July 8 Time to address the demerits of meritocracy

A speech last month by Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke to a group of Princeton University graduates sparked debate because he questioned the fairness of meritocratic societies, saying:

"Think about it. A meritocracy is a system in which the people who are the luckiest in their health and genetic endowment; luckiest in terms of family support, encouragement and, probably, income; luckiest in their educational and career opportunities; and luckiest in so many other ways difficult to enumerate - these are the folks who reap the largest rewards," he said, suggesting that meritocracies do not really reward the most deserving, but simply those who are the luckiest.

He argued that the only way for a meritocracy to pass ethical muster and be considered fair is if the "luckiest" work hard to contribute to the betterment of the world and to share their luck with others.

Mr Bernanke is one among a growing number of people questioning the virtues of meritocracies, which once thrived in tandem with capitalism to allow the successful to reap the most rewards with a clear conscience.

As governments of the richest and most "meritocratic" countries face increasing socio-economic strains of rising income inequality and slowing social mobility, criticisms of meritocracies have become more vociferous.

In 1958, the late former British Labour Party MP and sociologist Michael Young first coined the term meritocracy in his book The Rise Of The Meritocracy, as a satire of that very system.

The perpetuation of the system of meritocracy would eventually lead to disenfranchisement of a lower class and then social revolution in Britain, he predicted.

In 2001, Dr Young expressed his disappointment with how the New Labour party led by Mr Tony Blair had misused the term, selling meritocracy as an ideal, while disregarding its threats.

Dr Young warned that if meritocrats believe that their advancement comes from their own merits, "they can be insufferably smug, much more so than the people who knew they had achieved advancement not on their own merit but because they were, as somebody's son or daughter, the beneficiaries of nepotism". And that would be because "the newcomers can actually believe they have morality on their side".

The most dangerous product of an unfettered belief in meritocracy is the pervasive sense of entitlement among the successful, that their success is theirs and theirs alone.

It can lead to elitism and selfishness.

In Singapore, we, too, have been guilty of being too blinded by the ideals of meritocracy. But the tide seems to be turning with the acknowledgement from more and more corners that our ideas of success and merit may have become too narrowly defined by education and paper qualifications, benefiting too few.

Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam has called for a broader and continuous meritocracy, while Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong hopes for a more compassionate meritocracy.

But in the haste to rename, redefine and reclaim the meritocracy ground, let us not forget that for all its criticisms, Singapore's meritocracy has worked incredibly well for the first 30-odd years.

The successes of our forefathers are well-deserved and chronicled, and our society's ethos of hard work should not be lost. And as Mr Bernanke himself points out, the alternatives to meritocracies are not exactly very good.

So where does that leave Singapore?

First, let us recognise whole- heartedly that meritocracies are imperfect and need judicious intervention and refinement. Hard work alone will not help a person succeed without having access to the right opportunities, and copious amounts of luck, in many and continuous stages of a person's life.

Second, if we recognise that our meritocracy is highly imperfect, then our socio-economic ladder also has to allow for more porosity so that an "unlucky" person is not shut out from a good education for the rest of his student life or a good job throughout his working life. There must be multiple opportunities to get back on the ladder to move up.

What to do with school streaming and how to improve mixing, is a big part of the Our Singapore Conversation and I am looking forward to what the Government will suggest to improve this.

Third, and to me, perhaps the most powerful, is that if we recognise that a big part of success is due to plain luck, then, as Mr Bernanke urges, the lucky have a moral obligation to work the hardest and to do the most to help the less lucky. That will help keep a meritocracy fair.

There are two aspects to this: One, this means there is a clear moral argument to be made for higher and more progressive taxation of the wealthy, so that more wealth is redistributed to the less privileged.

And two, the wealthy need to do more in philanthropy. In this respect, there is a lot more that Singaporeans can do.

The World Giving Index - an annual survey of philanthropy by the British-based Charities Aid Foundation - ranked Singapore an appalling 114th out of 146 countries in the world last year, lower than poorer, developing neighbours Cambodia and the Philippines. In fact, it was the worst in South-east Asia.

Other surveys paint only a slightly less dismal picture.

According to the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre, between 2006 and 2010, donations made in Singapore rose to 0.3 per cent of our gross domestic product (GDP) or about $1 billion.

Participation in voluntary work increased from 15.5 per cent to 23.3 per cent.

Still, that puts us way below the United States - often seen as a model for philanthropy - which had donations of 2 per cent of its GDP, and a participation rate of almost 40 per cent.

Why does Singapore perform so badly?

First, is the Government here crowding out individual philanthropy? There is a case to be made that the large role played by the Government in society for many years has reduced the incentives for individual philanthropists.

The solution is for the Government to get out of the philanthropic sector, in order for individuals to come in. But this will have to be managed carefully - if it pulls out too quickly, and individual philanthropists do not fill the space, those who need help will suffer.

Second, does diversity of race and religion hinder philanthropy in Singapore, because people are more inclined to give to someone who is similar to them?

A study in the US on race-based giving, however, found that while donors do perceive members of their own race as being more worthy of their money, they would give the same amount regardless of race.

Another study suggests that religiousness does correlate with generosity. So while religious diversity may not hinder giving, perhaps the rise of atheism - or those who are not religious - might. That is something to monitor.

Still, Singapore has its own history of philanthropy thanks to pioneers like Tan Kah Kee and Lien Ying Chow, whose efforts helped more than just their immediate clans or communities.

Today though, Singapore needs more champions of philanthropy, and for such giving to be more widespread and organised. But most of all, it needs Singaporeans to push back against a creeping sense of entitlement and recognise that giving back is simply the right and fair thing to do.