Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Meritocracy and an unequal society....

Geneticists have found that among all primates, humans have the smallest genetic differences[Link]. In fact genetic evidence show that biologically speaking there is no such thing as race[Link][Link] because, according to researchers writing in the open access journal BMC Genetics, overall there are more genetic differences within ethnic groups than between them. I talk about race only as an example to illustrate the tendency in humans being as group or as individuals to artificially differentiate themselves from others when there is actually no real difference at all[While looking for material for this post, I found this interesting paper on MM Lee's thoughts on race & genes found on the NTU server]. For a start human beings are more similar to each other than other species yet we end up with living conditions of extreme variation. I intend to show you that unless there is proactive intervention to bring about greater equality, (some) human beings will construct systems to amplify small differences among us or create differences when there are none - systems in which rewards are disproportionate to effort and ability and they will even have us believe it is all just and fair.

When Vivian Balakrisnan headed the Remaking of Singapore, he said you can change anything but meritocracy is a sacred cow we cannot slaughter. There is the prevalent and ingrained belief that it is the key to our success. I want to start by asking what meritocracy is. The term meritocracy originated from a novel called The Rise of Meritocracy published in 1958. In this novel, a social system based on meritocracy led to a social revolution in which the masses overthrow the elite, who have become arrogant and disconnected from public sentiment[Wikipedia Link]. In a meritocratic society, people are rewarded based on talent + effort. Nothing wrong with that. You work harder you get more. You're work smarter, you get more. You don't work, you get nothing. On the surface it sounds fair and just. You might have to get over a few minor issues like what talent is, how effort is measured and so on. Then you have to link talent + effort to rewards. That is where it usually goes wrong. You can run a meritocratic system where a person is paid $10M or $100K....so how do you decide? Why is the Prime Minister of a meritocratic govt paid, something like 5 to 10 times more than leaders elsewhere? In Singapore, they use some kind of proxy mechanism linking leaders and public servant pay to the people of 'similar' talents in the private sector. Many question if this link is right...but lets put that aside first. The assumption here has to be the private sector which is somehow linked to 'free markets' pay people what the deserve because if it doesn't, the way meritocracy is implemented in the Singapore govt simply leads to people being paid more than what they deserve. Is what people deserve the amount the system allows them to take?

Michael Jackson was a phenomenally talented and hardworking entertainer. When he died it was estimated that he earned about US$500M to US$1B[Link]. Industry experts believe that it is unlikely that another entertainer will ever make this amount in real terms for several reasons. Michael Jackson emerge at a time when CDs which have quality that were better than cassettes were becoming popular, when music videos started to take off and consumer taste for music was less diverse. If he was born 20 years earlier of later he would have made much less for the same effort and talent. He also made hundreds of millions off the rights to the Beatles collection which he bought after receiving a tip from Paul McCartney[Link]. It is hard to say what he actually deserve for his work but what he received was a function of many things other than his own ability. Do the bankers who were partially responsible for the financial crisis deserve the millions they took in bonuses? Do the workers who have nothing to do financial crisis deserve to be retrenched by the problems caused by it? How fair is a system that does not deliver the rewards to those who deserve it and too much to those who don't?
You don't have to go through a lot to figure out if the system is working well or not. All you need to look at is the relative level of inequality. Income inequality is the highest ever in the last 80 years since the period just before The Great Depression. It is not hard to believe that the system runs into problems when it cannot distribute wealth fairly. When we have inequality on a scale we see in recent years, you cannot blame individuals for their own plight - it is built into the system. The distribution of human abilities has not change what has change is the system. Govt policies have to work against business monopolies, unfair practices and make sure the playing field is level. If inequality still persists, there is no choice by to resort to progressive taxation to narrow the gap - because at the end of the day, the cost of having a high level of inequality will be far greater than the negative effects caused by higher taxation.
Meritocracy as it is practiced in Singapore is an accomplice to this inequality. It results in an inherent belief that people get what they deserve and seek to preserve a system that perpetuates and widen the inequality. At a time when the income gap is the widest around the world we have the biggest gap among developed countries. It is far larger than Japan, Taiwan and S. Korea...almost double measured by the GINI. It is not possible that we have this unusually big disparity in terms of talent among our population - this inequality is articifial. It is function of the system.
When NMP Viswa Sadavisan spoke about equality in parliament, MM Lee said that equality should be an aspiration not an ideal and that it is a high highfalutin idea. That explains why the PAP govt does so little to bring about greater equality and expend so much energy to up the salary of its ministers in the pursuit of meritocrary. At the end of the day, if you think about it, meritocracy is a vague ambiguous idea the outcome of which, very often, is dictated by those who run and manipulate the system. Equality is a very clear idea that all of us can understand and work towards. Equality should be an ideal for our society...and meritocracy is but a highfalutin aspiration sometimes used to deny us the equality we pledge to pursue.


Anonymous said...

It has nothing to do with meritocracy, it has nothing to do with working hard. It has everything to do with control. How the top 1 or 2% in wealth will always control the masses. Better yet if the masses are uneducated, in debt, or in fear. That way they are easier to control.

Some people know this, yet they go along with it. Because they imagine they could get to the top 1 or 2%.

Capitalism, A Love Story.

LuckySingaporean said...

anon 11:27,

We have the concept you describe and then we further enhance it with PAP style meritocracy. That is how we have our level of meritocracy.

Michael Moore's American love story is no-where near as dramatic as ours.

Anonymous said...

A very good article Lucky, if only the masses could understand how we the people are being manupulated by the elite in the name of meritocracy.
Let our leaders stand in front of all the other world leaders and declare that their talent and hard work deserves the salary they are earning and if they do not draw laughter from the crowd, I will forever be their supporter.

Anonymous said...

Later, Napoleon and his pigs are corrupted by the absolute power they hold over the farm. To maintain their popularity with the other animals, Squealer secretly paints additions to some commandments to benefit the pigs while keeping them free of accusations of breaking the laws (such as "No animal shall drink alcohol" having "to excess" appended to it and "No animal shall sleep in a bed" with "with sheets" added to it). Eventually the laws are replaced with "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others", and "Four legs good, two legs better!" as the pigs become more human
- source wiki

Anonymous said...

Meritocracy, unequal society or what not, most important is continuing political stability and a peaceful society. Like in America, China and even Singapore.

And for very long already, whatever the ups and downs in the economy, GINI index, obscene pay of some, etc etc.

Anonymous said...

i think part of the fallacy of this meritocracy is that it's self-fufilling.

like what some have said, the powers may be can dictate and decide what is "merit" and "talent". the ability to define and reward is exactly what builds, shapes and sustains the system.

for e.g., if i have the power to do that, i can simply say I think real talent is to be able to play computer games, knows how to cook steak well, be good with languages (programming and spoken), and have insomnia. It becomes self-fufilling that I'm indeed that unique talent and I can reward myself, possibly at the expense of other people.

It's not difficult to see the privileged lot (the powers may be) doing exactly that. We are not talking about rocket/nuclear scientists here. We are not talking about people winning nobel prizes here. we are talking about people who manipulates such criteria to their advantage and rip off people just for their vanity and greed.

Anonymous said...

Another classic from Lucky Tan !

In Singapore, Meritocracy is for lesser mortal, uncontested privilege and right is for God and Demo-god.

Anonymous said...

Ermmm...still waitng for your line by line analysis of the CPF local expert's statements...

Anonymous said...

Very lengthy and boring, even though you are trying your best to discuss an important social problem of Singapore's.

I hope you don't write like that during election times. The average man in the streets won't be bothered to read it.

Maybe u might want to write in a simpler manner to explain your issues, like when this blog was first started.

My two cents worth.

Anonymous said...

'Equality should be an ideal for our society...and meritocracy is but a highfalutin aspiration'

Excellent!!! I didn't think about that!

Lim Leng Hiong said...

Well said, Lucky.

However I don't agree with this part:

"You might have to get over a few minor issues like what talent is, how effort is measured and so on."

I don't think it's a minor issue.

As Anon 14:16 observed correctly:

"like what some have said, the powers may be can dictate and decide what is "merit" and "talent". the ability to define and reward is exactly what builds, shapes and sustains the system."

Let's compare the eligibility requirements for the President of Singapore with that of the President of the USA.


Many, many qualifications.


Take one example, a private sector candidate for the elected President "must have for a period of not less than three years held office as chairman of the board of directors or chief executive officer of a company incorporated or registered under the Companies Act with a paid-up capital of at least $100 million or its equivalent in foreign currency; or in any other similar or comparable position of seniority and responsibility in any other organization or department of equivalent size or complexity in the public or private sector which, in the opinion of the Presidential Elections Committee, has given him such experience and ability in administering and managing financial affairs as to enable him to carry out effectively the functions and duties of the office of President."


Born in USA, at least 35 years old, lived in USA for at least 14 years.


Money is not mentioned.

Anonymous said...

Lim Leng Hiong:

With regards to the requirement of being CEO or BOD's chairman.

Heard this from a lecturer who sits on a few companies' BOD.

The board will usually rope in people with the same ideals and thinking. No point getting people with diverse cultures or attitudes in. They'll just argue at every BOD meeting. No point.

He called us (students) silly if we thought otherwise!

There you have it. The whole lot of them are all in the game together and all on the same side!

Lim Leng Hiong said...

Why $100 million?

Anonymous said...

You know, I was just thinking the same thing! The internet has wrecked havoc in the publishing and music industry. And slowly you are seeing that ability is less and less linked to earnings. Talented musicians are facing earnings which are drying up and the winners of this casino economy are the fat cat bankers which from experience, apart from paying themselves gozillion amounts of money, are talented at nothing at all. such is the state of the world. Sames goes for our govt. :(

Anonymous said...

Lim Leng Hiong

100mil is a barrier to entry. Clearly is to allow only GLC peeps to be president.

Anonymous said...

well this happens when u have a (in his mind) darwin-atheist with no moral/political constraints running a country.

Meritocracy was supposed to be a dirty word but somehow the meaning was lost too.

btw, I tot u still believe in Timmy(saint of fat cat bankers)? stock market has not crashed yet despite Dubai.

Anonymous said...

Hey Lucky

Tip of the day: Buy gun stocks.


Anonymous said...

Off topic, but I have a cute question.

Why do we call the rising home/ food / gold/ oil/ raw material prices / share prices an asset bubble and not runaway inflation, which is the locigal result of printing so much money?

Anonymous said...

yet again, you are exhibiting the "holier than thou" attitude. As far as i am concern, you are a communist. one without balls.

i remember this pathetic blog was once closed temporaily when you feared reprisals by the govt. but the truth is, you are hardly a threat. spewing your hate and communist ideas on weekend when you are not slaving away.

suck on a lollipop before you go to jail.

onlooker said...

MERITOCRACY is Overrated :)

Anonymous said...

Off topic, but I have a cute question.

Why do we call the rising home/ food / gold/ oil/ raw material prices / share prices an asset bubble and not runaway inflation, which is the locigal result of printing so much money?

2/12/09 14:19

So that when the bubble burst, many people would have lose too much money (balance) and the next speculation can start again.

Anonymous said...

Lucky is communist?
I remember Mr Lim Swee Say putting on Red Scarves around his neck while paying a visit to the Chinese communists (photo can be found at Sammyboy Forum).

I swear that this Mr English-macam-like-Shit Mr Lim is a worker unionist who put the workers' rights in the lion's mouth.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Singapore Democrats said...

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Anonymous said...

Lim thats a very interesting requirement I never knew about , for a while since moving to Singapore I have been under the opinion that the country is a quite unique form of elitocracy ( a word i may have made up ) where the chinese elite run the country in a way that represents the interests of the elites but in a way that is open honest and fair and in general creates an equitable society albeit one that is not run at an expense to the elites, in general the country prospers under this system and the elite bends over backwards to be fair in as many ways possible whilst not bending on the requirement that the rule stays within the inner circle and the rich are not required to fund any form mass welfare.

While being far from democracy, I chose to live here and think the stability of the system more than compensates for the ability of a man who only ran a 99 million dollar company to be president,

While many singapore citizens would vote happily to spend the government coffers on an easy life now, in the long term the interests of the elite truly do align with the true interests of the citizens and they have not done such a bad job ...

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