Michael J. Sandel’s “The Tyranny of Merit” (Book Club, January 2021)

Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

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These are the discussion prompts and notes from the January 2021 book club, when we discussed Michael J. Sandel’s “The Tyranny of Merit” (https://nlb.overdrive.com/media/5284893).

Discussion prompts

  1. Icebreaker: How did the book make you feel? (Or: What was the most memorable passage or excerpt from the book)?
  2. Sandel begins with an examination of how money (or wealth) overrides merit in US college admissions and economic inequality in US colleges. To what extent do you see parallels in Singapore’s (higher) education system?
  3. (p. 18-20) The political causes of the populist backlash, Sandel argues, are our technocratic conception of the public good and our meritocratic definitions of winners and losers. Do you agree that the scope of democratic argument has narrowed because many policy questions are not treated as beyond the reach of citizens, and that meritocratic “losers” feel looked down?
  4. (p. 35) “Personal responsibility” and the limits of meritocracy: Is merit earned or received as a gift?
  5. (p. 108-110) How accurate is the assessment that a technocratic and credentialist approach to politics has disenfranchised ordinary citizens and led to the abandonment of “the project of political persuasion”?
  6. How do you evaluate Sandel’s proposals for (higher) education and work, first in the global or US context? And in the context of Singapore?
  7. What are the complements to meritocracy? Can the ills of meritocracy be tempered (perhaps contrary to Sandel’s exposition)? Or is more fundamental reimagination needed?


What resonated most strongly?

  • The meritocratic conception of “winners” and “losers” resulting in hubris and humiliation respectively.
  • Sandel’s distinction between distributive and contributive justice, and making the argument for states to go beyond income redistribution, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • The importance of the dignity of work.
  • Notions of “luck egalitarianism”, that luck and good fortune are important but often forgotten determinants of success in one’s life.
  • Perceptions of meritocracy also have oft-overlooked implications for political and electoral discourse. Politically, some highlighted how parties or the government could engage in moral speak (e.g. “the trampoline” of Singapore’s social security system). Electorally, parties choose well-credentialled candidates and highly-educated individuals staff the civil service.

What was missing or what more was needed?

  • Sandel not going beyond (higher) education and work as solutions. Insufficient discourse on the alternatives to meritocracy. Is it enough to “blunt the sharp edges of meritocracy”?
  • Solutions for work appear to already exist in Singapore, such as having good technical and vocational education and training. In addition, the country has moved to measuring achievement beyond grades through changes to the PSLE and secondary school admissions. Some also pointed to the increasingly varied pathways to success. But what more can Singapore do?
  • Absence of empirical data to show and disentangle the concepts of inequality and mobility. There is also desire for more empirical research and data in Singapore, on measures of inequality and (intergenerational) mobility.

Applications to or questions for Singapore

  • The reliance on (or obsession with) technocracy and credentialism, including in the public sector, which may translate into persistent prejudices (e.g. of those who may not have credentials). Who are “fit” to govern, and what does it mean to hail from a “humble background”?
  • Parents passing on privileges to their children, with examples such as tuition for kindergarten children, an “arms race” in primary schools and the unintended consequences of direct school admission, and the potential drawbacks of aptitude-based admission (e.g. applicants from wealthier families could afford to attend more extracurriculars, and are less likely to have to have to work while schooling).
  • Changing of the rules of the game and starting points: Metaphor of meritocracy in Singapore as a race-track, wherein first-generation Singaporeans may have had equal starting points, but starting points may be more unequal two generations later.
  • Over time, the government has become more consultative (or has gotten better at presenting itself to be more consultative).

Other questions

  • What do or what should different forms of political participation, youth activism, and consultative politics look like, in the future?
  • Under a system of technocracy, how do we navigate and elevate political representativeness and consultation? How can or how should the concerns of ordinary citizens be articulated, without provoking responses which overlook the dignity of citizens or which are not laced with condescension?
  • With work, what is the place or responsibility of unions (in Singapore), especially for blue-collared workers?

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