Response to Law Minister’s comments on Singaporean meritocracy

Dear friends,

The past week has been an interesting experience in terms of indirect “engagement” with the government. First, last Thursday, I published a letter in ST’s Forum page, “Scandals exposed flaws in our system” (reproduced below). In it, I pointed out that there may be some potential problems with Singapore’s Darwinian meritocracy. On Sunday, the ST published an article, “System in place to reduce corruption” (reproduced below), in which Law Minister K. Shanmugam addressed my comments head on, concluding that my statements are “absurd”.

On Sunday afternoon itself, I replied to ST Forum with a further explanation of what I meant. Yesterday night, Wednesday, ST Forum confirmed that I should consider alternative publication options for this second letter (reproduced below). I do not want to read too much into why ST decided not to publish my letter. It is the National Day period after all, with many more important items on the agenda. The ST Forum editor has always been very open and straight in our communications.

But since many of you called on me to respond to the Minister, I thought at the very least I should reproduce the whole trail below. Note: The timing of this post has absolutely nothing to do with National Day. I am simply writing this the day after ST Forum confirmed that the letter’s “exclusivity” to them has lapsed.

I also do not want to comment too much on the nature of engagement by the Law Minister. I think all readers of this can make up their own mind as to whether the Minister’s form of engagement is constructive or destructive for our country–or, perhaps, somewhere in between.

I have heard both sides of the story. On Sunday morning, a senior former journalist told me, “I see the Law Minister is using the same old tactics against you”. On Monday morning, a younger, more junior current journalist told me, “I see this kind of vigour in political engagement in other countries particularly in the UK, and sometimes I think, why shouldn’t we have it in Singapore too – as long as citizens are allowed to criticise and respond with equal candour and vigour?”

Perhaps we are in the midst of a long transition, from a gentler form of engagement towards a more robust one, where the government is willing to accept “candour and vigour” in equal measure. Time will tell.

ST Forum: Scandals exposed flaws in our system, Aug 2nd, 2012 (my first letter)

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”.

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.

System in place to reduce corruption, ST, Aug 5th, 2012 (ST article)

Law Minister raises issue in response to feedback and questions from public
There are corrupt individuals in Singapore, as in all societies, but the difference is that an effective system is in place here to keep a tight lid on graft, Law Minister K. Shanmugam said last night.

He also defended Singapore’s system of meritocracy, dismissing the notion that it was a reason for the recent spate of high-profile corruption cases involving public officers.

He told 1,800 residents at a National Day dinner in Chong Pang that he was raising the issue of corruption for two reasons.

First, a letter writer in The Straits Times Forum Page last Thursday referred to recent high-profile corruption cases and suggested that meritocracy was a possible cause of graft. Letter writer Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh argued that meritocracy “may inflate the egos of those who succeed such that their sense of entitlement and privilege can supersede their better judgment”.

Dismissing that suggestion as “absurd”, Mr Shanmugam said: “If the gentleman is right, that in order to reduce corruption, we must do away with meritocracy, does it mean that less meritocracy means less corruption?

“So the table of countries with the highest corruption, they must all be highly meritocratic, and all the countries which rank high on meritocracy must all rank high on the corruption index as well?

“It’s an absurd statement and you can show the absurdity by drawing these conclusions.”

He said the second reason he was raising the issue was that in recent months junior college students and undergraduates had asked him repeatedly why Singapore had so many graft cases if it is supposed to be a clean country, and high pay for public officers should eradicate corruption.
His answer: It is human nature.

“In every society from time immemorial, corruption, falling for temptation, basic vices – these have existed. You see them referred to even in the scriptures, whether you take the Bible or any other scriptures… (or) any history book from the ancient times,” he said.

“It’s because it is basic human nature. We in Singapore somehow are not special, superior beings. We are also human… There is no society in the world, in the past or the present, in which every person is totally clean.” But Singapore was different from other countries, he said. The political leadership had in the last 55 years “emphasised moral rectitude and correct conduct in public service”.

“And if anyone breaches that, he is likely to be found out and severe punishment is certain for those who are guilty,” he added.

Also, the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau, which reports directly to the Prime Minister, is highly effective. It relies on insiders, internal audits and tip-offs, such as in the case of the National Parks Board’s purchase of Brompton foldable bicycles.

Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao first raised the alarm and National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan ordered an internal audit that uncovered discrepancies, “long before specific issues were raised by netizens”, he said.

Likewise, an internal audit uncovered irregularities involving former Chief of Protocol Lim Cheng Hoe, said Mr Shanmugam, who is also Foreign Affairs Minister. “We have created a system which is highly effective. It cannot eradicate bad behaviour but it can substantially reduce corruption… and bad behaviour.”

He said his 20 years practising law taught him that rules and systems cannot eradicate fraud and bad conduct. Singapore will always have its share of corrupt people, he said, citing the late minister Teh Cheang Wan, former minister of state Wee Toon Boon, and former Trade Development Board chief executive officer Yeo Seng Teck.

But corruption here will not be like in other places where people face corrupt officials in their daily lives. He said: “That is why year after year after year, we rank as one of the cleanest, least corrupt societies in the world and we will continue to be so as long as we have this system in place.”

Asked later by reporters about talk that the quick succession of graft cases before the courts was timed after the General Election in May last year, the minister rejected such allegations as “groundless”. He said the cases took place and were found out at different times based on internal audits and tip-offs.
He said: “To suggest there is a linkage to the elections is just absurd.”

Unpublished letter to ST Forum in response to Minister’s comments, Aug 5th, 2012 (my second letter)

I am happy that Law Minister K. Shanmugam has addressed the recent corruption scandals and the possible role of meritocracy in them.

When I wrote to your paper last week, I was merely pointing out potential problems with a Darwinian meritocracy such as ours. I did not suggest that we must “do away with meritocracy”–that would indeed be absurd, as the Minister points out.

The more nuanced point is that we need to maintain meritocracy, but calibrate it such that it reduces the professional gap between the winners and the losers. It should not inflate the egos of those who rise to the top, nor reward them excessively–the two, of course, being linked. They must have a wider sense of civic responsibility and recognise that their ascent is due not only to their individual efforts, but also a range of societal and institutional factors. Calibration could involve, among other things, changes to the relative status of different professions in society, a flattening of organisational structures, as well as new methods of performance assessment, for instance a shift away from a heavy paper-grade focus.

It’s worth noting that other countries are also debating the relative virtues of meritocracy right now. In his recent book, “Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy”, Christopher Hayes unravels the problems with American meritocracy. “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,” he says.

Singapore’s meritocracy is different from America’s and hence has unique strengths and problems. We need to scrutinise them, together, instead of assuming that our system is working fine.


That’s about it. In my upcoming book, “Floating on a Malayan Breeze: Travels in Malaysia and Singapore“, I discuss both Singaporean meritocracy as well as the government’s new form of engagement–how genuine do Singaporeans feel it is? Stay tuned for more details of the book launch.

If you have any thoughts about the pros and cons of Singapore’s meritocracy, or government engagement, please do leave a comment here, anonymous or otherwise. Thanks!

(Image/diagram credit: Michael Weiss, see

14 thoughts on “Response to Law Minister’s comments on Singaporean meritocracy

  1. I don’t agree with you that the recent episodes of corruption had anything to do with our system of meritocracy – its nothing more than wild (and if I may say in agreement with Minister Shanmugam, “absurd”) speculation to suggest that some of the recent sex-for-favours scandals were the result of our system of meritocracy.

    Your second letter raised a broader – and to my mind different issue – about whether we are too reliant on elite governance and (which is a separate point) pay too little attention to equality.

    My view is that the system isn’t broken – we are justified to want elite governance although the concept of “elites” should be a broad one – PM Lee mentioned that in an interesting major speech he gave on the subject some years ago.

    Should we pay more attention to inequalities. Clearly. But we must calibrate the way forward and also not create a culture of “inordinate” entitlements either.

    1. Thanks Lian Chuan. I believe elite governance and inequalities are both related to our system of meritocracy more than you seem to feel, and the corollary of all that is that with a greater concentration of power (elites) and money (inequalities) at the top comes a greater temptation for corrupt acts. Not that a Darwinian meritocracy necessarily leads to more corruption, but simply that it creates a higher propensity, the original point in my first letter. But that’s just my two cents—thanks a lot, I appreciate your views.

      1. I’m still not sure that I buy the argument that meritocracy leads to a higher propensity to corruption, but in any case I think one of the essential features of the Singapore system has been a culture of intolerance to corruption.

        That is an important feature of our system, to me.

      2. I also think, however, in common with DPM Tharman that a strong opposition is good for Singapore.

        We do need some independent checks and balances.

        But of course not US-style gridlock, I hasten to add.

    2. The ministers like to rebut criticisms at a very general and broad level, reciting truisms to instinctively draw you into a red herring like line of defence that makes you look like you disagree with the truism.

      It is thus critical to avoid being drawn into such simplistic associations. An example is when someone points out that the current system is flawed/imperfect, and changes must be made. The minister’s reply will typically be that since the current system is meritocratic, and you are saying that the system is flawed, this equates to you proclaiming that meritocracy is bad.

      Such a line of argument necessarily stops you from criticising the current system, and puts you on the defensive in a losing battle to go ahainst the truism which you appear to be questioning.

      If all else fails, they will say that you are too cynical and negative, and that Singapore cannot afford such a system of politics where every decision and/or institution is being questioned as it will result in US style log-jams.

      But if we examine further and look behind the motivations of such simplistic arguments, right at the heart of it is fear that the established system of “meritocracy” that they have so painstaking climbed, could be threatened if the line of questioning is further entertained.

      How does this “meritocracy” work? It works by first passing this panel of interviewers who assess whether you are suitable for higher office or not. Once you pass this panel, whether in the civil service or in political office, you are proclaimed to be of merit, and hence competent enough henceforth. This judgement will be final and no amount of work performance showing otherwise will change this fact. Not unless you subsequently make the major mistake of disgreeing with those of higher seniority than you.

      How then do you pass this panel? Why, you agree with them of course. Not on everything mind you – that would be sycophantic and a sure way to put yourself out of selection, but on the key issues which you know are sacred cows, those where any form of alternative thoughts will immediatey show you to be unworthy and of no merit whatsoever.

      What kind of candidates will you be likely to attract with such a subjective system of meritocracy?

  2. i venture to say half the system is definitely broken …

    1) the system lets highly qualified people get away with a lot of things as it does not encourage criticism

    2) promotes and fast track only a selected group of people with little consideration of their character. what eventually happens is, those who are good at “advertising” themselves are those who gets promoted fast.

    3) KPI system which is malfunctioning … KPI are drawn up not based on organisation’s objectives and goals, need to solve real lives problems, but are drawn up to promote an individual’s career. revert back to point 2 about those who are good at “advertising” themselves.

    remember, a lot of these so-called meritocally selected individuals are there only because they had good academic credentials at the age of 16-17. There are a lot more, equally talented individuals who did not even have the opportunity to participate in the race.

    Shanmugan can say what he likes but if the system is not broken, why the spate of high profile cases recently? This might just be the tip of the ice-berg. Failure to self-examine is also a potentially fatal cause for elaborately crafted systems to fail.

    I remember someone saying before, somewhere along the lines that you should be grateful when you succeed, because your success is not just due to your achievements, but is also built on the failure of anonymous others.

    I ask Shanmugan, can you categorically say that the vast majority of your officers, if put in a position to be corrupt, and that they, am absolutely sure that in that position to be corrupt, that there is no possibility that they will be caught, will they be corrupt? I will take whatever answer the minister gives in good faith.

  3. @ Yeoh Lian Chuan and Sudir Thomas Vadaketh: “Corruption” in Singapore these days is of non-traditional genre. The subtlety and mastery of such “corruption” is as admirable as it is revolting. To me as a simple citizen, it is even more dangerous when it has become a systemic subversion of core public institutional checks-and-balances.

    The Civil Service is supposed to serve the public. When even the elites within the Civil Service connive with their political masters, isn’t the system already patently “corrupt”?

    Two examples in above article
    (many others abound: MOT-LTA and SMRT fiasco takes the cake):

    (a) Orchard River floods:

    Nov 2007 and Sep 2008 – Higher rainfall than Jun 2010/11 recorded at Triple One Somerset monitor
    Jul 2009 – Orchard ION completed
    Jun 2010 and Jun 2011 – Orchard River (1985 was previous Orchard Road flood)
    Jun 2011 – PUB disclosed Nov 2007 and Sep 2008 rainfall stats

    (b) Nightingale Nursing Home abuse:

    Mid-Mar 2011 – Man sent to Mediacorp (SWF Temasek Holdings is sole shareholder) footage of nursing home staff abuse of his elderly mother
    22 Mar 2011 – Mediacorp forwarded footage to MOH
    12 Apr 2011 – MOH suspended nursing home from new admissions
    7 May 2011 – GE Polling Day (bearing in mind that PAP consistently exhort Singaporeans to assess them based on their perf track record)
    10 Jun 2011 – Channel 8 telecast footage
    12 Jun 2011 – New Health Minister Gan Kim Yong (took over from long-time Health Ministry civil servant and then minister, Mr Khaw Boon Wan) comment: “After completing our investigations, we also wanted to give an opportunity to the nursing home to conduct their own investigations and explain their actions. What is important to us is the safety and well-being of the patients, which was why we immediately suspended the nursing home.” (If you have a relative already resident at this nursing home, would you agree with MOH?)

  4. “In every society from time immemorial, corruption, falling for temptation, basic vices – these have existed. You see them referred to even in the scriptures, whether you take the Bible or any other scriptures… (or) any history book from the ancient times,” he said.

    “It’s because it is basic human nature. We in Singapore somehow are not special, superior beings. We are also human… There is no society in the world, in the past or the present, in which every person is totally clean.”

    How long has this “basic human nature” been around in our country’s civil service & govt which were advertised to be squeaky clean? Is the rise of social media and Singaporeans being less politically apathetic the reason why we are hearing so much about the misconduct in the civil service?

    I believe that meritocracy in school & in the workplace should be two very different things. Those that were great in school might not shine at the workplace and vice versa. To believe that someone who scored straight A’s and was judged on his moral character in his teens to be the same person when he is an world weary adult running an organisation is flawed. With great power comes great responsibility & power is nothing without control.

  5. You touch on problems with bureaucracy in Singapore which is an offshoot of meritocracy. Following the meritocratic ideal and justified as ways of increasing efficiency and introducing competition at every level, today’s Singapore bureaucracy is suffused with language, sensibilities and organizational forms that originate in the corporate world.

    The veritable explosion of clever retorts, imaginative explanations, shallow and non-specific responses, non-answer answers etc., in public engagement these days, point to a bureaucratic culture that seems to be anticipating and deflecting criticism, and betraying a lack of civic responsibility that you talk about.

    Perhaps meritocracy has a shelf life. I believe it served Singapore well and propelled it to where it is today. May be the first generation leaders in the civic institutions understood it in letter and spirit; cherished and protected it because they knew what it was to live in its absence; and benefited from the talent from across the society it was able to produce. But I have doubts about the meritocracy and its attendant bureaucracy that is as entrenched as it is now.

  6. Someone said it best on FB,when he said, your minister argues like a 5 year old. I am trying to figure out how this discussion is going to be followed by our minister who argues like a 5 year old.

  7. “Extreme meritocracy and competition can lead to a winner-take-all-society, with the winners thinking little of others. We need to restore a balance to hard-nosed material pragmatism.” – Heng Swee Keat, education minister, in yesterday’s National Day Rally Speech. Nice to see Mr Heng addressing the potential problems with meritocracy. I wonder if our law minister heard the speech…

  8. A follow-up to my note on Min Heng talking about the problems with meritocracy, seemingly rebutting Min Shanmugam: a larger issue that is quite interesting—are we going to see senior PAP politicians disagreeing on issues in public more often? Earlier in the year, Denise Phua called for higher taxes, seemingly out of step with others in her party. If all this is a sign of things to come, that would be a welcome change. But a cynic might ask–are they disagreeing simply to present the illusion of internal debate, i.e. to prove that there is no groupthink? I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt for now. So–more public disagreements, please. Consensus is overrated.

  9. The Singapore system was broken the day that the government stopped listening to its citizens .
    Also having government salaries and bonuses based on GDP is the biggest flaw , quantity not quality is what defines this .
    Sorry to say Singapore politicians and government have little experience , after all its only a city state , what is there really the manage compared to real countries .

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