By Lydia Lim
ONE of my friends was shaken to the core when he realised recently what his daughter thought of poor people.
They were stupid, obviously, she told him.
In a bid to educate her, he passed her articles about the challenges that children from poor families face, and how these can hurt their performance in school and prospects in life.
Deep in his heart, though, he wondered: 'How can my daughter have these views when I am an egalitarian?'
Recounting the exchange over lunch one day, he quipped: 'I almost said, don't let other people know you're my daughter!'
I recall his words as the debate over how scholarships are awarded - sparked by a comment from top civil servant Philip Yeo - enters its second month.
Undergraduate and postgraduate scholarships awarded by the Civil Service, Government agencies and top local companies are among the most prestigious, financially hefty and sought-after rewards in Singapore society.
They are said to be awarded on the basis of merit.
But Mr Yeo provoked controversy precisely because he argued that merit alone is not a good enough measure, as scholarship applicants have different starting points.
Young people from poorer families would have had to struggle harder to achieve the same results as their counterparts from wealthier households, and that should be taken into account, argued the self-described 'closet socialist'.
'In any society, in the bottom 20 per cent, you will have kids who are very bright but who do not have the same opportunities,' he said at a dialogue organised by the EDB Society and The Straits Times.
'If you want to be reasonable, you need to find ways to help these kids cross the barrier.'
The Public Service Commission (PSC), however, stood by its policy of awarding scholarships strictly on merit, regardless of family background.
It said it imposed no limit on the number of awards each year.
'The PSC therefore does not discriminate against one applicant in favour of another on the basis of family background if all other factors are equal,' PSC Secretary Goh Soon Poh said in the wake of Mr Yeo's comment.
'If they are equally deserving and both meet the PSC's high standards, PSC will offer an award to both applicants,' she added.
Still, the exchange exposed one of the inherent contradictions of meritocracy.
As a system built on the rule of merit, it is often tied to non-discrimination, that is, selection for scholarships, jobs and other honours must be blind to race, gender, age or class differences.
But in trying to isolate merit, 'it can be a practice that ignores and even conceals the real advantages and disadvantages that are unevenly distributed to different segments of an inherently unequal society', argues political scientist Kenneth Paul Tan.
Dr Tan, an assistant professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, poses some challenging questions about how meritocracy is practised here in his paper, Meritocracy And Elitism In A Global City: Ideological Shifts In Singapore.
He warns that if relevant social differences are 'hidden beneath an uncritical, even celebratory, rhetoric of meritocracy (as blindness to differences), then the problem of securing equality of opportunity and a reasonably level playing field will be severely underestimated'.
That should give those of us who are wont to unquestioningly embrace Singapore-style meritocracy pause.
The significance of such differences is set to grow as income inequality stretches with globalisation.
The problem is not unique to Singapore. Britain and the United States are two developed countries that continue to grapple with the effects of merit-based selection.
Last week, news broke that leading British universities such as Oxford and the London School of Economics used indicators such as postal codes to discriminate in favour of applicants from poorer neighbourhoods, in a bid to level the playing field for candidates.
Critics said the move unfairly disadvantaged middle-class applicants and would lead to a decline in academic standards.
But top US universities like Harvard are taking similar steps to expand their intake of low-income students.
These include placing less emphasis on the scholastic assessment tests or SATs, which carefully-coached affluent students tend to ace.
Harvard admissions officers also visit high schools in poor neighbourhoods to encourage students there to apply.
Here lies a second contradiction inherent within meritocracy: that the competition and efficiency it incentivises can pull in a different direction from concerns about equality of opportunity.
Here in Singapore, we need to ask ourselves what the right balance is between these competing objectives.
One question that refuses to go away is: How just is our meritocracy?
Given that we are a society that prizes efficient outcomes, how can we identify and address the inequities that may result from current selection processes?
Is it time to review how scholarships and other honours are awarded?
How can we enhance equality of opportunity without too great a sacrifice in competitiveness and efficiency?
Nobel laureate Amartya Sen described meritocracy as an intuitively appealing but 'essentially underdefined' principle.
It is underdefined because much hinges on what counts as merit. And in a meritocracy, as in any other system, the idea of the good, and therefore of merit, is defined by that system's winners.
Those who have scaled the ladder to reach positions of influence have a duty to continually review the practice of meritocracy, to ensure it still serves the values of justice and equity upon which much of its appeal rests.
We need to get to firmer grips with how meritocracy works in our society if we are to prevent it from enshrining inequity.
This article was first published in The Straits Times on Aug 30, 2008.