Inclusion, not meritocracy, needed for social mobility

Lim Chee Han

The story of Veveonah Mosibin highlights how social inequality can impact meritocracy. – YouTube pic, August 15, 2022.

MANY people regard meritocracy as the fairest, most reasonable, or simply the best way to settle for the distribution outcome of various social resources, such as higher education admissions, scholarship opportunities, employment, career advancement or promotion, public work contract bids etc.

This belief is largely entrenched in a society that is seeing an increasing trend of social inequality.

The meritocracy narrative may motivate those who possess the ability to compete, but perhaps have failed to inspire many among the bottom households feeling left behind.

Yet, the meritocracy advocates take no notice that discontentment is brewing. There is no surprise about such resentment and backlashes felt in the United States and elsewhere in the world, until people willingly vote for a presidential candidate like Donald Trump, who is ironically seen as anti-elite.

There is nothing wrong with setting criteria for admission of students or hiring employees.

Successful candidates should possess some “merits” by meeting certain requirements set by the institutions.

However, it is different from the selection mechanism that only the best candidates are picked on the basis of best scoring according to the criteria.

Why it is not socially acceptable for distributing scarce public resources according to the strict demand of meritocracy?

According to a 2017 study, two-thirds of the students at Harvard and Stanford University came from the top 5% income households.

In fact, students admitted to the Ivy League universities and coming from the top 1% income families actually outnumbered those from the bottom half of the income distribution.

If you believe in higher education, and good universities can lift one family out of poverty and climb up the social ladder, you should not just look at particular cases.

You should ask how many of those in reality could actually make it.

Perhaps you should realise, opportunities, enabling environment and social capital you possess are not equal.

Hence the starting line for the so-called competition could be already a gulf apart for some people.

Just by genetic lottery, we are born into royalty, a wealthy business family, a fishing village on the east coast Sabah or urban poor in a PPR flat in Kuala Lumpur.

It is already quite apparent who has the resources at their disposal to ensure meritocracy will work for them.

I do not belittle efforts, hard work and talent coming from those in the elite or some middle-class families trying to make it to the top universities or land themselves with best professional or business opportunities, but these factors alone cannot explain fully why they are where they are.

Not many would be happy to attribute their success to some degree of luck due to factors that they have inherited and cannot control, yet they could have hubris thinking that they deserve it on their own merit because they are just better than others.

The counterintuitive of the meritocracy narrative is indirectly placing the blame on people who couldn’t make it, either implying that they are not making enough effort or hard work, or simply not good enough to make the cut.

They are responsible or forced to accept such outcomes as a fair result.

Just to compare, Veveonah Mosibin from Pitas, Sabah, who had to climb a tree for internet access or those sitting comfortably in Subang Jaya homes using broadband wireless connection: who has the edge for best learning opportunities?

The latter might even have resources for private tuition and be able to dedicate a fair amount of time focusing on improving their academic performance.

Those in the poor family do not have such luxury. Instead, the student might need to spend time helping out the family for additional income, live in a cramped house where distractions are difficult to avoid, fall sick due to poor living conditions, or even face a broken home with abusive family members.

With social problems plaguing them, how could we expect these underprivileged children to compete fairly with those from the elite families? 

I often find myself lucky to be born into a well-to-do family that could support my further studies abroad in a top university in the UK.

It is not that my academic results were top-notch compared to my peers, but the ability to pay for the exorbitant tuition fee and living cost in the UK, has separated me from the rest.

Due to the brand name of this top university, I have received an advantage once again when applying for a job. The social advantages I enjoy are compounding.

I take humility to accept that I am privileged to inherit a certain fortune. Hence, I am determined to contribute more back to the society to support the least-advantageous and less privileged families.

Public policies should pay attention to desirable social outcomes for social mobility. Social inclusion and equality are important elements for solidarity in the society.

This does not mean to lower the standard for competency, but open up some other opportunities to consider factors other than meritocracy. – August 15, 2022.

* Lim Chee Han is a founding member of Agora Society and a policy researcher. He holds a PhD in infection biology from Hannover Medical School, Germany, and an MSc in immunology and BSc in biotechnology from Imperial College London. Health and socioeconomic policies are his concerns. He believes a nation can advance significantly if policymaking and research are taken seriously.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. Article may be edited for brevity and clarity.

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