Singapore’s Meritocracy: Really Is The Best Man On The Job?

“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

“The relentless focus on meritocracy, market-driven policies and economic growth have resulted in Singapore topping the charts in both GDP per capita and income inequality.”
Soon Sze Meng

“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…”]

Related link:

* 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.”


Who’s best for job of civil servant and MP?

Time for a relook as Singapore’s policy thrust and politics evolve.

AT HIS book launch earlier this year, former civil service head Lim Siong Guan made a simple but profound observation.

Choosing the best person for the job is not an absolute carved in stone, as “meritocracy has to be with respect to who is best for the position to deliver what you expect of the position”, he said.

The implication: As what is expected of a position changes, so too should the definition of merit and who is “best for the job”.

I was reminded of what Mr Lim said after the Administrative Service and the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) potential new faces came under the spotlight recently.

Much has been made of how Singapore is at an “inflection point”, with major developments like the social shift in policies and the changing face of local politics.

But one aspect that may have been glossed over is that these changes have huge implications on what public servants and politicians are now expected to deliver.

This calls for a fundamental rethink of what merit means, both in terms of who is “best for the job” and how they can emerge.

The roles of public servants and politicians should not be conflated, but it seems to me that in rethinking what being “best for the job” means, both entities face similar challenges.

One is whether their definitions of merit allow for enough diversity and plurality.

As authors Donald Low and Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh note in the introduction to their new book Hard Choices: Challenging The Singapore Consensus, as Singapore’s operating context becomes more complex and the polity becomes more heterogeneous, there should also be an increase in the diversity of ideas considered.

The other challenge is whether those deemed to be best for the job can avoid the perception of being out of touch.

Speaking during the Budget debate in March, Potong Pasir MP Sitoh Yih Pin cautioned that such a perception can lead to communication breaking down as “people around you cannot see themselves having an engaging relationship with you that is based on mutual understanding and respect”.

These challenges affect the public service and the ruling party in different ways. Take the public service. A longstanding issue has been that the thinkers who formulate policies – often scholarship holders and Administrative Service officers – are frequently viewed as more valued than the doers who do the implementing.

However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that this artificial divide is not viable. At the Administrative Service dinner in March, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam and civil service head Peter Ong took pains to remind officers of the importance of policy implementation and execution.

The ability to execute policies well will become even more crucial as the Government rolls out more social measures like the Pioneer Generation Package, where policies are only as good as the tangible benefits that people feel.

Such measures will require authentic knowledge of how Singaporeans lead their daily lives, compassion and the human touch. They also call for different perspectives, backgrounds and skills from a public servant who formulates big-picture policies for trade and the economy – traditionally seen as the more prestigious Administrative Service postings.

Moulmein-Kallang GRC MP Denise Phua told The Straits Times earlier this year: “In a day and age where ideas are a dime a dozen, the key people who are going to make a difference are the ones who turn them into reality.”

The question is whether such doers are recognised for their merit, and if those with different backgrounds and abilities can enter and prove themselves in the upper echelons of the public service.

What’s encouraging is that the public service appears to be aware of these changing expectations and is evolving to meet this different policy environment.

Public Service Commission chairman Eddie Teo, for instance, has been championing the need to recruit students from diverse backgrounds as scholarship holders.

Mr Teo told The Straits Times last month that he sees positive changes in younger officers. They are more keen to take on operational postings and are more interested in joining the social sector, not just the economic. “I like to think that this is the result of changes in Singapore – that our younger officers now worry more about social issues and have an intrinsic empathy for the ground, and a more caring attitude towards the less fortunate,” he said.

On the other hand, the changing expectations of politicians, particularly those from the ruling party, are less easy to decipher.

The PAP recently broke with tradition by allowing potential new faces to be seen in action at constituency events much earlier in the election cycle than usual.

The move is in line with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s pledge of a “new PAP for a new era” after the 2011 General Election, when he highlighted the need for a more diverse slate and for candidates to be tested out on the ground earlier. Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, the PAP’s organising secretary, also said recently the party especially values candidates with grassroots experience.

It would appear that the PAP is responding to signals from the electorate that the past formula of excellent qualifications is no longer enough to be considered “best for the job” of an MP.

Last year’s Punggol East by-election was a good example of how people’s expectations have changed. Voters rewarded the Workers’ Party (WP) for fielding a young woman with a heartlander background, who had proven herself by rising through the party ranks and walking the ground over two election campaigns. In contrast, the PAP man was viewed as the usual high-flying professional who had been parachuted in at the last minute.

Fast forward to today, and the potential PAP new faces who have been soft-launched – they include a lawyer, research scientist and economist – are already facing similar criticism for being cast from the same mould and the same old definition of merit.

On one level, voters do appear to value politicians who are “one of us”, someone they can relate to as an equal rather than in a top-down fashion. But I would argue that voters’ expectations are more complex than that.

One phenomenon in 2011 was that opposition parties were lauded for fielding high-fliers and elite former scholarship holders, while the PAP was slammed for being out of touch when it trotted out candidates of a similar ilk.

It is not just a matter of double standards. In Singapore’s political context, the high-flier who joins the opposition can symbolise, to the voter, courage and the willingness to buck the trend.

Conversely, the WP’s decision to field Ms Lee Li Lian over more conventionally qualified WP members can also be read as a sign of conviction and commitment.

What this says to me is that voters also expect politicians to appeal to their ideals, such as by displaying moral courage or passionate commitment.

I would argue that even as the PAP casts its net wider for candidates who fit these changing expectations, it should also dig deeper for that spark of boldness and conviction. This means looking beyond a person’s background and paper qualifications for other qualities such as empathy, lots of heart, and the drive to truly connect with people and patiently till the ground. These are attributes it should play up in a decisive way, beyond the pragmatic image of technocratic excellence that it has honed over the years.

In this brave new world of governance and politics, that may well be the new definition of merit and “best for the job”.