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The unexpected perils of meritocracy in an overly dense society (Part 1) — Kungie

January 08, 2013

JAN 8 — I never really know what to say when people ask me what I think about Singapore. It’s beautiful, modern, safe and clean for sure; everything that I could want for a contented life seems already laid out for me. But yet for many young Singaporeans, it can sometimes feel socially inhabitable. In a country where the material means to achieve anything is abundant, the possibilities in your life are surprisingly and maddeningly narrow.

For a long time I have intuited that our semi-authoritarian government must be at fault. Maybe the dreadful tropical heat is to blame too.

But my recent readings do not seem to point to that, instead suggesting that all meritocracy-centric and densely populated societies are perhaps inherently doomed to this kind of social suffocation, regardless of how they are run. Here is why I think so, presented in a three part series article. 

The inconvenient premise of meritocracy

Meritocracy is a beautiful ideal. It is a breakthrough in philosophical technology; you can become the king of your country not because you are a Scorpio, born during a solar eclipse or have two hair swirls instead of one. No, you become the king simply because you are the most capable. Everyone has a chance to be at the top, so long as you work for it. It’s elegant, egalitarian and utopian; it is one of the key principles that sets Singapore apart from the many countries that have fallen to social unrest before us.

But meritocracy is an awkward (though not necessarily ill) fit for us, because we do not even come close to representing the kind of homogenous and everyone-is-more-or-less-the-same society that meritocracy presumes. We are a classic plural society, bearing fracturing differences in culture, religion, wealth and language, even within racial groups. And these factors throw equality of chances out of the window, in ways which many Singaporeans are quietly aware of. But the problem is not that we don’t have equal chances; it is that we refuse to accept that our chances are unequal.

The consequence of this is that many of our egos are stressed and damaged, caused by the interplay of the meritocratic tendency to compare individuals solely based on what they can achieve, and the incongruence of the backgrounds of the individuals. Failure is highly feared in Singapore, not because we are timid, but because it is taken as the inexcusable result of our own idleness and incapability. Even taking shelter behind perfectly valid reasons for less than satisfactory performance can be seen as dishonest and irresponsible, for little is spared from this unique strain of oriental cynicism. This point could not be put across more succinctly than what Alain de Botton has done in his monumental TED speech, “A kinder, gentler philosophy of success”.

And Singapore is not just a meritocracy; it’s a super-meritocracy. The institutionalised ranking and competition in schools and at work scratches the concept deeply into the bed rocks of the national psyche like few other nations in the world do.

And under this pressing need to honour and distinguish, comes the urge to define what it is exactly that we want to honour and distinguish. — The Online Citizen

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.