Monday, July 19, 2021

Who still believes in a meritocracy these days?

Sometimes, I get the privilege of being invited by younger bloggers, entrepreneurs or influencers for breakfast. Being exposed to their ideas update me on what's really going on because as I get older, I stop doing stuff younger and single people do. Becoming an investment trainer also limits me to a more conscientious and ambitious crowd, so there is always run the risk of losing touch with the ground. 

My recent conversation is with an up and coming "media mogul". Our political leanings are almost diametrically opposite. He seems to think that government should take more responsibility for things while I prefer to blame fellow citizens for society's ills. Nevertheless, it was a really fun conversation that was very informative for me.

The most interesting segment was our discussion on meritocracy and I was curious what young people feel about meritocracy today. 

My friend's experiences were interesting. He obviously has many elite friends and he shared with me that in the top secondary schools, discussion and conversation is no longer about capabilities and grades. In the top branded schools like RI, ACS and even Hwa Chong, students often spoke of their lineages. What kind of families do they come from. Which exclusive housing estates do they live in. 

I felt that this was very different from my experiences growing up because, in the 1980s, only ACS was like this.

We both come from the more Vanilla-flavoured JCs in Singapore. I came from NJC and my friend came from TJC. 

What my friend shared with me is that the only folks who still believed in a meritocracy came from the second tiered JCs like NJC, TJC and VJC. These institutions are the only ones where folks believed in hard work ( we acknowledge that we have no choice because we're not as smart as the RJC and HCJC students and we don't have the unlimited expenses accounts of ACJC students, working hard is the only thing we can do to shift the odds in our favour. )

This is, sadly, reflected in our career choices. When I was in the private sector, folks from my JC were not so easily found. JC alumni were rare in IT during the days where CECA got freshly signed. With competition coming, IT was not a smart move if an engineer wants to enter the middle class. 

However, when I took the plunge into a disastrous foray into the public sector all my seniors from NJC were waiting there to manage me. 

My boss even had the same Computer Science tutor as me in JC. ( Computer Science majors in JC were super rare )

Was it inspiring to work for an organisation managed by my own kind?

Actually, it was horrible.

In the private sector ( Specifically P&G ), I can at least say that for once in my life, I aspired to become something like my boss. Good pay, upper-middle-class condo living with a loving family.

My public sector management was shit. 

Rumour was that someone I had a reporting relationship with was a divorcee who so traumatised his wife, she became a nun. 

A bag of dead otters, freshly beaten to death with a stick, had more personality than him. 

I think I'm a fairly good public speaker who created a course that generated over $1,000,000 in revenues, so I should know a thing or two about Powerpoint presentations. My boss made me memorise a 15 minute presentation and micro-managed the process to his exact wording. That's where my taxpayers were going. 

It's not a joke that the public sector is full of divorced, mid-career loser beta-males and single women who are waiting for your company until the dread of night. It helps to visit Glassdoor before making a decision whether you really want an iron rice bowl. 

This is not a discussion on whether a meritocracy works, I'm a semi-strong believer in meritocracy provided it's powered by low taxes and some amount of personal risk-taking. 

But my conversation with my friends has reminded me of the cult of brainwashed MBTI ISTJ compliance types that run our monolithic public services who are fanatics of the meritocratic system.

Philip Yeo would go on to label these types of executives eunichs.

The real tragedy is realising we took the same training and we are cut from the same cloth.

Some amount of self-loathing will ensue...





  1. I'd say the same. Had some bosses I could aspire to be like when I worked for a European company (and one of them was even Singaporean), now I'm in a GLC, when I look at upper management I want to throw up in my mouth a bit. Bloated cocksucking yes-men.

    2 years and 11 months, and thanks to the magic of dividends, I'm out of here.

    1. We MNC types are quite spoilt. It was only when I really started working with Singaporeans that I wanted out of the corporate world.

  2. Firstly, what is meritorious can change & is determined by a small clique of ruling elites to suit their needs or the needs of the times e.g. to boost GDP, or to boost votes, or to boost social cohesion etc.

    Secondly, this lineage elitism or pedigree-ism started in certain ministries or agencies (usually the more "atas" ones where the pay scale is higher than other civil servants), probably since the 1990s or early 2000s. Where bosses will pay more attention to young officers who stay in landed property and/or whose parents are so-and-so. The young officers of the 1990s will have children in Sec or JC by now.

    How S'pore implemented its Scholarship system also played a part. A blind emphasis on grades & CCA without considering background family environment resulted in vast majority of scholars coming from well-to-do families with both resources & time to indulge in gaming the education system.

    The ruling elites themselves recognise this (they aren't dumb), but it'll take enlightened elites to make changes, and not take advantage of the existing system to further entrench privileges for themselves & more importantly their children.

    If you have paid attention, there has been lesser emphasis on govt scholarships in the past few years. And they're trying to broaden pathways & alternatives for youths to excel in their areas of natural strengths.

    The elites in atas JCs though, are a product of their families & won't die easy. Even today, there are many millennials in civil service who view themselves as superior beings. Not much different from some folks in the more toxic areas of private sector such as financial services or legal sector.

    1. I think last year there was only one President scholar. I can feel that the changes to the system but the life of a public servant farmer is not going to change much moving forward as I do hang out with ex-colleagues from THAT agency.