Saturday, September 10, 2011

Address the problems of meritocracy

MR KOO Tsai Kee's commentary on Tuesday ('Social mobility carried three Tans to the Istana gate') praised Singapore's cornerstone of success, meritocracy. In an ideal world, everyone would have access to vital resources like education and health care.

But in reality, meritocracy remains a limited system that does not, and cannot, benefit everyone.

This reality is even harsher in a country like Singapore, which is marked by a highly complex class system that divides the country based on economic power and cultural capital.

Mr Koo underestimated the importance of cultural capital in aiding an individual's social mobility.

Cultural capital includes one's social assets, such as social connections, access to popular culture, cultural knowledge, travel experiences and so on.

Compare a child who comes from an upper middle-class family, whose parents are high-level professionals and avid travellers, with one from a working-class family, whose father is a taxi driver and mother is a housewife, and who has three other siblings.

Of the two children growing up with differing cultural capital, who would be more successful?

Certainly, meritocracy lets a child from a working-class family climb the social ladder, but he will not go as far as the child from the upper middle-class family.

Another limitation of meritocracy is that it demoralises.

Those who are not socially mobile are looked upon as failures or rejects.

Meritocracy is an unforgiving system that does not consider the impact that social backgrounds can have on one's chances in life.

While it is heartening to note that the presidential candidates come from humble backgrounds, they are the exceptions to the rule.

Meritocracy may be a lofty idea but it is flawed, and my hope is that leaders are aware of its limits and can help level the playing field for everyone.

Nurhidayah Hassan-Le Neel (Mrs)