The shameful word 'Meritocracy'

By Chew Wei Shan

I’ve watched the viral CNA Insider video over and over, recognising in it all the same characters I used to see in the classroom when I was a secondary school teacher. It’s been 7 months since I quit the service, but there’s been a thorn in my side that never left me, one I’ve been wanting to write about for many years –– the shameful word, “meritocracy”.

Meritocracy. Our country’s favourite word. We’ve heard it every day through all our formative years, here on our utopian island. Every National Day we sing meritocracy, meritocracy. Every character and citizenship lesson in school is meritocracy, meritocracy. Every speech from our leaders is meritocracy, meritocracy.

Just last year, PM Lee said of Halimah Yacob’s presidency, “… it is amazing. It shows what Singapore is –– multiracial, meritocratic, one flag, one people. That is what makes us Singaporean. It is not just resonant rhetoric, or a warm, fuzzy feeling.”

As children, we take meritocracy as gospel truth. I know I had full faith in it. And much later, in the years I spent teaching, I discovered that most children still do… no matter their background.

Privileged kids look at themselves and believe their successes are due to their own intellect and talent. Underprivileged kids look at themselves and believe that their failures are a result of an innate lack. Then, they look at each other… and form all kinds of misguided impressions. Sometimes, these are dangerous, intolerant impressions that could stay with them forever. I am sad to report that it gets far worse; the CNA video only scratches the surface.


Way back in secondary school, I once found myself tongue-tied in a canteen-table argument about race and eugenics. Here are some snatches of it, to the best of my memory:

“The hard truth is some races are just dumber.”

“You can see it with your own eyes, when we compete against the shitty schools.”

“People are poor because they don’t work hard enough.”

“Or they’re just not very smart. Hierarchy is necessary; not everybody can be at the top.”

“Didn’t Singapore have some policy where only smart people can have babies? Hard to swallow, but you gotta admit it’s for a greater good." **

These were girls I looked up to –– high-flyers, all-rounders. They were girls whose essays were always photocopied and distributed for their perfect coherence and flawless logic. Later that same year, MP Wee Siew Kim’s Rafflesian daughter Wee Shu Min famously blogged, “get out of my elite uncaring face”.

Almost a decade later I see it all over again, but this time as a teacher –– the Express kids who mock their NA / NT peers’ poor English… the eye-rolls, the cold shoulders, the loud comparing of grades, of JC plans… the Starbucks after school, the rushing home for violin lessons.

But who is to blame?

If you tell a bunch of high-achieving privileged kids all their lives that their system is fair and founded on meritocracy, logic leads them to elitism and bigotry.

If you tell a bunch of failing underprivileged kids all their lives that their system is fair and founded on meritocracy, logic leads them to self-loathing and an internalised inferiority.


Even in primary school, when we began interacting with children from other schools at camps and competitions, we already started to wonder why famously good schools were full of Chinese children, and lesser-known schools were full of children from ethnic minorities.

We were never taught the concept of privilege. Sure, we knew we were more fortunate than others, but we didn’t really, truly, know. Our elitist attitudes were never addressed, unpacked, torn down. Every morning we sang, “when Stamford Raffles held the torch / that cast Promethean flame” and nobody told us this was the same Raffles who once said, “the lazy Malay… is so indolent, that when he has rice, nothing will induce him to work.” Nobody taught us how the myth of the lazy native was inherited from bitter colonial oppressors, from a time indigenous Malayans rightfully refused to be enslaved. Nobody debunked or addressed hurtful stereotypes that echoed in our school courtyards and corridors. Nobody taught us how our wealth gap is widened by our policies. Nobody taught us about systemic discrimination. Nobody told us that there were kids our age working odd jobs after school to help their parents make ends meet. We thought we were winners, fair and square. Losers were losers because they were lazy and stupid. And even today, as adults, many of my peers continue to believe this.

Yes, we did have community outreach programmes. They brought us to Cambodia, Laos, Burma… to interact with village children whose lives were bereft of comfort and opportunity. Build them a classroom or library by stacking some bricks. Dab our sweaty foreheads under their Third World sun. Give ourselves a great pat on the back. On our return we’d sit in circles at Changi Airport and reflect on how lucky we were, that we had clean carpets and air-conditioning, that Singaporean children had fair opportunity, social mobility… meritocracy.


I could go on forever, but I’ll wrap up with just two little episodes from my teaching years that will stay with me for a long time:

1. A debate tournament I accompanied some kids to, about 2 years ago. Our team of 14-15 year-olds had to hold their own in a spontaneous round, which meant no help from teachers. We were a neighbourhood school, up against an elite school. The motion went something like, “This house believes we should teach our children they have complete control over all their successes and failures.”

None of them –– neither the rich kids nor my own students, some from very humble backgrounds and broken homes –– spoke about privilege. None questioned the soundness of our system. It never even crossed their minds. Had they always believed that whatever they had was all they deserved?

2.My first time bringing a handful of neighbourhood school kids to a play, at the Esplanade Theatre Studio. They were 15 and for all of them, it was their first play ever. For some it was their first time at the Esplanade at all. After the play we walked out onto the roof garden for a post-show discussion. Everyone gasped and whipped out their cameras.

“What?! This is Singapore?!!”

“I thought the postcards were all like some next level Photoshop skill level 999 shit.”

“Omg look look look, that thing really looks like a boat with 3 legs.”

Shocked, I asked if they had really never seen our skyline ever before, in the flesh.

“For what we go hang out outside Bukit Panjang, cher? So far.”


Teachers in Singapore are strictly instructed to avoid discussing race, religion, class and sexuality in the classroom. Any potentially divisive topic is taboo. In many schools, this is enforced –– a number of us have received a firm dressing-down for allowing such conversations to take place. Yet, you want us to teach empathy? Justice? Integrity? Inter-everything love and understanding? In every ministry-sanctioned Powerpoint Presentation we preach respect and harmony and deplore discrimination, but each time we sing of meritocracy and ignore privilege, we only reinforce a divide.

Children connect these imperfect dots and conclude that their fate is written in their DNA. That these academic streams are their identity. That if they succeed, it is their doing alone. That if they fail, it is all their fault.

And this is the underbelly of our glittering meritocracy. In the shadow of every Starbucks cup and violin lesson is a kid who bought and read all my literature texts even though the subject wouldn’t be offered to her stream in the next year. A kid who writes the most moving poetry in horribly broken grammar. A kid who calls me at 2am, standing on the precipice, ready to jump because he is useless and stupid.

Well done, Singapore. You keep singing your songs.

This first appeared as a post on the Facebook page of Miss Chew Wei Shan on 4 October 2018. Do join in the discussion over there if you have thoughts to share.


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