These are some thoughts on a taxi ride recently. Meritocracy, competition, hardwork are cornerstones of our economic development in Singapore. But this are also the 3 attributes that are poorly defined and whose implied definitions will need to be reviewed through the stage of our economic development.
At an early stage of a post-war economy, where most people are pretty much starting off the same starting line, meritocracy in the plainest sense of the word is good. It builds upon common understanding of fairness, encourages hardwork. As long as the framework in place builds up trust through punitive punishments on cheating, a positive, self-reinforcing cycle develops. Competition is largely friendly, all for the sake of building each other up and getting everyone on to the growth path. Most forms of hardwork is by itself a virtue at this stage; there’s no sense of ‘overworking’ because there isn’t sufficient to go around more often than not – there is still quite some way to desirable levels of comfort. But there is joy in the process when trust is in place.
When the economy begins to grow, the shaping of culture and values becomes incredibly important. Meritocracy is constantly reviewed and refined by the leadership; and they have to be benign to those who might not necessarily possess the skills/merits that they value. And this valuation is often subjective – extremely dependent on the foresight and vision of the leaders. At this point, there will always be trade-offs, some ‘merits’ are more valued than others and the kind of growth attained depends on careful selection of what constitute merits. Competition then rallies around attaining this sort of merits. Hard work becomes less generic and certain kind of working hard becomes frown upon.
Those who gets slightly ahead may then look down on those working hard the wrong way or having the wrong kinds of ‘merit’. This is the point where a culture of charity has to be promotion, where people well-endowed need to be open to the idea of sharing and caring with their endowment. Meritocracy now cuts both ways; it can serve good but have potential to be abused as an excuse to withhold charity.
As growth is sustained, the top leadership is convinced that the set of valued traits and ‘merits’ truly delivers value and thus constitute merit. They also take the appropriate action to cultivate the next generation to achieve the same sort of merit. These actions in the form of more sophisticated and enhanced policy measures elicit different sort of response from different groups. Those who respond poorly may risk marginalisation; the rest may coast along but an elite class gradually forms. The elite class tend to follow the ‘tried and tested’ model and abides by the key values laid down previously, supporting the superstructure that has helped them succeed in the first place.
This is the stage where sustained growth is secured through the social contract that was forged in the earlier stage of economic development. But it is also the window of opportunity to leverage on the immense wealth created to help those who may have been marginalised. The notion of meritocracy needs to be weakened with measures designed to support these people through promotion of things such as culture/music/literature that has more of a bearing on the long term economic development. People in society needs alternative ways to ‘succeed’ and to learn to ‘work hard’ in those areas that truly exploits their God-given talents. Merit needs to be radically and continuously redefined.
The other direction leaders could go is to ditch those who are marginalised, continue adding weight on to the existing notions of success and hard work. Then, finding that they may not have sufficient numbers in the local populace to continue their formula, start bringing in foreign population to attempt to ‘entrench’ the success. Competition steps up; now between new migrants and the local population – all driving forward the more traditional notions of ‘success’, ‘merit’, in name of Meritocracy.
In longer term, as the economy truly hits maturity – that is, the soft and hard frameworks of the society are more or less settled, the (local) population profile highly aged – the potential for smooth and impactful change lessens. To start thinking about welfare, softening of the culture of meritocracy, and steering the culture of competition for good at this point will require the ability to disrupt and upset the superstructure.
I would think that we have come a really long way, and while we do try our best to stay on a more balanced path, natural human pride, tendency, and biasedness have driven us to favour the somewhat culturally unsustainable path – even if it may be economically sustainable.
Perhaps only after I am done with this ideas that I noticed how Marxist in character they seem to be. Of course, I did offer prescription for conscious intervention rather than come to the conclusion that chaos is the only means out.