Banyan Tree Chairman Ho Kwon Ping: Why do many of our elites come from the same top schools?

Lessons on Leadership: Singapore can be proud of its meritocracy, but it needs to recognise and fix the flaws in the system, says Ho Kwon Ping.

Mothership | November 27, 2021, 12:16 PM

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COMMENTARY: "We need to seriously look at the flaws in our system, as opposed to simply beating our breasts and saying, 'We have great meritocracy in Singapore. We're among the most meritocratic societies in the world. And therefore, there's nothing to fix.'"

Ho Kwon Ping, the founder and executive chairman of Banyan Tree Holdings, is no stranger to sharing his views on meritocracy, an oft-discussed issue in Singapore. 

As the 2014 Inaugural SR Nathan Fellow for the Institute of Policy Studies, Ho gave a series of lectures about Singapore's next 50 years. His final lecture was about the issue of meritocracy and the ossification of class boundaries.

Speaking to Mothership as part of Lessons on Leadership, Ho revisited the topic, sharing with us his views on the necessity of meritocratic systems, and how there is a need for diversity within them.

Lessons on Leadership is a series hoping to inspire the next generation of Singaporeans through the stories of Singapore’s many successful business leaders and entrepreneurs.

By Ho Kwon Ping, as told to Jane Zhang

I think the reality of Singapore is that we're one of the few countries in the world that can be justifiably very proud of the fact that we have a very strong meritocracy, compared to many other countries where there are a lot of political favours, corruption, or things that actually overtly pervert and distort meritocracy.

We have a system that is very strongly meritocratic, to the extent that you can't use political connections, you can't use wealth, and other things to pervert the meritocratic structure.

The irony, however, is — and I think many more influential and thoughtful people than me are well aware — that this meritocracy is fraying.

Because although we have, on the one hand, a structurally almost-perfect meritocracy, it is, in effect, no longer a dynamic meritocracy which also celebrates diversity. The end result is that we have the beginnings of an entrenched elite that self-perpetuates.

The insidiousness of meritocracy

The not-so-fortunate flip side — the insidious irony of meritocracy — is that people who succeed in meritocracy think they got there entirely on their own, which is not true; it's often largely a function of the schools you went to, whether your parents were university-educated or not, some degree of connections, and of course, simply good luck.

But the myth and narrative of meritocracy is that it in such a system, the successful inherently got there by pure “merit” — not luck, not connections, etc.

In a clearly unequal system — let's say, an aristocracy — if you were a product of aristocracy, deep down inside you'd probably say, "Yeah, I just inherited my lordship or barony from my dad, and I'm really not that great."

You'd know you’re not an aristocrat by "merit" but purely by birth.  You may be "up there", but you don't think that you're that great. Or if you're "down there", and you were not born into an aristocracy, you feel that social injustice, and therefore tend to be more rebellious.

In other words, the obvious, inherent injustice and unfairness of non-meritocratic systems are so clearly apparent to both the beneficiaries and the oppressed, that there is a momentum for change.

However, in a so-called meritocracy, the insidiousness of it is that if you didn't "make it" in a meritocracy, like in Singapore, you generally blame yourself more than you would if you "failed" in a clearly unjust system.

And because the psychology of a meritocratic society is such that self-agency is so important, therefore, you become "justifiably" proud if you "made it", and don't ever think that it was because of other people or other factors.

And because a meritocracy implies fairness and equality, the terrible part is you think the people who didn't get up there actually deserve not to get up there.

But if you "fail", you also see yourself as deserving it, because that system is so "fair". You tell yourself, nobody prevented you from going to a good school if you studied hard; nobody blocked you from rising up; you didn't "make it". You feel even worse. You blame yourself.

That is the psychologically insidious part of meritocracy: that those who are on the top think, perhaps more than they should, that they really deserve it. And those who are on the bottom, more than they should, think that they actually also deserve it.

So the myth of a perfect meritocracy is self-perpetuating.

Lack of diversity within the meritocratic elite

Meritocracy was intended always to be a very important element for social mobility, that it's not just the children of the rich who become successful, but the children of the poor can also become successful.

Many of our top leadership, whether it be in political or civil service, come from relatively modest financial backgrounds. That is a social achievement we should all be proud of, and partly accounts for an egalitarian ethos in Singapore.

But there's not a lot of diversity within the meritocratic elite. That was what brought down the world’s best example of meritocracy: the imperial Chinese mandarinate.

Entry into that elite world was based not on power or wealth, but on academic achievement. And it worked excellently, but when China faced external disruption, the mandarinate elite was so brittle in its mindsets, that it could not respond progressively, or creatively.

So, I think that a fundamental imperative of a dynamic meritocracy is diversity, in Singapore, in every country, because it strengthens the system and makes the system more resilient. It is like bio-diversity in the natural world — it is an assurance of survival.

In Michael Sandel’s book The Tyranny of Merit, the inherent flaw of the system of meritocracy which he points out is how a meritocracy can become so entrenched that it does not allow the diversity which you actually need. Meritocracy can become increasingly refined to the point of being very narrowly determined.

The system seems perfectly fair, but it is actually brittle and not resilient and – like the Chinese mandarinate – unable to deal with massive disruption.

As I pointed out in my book The Ocean in a Drop - Singapore: The Next Fifty Years, the elite schools are producing the future elites.

We have a system in which the top independent schools — Raffles Institution, Hwa Chong — are disproportionately represented in terms of producing elite individuals who become even more elite, because these are the President's Scholars that go on to Oxford and Cambridge, and so on.

And they come back and they all know each other, and it's self-perpetuating.

To use the natural world as an analogy, they become increasingly like high-performing thoroughbreds who are best suited to win the race in a particularly setting. But when the setting is disrupted, and you need bio-diversity to be resilient and survive as a species, the thoroughbreds may not be able to adapt and pivot.

Need to look at how we can improve the system

Basically, we have a meritocratic system which is still meritocratic in structure, but over time, it has led to the result that the elite perpetuates itself, and there is not enough diversity.

There needs to be a mindset recognition that it's not only the "successful" products of our somewhat narrow, academically-biased meritocratic system, who are the only people who are qualified to govern Singapore.

We need to seriously look at the flaws in our system, as opposed to simply beating our breasts and saying, "We have great meritocracy in Singapore. We're among the most meritocratic societies in the world. And therefore, there's nothing to fix."

My general position has always been to be proud of what we have in Singapore, but to see how we can improve it, rather than to just say we're great.

Take for example the Public Service Commission (PSC) Scholarships. The Public Service Commission supposedly evaluates a person holistically. They're supposed to be good in everything (e.g. academically, CCAs, etc.), in order to be President's Scholars.

But in the past, PSC scholars have generally been people who have excelled more or less academically.

Now, the present Public Service Commission is actually saying — and I give them a lot of credit for this — that they are giving points to potential President's Scholars and other scholarship recipients not just based on academic scores, but on other non-academic scores, so that you don't just get an academic meritocracy. But we need to be braver in the weighting of non-academic achievements.

Another thing we could do would be to send scholarship students to a more diverse and localised set of schools.

Currently, we're sending our top students on scholarships to universities that we think are at the top of the league: usually, Ivy League and Oxbridge. And I know we do also send some to Tsinghua and Fudan.

But we should acknowledge that leadership in Singapore in the future need not come from those who have attended Harvard or Cambridge. Perhaps some should attend some of our Asean top universities for graduate school.

Doing a master's degree at the University of Indonesia might not be the same as a master's degree in Harvard, but frankly, a lot of the reasons we go to graduate school is not just for the academic learning; it's for the social networking, the understanding of people, and so on.

And living in Asean, it's important that our top leadership not just all come from the Masters in Public Administration from Harvard; I'm not knocking that — that's certainly very good.

But what about people who do programmes, say, in our top Asean universities? University of Indonesia is where their top leaders come from; Thammasat and Chulalongkorn are where the top Thai political and business leaders will come; in Korea, in Japan, and so on.

So I think we need to diversify what we consider to be the top graduate schools that our scholars go to. In the longer term, we will hopefully have top civil servants who don't come just from the top schools in Singapore, and who didn't do their bachelor's or graduate degrees in just the top schools, but elsewhere too.

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