Myths about Meritocracy in Singapore

Ben Leong
8 min readOct 31, 2020

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

I had dinner with this young man last week and we discussed meritocracy. He talked about the common narrative about meritocracy, aka how society today is less meritocratic because the people with wealth seem to have an advantage over those who did not. Hold that thought.

Chua Mui Hoong happened to write a column on meritocracy yesterday. Basically, I see the article as two book reviews. Basically she read 2 books by 2 white men and was trying to see how what they said was relevant to Singapore.

Meritocracy has been under siege in the West for some time. Inequality has been increasing worldwide, and things are particularly bad in the West. Meritocracy and “privilege” have been blamed. I don’t really want to comment on the West. We can leave all these academics to do that. What I want to say is that in Singapore, we need to have some common sense and not anyhow import and accept these narratives.

The problem in my view is that the narratives are typically made up by these people who don’t have much common sense and have more heart than brain. Those with the brains don’t actually bother to stand up and propose an alternative because it’s hardly worth the time. Actually, the former could also be v clever and are doing it because of political ends, but I try to give people benefit of doubt.

What is the Problem?

First, let us agree that we have a problem. Inequality is exacerbating and the rich are getting *much* richer much faster than the poor. This is happening all the world, not just in Singapore. The poor are obviously not happy and so Opposition politicians (all over the world, not just Singapore) are capitalizing on this unhappiness, which I actually think is fair game.

What is offensive to me is that people somehow seem to want to think that meritocracy is somehow the cause for this inequality (at least in Singapore). To allow me to quote from Mui Hoong, “Goodhart’s book is a warning about the over-reach of “cognitive meritocracy” and how it has created a system of what the author calls “peak head”. This places those with Head skills (cognitive ability) above those with Hand and Heart skills (those in manual and caring jobs).”

Let’s ask ourselves this: do we believe that meritocracy in Singapore has somehow been placing head jobs over hand and heart jobs? If so, why would we say that?

To the best of my knowledge, there are only 2 things that are a direct manifestation of our “meritocratic” principles in Singapore:

(a) Scholarship system. But that’s really a recruitment tool by the Government more than anything else. The numbers involved are so small that it really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things.

(b) School admissions. But this is really a matter of allocating scarce resources in a manner than people can accept. I don’t think people will accept balloting. Someone else can try to come up with a better way to allocate school places. People complain a lot and we introduced DSA, which led to more complaints. No win one. Cannot win one.

Let’s be honest. Culturally, not a lot has changed in Singapore over the years. We have been kiasu; we are still kiasu. We still don’t have chewing gum. Why would people think that meritocracy has “somehow stopped working?” Stopped working for whom?

If someone else has other examples, please let me know and I will add to the list above.

So Why the Inequality?

Fundamentally, technology is increasing the efficiency of production so much that there are fewer and fewer jobs. Lower skilled jobs are being destroyed. Many of the new jobs are highly skilled and highly paid. There’s a pecking order of jobs that is sorted by skills/intelligence. As jobs get more scarce, those at the bottom of the food chain will be under pressure. It’s not a problem with meritocracy, no matter how you might want to try to define it.

Meritocracy does not allocate jobs. The market decides who it needs for the jobs — and for good reason. You do not hire a nurse to write software because you think nurses are not paid enough and software engineers are paid a lot. It just *does not* work like that. Market failure can however happen from time to time, but I don’t think we want to go into that.

Exactly which jobs get destroyed is irrelevant. The point is there is a totem pole on accessibility of the jobs. Some jobs are more accessible than others. If there is scarcity, the pay goes up; if there are a lot of people who can only access a small number of low-paying jobs, the wages get much worse.

Also, it is not true that all Hand and Heart jobs can be automated with technology more easily. I don’t see nurses going away for a v v long time.

What is true however is that technology can replace whole swarths of Hand and Heart jobs at once. For example, there are likely hardly any more production operators in Singapore. Foxconn is also getting rid of their armies of production operators. Similarly, we used to have stenographers in the civil service. They acted as PAs for Directors and above. We have hundreds of Directors. These days I think there are like 20 old-timers left. When they retire, stenographers will be extinct. I also believe that self-driving cars will be a reality in our lifetimes and with that, all the taxi and Grab drivers will need new jobs.

What we also know is for example is that SQ girls can make for good nurses. On the other hand, we are not going to be able to make them software engineers. So there’s an issue of substitutability for many Hand and Heart jobs. In other words, the downward wage pressure on these jobs is a complex function of technology replacement and many workers needing jobs who want to do these jobs.

Need for Expectation Management

Allow me to quote the following two paragraphs from Mui Hoong:

More than 95 per cent of young adults today get post-secondary education. This means Singapore’s demographics are changing, from one with highly differentiated education levels, to one with a broad-based, highly educated population.

We are becoming a much flatter society with far less differential in educational achievement. This is likely to reduce the gap in expectations of the good life and have impact on aspirations, identity and politics.

More than technological trends and moving demographics, I think that the *real* problem in Singapore is the Government’s inability to manage the population’s expectations and the narratives. I am reminded of the late Ngiam Tong Dow’s interview where he spoke about feeding the gorilla.

For some obscure reason, people still think that once they get a degree, they are thereby entitled to a good life. I was once asked the question, “Is it necessary to have a degree in order to make it big in Singapore?”

Two things I would like to highlight.

First, while it was true that the college graduates have in the past done better financially, there is this thing called correlation. Just because they get better jobs in the past doesn’t mean that all college graduates will thereby have better jobs and the economy will magically create more jobs for college graduates just because we have more college graduates.

Just do the following thought experiment: what if 100% of Singaporeans are college graduates? Well, then the people at NTUC packing supermarket shelves will be college graduates. How hard it that? I once had a domestic helper from Myanmar who was a college graduate (in Myanmar).

Second, life is a bell curve like it or not. Students seem to hate the bell curve and people don’t like stack ranking. It frankly does not matter if they like it. The bell curve is a reality when a population is big enough and I believe that “big enough” according to the mathematicians is like 30.

The population is also a bell curve and I really don’t believe that education can shift the curve. Or even if it can shift the curve, we have reached a point where cannot shift any more. In other words, I really don’t believe that the millennials are smarter than the people a generation or 2 generations ago in a statistically significant manner, whatever the PISA scores may seem to suggest.

In other words, I don’t believe that we have become a flatter society. Neither have we become a “smarter” society, even though on paper, our people are more highly educated. At least when people are less educated, they tend to have more humility. Social media frankly does not help.

I also roll my eyes when people complain about competition. That is part and parcel of life. Singapore is a global economy. Competition is not even local. People need to keep in mind that we cannot even grow enough of our own food. If we cannot compete globally, how are we going to survive as an independent country?

The Way Forward (Maybe)

Much of the recent discussions about Minimum Wage are more or less dealing with this exact problem.

At some level, the root cause might not be so important. What is true is that this situation is going to be a tricky political problem if not addressed. My hope that the Government continues to remain clear minded about the economic fundamentals that is the cause of the problem. At the same time, we need to manage these narratives better. I have thought about this problem for long time. The only viable solution I can come up with is for the Government to create these “dignified” low-wage jobs, but it’s tricky. Fundamentally it’s a form of welfare and we need to calibrate the level properly.

Our Government abhors direct intervention — and I fully understand. At some level, the situation we have run into is one form of market failure. Not market failure in terms of economic terms, but in social terms, so Government will have to intervene and regulate. This direct job creation scheme will also be costly to tax payers, but if people really care then Government just has to pay up.

Allow me to add that it is also naive to think that by restricting foreigners from coming to Singapore to work, everything will magically work out. My understanding is that there are currently still a lot of jobs in healthcare. Similarly, there are a lot of people who are out of jobs because of COVID. The question is why don’t all these displaced people just join the healthcare sector and the problem is solved? Well, it just *does not* work this way. The labour market is not completely efficient the way economists seem to suggest.

To conclude, allow me to highlight that I am not hereby claiming that meritocracy is perfect and has no faults. I am merely highlighting that it is misguided to think that we are somehow grappling with the low-income workers or inequality because of meritocracy. Every country in the world, regardless of meritocratic or not, is grappling with the same. If people want to find fault, please apportion blame fairly. That’s all. The issues with and merits of meritocracy are a discussion for another day.

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