Sunday, January 5, 2014

It's okay to compete but have a heart

Jan 04, 2014


A compassionate meritocracy seeks to close the distance between the haves and the have-nots

By Lydia Lim Political Editor

IT WAS nearing 5am on Dec 1 and Orchard Road was abuzz with the anticipation of thousands of runners waiting for the Standard Chartered marathon flag-off.

Amid this throng was a very small group of elite athletes who got the go-ahead to start running ahead of everyone else.

There were only two Singaporeans in the group - Dr Mok Ying Ren, 25, the eventual winner in the local category, and Mr Wang Zhiyong, also in his 20s.

More remarkably, they were also the two who chose to forgo the 50-second head start handed to them by the race organisers. Instead, they slowed down in the middle of Orchard Road and waited for their fellow local elite marathoners to catch up with them.

It was an odd thing to do as this was a race, and one they had prepared arduously for.

It was a decision that local sports reporting website Red Sports celebrated as "an act of sportsmanship".

These two young men's spirit of fair play is worth emulating beyond sports circles, and provides an inspiring example of how competition can exist alongside concern for others and a sense of solidarity with one's peers and rivals.

It also sheds light on what a compassionate meritocracy might look like, the building of which is a worthy new year challenge for a society known for being kiasu, or scared to lose, in Hokkein.

A compassionate meritocracy is an essential element of the new way forward that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong first charted in his National Day Rally speech last August.

Elaborating on this, Mr Lee spoke of building "an open and compassionate meritocracy" in his PAP convention speech last month. It is a meritocracy in the sense that jobs, school places, top honours and other rewards are decided on the basis of merit, but an open and compassionate one that maximises equality of opportunity while moderating inequality of outcomes.

The goal, Mr Lee said, must be to ensure success is not determined by one's social background or family circumstances - through measures to help those born with less get to a good starting point, provide diverse pathways of success and keep social mobility going so that anyone can rise regardless of background.

There is also a need to "moderate inequality of outcomes", Mr Lee added, by giving more help to those who are struggling and encouraging those who do well to give back to society by helping others to succeed.

In any competitive society, whether in the East or West, it is natural for those with more to exploit the advantages they enjoy, to secure for themselves and their loved ones sought-after goods such as plum jobs and scarce spots in brand-name schools and universities.

Who can blame Singapore parents for buying well-located homes, or the best tuition they can afford, or making use of their school alumni links to secure their children coveted places in popular, over-subscribed primary and secondary schools?

But such advantages widen the distance between a small, select group and the rest of the field, much like that 50-second head start did for some privileged marathoners.

A meritocracy that allows the distance between the haves and have-nots to keep widening is one that risks, over time, becoming seen by the majority as unfair and unjust. By contrast, a compassionate meritocracy is one that seeks to close that distance, as Dr Mok and Mr Wang chose to do.

Compassion counters the instinct to go all out to snag victory for oneself. It is concern for another's welfare, and turns one's attention outward and inspires a desire to help and do right by another.

To set the stage for a compassionate meritocracy, Singapore society must first recognise and acknowledge the excesses of its current competitive system.

Education Minister Heng Swee Keat was among the first politicians to do so explicitly, in a speech he delivered just before PM Lee's National Day Rally of 2012. He warned against an excessive focus on grades and achievements, at the expense of a holistic education, a happier childhood and quality time with parents.

"Extreme meritocracy and competition can lead to a winner- take-all society, with the winners thinking little of others," he said, adding that "we need to restore a balance to hard-nosed material pragmatism".

Indeed, when British politician Michael Young first coined the term meritocracy in 1958, he did so to satirise a system where "merit is equated with intelligence- plus-effort, its possessors are identified at an early age and selected for appropriate intensive education, and there is an obsession with quantification, test-scoring and qualifications".

Singapore is not alone in critiquing its meritocracy.

Last year, a book - Twilight Of The Elites: America After Meritocracy - made waves in the United States by highlighting the excesses and inequalities resulting from unbridled competition, ostensibly on the basis of merit.

Among the examples its author Christopher Hayes cites is the "Cult of Smartness" which he says has taken hold in American life. He describes it as a pathology characterised by the mistaken assumption that intelligence is an ordinal quality - that it is possible for observers to accurately rank intelligent people in order from most to least smart, and that the right person for a job is always the one deemed smartest.

"While smartness is necessary for competent elites," he writes, "it is far from sufficient: wisdom, judgment, empathy and ethical rigour are all as important, even if those traits are far less valued."

Beyond a frank critique of the status quo, society also needs to cultivate compassion, and that I think is a challenge we should set ourselves in this new year.

We can start by internalising the belief that compassion can and does complement good, clean competition.

The call to build a compassionate meritocracy is not a call to compromise on excellence, or to knock down success, and it would be a disaster for Singapore if it were misunderstood as such.

As a society, we must still strive for excellence and compete against each other but not by exploiting advantages which, if we were less privileged, we would deem to be arbitrary and unfair.

Compassion at its root - from the Latin com (with) and passio (suffer), meaning to suffer with - springs from a recognition that we are all more alike than different. That, in turn, gives rise to a desire to be with one another and share in each other's joys and hopes, griefs and fears.

That is why compassion can inspire us to forsake the head start some of us may enjoy over others, in order that we may run together in the marathon of life.

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