“There’s a big difference between having a title and being a leader. And there’s a big difference between having an education and being a leader. And I think those that believe that their title gives them credibility is unacceptable. To me, you should earn the right to lead other people by doing the right thing and being the right kind of person.” – Sheldon Yellen, CEO of Belfor Holdings
“A major flaw of the system has been “mismatched” scholars who are from a totally different discipline doing a crucially important leadership task that he had never been trained for.” – Seah Chiang Nee
“I do not believe skilled exam-takers are automatically entitled to a bigger slice of the resource pie, nor is it a given that they will necessarily contribute in a more significant manner to Singapore society in the future.” – Koh Choon Hwee
“For a while, meritocracy led to significant social mobility. However, Singapore (as with other meritocratic societies) has arrived at a point where meritocracy can no longer insure social mobility. This is because the successful can transmit their advantages to the next generation, resulting in an increasingly skewed playing field.” -Donald Low
“The top echelons of the civil service and government has been populated by hand-picked scholars who were chosen primarily on their academic achievements. Having the most academically talented Singaporeans in these vaulted positions it does pose certain problems. Many scholars are parachuted into high positions at a young age. They may lack the experience or understand-ing of the ground sentiment to effectively craft and implement policies that affect the majority of the population. We also risk the problem of group think if the decision makers are effectively ‘cut from the same cloth’. Having a bit of diversity even in the policy-making bureau can actually be beneficial, just as it is desired in any other team.” - -PAP MP Inderjit Singh
“The biggest challenge for all the new ministers and the future leadership is the lack of ground experience as most of the named leaders come from what are considered the ‘elites’ of society, who had accelerated careers in the civil service or the military.”- Ex-PAP MP Inderjit Singh
“It is an unhealthy state of affairs in a democracy… as the lack of accountability has the potential to lead to abuses far worse than that which CHC has been found guilty of. Assurances that appointment decisions are made not by individuals but by boards and committees is insufficient. The lesson one learned from the CHC case is that boards can be manipulated by powerful individuals.” -maskedcrusade
“All of them are talents, probably true to a large extent. But not the right person for the right job. This is Singapore style of Meritocracy that is failing us. Period.”
It is arguable if Singapore’s Government constant bragging of Meritocracy is indeed true Meritocracy. Oxford Dictionary define Meritocracy as “government or the holding of power by people selected according to merit.” While the Singaporean system to a large extent do award key positions based on merits rather than based on the candidates’ wealth or connections, I will argue that Singapore’s Meritocracy system is not a true Meritocracy. Some unique circumstances breed a unique Singaporean Meritocracy system:
(1) An Elite Social Class. Thousands of scholarships are given every year, breeding a class of intellectual elites who belong to an exclusive “Scholar” social class. More than half of the key government officials belong to this group of social class (the three PM since independence also belong to this unique social class). In fact, your career path in the Singapore Government and the quasi Government sectors will be a lot harder and longer if not impossible even if you are much more capable on the job than your scholar colleague all because you did not like to study hard while you were young or you were sick for that crucial exam, tough luck!
(2) Reward the “talent” or lose it. It is a unspoken fact that Singapore “scholars*” are destined to be groomed to be future leaders of their respective organisations be it administrative office, military, police, prison, government linked companies (GLC). Simply put they are put on a fast track career and they know that if they get involved in a few so called key projects or initiatives and do not make major mistakes, they are destined to reach their pinnacles by the time they are at their mid 30s or early 40s. The government rationale is that if they do not do it this way, they will lose a lot of talented young men and women.
(3) Best man for the job? Not necessary. Due to the impatience of these high achievers, many elites in their mid 50s have to step down to give way to the next generation of the leaders even if they are the best men for the job. The famous examples are Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong who have to stepped down from their posts at the peak of their careers. It is also arguable say Lim Siong Guan, probably the best Head of Civil Service we ever had, but have to give up his post at the peak of his career to a lesser deserving colleague of his. The key posts in the military such as Chief of Navy/Armed Forces/Air Force and Chief of Staff rarely stay on their posts for more than five years and have to leave at the peak of their careers. A true Meritocracy should not discriminate a person based on his tenure, instead judge him on his merit and performance.
(4) Questionable Accountability. While the government is quick to reward with high salary and fast promotion for the civil service, there were a few high profile incidents that make citizens wonder why no symbolic demotion or pay cut were meted out in case of a high profile fallout. The famous example was the escape of Mas Selamat, while some junior officers and the prison director faced disciplinary actions, DPM Wong Kan Seng did not get the sacked, not even a symbolic paycut or demotion, which is unthinkable in many of the most advanced Asian democratic countries such as Korean, Japan or Taiwan. Other examples are the billions dollars loses incurred by GIC and Temasek Holdings during the financial crisis; no high level resignation or reprimand for the Nicoll Highway collapse and the recent uproar over the under budgeting of the YOG and the questionable immigration policy which causes much unhappiness among Singaporeans.
The meritocracy system looks good on paper, the devil is in the implementation details. I leave you a real situation of how the system works from a real example extracted from GinTai’s quote:
“Everyday, as a PO, I had to handle the shit side of our society. The habitual drug addicts, loan sharks harassment, thefts, fighting, gambling, house-broken into, criminal intimidation & threats, family disputes, etc etc and not forgetting the “jumping cases” or horrible industrial accidents. I’ve seen them all.
Already, there is so much nonsense and stress in a police station, yet they still deploy scholars. All kinds of scholars attached to us for short stink maybe 9 mths to a year doing all kinds of investigation i.e. crime or routine etc. They under-study us. They know that they are here for record purposes only. Just to feel some basic ground work only. Their career path is set and they shall go on to HQ or some other higher management posts. But then they created lots of IPs like nobody business. They left behind piles of shit for us to clear. Only us without the big paper are left to clear the mess. Why shld they bother with thorough or painstaking investigation leg work? To be fair, not all of them are like that. But most are like that. After all if they are given the coveted ASP rank without earning it the hard way, why would they bother to slog so long as there is no major wrong doing on their short stint with us?”
[Another comments on “Military professionals in SMRT not a good idea” sums up best the state of the meritocracy in Singapore esp in the Government and GLCs:
SMRT is one example where meritocracy does not apply. And it’s the same for many SAF officers near the end of the military shelf life – Oh, you’re an officer, and a scholar too…hmmmm, let me see where i can deploy you for your 2nd career. I have heard of RSAF pilots, retiring at 45(?) with a big gratuity, and then redeployed to become vice principals of an MOE school. I thot the idea of a end-of-service gratuity is to compensate him for the rest of his life (since he is unlikely to find related military vocations?). But no, they are given a new lease of life. So an ex-pilot of a F16 fighter jet becomes the “co-pilot” of a school. Warrant Officers under the same scholar pilot – what happens? – hmmm, maybe you can go open your auto repair shop maybe.
I guess the process is like that: hmmmm you commanded a division of 100,000 troops. Was transport involved? Oh, there were a few MT line platoons in the brigade. Had to move logistics and vehicles during exercise? OK, that’s experience enough.
I never understood this. At the lower ranks PROVEN relevant experience is a prime selection criteria. At the higher ranks, I guess they only looked at “potential”. In times of mismanagement:
“It’s an honest mistake”
“Let’s move on…”
“We could have done better…”]
- Who’s best for job of civil servant and MP?
- Past history of “retired” high ranking officers being parachuted into civil service or GLC companies
- Military scholars to the fore
- Are we becoming an uncaring elitist society? (aka Wee Shu Min incident)
- Are technocrats good administrators?
- No merit without competition
- Tweak scholar system, change mindsets
- Rethinking excesses of meritocracy
- Meritocracy in Singapore—It Just Doesn’t Look Good
- The downside to winning all the time
- Hail the new meritocracy
- News Clips: It’s okay to compete but have a heart
* Scholar in its traditional sense is a learned and respected person for his scholastic achievements or a person who has studied a subject for a long time and knows a lot about it. In Singapore, the term has been hijacked to mean a child who has done well academically and received a scholarship from a university, government agencies or private organisations. It really demeans the true meaning of scholars. – Askmelah
“Democracy is incompatible with Meritocracy. To summarise, Democracy is a popularity contest, where you win the right to govern based on your popularity. However, there is weak or no correlation between popularity and ability to govern. Meritocracy fails when what is meritorious is not what gets one the job.” – Source
[Added Apr 2016] Richard Seow’s view of meritocracy in Singapore:
“The tenets are admirable but I don’t think they are necessarily absolutes. I had a discussion with a politician, a civil servant and a student. I asked each the same question: Everyone talks about meritocracy, can you help me understand what you think it means?
The politician said: Equal access to all, everyone gets a chance. The civil servant said: Only the best get in. I asked the 14-year-old boy: “Do you know what meritocracy means?” “Yes, sir, I know. Sir, meritocracy means I win, he loses.”
All three definitions are correct. What does that tell you? Misplaced meritocracy is selfish. It means that for me to move up, I have to stand on his head. Whereas what we are trying to do is I move up, then I help lift him as well.”