On Singapore: the unexpected perils of meritocracy in an overly dense society

I never really know what to say when people ask me what I think about Singapore. It’s beautiful, modern, safe and clean for sure; everything that I could want for a contented life seems already laid out for me. But yet for many young Singaporeans, it can sometimes feel socially inhabitable. In a country where the material means to achieve anything is abundant, the possibilities in your life are surprisingly and maddeningly narrow.

For a long time I have intuited that our semi-authoritarian government must be at fault. Maybe the dreadful tropical heat is to blame too.

But my recent readings do not seem to point to that, instead suggesting that all meritocracy-centric and densely populated societies are perhaps inherently doomed to this kind of social suffocation, regardless of how they are run. Here is why.

The inconvenient premise of Meritocracy

Meritocracy is a beautiful ideal. It is a breakthrough in philosophical technology; you can become the king of your country not because you are a Scorpio, born during a solar eclipse or have two hair swirls instead of one. No, you become the king simply because you are the most capable. Everyone has a chance to be at the top, so long as you work for it. It’s elegant, egalitarian and utopian; it is one of the key principles that sets Singapore apart from the many countries that have fallen to social unrest before us.

But meritocracy is an awkward (though not necessarily ill) fit for us, because we do not even come close to representing the kind of homogenous and everyone-is-more-or-less-the-same society that meritocracy presumes. We are a classic plural society, bearing fracturing differences in culture, religion, wealth and language, even within racial groups. And these factors throw equality of chances out of the window, in ways which many Singaporeans are quietly aware of. But the problem is not that we don’t have equal chances; it is that we refuse to accept that our chances are unequal.

The consequence of this is that many of our egos are stressed and damaged, caused by the interplay of the meritocratic tendency to compare individuals solely based on what they can achieve, and the incongruence of the backgrounds of the individuals. Failure is highly feared in Singapore, not because we are timid, but because it is taken as the inexcusable result of our own idleness and incapability. Even taking shelter behind perfectly valid reasons for less than satisfactory performance can be seen as dishonest and irresponsible, for little is spared from this unique strain of oriental cynicism. This point could not be put across more succinctly than what Alain de Botton has done in his monumental TED speech, “A kinder, gentler philosophy of success”:

And Singapore is not just a meritocracy; it’s a super-meritocracy. The institutionalized ranking and competition in schools and at work scratches the concept deeply into the bed rocks of the national psyche like few other nations in the world do.

Meritocracy in Singapore
Scholarships in Singapore – noble but polarizing.

And under this pressing need to honor and distinguish, comes the urge to define what it is exactly that we want to honor and distinguish, which brings us to our next point …

Social consequences of overpopulation

Singapore is densely populated no doubt. There are few nations in the world that have so many people living and interacting in such a small space.

Meritocracy in Singapore
Population densities (per square kilometer) of various countries.

Overcrowding of public amenities, inflation and shortage of affordable housing are not the issues here, for they can more or less be managed by improved planning and new technologies. It is the sociological consequences of having an extremely dense population that poses problems that probably no government can solve.

They are nebulous and hard to define, but I shall try to put a finger on it.

Singaporeans are poor in what sociologists call structural holes, a term first introduced by the American sociologist Ronald Burt in 1992 to describe gaps in the contacts between the contacts of a central actor. A person rich in structural holes receives more varied information about others, allowing him to make better judgements, grow in status and mature in perspective and knowledge.

Meritocracy in Singapore
A structural hole refers to a gap between two individuals in a central actor’s network. They serve as insulators of information between separate social groups.

Unfortunately, preserving structural holes is very difficult in Singapore; the island is tiny and people can’t move around much. Your friends probably know your other friends. Your parents may know the parents of your friends. Between me and a friend who went to the same secondary school and junior college as me, we have close to 200 common friends on Facebook.

The Dutch journalist Robert Biebels once commented in his insightful travel journal ‘De Olieprins en De Opiumboer’, that Chinese Singaporeans are surprisingly ‘chinezer dan de Chinezen’, observing that the Chinese Singaporeans have somehow come to embody typical Chinese values like money-mindedness, superstition and future orientation in a much more exaggerated manner than their forefathers. Perhaps this could be explained by a joint publication in 1995 called “Kinds of Third-Party Effects on Trust”  by Ronald Burt and American organizational sociologist, Marc Knez, which explains that a lack of structural holes, coupled with a dense social network, produce situations in which the actors obtain consistent (but not necessarily correct) information about others, which incline them towards having extreme opinions about the trustworthiness about others, probably as an adaptation to reduce arguing about each other’s opinions in such tight networks. This can veer opinions in either the direction of extreme trust or extreme distrust.

What this means is that in dense networks, when there is no need for full disclosure of one’s knowledge, an actor would choose to only disclose knowledge that is consistent with what other actors around him said. To quote Vincent Buskens, a Dutch professor of sociology at the University of Utrecht, who captured the gist of this idea beautifully in his publication “Social Networks and Trust”, “actors in dense networks may rely heavily on consistency of information from third parties, while the consistency is driven more by the self-confirming tendency within a dense network than by the actual and consistent experiences third parties may have with the trustee.”

This phenomenon is uncannily mirrored in the strong tendency among Singaporean circles to hastily settle on a generally agreed upon interpretation of what is good or bad, often prematurely locking into place easy-to-agree on ideologies (concerning marriage, morality, importance of prestige, money, etc), to the detriment of cultural progress and discussion.

Also, complex issues have a tendency to become packaged as false dualities: making money versus following your passion, vocational training versus academics studies, hardworking versus lazy. It becomes inconvenient and difficult for us to deal with incoherent opinions and views of the world, for we are unable to escape the mad clawing of our peers to get us back to reaffirm what the collective has come to believe in.

In an enlightening 1999 article, “Entrepreneurs, Distrust, and Third Parties: A Strategic Look at the Dark Side of Dense Networks”, Ronald Burt coined a fitting term for this phenomenon called ‘structural arthritis’; an information inflammation of the organizational joints.

Singapore is suffering from structural arthritis.

Meritocracy in dense social networks

The inevitable tendency of dense Singaporean social networks to mute out nuances and emphasize the obvious has stretched meritocracy beyond its intended use. More often than not, we Singaporeans are compelled to keep conversations to a trite and banal exchange of confirmations of each others knowledge of the ‘market norms’, expressing what we guess the other person will agree with instead of what we actually believe in. This is a disastrous way to form a collective set of criteria to define what is worthwhile to pursue in our society: a reigning consensus which nobody actually believes in, like a sociological version of the Tragedy of the Commons.

And in our pursuit to determine our own personal social standing, we attempt to size everyone up (including ourselves) using this set of punishingly narrow criteria. We love to immortalize and sing praises of scholars and people who made it high and big, perhaps because they represent what we subconsciously yearn to become. But at the same time, we relish bringing them down whenever the chance arises (e.g.  sex scandals, drug use, inappropriate public behavior, etc), for we also enjoy exposing their humanity and rubbing salt into their wounds for once rising above us. We sneer at those below us, but we also bear contempt for those above us. Everyone hates the game, but nobody can stop playing it.

Often when I’m in Holland, I hear from my friends in Singapore – over Facebook, email and Skype – about a certain melancholy in their lives. I identify with that, because I still feel it from time to time. Young Singaporeans, having grown up in a tight and saturated social environment, often experience an unhealthy and painful cognitive dissonance. We are torn between concurring with the fiercely incumbent social norms – often becoming in the process innocent perpetrators ourselves  – and living our lives according to our often contrasting personal beliefs, be it in love, life or work.

A Singaporean friend once told me how upset he was after a few friends cut off contact from him after he did something that they thought was immoral, even though from my point of view he wasn’t really doing anything wrong. He felt helpless against the reflexive and thoughtless placed judgments on him by even his good friends, who gave him no leeway to explain the nuances of his situation.

I couldn’t say much to him, perhaps because I know that it is just the way things always will be in Singapore. Maybe we just have to accept this and move on.


This is a blog on overpopulation and meritocracy in Singapore.

Check out the related post: On Singapore, why many don’t leave, and some want to return.

Or help out by contributing in the comments for the post: On the gay movement in Singapore: how is it actually now?

8 thoughts on “On Singapore: the unexpected perils of meritocracy in an overly dense society”

  1. a strong analysis of the singoperean society but I am still not sure if every overly dense society is inherently doomed to such life-style. The problem with reasoning of most analyses is the standard backward engineering, they don’t think how it could be different when given a different starting point or a slightly different element blended into the equation.Maybe I just don’t want to believe that super-meritocracy would be the domaniant system worldwide since the population drastically increases each year 🙂

    also a follow up article could be ‘turkish vs singoperean culture’ 🙂

  2. Hey bonobo! Thks for the long comment. True, some observations I made are indeed easier to make using ‘backward engineering’. However, I do notice many similarities between Singapore and in small and close Dutch circles as well, in which the people get to see each other very frequently and are all closely interconnected by mutual friends. As mentioned by the citations in my article, the narrowing of worldviews and the formation of extreme opinions is probably an inevitable quality of such social circles. I propose that this has polarized our views (in directions determined by meritocracy) on what is worthwhile to pursue in our lives in Singapore, and the government doesn’t do anything to curb this natural polarization, often doing the exact opposite instead.

    But I am sounding way too serious 😛

    Maybe Turkish versus Singaporean culture. Or a TUrkish food porn post? *wink wink

  3. An insightful analysis into the Singaporean society. I personally have similar views regarding meritocracy, but never thought about the contributory effects of the dense networks than exist in Singapore. Perhaps a game-theory extension of the latter argument would shed light on how we could change such a life-style; People have to develop that trust for people such that they dare pursue their perspective of happiness and truth, and abandon that loss-minimization mentality.

    Which breeds mediocrity.

    Which, ironically, is observed in this very society supposedly built upon meritocracy. I think this issue extends its invisible hand far beyond what we are able to discuss.

  4. Game-theory seems an interesting topic to explore; I wasn’t confident enough about my knowledge of it at time of writing to include it. But an idea for future posts maybe 🙂

    As much as Singapore is the way it is now, I do believe people are starting to change. For one I am seeing more and more Singaporean friends and acquaintances choosing to leave all those expectations of them behind and stepping out to try things (with everyone around them calling them crazy, of course:P).
    Ironically, some of us feel the pressure to conform so badly that it makes us realize the ridiculousness of the social pressure even more acutely.

    We would also be better off by being more comfortable with disagreeing more. We get so easily upset by people having contrasting opinions from ours that it’s sometimes heartbreaking to watch.

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