The Two Faces of Meritocracy in Singapore

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K. Shanmugam, Minister for Law and Home Affairs Photo: video screen-grab

Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam reiterated last Sunday that anyone can succeed in Singapore regardless of background.

“Whoever your parents are, whatever your situation is, if you work hard, you can succeed, even (for children of) single parents, it depends on your determination,” he said.

To drive home his point, Shanmugam pointed out that all three front-runners to be the next Prime Minister – Heng Swee Keat, Chan Chun Sing and Ong Ye Kung – emerged from challenging backgrounds.

So it’s that whole thingy called meritocracy.

Let’s look at one face of it.

Goh Chok Tong came from a difficult background – his father died when he was very young, and his mother slogged as a teacher to support him and his sister. Goh rose to become Prime Minister of the country.

Chan Chun Sing’s parents divorced when he was young and his mother raised him. His grandparents lived with them in a three-room HDB flat. He could become the country’s next Prime Minister.

Halimah Yacob lost her father, a watchman, when she was eight. At 10, Halimah assisted her mother at a food stall, washing dishes, clearing tables and serving customers. Today, she is the country’s President.

These are exceptional cases of Singaporeans who rose to the top from humble origin. They represent one facet of meritocracy in Singapore, the one that we hear talked about by politicians like K Shanmugam.

Then there is the other facet of meritocracy.

Meritocracy is when all three children of Lee Kuan Yew become President’s Scholars, and the two sons are also SAF Scholars, one becoming Prime Minister.

Meritocracy is former President Tony Tan’s son Patrick and daughter Patricia rising to become President’s Scholars; Patrick was also granted an unheard-of 12 years’ disruption from national service to complete further studies, and eventually served in the specially created post of medical researcher.

Meritocracy dictates that Generals with zero private sector experience and zero industry experience are appointed CEOs of SMRT.

Meritocracy is such that Generals and SAF Scholars are systematically inducted into the top echelons of the government and government-linked corporations – among the current batch are PM Lee Hsien Loong, DPM Teo Chee Hean, Chan Chun Sing, Tan Chuan-Jin, Ng Chee Meng, Ng Chee Kern, Ng Chee Peng, Neo Kian Hong and Ng Yat Chung.

Meritocracy is when Singapore’s most powerful man is married to the most powerful woman – PM Lee and Ho Ching, CEO of Temasek, have both been in their respective jobs for 14 years running.

Meritocracy can even be reinterpreted – the Elected Presidency becomes Reserved for Malay candidates only; and only one candidate (based on merit) qualifies and automatically becomes President.

So there you have it, the two faces of meritocracy in Singapore.

Which is the one you see? Which is the one you are familiar with?

Augustine Low is a proud but concerned citizen. Voicing independent, unplugged opinion is his contribution to citizen engagement.