The Charade Of Meritocracy October 2006
By Michael D. Barr
The legitimacy of the Singaporean government is predicated on the idea of ameritocratic technocracy. A tiny number of career civil servants play a leadingrole in setting policy within their ministries and other government-linkedbureaucracies, leading both an elite corps of senior bureaucrats, and a muchlarger group of ordinary civil servants. Virtually all of the elite members ofthis hierarchy are “scholars,” which in Singapore parlance means they won competitive, bonded governmentscholarships—the established route into the country’s elite.
Scholars not only leadthe Administrative Service, but also the military’s officer corps, as well asthe executive ranks of statutory boards and government-linked companies (GLCs).Movement between these four groups is fluid, with even the military officersroutinely doing stints in the civilian civil service. Together with theirpolitical masters, most of whom are also scholars, they make up the software forthe entity commonly known as “Singapore Inc.”—a labyrinth of GLCs, statutoryboards and ministries that own or manage around 60% of Singapore’s economy.
The basis of thescholars’ mandate to govern is not merely their performance on the job, but alsothe integrity of the process that selected them. The educational system isdesigned to cultivate competition, requiring top students to prove themselvesevery step of the way. Singapore’sschools first stream students into elite classes after Primary 3 and 4. Theythen compete for entry into special secondary schools and junior colleges,before vying for government and government-linked scholarships to attend themost prestigious universities around the world.
These scholarshipstypically require several years of government service after graduation, and thescholars are drafted into the Administrative Service, the officer corps of theSingapore Armed Forces (SAF), or the career track of a statutory board or GLC.The government insists that all Singaporeans have equal opportunities to excelin the system, and that everyone who has made it to the top did so purely byacademic talent and hard work. Other factors such as gender, socioeconomicbackground and race supposedly play no more than a marginal role, if they areacknowledged as factors at all.
On the point of race,the Singapore government has long prided itself on having instituted a system ofmultiracialism that fosters cultural diversity under an umbrella of nationalunity. This is explicitly supposed to protect the 23% of the population whobelong to minority races (mainly ethnic Malays and Indians) from discriminationby the Chinese majority.
But this systemconceals several unacknowledged agendas. In our forthcoming book, Constructing Singapore: Elitism, Ethnicity and the Nation-Building Project, Zlatko Skrbišand I present evidence that the playing field is hardly level. In fact, Singapore’s system of promotion disguises and even facilitates tremendous biasesagainst women, the poor and non-Chinese. Singapore’s administrative and itspolitical elites—especially the younger ones who have come through school in thelast 20 or so years—are not the cream of Singapore’s talent as they claim, butare merely a dominant social class, resting on systemic biases to perpetuateregime regeneration based on gender, class and race.
At the peak of thesystem is the network of prestigious government scholarships. Since independencein 1965, the technique of using government scholarships to recruit cohorts ofscholars into the administrative and ruling elite has moved from the peripheryof Singaporean society to center stage. Even before independence, a makeshiftsystem of government and Colombo Plan scholarships sent a few outstandingscholars overseas before putting them into government service, including mostnotably former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. Yet as late as 1975 this system hadcontributed only two out of 14 members of Singapore’s cabinet. Even by 1985, only four out of 12 cabinet ministers wereformer government scholars.
By 1994, however, thesituation had changed beyond recognition, with eight out of 14 cabinet ministersbeing ex-scholars, including Prime Minister Goh. By 2005 there were 12ex-scholars in a Cabinet of 19. Of these, five had been SAF scholars, includingPrime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. A perusal of the upper echelons of the rulingelite taken more broadly tells a similar story. In 1994, 12 of the 17 permanentsecretaries were scholars, as were 137 of the 210 in the administrative-officerclass of the Administrative Service.
The governmentscholarship system claims to act as a meritocratic sieve—the just reward foryoung adults with talent and academic dedication. If there is a racial or otherbias in the outcomes, then this can only be the result of the unevendistribution of talent and academic application in the community. As PrimeMinister Lee Hsien Loong put it when he spoke on national television in May2005, “We are a multiracial society. We must have tolerance, harmony. … And youmust have meritocracy … so everybody feels it is fair….” His father, formerPrime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, was making the same point when, in 1989, he toldSingapore’s Malay community that they “must learn to compete with everyone else”in the education system.
Yet if Singapore’s meritocracy is truly a level playing field, as the Lees assert, thenthe Chinese must be much smarter and harder working than the minority Indiansand Malays. Consider the distribution of the top jobs in various arms of theSingapore government service in the 1990s (based on research conducted by RossWorthington in the early 2000s):
•Of the top 30 GLCs only two (6.7%) were chaired by non-Chinese in 1991 (and neither of thenon-Chinese was a Malay).
•Of the 38 people who were represented on the most GLC boards in 1998, only two (5.3%) were non-Chinese (andneither of the non-Chinese was a Malay).
•Of the 78 “core people” on statutory boards and GLCs in 1998, seven (9%) were non-Chinese (and one of thenon-Chinese was a Malay).
Asimilar outcome is revealed in the pattern of government scholarships awardedafter matriculation from school. Of the 200 winners of Singapore’s most prestigious scholarship, the President’sScholarship, from 1966-2005 only 14 (6.4%) were not Chinese. But this was not aconsistent proportion throughout the period. If we take 1980 as the divider, wefind that there were 10 non-Chinese President’s Scholars out of 114 from1966-80, or 8%, but in the period from 1981-2005 this figure had dropped to fourout of 106, or 3.8%. Since independence, the President’s Scholarship has beenawarded to only one Malay, in 1968. There has been only one non-Chinese President’s Scholar in the 18 years from 1987 to 2005 (a boy called MikailKalimuddin) and he is actually half Chinese, studied in Chinese schools (ChineseHigh School and Hwa Chong Junior College), and took the Higher Chinese course ashis mother tongue. If we broaden our focus to encompass broader constructions ofethnicity, we find that since independence, the President’s Scholarship has beenwon by only two Muslims (1968 and 2005).
If we consider Singapore’s second-ranked scholarship—the Ministry of Defence’s Singapore ArmedForces Overseas Scholarship (SAFOS)—we find a comparable pattern. The Ministryof Defence did not respond to my request for a list of recipients of SAFscholarships, but using newspaper accounts and information provided by theMinistry of Defence Scholarship Centre and Public Service Commission ScholarshipCentre Web sites, I was able to identify 140 (56%) of the 250 SAFOS winners upto 2005.
Although onlyindicative, this table clearly suggests the Chinese dominance in SAFOS stakes:98% of SAFOS winners in this sample were Chinese, and about 2% were non-Chinese(counting Mikail Kalimuddin in 2005 as non-Chinese). Furthermore I found not asingle Malay recipient and only one Muslim winner (Mikail Kalimuddin). A similarpicture emerges in the lower status Singapore Armed Forces Merit Scholarshipwinners: 71 (25.6%) of 277 (as of late 2005) scholars identified, with 69 (97%)Chinese winners to only two non-Chinese—though there was a Malay recipient in2004, and one reliable scholar maintains that there have been others.
The position of thenon-Chinese in the educational stakes has clearly deteriorated since thebeginning of the 1980s. According to the logic of meritocracy, that means theChinese have been getting smarter, at least compared to the non-Chinese.
Yet the selection ofscholars does not depend purely on objective results like exam scores. In theinternal processes of awarding scholarships after matriculation results arereleased, there are plenty of opportunities to exercise subtle forms ofdiscrimination. Extracurricular activities (as recorded in one’s school record),“character” and performance in an interview are also considered. This makes theselection process much more subjective than one would expect in a system thatclaims to be a meritocracy, and it creates ample opportunity for racial andother prejudices to operate with relative freedom.
Is there evidence that such biases operate at this level? Unsurprisingly, theanswer to this question is “yes.” Take for instance a 2004 promotionalsupplement in the country’s main newspaper used to recruit applicants forscholarships. The advertorial articles accompanying the paid advertisementsfeatured only one non-Chinese scholar (a Malay on a lowly “local” scholarship)amongst 28 Chinese on prestigious overseas scholarships. Even more disturbingfor what they reveal about the prejudices of those offering the scholarshipswere the paid advertisements placed by government ministries, statutory boardsand GLCs. Of the 30 scholars who were both prominent and can be raciallyidentified by their photographs or their names without any doubt as to accuracy,every one of them was Chinese. This leaves not a shadow of a doubt that thosepeople granting government and government-linked scholarships presume that thevast majority of high-level winners will be Chinese.
The absence of Malays from the SAFOS scholarships and their near-absence fromthe SAF Merit Scholarships deserves special mention because this is an extensionof discrimination against the admission of Malays into senior and sensitivepositions in the SAF that is officially sanctioned. The discrimination againstMalays has been discussed in parliament and the media, and is justified by theassertion that the loyalty of Malays cannot be assumed, both because they areMuslim and because they have a racial and ethnic affinity with the Malays inMalaysia and Indonesia. Current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has historicallybeen a vocal defender of this policy.
This discriminationhits Malay men hard, first because it deprives many of promising careers in thearmy, and second—and more pertinent for our study of the elite—it all butcompletely excludes potentially high-flying Malays of a chance of entering thescholar class through the SAF. A Chinese woman has a much better chance ofwinning an SAF scholarship than a Malay man.
Yet even before the scholarship stage, the education system has stacked the deckin favor of Chinese, starting in preschool. Here is the heart of Singapore’s systemic discrimination against non-Chinese. Since theend of the 1970s, the principles of “meritocracy” and “multiracialism” have beensubverted by a form of government-driven Chinese chauvinism that hasmarginalized the minorities. It was not known to the public at the time, but asearly as 1978, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had begun referring to Singapore as a “Confucian society” in his dealings with foreigndignitaries. This proved to be the beginning of a shift from his record as adefender of a communally neutral form of multiracialism toward a policy ofactively promoting a Chinese-dominated Singapore.
The early outwardsigns of the Sinicization program were the privileging of Chinese education,Chinese language and selectively chosen “Chinese values” in an overt andsuccessful effort to create a Mandarin- and English-speaking elite who woulddominate public life. Two of the most important planks of this campaign weredecided in 1979: the annual “Speak Mandarin Campaign” and the decision topreserve and foster a collection of elite Chinese-medium schools, known asSpecial Assistance Plan (SAP)schools.
TheSAP schools are explicitly designed to have a Chinese ambience,right down to Chinese gardens, windows shaped like plum blossoms, Chineseorchestra and drama, and exchange programs with mainland China and Taiwan. Over the years the children inSAP schools have been given multipleadvantages over those in ordinary schools, including exclusive preschoolprograms and special consideration for preuniversity scholarships.
For instance, in theearly 1980s, when there was a serious shortage of graduate English teachers inschools, the Ministry of Education ensured there were enough allocated to SAPschools “to help improve standards of English among the Chinese-medium students,in the hope that they will be able to make it to university”—a target broughtcloser by the granting of two O-level bonus points exclusively to SAP schoolstudents when they applied to enter junior college. By contrast, neither Indiansnor Malays received any special help, let alone schools of their own to addresstheir special needs. They were not only left to fend for themselves, but weresometimes subjected to wanton neglect: inadequately trained teachers,substandard facilities and resources and the “knowledge” that they are not asgood as the Chinese.
This account ofdiscrimination against non-Chinese might lead the reader to assume that thequarter of Singaporeans who are not Chinese must form a festering and perhapseven revolutionary mass of resentment. Such an assumption would, however, be along way from the mark. Non-Chinese might be largely excluded from the highestlevels of the administrative elite, but just below these rarefied heights thereplenty of positions open to intelligent and hardworking non-Chinese—certainlyenough to ensure that non-Chinese communities have much to gain byenthusiastically buying into the system, even after the glass ceilings andracial barriers are taken into account. There are many grievances andresentments in these levels of society but the grievances are muted and balancedby an appreciation of the relative comforts and prosperity they enjoy. For most,any tendency to complain is subdued also by knowledge that it could be worse,and the widespread assumption among members of minority communities that it willbe if they seriously pursue their grievances. As long as the Singapore system continues to deal such people a satisfactory hand, if not afair one, it should be able to cope with some quiet rumblings in the ranks.
While thisdiscrimination is not sparking a reaction that threatens the regime in the shortterm, the resulting injustices are certainly undermining the myth that theregime operates on meritocratic principles. This is worrying in the longer termbecause this myth, along with the capacity to deliver peace and prosperity, isone of the primary rationales by which Singaporeans reluctantly accept the manyunpopular aspects of the regime, such as the lack of freedom and democracy, theintrusion of government into most aspects of private life, the pressure-cookerlifestyle and the high cost of living.
Therhetoric of meritocracy has given Singaporeans the consolation of believing thattheir ruling elite are the best of the best and can therefore be trusted almostblindly on important matters, even if they are highhanded and lack the commontouch. As this illusion gradually falls away—and today it is already heavilyundermined—the trust that Singaporeans have for their government is becomingincreasingly qualified. It remains to be seen how long the regime can avert thelogical consequences of the contradictions between the myth and the reality.
Mr. Barr is a lecturer at the University of Queensland and author of Lee Kuan Yew: The Beliefs Behind the Man (Routledge,2000) and Cultural Politics and Asian Values: The Tepid War (Routledge,2002).