Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Why I Oppose Pure Meritocracy

Written by johnleemk on 10:49:52 pm Dec 22, 2008.

A few days ago, I read a story in the Straits Times about Malay supremacy. The article painted the situation in Malaysia as primarily a choice between Malay supremacy and meritocracy, with not much room in between, and noted that although many liberal Malays are no fans of Malay supremacy, neither are they willing to accept meritocracy. And I for one agree with these Malays: in modern Malaysia, there is no place for a pure meritocracy.

What does meritocracy imply? It suggests that the only way people can rise or fall is on merit. If you are competent, you rise; if you cannot do your job, you fall. We might analogise it to a race: the fastest wins. Only if you work hard enough and have enough talent can you succeed.

The problem with the athletic analogy is that it doesn't apply to society as well as you might think. In pretty much every society, your starting point in life is determined in some way by how successful your parents were. Even if you are the fastest runner in the world, if you start a kilometre behind, you're not very likely to succeed. And the problem compounds over generations: the more disadvantaged people are likely to bequeath to their descendants a legacy of falling even further behind. Life is not really a fair race.

That in itself is no excuse for ignoring the merits of, well, merit. Even if we understand the injustice behind evaluating people based on accomplishment alone, it doesn't change the fact that in the here and now, we will always need somebody to get the job done. Our efforts to help those who have fallen behind cannot be allowed to unduly burden others wo are still moving forward: we should not be holding back those in front, but rather helping ahead those who lag behind.

So, enough analogising; the fact is, our terribly inegalitarian society is a far from ideal place for meritocracy. Our history records well how much the British did to impede the progress of different communities. The rural villages lagged behind the urban towns; the Malays and Indians were largely left to stagnate. We cannot fairly judge the ability and talent of Malaysians when well over half the country is innately disadvantaged from the start in any competition we have.

The problem with the present condition of things is that our policies to address these inequities simply do not work, for two reasons. The first is that they do not really or honestly sort the disadvantaged from the well-off; they just look at your race. The second is that their structure in of itself does little to encourage the Malays or any other disadvantaged group of Malaysians to break out of the poverty trap. So instead of addressing the problems we face, the New Economic Policy and its associated policies have actually worsened them.

Now, it is true that many Malays/bumiputra are economically impoverished and starved of opportunity. But the same can be said for the Indian community as well. And the same fallacious arguments used to dismiss the need for aid to the Indians — arguing that since Ananda Krishnan is so well off, clearly the Indians don't need any help — apply equally well to the Malays. A Malay millionaire doesn't need any help sending his kids to university or starting his own business, and he should not have any right to expect such help from the public purse — plain and simple. The money we presently spend subsidising the Malay rich — who often have disproportionate access to the opportunities we reserve for the disadvantaged Malays anyway — could help so many more genuinely needy bumiputra.

And many of our present policies are subsidising nothing productive at all; instead of encouraging the disadvantaged to better themselves, they encourage corruption and inefficiency. What is efficient or educational about handing out free import permits (APs) to random Malays? All they'll do is resell them to someone who can actually use those permits, and get a free lunch. We would be far better off if we promised a free university education to every straight A SPM and STPM scorer with a family income of less than RM20,000 a year.

Considering the present state of things, that is the exact kind of policy we should be looking into. Pure Malay supremacy is folly; it is little more than systematic racism. (It should be rather obvious why Malay supremacists have such a hard time finding serious public Malay intellectuals willing to defend their point of view.) But pure meritocracy is equally foolish, because it assumes everyone is starting from the same position, which they are patently not in modern Malaysian society. We should develop policies which assist and reward the disadvantaged of our society in their efforts to pull themselves out of poverty.

To illustrate, let us look at three examples — three possible policies. Under Malay supremacy, we might only award public scholarships to Malays (a point of view which actually still has some currency and has been brought up in Parliament, even though similar positions have been ruled unconstitutional under Article 153). Under meritocracy, we would only award public scholarships to the brightest students in the country. Under a policy which promotes equality of opportunity, we would mainly award public scholarships to the brightest poor students in the country; no rich people need apply.

The ideal policy is thus a meld of meritocracy with promoting the advancement of the disadvantaged. The Straits Times is trying to paint us into a false dilemma. It is surely in the interest of many radicals on either side of the debate to argue either for pure Malay hegemony or pure meritocracy. But neither position can best serve the interests of Malaysians. Both, in some way, discriminate against those who are of the wrong parentage. Under Malay supremacy, if your parents are not Malay, tough luck. Under meritocracy, if your parents are not rich, tough luck. Ultimately, the best policy is that which facilitates access to more opportunities — that which benefits the poorest and least fortunate of us all, regardless of their background.

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