Meritocracy: Time For An Update?

While the spirit of meritocracy is still important for Singapore, there may be a need to review our ideas about how it can be put into practice.

Date Posted

14 Feb 2016


Issue 14, 14 Feb 2016

Meritocracy as an ideal resonates with most Singaporeans. As a principle, meritocracy speaks to fairness, opportunity, and the promise of social mobility. In general, meritocracy refers to the notion that individuals are appointed (or promoted) to positions on the basis of their ability to do the job, and not because of their family background, ethnicity, age, gender, or national origin. In the everyday experience of Singaporeans, however, meritocracy has come to mean many things, not all positive. While it remains an ideal shared by many, some questions have been raised about how well our meritocracy is functioning in practice, after fifty years of nationhood.

The Critique of Meritocracy

With the advent of globalisation, labour flows and rising social inequality in societies around the world,1 critics have come forward with several criticisms of meritocracy as it is conceived and practised today.

Mobility and Inequality

One criticism levelled at meritocracy is that it offers the promise of equality of opportunity, but does not deliver. In Singapore, the end of colonialism and its institutional discrimination against non-Europeans brought about a “reshuffling of the deck”, and consequently high rates of social mobility. This was accelerated in the years following Independence by the emphasis on education: heavy subsidies for public schools gave many Singaporeans of humble backgrounds a chance to prove themselves and succeed. Today however, some have expressed concern that the lines of wealth, status and cultural capital are gradually hardening:

Having a wealthy background can give you the upper edge from the very beginning through an expensive, private kindergarten education, and later on through expensive tuition, enrichment programmes that will benefit you when applying for school, and connections for good internships and jobs. This is also played out when children of alumni get preferential access to schools.

— Diana Rahim, in “Meritocracy as Myth”2

Meritocracy: The Historical Context

In Singapore, a commitment to meritocracy first emerged in debates over the Malayanisation of the civil service in the 1950s. In his work on the Malayanisation Commission, S. Rajaratnam sought to entrench meritocracy as a principle within the Singapore civil service. In the words of the report of the Malayanisation Commission:1

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Official statistics show that Singaporean households in the top income quintile spend on average $175 a month on private tuition and other enrichment courses for their children. This is five times as much as what the household in the bottom income quintile typically spends.3 The suggestion is that this could entrench the advantages enjoyed by children of the wealth, enhancing the likelihood that they can succeed and do better in life compared to their less privileged peers.

There is recognition that our commitment to meritocracy should be tempered with broader social values such as compassion, humility, and regard for the poor.

Maintaining a high degree of social mobility will be a continuing challenge for Singapore, as it is for most advanced economies. Nevertheless, compared to many other societies, however, social mobility in Singapore is still high. A child born to parents in the bottom quintile of incomes has a 14% chance of attaining an income in the top quintile by the time they reach their early 30s; in contrast, they only have 8% chance in the US and 9% in the UK.4

Defining Merit

What does it mean to hire, appoint and promote the “best” person for the job? One criticism of meritocracy in Singapore is that there has been an over-reliance on academic credentials as a proxy for merit, particularly in the early stages of a person’s career. This narrow view is changing. Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam has pointed out that “Singapore must become a meritocracy of skills, not a hierarchy of grades earned early in life”.5 When hiring fresh employees, the public service and firms are placing greater value on the non-academic elements in their track record, seeking candidates with a breadth of experience and the ability to work in a team.

Systemic discrimination could also go unacknowledged. Studies of the US job market have shown that for resumes of equal standard, one assigned a typically African-American name such as Lakisha or Jamal has a 50% lower call-back rate compared to one assigned a typically white name such as Emily or Greg.6 Such studies have yet to be conducted in Singapore, but unconscious biases (such as on the basis of age, ethnicity or gender) could still be at play.

The need for safeguards to preserve meritocracy in the workplace concerns not only ethnicity but also nationality. Many firms in Singapore have a multi-national workforce; in some cases, Singaporeans may be a minority within the firm. Some Singaporeans have alleged discrimination by hiring managers who have a preference for foreign nationalities (such as their own compatriots). Indeed, to address such concerns, the Fair Consideration Framework was established in 2014 to help ensure that qualified Singaporeans are considered for jobs fairly.

Meritocracy and Values

In Michael Young’s cautionary 1958 book The Rise of the Meritocracy (in which the term “meritocracy” was first coined), he described British society as shifting from one where advancement is based on birth to one where it is based on talent. Young was concerned that people who attribute their success to their own “merit” instead of the accident of birth would become insufferably smug; he described meritocracy as a system that leaves the poor “morally naked”, because they are judged to “lack merit”.7

Today, there is once again a concern that meritocracy, with its emphasis on individual effort and striving, can engender a hyper-competitive and individualistic frame of mind. In the context of Singapore, Kenneth Paul Tan8 has written about the unintended consequences of meritocracy:

Conspicuously wide income and wealth gaps, instead of serving as an incentive, can breed a culture of resentment, futility, and disengagement among the system’s losers, thus perpetuating their low status, heightening their sense of disenchantment and alienation, and igniting a politics of envy.

Updating Our Conception of Meritocracy

Meritocracy as an ideal remains relevant — it guards against corruption, discrimination, and unfair practices. However, there is recognition that our commitment to meritocracy should be tempered with broader social values such as compassion, humility, and regard for the poor. The individualistic impulse ought to be balanced with a restatement of the role of society in enabling achievement and progress for each citizen:

We will build an open and compassionate meritocracy. Maximise equality of opportunity, while moderating inequality of outcomes … We will provide diverse pathways of success; treat all with dignity and respect, whether it is white collar, blue collar.

— Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, 20139

Public policies in recent years have placed more emphasis on improving social mobility, reducing inequality, and caring for the most vulnerable in our society. Efforts have been made to strengthen the Government’s redistributive role and provide greater risk-pooling, to broaden the social safety net.10 Such policy shifts have, in aggregate, begun to redefine how meritocracy works in Singapore.

Giving Every Child a Fair Start

In a fair system of meritocracy, there must be steps to ensure that everyone can have a good start in life, with a chance to achieve their potential regardless of their background. This begins with early childhood education. Acknowledging this, the Singapore government has doubled expenditure on the pre-school sector, with S$3 billion slated to be invested over the period 2013 to 2018. Pre-school subsidies have been enhanced, such that households with incomes in bottom quartile pay only S$3 a month for pre-school education. There are also efforts to raise standards in pre-schools, with scholarships and training grants to help pre-school teachers attain relevant qualifications.

To help children from disadvantaged backgrounds keep pace with their classmates, a specialised early intervention programme now supports those who enter primary school with limited English language or mathematics skills. The Government is also expanding the number of school-based student care centres; these especially help children who may not have a supportive learning environment at home.

Other interventions help ensure that young people do not drop out of school early due to a lack of funds. In Singapore, students from low-income households do not pay school fees. They receive free textbooks and uniforms, transport subsidies and are enrolled in a school breakfast programme. Bursaries for lower-income students attending university, polytechnic and institute of technical education (ITE) have also been expanded. The sum provided for ITE bursaries is significantly higher than the school fees: this helps reduce the opportunity cost of spending time in school instead of working.

Taken together, such policies help maintain a higher degree of social mobility in Singapore. We cannot stop parents from sending their children to expensive private kindergartens, nor from providing numerous other advantages to their children, from reading with them to giving them good counsel. But we can ensure that the public education system offers every child a reasonable chance at success.

Many Paths to Success

If meritocracy also implies contest, other policy interventions help reduce the uncertainties and anxieties associated with a competitive education system and labour market, and provide assurance that there are multiple pathways to success.

For instance, many Singaporean parents continue to regard the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) as a “make-or-break” milestone that would determine whether their children could enter a prestigious school (presumed to have a higher quality of education and outcomes). In response, there have been efforts to make every school a good school, for example, appointing the best teachers and principals to schools with poorer student outcomes, to raise standards. The PSLE scoring system is also being changed to create wider bands for grades, so that there is less competitive pressure surrounding this educational milestone. Greater flexibility across the various academic streams now allows students to take each subject at the level that is comfortable for them. Singapore’s ITE and polytechnic system today also offers excellent teaching, nurturing skills valued by industry, representing a real alternative to the junior college and university route.

While we still value self-reliance and hard work, there has been a greater acknowledgement of the need for collective responsibility and care for the vulnerable.

Beyond these policy measures however, there is a need to change social attitudes. Singaporeans ought not to aspire to any single “best” educational stream or life path. Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam11 has stressed the need to move beyond the soulless pursuit of academic qualifications:

Not choosing a course just because you qualified based on your ‘A’ Level score or GPA, but because it appeals to you, you feel interested enough in the field to keep learning, to keep progressing and applying yourself with passion … It cannot just be about paper qualifications, whether a degree or diploma … We should encourage our young to pursue their interests, and go for real substance, whatever the qualification.

To underline this mindset change, new initiatives such as SkillsFuture (which offers training grants and subsidies to all Singaporeans) are signalling that everyone at every stage in life has the capacity to acquire new skills, and that help will be given to enable them to do so.

A More Inclusive Approach to Meritocracy

As Singapore’s largest employer, the Public Service plays a key role in changing attitudes towards paper qualifications.

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Moderating Inequality & Caring for the Vulnerable

Meritocracy as a system tends towards unequal outcomes: for instance, higher wages in a profession may be necessary as an incentive to effort and skill. However, there are limits to the levels of inequality that we find acceptable as a society. While we still value self-reliance and hard work, there has been a greater acknowledgement of the need for collective responsibility and care for the vulnerable. In 2013, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong12 observed:

There are some things which individuals cannot do on their own and there are other things which we can do much better together. So we must shift the balance. The community and the Government will have to do more to support individuals.

Recent policies have leaned towards greater redistribution and strengthening social safety nets,13 including enhancements to public assistance, universal health insurance, and significant new benefits for the elderly.14 Measures are also being taken to raise the wages of lower-income workers, for example, through the Workfare scheme and the Progressive Wage Model.

Such major initiatives, all of which have a redistributive element, are being funded in part through a more progressive tax structure. They indicate the need for the most successful in a meritocratic society to play a greater part in contributing to the wellbeing of all. In 2013, the most expensive homes (especially investment properties) were subject to higher tax rates; in 2015, it was announced that personal income taxes for the top 5% of income earners would be raised.

It will take time for the effects of these policy shifts to be felt. It will take years more for long-held social attitudes to change. Singapore is likely to maintain faith in the spirit of meritocracy; however, as with all principles, the way in which it is realised will continue to evolve.



Tiana Desker was Deputy Head, Centre for Strategic Futures and Senior Assistant Director, Strategy Group in the Prime Minister's Office. She has previously served in the Strategic Policy Office and the Ministry of Defence. Tiana graduated from Stanford University and is currently pursuing a master's degree.


  1. Inequality in Singapore — as measured by the Gini coefficient — grew significantly beginning in the mid-1990s, before plateauing in the mid-2000s. See: Tharman Shanmugaratnam, “ESS SG50 Special Distinguished Lecture” (annual lecture of the Economic Society of Singapore, August 14, 2015).
  2. Diana Rahim, “Meritocracy as Myth”, 4 April 2014, accessed 14 August 2015, http://poskod.sg/Posts/2014/4/4/Meritocracy-as-Myth.
  3. Department of Statistics, “Report on the Household Expenditure Survey, 2012-13”, September 2014.
  4. Figures cited in Tharman Shanmugaratnam, "SG50 Distinguished Lecture". See Note 1.
  5. Tharman Shanmugaratnam, “Budget 2015: Building Our Future, Strengthening Social Security” (budget speech to Parliament), February 23, 2015.
  6. Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan, “Are Emily and Greg more employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A field experiment on labour market discrimination,” U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper, July 2003.
  7. Michael Young, “Down with meritocracy,” The Guardian, June 29, 2001.
  8. Kenneth Paul Tan, “Meritocracy and Elitism in a Global City: Ideological Shifts in Singapore”, International Political Science Review 29 (January 2008): 7–27.
  9. Lee Hsien Loong, speech at the People’s Action Party Convention (December 8, 2013).
  10. See Note 5, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Budget 2015 Speech, February 23, 2015.
  11. Tharman Shanmugaratnam, speech at the Official Opening of the Lifelong Learning Institute (September 17, 2014).
  12. Lee Hsien Loong, speech at the National Day Rally, August 18, 2013.
  13. The new MediShield Life universal health insurance programme provides assurance for those who face major illness, as well as those with pre-existing conditions who earlier did not qualify for health insurance.
  14. The Pioneer Generation Package (subsidised healthcare and disability benefits) and Silver Support Scheme (monthly cash benefits to seniors with lesser means) provide Singaporeans with greater assurance that their needs in their later years will be looked after.

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