A Redefined Meritocracy as the New Social Compact for Singapore?

As I pondered over the contents of this post over the weekend, a new chapter in Singapore’s history was being written. On Saturday, 16 May 2011, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong issued a joint statement announcing their retirement from the Cabinet.

“We have studied the new political situation and thought how it can affect the future. We have made our contributions to the development of Singapore.

The time has come for a younger generation to carry Singapore forward in a more difficult and complex situation. The Prime Minister and his team of younger leaders should have a fresh clean slate.

A younger generation, besides having a non-corrupt and meritocratic government and a high standard of living, wants to be more engaged in the decisions which affect them.

After a watershed general election, we have decided to leave the cabinet and have a completely younger team of ministers to connect to and engage with this young generation in shaping the future of our Singapore.

But the younger team must always have in mind the interests of the older generation. This generation who has contributed to Singapore must be well-looked after.”

I say history is being written because neither MM Lee nor SM Goh are quitting politics for good. Singapore can ill afford to not at least consider their opinions, given the almost-90 years of political and government experience between them, so long as we learn to selectively tune some of them out. Senior statesman Lee Kuan Yew won the tussle for control over Lim Chin Siong over 40 years ago amidst tumultuous times (see intro, parts 1, 2, 3), and as victor, got to shape the country and write history the way he deemed fit. The gauntlet that is this new page in Singapore’s political and national history – whether future generations will turn the page and read about Singapore’s continued success – now rests squarely upon the shoulders of his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, and his soon-to-be-named  ministerial team. 我国财富是否过得了三代全靠他们了。

It is interesting for their joint statement to tip its hat once again towards the ideology of meritocracy, which has been a hallmark of governance in Singapore. My time as a small cog in the large policy making wheels of the Singapore Government has imbued in me a keen interest in social engineering. It didn’t help that Elections 2011’s underwhelming results (yes I think the Opposition deserves 1 more SMC) had left me more politically aware and wanting more. And so I took to the net and tried to read as voraciously as I could.

Through the years, the Singapore Government has continually tweaked the social compact with its people. With each passing election, just as in the case of Intel and Moore’s Law, the Government has successively pulled the proverbial rabbit out of its hat. Yet, as a more politically and mathematically-inclined Shakira might have sung, flagging popularity at the polls over 3 elections don’t lie. As the government’s efforts reach its limit, out sprung solid data, research and editorial, all clamoring for a serious relook at Singapore’s social compact.

PM Lee’s apology and new-found empathy may have surprised and appeased many, but I’ve become increasingly convinced that the Government will have to redefine its current version of meritocracy if it is to do better at the polls in 5 years’ time.

My favorite read from the list above is Kenneth Paul Tan’s paper, which I’ve embedded below. It’s eerily prophetic given that it was written 3+ years before the watershed Elections of 2011.

As the economic and political elite are rewarded (or are rewarding themselves) with larger prizes, a vast and visible inequality of outcomes will replace the incentive effect with a sense of resentment, helplessness, social disengagement, and even envy among those who perceive themselves as systematically disadvantaged. As the elite class endeavors to renew itself, defining merit in its own image, it will become increasingly narrow, exclusive, and dismissive toward others, losing the benefit of a broader range of less traditional talent. As talented Singaporeans (bonded or not) continue to calculate carefully the opportunity costs of a career in politics and public administration in Singapore, the focus will continue to be on the question of reward. As public-sector careers become more lucrative, civil service and ministers’ salaries will mutate from a politically courageous (and somewhat extreme) public-sector innovation to attract and retain talent for making good policies that refl ect the real needs, interests, and common good of Singaporeans into a preoccupation with staying in power mainly for the money and achieving this through image politics, vote-buying, and so on.

Any attempts at addressing the 3 segments of the population who have been left behind; namely (1) students of non-elite schools from middle-class families and below, (2) white- and blue-collared workers who aren’t experiencing wage increases in proportion to Singapore’s increase in GDP, and (3) retired citizens with insufficient retirement, will need to begin by providing a “more level starting point” in a redefined meritocracy. PAP critics and cynics will also be on the lookout for further unfairness and disparity in politics and might even lob a Kryptonite or two their way; after the Worker’s Party election misdirection, who knows what else is up the sleeves of our intrepid Low Thia Kiang? A referendum on the GRC system perhaps?

I suspect we’ll hear a lot more in the year ahead. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a 2011 mid-year examinations paper from Methodist Girl School, an elite all-girls school in Singapore, on the topic of Meritocracy, plus an epic political video meme.

Photo courtesy of morenewmath.com

About James Chan

James Chan is an entrepreneur, investor, geek, photographer and husband/father based out of Singapore. Apart from frequent travels to Vietnam, Myanmar and Indonesia for work, James can also be found online via his trusty 15" Retina MacBook Pro or iPhone 6+.