Sacrifices at the Altar of Meritocracy

February 13, 2009

623817675_bb4dc96384The Singapore success story is a well known one. Beginning from independence in 1965, it is the ultimate rags-to-riches story of any nation. The city-state’s shimmering skyscrapers, sterile public trains, and mammoth shopping malls testify to the fact that it worships unapologetically at the altar of capitalism, fervent in its belief in that it is unique and must thus behave so.


 But behind this famous success story are thousands of other smaller stories. Stories like those of Mohamed Idris, a delivery driver who struggles to raise his family of six on a salary of S$1200. Or Madam Sim Lee Wah, a 68 year old woman living alone from hand to mouth; or Fitri Yusof a single mother working two jobs to send her two boys to school because she does do not qualify for financial aid; or the numerous aged who sleep out in the open because they have no home or family to return to.


What is interesting about these stories is the way they are told in Singapore. You see, these stories do not exist because there is no official poverty line in Singapore (as in Hong Kong). However, you would be mistaken to think that the PAP government or the national newspapers would like to hush these stories up. Nothing could be further from the truth. The government candidly admits that Singaporeans in need of financial aid has risen from 14,300 in 2001 to 22,500 in 2002 and 31,570 in 2003 and the amount given out has increased from S$14.6m in financial year 2001 to S$27m in 2003. Meanwhile The Straits Times regularly features the plight of the poor and homeless.


So, should one leap with joy or wince at the Ministry of Community Development Youth And Sports’ new rates for public assistance for the needy? The papers reported yesterday that a person requiring financial assistance would now receive $360; 2 persons  $630; 3 persons $790; 4 persons $950; and 5 person families or more will receive $1,150. Given that Singapore’s annual inflation rate hit a 25-year high of 6.6 per cent in January 2008, these sums are barely enough to get by on. Why is so little doled to the poor?


Things get even more bizarre with the 2007 exchange between a ruling-party backbencher Lily Neo and the Minister for Community, Youth and Sports. When asked if people on Public Assistance schemes had enough money left to buy food after paying off rent and utility bills, the Minister retorted, “How much do you want? Do you want three meals in a hawker centre, food court or restaurant?”


It would be too easy to dismiss the ruling-party as heartless, and it would be wrong too. There are a variety of public assistance schemes which enable the needy to survive, barely. The real question is why welfare programmes in Singapore are spread out over a variety of schemes, with each worth only a small amount?


To answer this question, one has to go straight to the heart of the ideology of meritocracy in Singapore. Preserving the myth of meritocracy is becoming increasingly important as the influx of foreign talent challenges locals for jobs. Meritocracy is one of the few reasonable arguments left to counter calls to turn away from globalisation and the global economy. In other words, preserving the myth of meritocracy helps the government keep protectionism at bay.


Preserving the myth of meritocracy also frees the state from spending too much on the poor and needy. People are poor not because of socio-economic circumstances or poverty cycle. They are poor because they lack certain individual qualities like industriousness, discipline and frugality. With meritocracy, poverty is no longer a systemic or structural problem that the government must fix but an individualized one which the person must sort out on his own. One is either of merit or without. The rewards will be distributed accordingly.


Hence, while there is no official poverty line, the poor are not hidden away by the state. Quite the opposite; they are put in the limelight and discussed at great lengths in Parliament.  They are almost exhalted as living proof that real meritocracy is at work in Singapore. For how can there be real meritocracy unless real people are suffering? Just like we know capitalism is at work when competitors wilt away, we also know meritocracy is working when people are left behind. The government is not heartless, it is just a slave to the ideology of meritocracy.


Thus while the shiny Singapore success story is an ode to hyper-capitalism and globalization, there are a thousand other stories that often do not get told beyond these shores. These stories are stories of sacrifice. Sacrifices at the altar of the ideology of meritocracy.



7 Responses to “Sacrifices at the Altar of Meritocracy”

  1. And they are also there to serve another purpose…

    … for mothers of children to point at and whisper into their child’s ears.

    “If you don’t work hard, you will end up like that.”

    The whispers of meritocracy are scary indeed.

  2. joe Says:

    It is also to show the people that if you do not work and contribute to CPF, you will end up like them too.

    And we know how important CPF money is to the government.

  3. thinline Says:

    you sound exasperated or resign to the fact that there is no better system than….. sacrificing at the altar of the ideology of meritocracy – in your own words

    why?because you are a product of that system howbeit, richer for it?

    • groundnotes Says:

      first of all, being a slave to ideology is not a system. its blind faith. and that’s always bad. secondly, a good system rewards diverse notions of merit, and not just academic merit. thirdly, being a beneficiary of a system doesn’t not morally disqualify one from admiting there are flaws in it.

  4. […] Discourse – groundnotes: Sacrifices at the Altar of Meritocracy – TOC: Parliament unbound [Recommended] – My Thoughts..: Isn’t It about Time We Took Our […]

  5. MayRulersBeRighteous Says:

    I belong to the generation of the 40s/50s, old enough to trace the fabulous development of a tiny British colonial island with no natural resources into a first world economy many other nations talked about. The economic success is a fact but behind the rags-to-riches stories are many unsung heroes who for their lack of political acumen were swept aside by the tides of politics, some even prosecuted, gone into exile and they were all put into oblivion in the politcal history of the nation. Only the victors got to tell the stories. These unsung heroes were Singaporeans of humble origin, many were “men in white” associated with ruling party which swept into power in 1959 after a decade of struggle against the British colonial master. Some of them were even founding members of the ruling party which was formed in the 50s to represent the oppressed working class and to build a more equal and just society. They were inspired by the founding manifesto of the ruling party to fight for a free and democratic society based on equality and justice. There was not a moment of thought about meritocracy but all about sacrifices, hardwork, team spirit and cooperation between government, labour and the employers, all striving towards a prosperous and progressive Singapore for the welfare of all its citizens. And progress we did, and propser we did to become a first world economy. I ask for today’s “men in white” to look back at the inspiration, dreams and hopes, the spirit and ideals of these unsung heroes who were also “men in white” and contemplate how far we have deviated from the founding manifesto of the party that were given the mandate by generations of Singaporeans to run this nation. Have we done these unsung heroes – your comrades of “men in white” -justice and gratitude to allow Singaporeans who have been left behind by the machine of meritocarcy uncared for, marginalised and suffered in poverty.

  6. zztop Says:

    It’s very disturbing to see S’pore ape the worst aspects of American social policy, such as the vilification of the poor and the move away from socialized services to private, unsubsidized ones. These policies have torn the social fabric of the US apart and tend to produce worse outcomes for education, health and class mobility. This will undo all the ‘nation building’ of the past 40 years. The US has lost its collective identity, it will take more than the Obama administration to recover it. Singapore cannot want this too.

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