Meritocracy once revered as the organising ideology of modern society is coming under greater scrutiny globally.
In an op-ed in the Washington Post, political commentator Fareed Zakaria argued “meritocracy is now an idea under siege” .
“On the right, many of President Trump’s supporters see it as a code word for an out-of-touch establishment that looks down on ordinary, hard-working Americans. In Britain, Prime Minister Theresa May’s call for a more meritocratic society was assailed on the left as a concept that breeds elitism and inequality.”
Asia is also not immune to the controversy. Some countries in the region are grappling with similar issues whether meritocracy - which recognises talent and ability over wealth and circumstance of birth – still works. Or paradoxically is breeding systemic unfairness exacerbating inequality, thereby hampering social mobility.
China’s Confucian model showing cracks
In fact, China’s dramatic economic rise over the past five decades is inseparable from its meritocratic system.
“It is argued that those who will be alive around 2050 will witness the rise of China to an unprecedented level. President Xi Jinping emphasises meritocracy and would like to apply it to every corner of public governance in China,” noted Associate Professor Alfred Wu at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in a paper with Professor Bing Wang at IPP Review. A caveat is in order. The implementation of meritocracy has been questioned in reality.
“China has a much stronger tradition of meritocracy than the US. The Communist Party of China and every level of the Chinese government principally follow this mechanism, making the Chinese regime much different from totalitarianism, autocracy and authoritarianism in their classic meanings. Some frustrations could happen periodically such as in the Cultural Revolution. Meritocracy usually rebounds soon.”
Meritocratic governance in China has a long history, stemming from Confucian ideals. Public officials are selected through rigorous examinations measuring “merit” rather than simply on the basis of their background.
The Chinese civil service exams began during the Han dynasty, and were meant to ensure that leaders were wise and ethical.
In his book “The China Model” Daniel Bell, an academic who taught at Tsinghua University and Shandong University in China, argued that the Chinese civil service exam system is often held up as the model of meritocracy through which leaders are chosen to run the country. It had tremendous appeal.
As George Yeo, a former Foreign Minister of Singapore, claimed in his endorsement of Bell’s book: “Over many centuries…the institution that Chinese people have held in highest regard is their examination
system, because it is meritocratic and objective. This regard for individual achievement has always been coupled to a moral obligation to serve one’s community… this duality continues to operate at the heart of modern China.”
While economic success may indeed suggest that modern China has been remarkably well governed, other indicators are far from positive. Even Bell, who looked upon China’s meritocracy favourably, conceded that “corruption, the gap between the rich and the poor, environmental degradation, abuses of power by political officials, harsh measures for dealing with political dissent . . . seem to have become worse while the political system has become more meritocratic.”
Ironically, in his analysis meritocracy has amplified modern China’s struggles — rising inequality, elitism and corruption in politics. The same issues that are currently roiling western democracies.
Singapore struggles with inequality
Similar cracks are starting to emerge in Singapore, where a meritocratic model has been a key tenet of society. Meritocracy, particularly in the education system, has been the way of effectively developing talent to where it was most in need – especially for key leadership positions in government.
Today, the Singaporean idea of meritocracy is coming under increasing attack for entrenching structural limits on social mobility, for its overly narrow focus on merit and success.
According to Associate Professor Kenneth Paul Tan at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, the city-state pays its top officials and political leaders some of the highest salaries in the world, attracting the most qualified Singaporeans and raising the opportunity cost of corruption. Over time, there has been rising discontent over ministers’ million-dollar salaries – who citizens perceive as elitist, self-serving and out-of-touch to their needs.
In recent months, the government has also been forced to confront issues arising from meritocracy and inequality, with calls to make changes to its “pressure-cooker educational system”. Critics argued it no longer had a level playing field. The educational system has put children from low-income families at a clear disadvantage.
Singapore continues to be a “tuition nation” driven by the need to score well in exams and outperform others. There is an underlying fear in the system of “high-stakes exams”, including the fear of failing and not being able to get into elite schools.
South Korea’s systemic flaws
Like Singapore in South Korea, perhaps more so than anywhere else - where educational success equals socio-economic status – the systemic failings of meritocracy are more apparent.
South Koreans view education as the key to social mobility. Graduates of Korea’s top three universities make up the majority of high-ranking government posts and management positions.
“Some Koreans suffer from this culture”, noted Dr Wu adding those who fail to get into the top universities face a tough road ahead since “in a lot of job requirements, especially in the public sector and even some MNCs, a ‘good degree’ is required” .
The intense pressure to succeed at all cost is taking a financial and social toll as university places are limited. Koreans spend over $18 trillion won around 20% of household income to pay for after-school private tuition academies called hakwon. 75% of all children attend a hakwon, mainly at DaeJi Dong, Seoul’s study Mecca.
Current graduates lack the skills needed for employability for a modern knowledge economy. Korea’s Confucian-influenced education system has been criticised for being too narrowly focused on rote learning at the expense of creativity and independent thought.
Further intensifying the social pressures is the country’s high youth unemployment rate, which stood at 11.2 percent in 2016—a record number not seen since the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s. Despite all the investments in education, Korean youth still find it increasingly difficult to secure jobs.
Tough balancing act for countries
Addressing the deep-rooted societal problems triggered by meritocracy is a tough balancing act for these Asian countries. A radical overhaul of the system will be difficult and highly unlikely, given that the current approach has produced results. Perhaps, broadening meritocracy beyond its narrow academic focus could be the way forward for governments.
Singapore, which is widely admired for its meritocratic model, has already started to take steps in that direction. The city-state has implemented measures to change certain elements of its highly competitive education system in an effort to reduce the achievement gap between the rich and the poor.
Even as Singapore’s Education Minister One Ye Kung admitted that there are doubts over “whether meritocracy still works, whether inequality is worsening“, he stressed that the system is the right approach for the country.
“Instead, we should double up on meritocracy, by broadening its definition to embrace various talents and skills. We should not cap achievement at the top, but try harder, work harder to lift the bottom.“
Over in South Korea, President Moon Jae-in has proposed bold education reforms that seek to eventually integrate all state universities into one large university system. The goal is to reduce competition between institutions and equalise the chances of graduates in Korea’s cut throat labour market.
With regards to China, Dr Wu argued while “elites could corrupt, and China’s meritocracy could decay as well. In the Xi regime, through reducing corruption, the Chinese government aims to restore meritocracy in the country”, adding how effective or sustainable the move would be remains a big question.
While these developments signal an attempt to rebalance meritocracy and return to its more egalitarian roots, fixing the system is a complex challenge. Asian countries - which adhere to the model, need to continuously strive to put in place policy prescriptions that work towards breaking down the system’s entrenched institutional limitations that shackle social mobility.
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