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How Singapore is fixing its meritocracy

15 Apr 2016

In Singapore, a liberalizing middle-class society, the once-revered idea of “meritocracy” has recently acquired negative overtones due to its association with elitism. However, meritocracy can — and probably did — provide a successful way of combining rewards, incentives and competitiveness with equality of opportunity. The question for Singapore today is whether this meritocratic balance can be achieved again in a competitive global city obsessed with a war for talent.

Social mobility, where those who do well can rise and those who don’t will fall, is a key component of meritocracy. In theory, leading positions in society should be filled by the most talented and motivated individuals, all of whom have been given the opportunity to succeed and have done so. This can create the conditions for a fair society to prosper and flourish.

Historically, Singapore may have benefited greatly from such an arrangement. When the former British colony became independent in 1965, it had an acute sense of its own vulnerability, not least because it lacked natural resources. Over time, meritocracy — particularly in the education system — became a way of effectively developing human resources and efficiently allocating talent to where it was most in need, particularly in key leadership positions in government, the economy and society.


Kenneth Paul Tan is an associate professor and acting dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. His forthcoming book is titled “Governing Global-City Singapore: Legacies and Futures After Lee Kuan Yew.”

Kenneth Paul Tan

Kenneth Paul Tan

an associate professor and acting dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore