The meritocratic route to oblivion

Thanks to a reader — it’s not clear to me whether he/she wishes to remain anonymous, so I’ll leave it at that — I was directed to an article in titled The secret of successful entrepreneurs. It makes reference to a blogpost by Ross Douthat in the New York Times titled The trouble with meritocracy which, although written about the elite in the United States, has resonance with other countries as well.

Douthat writes:

Part of the problem with meritocracy is that it homogenizes in the name of diversity: It skims the cream from every race and class and population, puts all of the best and brightest through the same educational conveyor belt, and comes out with a ruling class that’s cosmetically diverse but intellectually conformist, and that tends to huddle together rather than spreading out to enrich the country as a whole.

I thought this point of his particularly insightful:

meritocracy co-opts people who might otherwise become its critics

The Singapore government has ballyhooed for decades its commitment to meritocracy. Leaving aside the question how sincere it is and how genuine are the results, I think we also need to question how right or useful is such a credo.

To begin with, what do we mean by merit? It can only have meaning within priorly defined parameters. For example, what do we mean by beautiful? Can we compare a ballet performance with a sunset, or a tapestry with an elegant mathematical solution and say one is more beautiful than the other? To compare or measure demands selectivity in what you’re trying to rank or rate. Those who rise through a “meritocratic system” are those who do well according to certain metrics. No doubt a long discussion can ensure as to what are the metrics applied in Singapore, but I think it is enough to just sketch a few:

  • Academic excellence
  • Aptitude for command (e.g. in how those who rise through uniformed organisations are considered “leadership” material)
  • Aptitude for running large commercial organisations (as opposed to driving successful start-ups)
  • Track record in working within a bureaucratic culture (this may include qualities such as not rocking the boat, intuiting what the boss wants and being assiduous in carrying out orders)

What’s missing? So many other attributes, among which imagination, fearlessness, aesthetic genius, compassion, ethical consciousness, spirituality and creative criminality come quickly to my mind — not that I’m recommending some of these. The point I want to make is simply how narrowly selective are the parameters within which we speak of meritocracy.

The result is plain to see: An obvious homogeneity among Singapore’s elite, especially in government, statutory boards and government-related companies. Quite often in the professions and academia too.

Even worse, however, is the conveyor belt effect. Precisely because, in the unquestioned name of meritocracy, a certain type is rewarded in our society, there is immense pressure to churn out more of the same. Parents shape their children with these goals and young adults remake themselves to fit into the straitjacket. Alternative types and outliers are left to wither, sometimes actively pruned away.

Anybody taking the long view, especially one with a grasp of the biological sciences, from evolution to infectious diseases, will be able to sense a looming risk of disaster. The in-type may be successful within conditions that breed the in-type — it’s typically the result of a positive feedback loop — but the moment external conditions change, it often takes an outlier to save the day.

I think we can anticipate the government’s defence of its credo. It will probably say that running a country, or its major institutions, public and private, will never be much different from running a complex, large organisation. Therefore the metrics associated with the ability to run such things will always be pertinent. Secondly, organisational skill and intelligence — a highly contentious word, that! — are flexible virtues that can cope with changing circumstances.

Yes and no, and in fact, the defence will likely suggest its own weaknesses. Is running a country and its institutions like running a large, complex organisation? The very comparison is loaded with assumptions. Are society and state inherently hierarchical bodies with clear boundaries? They might have been in days past; will they be so going forward? Or will they be much flatter, fuzzier things (i.e. more cloud than corporation) that are far less amenable to organisational skills as we know them?

Intelligence and organisational skills may well always be useful, but beware how we define either of them. It does not take much to see that in this “meritocratic” society, we define intelligence very narrowly. Less obvious, but equally dangerous is how we define organisational skill as one that relates to bureaucratic organisations. Someone else who can enthuse a mass of free-spirited people and convince them to come together voluntarily for a shared aim can also be said to have great organisational skills, but of a different kind. Yet we don’t normally think of this as an attribute our meritocracy selects for.

Conformity to beliefs

Moreover, the selection process that underlies any meritocracy not only selects for attributes and skills sets, it also selects for conformity to beliefs. My guess would be that this is almost an inevitable trajectory of all ruling elites. They may start off with the best intentions to only select for attributes and skills sets, but invariably in the nature of human social behaviour, those within the in-group so formed  then re-segregate themselves by belief systems. The ones who share the dominant belief system will tend to freeze out those who do not, even if they all have the same skill sets. So gradually, meritocracy gets to mean both attribute selection and beliefs conformity. The longer an elite remains the ruling class, the more inbred it becomes.

As for coping and adapting to changes in external conditions, beware what we mean by external. I know I used the term “external conditions” above, and readers may think I mean external to Singapore. That was not what I meant. What counts as a challenge to any prevailing social or political system is anything that is external to the elite. Domestic mass discontent is as threatening as geostrategic shifts abroad, perhaps more so. Local culture change subverts the operating paradigm more than global climate change. Changes to the conditions that favour the aptitudes and beliefs selected for will render the selection much less than optimal.

Surely an elite that commends intelligence should be able to cope and adapt? I seriously doubt that “intelligence” as defined for the purposes of merit selection in Singapore is that much help in coping and adapting when these tectonic shifts occur. As mentioned in a Boston Globe article which another reader drew my attention to, and which I will dissert upon in an upcoming essay, there is a human tendency to avoid cognitive dissonance by resisting rather than reconciling with unwelcome facts and situations. In other words, instead of dealing constructively with external changes, those who find them most unwelcome would react least appropriately to them. The more in-bred the elite — and it is meritocracy that delivers inbreeding — the less psychologically equipped they are to adapt, intelligence notwithstanding, and when the elite fail, they tend to take the country down with them. This is especially if they have spent much energy eliminating alternative attributes and ideas from the population.

What is the solution? There is no panacea. It’s utopian to imagine a society or state without an elite. But what we can do is to be watchful of selective pressures and inbreeding, and to do something to prevent the withering or pruning of society’s most valuable resource in times of crisis: the outliers. We need to bend over backwards to ensure they not only survive, but they thrive as well as they can. In practical terms, it means deploying the common resources disproportionately to protecting and even nurturing them.

For a society and state to be healthy in the long term,  we must be watchful that the powers and the resources at hand do not primarily serve the dominant and the popular, for in normal times these can take care of themselves. State powers and resources should be deployed to protect unpopular speech and marginalised persons and to nurture talents and ideas that may seem totally useless today, but should be valued as an insurance policy for the day the dominant paradigm, honed to perfection by a self-selecting elite, fails. When the meritocrats are all at sea, it may well be the outliers who will save the day.

39 Responses to “The meritocratic route to oblivion”

  1. 1 Marc 9 August 2010 at 01:42

    I am a regular reader of your blog and am very impressed by the quality of your essays. Your writings are often insightful and thought-provoking, and I would consider you one of the top public intellectuals in Singapore.

    You really should consider collecting your best essays and publishing them as a book. It will enhance your profile and help you reach out to a wider audience.

  2. 2 Beast 9 August 2010 at 02:17

    Hi Alex

    You have probably hit the nail in the head: This is the kind of man-made artificial human selection which we, as citizens, will have to pay a price for some day.

    Already, the ruling powers are already realizing the folly of their elitist propaganda: Parents are killing of sports talent out of fear that their footballing sons or future tennis players are likely to be jobless should their sports careers end; arts and other artistic subjects are treated sub-class to the main stream subjects, such as English or Chinese. The education system is designed to churn out thousands of educated drones who are likely to flounder in the workforce because they are good at books and not much else (Seen too many graduates and masters holders, particularly in the armed forces. Those who have served should concur).

    Anyway, without being too long winded, excellent dissection of the Singapore society and mindset.

  3. 3 yuen 9 August 2010 at 03:45

    I dont think you can avoid this conformist meritocracy – it is just too convenient for the meritocrats and aspirants to organize things this way; you can only try to make it more humane and add some diversity, and to keep it in touch with ordinary people in some useful way

    since meritocrats need the people to do the work and behave, they need to deliver some goods; a genuine paternalistic concern for the welfare of the ordinary people (in contrast to merely telling them what to do) is what saves a ruling class from absolute corruption due to absolute power

  4. 4 Mat Alamak 9 August 2010 at 07:27

    In Singapore, meritocracy starts with the school system where those who excel academically are given state scholarships. Upon completion of their studies they are assigned positions in the govt admin services, SAF or the Police and fast tracked for promotions. Later they may then be re-assigned to GLCs as heads of companies or industries. Or groomed to be political leaders by contesting (or rather as walkovers) in elections.

    Hence most of these people even became govt business leaders without spending a single day in the private sector or as businessmen in their own right. Or even doing any real grassroots work. And it helps a lot that the govt has lots of businesses, controlling 70% of the economy as well as being politically dominant.

    In the earlier years of such systems, it is true that persons from very humble family backgrounds can have a chance to succeed in such a meritocratic system and in a sense it is socially uplifting. A good example is Mah Bow Tan, who publicly announced to everybody how poor and deprived he was as a child. Of course one cannot discount political motives of him saying these. And of course his performance record as National Development Minister left much to be desired given the current rocketing HDB prices. So is meritocracy good even though Mah came from a humble background?

    In later years, as more families became well off, the situation became very competitive and persons from humble backgrounds have much greater difficulty to succeed in such meritocratic systems in school. So the scholarship winners are mostly those from upper or upper middle class backgrounds with no poverty or humble experiences of ordinary folks. Can they empathise or make policies helping these people then? Of course, just like Mah Bow Tan on the other end of background spectrum, there may be exceptions too on this end.

    So it is hard to say whether meritocracy works well in the Singapore system because we have not experienced the alternative system to make a comparison.

    But given the fact that Singapore is socially stable and the PAP is politically strong, meritocracy may have play a part in it, although maybe not as effective as in the past, from the way things have developed.

  5. 5 Ran 9 August 2010 at 10:56

    hi. this piece is not applicable to just singapore but also to most, if not all countries. Most world leaders come from select few education institutions or even families. Very few made it without such a connection.

    • 6 yawningbread 9 August 2010 at 11:33

      Ran – true, but the difference is that Singapore, like many one-party states, has a government that goes out of its way to eliminate alternative attributes and ideas. That was my chief point (and Yuen kinda agrees): inevitable as homogenisation is whenever there is an elite, active compensation against its worst effects are needed, which is the exact opposite of what our government sets out to do. Liberal democracies have a better track record of evolving with changing circumstances; one-party states tend to collapse in a heap. I hope my essay explains why this is so, and why the ballyhooed “meritocracy” is no panacea either.

      • 7 Anonymous 9 August 2010 at 16:36

        Didn’t mean to be picky, but “active compensation against its worst effects IS needed”.

      • 8 KiWeTO 10 August 2010 at 13:00

        Quick answer to why thinking alike is bad:

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        Groupthink is a type of thought within a deeply cohesive in-group whose members try to minimize conflict and reach consensus without critically testing, analyzing, and evaluating ideas. It is a second potential negative consequence of group cohesion. – source wikipedia

        If our leaders are all produced from the Braddell & Bukit Timah Factory lines, how different can they think, and how many fellow classmates of differing social strata will they actually get to know and feel empathy with?


  6. 9 Alan Wong 9 August 2010 at 11:48

    At first I thought people like Vivian and Walter were quite fiecely independent-minded. Just compare the tunes they sang before and after they were co-opted into the establishment. A complete change of colours just like a chameleon.

    Maybe Walter have some conscience of this own by opting out but just look at how Vivian after posing the infamous question of where those on PA schemes expect to have their meals, has chosen to continue to defend the government’s unholistic policies.

    It’s sickening just to think that somenone can sell their soul for a couple of dollars more. And there is a whole army of them in the establishment !

  7. 10 Mat Alamak 9 August 2010 at 15:03

    “Liberal democracies have a better track record of evolving with changing circumstances; one-party states tend to collapse in a heap.”
    – Yawningbread at 11.33

    How confident you think this will happen here? Or as dramatic as you described?

  8. 11 George 9 August 2010 at 18:12


    As usual, a very erudite essay.

    LKY is essentially an opportunist and manipulator with a ruthless bent.

    There will not be another like him. His methods will not outlive him.

    IMO his party has already sown the seeds of its own destruction and decline via its own policies. I think the deadly poison is in its immigration policies – like the alien incubating within the human victims in the Hollywood movie, ready to strike when the condition is ripe. It will be when these new citizens, grown in significant numbers, find themselves in the same boat as indigenous Singaporean vis a vis govt policies.

    • 12 rojakgirl 9 August 2010 at 19:55

      *my cynical side pokes out, sorry!*

      Won’t that only happen if the “former PRs” are actually aware of what’s going on and willing to accept the facts? And what happens if they’re 100% loyal towards the government? They’re still human and not that different from Singaporeans. Almost all humans are susceptible to different levels of propaganda.

      Also, even if the current regime falls, we can’t tell if the next one will be more peaceful or much more violent. From tyranny springs fascism and violence. And from tyranny springs another tyranny. But the opposite can happen, too. What matters most is that any critical political changes should occur peacefully.

      Otherwise, the majority will take it into their own hands to restore law and order. And humans are a pretty bloody race, so it might not go that well.

      Furthermore, the political party(s) that implements the changes must garner enough respect and acceptance from the citizens. If they do not, then the Singaporeans will often wish for the life under LKY, no matter how dreadful it was.

      Just a hint: I know a former PR and no matter what evidence confronts him in the face, he still won’t buy it. His loyalty is only to the Singapore government. Or maybe to be exact, his loyalty is partly to the benefits he used to get and still gets. The rest of his loyalty? Definitely to the government.

  9. 13 Dan 9 August 2010 at 20:11

    We just have to case study Fiji in order to find out how an immigrant minority overturned a country in unintended ways. While circumstances there and in S’pore are different, ultimately how politics played out in the end is never quite straightforward. I just hope it does not happen to S’pore and those in charge better start listening. Happy National Day and I sincerely hope to continue celebrating in years to come as a true blue S’porean.

    • 14 Robox 11 August 2010 at 06:19

      Dan, the ‘immigrant’ minority – which they were not prior to the ‘bumiputra’ intervention – in Fiji is no more immigrant than you, whether you are Indian or Chinese Singaporean and no matter how many generations of your family have been in Singapore.

      • 15 yawningbread 11 August 2010 at 11:13

        I have great difficulty accepting the distinction of natives/immigrants in Singapore. The vast majority of “Malays” in this republic, like the Chinese, Indians, etc, have been here no more than a few generations, their forefathers having migrated here from Malaya, Java, Sulawesi, Sumatra, etc. When they first arrived they saw themselves as Buginese, Javanese, Minangkabau, speaking different languages. Over time, they remade themselves into “Malays” the same way that the Hokkiens, Hainanese etc remade themselves into “Chinese” and the Bengalis, Tamilians, Malayali etc remade themselves into “Indians”.

      • 16 Robox 12 August 2010 at 05:44

        Ponder Stibbons, in all due respect, I think you have gone out of point. But I don’t wish to pursue this further for the same reason: it is actually out of point from the main theme or themes of the article.

        I had merely wanted to express my displeasure with Dan’s comment.

    • 17 Robox 11 August 2010 at 21:57

      Hi Alex, I hope this post lands in the intended spot right behind yours in reply to my post to Dan.

      I too used to have some difficulty not so much in regarding Malays as the indigenous people/s of Singapore, but in seeing the rest of us as non-indigenous. But a Malay friend of mine explained that strain in Malay thinking on this in terms of the concept of Tanah Melayu (the Land of the Malays) and Singapore’s geographical contiguity with it. This is much like how Taiwan is regarded as geographically – and later, even culturally – contiguous with mainland China which forms, I believe, China’s instinctive claim to that island. Further, movements of peoples within Tanah Melayu are considered to be “internal migrations”, but most important politically, is that those migrations did not displace either the proto-Malays (the Orang Asli) or the deutero-Malays who settled in their own parts of Tanah Melayu ahead of a newly-arriving deutero-Malay group.

      This thinking on the concept of indigeneity is actually provided for in international law.

      However, so is the thinking that the even newer arrivals to any territory after the establishment of the new system of international boundaries during the colonial period, have a valid claim to citizenship to that territory after their own arrival. The goal in international arbitration when encountering such situations is to strike a balance between the two. (Hence, the references to the indigenous status of Malays in the Constitution, even while all are equal under the law.)

      The situation in Fiji is analagous to that of Singapore’s, especially also considering that while we think of Fiji as one island, it actually comprises more than 300 islands; there had been movements of native Fijians to the main island, Fiji, during the colonial period and even after the arrival of Indian migrants to the island of Fiji.

      I saw Dan’s post as yet another one in the interminable attempts to demonize ethnic Indians wherever we may be exactly in the same way that new arrivals to Singapore from India come in for a disproportinate amount of unfair attacks for the slightest misdemeanour (such as sneezing while riding the MRT) or even for imagined, nay manufactured transgressions.

      It’s bald racism.

      I thought that the best way for Singaporeans to understand this in the Singapore context is to draw analogies, now to include Taiwan.

      Hope this explains my stand.


      *I have more lately been coming across references to “Nusantara” in place of “Tanah Melayu”.

      • 18 Ponder Stibbons 12 August 2010 at 00:13

        I recommend Lily Zubaidah Rahim’s “The Singapore Dilemma” for more on the supposed pan-Malay identity. She claims that there was a ‘sense of organic regional identity’ across the Malay archipelago despite much immigration within the archipelago. I don’t know how true this is, and even if it is true, it’s arguable how much this should contribute to considerations of indigeneity.

    • 19 Robox 12 August 2010 at 00:59

      Ponder Stibbons, you said, “I don’t know how true [Lily Zubaidah Rahim’s claims that there was a ‘sense of organic regional identity’ across the Malay archipelago] is, and even if it is true, it’s arguable how much this should contribute to considerations of indigeneity.”

      Well, my challenge to you is to either:

      1. Provide documentary evidence to the contrary and disprove her claim of a pre-existing pan-Malay identity;


      2. Prove that the Chinese had enough of a pan-Chinese identity which you could do by proving decisively that both the now all but deceased once-migrant population and aboriginal inhabitants of Taiwan had an awareness of Uighurs, Tibetans, Mongols, etc as “Chinese” so much so that China can make claims on their lands as Chinese territory. (Weren’t Yuan and Qing rule hated by the Han primarily because it was Mongol and Manchu respectively and therefore foreign?)


      3. Make an argument that would support your assertion that ‘it’s arguable how much [the existence of a pan-Malay identity] should contribute to considerations of indigeneity’.

      • 20 Ponder Stibbons 12 August 2010 at 05:14

        I’m not asserting that Malays should not be considered an indigenous people, so I don’t see why I should address 1. and 2. I’m merely noting what one source says, so that other people who are interested in the issue can look it up.

        As for 3., it depends on how far the Malays identified as Malays rather than Bugis, Javanese, etc.. A modern analogy would be a modern pan-Chinese identity. Should Singaporean Chinese consider themselves as indigenous to China and expect to be treated as ‘indigenous people’ if they ‘return’ there? Seems to me that there is at least a weak sense of pan-Chinese identity among the ‘overseas Chinese’, but there are other competing identities in the same milieu. Going back to the Malay case, I cannot tell from what I’ve read so far, how strong the identification with being Bugis/Javanese/etc. was relative to the identification with Malay-ness. If the pan-Malay identity was very weak, that weakens the case for considering Malays indigenous to Singapore.

  10. 21 Enant 9 August 2010 at 20:22

    Hi, I have been following this blog with great interest and I must say that many of the social and political issues written by Alex have been very incisive and provocative at times. Allow me to give my perspective on this issue.

    In principle, true meritocracy gives everyone in society an equal opportunity to achieve their best and be rewarded for their performance, regardless of race, religion and socio-economic background. However if we look at it from another perspective, meritocracy in our local context could also suggest that if you do not do well, you should not put the blame on the system or the government. Instead, the finger points back at you for not working hard enough. The government is not responsible for your failure to make it in life.

    For example, the system of meritocracy in education could well have been a sorting mechanism through the national examinations to select the best talents for top jobs in government service and private sectors and marginalise the bottom. The government only ensures that no one is deprived of an education in the system.

    Meritocracy could well have been a myth that students from low socio-economic status believe that the education system is seen to be a level playing field regardless of whether you are rich or poor when all along it is only serving the interest of the economic and political elites. Much hinges on what counts as merit. As Alex and other readers have suggested, the concept of meritocracy in the Singapore system is evolved and shaped by the system’s winners and its predetermined criteria of merit.

    • 22 KiWeTO 10 August 2010 at 13:03

      We bandy the word meritocracy about like we know what it truly means.

      However, do we know where it originated from?

      “The term itself was defined by British politician and sociologist, Michael Young in his 1958 satirical essay[3][4][5][6][7], “The Rise of the Meritocracy”, which pictured the United Kingdom under the rule of a government favouring intelligence and aptitude (merit) above all. ” – wikipedia

      Black has become white. From something of satirical origins, we now look upon it with the shining light of good. Sigh.


  11. 23 yawningbread 9 August 2010 at 22:12

    Rojakgirl wrote:
    “I know a former PR and no matter what evidence confronts him in the face, he still won’t buy it. His loyalty is only to the Singapore government. Or maybe to be exact, his loyalty is partly to the benefits he used to get and still gets.”

    Just a few weeks ago, someone asked me for my opinion as to how new citizens would vote. Frankly, we can only guess. We have no historical data to go on. That said, it seems only obvious that by choosing to take up citizenship, they almost surely must think life is good here, and this will translate into strong support for the People’s Action Party.

    But I also said, things may prove different 10 – 15 years on. The honeymoon wears off. They begin to see the darker side of things. The “wonderful” benefits or improvement in lifestyles compared to their home countries are seen to be less than great, or comes at a cost. Or the economic model changes and the benefits they expected to enjoy will have been withdrawn.

    That’s when real danger comes, for unlike the average Singaporean who is in the main resigned to PAP rule forever and fear casting a vote for an opposition party, let alone participating in a street protest, these new citizens come from very different political environments. The Indians come from a rambunctious democracy. Switching votes to another party will not keep them awake at night. The Chinese are not known for political docility — just think of the recent strikes by workers in Shenzhen, or the tens of thousands of demonstrations annually whenever they feel unjustly treated.

    All may be sweet now, but if ever they think life has soured or their aspirations unfulfilled (after all the sacrifices they made migrating here!!!), they can turn against the PAP with a vengeance never seen here before.

    • 24 rojakgirl 10 August 2010 at 03:10

      Oh gods, I come back from the hospital and there’re already so many more replies!

      Oh yes, thanks for the clarifications and for putting the picture together. Yeah, things might turn really violent. And to be honest, I think things might get even worse much more quickly. These are some possibilities :

      – even more recessions(too many countries still spending money like water). Annndddd… if anyone decides to really push for a new currency = some countries lose and some countries gain.
      – government deciding to “push aside” the former PRs in favour of more foreign workers + PRs to raise higher GDP(chances of this happening within the next 3 to 5 years. Wait, aren’t they even doing it now?). Greed is nothing new.
      – many more food shortages(pollution, effect of drugs dumping+ accumulation of improper disposal of pesticide/PCBs/mercury/other waste + global warning + too many people to sustain = eroded food chain + much lesser food) in other countries that will likely affect Singapore adversely. Hell, there may even be a couple of food shortages/famines should many of the neighbouring countries decide to cut Singapore off.

      I doubt the government will actually even bother about some of the larger issues at hand but instead, resort to quick-fixes and maybe even propaganda to sustain its policies. And now that I really started to think about the issue, those “citizens” would likely see through the bluff and retaliate harshly: not just by criticizing the government but by perhaps surrendering their citizenships, transferring their wealth to other countries, holding demonstrations, etc, etc. And just how is the PAP going to prevent a big bunch of videos(protests/demonstrations/etc.) from being uploaded to YT and similar sites, or from going viral internationally?

      Great and things will get very violent. T_T Because there will be the possibility of PAP bringing out the military to launch an Emergency State, if they think that their rule is threatened. Or if not, demonstrations by those citizens which will then likely, set off some chain of reactions.

      • 25 rojakgirl 10 August 2010 at 03:36

        Also, let’s not forget about the Casinos. They bring more harm than profits. And I’m very sure that some of its’ victims will likely, include the “newly minted”(newbies).

        And the flaws from having Casinos will likely surface within years, if not months. It takes seconds to minutes, to lose your lifesavings. I doubt the government is going to drop much of a helping hand but instead, it will likely let the people handle their problems themselves.

        Or oh yes, how about the “fundamentalists”? You think they’re going to let a bunch of “potential converts” slip away? I just can’t wait for the fireworks, when someone explodes from being hounded and lectured, for practising ancestral/deity worship. Just kidding. 😛 Though it would be so much fun to see Thio Li Ann lose her hair over… nevermind.

        I used to know a bunch of folks from India and seriously, my impression that most of them are definitely going to pick a fight and hit back. Because they likely treasure personal privacy and freedom of faith.

    • 26 jem 22 September 2010 at 01:22

      political science 101 class tells us that, based on empirical data from immigrant societies, new migrants vote overwhelmingly for the incumbent party. if my memory hasn’t failed me, it was something ridiculous like 5 or 6 to 1.

      by the way, a brilliant post from you

      currently furiously reading your blog (im new to it). this is far and away the best source of balanced insights on singapore politics that i have found.

  12. 27 yuen 9 August 2010 at 23:22

    >things may prove different 10 – 15 years on

    15 years? that’s more than 3 elections away, an eternity in politics;

    despite claims about long term planning, politics is short term and local; technocratic management might have a longer horizon, but these days it is secondary to, say, temasek’s investment horizon

    I have no doubt in the next short term, the issue of ‘how to be nicer to citizens” would get some priority, especially if the next election turns out poorly

  13. 28 prettyplace 10 August 2010 at 00:25

    Good article once again Alex.
    Have read this somewhere. The threats of homogeneity which leads to conformity.
    In Singapore, I think it is already here, this trend.
    Among the civil service.
    As to where you are heading, a total collapse…it is plausible.

    Looks like its the people, have the choice to make, a change or at least have someone or another party in place, for any unforseen circumstances. The other someone as the elected president has not given people the comfort.
    Thus, it seems more and more likely, an opposition party will make some in roads into parliment and stay put.

  14. 29 Jaka 10 August 2010 at 00:31

    Very insightful essay as usual. You might also be interested in the video (link below), which touched upon another fault of meritocrary, the idea of randomness in life.

  15. 30 Agree 10 August 2010 at 00:31

    It is like when virus are all the same, we will not be able to built up our immunity to fight new viruses. Thus Singapore should have various kind of viruses so that we can be stronger and more prepared when deadly virus strike. Unfortunately, all censorship and screening process seem counter productive to a stronger nation.

  16. 31 Benny Lim 10 August 2010 at 05:41

    Oh, come off it people, meritocracy is just an euphemism for elitism in Singapore. How can there be equal opportunities when the founding father himself does not subscribe to the notion that we are all created equally? There’s plenty of quotes by him on the internet about rearing a generation of elites, of enlarging the pool of the academically successfully through policies driven by eugenics. Alex Au, as brilliant as his commentaries are, will never be invited to write for our national press. Martyn See, as courageous a filmmaker that he is, will never be invited to direct the NDP. Dr Lim Hock Siew will never received a National Day award for his years in prison. Meritocracy? It depends on which side of your bread is buttered.

    • 32 yuen 10 August 2010 at 06:55

      I have no wish to contradict what you said, but it is useful to provide some perspective

      the PAP leadership believe they are democratic because they hold elections and are voted in according to the rules due to their superiority over the opposition; once elected, they consider themselves to be exercising judgement on what is good for the voters, instead of merely giving voters what they ask for; the voters are expected to accept that their desires are not as well founded as their leaders’ judgement

      this is fine in theory; in practice, the suspicion is that leaders are doing what they themselves want first, and placing what what the voters want second; this is what opposition groups and some social activists claim, but they need to propose concrete action plans as alternatives before a useful dialog with the leaders can take place (assuming the latter want it to take place of course)

  17. 33 anony 10 August 2010 at 08:50

    “That said, it seems only obvious that by choosing to take up citizenship, they almost surely must think life is good here, and this will translate into strong support for the People’s Action Party.”-YB

    I prefer to give these new immigrants turned new citizens the benefit of the doubt. The Chinese nationals are here to take up Spore citizenship simply for the convenience of easy international travel on a Spore visa free passport. Plain & simple. Upon getting citizenship, they return to China after selling resale HDB flat for a good profit one of their top aims & opt for China PR status so that they can continue to stay long term & work or do biz in China.

    If their length of stay overseas does not meet Spore electoral register requirements, they will not be eligible to vote.

    I will be interested to know how many China born turned new Spore citizens have returned to China versus the no of China citizens based in Spore? Figures, anyone?

    Even for those staying behind in Spore, they are no pushovers or vote blindly for the ruling party as most generalize. Recent changes to HDB ethnic policy of preventing enclaves may not sit well with them.

    And these people as you said are very excellent at externalizing their frustrations through physical action like strikes, protests so if push comes to shove, why not show the ruling party your middle finger thru a negative vote for them or void their vote. After all protests are banned in Spore and that’s a big no no for these China nationals used to these types of tactics, might as well tell the ruling party off thru your vote.

  18. 34 KiWeTO 10 August 2010 at 13:07

    Hate to reply so many times; YB might get upset.

    But I think my previous post on what the PAP ideology is can also help shed light on how our English-educated Asian Mandarins think.

    Identifying the Ideological Construct used by the ruling party the first step towards defeating it?

    Key idea to contemplate:

    So, if the ruling party’s political philosophy is a variant of legalism, what then can we do against it? With complete control of the media, and the power of legislative, executive, and judiciary all on the side of the ruling party, can any individual dissenter achieve any progress in a kinder, friendlier, gentler Singapore?


  19. 35 rojakgirl 11 August 2010 at 15:50

    “The vast majority of “Malays” in this republic, like the Chinese, Indians, etc, have been here no more than a few generations, their forefathers having migrated here from Malaya, Java, Sulawesi, Sumatra, etc. ”

    Actually, come to think of it, weren’t all the far-off ancestors(from a few million years ago) of present-day humans nothing but migrants? Considering that all of them must have been moving around, trying to find shelter and decent living conditions.

  20. 36 David 13 August 2010 at 17:29

    Such a really cute yellow parrot picture. I really appreciate Alex’s incisively written columns in general.

    However, this piece is persuasively written but tends to restate common complaints that Singapore is run by technobureaucrats immersed in groupthink. It would be good to draw out some specific examples of cross-pollination of beliefs producing healthier societies.

    • 37 KiWeTO 14 August 2010 at 00:09

      Must the only alternative to bad groupthink only be cross-pollination of ideas? Thought patterns are not mutually exclusive ideas.

      The question is whether groupthinkers realize that they are in groupthink, and recognize the limitations of their group’s perspective. (on that, perhaps, these technobureaucrats might not do too well, all being manufactured off the same few factory lines). And take active steps to invite more views and respect said views.

      Groups acting with one mind can achieve things faster. That is frequently a desirable state of existence.

      So: To do things right, or to do the right thing?


      • 38 yuen 14 August 2010 at 02:18

        to take current examples, do the leaders feel the recent floods and complaints about foreign talent, YOG, etc, indicate they need to change their management style (more specifically, change “management” or just change “style”)?

      • 39 yawningbread 14 August 2010 at 11:48

        Haha, that’s a good one. Chances are that “change management” is outside the groupthink box. “Change style” is as good as it gets. . . except that the style change may result in something resembling the MDA rap video!

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