Featured News Opinion OPINION | Working Balls and the Meaning of Meritocracy

OPINION | Working Balls and the Meaning of Meritocracy

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"The skill that becomes essential in business is “Por Lamba,” or “Angkat Bola” (the Hokkien and Malay, which roughly translates to “carrying balls”)" — Tang Li, OPINION

One of the biggest points raised in Singapore whenever there is a debate on the cost of living and wages is that Singapore is a proud meritocracy where people get promoted according to their abilities rather than their race, religion or gender.

If you look at Singapore on the surface level, you’ll believe this to be true. I remember the renowned journalist Tom Plate gushing about how Singapore had come up in the world many years ago because it treated its women so well. Mr Plate had completed a series of interviews at MediaCorp where he had been interviewed in connection with his biography of the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew by a couple of ladies. He felt that this experience gave him an incredible insight into how Singapore ticks.

However, if you look beyond the headlines and live in Singapore, you’ll notice that meritocracy is a very loaded word. If you compare us to other places, you’ll notice that gender, race, and religion play a relatively minor role in promotions. However, what does play a major role in things is academic qualifications. As long as you are from the right junior college, scored significantly well in your exams and went to the right university, you have achieved “merit.”

The paper qualifications imply that you are not an idiot. Places like the Oxbridge universities or the American Ivy League demand certain standards. You could say that our top people (who inevitably go to those places) must have some brains to get good degrees from such places.

However, as everyone who works in the productive sector (non-government) of the economy will tell you – just because a person has the right papers, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re any good at the job they’re assigned.

Funnily enough, one of the most prominent examples where this plays out is in the military. We have generals who get the top jobs in their early 40s. None have seen any form of action. All have great paper qualifications. Are our generals clever? The qualifications our generals have, imply that they have brains. However, are those brains good at leading men on a war front? Nobody knows because nobody has been tested.

This on its own would be bad enough. However, what makes it particularly bad is that proving that you have the abilities to be a good military leader might be detrimental, especially if you don’t have the right papers. Case in point, Major-General Tan Huck Ghim, led a task force in Timor Leste and was praised by everyone, including the Australians and New Zealanders he led. His reward was to get knocked down to Brigadier-General on his return to Singapore.

As far as our ministry was concerned, he was “old.” The second case was Rear-Admiral Bernard Miranda, who led a task force to combat piracy in the Gulf of Aden. Everyone said he did a fantastic job. That is everyone except the bureaucrats in the Ministry of Defence who saw that the Rear-Admiral got bumped down to colonel and retired from active service as soon as possible.

Two men proved they had “merit” to do the job assigned to them, but they failed to meet the official definition of merit, so they were demoted.

Meritocracy is a wonderful idea on paper. If you think about it, why shouldn’t things be run by the best and brightest? Our scholarship system is often praised by everyone else outside Singapore because the idea looks good on the outside.

We, the people, are a little less enamoured with the idea because the results are a little less desirable.

The problem here is not only the definition of merit but the fact that the system tends to waste brains by placing them in bureaucratic silos. Scholars who prove their intelligence and ability to study are placed in environments that ensure they never face challenges. The brain, like the other muscles in the body, has a way of rotting when it’s not challenged. In military terms, good officers are never placed near problematic platoons and get promoted to half-colonel within six years as long as they sit there and behave.

Bureaucracy has a way of stifling the desire to be better, and when you have situations where it’s about climbing up the ladder and position becoming a sign of godhood, you get the worst of many worlds. Yes, there’s a meritocracy, but it’s not necessarily the meritocracy of the ability to do the job.

If you think of the outsized role that the government has in our economy, you’ll understand that many private enterprises end up trying to model themselves on the government bureaucracy, which is essentially the main customer. I think of someone in the construction industry who pointed out that one of the most important things in the business was ensuring that you had a “Godfather” in the organisation above you. The skill that becomes essential in business is “Por Lamba,” or “Angkat Bola” (the Hokkien and Malay, which roughly translates to “carrying balls”).

Now, as one of the smoother operators I’ve known once said, “it doesn’t cost me anything to say nice things,” and one has to accept that every relationship needs to be greased. An ego-stoked boss is bound to be more malleable when the ego is pumped.

However, the problem sets in when the man on top only values the skill of ego pumping. There are, for example, times when the man on top needs to be told that his idea is downright suicidal. When I worked freelance, I had to make the clients feel good. However, I also needed to have enough respect from the client to tell them when they were being ridiculous. I am pleased to say that I had clients who respected that.

If you, for example, depend on a boss who is more interested only in listening to praise than in what you want to do to make business better, sooner or later, you’re going to find that it’s better for you just to sit there and smile and nod at whatever the boss says, regardless of how idiotic.

Is Singapore like that? Again, let’s go back to the issue of foreign worker dormitories. Activists like Jolvan Wham have spent years trying to raise the issue of conditions in the dormitories. Nobody wanted to listen. The activist was often whacked with lawsuits for being troublemakers. Why? The activists were trying to tell the powers that be that things were not hunky-dory on the ground. The construction industry, on the other hand, was talking about how great things were. What did the government want to hear?

So, I guess you could say that we are a meritocracy – it’s just a question of what we are actually good at that matters.

A version of this article first appeared at beautifullyincoherent.blogspot.com


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