My Reelity

Is this the reel life or is this just fantasy?

You Don’t Say

Posted by Ruok On December - 22 - 2006

Best damn article I’ve read in the local press by far this year. Full article can be found in the 20th December issue of Today.

MERITOCRACY is a word in the throes of an identity crisis. Born as a pejorative to describe a dystopian system doomed to failure, it has more recently been touted as a positive ideal.
It was about five decades ago in his book, The Rise of Meritocracy, that Michael Young first coined the word. Through this work of fiction, he conveyed an ominous prophesy of the revolutionary end he envisaged for a social order where the elite were chosen by a formulaic test of intelligence plus effort. The story ends when the masses overthrow the elite, who
have become arrogant and disconnected from the feelings of the public.

Five years ago, the author wrote a commentary in The Guardian newspaper. He lamented the common currency that the word meritocracy had gained as a positive ideal, even as much of the ills that he had predicted had come to pass. To be sure, Mr Young appreciated the need for able leaders. In his own words: “It is good sense to appoint individual people to jobs
on their merit.” But he went on to say: “It is the opposite when those who are judged to have merit of a particular kind harden into a new social class without room in it for others.”
When the masses share the view that the elite are an exclusive club which they do not have hope of joining, the society begins to fracture along the lines of stratification. It makes little difference whether the exclusivity is racial, intellectual or economic. Social stability demands that the elite be drawn from a diverse pool — of socio-economic backgrounds, of educational levels, and so on. This is something to remember.

Does this mean a compromise in accepting those less able into the elite?

Not quite, because conventional measures cannot be absolutely relied on to identify the most able. The key assumption that forms the foundation of a perfect meritocracy is equal opportunity — without which, it is but an empty promise . But in reality, truly equal opportunity is a utopian ideal — good but unattainable. So, it cannot be assumed that those who excel best in examinations are the most able, or that accepting non-scholars into the elite involves a compromise of quality.

Two sociology professors, Stephen J McNamee and Robert K Miller Jr, recently co-authored a book titled The Meritocracy Myth. The book identifies various factors, aptly referred to as “social gravity”, which tend to prevent advancement and keep people in the places they already occupy, regardless of their talent. Social gravity includes the distorting effects of inheritance causing unequal starting points in the race to get ahead, the effects of who you know and “fitting in”, simple luck, unequal access to educational opportunities, declining
prospects for self-employment in business, and discrimination on the bases of race, sex, age, sexual orientation, physical disability, region, religion and physical appearance.

With so many distorting factors, the Singapore model of meritocracy must be actively engineered to counter the forces of social gravity, to better approximate a system where those who are truly the most capable are identified. Otherwise, the elite is likely to ossify and perpetuate itself — not because of superior ability, but because of access to resources
and opportunity.

One area with room for change may be the award of scholarships. The issue has been raised before, of many who are awarded scholarships worth tens and hundreds
of thousands of dollars being from well-to-do backgrounds. Such funds may be better spent on providing for those less well-off, so the system may more closely approximate one of equal opportunity.

Another area to look into is the mentality of branding. For example, there is a perception that a non-scholar in the civil service can only expect to progress so quickly in his career whilst a scholar is on a different track. A truly meritocratic system does not cease to assess upon graduation; it is constantly vigilant to identify those who are capable and, ideally, blind to their branding. Even as attempts are made to compensate for inequalities of opportunity, a recognition that “merit” comes in a rainbow of hues will allow the elite to be a more inclusive class, less apart from the masses. Important attributes of humanity such as passion, empathy and compassion should also take their place in a meritocracy, instead of the single track of brilliance in study and work. That will also send the right message to the youth. Finally, it should also be acknowledged that rewards cannot be reserved only for those who are of merit.

In the final analysis, the society, including its elite, exists for the better good of every one of its members, great and small. Even those who are admittedly of little merit have this — they are a part of society and deserve the same respect as does any human being. Meritocracy is just a social tool — it cannot eclipse humanity.

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