ST Forum: Scandals exposed flaws in our system

Unless there’s some paywall, you can probably read the original on the ST site here.

Aug 02, 2012. The Straits Times

ALTHOUGH deputy editor Zuraidah Ibrahim makes many good points in her commentary on Sunday (“Scrubbing out sleaze in Singapore”) on recent corruption scandals, in particular, the need for a more watchful, engaged public, I am surprised by one of her conclusions that “everything that has happened in the past six months has shown that the system still works”.

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In fact, the scandals have exposed some flaws.

Singapore has prided itself on an elite system of talent selection and career progression.

Meritocracy and intense scrutiny together produce only the best leaders, or so we have been told.

The sex-for-business allegations against the former chiefs of the Central Narcotics Bureau and the Singapore Civil Defence Force, if true, suggest otherwise.

Singaporean meritocracy may, in reality, inflate the egos of those who succeed such that their sense of entitlement and privilege can supersede their better judgment.

Meanwhile, their followers, by virtue of finishing second or third, may lose the self-confidence and gumption needed to keep No. 1 on his toes.

In other words, our Darwinian selection system is partly behind the inordinate power structures one might find in Singapore organisations.

Second, although Ms Zuraidah cheers the effectiveness of Singaporean justice and vigilance in bringing these cases to light, she admits that the probe into the National Parks Board’s Brompton bicycle purchase was prompted only after Internet grumblings could no longer be ignored.

Hence, here again the system would have failed if not for the tireless – and purely voluntary – work of netizens.

It is good that the public is having a lively post-mortem on these scandals.

We must be honest about the potential problems in our system if we are going to address them.

(Photo credit: Andrew Loh )

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4 responses

  1. Hi Sudhir, thanks for the article. In today’s paper (The Sunday Times, Aug 5, 2012, Pg.4) I read that the Law Minister K.Shanmugam dismissed it as absurd. I hope to read a response from you.

    You may already know that Christopher Hayes in his recent book ‘Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy’ makes the same argument against meritocracy as you. In an article “Why Elites Fail” that appeared in the June 25, 2012 edition of The Nation, he writes:

    “A society in which the pillar institutions were populated and presided over by a group of hyper-educated, ambitious overachievers who enjoyed tremendous monetary rewards as well as unparalleled political power and prestige, and yet who managed to insulate themselves from sanction, competition and accountability; a group of people who could more or less rest assured that now that they have achieved their status, now that they have scaled to the top of the pyramid, they, their peers and their progeny will stay there.

    Such a ruling class would have all the competitive ferocity inculcated by the ceaseless jockeying within the institutions that produce meritocratic elites, but face no actual sanctions for failing at their duties or succumbing to the temptations of corruption. It would reflexively protect its worst members; it would operate with a wide gulf between performance and reward; and it would be shot through with corruption, rule-breaking and self-dealing, as those on top pursued the outsized rewards promised for superstars. In the same way the bailouts combined the worst aspects of capitalism and socialism, such a social order would fuse the worst aspects of meritocracy and bureaucracy.

    It would, in other words, look a lot like the American elite in the first years of the twenty-first century.”

    Although Hayes talks about America and the west, one can’t help but notice eerie similarities here in Singapore. And the minister’s vigorous defense doesn’t help to dispel the notion.

    • Thank you for this. I have read Mr Hayes article, though not the book and yes, I agree, there are some eerie similarities between America and Singapore. Though arguably the elite in the US have a lot more power–economic and political–than the elite here.

      The Minister has taken my comments to their logical extreme–suggesting that we do away with meritocracy altogether. I have sent ST Forum a response. If they don’t publish it, I’ll put it up here in a few days.

      Thanks again! S

      • While it is not surprising to see the Law Minister using the time-worn legal tactic of reductio ad absurdum, it is indeed disappointing to read that he thinks ‘basic human nature’ as the reason for current ills. I hope your response gets published in ST leading to more nuanced debate about meritocracy in Singapore.

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