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Singapore Policy Journal

Topic / Education, Training and Labor

The Legitimization of Inequality


The recent debacle of a National University of Singapore (NUS) student’s light sentence for molesting a girl raises the question: how did inequality become legitimized? The court’s verdict that the student was sentenced to probation due to his “potential to excel in life” equated merit with legal exoneration. The implications, whether stellar academics as a currency for sentence reduction or as a clemency for moral wrongdoing, are equally bone-chilling. This is merely one of many incidents where sexual offenders receive a slap on the wrist and Singaporeans’ worship of academic merit receives a slap in the face.

Meritocracy, the ideology championing equal opportunities, is ingrained in Singapore’s national consciousness. The belief system attributes status disparities to an individual’s ability to be accorded with merit through hard work and dedication. Blind faith in the functionality of a meritocratic system, however, causes one to overlook birth and circumstance as equally important factors that dictate who merit is awarded to. Yet, conviction in the meritocratic values is inculcated in youths through education –– one of Ministry of Education’s six National Education principles is “We must uphold meritocracy and incorruptibility.” Such unwavering faith in meritocracy, while useful in incentivizing students to study hard, leads to the dangerous and fallacious corollary that “losers” of the meritocratic paper chase are culpable for their lower socioeconomic status. In other words, the argument that one is responsible for one’s success, turned on its head, posits that one is also responsible for one’s lack of success and provides a systemic justification of inequality.

Therefore, for societal attitude to change from consent to intolerance of inequality, there is a pressing need to recognise that endorsement of meritocratic values does not translate to meritocracy in practice. In a nation where public, shared knowledge must be state-sanctioned due to curtailed freedom of speech, the onus is on the government to drive both top-down and bottom-up change in citizens’ perception of meritocracy through facilitating transparent discussions of barriers to implementing meritocracy. A commendable example is Second Minister of Education and Finance Indranee Rajah’s recent speech where she pointed out that “the crux of the matter is not the principle of meritocracy per se. The crux of the matter is that while we have worked very hard to provide equal opportunities, those from the lower income and disadvantaged backgrounds might find it harder to access these opportunities.”

The Minister’s incisive comment is instrumental in dispelling the overriding faith Singaporeans have in meritocracy, when it is, in fact, a currently unattainable myth. For instance, there exists a chasm in the educational opportunities received by students in the Gifted Educational Programme (GEP) and students in normal academic streams. GEP students are coddled with “additional teachers” and “an annual programme grant of $53 per pupil”. The state’s myriad schemes aimed at converting the function of education from gatekeeping to social levelling, such as KidSTART and Anchor Operator Scheme, though laudable, are akin to slapping layers of slab onto the cracks –– advantages accrued by the privileged will seep through and get transmitted to future generations.

The government faces an uphill battle against human and biological nature in the creation of a meritocratic utopia. It is in the nature of parents to extend their successes to their children through the transmittance of wealth and cultural capital. It is in the nature of the genetic lottery that some of us will be predisposed to success. There is a tangible limitation to the government’s efforts –– try to use legislation or subsidies to redress thinner prefrontal cortices and lower cognitive functioning possessed by those trapped in the poverty cycle.

The oversight of luck’s role in one’s success allows winners of the birth lottery to justify an unequal status quo. In a psychology experiment, participants completed a task where they had to guess the number of dots on a screen. Unbeknownst to them, they received a random score unrelated to their actual performance. In other words, participants were misled to attribute their performance to skill when luck was all that mattered. Next, participants were paired and instructed to allocate an amount of money between themselves and their partner. There was some risk involved as the partner could reject the offer if he or she perceived the offer as unfair, in which case both participants would receive zero. The researchers discovered that participants made significantly more one-sided offers in their favour if they performed better on the dot-guessing task. These results, which are widely replicated in the research literature, are a microcosm for the current model of meritocracy as the false belief that success is solely due to skill induced entitlement to claim the lion’s share.

It is painfully apparent that equal opportunities is a cultural narrative spun by the policymakers and sustained by the stories we tell ourselves. Meritocracy is so entrenched in the collective mind as it is a comforting belief for workers in all strata of society. To the privileged, belief in an equal starting point is a self-reassurance that their privilege is earned rather than given to them on a silver platter. To the underprivileged, belief in a level playing field increases perceptions of control over future outcomes, seeing the system as legitimate even when it disadvantages them. It is important to acknowledge that the binary classification above of society into the privileged and the underprivileged grossly oversimplifies society’s socioeconomic composition for the sake of clarity.

The upshot is that moral, intellectual and psychological justifications of inequality carry significant socio-cultural ramifications. The “I-deserve-it-because-I-worked-hard-for-it” mentality of those who hold meritocracy dear to their heart licences entitlement to their wealth, depriving the emphatic individual out of them. Charitable giving in Singapore by individuals is only 0.39 percent of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as compared with 1.44 percent in the United States. It is a reflection of the toxic elitism mindset common in Singapore, testified by the fact that the most upvoted post in the online community Reddit Singapore is a 16-year-old girl’s plea for parents to stop making rude comments to students coming from schools that said parents deem less “prestigious”. To quote Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong: “When society’s brightest think that they made good because they are inherently superior and entitled to their success; when they do not credit their good fortune also to birth and circumstance… –– that is elitism,”

Moreover, the “just-world belief” perpetuated by the meritocratic worldview is harmful for students on the bottom rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. Despite being told that skill and effort are the biggest ingredients to success, they are structurally disadvantaged by factors such as inability to afford tuition. Consequently, according to a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), only 9.5% of all “disadvantaged students” (students who are socio-economically placed in the bottom quartile of society) are found in the top quartile of science performers in Singapore, which pales when compared to the OECD average of 11.3%. To reconcile the conflict between the “just-world belief” and disadvantaged students’ lower academic performance, the students could rationalise this contradiction by either internalising the negative stereotypes about their lower aptitude or fostering disillusionment towards the flawed system, both of which engender lower self-esteem and more delinquent behaviour. This places disadvantaged youths in a doubly vulnerable position by undermining their well-being on top of structurally deterring them.

The decreased generosity, increased elitism and increased disenchantment brought by legitimizing inequality have a very real day-to-day impact on our lives. However, one could argue that the benefits reaped by incentivising students to study hard offset the costs of believing in meritocracy. Instilling a “work-hard” national identity through the equal opportunities narrative would translate into a stronger labour force and a more prosperous economy. Proponents of such a view would point out that increasing the size of the economic pie benefits all in a society, thus rendering the current degree of inequality permissible.

This view, however, is easily dismantled as it contains a crucial non-sequitur –– increased economic productivity does not necessarily follow, and in certain situations is hindered by, the incentives function of meritocratic beliefs. Academic grades, as the narrowly-defined measure of merit, funnels all of students’ effort into a cutthroat pursuit of grades, illuminated by the fact that Singapore ranks third globally in time spent on homework. Such an unhealthy obsession with grades could stunt our youths’ intellectual and emotional development. Whether if it is the preponderance of mental disorders faced by young students or the widespread culture of trading sleep for academic success, we are pushing past students’ psychological and physiological limits. Instead of trying to motivate students using the false promise that they could join the cream of the crop if they worked hard, why don’t we first focus on their individual well-being?

At this point, it is important to reiterate that the numerous insidious effects mentioned are brought by a blind faith in a functional meritocracy and do not indict meritocracy as an inherently harmful ideology. Policymakers, therefore, play a vital role in their communication with the public in conveying that inequality is not a necessary by-product of a meritocratic system. They need to explain their reasoning behind Singapore’s cult of hierarchy-enhancing policies, including but not limited to the lack of minimum wage, lack of inheritance tax, prohibition on marriage between lower-educated foreign workers and locals, as well as having one of the lowest income tax structures for high-income earners. Regardless of said policies’ soundness as economic decisions, discussions on these policies must not omit their impact on equitable resource distribution, which is, after all, the core tenet of meritocracy.

At the end of the day, the key takeaway is that we must not let our nuanced worldviews concerning success, luck and effort be corrupted by a single-minded belief in a flawless meritocratic system. When we have finally reached the top and are celebrating our successes, we must also appreciate the role of luck in guiding us there. Only by doing so will we not let the words enshrined in our National Pledge –– “based on justice and equality” –– ring hollow.

Image Source: The Straits Times