Singapore’s success ridden on a meritocratic system has divided society between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’


By: Michael Han/

It is said that everybody wants to be great, but doesn’t want anybody to know about that.

This is also true of meritocracy. That is, everybody wants to admit there is such a thing as a hierarchy of talent but doesn’t want anybody to know about that admission.

Maybe it is because we want to be great and think we deserve to be at the top, but as things are in our life, it is just not happening?

Fareed Zakaria’s (ST) article entitled “Meritocracy is under attack” is one such admission that is made public.

Yes, he wrote that “there is such thing as hierarchy of talent for “elite schools””.

In fact, there is such thing in our society of people, who are naturally inclined to do something really well, regardless of race, language or religion.

Zakaria wrote that before “meritocracy became the organising ideology of modern society…people moved up in the world through a clubby, informal system that privileged wealth, social status and family connections.”

In that kind of society, people with natural-born talent are marginalised or sidelined, and have to resign themselves to their fate while mourning over a less-than-ideal birth.

But this is no longer the case since the beginning of last century where competitive tests in varied forms and the rise of structured educational system transformed a system based on privileges into merit, birth rights into talent, and inherited wealth into grit and perseverance.

The script is, as long as you are willing to work hard at it, you will be able to climb up to the top.

But for the majority, hard work might not be enough. You need a good start too. And to have a good start, you need talent, that is, a gift(s) of some sort to excel in your academic pathway before it blooms into what is destined to be fasttrack career growth.

Just as there is what is known as the cycle of life where the predator distinguished by their strength and ferocity reigns at the top, so it is with this hierarchy of talents where – if you are born with it – – you are more than likely to be on your way to the top with a little help from luck.

Of course, the remnants of the old system still thrive in some parts of society. Meritocracy cannot beat away some entrenched, historical privileges.

The unfair advantages of royalties, dictatorships, inherited family wealth, and with all that comes flourishing connections, are very much alive today.

Then, there are the Zuckerbergs, the Bill Gates and the Jeff Bezos, who are gifted in their own ways, some of whom are Ivy League school dropouts, and are privileged to have a well-evolved technological infrastructure at the right time for them to grow their talent, business and immense wealth.

I can’t imagine the talents of Gates and Bezos being wasted away should they be born in the eighteen century where the industrial revolution is still at its infancy.

Yet, the evils of unmitigated meritocracy are clear for all to see since it is part of our unchanging human nature.

Once we were poor, struggling and living in the most humbled circumstances. We were practically nobody. And then, because of talent, some grit and luck, we rose through the ranks and became practically somebody.

This is where we change. We become lost. We start to believe that we are invulnerable. We then start to build a moat of privileges around us. We live with high walls, in a gated community, and surrounded by sychopants.

Our success ridden on a meritocratic system eventually turns into a protected hedge, dividing the society between the have and have-not, the rich and the poor, the entitled and the disenfranchised.

Meritocracy is not ideal – surprise? It is flawed in many ways. But as Zakaria concluded: “To select a society’s elites, as Winston Churchill said of democracy, a meritocracy is the worst system – except for all the others.”

Lesson? Just a short one. Like death and taxes, meritocracy will produce inequality because no two persons are alike.

One will be born with good genes and the other not that good. One will excel in his or her studies and be earmarked for great things by society and the other will just have to contend with being at the bottom of the pyramid of talents, ranks and privileges.

This is the reality at the moment, and unless we change the system, building it on something else, meritocracy is the best of the other systems that are worse than it. It’s the pick of the litter.

I know this post is less than cheery on a Tuesday morning, but I do not see the point in not accepting reality as it is.

It is a reality that is based on a meritocratic system that naturally favours the natural-born talent. And that eventually results in a hierarchy of talents in a society where the majority are at the bottom.

I trust seeing things as they are is the first step to changing it from a perspective of clarity. For we can only change it from the inside if we know what we are up against. And trust me, it is not going to be easy.