Kenneth Paul Tan wrote an article titled ‘How Singapore is fixing its meritocracy’ in the Today paper on 22 April. He described the history of how meritocracy first started in Singapore when education was the first leveler, where everyone of merit could get a scholarship and rose through the ranks and became a mandarin in the civil service. He then went on to describe how this innocent brand of meritocracy got corrupted and drawing cynicism when meritocracy transformed into elitism and cronyism of the elite. Here I quote him, ‘Today, the Singaporean idea of meritocracy is criticized for entrenching structural limits on mobility, for its overly narrow idea of merit and success, and for an increasingly self regarding elite that seems too interested in staying in power and that citizens perceive as arrogant and unresponsive to their needs.’
The powerful political elite took notice of the growing discontent and have put in some measures to redistribute the wealth by straying into a taboo area called welfarism, a slightly leftist leaning policy that was once frown upon. What is strange is this comment about anti welfarism. ‘To discourage free riding and maintain business competitiveness, the Government developed a strong anti welfare state rhetoric. It started to pay its top officials and political leaders some of the highest salaries in the world…’ Now what is he saying? To me isn’t this welfarism at the highest level, welfarism for the elite? It is a matter of perception of course.
What many knew but refused to talk about in the fixing of meritocracy is the entrenchment of wealth and power of the elite through the abolition of estate duty. Now the elite could own as many properties as they want, in the tune of hundreds of millions or billions to be willed to their natural aristocratic scions. The act of self preservation and protecting their wealth for generations to come, a practice that eventually led to the revolution in Europe, Russia and China and the rise of Communism, is now fixed into the Singapore version of meritocracy. A meritocratic family could now be meritocratic for generations to come with their wealth preserved and protected forever and ever, to live happily ever after, unless a bloody communist revolution cut them down to ground zero.
This piece of fixing appears to be well received by the landed gentry and elite, all owners of large properties and land and have nothing to complain about. They would not complain about its negative repercussion to the social cost of the people. When the rich know that they could go on buying up all the land and landed properties for safe keeping and to perpetuate their wealth to eternity, it simply leads to the hoarding of properties and the rise of property prices.
The poor and not so rich would never ever to be able to catch up with the runaway prices of landed properties hoarded by the landed elite. The elite know the rules of the games and how to protect themselves and their wealth. Landed properties are now worth several tens or hundreds of millions of dollars and would soon be the most expensive real estate on earth.
Social mobility and meritocracy appear to be thriving. But how many of the nouveau riche could make that kind of money in a life time to afford landed properties in the future, now in the hands of the rich elite, entrenched and enshrined as their inheritance for generations and generations to come? Even the civil servants and politicians of the future would have a hard time paying for such out of reach landed properties with their million dollar salaries.
But not to worry, the politicians of the future will know what to do if they want to lay their hands onto these prized and exorbitant pieces of landed properties. They could simply reintroduce estate duties all over again to level the playing field. In a democracy, this is the easiest part. Even dynasties could not hold on to their fortune forever. The landed gentry class of medieval era were wiped out when the extremism of inequalities reached a point of no return. The unproductive land and property owners would not have their cake and eat it. Les miserables would rise to overthrow a decadent system of wealth preservation at their expense.