Don’t kill meritocracy

Photo credit: wazari via

When the prime minister says he values loyalty above intelligence, that might be yet another death knell on meritocracy in Malaysia, says Nicholas Chan.

Truth to be told, I do not like to talk about meritocracy with Malaysians, because it elicits many unwarranted responses.

You get arguments that are mostly without merit: emotional, racist, self-serving, and unintelligible.

It gets so bad that one even has to be apologetic about talking about meritocracy.

Due to its equation with Singapore, talking about it sometimes is like tearing up sutures of an old wound.

In that case, a simple denial in the form of we don’t want to be like Singapore-lah (whatever that means) will shut off the topic completely.

But wait a minute. Let’s not put the cart before the horse here. The question at hand is not even about the type of meritocracy we want, but simply asking if meritocracy should have a place in Malaysia.

As far as astute observations go, it doesn’t.

While meritocracy is often used to define governments “ruled by those selected for their merits”, my discussion today here will adopt a broader view of meritocracy, whereby it means a system where “people who demonstrated their ability and talents are recognised and rewarded”.

So, while Singapore is widely known for its meritocratic governance, Singapore does not define the word “meritocracy”.

Ditching meritocracy just because we don’t want to be Singapore is akin to proverbially throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Do we not want meritocracy? Most of us would agree we want the best for ourselves or even for our children. Isn’t that process of selection of the “best” meritocratic?

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How can we think we deserve better but the option is not extended to Malaysia? I personally find it hypocritical.

This disdain for meritocracy for many Malaysians is driven by three factors: the first is our aforementioned historical, political and psychological rivalry with Singapore, and therefore our disassociation with the term best linked to the island republic.

Second, we have a very rigid understanding of meritocracy. Our vision of meritocracy as being Singapore is already tunnel vision to begin with.

This can also be seen from the cynical response towards meritocracy by those who nitpick on its technical weaknesses, like how a kid who is very good in playing the piano but not scoring in our exams will be marginalised by the education system. But the case of the “imaginary musical whiz kid” only proves that our system is not meritocratic enough since a talent goes unrecognised and unrewarded. So, we need only to improve the system then, not going into an existential crisis and tearing down the whole idea of meritocracy.

Meritocracy just means that the most deserving person gets his or her place and opportunity in society. How a person is assessed to be the most deserving is entirely up to the administrators. For instance, being Oxbridge-trained does not mean the person is naturally qualified for a particular job. The criteria of merit should be flexible and open to rigorous contextualisation. But the recognition of merit – not race, faith, kinship or pedigree – should not waver.

Third, we see meritocracy as being the “be all and end all”, which is why proponents of affirmative action look at meritocracy with deep suspicion. The fear is that people with better socio-economic conditions – who also tend to do better in education, employment and even cognitive development – will benefit from meritocracy and displace the weak and disadvantaged.

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I think this is a very shallow opinion of meritocracy. Meritocracy needs not be the anti-thesis to social justice. There are no fixed formulas about how a meritocratic society should be run nor is there anything to prevent a meritocratic government from launching good social welfare programmes, be they of affirmative action in nature or not.

For example, the awarding of oversea scholarships to those who can afford annual skiing trips to the Alps is not meritocratic at all, if the aim is to promote upward social mobility. In this case, the holder simply does not deserve the financial aid.

Also, meritocracy does not automatically translate into inequality, as some people would think. The schools in Finland, which has one of the most admirable education systems in the world, are universally good. Parents do not fret about sending their kids to schools according to neighbourhoods because they understand all the schools are equally good.

This contrasts with China, which despite having good Pisa scores, has parents buying high-priced properties just to make sure their children have the ‘correct address’ to get into good schools because the quality of schools are unequally distributed.

Finland did not achieve high quality and equitable education by denying meritocracy. They did it by providing the best education training, selecting and rewarding the best to become teachers, and trusting them with high autonomy to make the best choice for the kids.

If handled wisely, the question of ‘meritocracy versus affirmative action’ does not even arise. You want the best system, you choose the best people. And the more broken a system is, the more imperative it is to choose the best people to fix it.

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A system that only serves the rich and powerful is called a kleptocracy or a plutocracy; let’s not confuse our terminologies here.

Therefore, it is regrettable to know that some quarters actually have a problem with the new Malaysia Airlines chief simply because he is not Malaysian. But then, we also know, to put it bluntly, if the person picked was Tony Fernandes, some would still deem him to be of the wrong race to hold the position. That is not only un-meritocratic, but discriminatory.

The truth is, we need meritocracy, and we have very little of it. Until we decide that Malaysia actually needs meritocracy, let’s not kid ourselves by going into pretentious “academic” debates to trivialise the matter. Let’s not kill meritocracy just because we don’t understand it.

Well, at least we have one deputy minister who realised the importance of meritocracy by quoting his CGPA to augment his stance. But the beauty about true meritocracy is, everything is open for validation.

Source: The Malaysian Insider

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