Multiracialism and Meritocracy: Singapore's Approach to Race and Inequality

By Moore, R. Quinn | Review of Social Economy, September 2000 | Go to article overview

Multiracialism and Meritocracy: Singapore's Approach to Race and Inequality


Moore, R. Quinn, Review of Social Economy


Abstract This paper characterizes Singapore's efforts to tackle the problem of persistent racial inequality in terms of the notion of fair meritocracy. Singapore's race policy attempts to level the playing field through its unique race-based self-help organizations and a comprehensive, racially integrated, public housing program. Individuals are then sorted by the ostensibly objective mechanism of a standardized test based educational system. The social and economic implications of this policy are examined and, using summary data from the 1980 and 1990 censuses, the extent to which Singapore has been successful in creating a fair multiracial meritocracy is assessed.

Keywords: Inequality, meritocracy, race, Singapore, education, housing

I. INTRODUCTION

Throughout much of the world, there has been a strong ideological attachment to the desirability of procedural equality. The logic runs that if the rules are not the same for everyone, the system is simply "not fair." However in multiracial, multiethnic, or otherwise diverse societies, procedural equality often has come under fire when it has not yielded equality of results. Fair meritocracy is an ideological attempt to reconcile these two notions of equality. Proponents of fair meritocracy argue that unjust inequality is endemic to strict procedural equality, given the inherited advantages of privileged groups. Inherited wealth, educational advantages, nepotism, and benefits from discrimination against other groups, create a "cruel meritocracy" that does not truly reflect the talent and hard work of all individuals.

To counter this meritocratic distortion, fair meritocracy dictates that societies should strive for "fair" equal opportunity in which inherited advantages or disadvantages are compensated for. In other words, efforts should be made to level the playing field for all individuals before competition begins. The resulting meritocracy should yield what is deemed a justly stratified society, and simultaneously reflect both equality of results and procedural equality. Although this approach is ideologically appealing, there are significant obstacles to its practical application, namely the difficulty of removing the socially entrenched advantages of the privileged and the difficulty in assessing when stratification is truly merit based given that any privileged group is likely to claim that the wealth distribution is fair.

Singapore represents a practical, if imperfect, attempt at applying "fair" meritocracy to a multiracial society. Throughout its independence and dramatic economic growth, Singapore has maintained a strict adherence to the ideal of a procedurally equal meritocracy, while simultaneously promoting multiracialism as a fundamental national ideal. The struggle to maintain these occasionally conflicting ideals has yielded an interesting mix of policies that seek to sort individuals objectively while allowing racial groups to compensate for their perceived social and economic disadvantages. Singapore is somewhat unique in actively seeking to achieve a fair meritocracy. However, this system is hampered by the seemingly universal problem of ethnic favoritism and entrenched social advantage. While it would be difficult to claim that Singapore has achieved fair multiracial meritocracy, their efforts provide a valuable example.

II. THE CHARACTERISTICS OF SINGAPORE'S RACIAL GROUPS

Before discussing the specifics of Singapore's racial policy, it is useful to outline the economic and social characteristics of each racial group and to discuss the ideological roots of Singapore's philosophy toward race and meritocracy.

Singapore was originally inhabited by a small group of Malays engaged in agricultural pursuits. The early nineteenth-century decision by the British to convert Singapore into a port to rival Jakarta initiated a huge influx of workers from throughout the region and around the globe. …

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