Friday, August 23, 2019

Breaking the Chains of Meritocracy

Image result for breaker of chains

While I was never a precariat, growing up in a landed property estate made me very sensitive to being looked down upon. Even though I had more toys than other kids in school, I had poorer toys compared to my neighbors. I was also shamed because culturally I was not as sophisticated as my neighbors who consumed great works of Literature and knew pop culture more than I do. I watched channel 8 growing up, my fucking neighbours watched American Sitcoms. I hated cultural trappings and Literature because I don't understand why it has to become an instrument of shaming of other Singaporeans.

My solution was to study hard. Study of the factual so that it can be weaponized to meet any objective I want. Build stuff be it writing code, designing portfolios or reviewing contracts. Because I drank meritocracy's kool aid, I know that I can beat those bullies of my youth one day.

But once I have adequately resolved the financial problems of my generation, the question is whether I want to have the option to begin resolving the problems of my children's generation and answer the question of what kind of legacy I will give to them.

Keeping in mind that wealth will seldom lasts longer than three generations, I have to accept that my family's ability to generate wealth may be limited to what I can do within my lifespan. My children may be no more special than other children. With the education system becoming more opaque, the Rawlsian veil grows thicker. My daughter is quietly being streamed this year in Primary Two and there is some resolve by teachers not to allow parents to get into the way.

Concentrating money within one generation allows us to bend society's laws.

Having grown up in a landed property estate, a lot of actions of my neighbors violate our tenets of meritocracy. I had friends who get shooed in to elite franchise schools along Barker Road and don't seem to suffer any ill effects from academic mediocrity - they have degree programs waiting for them in Australia and England and then their dads will ensure that they can get a fine entry level job by pulling strings with his MNC friends. One incident that scarred me for life is somehow a neighbor could get into RI with one point higher aggregate score than me even though we both would not have qualified for a seat.

( Remember for Gen X, Australian degrees do not carry the same stigma as subsequent generations. It signals that you are rich. )

I am thinking about this lately - perhaps our meritocracy is designed is to put so much money into the hands of winners so their kids will not have to play by a meritocracy's rules when they grow up.

Right now I love my job and making money for my students, so I still can't stand the idea of being a NEET, so maybe that's my destiny - to Break the Chains of Meritocracy so my kids don't have to suffer the rules as adults.

There may be a way to play this responsibly so that they don't end up carrying a glass of champagne and talking up Surrealist art in the Singapore Tatler and becoming no better than the rich bullies I grew up with:

a) If you don't want to play by Meritocracy, you should still be useful to society.

I think a lot of freedom can be earned if you just aim to be useful to society instead of being successful. A good nursing career is useful in my book. Being a social critic who want to comment on how much inequality there is in society isn't ( unless you find a way to pay more taxes to ease your personal guilt )

A minimum baseline would be useful to society for at least 4-5 hours everyday create a business, conduct a trade, or serve others.

b) Emphasis on play rather than achievement

A rich multi-millionaire once told me that he'd be happy to let his kids play games non stop for a year and quit school. I used to think that was decadent, but now as I enter their ranks, I can see the wisdom of that !

If you play Magic the Gathering or e-sports, you will eventually learn that intensive play and accomplishments are more or less the same thing. If you treat an endeavor as a game - the way I treat my class as a game I play with students to beat market returns using my real earnings, you will take a lot of ridiculous steps to improve your gamesmanship.

This results in better outcomes than just being focused on results.

c) You can always leave if all else fails

I really don't want my kids to leave Singapore if they can't get into a local degree program. One way is to provide some passive income if they take on a working class identity here. But we don't know how much our society will improve working conditions in the future for Heartlanders so I am optimistic that they can stay and be happy here. We're also one of the few countries on the planet that will start working on rising sea levels.

A lot of affluent Singaporeans think the same way, they make plans to leave but do everything they can to stay put because it is just a better run society than any other alternative.

My kids are lucky. They don't grow up in a landed estate. My neighbors today are culturally and socially similar to us.

I also tell my kids never envy their neighbors who may pick up concepts faster than they do. Maybe it is because managing wealth and making it grow is a much simpler skill set than figuring out how to earn the money by trading your time.

Will we remain Anchorites dedicated to the God of Meritocracy or will I evolve to become a Breaker of Chains ?

Only time will tell.


  1. Hi Christopher,

    I've been a silent/passive reader of your blog for some time now, and I must say you're one of the most insightful thinkers regarding personal finance and the broader society/social issues that I've come across.

    Don't be so concerned whether you're a NEET or not, and most certainly, don't be affected by it - people who are unique, and on the cutting edge often do not follow conventions.

    Have a good weekend!

  2. Speaking from personal experience of a Rafflesian who grew up in a 3-RM HDB flat, I can honestly say that nothing builds a heavier chip on your shoulder than a sudden and stark realizaation that you do not belong with the rest.

  3. I love your posts. My growing up years were similar. I grew up among classmates who had a lot of wealth. I recall that after school exams were over, all the kids could bring their fancy toys to school to play. There were tons of polly pocket, barbie dolls etc and I only had books. old ones too. while 80% Singaporeans supposedly lived in hdb, the ratio in my class was the opposite - 20% lived in HDB or less. the only thing that I felt made me "better" was my grades. which I had to work very hard in my mind to maintain. The rest of my classmates did not work as hard (to me) but their grades were not that far off from me as well. was it a good thing? I feel that I traded too much of my time for grades when perhaps I could have stretched myself in other areas instead. Fast forward and I am a working professional. But so are the rest of the wealthy kids. most are happier I believe even if they are in jobs that do not pay as well. I feel like I suffer from a ton of money insecurity as well as lack of social currency at times.

    your next point about hopes for your kids also rings true for me. Before I had kids, I though that I wanted my kids to be like me. Grow up in more adverse conditions so they can be stronger. but now that I have them, I wish that they will be better than me - emotionally so. I would like them to have happy childhood memories to draw upon.

  4. NEET = Not in Employment, Education or Training.

    Thanks for sharing your personal experiences everyone ! I like the way the article speaks to people with different experiences growing up.

    Keep it coming.