Meritocracy is Elitism that Doesn’t Want to Admit It

I read a story last week about a student who had taken the initiative of starting an online petition, which called on the country’s education ministry to bring down the passing mark for the Additional Mathematics exam. Allegedly, the questions posed were difficult enough to get a veteran math teacher on Facebook.

For context, Additional Mathematics is a subject tested in the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM; Malaysian Certificate of Education), equivalent to the O-levels. For students in public schools, SPM is their last standardized test. Thanks to its incredibly high-stakes nature, the exam represents one of Malaysia’s precious few channels for social mobility.

Scoring an uninterrupted string of A+ puts you in life’s proverbial express elevator: you would qualify to compete for a merit-based scholarship, be your school’s poster child, attend endless award ceremonies, get your five minutes of fame on the front page of every newspaper, receive invitations to be brand ambassadors, et cetera.

As for the already well-to-do, getting straight As is a matter of prestige. After all, you wouldn’t want Mother to be embarrassed at the family luncheon. You wouldn’t want to hear snarky remarks from Father’s employees regarding your presence at his firm. More importantly, you wouldn’t want to be like them —street-sweepers, dishwashers, janitors, garbage collectors—the inevitable fate of those who didn’t work as hard as you did in school.

What seized my attention was a comment that someone had left in the teacher’s post. The comment, which stood alone against the torrent of sympathy, carried the unmistakable scent of a WhatsApp circular. It went something like this:

At the entrance gate of a university in South Africa, the following message was posted for contemplation. “Collapsing any nation does not require the use of atomic bombs or the use of long-range missiles. It only requires lowering the quality of education and allowing cheating in the examinations by the students. Patients die in the hands of such doctors. Building collapse in the hands of such engineers. Money is lost in the hands of such accountants. Humanity dies in the hands of such religious scholars. And justice is lost in the hands of such judges. The collapse of education is the collapse of the nation.”

In simpler times, I would have found the quote perfectly sensible. The basic idea that everyone can succeed on the basis of their own merits is one that finds intuitive agreement. After all, people who want to get to the top should deserve it. Life should not be a lottery of birth. Background shouldn’t be an obstacle to advancement. Meritocracy should be the name of the game.

I imagine that when the concept first came to Malaysia, the country sighed together in relief. Here was a place where you can find school-children who understood the concept of nepotism. Against this backdrop, meritocracy was probably nothing short of revolutionary. Everything we had always wanted to say about inequality we could now convey in a single word. At last, an element of justice has entered into the distribution of social and economic rewards.

But the times are anything but simple, or so I was told whenever I attended one many forums and panel discussions on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, on the rise of automation, or on the need to be “proficient in strategic transactor peer-to-peer brainstorming of the value add-on of disruptive co-creation in the network society.” And most importantly, on the need for greater meritocracy in our schools, universities, workplaces and government.

And therein lies the problem.

When Michael Dunlop Young first coined the term ‘meritocracy’ in 1958, he wasn’t describing a utopian society. His work, The Rise of the Meritocracy, satirizes British society in 2033 from the perspective of a future historian. In that distant future, wealth and status would supposedly be earned, not inherited. Merit would be a function of IQ plus effort. Democracy would give way to noocracy (not unlike Plato’s philosopher-kings). And most certainly “not an aristocracy of birth, not a plutocracy of wealth, but a true meritocracy of talent.”

Young’s vision was categorically dystopian. His book describes what would happen to a society that manages to perform the mental gymnastics necessary to convince itself that it is a meritocracy. The irony was that after his work was published, he had to spend the rest of his life penning letters to The Guardian saying “that’s not what I meant” whenever politicians misused the word. We often give our enemies the means to our own destruction.

The same irony appears to have landed on Malaysian shores. What is scarcely imaginable today is that the vaunted ideal of meritocracy has a dark side. Yet it is more urgent than ever that we recognize it.

Because if our society truly believes that we should create a world where the successful, in every sense of the word, earned all of their successes, we would necessarily have to create a world where those who failed were exclusively responsible for their failures.

This argument is problematic for two reasons. The first is this: it presumes that the conditions for good people to succeed and bad people to drown are equal for everyone. It isn’t. In Malaysia, the best thing you can do to secure your future is to choose who your parents are.

The second reason is that the Malaysian education system conflates examination with education, and exam grades as the benchmark for quantifying merit. To do well in exams, one needs resources: test prep materials, private tutors, conducive schools and homes, and time spent studying instead of having to help out at your dad’s burger stand.

To those who believe in meritocracy, or worse, that a meritocracy can realistically exist; that through testing we can rank human beings the same way we rank potatoes—in descending alphabetical order—and therefore tell which is the better person and which isn’t, here’s a secret: We can’t.

Because we are unique. Each of us is a complex reality, possessing unique talents, skills, passions and interests. And not only are we different relative to each other; how we differ also changes over time. We discover new talents, cultivate new skills, define new passions and develop new interests. Either our education system deals with that, or it doesn’t.

And it doesn’t. This is one aspect of Malaysia’s value-action gap: where we teach and test for conformity but turn around and demand creativity. Another example would be the highly confusing phenomena of corporate captains claiming that they don’t know what the world will look like in 10 years, but continue to influence education policy as if they do.

The problem is meritocracy today is this: the privilege to decide what society needs has been hijacked by the ‘meritocratic’ elite who, with their lion’s share of society’s resources, gets to disproportionately influence what society should need, and consequently the definition of ‘merit’ itself. This phenomenon is most obvious in matters of policy. Very often, a policy is impossible not because society hates it, but because it impacts the margins of some faceless corporation.

Nowadays, there’s no shortage of talk about making the syllabus more “industry-relevant.” That usually means putting in more things that make you a better employee.

This means that subjects that don’t directly make you a better employee—music, dance, drama, arts and sports—are relegated to a co-curricular basis. Funding is limited or cut entirely, which means that parents who desire such ‘frivolities’ for their children would have to pay for private coaching.

That’s the tragedy of the Malaysian education system, one that is furthered by the betrayal of precarious employment.

Again, the fault rests on you. You are unemployed because you are too picky with your jobs. Because you lack experience. At the same time, Malaysia has developed a tolerance for oddities. We’re at the point where graduates are unemployed and children have to work.

Why has this persisted? In a country that pretends to celebrate diversity and uniqueness, at which point did we consider it acceptable to rank people as though they were potatoes?

The answer is this: when it began to serve a convenient role in explaining away inequality, absent of concrete solutions. In the harsh climate of Malaysian public opinion, it has become possible to argue that your grades accurately reflect who you are at a molecular level, questioning the need for charity, welfare, re-distributive measures, or even simple compassion.

Another reason is Malaysia’s lack of class awareness. One of the ways this has backfired on us is that, through an elite-dominated meritocracy, we buy into the narrative that some people are inherently ‘worthy,’ whereas if you’re poor you need to work extra hard. We look at an oft-suspended kid with a 1.4 GPA and see a delinquent. We look at a violinist with a 4.0 and see ourselves. And so we wind up helping the one who needs less help to begin with.

You see, it’s all your fault. You don’t have enough merit. It’s a way the system has for setting you up for a fall and then pinning the blame on you. Most insidiously, meritocracy by nature is a system that harms everyone—even the winners. Our sleep debt tells it all.

It is always an unsightly spectacle in our society that there are those who lay homeless near a thousand empty homes and go hungry near a thousand tables. It deserves to be called out for what it is: borderline fascistic.

To conclude that there are people who are simply better and consequently deserve everything our society has to offer, whereas those who aren’t should be left to languish, isn’t just elitism. It’s a central tenet of fascism. It carries the stench of social Darwinism, in that it believes society must cull the weak: the diseased, the politically deviant or the morally degenerate, in order to survive in a dog-eat-dog world of constant struggle.

That the world is dog-eat-dog by default, or that grades are what’s important in the ‘real world,’ are simplistic arguments. After all, if we impart this image of the world to each subsequent generation, wouldn’t they go out into the world and act accordingly? If we teach generations of our children that their exam grades define them, wouldn’t they carry this legacy into the future? Does it not become a prophecy that fulfills itself?

In such a Malaysia, any group that has gained a position of superiority can always claim to be the “best fit” thanks to its newfound powers, which then permits the group to lay claim to power because it is the “best fit.” The logic is circular and self-serving. If any aspect of the original permutation of meritocracy that Malaysia held in its collective imagination persists, it does beyond nothing more than in the form of platitudes.

Ironically, some would insist that the minorities are secretly dominant, yet will never use the same logic to insist that they are the “best fit.” This was evident in the case of Harvard admissions, where it was found that enrollment rates for Asian-Americans had gone down despite consistently topping academic charts. What happens in turn is the advocacy for de-emphasizing test scores in the admission process.

To have unquestioning faith in exams and to pass it off as meritocratic is to essentially subscribe to an insane and arrogant assumption that ordinary humans—teachers, examiners and business elites—can handily take over the solemn responsibilities that, in the past, were more wisely left in the hands of a god who, helped along by their angelic retinue, was due to weigh the souls of each person on the day of judgement.

As 70 episodes of the Story of Yanxi Palace had taught me, no one in this world ever gets exactly what they deserve. Life is, to a large extent we are unwilling to admit, random.

To free ourselves from some of the more punishing side effects of a merito-supremacist (a term this article coins) world view, we can start by recognizing that the lives of the less fortunate are not less worthy than those who are. Their worth does not depend on the say-so of the elites. There is simply no sensible way of comparing the worth of human lives without sounding like a fascist.

In addition, we should reflect on what it means for Malaysia to believe that people have to ‘earn’ or do something to ‘deserve’ access to basic necessities. Our unremitting struggle with ethno-religious tensions does not take place in a vacuum. Polarization thrives in a world of extremes.

What the New Malaysia needs is not an exercise of meritocracy, but compassion. Honesty, too. With little effort, today’s elites might convince themselves that they’re self-made. The aristocrats of old certainly had no such illusion.

Stay opinionated, stay unbothered.

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