A Closer Look at Meritocracy

By Natasha Su Sivarajah

So now that what was once the epitome of every progressive view we had ever espoused – America  and the American dream – has faltered, blaming its outcome of extreme economic inequality on a systemic failure, what does that leave us with? Bear in mind that these were the same economic woes experienced by the violent protestors of the Arab Spring, driven by unemployment and high food prices. While the former was the product of free market economics; capitalism and meritocracy, the latter resulted from the ideological shackles of autocratic regimes.

What then do we make of ideas like meritocracy that in principle seem so difficult to dispute? Perhaps the blame really lies with the systems that enforce these noble ideologies. Perhaps the systems themselves were abused. The list could go on – but here is an intriguing example of how opposing forces in the system can clash: where we are taught that the key to success in the free market is securing and sustaining competitive positions and competitive advantages (i.e. recipes for a monopoly), the monopoly itself is seen as a ‘market failure’ which free market economists rush to get rid of to optimise the workings of the economy. It is really anomalies of ironies like these that make one wonder if there is, at all, a way to get the system right.

It is often easy to paint a rosy picture of the outcome of meritocracy: complete and total social mobility, everyone does what they do best, productivity is maximised, the nation’s wealth is maximised, and everyone gets a nice fat slice of it, some fatter than others for their so-called ‘contribution to the production wheel’ according to the theory of marginal productivity[1]. It is surely a happy place to be if you are at the top – and of course if there are people yearning for a ‘better’ meritocracy, they probably believe they deserve to be at a better position than where they are now. But the truth is that for every person less optimistic than they are, the prospects of it is pretty much synonymous to the anachronistic social battles once fought to escape feudalistic and aristocratic caste systems.

Meritocracy implies that our place in society is almost predetermined at birth, with the intelligent on top and the not-so-intelligent at the bottom. While it is nice that some have the opportunity to rise to the top – and stay there – in a meritocracy, for others it means the opposite. We can only speculate about what happens to those at the bottom in a meritocracy. In his 1958 book ‘The Rise of Meritocracy’, Michael Young, the British sociologist who coined the term ‘meritocracy’, predicts far-fetched outcomes from a forecasted vantage point of 2034. He writes of baby trafficking – in a time when the IQ of a person can be determined from when a child is in his mother’s womb – where children with high IQs are sold at exorbitant prices in the black market.

Whatever the outcome, it must be emphasised that the seemingly righteous intent of meritocracy, of equal opportunities to the extent that a person’s life’s prospects should not be decided by factors outside their control, seems to be met with the harsher reality of it being just another way to ‘caste’-gorise society; yet another way of assigning rewards to the ‘lottery of life’.

Some of us are often too quick to suggest meritocracy as a catchall remedy to what some may perceive as Malaysia’s ‘stuck-in-the-middle’ position in South East Asia. But do we really possess the prerequisites for a strong and sustainable meritocracy? And will meritocracy really be a game changer for us?

The mechanisms that enable social mobility (not social mobility itself, but the mechanisms that enable it – assuming that social mobility itself will be a product of meritocracy) are as important to a meritocracy as an educated electorate is to a democracy. Prime Minister Najib Razak recently announced that we have in fact achieved social mobility through subsidised education provided by the government. Under the iTR1M programme, free tuition is provided to UPSR, PMR and SPM students from poor families in Selangor. While I am confident that the bright minds behind the National Transformation Programme are doing their very best towards this cause, there are certain non-economic and less tangible factors that are even more difficult to tackle.

In her book ‘Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life’, University of Pennsylvania professor of sociology Annette Lareau discusses the contrasting effects of different methods of child upbringing which are a direct result of households of diverse income strata. While middle-class families rear their children through concerted cultivation in which they learn to reason with their parents and adults, consequently developing a sense of entitlement, children of poor or working-class families hardly achieve this via their natural growth.

Thus we can see that the sense of ambition and yearning for self-advancement and actualisation is the obvious upshot of being raised by wealthier parents. It follows directly from Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, with physiological needs (breathing, food, water, some may say the internet) and safety needs (employment, health) at the base of the pyramid, and self-actualisation, also defined as ‘the motive to realise one’s full potential’, at the top (each level is only attainable when the level below has already been achieved); it is evident that those from more privileged backgrounds are more likely to concern themselves with the upper levels of the self fulfilment pyramid, with others still floundering at the bottom. Certainly a mechanism of social mobility would involve mitigating the effects of inconsistent levels of ambition and self perpetuation. Other mechanisms include the equalisation of the disparate quality of education to which children from households of varying income have access.

A meritocracy without the abovementioned prerequisites, and more, is bound to yield undesired results. However, the dynamic relationship between even an established and veritable meritocracy and its members must be taken into account, in our considerations of just what it may precipitate. We can see, from how the definition of a democracy has morphed through time from ‘1 person 1 vote’ to ‘1 Ringgit 1 vote’, that rent-seeking – the act of manipulating the environment in which economic activities occur for personal gain, without creating economic wealth – will eventually find its way into the meritocracy as well.

Every system is susceptible to a plutocracy, and it is not entirely impalpable that they build glass ceilings to cripple the mechanisms of social mobility we had constructed in the first place (remember, we have assumed here that our prerequisites were satisfied). Here, we have the intelligent rich staying rich, and the intelligent poor staying poor. It is worth mentioning that even the UK, so-called ‘progressive socialistic’ in their policies, has been shamefully ensnared by this predicament: recent figures have shown that Britain has some of the lowest social mobility in the developed world, where one’s earnings in the UK are more likely to reflect their father’s than any other country. Moreover, 24% of British vice-chancellors, 32% of MPs, 51% of top medics, 54% of FTSE-100 chief execs, 54% of top journalists, and 70% of High Court judges went to private school, though only 7% of the British population do.[2]

But will the system itself be a game changer for Malaysia? A meritocracy optimises productivity insofar as each job is allocated to the one who performs it the best, based on available resources. However, it leaves many questions unanswered as to the very challenge of determining Malaysia’s niche in the world and the strategic decisions that will be crucial in getting us ahead especially in times of crisis.  Some may argue that if we had meritocracy in the first place, we would certainly have more than competent leaders in place today to helm the country in its transformation and advancement into a nation of high income status. But we must consider whether or not the incentive system that accompanies meritocracy really works to benefit the nation. Take the classic example of monetary incentives inherent in the Singaporean meritocracy. Coupled with the complementary function of a democracy in ensuring accountability, it seems as though we have excellent means to ensure the ‘best person for the job’, gets the job as political leader.

But here is the irony associated with this: while the political leader secured his position through his monetarily incentivised actions in promoting his own interests, he is entrusted with a job to promote our best interests. Indeed, we often hear of politicians using their own intellect, not to advocate the needs of the people they represent, but to manipulate the democratic system that is viewed as an impediment to their personal needs; concepts like ‘manufacturing consent’[3], political focus on the swinging vote, and the restriction of the opposition are so common that we are taught to accept them as the natural workings of a democracy.

Moreover, productivity growth depends almost entirely on the rate of continuous innovation and invention, which brings us back to the American quandary of stagnant and declining productivity in the midst of increasing inequality during the period of the Great Divergence (post 1970); in other words, in this period, meritocracy’s less desired side-effects of inequality were not countered, let alone overcome, by its expected direct consequence of increased productivity: while the top earning 1% of households gained about 275%, the lower earning 80% saw their share of total income in America reduced to less than half.[4] As Joseph Stiglitz, the 2001 Economics Nobel Prize winner says: there has never been any evidence of ‘trickle down’ economics. Trickle up, maybe?

I hope that I have not left you with the impression that I am against meritocracy. I wrote this article with the intention of sharing my reservations on this, fuelled by the mind-boggling ironies of all that has been uncovered in recent events, which have forced the re-evaluation of our stance on meritocracy as well as a much closer look at it. We must understand the implications of meritocracy before we impose it on ourselves. Let us focus on targeted remedies rather than sweeping policies dictated by misleading ideologies.

Natasha graduated from the London School of Economics in July 2011 and is currently an Actuarial Analyst working in London.


[1] The theory of marginal productivity states that ‘a business firm would be willing to pay a productive agent only what he adds to the firm’s well-being or utility; that it is clearly unprofitable to buy, for example, a man-hour of labour if it adds less to its buyer’s income than what it costs.’ – Encyclopaedia Britannica, Marginal Productivity Theory

[2] Economic Policy Reforms: Going for Growth – OECD 2010

[3] A term coined by renowned philosopher Noam Chomsky in his book ‘Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media’

[4] Congressional Budget Office: Trends in the Distribution of Household Income between 1979 and 2007

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