The Merriam-Webster dictionary refers to meritocracy as a “system, organisation, or society in which people are chosen and moved into positions of success, power, and influence on the basis of their demonstrated abilities and merit”. In public discourse, the promise of equality in terms of social mobility, opportunity, recognition and social justice embedded in merit is generally agreeable with people’s basic moral understandings; in recent times, widening social inequality (perceived or otherwise) in Singapore has renewed calls for a rethink of meritocracy.
Since Singapore’s independence, a meritocratic system has been the nation’s main principle of governance and this has allowed many Singaporeans to move up the social ladder, resulting in high standards of living and the nation’s very high GDP per capita figures1 in the world2. While Singapore is recognised as a global financial hub, there are growing concerns about social mobility and the perpetuation of class divides. For instance, academically gifted students in Singapore move along a certain pathway and are more likely to benefit socio-economically from scholarship and career opportunities. After attaining some measure of success, these individuals invest heavily in their children’s educational pathways compared to others and a cycle of socio-economic achievement is perpetuated within certain segments of society.
There is a temptation for those of us to come out thinking that we are the “winners” of this meritocratic system primarily because we have made the right choices and are more disciplined and hardworking than others. Christian author and minister Morgan Guyton shares that such statements should never come out of the mouth of a Christian because our most basic theological conviction is that everything in life is a gift from God: “The moralistic meritocracy that so many Christians today proudly espouse is exactly what the Christian doctrine of our justification by God’s grace is supposed to protect us against.”3
The goal of a meritocratic endeavour is to ascend a ladder, to work your way up to successful outcomes. This is clearly at odds with the notion that we are sinners saved by grace through faith, revealed by Jesus’ death on the cross for our sins—we cannot earn our salvation; it is entirely God’s grace, his free, undeserved favour to mankind.
Some of us might even consider Ephesians 2:8-9 (NIV), “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast,” only for salvation, and revert to a meritocratic mindset for everything else. These could include overloading children with unnecessary enrichment classes or moving homes to increase chances of enrolling into a particular school. The danger arises when we work hard for and take credit for achievements and success in school, ministry and career.
Jillian Lee, Principal of Sterling Campus, a Christian organisation that offers resources for faith-life integration, worldview development, and redemptive action, teaches her students about their role (as people redeemed by God’s grace) in society: “I got my students to fold paper airplanes in a competition to see whose plane would go the furthest but rigged it by telling a few of them in advance to look up how to fold the best planes. The game highlights how some get an advantage over others (through tuition, enrichment classes and social-cultural capital) in standardised tests (or the equivalent) which does not consider other strengths like compassion and the ability to relate well to others.”4
After the exercise, the students discussed how they were so much a part of the system (that they were blinded to the fact that the odds were stacked against those from a lower socio-economic stratum) and made a commitment to partner God to image justice into the world (imago Dei) and not rely on the government alone to fix things.
The Gini coefficient, used to analyse income equality (where a coefficient of 0 reflects total income equality and a coefficient of 1 reflects total income inequality), in Singapore has decreased from 0.41 in 2012 to 0.36 in 20215. Data from Oxfam’s Inequality Index (which measures a country’s commitment to reducing inequality) indicates that Singapore has moved up the index significantly in recent times6. The improvement in scores reflects governmental commitment and policies in public services, tax and labour rights to reducing inequality, but will that be enough? What is the Church’s and, more importantly, our response to the inequality we see around us in society?
Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong recently called on Singaporeans to offer ideas to shape the future of Singapore as part of a Forward Singapore roadmap to be released in the middle of 2023 that will set out both policy recommendations and how various parts of society can better contribute to the nation’s shared goals, based on its values of a united people and a society that is just and equal.
He shared: “I hope to see a society and system that benefits many, not a few; that rewards a wide variety of talents, not a conventional or narrow few; that values and celebrates all individuals for who they are and what they can achieve; and provides all with opportunities to do better throughout their lives…We cannot abandon meritocracy, but I believe we can improve it and make ours a more open and compassionate meritocracy.”7
Have we bought so deeply into the meritocratic mindset that we have forgotten to be more open and compassionate to meet the real needs of people who have not benefitted as much from society’s progress? As God’s elect, let us remember Ephesians 2:10 (NIV), “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” We have been saved from the wrath that we rightly deserve and are being made into something beautiful—becoming active in good works—for his purposes and glory and as a united church community.
Let us consider how we may catalyse conversations in church and society to spur one another on toward love and good deeds, living as righteous people under grace for the benefit of others instead of self-glorification. What do we need to repent of and what work is the Lord stirring in our hearts to undertake today?
4 From personal interviews with Jillian Lee, shared with permission.