Singapore: The Merit of Meritocracy and What the Philippines Can Learn

(I had the privilege to join the Young Societal Leaders program of the Singapore Summit, where 22 young leaders from all over Asia spent 5 days in Singapore being mentored by government ministers, top CEO’s in the Asia Pacific, heads of international NGO’s and more. Here are some insights from that trip.)

I sat at a table wolfing down my dinner beside Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, best known as the Prime Minister who succeeded Lee Kuan Yew in 1990. Just a seat away from Mr. Goh was Ho Kwon Ping, celebrated business magnate and chairman of the Singapore Management University. I felt small and insignificant, but only in Singapore might I be seated beside two of their country’s most recognizable leaders. I knew I needed to make the most out of it.

As the conversation in the table turned towards the history of Southeast Asia, I ventured to ask, “What do you think about the Philippines?”

“We used to look up to it,” was their common answer*.

Generous with words, both Mr. Goh and Mr. Ho regaled the table with the many firsts of the Philippines in the region – first airfield, first commercial airlines, etc. They spoke in awe about leaders from the Philippines they admired – such as former President Ramos – but their disappointment at how things turned out was palpable.

“The critical failure was not passing the agrarian reform law during Cory Aquino’s time. After the EDSA revolution, she had the chance to change the system, but she didn’t. Land reform is basic,” Mr. Goh said.

Mr. Ho chimed in, “It’s sad to see so many Filipinos working abroad and leaving their families. I have a helper in my home, a Filipina who has a college degree, and yet she earns more here than there in the Philippines.”

The conversation came to a stop when, after dinner, the Speaker of the Parliament of Singapore Tan Chuan-Jin took the stage to speak about his philosophy on leadership. What I remember best during his speech was his belief that Singapore must continue to be a meritocracy, but that it has to become a meritocracy with compassion.

Meritocracy. With this loaded word in mind, I raised my hand and asked, “In a country where the system is not built on meritocracy and is instead steeped in corruption and feuding, how can we encourage more young people to not only have the courage to step inside the system but also somehow change it?”

Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin apologized; he would not be able to give the best answer to that question. Thankfully, after the speech that night, Mr. Ho took me aside to say, “It’s a difficult question, but one important thing is to stay optimistic.”

I kept that in mind throughout the rest of the summit.

In my remaining days in Singapore, I saw firsthand how meritocracy moved from theory to practice, albeit imperfectly. I spoke with young, brilliant Singaporeans who are passionate public servants and civil society leaders. I met CEO’s of banks and tech companies who treated failure, diversity, and disruptions as assets and opportunities rather than as hurdles. I discussed with my peers the pros (and cons) of Singapore’s rigid work ethic and hyper-competitiveness. (For more on meritocracy, read: How Singapore is fixing its meritocracy by one of our summit moderators.)

In the end, I came out of the summit thoroughly energized and inspired. Technically, Singapore and the Philippines are neighbors and share common ethnic roots, similar faiths, and a nearly identical climate. Thus, the key insight for me right then was this: If Singapore had the makings to be a developed country, then surely the Philippines has it too. How may we bring Singapore’s success story here?

I found my answer while reading a biography on Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, in my plane ride back to Manila. Underneath the glitz of the Marina Bay skyline, the uber-efficient train system, and the towering shopping centers on Orchard Road, what makes Singapore Singapore is not on the facade.

This imperfect meritocracy is built on culture, on values. Because Singapore is so small and devoid of rich natural resources, Lee Kuan Yew understood that there will only be one resource worth developing: its people. And people cannot be at their best if they do not have the best leaders to look up to.

“A nation is great not by its size alone. It is the will, the cohesion, the stamina, the discipline of its people and the quality of their leaders which ensure it an honourable place in history.”

Lee Kuan Yew

If I were to start a revolution, it would be one focused on values and education. If we could get Filipinos to invest more time and effort on solving problems rather than squabbling over politics, that’s one step. If we could inspire more discipline, empathy, and critical thinking among our future leaders, that’s another step. If we could bridge gaps across religious, ethnic, and ideological lines to find common ground, that’s another step up.

In the meantime, let us remember that this is a difficult process, and one important thing is to stay optimistic.


*I’m paraphrasing, since I had to recreate this dialog with Mr. Goh and Mr. Ho from memory.

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