Luck egalitarianism, dominance and state perfectionism in Singapore

In the post “Singapore, A Luck Egalitarian Society?”, the writer establishes Singapore as a luck egalitarian society and uses Elizabeth Anderson’s criticism of luck egalitarianism’s lack of respect and concern for all citizens to explain why equality remains elusive in Singapore. While I agree with the writer’s classification of Singapore as a luck egalitarian society, I wish to build on such assessments of luck egalitarianism in Singapore by using Michael Walzer’s concept of dominance. In this essay, I argue that in Singapore, meritocracy establishes education as a dominant good which undermines rather than enforces luck egalitarianism. Additionally, this dominance also arises out of a form of state perfectionism that is morally unjust.

 

Luck egalitarianism in Singapore – meritocracy and education

Although trite, the explanation of luck egalitarianism, meritocracy and education’s role in Singaporean society is necessary to set the context for this essay. The main aim of luck egalitarianism is to counter the effects of luck on the distribution of goods, such that outcomes that result from an individual’s voluntary choices are just, but the outcomes that “occur independent of his/her choices or of what he/she could have reasonably foreseen” are not (Anderson, 291). Therefore, under luck egalitarianism, one is compensated for the bad outcomes that occur if one did not have any chance to prevent the outcome (for example, disabilities or handicaps from birth) but not if one had been given the chance to prevent the outcome but had not chosen to do so. The act of making such voluntary choices is analogous to purchasing insurance – if one had chosen not to buy travel insurance, he/she would not be compensated for a flight delay even if it occurs due to uncontrollable circumstances like natural disasters. Luck egalitarianism hence emphasizes the role of individual responsibility in distribution.

In Singapore, individual responsibility is emphasized through meritocracy. Singapore’s meritocracy largely focuses on merit in education, which is deemed to be luck egalitarian because it begins with what is believed to provide an equal starting point for all Singaporean children, and then distributes according to the choices that they make (of whether to be hardworking). This is done by subsidizing education greatly and making primary level education compulsory, such that all students have access to education and thus can succeed as long as they work hard academically (Mokhtar). Therefore, each person is personally responsible for the outcomes of his/her education (including but not limited to one’s income, job and social status). If one makes the choice not to work hard academically, there is no injustice if he/she ends up with a bad outcome. Thus, meritocracy describes how luck egalitarianism plays out in Singapore’s education system.

 

Dominance – the problem of meritocracy in luck egalitarianism

The overemphasis on education in Singapore’s meritocracy, however, results in education being used as a dominant good – a term introduced by Walzer in “Complex Equality”. A dominant good is one in which “individuals who have it, because they have it, can command a wide range of other goods” (Walzer, 10). In other words, a key characteristic of dominance is that the good is convertible – it can be used in ways that “[are not] limited by [its] intrinsic meaning […]” to obtain a range of other unrelated goods (Walzer, 11). Educational success in Singapore, for example, not just indicates one’s level of knowledge in an area, but also commands higher social status and respect, better positions and titles, and wealth. Undeniably, it can be said that education’s convertibility to greater social respect and positions is intrinsic in its nature because it is one of education’s main purposes is to provide useful knowledge to learners so that they can get jobs and fulfil useful roles in society. Consequently, some doubt may be expressed on whether education should be considered a dominant good. However, education in Singapore is dominant not because of its intrinsic convertibility. Instead, its dominance is an extrinsic “social creation” (Walzer, 11), in which education has been ideologically valued as a dominant good because of its social meaning of prestige. As such, “educational success” in Singapore does not refer to being well-educated in any area, but rather requires being educated in an area that is academically rigorous and difficult to enter into.

Therefore, meritocracy ideologically aims at rewarding the “best” or most prestigious job, as determined by its academic demands, rather than the best in each job. To exemplify, while an extremely skilled technician who has undergone many educational and training courses may be respected among technicians in his field, he still obtains less respect and status as a member of society than a mediocre doctor, lawyer or professor. He also earns less income and is less politically and socially influential just by virtue of failing to attain educational success. Therefore, education dominance lies in its social meaning of prestige created under Singapore’s meritocracy.

What happens if a good is dominant? Walzer argues that dominance is problematic: he asserts that we must move away from simple equality, which is a conventional notion of equality that aims for equal distribution of the dominant good, and move towards complex equality, wherein no good at all is dominant (Walzer, 17). Due to space constraints, I will keep my argument contextual to Singapore and merely discuss why it is problematic for education specifically to be a dominant good in the context of luck egalitarianism.

The establishment of education as a dominant good in Singapore causes luck egalitarianism to fail. This is because educational success is dependent not just on one’s hard work, but also on innate intelligence. Many who are responsible and work hard but lack innate intelligence are unable to obtain a high level of educational achievement, while some who put in much less effort are still able to achieve educational success due to natural intelligence. Since natural intelligence is a matter of luck, educational success is not just the result of individual responsibility but is also determined by luck. As a result, the distribution of social status, income, and other important goods like healthcare which are dependent on income, are also to a large extent dependent on luck. In the absence of measures that overcome differences in innate intelligence, education’s dominance undermines luck egalitarianism as the latter no longer counteracts but rather exacerbates the effect of luck on distribution.

Hence, although meritocracy aims to achieve luck egalitarian outcomes, it actually downplays the role of individual responsibility and undermines luck egalitarianism because it turns education into a dominant good.

 

State perfectionism – the disrespect of individuals

Education’s dominance unveils a further problem of state perfectionism that makes distribution morally problematic. As mentioned earlier, dominance occurs when a good is given a social meaning that is external to its intrinsic meaning, as is the case with education in Singapore. The extrinsic social meaning of education is attributed to the Singapore state’s historical emphasis on education, which has instilled in people the notion that success or merit in education is a key success and status indicator. This reflects state perfectionism – in which the state promotes its own narrow conception of the good and inculcates it in its people by adjusting its political and social institutions to fit this conception (Steven) – as another cause of education’s dominance. In fact, other than limiting the definition of success to educational success, the Singapore government’s conception of the good also limits individuals’ sexuality (to heterosexuality) and family (to nuclear family), among others. Unequivocally, this severely restricts individuals’ freedom and disrespects them as people.

We can attempt to justify Singapore’s state perfectionism from the perspective of luck egalitarianism. Here, self-responsibility encompasses the responsibility to choose the conception of the good that the government advocates. Choosing a conception of good that opposes the government’s conception of the good is akin to making an imprudent choice which one must face the bad outcomes of. However, this situation remains morally perverse because the bad outcomes are imposed by the state itself through its political and social institutions. For example, because of meritocracy, one will end up with less income, prestige, and other goods to which educational success is convertible to if he/she does not pursue educational success; because of priority given to heterosexual married couples in public housing, one becomes ineligible to own public housing if he/she breaks away from the heteronormative nuclear family.

Hence, although individuals have the formal choice to pursue alternative conceptions of the good, choosing to do so means forgoing being valued by the state and by society, which might severely affect their standards of living. In other words, the state forces individuals to make a choice between freedom and decent living standards or even basic needs. Yet, individual freedom and decent living standards are arguably both basic rights that any theory of distributive justice that respects people as individuals should grant. The Singapore government would be hard-pressed to justify the morality of their use of state perfectionism.

**

This essay has established the three concepts of luck egalitarianism, dominance and state perfectionism as closely linked in the Singaporean context. Firstly, Singapore’s use of meritocracy as an aspect of luck egalitarianism ends up undermining luck egalitarianism itself by turning education into a dominant good in society. Secondly, the dominance of education arises not just from meritocracy itself but also from state perfectionism, where the state imposes educational success as an essential aspect of its conception of the good. Thirdly, however, state perfectionism cannot be morally justified in luck egalitarianism. By linking these concepts together, I hope to have provided readers with a foundation to question the state’s (lack of) respect and concern for its individual citizens and the basis of meritocracy in Singapore.

 

References

1. Anderson, Elizabeth. 1999. ‘What is the Point of Equality?’ Ethics, 109 (2): 287-337
2. Mokhtar, Faris. “Education system continues to be a ‘great social leveller’, says Ong
Ye Kung.” Today. 31 May 2018.
3. Wall, Steven, “Perfectionism in Moral and Political Philosophy”, The Stanford
Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
4. Walzer, Michael. 1983. Spheres of Justice: A Defence of Pluralism and Equality. Basic
Books, pp. 3-30.

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This website showcases our reflections.

Articles were originally submitted as course papers for Professor Sandra Field’s classes Contemporary Egalitarianism and Democratic Theory.

The Equality&Democracy project has been made possible through the support of a Teaching Innovation Grant from the Yale-NUS Centre for Teaching and Learning: ‘Applying Political Philosophy to Real World Cases’.

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