Meritocracy is not immune to prejudices and errors; therefore, it needs to be continuously improved throughout time to guarantee that it continues to be equitable, open, and inclusive
While meritocracy may not be perfect, it is still a better system than not having meritocracy. In addition to making society more egalitarian, meritocracy will encourage society to pursue greatness and contribute to the betterment of their communities
Sri Lanka has tremendous potential that can be tapped if we don’t waste it. Once the third-largest producer of coffee in the world, largest tea exporter in the 1990s, largest producer of high-quality latex crepe rubber, with a strategically located deep-sea port in the world, burgeoning tourist trade and leading in many other facets, Sri Lanka boasts the potential to be a gateway between Europe and South Asia. Yet, there is still a missing piece in Sri Lanka’s development puzzle that is hindering the country’s potential for sustained socio-economic advancement – meritocracy.Meritocracy refers to a system in which people are chosen and moved into positions of success, power, and influence based on their demonstrated abilities and merit. Meritocracy requires individuals to respect science, knowledge, evidence, rationality, and professionalism. While the notion of meritocracy rejects patronage, nepotism, corruption, and incompetence for entry into civil service, it strengthens the idea of equality and competence. It is a system that places more weight on the concepts of competition, open selection, rigorous evaluation, having a set of qualifying requirements and established selection process, regardless of whether it is the public or the private sector.Critiques of meritocracy follow a few fundamental presumptions. One is that a big portion of intelligence is genetic, and another is that it is not distributed uniformly. The argument is that it is unfair to place so much value on something beyond an individual’s control. Thus, it should be noted that a system of meritocracy should not be exclusively accepted without addressing the problems in the existing system. This article will discuss a few strategies and approaches that can be used to implement meritocracy in various aspects of society.
Ever since Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948, numerous politicians have taken over the reins of power from their family members so that a few families dominate the top echelons of power. Power is often held even without meeting the prerequisites for a civil servant. This is only one example of how the absence of a functioning merit-based system in Sri Lanka has encouraged corruption and fraud.
However, a few examples of merit-based systems are operative in Sri Lanka currently. These include the selection criteria for schools based on the grade five scholarship examination, the university admission process based on the performance in national-level examinations, appointment of judges based on merit and performance, and recruitment in the private sector. Despite these systems, in practice, non-merit-based factors such as social connections, economic status, and ethnicities continue to hinder equal access to opportunities.
Family connections, political affiliations and social class continue to play a role in determining prospects and outcomes. This inequity in the access to opportunities based on merit is increasingly apparent, especially in education and civil service. Individuals are accepted into prestigious higher education institutions or professions without taking their academic or work credentials into account. Similar worries are observable in government employment and promotion procedures, where some individuals may be given preference over others because of personal or political affiliations.
Lessons from Singapore
Following Singapore’s separation from Malaysia to become an independent and sovereign state in 1965, their socio-economic and political settings were not favourable. The nation was plagued by a plethora of issues, including a stagnant economy with a weak manufacturing base, inadequate infrastructure, high unemployment, poverty, crime, disorder, poor public health, a severe housing shortage, and ongoing conflict between the country’s various ethnic and religious groups. Even to this date, Sri Lankans continue to share the sentiments that Singaporeans shared between the 1960s and 1970s.
Meritocracy in post-independence Singapore was linked to the struggle against a patronage culture and the need to create a dependable and efficient public service. The founding prime minister of an independent Singapore was adamant that advancement for public employees should depend on performance rather than personal ties. Lee Kuan Yew stressed the need of strong leadership in his memoir, when he wrote: “My experience of developments in Asia has led me to conclude that we need good men to have good government. However good the system of government is, bad leaders will bring harm to their people. The single decisive factor that made for Singapore’s development was the ability of its ministers and the high quality of the civil servants who supported them.”
In the 1960s, Singapore and Sri Lanka both experienced comparable levels of economic growth, GDP per capita and were regarded as developing economies in 1965, the year Singapore gained its independence. A significant contributor to Singapore’s economic prosperity has been meritocracy. Today, meritocracy has been given top priority by the Singaporean government as a guiding principle for its economic development strategy. With a strong focus on academic performance and skill development, the nation’s educational system is built to find and foster talent regardless of social rank or background. The nation’s civil service is renowned for its meritocratic methods, with incentives and promotions determined on accomplishments rather than seniority or interpersonal ties.
Towards a merit-based system in Sri Lanka
Meritocracy has also had a significant impact on East Asian nations including Singapore, Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam. Sri Lanka shouldn’t be afraid to practice meritocracy because many nations have had excellent success doing so.
1. Education and training
Education and training are key elements in human capital formation and is a driver to promote meritocracy. Education in this regard does not mean merely passing standardised tests on obsolete curriculums. Access to and quality of education should be improved by comparing to nations that have well-developed education systems. Instead of standardised “one-size-fits-all” examination formats, students should be given greater flexibility in studying subjects at levels that suit their interests and aptitude. Countries such as Germany, Switzerland and Singapore are actively investing in vocational training and skill-development to meet the demands of the present-day industries.
Programs such as ‘SkillsFuture’ and initiatives at the various Institutes of Technical Education (ITEs) and Polytechnics have promoted vocational education and training Singapore, whereby individuals who demonstrate interest in subjects outside of the mainstream subjects taught in secondary school are able to pursue skill-based training and contribute to the skilled workforce and economic success.
Public and private sectors should look beyond the early schooling years and consider how to offer opportunities for progression throughout the life of an individual, through continuous upgrading of knowledge and skills in both academic and technical realms and shifting education policy to meet the demands of the times whilst encouraging all forms of intelligence. This way, even if an individual might not find interest in following conventional academic subjects such as mathematics and science, improved meritocracy with focus on ‘inclusive intelligence’ can focus on in-demand skills and training required for economic success.
2.Transparency criteria for hiring and promotion
If top talent is to be recognised and retained in organisations, hiring, rewarding and promoting employees should be based on their merits of effort, skills, abilities, and performance, rather than their social status or personal connections. It is more challenging for decision-makers to be swayed by interpersonal relationships or other non-merit criteria when the process and criteria for hiring is transparent and open.
To ensure that applicants are evaluated according to the same criteria, job requirements and the expected minimum qualifications should be made publicised, ensuring information is disseminated unvaryingly. The “Fair Consideration Framework,” which was put into place by the Singaporean government, aims to encourage ethical employment procedures and avoid prejudice against locals. According to the framework, employers must fairly evaluate Singaporean nationals for every position while also posting job openings for at least 14 days on a government job board. Moreover, recruiters from both the public and private sectors should have a clear pre-defined selection criterion for hiring and promotion decisions, preventing personal biases from influencing decisions.
Establishing well-defined performance expectations will ensure that promotions and rewards are based on merit. A culture of meritocracy will encourage evaluating individuals based objective criteria based on their performance rather than their seniority or other non-performance factors. In order to reinforce the importance of performance and create a culture of excellence, individuals should face unswerving consequences for their actions. Individuals are more inclined to take responsibility of their growth and concentrate on continual improvement when they are aware that they will be held accountable for their performance. This promotes a growth mindset, which is necessary for a society that values merit.
Accountability can be augmented by implementing anti-corruption measures, which will create a level playing field, ensuring individuals face consequences for corrupt practices, restoring trust and encouraging individuals to strive for excellence based on their abilities and talents.
The primary legislation regulating corruption/bribery in Singapore is the Prevention of Corruption Act (PCA) 1960, which governs and defines corruption, and its punishments, whether it involves public or private sector individuals or members of the public. Regardless of the individuals rank, seniority and political affiliations, no one is exempted from the law. For each count of corruption, a person found guilty under the PCA is subject to a fine of up to SGD 100,000, or imprisonment up to 5 years, or both.
Should Sri Lanka adapt a culture of meritocracy?
Meritocracy is not immune to prejudices and errors; therefore, it needs to be continuously improved throughout time to guarantee that it continues to be equitable, open, and inclusive. Privilege and power should be distributed according to individual merit rather than social standing. Governments, organisations, and people must continue to be on the lookout for ways to overcome the drawbacks and issues of meritocracy. While meritocracy may not be perfect, it is still a better system than not having meritocracy. In addition to making society more egalitarian, meritocracy will encourage society to pursue greatness and contribute to the betterment of their communities.
(The writer has a penchant for international trade and development. She holds an MSc in International Business Management and is currently pursuing an LLM, specialising in International Business and Commercial Law. She can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.)