Sunday, July 28, 2013

ESM Goh: Meritocracy works?

Except the following there is nothing I haven't heard from any of our leaders,

He recalled that as far as 30 years ago, Singapore's leaders recognised such downsides of meritocracy.
He had listened in as then PM Lee, in a discussion with Dutch economist Albert Winsemius and then labour MP Devan Nair, argued that ideally and philosophically, all wealth should revert to the state on the owner's death so that each successive generation would start on an equal footing, and success would depend on hard work and ability, not inherited wealth.
But that idea was impractical, Mr Goh recalled.
This idea would only be practical if that's what is common around the world but it isn't and most likely never will. Those who have succeeded hate it and those who want to have a fair go at it welcome it. You know which group is the larger one. Better not make the winners too nervous because they are not going to leave empty handed.

I don't see anyone trying to make a case that if meritocracy is no good anything else is worse. Do our leaders assume that as a given? I don't think enough people feel that way. What is the use? At this time any attempt to persuade people on this is likely to be seen as self serving.

Like our declining TFR this problem is an impossible nut to crack. Perhaps an even harder nut. Elsewhere time and tide offered its own involuntary solutions and they are rarely pleasant. What are we to do? In times past but very rarely, good men find better men to take over who can solve problems. Given Rachel Chang's yesterday article, "Narrowing the empathy gap", which I must assumed is government approved that's not coming. Good people must make way for great people but often we are faced with the good is the enemy of the great.

It was convenient that there is a story on Jack Sim today. How he the great had to battle the good for a long time. Thank goodness he was also lucky. Many great people might not be.

And here is another great one over good men and women. This time from the civil service. They don't make these types any more and outstanding as he was, he can't solve our big problems either.

We need men and women unlike Rachel Chang proposed who do not see empathy and being hard headed as dichotomous to lead us. Others have the luxury of accepting lesser characters and wait for the moment for the truly great to lead them but I am not sure we are so fortunate.

ESM Goh suggested that meritocracy works. I agree it does up till about a decade ago.

"What we need is to get the successful to understand that they have a responsibility to help the less fortunate and less able with compassion," he said. They can do this through cash donations, sharing skills and knowledge, and serving the country.
At the same time, the Government needs to continue to help families that have fallen behind, through its policies and programmes, he added.
"Together, these efforts will ensure that our brand of meritocracy remains compassionate, that it is fair and inclusive for all - not just those who are lucky in their backgrounds or genetic endowments."
By and large the government have not succeeded at persuading the successful to do their part especially when a cancer of entitlement has developed in our top schools as well. Neither is the government doing an admirable job until we wielded the electoral weapon, a reckless response from us. Remember Lily Neo in her famous exchange with Vivan B, which the exasperated minister asked her if she wants meals for the poor from the hawker centre, food court or restaurant? No, it is not a happy and harmonious society. Rather it is one with widening gaps and growing fault lines.

As before we fail to give enough credit to being lucky. I am afraid we need even more luck than ever. Looking at what other countries are going through and doing, we the perennial price takers can be hopeful.

Update: 9:30pm

I just read the above in the NYT. Another unnecessary reminder that this problem is global. In the worst case, if we are able to tough it out we should survive and remain intact. What we would fail to do as I recall from Paul Romer, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. Can't be helped when we do not have the empathetic but also hard headed leadership of great men and women. We would just live with the good. It is doable but very stressful and tiring as we are always trying to run as fast as possible to catch the departing train.

What is not forgivable is when the good tries to kill off the great but they didn't stop Jack Sim. So it's alright. No malice only pitiful ignorance was at fault.

Update: July 29, 11:30

This is concerning Philip Yeo.

Excellent! Couldn't have come sooner. I didn't want to blog about this then. I am aware of such stories too - different ones. I had a good friend, no longer young now but was once an impressive young fellow. Then he got a scholarship, came under EDB and I am quite unhappy what he turned into under PY. They often picked up a lot of his bad habits and few of his gifts. I am being generous here.


Note: Steve Jobs was a far more obnoxious character. Take away the lesson Warren Buffett gave regarding how being great and nice do not necessarily come in the same package.


  1. This article has a good discussion of the downside of our so-called "meritocracy" system. Ignore the title (don't quite agree about who copies from who) but the contents are well written.

  2. Meritocracy is sure at work here. Before he even pass on he made sure that the Premiership is passed on to his son.

    Ironic that the ESM talks about elitism when he whacked Catherine Lim for talking about seat warming.