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Meritocracy is a dirty word

Photo courtesy of Wix

Recently, our Minister of Education Mr Ong Ye Kung urged Singaporeans “not to lose faith in meritocracy”, because it risks becoming a “dirty word”. I would go so far as to suggest that ‘meritocracy’ has always been an inherently “dirty word” because it is an unavoidably ‘dirty’ idea. By ‘dirty’, I don’t mean ‘unethical’ or ‘immoral’. But I do mean ‘soiled’ or ‘muddied’, especially with meanings and assumptions that have coalesced and accumulated over decades.

Any class discussion in school about the class divide in Singapore must take this ‘dirtiness’, this slipperiness, this recalcitrance, into account. More of us need to know that the term ‘meritocracy’ was first coined pejoratively. In a 1958 satirical essay titled ‘The Rise of the Meritocracy’, sociologist Michael Young rightly raised doubts about the validity of the means of selection employed by the governing elite and the consequences that result from the rule of this minority. And ‘meritocracy’ was still used (pejoratively) by Hannah Arendt in her essay “Crisis in Education”, in which she critiqued the English educational system. Words, of course, have a way of wandering. It was only much later that the zeitgeist eventually turned, and meritocracy is celebrated today as a proud hallmark of our educational system.

My point is this: for as long as the dogma of meritocracy persists, the class divide—everywhere but especially in Singapore—will not merely remain but become further entrenched. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not suggesting that meritocracy doesn’t have its success stories. Numerous rags-to-riches tales abound. The child of a washerwoman / taxi driver / food stall helper can become a CEO / Prime Minister / President. Mr K. Shanmugam pointed out in a speech earlier this year that all three front-runners to be the next Prime Minister – Mr Heng Swee Keat, Mr Chan Chun Sing and Mr Ong Ye Kung – rose from humble and challenging backgrounds.

But the ugly side of meritocracy is also true. If we tell our young today, as Mr Shanmugam did, that “anyone can succeed in Singapore, regardless of your background, as long as you work hard enough”, many of them will be in for a nasty surprise when they work jolly hard but find out that mere diligence isn't always enough to make it in life given their circumstances. Because when elite students are told that they rose to the top because of their own efforts, their prejudice towards non-elites becomes rationally justified. Conversely, when non-elite students are told that they deserve their lot, reason entails that they descend to a state of learned helplessness due to a deep-seated inferiority complex.

I know this from personal experience. Back when my peers and I were in secondary school, it was drummed into us day in and day out that we were the best in Singapore. We were destined to be thinkers, leaders and pioneers. And so many of us did, because we came to believe it. Many of us never knew about the elitism and marginality that result from so many of our well-meaning policies. Many of us had only the dimmest conception about how our economic inequality—as signalled by our Gini coefficient, one of the highest in the world—is perpetuated and deepened by existing systems of governance. Simply put, many of us didn’t check our privilege.

Now, as a teacher in a neighbourhood school, I can observe how the other half lives. During English class, when I pointed out the class’s errors and flaws in reasoning as shown from their essays, some boys simply shrugged their shoulders, shook their heads, and sighed: “What to do, we’re 4S2” (i.e. as opposed to 4S1, perceived to be the top class; i.e. this inferiority complex is not merely visible in N(A) and N(T) but also within the Express stream). During inter-class games, Express students were chanting ‘EXPRESS, EXPRESS, EXPRESS’ as their class’s representatives battled it out against their N(A) and N(T) counterparts during their sports games. I’ve also heard teachers routinely warn their students about ‘dropping’ into the ‘lower’ streams if they don’t do well enough for their end-of-year exams. Labels encourage social stratification, and our system often encourages the self-segregation that inevitably results.

So what can we, as educators, do to manage or mitigate such a social divide? Prof Teo Yeo Yenn comments in the now-seminal This Is What Inequality Looks Like: “when narratives are monolithic and singular, they become fortresses of vested interests, biases and blindspots”. She suggests that we need to “expand our narratives”—we need to recognise, and lead our students to recognise, that the grand meta-narrative of Meritocracy in The Singapore Story isn’t the only way of understanding our social reality. Only then can we move from merely augmenting or unpacking the narrative to, as Prof Teo puts it, disrupting and even transforming it.

Such a shift demands changes even to the way we speak about different classes. Teachers need to make a conscious effort never to describe the N(A) or N(T) classes as ‘lower streams’ (or even to speak of ‘higher-end’ or ‘tail-end’ Express classes) but rather to recognise that they are different paths, even if the whole MOE vision of ‘multiple pathways to success’ might sound more like rhetoric than reality. And we need to be less hasty to judge students—whether by passing glances, under-the-breath comments, or outright remarks—because ‘success’ is dependent on a multitude of factors, most of which we can’t even begin to comprehend.

Once, one of the N(A) girls in my school’s drama club was made fun of by another (Express) boy in the group—she was called ‘stupid’ (a comment that is not at all uncommon in school). (I had to deal with the boy later for various other matters as well.) The girl asked me in all earnestness, “Cher, why they say such things about us?” Momentarily I was stunned. I didn’t know what to say. Would it have been best to tell her about the origins of prejudice, and that she should simply ignore the bigots in her midst? In any case, I told her: “Because they’re giving you a chance to prove to them that they’re wrong.”

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