Gilbert Goh shows up meritocracy S’pore style

In Political governance, Public Administration on 11/08/2013 at 4:41 am

(Or “Meritocracy isn’t about opportunity or equality or talent, it’s about keeping the masses away from power, discuss” )

When one GCT spoke about “Meritocracy good, elitism bad” to an old RI audience recently, he got a lot of flack from the usual suspects (mostly not from RI). Interestingly, I got the impression that they all shared a common assumption: meritocracy is all about fairness and equality of opportunity, giving the talented poor or deprived the opportunity to do well. Where they disagreed was on the way the PAP govt defines meritocracy and talent, and how well meritocracy works in practice.

But let’s start with someone who doesn’t fit into the PAP govt’s mould of meritocratic talent.

Gilbert Goh only has A levels from a non-elite school (St Andrew’s or CJC I assume?) and a diploma in counseling. He doesn’t have a salary of millions, he depends on donations to fund his work of helping the unemployed and underemployed.

Yet three times in the last seven months, this fifty-something S’porean has been able to bring out the crowds onto Hong Lim Park, the latest on National Day. GG got 700 S’poreans out onto Hong Lim to celebrate National Day in a way that is not “right”. True, it was much smaller than the last two occasions (about 5,000 each time) when he called for a gathering, but 700 with only about a week’s notice is pretty decent by any S’porean standard.

Aside, perhaps he might to rethink his panel of speakers. Quite a few have appeared in earlier events, and the potential audience might be put off by hearing the same old themes articulated by the same old people. And maybe for future “celebrations”, he should dispense with the speeches, and let the let the music and spirit speak.)

He is not without controversy. Juz goggle what happened before the first two events. And the run up to the last event was juz as shambolic  This wickedly funny piece sums it all up: What’s been planned for the gathering? The organisers also “want to take this opportunity in our event to support our local cartoonist Leslie Chew who has been charged by the authorities”. Erm… you mean we are gathering to make a political statement and wade into legal territory? Isn’t this adding contempt to the contempt of court charges filed against Leslie Chew?

Then in an FB post on early Saturday, Mr Goh said he was going to drop the “reclaim Singapore’’ slogan as it was “too strong”. Good. Maybe we’ll get back to celebrating National Day.

Then, to add to the confusion, Mr Goh said in another FB post on Sunday evening that the event will also be a dedication to “our late President Mr Ong Teng Cheong who spoke up boldly for us Singaporeans”. Hmm. Why bring in the late President? Is he referring to the dispute Mr Ong had with the G over the access of information regarding Singapore’s financial reserves in the late 1990s?

It seems that the organisers are trying to pitch its event “right’’. Celebrate National Day yet keep something “political’’ about the event.

Now why can’t we gather just to sing some old but heart warming National Day songs? Or do a Pink Dot style event with singing and dancing? Or watch a big-screen TV set broadcasting the parade we didn’t have tickets for?

Oh wait! Now he’s saying there will be singing of songs and face-painting et cetera. In fact, he’s calling a press conference on Wednesday to talk about the event. Maybe by that time we’ll know exactly what this Aug 9 event is about.

(The official programme)

Still when scholars like PM, DPMs, Kee Chui etc (from the PAP side), and (from the non Dark  non White side) Tan Jee Say and the NSP’s Dynamic Duo (Tony and Hazel); Show Mao and  s/o JBJ (Harvard and Cambridge scholarships respectively); and Tan Kin Lian* (he is an actuary) have difficulty enthusing S’poreans** about the nation’s well being, this A levels guy can do it. He can bring out the crowds.

And unlike the Opposition, he had the courage to call for a rally to protest the population White Paper. He also showed his judgement in thinking that he could bring out a decent crowd that would make the govt listen. He had the smaller opposition parties rushing to join him, parties led by those trained in same ways and places as the PAP leaders.

So three cheers for him. And make a donation to A worthy cause.

Finally, since we’re on meritocracy, the truth about how our meritocratic system came about. It ain’t from the PRC communists as Berrie Bear claims. It came as most things S’porean (like our flag) from the British. Our meritocracy has its roots in the exams-based system for entry into the highest ranks of the British civil service.

And meritocracy wasn’t (ain’t?) about fairness, or opportunity, or about using the best talent. It had its origins in maintaining the status quo in Victorian Britain. Let me explain.

Charles Trevelyan introduced meritocracy into the British civil service in the 19th century. He got the idea from the Chinese imperial exam system. Hence the use of the term “mandarins” for the most senior British civil servants especially those in the Foreign Office, Home Office, Treasury and Cabinet Office.

“He wanted young people to be chosen who had merit – the very best,” says [Prof John Greenaway from the University of East Anglia]. “But he believed that the best were to be found in the gentry, in the professional classes. As the 19th Century went on, the education system mirrored the social system. The universities in Oxford and Cambridge and public schools became the preserve of the gentry and the professional classes – clergy and lawyers and so on.” [Doesn’t this sound familiar? Its a line that the “noise” say about the PAP’s idea of meritocracy: comes from a certain self-perpetuating group.]

Education locked in what used to be patronage, replacing it in a way that was acceptable to the conservatives who had been fearing that these exams would undermine the social fabric of the country.

From then on, upper class simpletons didn’t get jobs in the civil service.

There were exams for all – slightly easier ones for the “inferior roles” and harder ones for the “superior” policy-making ones.

And that’s how it remained. I know this to my cost, having failed to get one of those superior jobs at the Treasury some 30 years ago. I now know I have Trevelyan to thank for that. [The “I” in question works for the FT, a place not known for employing dumbos.]

So next time anyone, PAP or Jedi or juz plain stupid kay poh pontificate about “meritocracy”, remember the above passage. It was (and is?) meant to entrench the existing order, not make it more democratic or equal. At best, it opens opportunities for 6talented lesser mortals.

*I helped out the minibonders.

**TKL and s/o are so bad that they lost their election deposits.

  1. I received your new post 4 hours after I received this-
    Lee Kuan Yew strikes again: Malaysia on the Defensive Mode
    Lee Kuan Yew, the so-called ‘founding father’, is taken as gospel truth by those who worship him – such as the Chinese Malaysians – and as nothing but another attempt to drive a wedge between the various communities in Malaysia by others who detest him.
    I wonder what our Malaysian Chinese think of Peanuts King,I am sure they wish too that they have a Peanuts Lady to spend the Peanuts for them!
    I respect the wishes of our Chinese Malaysian friends,and may Almighty God Allah Jehovah 唯一的全能神安拉御和華 {華渚} grant them the wishes ASAP,so that their brothers /sisters MPs in Sour country may return.

  2. info – gilbert goh’s wife and 20-year-old daughter are permanent residents in sydney, down under.

  3. that’s ex-wife. they’re divorced. the ex seems to have close relatives in oz. he visits a couple months each year to spend time with his kid. from his blogging it appears rooted in economic reasons. he was unemployed for a few years (after 2001-2003 recession?) and later took on jobs with much lower pay than the family was used to, e.g. vwo, counsellor, etc. women are all basically alike — they need security especially with children around. worse if there’s drastic downgrade in lifestyle and no light at end of tunnel. Even most sinkie guys can’t take it, don’t talk about women. no brainer for anybody to seek greener pastures for sake of children and if it’s easy to get residentship with family connections and jobs with higher salary and less stressful life for the kids. loyalty is to your own first, then to the community and then to the country. without hope and assurance for you & your children, you won’t give a damn about the country.

  4. Cutting to the chase in a speech addressed to more than 1,600 People’s Action Party (PAP) activists, Lee (Hsien Loong) noted, “You have a choice. You can look at wealth – they got money, you give them. You want that? You have another choice. You have connections, you give them. Some countries do that. I don’t think that’s the Singapore you want.”

    And they have just promoted Lim Boon Heng to the Chair at Temasek. They can then blame him for all the failed investments because he is the best man with the excuse that he knows nothing about finance. And the CEO is also the best person for the job because she is the wife andd do not need to know much about finance either.

  5. […] Dominique’s Desk: Happy 48th Birthday Singapore – Thoughts of a Cynical Investor: Gilbert Goh shows up meritocracy S’pore style – The Sun Shines on Singapore: National Day, Celebration not Protest – wise mental […]

  6. oh i see … meritocracy is aristocracy with exams.

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