In Defence of Meritocracy

Ben Leong
9 min readJan 4, 2022

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed herewith are strictly mine as a private citizen and has nothing to do with my employer, the National University of Singapore.

Not sure why but it has become fashionable in the West to bash meritocracy these days (Meritocracy is tyranny? Seriously?). That, in itself, is fine, but what is appalling to me is that some folks in Singapore seem to be lapping it all up.

What is Meritocracy?

While the term meritocracy was coined by the sociologist Michael Young in 1958, and used pejoratively, the context under which it was coined is pretty irrelevant, aka just because Michael Young invented the word and thinks it’s a bad word, doesn’t automatically mean that it’s a bad word. Let’s not be stupid about this.

At some level, Michael Sandel (and Michael Young) are probably right to criticize the American and British political systems that pretend to run on “merits”, like performance, intelligence, credentials, and education. I don’t consider the American and British political systems to be paragons of excellence that we should look up to. Who are we kidding?

The problem with Singaporeans is that some are so Westernized that they don’t realize that meritocracy is not a Western or Greek invention. Confucius promoted a variant of meritocracy way back in the 6th Century B.C: 选贤与能 “choosing the benevolent and able as the leaders.” The Chinese actively embraced this concept in the form of imperial exams since ancient times (that’s not to say that they were particularly successful, but at least they tried); today it is still more or less practiced in the form of their civil service examinations.

Three points that I would like to make:

(a) The Chinese were likely wiser to have defined meritocracy not just in terms of ability (能) but in terms of character (贤). It is probably no coincidence that character comes before ability. One of the things that I teach my students is this: what is important to me is that they not only have the mindset that will help them succeed, but that they have the right values. A smart crook can do a lot of damage to society; and

(b) Meritocracy isn’t about entitlement. Unfortunately, that is a common view among many (“I have good grades, so I deserve to get this scholarship, or this job”). Why? Probably because people like to feel good about themselves and that they want to feel like they earned their place in life? I don’t really know; and

(c) The real reason why meritocracy is a good thing is really because running a country/society is a v complex endeavour. Very few people actually have what it takes to get it right; any monkey can screw it up. It is therefore in the greater interest of society to have the person(s) who can do the job actually ends up doing the job(s).

How can having the best and most able among us lead possibly be a bad thing? Hold that thought.

The Gap Between Theory and Reality (or Why Meritocracy is Seemingly Failing)

First, as I had argued before, meritocracy is not the cause of inequality. Inequality is the result of technological advancement, (global) economic forces and often poor governance. I don’t understand why there is so much intellectual laziness. Or is that just virtue signalling?

Read my lips: it isn’t so much that meritocracy is failing, but that more often than not, there is no meritocracy. Do we believe that most countries are currently led by their best and the brightest? I don’t know why the American intellectuals have the gall to think that their society has any semblance to meritocracy when Trump can become POTUS. Do people think that America is meritocratic because the supposedly educated elites are running the country? If there is no meritocracy, then how can meritocracy be failing or be a tyranny?

Truthfully, it is awfully hard to measure merit. We want people who can deliver, but it is often hard to know if people will be any good, so we generally have to resort to proxies like grades and track record, which are obviously far from perfect. For people to end up in (political) power, they also need to get voted in. Vote share is almost certainly a poor measure of merit (in general).

Finally, there is also a general confusion between social mobility and meritocracy. The two are somewhat related but not the same. Social mobility means that one’s station in life is not fixed at birth but subject to change. Meritocracy means that the right to lead is not some birthright but something that is open to anyone who has the ability.

I would venture to guess that most Singaporeans actually don’t care much about meritocracy by this definition because I doubt many of our kids have the ambition to grow up to be politicians (we should probably be grateful if they even have ambitions :-)). Most people just care about social mobility and hope that their kids will grow up to do better than themselves. Their interpretation of meritocracy is if their kids study hard and do well in school, then they will have a good job and a good future. Perfectly fair, methinks.

Then how about Singapore? Are we meritocratic?

This brings us to my main point. Meritocracy is not some binary variable. Meritocracy exists on a spectrum. By most measures, Singapore is a much more meritocratic society than the US by leaps and bounds. In the US, one has little hope at politics unless one is already connected and filthy rich; in Singapore, the barrier to entry is *much* *much* lower.

But if one talks to the coffeeshop uncle, one cannot but conclude that something is not right. One also wonders why people are lapping up the narrative that meritocracy is failing in Singapore. There is no smoke without fire.

I have thought about this question long and hard and my answer is v simple: the real reward at the end of a supposedly meritocratic tunnel isn’t so much a job with a big title and lots of money, it is actually choice — and a meritocratic system will start to fail if those who are able do not want to take up the job.

Why do people not want the job?

I shall leave that as an exercise for the 4G PM, whoever he might be. :-) If he doesn’t figure it out in a hurry, then I suspect that, like LKY predicted, the PAP will be voted out in my lifetime.

Some people subscribe to Singapore exceptionalism, but I don’t think we are *that* different from Taiwan, Japan or Malaysia. In a democracy, it is simply *not* possible for any party to remain undefeated forever. But I digress.

There is no Merit, only Gifts

I am going to get bashed for this because it is a v unpopular view, but I am going to say it anyway: I suspect that many people are enamoured with the concept of meritocracy because they are on the “right” side of the divide and they like to feel like they somehow earned it. Those who ended up on the “wrong” side of the divide may also support it because there is the hope that if they could just try hard enough, that they too have a chance to end up on the other side. Some succeed, but how many actually do?

On the debate of nature vs. nurture, there is no doubt in my mind that nature trumps nurture many times over.

Given that I am a teacher, it would certainly be surprising that I would say that. Does it therefore mean that education is useless?

Of course that also cannot be true. The reality from where I am standing is that nature determines much of how far people can go; nurture is what determines whether they can actually achieve those limits.

In other words, as a teacher, I cannot actually make my students smarter than they already are. I just try to help them become the best versions of themselves.

But if people agree with me that nature is supreme, then there’s very little merit because everything boils down to luck more or less, aka or what people are endowed by nature, also often called the ovarian lottery, which will certainly go down badly with some people, but I will leave it as that.

The Audacity of Hope

I had a friend over at my place for lunch a couple of months ago, and we talked about social mobility. I told her this story.

About a year ago plus minus, some random person messaged me on Facebook to thank me for teaching her son. Apparently, the son is now a Software Engineer (SWE) at Facebook, Menlo Park — and she told me more. They apparently come from a relatively modest family and she didn’t send the son for tuition. Apparently, the boy scored like 200+ for PSLE (for the record, I don’t go around asking my students what they got for PSLE. Dunno why the mom told me), went to a neighbourhood school, then to a lower-ranked JC and then got admitted by the skin of his teeth to NUS. Then he took my intro programming class, did well and I got him to switch to CS, and the rest was history. SWE at Facebook represents the top 1–2% of the cohort.

This is not the only “success” story that I have come across in my years teaching, so I am convinced that social mobility is alive and well in this country. I also told my friend that this boy had a natural talent for programming. I cannot magically create a programming genius out of some random person. It just *does not* work this way. So my friend said, “So how? What are you going to tell people? If their kids are not born smart and they are not rich, then there’s no hope and no future?”

Good question. My view is that people need to look around and understand how the world works.

I personally never quite understood our fixation on good grades in school (but truth be told, we are not alone. The Chinese, Japanese, Indians and Koreans aren’t too different. Maybe this is an Asian thing).

Truth be told, given how life works, only a v small number will end up as the “winners” in these exams. About half the people will do “below average”, so people try so hard for what? This is not the US. There is no prize for participation or for being average (but neither do I think we want to go there).

Do people realise that there are some hawkers who make *a lot* of money? And that there are folks in China who became billionaires selling mineral water, or chilli sauce?

We are all dealt with different cards in life, but the tendency is for our people to expect all their kids to play the same game? Why? Please lah, if your cards are not good for poker, maybe they can add up to 21 and you can play blackjack instead?

Schooling and LKY (badminton player, not the dead man) have shown that it is actually possible to pick a different path. Sure, let’s not discount the survivorship bias, aka for every Schooling and LKY, hundreds more would have tried and failed….. but if they had taken more tuition and studied harder, would they then have “succeeded?”

Basically, people need to go figure out what their gifts are and how to make the best out of their lives by exploiting their strengths. Don’t just blindly follow what everyone else is doing and expect to do better. Keep in mind that there is no government on earth that can manufacture happiness or success on demand.

I also believe that there are many routes to “success” and that there is no one definition of success. People should find their own paths and not be fixated on “study hard, get a good job and buy property”.

A New Year, A New Beginning

Four reasons why I decided to write today:

(a) Today is the first day of school. I had to get up at an obscene hour to send my daughter to school and after I got home, my regular sleep cycle was completely disrupted and I was in no mood to work;

(b) I promised someone that I would pen down my thoughts on meritocracy in writing;

(c) I recently did an interview with zaobao and I told the reporter that one of the problems with Singapore is that many people probably have a misunderstanding of meritocracy but I didn’t have the chance to elaborate;

(d) I am looking at a v nasty semester ahead. Probably won’t be writing for a v v long time.

To conclude, I would like to quote myself from the zaobao article (quite surprised that this quote went to press): “以前曾有人提出所谓的‘新加坡梦想’。我觉得那是很愚蠢的,我觉得每个人都该有自己的梦想。” which translates to: someone once suggested this idea called a “Singapore Dream.” I thought it was a stupid idea. I believe that everyone should have his/her own dream.

COVID is not yet over and life in this coming year will still be hard for many. Nevertheless, in the midst of these difficult times, I hope that more people will use the uncertainty and opportunity to pursue their own dreams.

Tina Seeling from Stanford once said, “Welcome problems. If there are no problems, there are no opportunities; where there are big problems, there are big opportunities” or something like that. I am paraphrasing badly. :-)

Peace and Happy New Year.

In case people want to post comments, the discussion is here.