ETHOS Issue 14, February 2016
Singapore’s meritocracy is fundamentally pragmatic. A small island city-state can ill afford for any but the most qualified and competent to be assigned to key positions that could exert a far-reaching impact on the national landscape. Singapore’s survival and success has come in no small part from clear-eyed policy decision-making and public service delivery free from gainsaying by connections, prejudice or other considerations than the broader public interest. It is because we consistently put forward those who can best contribute to the national good — whoever they may be — that we have been able to nurture a clean, high-performing public sector to support a thriving Singapore.
Society as a whole benefits when duties are performed by the most able persons available for the job. Sound policies, social development and better access to education have lifted many of the barriers that might have prevented capable individuals from coming forward in the past. Yet economic as well as social needs have also become much more complex and even divergent. Some have argued that conventional yardsticks of merit and competence may have to be reviewed in light of rapidly changing public expectations and market demand. Observers have also asked whether the relentless pursuit of excellence and merit-based rewards — assumed to inculcate discipline and accrue optimal gains for all — has in fact left some in society behind due to factors over which they have little control. These are questions being asked not just in Singapore, but in thoughtful societies around the world, by governments keen to strike the right balance between robust economic development and a stable society with a strong sense of shared purpose and common wellbeing). Even in the United States, a country known for its powerful narrative of individual effort and achievement, new research has found the actual level of social mobility lower than had been presumed.
Singapore’s economic and social policies, while founded on principles of self-reliance and effort, have also been mindful of the need to level up and broaden opportunities for all, while helping the less privileged to keep up with the nation’s growth. With rising affluence, the low-hanging fruits of upward mobility have mostly been harvested, even as a maturing economy and ageing population present new challenges. One argument being put forward is that stronger social safety nets, supported by a more capable and engaged community sector, can provide much needed ballast to the nation — allowing Singapore to take bolder steps forward as it seeks to reinvigorate its economy, while still taking care of complex social needs without being unduly burdened by growing costs. To do this, however, the relationship between the public sector and other stakeholders would have to be rebalanced. There are also calls for more comprehensive data to be made available to researchers, to allow for better analysis and thinking on the key issues.
There seems to be growing agreement that centralised planning in the traditional sense will have limited effectiveness in an age of increasing uncertainty and complexity. However, if new models of governance have to be developed across all aspects of public sector work, from economic development to social policy to healthcare and beyond, they must also be sensitive to the nuances of their context; not all complex dilemmas call for the same tools. The effective merit of a solution, not its provenance, must be allowed to take precedent. The best ideas, like the best teams, may be those that are convened and curated from across a diverse pool of talents and techniques. Toolkits and frameworks for such broader thinking have been introduced; an organisational culture that is comfortable and adroit with these approaches will take time to develop, through experimentation, simulations and practice. These are areas in which the Singaporean system has been sound to date, even as there is still much room to learn and grow, ahead of rising demand and in good time for the future.
I wish you an engaging read.