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.