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Thursday, February 15, 2007

Albinocracy and Autisticracy

Albinocracy And Autisticracy

A mere few weeks ago, most of Malaysia's main print media gave great play to Dr. Lily Zubaidah Rahim's excellent book, The Singapore Dilemma. So much so that some of the backwash, carefully spun and edited, came to print in the Straits Times. Which was how most of Singapore came to know that her book was suddenly a cause celebre in Malaysian circles.

However, the opposite sides of the Causeway, unsurprisingly, took opposite sides on the great Meritocracy Debate. Simply, Malaysians were against it and Singaporeans for it. At least, that was how the Straits Times sought to portray it.

Another however -- that is not the whole story. Or even a good summary of the debate.

Much has been made in Singapore official circles of the concept of "meritocracy". At least, in the last decades or so. It was not always so. Earlier, during Lee Kuan Yew's time, and most of the decades prior to his emergence, the common currency of the elite was simply wealth. Wealth bought many things, including more wealth and children who could, like LKY, then go to good schools and universities and emerge with good paper qualifications. Against a backdrop of general poverty and children who did not even go to school. Or thought school important.

But about halfway through LKY's reign, 'meritocracy' became a buzzword. It had good political connotations. And served his purpose of nepotism. At least, it served to rationalise his children's, family's and relatives' sudden success and sudden high achievements.

Leaving aside his siblings and his in-laws, all of whom, without exception, are today 'successful', many highly so, and concentrating only on his children, since this letter directly and unapologetically argues that he is nepotic, it does seem at first, that his children did not benefit from nepotism and that they made it to the top through their innate, genetically ordained, brilliance.

After all, all 3 children were chosen President's Scholars and went on to obtain good paper qualifications. Then went on to top positions in their respective fields.

Meritocracy at work. Or so it seems.

However, the statistical odds of producing 3 President's Scholars out of 3 children, a 100% success rate, against a school cohort of about 50,000 students every single year, works out to (according to my poor math), at least 1 in 50,000 x 3 or probably more because it was 3 out of 3 children.

More interestingly, none of the 3 children had ever topped their respective cohorts at the critical examinations at Primary 6, Secondary 4 or Junior College. Those honours at those years, all went to other 'less brilliant' students, who went on to less exalted universities and careers.

Of course, the Selection Committee tasked with choosing the President's Scholars during those years that LKY's children were eligible must have been fair. After all, meritocracy had become a cornerstone of LKY's public policy. The best must rise to the top as surely as cream rises on milk.

But to understand LKY's version of meritocracy, I must go back to my almost-forgotten dim days in the lecture room in the Teachers' Training College where a lecturer intoned on a sleepy afternoon that "values are never permanent and change with whoever is in power".

If my memory serves me enough, what he said was that values are a function of the elite class, or one person, if he is powerful enough. For example, he said, during the Medieval Period in England, the prime values then were somewhat 'militaristic' because society was held together by many feudal lords who each developed and maintained a private military army to hold his fiefdom together. The values then were of course, army values and men settled matters by duelling, sometimes, though not often, to the death.

Then, as he explained, with the rise of the merchant class, those army values were supplanted by money, since the merchants' chief values were money and what money bought. Then, duels were dropped (not because society became more civilised and bloodshed unthinkable) in favour of monetary compensation to settle matters, as in compensations and seizures of property.

If that lecturer is right, and he was probably just teaching what was already commonly-taught doctrines around the world, then the value of meritocracy must be examined by asking, what did LKY sought to gain from it?

The answer is, he gained many things. But chief among these is that he could justify giving his children a leg up and more in their careers and positions. By having 3 President's Scholars, and then defining meritocracy as 'being good in studies and winning scholarships', he could justify his children's shining careers in the Armed Forces and later CEO position in the largest government company in the country as well as soon-to-be Prime Minster's job.

Another benefit he gained from his definition of meritocracy is wealth. To shorten this little treatise, I need only point out that before 1959 when he became PM, he and his family's total wealth did not exceed $1 million then. They were not even a millionaire. Today, if LKY's family and relatives' total worth were added all together, it would exceed $1 billion. In short, he converted influence into affluence. Which he then justified as meritocracy. So he was also corrupt, by general definition.

To put it another way, if LKY died and Lee Hsien Loong did NOT become PM but also died or were booted out of politics, would LKY's law firm rake in so much money, enjoy so much patronage from government departments, government companies, private corporations and rich individuals? Would they get hefty discounts from HPL and the like in their business affairs? Would his children and relatives enjoy such fast-track career success?

I think not.

Of course, I may be wrong and probably some lady academic from one of our two local universities could probably rebut such arguments with convincing logic and due loyalty to her esteemed figure and ultimate boss, LKY.

Anyway, I must end. But on a facetious note.

If LKY chose to instil the value of meritocracy (his definition of it, anyway), what would PM Lee Hsien Loong choose to instil?

This becomes interesting as his first son is an albino and his second, autistic. (Two duds out of four children, thereby contradicting LKY's genetic theories and proving he was wrong to mandate sterilisation for women who wanted to apply for government flats). Would he then, as PM, decree that the prevailing values in his Singapore be albinocracy and autisticracy?

My old lecturer would agree.