperforming what is predicted by their backgrounds.


This issue of privilege may have hit home for many Singaporeans, when 16-year-old Tan Yan, a Secondary 4 student, wrote a letter to the Forum page ("Not school's fault if students can't cope"; Oct 11) on her schooling experience.

In her letter, she describes how she is able to get more than seven hours of sleep a night and "maintain my grades and balance commitments such as thrice-weekly music lessons and twice-weekly CCA". As for those students who are unable to cope and "gripe endlessly" about school and schoolwork, she says that the problem is not the education system but the students themselves because of their "poor time management and procrastination", and "distractions from friends, games and celebrities".

Her short missive triggered an avalanche of responses on social media. Some dismissed her as having a "typical elitist mindset".

The more reasoned ones point out that students from less-privileged backgrounds do not have maids, chauffeurs and tuition, and have to deal with "distractions" such as making ends meet, taking care of siblings, and dealing with dysfunctional family situations.


So, which camp is correct? There is, obviously, no easy answer.

While we should not necessarily demonise privilege, we should also be aware of its existence and how it affects each and every one of us.

Different starting points are a reality of life. But it is how we deal with, and push back on, our privileges that matters.

The first positive response is to recognise and acknowledge that one's privilege exists in the first place. We should not take privilege for granted or, worse, treat it as an entitlement and demand more. Just as bad a response would be to look upwards and be envious of those more privileged than us.

Many parents today lament how their children take their lot in life for granted. They wish that their children would appreciate a little more of their good fortune, which they, the parents, did not enjoy when they were growing up.

However, privilege is relative. We are all privileged to different degrees. Just being born and living in Singapore should already be a huge privilege compared with most other countries. So, parents also need to recognise the privileges that they do have, and still enjoy.

We then need to "push back" on our privileges by actively doing something for those who are starting from behind us to bring them forward, nearer to our starting lines.

In this regard, the ones that most deserve our help are the young, the very poor and the vulnerable.

The young in need are those from poor or dysfunctional homes who do not have the support and resources to benefit from a full and rounded education, and could thus continue to be disadvantaged in their later lives.

The extreme poor are usually caught in a poverty trap. They live from hand to mouth, with nothing left to invest in a better tomorrow for themselves or their children.

The vulnerable include the disabled and infirm who are disadvantaged from the inception of their disabilities, and may need positive discrimination to bring them on a par with "regular" folks.

We can try to help these groups on an individual basis, influencing policies and lending a helping hand in our workplace and daily lives where possible.

More significantly, there are social service organisations and advocacy groups that focus specifically on such causes and for which each of us can volunteer to make a bigger difference.

And so, as we approach the new year, it would be timely to count our blessings and see how we can bless those whose starting lines may be less fortunate than ours.

Happy New Year.

  • The writer, a former managing partner at Accenture, is chairman of the Singapore Institute of Directors and author of books on non-profits titled Doing Good Well, Doing Good Great, and The World That Changes The World.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 23, 2017, with the headline Pushing back on privilege and meritocracy. Subscribe