The word “meritocracy” has often been thrown around to describe the governing principle behind Singapore’s social and political institutions. I would like to argue that the slogan of meritocracy is a misrepresentation of Singapore and that we are better classified as a luck egalitarian society. I will argue this by suggesting that the main policies implemented by Singapore such as CPF are principled on luck egalitarian concerns. I will primarily use Cohen’s notion of luck egalitarianism to show how Singapore can be seen as a luck egalitarian society. However, I believe that in grounding our institutions and policies on luck egalitarian concerns, Singapore has unsuccessfully address inequality in society. I will show that observed inequalities in Singapore can be traced back to problems arising from the way luck egalitarians approach equality. I will draw mainly from the criticisms offered by Anderson to show how Singapore is still unequal despite all the measures in place to alleviate inequality.
Singapore has often been viewed as a strict but successful young nation. Many people attribute this to our emphasis on meritocracy which has helped us select the best people and encouraged society as a whole to pursue excellence through recognition of people’s merit. These same people however also point towards the inequality present in our country as the failings of our meritocracy. They think this system is unjust because people who are unable to excel because of factors beyond their control are neglected by this system. Others think that what counts as one’s effort cannot be distinguished from the endowments that are beyond one’s control and hence merit should not be a basis for distributive justice in the first place. I argue that these popular opinions do not capture Singapore’s attempts in ensuring equality and that luck egalitarianism is a more appropriate model to look at the way Singapore works. Indeed, Singapore does prize effort but only insofar as this effort is not tainted by arbitrary factors beyond one’s control such as luck, endowments and circumstances. To put it more accurately, Singapore prizes individual responsibility rather than effort or merit. Singapore respects but holds its citizens accountable for their own life choices and the costs it imposes on others. Singapore also recognises that circumstances, endowments and luck play a huge role in people’s lives and so variations in these factors and their resulting unequal effects are not chargeable to individuals. As such, Singapore promotes equality by supporting citizens if they are negatively affected by circumstances beyond their control or bad luck through numerous schemes and policies. In doing so, Singapore hopes to be as fair as possible and make its society equal. Before delving into the specifics of these measures, it is important to examine the underlying principle behind such an approach to equality. This approach has its roots in luck egalitarianism.
Luck egalitarianism is a branch of egalitarianism that seeks equality through compensating for misfortunes that are not chargeable to individuals while recognising that people are responsible for the choices they make in life which impose costs on others. Underlying this approach to equality is the key idea that we can distinguish between things which are one’s preferences and things which are one’s endowments. This is famously known as Dworkin’s cut between person and circumstances. In his seminalwork, Equalityof Resources, Dworkin rejects welfare approach to equality and proposes a equality of resources approach to look at how equality can be achieved. He believes that the welfare approach fails because it wrongly redistributes goods to people who are unsatisfied with their lives in spite of having voluntarily cultivated an expensive ambition which is hard to achieve without more resources than others thereby imposing unfair costs to others. He argues that his resource approach is mindful of the costs one’s preferences impose on others in society without judging these preferences as expensive ambitions or not. However, Dworkin is also aware of the fact that unwanted circumstances like disabilities can affect one’s life and result in inequality which has no basis in one’s preferences. Synthesizing these two concerns, Dworkin introduces an important cut between person and circumstances in his distinction between 2 kinds of luck where one can be attributed to person and the other to circumstances. There is option luck which is a matter of how deliberate and calculated gambles turn out and there is brute luck which is a matter of how risks fall out that are not in that sense deliberate gambles (Dworkin, 293). Option luck is possible to avoid by choosing to accept or decline the risks involved whereas brute luck is impossible to avoid. With this distinction, Dworkin hopes to compensate for unwanted circumstances like handicaps while respecting the idea of individual responsibility and so proposes an insurance market scheme where people convert their brute bad luck into option luck by insuring against events of brute bad luck (Dworkin, 293-297). In deciding how much insurance coverage to buy, society can then determine how much to tax members of society such that the tax revenue can be used to dispense insurance to people who need it (Dworkin, 297).
This principle espoused by Dworkin can be seen in policies implemented by Singapore, notably CPF. CPF is a compulsory savings scheme for working Singaporeans who have to save a percentage of their monthly income and employers have to contribute to their employees’ savings by giving a percentage of their employees’ income to their CPF. The objective for CPF is mainly to provide assistance against the possibility of longevity and its negative effects such as greater risks of disabilities which can be seen as brute bad luck. The government provides interest rates for these savings and mandate that part of these savings be used to pay premiums for a medical insurance scheme known as Medishield LIFE which provides compensation for health issues. This measure is different from the taxation scheme Dworkin proposes but it is the same in principle. In ensuring everyone’s participation in CPF and hence medical insurance, the government does not just hand out free health care by taxing everyone indiscriminately but rather forces Singaporeans to convert their brute bad luck into option luck but only if these Singaporeans are working in the first place. However, this measure does not cover those who are unemployed and does not cover adequately people with lower income who through no fault of their own and by brute bad luck land themselves in these situations. How then does Singapore compensate them and ensure luck egalitarian equality? Furthermore, this focus on monetary compensation is susceptible to the capabilities objection which suggests that providing money does not necessarily translate to an equalising outcome for the unfortunate. CPF is just one of the many policies that Singapore has implemented to help the needy while ensuring responsibility. While Singapore does demonstrate some Dworkinian principles, it is more accurate to portray Singapore as using a Cohenian approach as Singapore does implement other important measures such as training and subsidies in addition to monetary compensation for its unemployed and handicapped citizens. This then resembles Cohen’s equal access to advantage approach much more than the equality of resources approach.
While Dworkin’s cut was important in the development of the crucial concerns of luck egalitarianism, many have criticised his resource approach as inadequate to achieve the aims of luck egalitarianism. In a famous thought experiment, Cohen highlights the inadequacies of Dworkin’s resources approach by considering the case of a handicapped person who has troubles moving his arms. This person suffers from a weird disease such that after he moves his arms, he suffers severe pain in his arms. It is not difficult for the man to move his arms but costly for him to do so (Cohen, 918-919). Resource luck egalitarians like Dworkin will not be able to provide compensation for such a handicap. This is because they will not see this handicap as a resource deficiency since the pain from this handicap is classified as a welfare problem which deserves no compensation and yet is not a result of preferences but endowments (Cohen, 919, 921). As such, Cohen argues that while Dworkin is right in pointing out the need to distinguish between person and circumstances, Dworkin’s cut of preferences and resources does not address this concern successfully. Instead, Cohen proposes a further cut between chosen and unchosen preferences (Cohen. 919-920). This new cut allows luck egalitarians to address the earlier thought experiment by saying that the pain in his arms is a unchosen disadvantage and so rightfully deserves compensation. Cohen also introduces a new approach in looking at equality. He pushes for the idea of equality of access to advantage which can be seen as equality of opportunity to welfare and personal capacity to engage in basic activities. In doing so, Cohen focuses not only on equalising resources but also welfare to some extent and even includes a person’s capacity in its considerations of equality (Cohen, 916-917). This is similarly shown by Singapore’s numerous measures such as SG Enable which provides education, training and employment for children, youths and adults, ensuring that they are equipped with basic capacities to do things. There is also income supplement known as Workfare to boost income and CPF contributions for low income earners. Cash assistance and secondary assistance such as provision of recurring hygiene essentials and consumables such as adult diapers or diabetic consumables are given by ComCare. Subsidies for childcare and kindergarten are also available for struggling parents trying to make ends meet.
Yet, despite all these measures, there still remains a rather large inequality in Singapore. This can be observed through the numerous elderly still working for money to tide them through their old age. It is not difficult for one to spot elderlies pushing a trolley full of cardboard to recycle them for money. If CPF was designed to secure risks of old age for Singaporeans, why are there still so many elderly struggling to meet the basic requirements of daily life? Furthermore, why are their jobs so menial and unrewarding? Has luck egalitarianism failed them? I argue that luck egalitarianism has, as Anderson points out, failed to achieve the egalitarian aim of equal respect and concern for all citizens (Anderson, 289). While there are many schemes offered to help citizens, they often come pegged with a long list of conditions and prerequisites to be met before a person is even qualified for the scheme. The government also implements means testing before granting person the assistance required. People applying for these aids will also feel inferior because they will recognise that they only receive these aids due to their inferiority to others (Anderson, 306-307). This stigmatises aid for people and makes them feel pitied instead of respect. All these are symptomatic of luck egalitarians’ lack of respect for people. Furthermore, Singapore in mandating CPF for all working adults, bases aid for those with bad option luck on paternalistic grounds, and thus is liberty infringing and disrespectful. By distinguishing sharply between responsibility and bad luck, luck egalitarians deter people from engaging in child rearing and makes people more self interested. This is because any bad luck that one faces from starting a family is categorised under bad option luck which is something that one is held responsible for since one chooses to start a family (Anderson, 299-300). People will be reluctant in creating relationships with others that might generate obligations to engage in caretaking. Perhaps, this could even be the reason for Singapore low population rate.
In conclusion, I contend that Singapore, insofar as its policies are principled on luck egalitarianism has failed to create a equal society. Its luck egalitarian approach will have to be revised, perhaps to that of democratic equality as suggested by Anderson which I have no more room to discuss in this essay.
Dworkin, R. (1981). What is equality? Part 2: Equality of resources. Philosophy&PublicAffairs, 283-345.
Cohen, G. A. (1989). On the currency of egalitarian justice. Ethics, 99(4), 906-944.
Anderson, E.S. (1999).What is the Point of Equality? Ethics, 109(2), 287-337.