The debate on poverty and inequality in Singapore – which has been played out in Parliament, in letters to news editors, and social media – has been sparked partly by a book written by Nanyang Technological University sociology professor Teo You Yenn, “This Is What Inequality Looks Like”.
It examines how inequality and poverty result from certain structural aspects of the Singapore system, one of which being meritocracy.
In Parliament on July 11, Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung enjoined Singaporeans not to “lose faith” in meritocracy, even as he acknowledged that the very term risked becoming a “dirty word”.
Meritocracy is a system of allocating rewards via competitions and incentive structures, underpinned by a principle of equality.
In a sense, meritocracy ensures that people deserve the outcomes (both good and bad) that they get. But what does it mean to “deserve” something?
Most of us would agree that people should deserve the outcomes they get.
Furthermore, we believe that what people deserve depends on the effort put in, and how well they perform at a task or in a competition.
But once we unpack the notion of deserve, we realise that things are not so straightforward.
Take effort, for instance. We conventionally say that a person deserves the good outcome he gets because he put in the effort.
However, as Professor Teo’s work highlights, the ability to put in effort in the first place could be the result of exogenous, inherited environmental advantages that the person has done nothing to deserve.
Indeed, this is a point originally made by the philosopher John Rawls, in his classic “Justice as Fairness”:
“The assertion that a man deserves the superior character that enables him to make the effort to cultivate his abilities is equally problematic; for his character depends in large part upon fortunate family and social circumstances, for which he can claim no credit.”
On one view, if we want to be strict about it, one might say that being deserving has nothing to do with outcomes at all.
Once you account for natural endowments, inherited advantages, and sheer luck, it is not entirely clear what it means to be deserving.
In fact, there are many other ways to be deserving. For example, one could be deserving simply by being a part of society, or being in need.
Going back to our context of meritocracy, the argument that deserved rewards stem from effort and performance is a contentious one: One could put in effort with no performance to show for it, just as another could perform well without putting in any effort.
The practice of meritocracy typically culminates in one basic question: “What did so-and-so do to deserve this?”
Asking this in the past tense is a natural outcome of a system that emphasises track records, examination results, performance evaluations – all retrospective in nature.
I believe we should rephrase the question as, “What can so-and-so do to deserve this?” This reframing makes all the difference when the prizes we are trying to allocate take the form of opportunities such as scholarships.
There is an element of timing in all this.
No one would dispute that we must pin down what being deserving means. However, we normally argue that we deserve something based on what we have done (e.g. put in the effort, performed well, won, etc.), and that we deserve no credit until we provide what moral philosophers call “desert makers”. Hence, just deserts.
But it can also be the case that we deserve some “X” based on what we do after receiving “X”.
To illustrate the different ways of framing this: if I asked if Mr Tan deserved “X” at the very moment he received “X”, I am essentially asking if his track record to date justifies the receipt of “X”.
If, instead, I asked, say a year after he received “X”, if Mr Tan deserved it, I am more interested to know if Mr Tan subsequently did things to justify his receipt of “X”.
We tend to hand out prizes – scholarships, positions, and so forth – based on the retrospective, compensatory notion of being deserving.
It is compensatory because one is, in a way, being compensated for one’s past efforts and accomplishments with a prize.
Even when we think we give out prizes on the basis of potential, that potential is usually defined by extrapolating from past performance.
In any case, the formula is: work hard, do well, get your deserved reward.
I suggest that we complement, if not mitigate, this current approach with a forward-looking, promissory interpretation of being deserving.
We could bet that the unlikely candidate (unlikely in terms of our backward-looking evaluation criteria), given the chance, might vindicate our allocation decision with future performance, if not with good faith effort.
We – teachers, prospective employers, parents – ought to then help that person make good our bet through support, coaching, mentoring, and, mostly, our dignifying leap of faith.
To be sure, this will be a difficult mindset shift to effect.
For a start, our near-exclusive reliance on tangible markers of past performance also means we have an innate distrust of intangibles. More than that, it is a risky endeavour.
This goes beyond taking a chance on potential that can be measured. Rather, it is betting that (some of) those who were not inclined to make the effort to cultivate their abilities due to unfortunate family and social circumstances might just do so if we changed their situation.
Taking a chance on those unaccustomed to receiving chances can be transformative.
And yet, this is not as challenging as the idea of a “compassionate meritocracy” that was mooted by Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong a few years ago.
Mr Goh’s idea, while laudable, puts us in an uncomfortable impasse: defending the system, lamenting its excesses, and trying to soften the system with compassion.
What I suggest circumvents the quagmire of trying to define “compassionate meritocracy” and to implement it in concrete terms.
Instead, what is suggested here is grounded in pragmatism: we don’t know where the best performers might come from next, past performance is no indication of future performance, so let’s hedge by casting our nets wider.
In other words, not to dismantle competitions, but to coach and give chances to those who might otherwise not have gotten the opportunity to play.
As a society, we will have to decide what portion of chances to allocate based on the established notion of deserve, and what portion to bet on those whose future effort and performance might vindicate our wager.
This, however, is a debate worth having and a risk worth taking.
At the systemic level, this could help mitigate the perverse outcome that even as meritocracy rewards effort and performance, it also inadvertently rewards luck and, especially, positional advantages not available to others.
It prevents the prize-winners from consistently coming from the same postal codes, schools and social circles, resulting in group-think and an unhealthy homogeneity among our socio-economic and political elites.
And, most importantly, it introduces serendipity into the system so that potential, in its broadest sense, could be uncovered in unexpected places.
Potential that could only be realised if only it had a chance.