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What Kind Of Meritocracy Is Our Society

• Dr. Tan Ern Ser •

It is nearly impossible for anyone to succeed through one’s own ability and effort without the aid of others. Yet often we see success coaches and even student advisers assume the posture that their ­success is attributed entirely to their own ability and effort. They are supposely wise and knowledgeable; they have somehow survived the odds with the right attitude and strategies at critical moments or challenging periods in their lives. The position they adopt is to a large degree reinforced by the admirations showered upon them by the people at the receiving end of their advice.

I hope I am not being overly cynical here. If these people thrive in their jobs and are well sought after, they must have something worthwhile to say to the rest of us, plain mortals.  What I take issue with is that these gurus often reduce their advice to a few easy steps of do’s and don’t’s.  The message they bring across is that if they can overcome the odds, so can you, the audience.  Such an approach, while seemingly encouraging, may instead discourage those who are still struggling in their difficult situations.

I believe that it is better that they not only show sincere empathy and compassion but also to highlight the fortuitous circumstances they encountered as well as the people who have contributed in various ways to their success.  In saying this, I am not trying to run anybody down or trivialise the achievements of successful people, but to argue that we are not in total control of our destiny and that it takes more than rugged individualism to achieve success.  To be honest, I had written articles from such an angle ­myself, assuming that a few hundred words would change the readers. Let’s reflect on our lives regularly.  Be sure to give credit where it is due and be thankful to the folks who have intentionally, or even unintentionally, smoothened our paths.

Good Mentors Matter
For me personally, I would like to thank those teachers who have been encouraging and who believed in me, even when I do not have much to show for it.  They could have set high benchmarks which would disqualify and discourage most of us.  Instead they made it a point to identify our strengths and lead our personal growth.

I have been a recipient of such favours at various stages in my journey through the education system.  The teachers’ words of encouragement and praise had strengthened my confidence and self-image, thereby motivating me.  I want to do better not so much to score in examinations but to live up to my own self-expectation.

I believe students perform best when they think they are on victory ground, rather than when they perceive themselves as defeated and struggling to survive. This is contrary to a belief fashionable in some circles that people who are hungry perform better than those who are not.  As an aside, may I add that the ‘hunger as best motivator’ theorists also subscribe to the idea that people who don’t sleep are more productive than those who do.  I disagree with them.  I believe restful people deliver better quality work.  The point I am making here is that having a mentor with the right philosophy and approach can do wonders to one’s education and career trajectory.  I am sure there are people who have not lived up to their potential simply because they were undermined by teachers or managers who subscribe to the wrong kind of motivation theory.

Good Opportunities Matter
Besides having good mentors, we also need a good opportunity structure.  Think of the many children in some parts of the globe who have absolutely no opportunity to receive a decent education.  While I would not rule out the possibility of a gem emerging from the dust, the fact remains that the probability of this occurring is pretty low given their deprived conditions.

By opportunity structure, I have in mind an education system which ensures that no one is left behind for lack of economic, social and cultural capital.  It should also recognise a broader range of talents and skills, and in turn a broader definition of success.  Such a system will enable students and people in the workforce to live up to their potential.  It also resonates with our globalised world which thrives on a diversity of strengths and cultures.  In short, we would have a multi-dimensional meritocracy which allows for more winners in various field, as compared to a one-dimensional meritocracy, which accepts only those who do well academically and casts off those with poor grades but who could be potential talents.

Parting Shots
Notwithstanding the drift of my arguments above, I hope students do not go away with the idea that we could just blame the system should we fail.  You need to do your part to learn and be trained, which would be more effective if you carry a winning self-image and a restful spirit.  You would also do well to be appreciative of the people who have supported you in your journey, as well as the system which enables you to develop your potential.  And knowing that you can’t claim all the glory for yourself, you would be more humble and willing to do your part in this compassionate meritocracy, and contribute to other people’s success.

I believe this is the kind of society we desire to build, one which encourages a diversity of talents and excellence, while recognising that we owe our success to one another. For those who lack the opportunities, we should play a part to help them develop their potential.  Of course, the leadership of our society matters too, as it can create and sustain an opportunity structure which produces all kinds of winners.

❋ Dr Tan Ern Ser teaches Sociology. He has won numerous teaching awards and is Vice- Dean of Students at NUS. He received his PhD from Cornell University. He is author of Does Class Matter? (2004) and has served as survey consultant to various government ministries and agencies.