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A tale of two meritocracies: Singapore vs USA
“Meritocracy is a social arrangement like any other: it is a loose set of rules that can be adapted in order to obscure advantages, all the while justifying them on the basis of collective values.” ― Shamus Rahman Khan, Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul's School
“Meritocracy is a good thing. Whenever possibly, people should be judged based on their work and results, not superficial qualities.” - Eric Reis
To say that the concept of meritocracy is controversial would be an understatement.The entire concept of meritocracy rests on these two core principles:
Equality of opportunity
Judgement based on merit
At first glance they seem fairly simple to understand, but after some interrogation it becomes clear how interpretation and therefore execution can differ. For example, how is merit defined? Who defines merit, and why? Should equality of opportunity occur at all times, or just the beginning?
This difference in interpretation and execution is seen in the two most popular self proclaimed meritocracies of today - Singapore and the USA.So how do the two compare? Given that there are an endless number of ways to compare them, I will be focusing on just eight categories. They are as follows:
I chose these categories as they were the most directly relevant to the two core principles of meritocracy. I will be judging them based on how closely they stick to the two defining principles of meritocracy. Equal distribution of talent will also be assumed.
USA: The “American dream” strongly shapes meritocracy in America. Americans (and the world) are told that America is the land of opportunity and that hard work, ambition and risk are greatly rewarded. However, it would be ignorant to overlook America’s bias towards people of different races, gender, religion and sexual orientation. There was and often still is a prerequisite before getting access to certain opportunities, talk less of being judged on merit. That prerequisite often being white, male, christian and straight. Although America has made progress, it still has a long, long way to go.
Singapore: Unlike America, educational achievement strongly shapes meritocracy in Singapore. However, like America, it fostered the belief that hard work and drive were all that was needed to succeed to achieve educational success, and therefore financial success. Like America too, it had similar prerequisites for getting access to particular opportunities. Singaporeans of Chinese descent often had a significant racial privilege in comparison to Singaporeans of Malaysian descent. And just like America this was reflected throughout society.
Winner: Nobody. Although both preached meritocratic values, there was oftentimes a prerequisite before these values were exercised, which directly contradicts both core principles of meritocracy. Nobody wins in this case.
Given that meritocracy is based on equality of opportunity and merit in both cases is oftentimes determined via educational credentials, then equal access to quality education becomes mandatory.
Singapore: Public secondary education is not free. It costs between ~$15 - $43 per month to attend government secondary school. Public education is primarily funded by the federal government based on the number of pupils the school accommodates. Given that the bottom 30th percentile of households earn a monthly income between $567 -$1,647, with an average household size of 3.16 persons, it is easy to imagine how finances may become a barrier for some. However, secondary school net enrolment was 99.78% in 2017(no data was available regarding their completion rate).
Teaching is also a highly respected profession. Singapore selects the top 1/3rd of high school graduates to be teachers and provides them with a competitive salary and hefty performance based bonuses. This helps ensure quality teachers are available across the country, and provides strong incentives for their quality to increase.
US: Public K-12 education is free for everyone. It is funded predominantly by state revenue and local government, with a minority amount coming from the federal government. In other words, where you live determines how well funded your school will be. There are huge variations in spending across states (ranging between ~$7k - $22k in 2016), although there does not seem to be a super strong correlation between funding and test scores (granted multiple factors are at play). The US had an 85% secondary school completion rate in 2017.
Winner: Singapore. Despite the fact there is some financial barrier to secondary education, it does not seem to be a major barrier (assuming completion rates are comparable to enrolment). This, coupled with the fact that they actively work to ensure high quality teaching across the nation makes accessing this “key” to opportunity a lot more equal.
Higher education credentials are often the most important education credential one can acquire, as it directly dictates the type of job opportunities one has access to. Equal access to high quality higher education therefore also becomes mandatory. Here we will focus on the most prestigious universities, as they provide the most access to opportunities.
Singapore: - Singapore’s most prestigious universities are NUS and NTU. Fees ranges from 8,200 - 28,900 for NUS and $8,400 - $34,200 for NTU.Singaporean students undertaking their first undergraduate degree are eligible for an MOE grant which pays a significant proportion of their university fees (sometimes all of it). Given that the median annual household income is $35,100, it is still relatively expensive. There are no legacy student admission processes.
U.S: - The minimum cost of an Ivy league education totals to $51,900 per year, nearly 7 times more than that of Singapore’s. Fees are often waived for low income students, for example, Harvard makes tuition free for students whose household income is less than $65,000. Fees are also paid via bank loans. Given that the median household income was $63,179 in 2018, education is extremely expensive. Ivy league universities also have legacy student admission processes.
Winner: Singapore. The use of legacy student admissions in the USA disqualified them in this round as it directly contradicts the philosophy of meritocracy.
That said, it is important to note that there is a deep fundamental flaw with higher education credentials acting as gatekeepers to opportunity. Firstly, an individual is being judged on their merit of 3 years ago. It assumes that if you were the best 3 years ago, that you are still the best today, which is not true. Secondly, it assumes that there is a fixed number of individuals that are worthy of these prestigious schools, which again is not true. Consider the fact that these universities gain brand value from being extremely exclusive. This means that there could be thousands of “Harvard worthy” students, but they will still accept the same number of students because an increase in enrolment would lead to the dilution of the brand.
Credentialism in itself is not bad, but if the credentials themselves are not accessible to the masses but are made the keys for accessing opportunity then it becomes a problem. As we have discovered, there are some serious financial barriers to acquiring the right educational credentials. If equality of opportunity is true, then individuals should still have a chance to prove themselves, even if they could not do so before.
USA:Trump signed an executive order in 2020 declaring that government hiring practices must value skill over degree. Considering that the federal government is the largest employer in the USA this is a pretty big deal. Several USA tech companies had already started implementing such policies long before the executive order, citing the importance of skill based hiring given the rapid change in skills required in the workforce.
Singapore: Singapore is well known for its’ over emphasis on educational credentials, and has worked hard to make this accessible to all. However, it seems like their efforts may have worked too well with a surplus of overqualified graduates, too few jobs and rising underemployment. To counteract this phenomena the Singapore government plans to cap the number of university graduates to 40%. Although Singapore has spoken about the need to rely less on credentials and more on skill, nothing substantial has been done.
Winner: USA. The USA also suffers from credentialism as a barrier, however, it has recognised that a credential is not the only representation of merit and is actively working to change this.
One of the strange things about meritocracy is that if left unregulated, it can quickly morph into an aristocracy. Families will naturally want to pass on their success via wealth/network to their children, but overtime this leads to a compounding and unfair advantage for said children, as access to opportunities often come with a financial barrier or straight up nepotism. One way to regulate this is through a wealth tax, often referred to as an inheritance tax. However, an over-taxing of inheritance leads to equality of outcomes, which is also not meritocratic. Therefore a balance is needed. Unsurprisingly, the two countries have very different approaches.
Singapore: Singapore has a progressive income tax starting at 0 and capped at 22% above $320k. There is no inheritance tax. They abolished this tax in 2008. Inheritance tax used to be 5% for the first $12 million and 10% on anything exceeding 12 million. It was removed as Singapore wanted to make itself more attractive for the rich and strengthen its position as a wealth management hub.
USA: Income tax is also progressive starting at 0 and capped at 37% above ~$510k. Inheritance tax applies to estates worth over $11.58 million, at a flat rate of 40%. Interestingly enough maximum estate tax rates have been decreasing over time (77% in 1941 - 40% in 2019), whilst the exemption amount has been increasing ($701,488 in 1941 - $11.8 million 2019, adjusted for inflation).
Winner : USA. Although the USA has an inheritance tax, only $22B in revenue was gathered from estate tax in comparison to the total estate wealth of $98T. So yes, the inheritance tax exists but one could argue that it is just for show and given the trend I would not be surprised if it gets abolished in the next 10-15 years.
One of the most appealing aspects of meritocracy is that “the best person gets the job”. If this is true then it should be reflected in government leadership, one of the most important decision makers.
Singapore: Singapore has only had 3 prime ministers, 2 of which were directly related (father and son). Presidents are democratically elected through popular vote, the minimum requirement to be eligible is extremely exhaustive. The current president ran uncontested and won, simply because she was the only person eligible to run.
USA: The US has had 45 presidents. 6 Presidents had a direct connection (father and son), with an additional 3 being second cousins. Presidents are elected through the electoral college process.
It is worth pointing out the tension between meritocracy and democracy in this category. It begs the question if the two can truly co-exist. In the case of the USA, for example, the person elected does not mean they are the best for the job. The judgement of who is ‘best’ is left in the hands of the public and congress, both of whom are subject to influence and bias. That said, extremely strict requirements such as Singapore’s implies that the government always knows who and what is best which is not true. Had America had such restrictions we would not have the likes of AOC in government (who in my opinion was better for the job).
Winner: Tie. Both strategies differ a fair amount, but both strategies do aim to put the best person in office. The balance between public opinion and government opinion is struck for both countries, albeit in different ways.
If an individual’s place in society is based on merit, and merit alone then social mobility should be a fairly large side effect (if you truly believe that talent is evenly distributed, which is debatable, but a discussion for another day). Surprisingly, the data shows otherwise.
Singapore: Singapore came 20th place in the social mobility index out of 82 countries.
USA: The USA came 27th in the social mobility index.
So who came first? Surprisingly and not surprisingly, Denmark did, which by the way is a hereditary aristocracy. In fact, 6 of the top 10 countries on the social mobility index have a hereditary (albeit constitutional) monarchy.
Winner: Singapore. Again, this is another case of choosing the less worse option. Assuming talent is distributed equally, then both countries should have dominated this category.
If you put the best person for the job, and do this repeatedly at scale, you should get the best economic output, which in turn should benefit everybody. This is what makes meritocracy so attractive. Unsurprisingly the U.S greatly out-competes Singapore in terms of GDP by more than 10x. That said, it would be unfair to compare the two based on this given how much larger and more developed the USA is. Instead we will compare GDP per capita.
USA: GDP per capita is currently at $65,280.7.
Singapore: GDP per capita currently at $65,233
Winner: Tie. It is quite impressive that Singapore has roughly equal GDP per capita, given how young it is in comparison to the USA. Just as it would be unfair to make a decision based on GDP, it would also be unfair to make a decision based on GDP growth rate given that Singapore is technically still a developing country.
So who does meritocracy the best? Well, the results say Singapore, but I’m not really convinced any of them are true meritocracies. Both struggle to abide by the two core principles of meritocracy - “equality of opportunity” and “judgement based on merit”. Then again, perhaps the issue isn’t with the countries themselves, but the concept of meritocracy. Is it truly possible to have equality of opportunity at all times? Is it possible to have judgement based on merit when merit itself is subject to interpretation, bias and often has several prerequisites that are unattainable to the masses?
Assuming that meritocracy is indeed an illusion then what social order isn’t and what comes next? Perhaps what we really need is to think beyond our current categories of social order systems and invent a new one. What that looks like, I don’t know, but I am eager to find out and contribute to the conversation!