February 2021 Pulse

In an article published by The Straits Times (October 25, 2018) entitled ‘Meritocracy and the Paradox of Success’, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung observes that meritocracy, which arises ‘from a belief in fairness, seems to have paradoxically resulted in systemic unfairness’. This observation is substantiated by a number of important monographs and studies that have appeared in recent years.

Meritocracy may be described as a social system that allows individuals to advance in society on the basis of their capabilities and merits rather than on family wealth or social background. The simple but compelling idea enshrined in meritocracy is attractive because it appeals to common sense. As McNamme and Miller explain, meritocracy asserts, quite straightforwardly, that ‘individuals get ahead and earn rewards in direct proportion to their individual efforts and abilities’.

That meritocracy has allowed individuals belonging to a low status group in modern societies to improve their social standing and economic class is evident and has been well documented in a number of studies.

The British sociologist Michael Young coined the term way back in 1958, and the concept has since been lauded in Western societies and wedded to other modern ideologies such as capitalism and egalitarianism. In Asia, this ideology is particularly well received by countries influenced in some ways by Confucianism, for example, Korea, China and Singapore.

In Singapore, meritocracy was championed by its founding Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, and remains one of the fundamental principles of governance. Thus, in his National Day Rally Speech in 2013, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong declared: ‘Meritocracy has to remain the fundamental organising principle in our society. We have to recognise people for their contributions and effort, not backgrounds or status or wealth or connections.’

From the Christian perspective, meritocracy must be evaluated on the biblical principle of justice (Deuteronomy 16:20; Psalm 106:3; Amos 5:24). The question that must be put to meritocracy, therefore, is whether the ideology and its implementation is able to deliver what it promises, namely, a fairer and more just society.

While meritocracy has demonstrably enabled the upward mobility of some individuals and appears to address (in some measure) the problem of social inequality, there are fundamental problems with it that must not be overlooked.

At the outset we note that meritocracy as an ideology is riddled with internal contradictions.

For example, meritocracy appears to have two mutually contradictory goals and outcomes: egalitarianism and elitism. On the one hand, a meritocratic system is supposed to provide equal opportunities for all citizens, regardless of their social and economic background. But on the other hand, meritocracy favours the members of the elite, who have their place at the top of the ladder.

In his book Elitism and Meritocracy in Developing Countries (1986) Robert Klitgaard discusses how meritocracy, which is ‘ostensibly anti-elitist’, can be commandeered by the winners. These so-called winners then become elitist, and are determined to perpetuate their own power, status and prestige.

Not only can meritocracy bring about the very elitism it seeks to avert, it can also be used to justify social inequalities, as the French economist Thomas Piketty has convincing argued. Piketty maintains that the very discourse that presents meritocracy as the fair and just way of distributing goods in modern society also legitimises disadvantages and inequalities. In other words, meritocracy, which is hailed as a social system in which egalitarian values are instantiated and even exemplified, is often also used to rationalise inequality.

Perhaps the most insidious consequence of all of this is that the meritocratic system tends to put the blame squarely on the shoulders of its victims. As William Lee points out, meritocracy may encourage the misperception that ‘the poor only have themselves to blame’ and that the ‘poor are poor because of laziness and other personal defects’. In this way, a meritocratic system does not only legitimise ‘failure’ but also stigmatises those who have not succeeded to climb the proverbial social and economic ladder.

But this also reveals an erroneous assumption that undergirds the meritocratic system, namely, that success or failure is dependent solely on the efforts of the individual. Meritocracy works with the myth that there is such a thing as a level playing field and ignores the unequal circumstances of individuals in society. Structural and systemic factors are therefore either passed over or pushed so far to the margins that they are deemed inconsequential.

As Kenneth Paul Tan explains, ‘Meritocracy, in trying to “isolate” merit by treating people with fundamentally unequal backgrounds as superficially the same, can be a practice that ignores and even conceals the real advantages and disadvantages that are unevenly distributed to different segments of an inherently unequal society, a practice that in fact perpetuates this fundamental inequality.’

Finally, we come to the concept of merit itself and the conflicted question of who gets to define it.

Studies such as Jerome Karabel’s The Chosen (2006) have shown that there can be no neutral definition of merit. According to Karabel, Ivy League universities keep changing their admission criteria so that exclusive privilege is given to ‘our kind of people’. Consequently, ‘outsiders’ —Catholics, (Eastern-European) Jews, nonwhites and women—are ‘legitimately’ excluded.

Should meritocracy be abandoned because of these very serious blemishes? The short answer to this question, as I conclude this article, is ‘No’. These serious problems notwithstanding, meritocracy as a social policy and system does have its merits (pun intended).

However, if meritocracy is to be put to good use for the benefit of society, it should be seen for what it truly is—a useful but imperfect strategy. Meritocracy must never be lionised as the guarantor of justice and social mobility, and the panacea for inequality in society.

Most crucially, meritocracy must never be the sole and even dominant strategy for organising society. It must always work in concert and in creative tension with other social policies that focus on helping the poor and vulnerable, especially the people that a meritocratic system tends to leave behind.

Simply put, a truly just and humane society can never be organised solely on the steely principle of merit and competition. It must always also be characterised by compassion, kindness and respect (Zechariah 7:9), and it must take a keen interest in the wellbeing and flourishing of all its members, not just the ablest among them.


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.