Singapore academic Adrian Kuah has criticised People’s Action Party (PAP) politician Indranee Rajah’s use of the metaphor “a rising tide that lifted all boats” in defense of meritocracy.

Ms Rajah is a Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office while Dr Kuah is a Senior Research Fellow and Head, Case Studies Unit at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. Dr Kuah is also the founding director of the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Futures Office, which was set up to help students “make sense of the future of higher education.”

Last Thursday (18 July), Ms Rajah delivered a speech on low-income families and how the fourth-generation PAP leadership will tackle inequality, at the NUS Social Service Research Conference.

Asserting that inequality and social mobility are not new issues and that it mattered even back when Singapore gained independence, Ms Rajah said that Singapore has made great strides in its quest for a more just and equal society. Citing the higher life expectancy rate and higher literacy rate today, she said:

“This transformation can be attributed to our adherence to meritocracy, our heavy investments in education and our people, and our policies aimed at economic development, job creation, income growth, affordable quality healthcare for all, our public housing programme and generous subsidies to promote home ownership.
“The cumulative effect of these policies was to generate a rising tide that lifted all boats.”

In a Facebook post published on Saturday (20 July), Dr Kuah said: “There’s one in every speech, and I was looking out for it. And there it is: “The cumulative effect of these policies was to generate a rising tide that lifted all boats.”

“It’s part of the standard playbook, I suppose. Some pithy aphorism, folksy metaphor, or clever analogy to drive home a point. In the various apologia for meritocracy, we have come to expect the following: giving fish versus teaching fishing, escalators, trampolines, slippery slopes, no free lunches, and rising tides that lift all boats. In this case, we got the tide-and-boats one.”

Dr Kuah asserted that the metaphor of rising tides lifting boats as a defence for meritocracy works to a point before it fails, since people who are left behind could respond that they don’t even have a boat or that their boat is leaking and a rising tide would do nothing to help them. He wrote:

“…as a frequent user of metaphors and analogies myself, I would point out that these fail at some point, and can fail spectacularly. Take this one about rising tides lifting boats as a defence for meritocracy. It works but only up to a point.
“In these difficult times for so many people – people who somehow got left behind and left out – such a metaphor is likely to draw forth snarky and angry responses. For example: Damn, you have a boat? I don’t even have a boat, sheesh. Or, my boat’s leaking everywhere and I’m sinking, never mind the rising tide.”

Dr Kuah astutely pointed out: “It is a futile truism that a rising tide lifts everything that is currently floating in the water – ships, boats, rafts, flotsam and jetsam, debris, and yes, even those who are treading water. Except those who are treading water will inevitably tire, drown, and sink to the bottom. (They may float again as bloated corpses, but I digress…)

“And to push the metaphor even further, a rising tide may occur with choppy waters and all sorts of dangers, and what was deemed seaworthy initially turns out to be woefully inadequate. And as the immortal line from “Jaws” goes, each one of us is “gonna need a bigger boat”.”

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