I refer to several letters, in particular Dr Syed Alwi Ahmad's letter about Malay Singaporeans in the Singapore Armed Forces and M Ahmad's letter concerning Chinese chauvinism in Singapore. This letter is not so much a response to their ideas or opinions but an attempt to bring to light certain related issues that may have gone unobserved on both sides of the causeway.
Now, I do not wish to speculate on the logic that drives M Ahmad for I do not know him personally. But his choice and tone of words thus far is emotionally loaded, more suited to politicising than intellectual discourse. His swift condemnation of the defence policy in Singapore suggests a move of realpolitik, in so far as to divert attention from the heart of the matter.
Typically, only politicians are skilled at turning domestic ills into a sudden displeasure of foreign evils. It is a common brew, one suited for the masses. And by this measure, if M Ahmad does more of this, he will succeed.
Further, I am not indifferent to the good doctor (Syed Alwi) because he makes rather convincing arguments. Like him, I served in the Singapore Army but I am not Malay; in fact I am of a smaller minority, of fewer than one thousand Pakistani Singaporeans. On my ID card, it reads 'Others'.
Unlike him, I was deployed in highly sensitive areas a.k.a. Military Intelligence including a three-month posting to Haifa, Israel. In essence, our government's decision to engage Israel was part merit one should learn from the best, and part resource they were willing to teach us at a fraction of the cost. The decision to place me in such a role is something I myself will truly never know. So, you can make your own assumptions/conclusions.
The basis for my letter is to highlight one thing: meritocracy and perhaps a little dabble on marginalisation, for these two issues are inextricably linked. Like many enlightened Asians, I am very much in favour of a meritocractic society. The force behind it is 'life-enhancing' as it nourishes mankind and endeavours us to a better time and place.
Over time, applying merit in all walks of life achieves superlative effects that are hard to beat, though not all players can win. And from a socialist viewpoint, the few losers are still losers nonetheless, and ought to be assisted by the state - a case of human compassion having limits!
For one, I do not believe that there is at present a truly meritocratic society anywhere on the planet. Not the US, nor Europe, not even Australia and Singapore. By this I posit that most Western societies do not approach meritocracy on a universal basis. There are strong cultural and religious biases that enforce the Anglo-Saxon difference over non-Westerners, especially in the realm of education and work performance.
These societies may embrace the ideal but much of it, at best, excludes others whom they cannot identify with in the context of their histories and civilisations. Such that when they elect a leader or decide on a CEO, these are probably the best candidates among their own peoples. Can they ever see Asians or Africans as part of them? It's a tough question.
Jeffrey Sachs of Harvard addressed a forum when I was in business school and advocated, 'A tolerant society, one that readily welcomes immigrants, is not necessarily an inclusive society. It's one thing to open up borders, it's another to share the cake'. Here are other bitter truths:
We have yet to see a non-white CEOs and/or board member in 20 of the largest corporations in Australia. In the US, Asian executives have wider participation but then again most 'old' companies are clearly out of bounds. Forget about Europe, vestiges of a 19th century mindset still exist in its boardrooms.
The French would choke at the thought of an American CEO, how can they accept others? We know that German companies, even when operating in Asia, are notorious for putting local managers through German language/culture lessons. All these practices reinforce the deep-seeded nature of an 'us and them' phenomenon.
Secondly, since September 11, America has inherited Europe's five-century old paranoia of Islam. This opens up another dimension. Suffice it to say that many a Muslim, Middle-Eastern, North African or otherwise with appropriate credentials will likely be turned away out of 'security risk' if a Chinese or Vietnamese of similar credentials were found.
And this prejudice is not simply limited to the relationship between Islam and Christianity. Religious difference is now having a go at distorting meritocracy in all Western societies. Thousands face, if not already, the looming threat of being marginalised.
Against this trend, Singapore's example is somewhat more equal and benign. Interestingly today, the Indian minority, not the Chinese as most people would like to believe, seem to be the over- achievers. This means that Indians are over-represented in political office and in the private sector vis--vis their proportionate numbers.
Every indicator of a society's well-being from GDP per capita, savings and investment, education, employment, the environment, medical to public services all point towards Singapore's successful formula, of which meritocracy is a key component.
For argument's sake what if, by the virtues of meritocracy, it were the Malays or the Indians that dominated Singapore's economy, passed its laws, ran the police and army, and controlled all institutions? Will the PAP or the Chinese-educated majority accept these terms? Will meritocracy still be the order of the day and doctrine of the government? Don't answer, just think about it if you have an answer, please keep it to yourself!
Across the board, cutting through race, class and even gender, meritocracy has the legs to empower a society to run a good, if not great race. But meritocracy can be taken too far, and I think this is where Singapore has erred. It should be just one of our many values and not be applied clinically. For example, requiring prospective ministers to have post-graduate degrees or prioritising a child's classroom admission on the mother's record in social/charity work.
Some of these metrics are just off the charts, and smack of a rigidness that have little to do with the competitive spirit. And the nett result is predictable aspiring ministers take on a further one to two years of formal education and mothers who have never contemplated volunteering for charity do so to pick up the minimum required time. Both are honourable deeds, but done for the wrong reasons. A dysfunction sometime in the near future thus becomes imminent.
One could ask at this juncture - what is the goal here? Is it an absolute meritocracy where there is no room for bias on subjective nuances or is it the blurring of race, class and gender differences till it reaches a socialist utopia? Both outcomes look pretty scary to me and cast my mind to a futuristic Gattaca and Fahrenheit 457.
I know that in the case of Singapore, its early leaders had applied some crude methods, like fusing compliance and meritocracy that almost killed off individualism. As a teenager in the 80s, my inquisitive behaviour was considered 'rebellious'. Today, the school system can safely call me 'an expressive and creative student'.
And everyone, including my family, bought into our leaders' rhetoric at the time. There were even government broadcasts on TV championing the productivity mantra 'Good Better Best, Never Let It Rest, Till Your Good Is Better, And Your Better Best!' Into my adolescence, my father was to be constantly irritated by my norms, and would ask 'Why do you have to be so different?' to which I had no answer.
Today, the Singapore government wants each of us to be different. Why? The global economy demands it. Management theory too has several terms for it: comparative advantage, differentiation, first mover etc etc.
Malaysia may be a long way off from dismantling the NEP and embracing meritocracy but chances are it's not what we write here that will make it happen. Nor will it come from a sudden realisation for social justice. Most likely, it will be initiated by demands from inequitable economic forces that seem to dictate the policies of all sound governments in our inter-connected world. And technology will speed up this process.