Sacrifices at the Altar of Meritocracy

The Singapore success story is a well known one. Beginning from independence in 1965, it is the ultimate rags-to-riches story of any nation. The city-state's shimmering skyscrapers, sterile public trains, and mammoth shopping malls testify to the fact that it worships unapologetically at the alter of capitalism, fervent in its belief in that it is unique and must thus behave so. >>

It is a well known success story because it is often told in numbers. Numbers like the country's GDP per capita, which grew from US$427 in 1960 to US$29,474 in 2006, make people sit up and notice. Other numbers like the rate of homeownership, over 90 per cent, one of the highest in the world and its reserves, from several billion in 1981 to about US$115 billion today, inspire awe among developed and developing countries alike. More recent numbers include 77,000; the number of millionaires in Singapore in 2008.

But behind the big success story that is told around the world are thousands of other smaller stories. Stories like those of Mohamed Idris, a delivery driver who struggles to raise his family of six on a salary of S$1200 (616 Euros). Or Madam Sim Lee Wah, a 68 year old woman living alone on S$360 a month; or Fitri Yusof a single mother working two jobs to send her two boys to school because she does do not qualify for financial aid; or the numerous aged who sleep out in the open because they have no home or family to return to.

What is interesting about these stories is the way they are told in Singapore. You see, these stories do not exist because there is no official poverty line in Singapore. However, you would be mistaken to think that the People's Action Party (PAP) government or the national newspapers would like to hush these stories up. Nothing could be further from the truth. The government candidly admits that Singaporeans in need of financial aid has risen from 14,300 in 2001 to 22,500 in 2002 and 31,570 in 2003 and the amount given out has increased from S$14.6m in financial year 2001 to S$27m in 2003.

This increase is, however, pittance given the country's enormous wealth. Public assistance schemes only dish out S$950 to a family of four each month, and up to S$1,150 to a family of five and more. Given that Singapore's annual inflation rate hit a 25-year high of 6.6 per cent in January 2008, these sums are barely enough to get by on. Why is so little doled to the poor?

Things get even more bizarre with the exchange between a ruling-party backbencher and the Minister for Community, Youth and Sports. When asked if people on Public Assistance schemes had enough money left to buy food after paying off rent and utility bills, the Minister retorted, "How much do you want? Do you want three meals in a hawker centre, food court or restaurant?"

It would be too easy to dismiss the ruling-party as heartless, and it would be wrong too. There are a variety of public assistance schemes which enable the needy to survive, barely. The real question is why welfare programmes in Singapore are spread out over a variety of schemes, with each worth only a small amount?

To answer this question, one has to go straight to the heart of the ideology of meritocracy in Singapore. Preserving the myth of meritocracy is becoming increasingly important as the influx of foreign talent challenge locals for jobs. Meritocracy is one of the few reasonable arguments left to counter calls for protectionism and nationalism.

As such, people are poor not because of socio-economic circumstances or poverty cycle because this would be an indictment of meritocracy. They are poor because they lack certain individual qualities like industriousness, discipline and frugality. With meritocracy, poverty is no longer a systemic or structural problem but an individualized one. One is either of merit or without. The rewards will be distributed accordingly.

Hence, while there is no official poverty line, the poor are not hidden away by the state. Quite the opposite; they are put in the limelight and discussed at great lengths in Parliament. They made highly visible in order to show that real meritocracy is at work in Singapore. For how can there be real meritocracy unless real people are suffering? Just like we know capitalism is at work when competitors wilt away, we also know meritocracy is working when people without merit are not rewarded.

Thus while the shiny Singapore success story is an ode to hyper-capitalism and globalization, there are a thousand other stories that often do not get told beyond these shores. These stories are stories of sacrifice. Sacrifices at the altar of the ideology of meritocracy.