UWC2101B Writing and Critical Thinking: Civic Discourse in a Fractious World
13 November 2013
Meritocracy in Singapore – Analyzing ESM Goh Chok Tong’s Speech at the 2013 Raffles Homecoming Dinner
Meritocracy has often been a controversial topic in Singapore, and perhaps even more so in recent years. Its advocates claim that it provides equal opportunity for all to excel and to be recognized and rewarded based on their own merit, while its critics and detractors lambast that it further entrenches the problem of a widening income gap between the rich and the poor. At the Raffles Homecoming Dinner in July this year, Emeritus Senior Minister (ESM) Goh Chok Tong addresses and tries to reconcile these two opposing viewpoints with his dialectical argument by calling for and encouraging the members of his actual and wider audience who have managed to attain greater success to give back to society financially as we as socially to make the lives of fellow Singaporeans better. However, the argument that he puts forth is not without its own controversies, especially given its content, occasion and location that the speech was delivered. This essay will therefore analyze how ESM Goh applies his ethos and his speeches’ kairos to make his claims about meritocracy, as well as how effective these rhetorical moves he utilises are in downplaying, preempting and preventing possible objections to his opinions about meritocracy and solutions to the problems it brings. Through this analysis, it is hoped that readers will have a clearer understanding about how rhetoric, specifically ethos and kairos, can be used to address objections, thus allowing them to learn to craft stronger and more persuasive arguments.
ESM Goh’s speech was delivered at the at the Raffles Homecoming Dinner, an event that aims to renew and reinvigorate the ties that Rafflesians, past students of Raffles Institution (RI), have with their alma mater, as well as for alumni to pay tribute and reconnect with their former teachers. In his speech, ESM Goh structures his argument by employing elements of the 3 general types of discourse as suggested by Longaker and Walker – judicial, deliberative, and epideictic discourses. They describe them as discourse which “judges the legality or justice of an action in the past”, discourse that “addresses future actions or policies”, and discourse that is “concerned with praise or blame in the present” (13). While these discourses tend to be situated in courtrooms, parliaments and ceremonies respectively, this essay focuses on the content and purpose commonly associated to each type of discourse instead of the venue in which they usually take place.
ESM Goh first “judges” Singapore’s decision to be an open meritocracy in the past by saying that it was “the best means to maximise the potential and harness the talents of our people to society’s advantage”, and that it meant “equity and upward social mobility for almost the entire population” (Goh). It is clear through these judicial elements in his speech that he believes that it was both beneficial and perhaps even necessary for Singapore to adopt meritocracy as a tenet in the past on which Singapore could progress and prosper. However, he also concedes that meritocracy encouraged certain negative inter-generational consequences which effects can now be felt, due to the inevitable stratification of society fuelled by income inequality. Quoting Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve Chairman’s speech to this year’s Princeton graduates, ESM Goh agrees that meritocracy also has an element of luck at play, in that those who happen to be the “luckiest in terms of family support, encouragement and, probably income; …. and luckiest in so many other ways too difficult to enumerate – these are the folks who reap the largest rewards” (Bernanke). Through this epideictic element in his speech, he concedes that meritocracy is one of the causal factors of inequality, as those who happen to be born into a good family financially, socially or those with strong family support are able to start off on a higher rung on the meritocratic ladder of success. While it is not necessarily true that these lucky people have their success guaranteed for them, it is definitely much easier for them to pursue their own successes if they do not have to worry about their financial needs, and have larger access to more opportunities to improve and develop themselves in preparation for their future. These people hence are able to thrive in a system of meritocracy, which rewards the talented, intelligent and well-educated. Because meritocracy seems to favour the lucky, it also results in a growing inequality between various groups of people in Singapore. As such, ESM Goh attributes an element of blame to meritocracy in amplifying the problem of inequality.
These arguments put forth by ESM Goh through his use of judicial and epideictic elements are ones that most Singaporeans will accept and can agree on. The concept of open meritocracy has since pervaded throughout the whole of Singapore’s society, such that it has become a commonplace, in which people accept, believe and subscribe to without consciously questioning. It has also contributed to Singapore’s ideology of success. Similarly, Singaporeans would agree that inequality has become an increasingly pressing issue in Singapore, as reflected by the growing dissatisfaction of the Singaporean general public. This is evident from the large swell in numbers of people who take part in citizen journalism and online commentating. Websites such as The Online Citizen (http://www.theonlinecitizen.com/) and blogs such as Singapore Dissident (http://singaporedissident.blogspot.sg/) regularly offer biting commentaries on Singaporean issues, and the issue of inequality between the rich and the poor often resurfaces in one way or another, hinting at the seriousness of the problem. Additionally, by looking at figures such as the Gini coefficient released by the Department of Statistics Singapore over recent years, we can identify a growing trend in income inequality between the rich and the poor. Indeed, many Singaporeans would subscribe to the aphorism “the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer”. This socio-political backdrop hence creates “exigence”, which is “something that the speaker and the audience want to discuss” (Longaker and Walker 12), and this exigence presents an occasion for rhetorical exchange – ESM Goh’s speech in this case. After establishing that meritocracy was essential for Singapore’s progress but concurrently exacerbated the problem of inequality, ESM Goh comes to a situation in which Longaker would describe as one involving kairos – “the right time” or the “opportune time” (9) – for him to state his opinion on what measures Singaporeans can take in order to downplay and alleviate the consequences of inequality, while still reaping the rewards that meritocracy brings. Here, he claims that the “elites” in society must be inclusive by contributing back to society in order to level the playing field and to bridge inequality fuelled by meritocracy. This claim forms the crux of his speech. If ESM Goh did not first illustrate the benefits and negative consequences led about by meritocracy, he would not be able to effectively articulate and demonstrate what and why the measures he suggests should be taken to help bridge the inequality between the more and less fortunate in Singapore. Any reordering of his points would render his argument illogical and therefore ineffective, and might even cause his arguments to backfire.
ESM Goh’s suggestion on what Singaporeans can do to advance what he coins as “compassionate meritocracy” employs elements of the third type of discourse – deliberative discourse. Indeed, he explicitly declares that “we need to guard against elitism, whether in our schools, public institutions, or in society at large, because it threatens to divide the inclusive society that we seek to build” (Goh). Here, he addresses the future actions that Singaporeans can and should take in order to alleviate the effects of inequality caused by meritocracy. According to him, this can be achieved by encouraging the more successful to continue to give back to society what it has given them in terms opportunities to excel and the education that they have received. This would help to establish a fair and inclusive brand of compassionate meritocracy in which those who have managed to thrive and attained success should donate financially to the less advantaged, share their knowledge, skills and expertise with others to help them achieve their own personal success, and to serve the country for the benefit of all. At the same time, ESM Goh also believes that the government has a role in intervening through policies to help the less financially able. He argues that these efforts would help to ensure that Singapore’s meritocracy does not result in inequality, but remains fair and inclusive for all. By using this structure of describing where we were, where we are currently, and where we should be going as a society, ESM Goh clearly and effectively puts his arguments to the audience. However, this is also where his views become controversial. Compassionate meritocracy gives a sense of the “better” helping the “worse off”, which effectively results in segregating these two groups of people, and this segregation is precisely what compassionate meritocracy is supposed to prevent. Simply by virtue of being in the “better off” group, some people may inevitably develop a sense of superiority and even a sense of entitlement, which are characteristically elitist views. Therefore, some might not agree with ESM Goh that compassionate meritocracy will help to alleviate inequality; rather, they might argue that it would further worsen the problem by fuelling the sense of superiority of the successful.
Furthermore, the nature and the significance of the occasion itself contributed to the controversial nature of ESM Goh’s speech. Raffles Institution has always been considered as one of the top secondary schools in Singapore, and hence many people consider it to be an “elite” school where only the best and the brightest attend. Many of its alumni have since graduated and embarked on illustrious careers, and are taking on top positions in politics, public service, banking, law, medicine, and various other fields. It would thus seem controversial and puzzling that ESM Goh would choose to speak about elitism to alumni from an elite school, as his intentions might be misconstrued to imply that he acknowledges that these ex-students from RI are elites – a label that he clearly disapproves of – but seems to label them with. This possible misunderstanding might further reinforced due to the fact that ESM Goh was from RI himself, and hence he might be inclined to be biased towards Rafflesians to consider them more able to obtain success and subsequently hopefully contribute back to society.
In addition, ESM Goh’s logical arguments are all based upon appealing to his audience’s sense of compassion as well as obligation to repay their “debts” to society, which seem to lend his speech persuasive power. He declares that “what we need is to get the successful to understand that they have a responsibility to help the less fortunate and less able with compassion, to give back to society through financial donations, sharing of their skills and knowledge and spending time to help others do better, and to serve the country“ and that “those of us who have benefited disproportionately from society’s investment in us owe the most to society, particularly to those who may not have had access to the same opportunities. We owe a debt to make lives better for all and not just for ourselves” (Goh). These declarations appeal to his audience’s sense of morality that it is becoming and even necessary for them to give back to society with compassion, and this is a manifestation of appealing to an emotional repertoire at work. According to Longaker and Walker, emotional repertoire is a “relatively stable range of emotions shared by a large group of people and often in response to situations or objects that these people all encounter in their public lives” (223). These feelings of compassion and the obligation to repay society are partly due to a greater emotional repertoire that is generated from Confucian ethics and values, which still play a sizable role in Singapore’s society. Hence, when ESM Goh uses these appeals in his speech, the audience is able to associate certain “correct” behaviours in response to these values. When he then explicitly describes these behaviours already associated by the audience, his views resonate with their perceptions of moral behaviour, resulting in greater persuasive power.
However, Singapore is ultimately a country which predominantly over-encourages individualistic achievement over societal well-being, ironically partially due to meritocracy. From young, Singaporean children are brought up to believe that “no one owes them a living” and that they have to depend on their own hard work in order to succeed in Singapore’s society. It would not be surprising then, if ESM Goh’s audience question what benefits they stand to gain from contributing to creating a compassionate meritocracy. As much as Singapore is taking steps to develop a more caring and compassionate and civic-minded society, as it stands people still have to be nudged by incentives and benefits to be compelled to do compassionate deeds. This is clearly evident by the sheer amount of incentives that need to be doled out in order for Singaporeans to be enticed to take part in blood donation drives, to return their trays after meals, or even to make a small contribution to the needy. With such an individualistic culture entrenched in Singapore’s society, ESM Goh’s audience may not feel compelled to give back to society as they believe that they deserve their success through their own hard work, but at the same time do not consider themselves to be “elitist”.
How then, does ESM Goh deal with these possible controversies that might arise and possible objections that his detractors might raise? He mainly does this through his effective use of both situated and invented ethos. His situated ethos, which Longaker and Walker describe as the credentials inherently possessed by the speaker that would help the audience recognize the character of the speaker (234), gives him the liberty to even give a speech about meritocracy, which remains a tough and sensitive issue in Singapore. ESM Goh also creates an invented ethos, which is the image that he manages to portray during the speech itself, by painting himself as a person who can identify with his audience, and a person who is truly concerned about the problem of inequality and the people who are less lucky.
ESM Goh’s situated ethos stems from his eminent political career as Singapore’s second Prime Minister, and later on as a senior minister and currently as Emeritus Senior Minister, which lends him much credibility and weight in his arguments. In fact, it is precisely due to his high profile both in the past and currently that allows him to comment on meritocracy in Singapore in the first place. As a Member of Parliament and remaining active in the political scene, he continues to keep in touch with issues plaguing Singapore citizens, and hence has a good grasp on Singapore’s stand on meritocracy and its negative consequences on Singaporeans, allowing him to be in a good position to comment on the issue. While critics may say that ESM Goh’s political affiliation inevitably introduces an element of bias towards a pro-government stance, his situated ethos would have already prepared the audience to expect that much – that his speech would be one that is grounded in accordance to the present prevailing political stand as compared to adopting a more controversial viewpoint. They would then listen to ESM Goh’s speech knowing that “his” opinions are that of the government’s. It is precisely this expectation that allows him to use the government as an unstated backing to further enhance the strength and validity of his speech.
Being an old Rafflesian boy himself, ESM Goh then builds on his situated ethos by opening his speech with recollections of RI’s old campus in order to build rapport with his audience, and to show that despite his situated ethos, he still shares a common bond with his audience through their experiences in RI and hence is able to be “consubstantial” with them. Longaker and Walker uses the word “consubstantial” to mean that the audience is able to identify with the speaker and through this identification, the audience is more receptive to the speaker’s viewpoints (236). Here, ESM Goh emphasizes that common bond with RI by reminiscing about the old school campus, recalling the “Capitol Theatre, and the second-hand bookshops along Bras Basah Road; the school field, the old buildings with perpetual flaking paint, school hall with its honour roll of Queen’s Scholars, creaking wooden corridors, tuck shops, scout den, prefect’s room, and yes, the toilets with their perpetual pungent smell“ (Goh). While this common bond that he shares with members of the audience seems to indicate a hint of exclusivity and bias towards them, it is precisely because of this bond that his audience would be more receptive to his call to advance a more compassionate form of meritocracy in Singapore.
Next, ESM Goh further develops his invented ethos through his use of emotional appeals to show that he is genuinely concerned about people of lower income groups being left behind by society, and that he genuinely believes that elitism and a sense of entitlement are real problems that Singapore faces and must be dealt with. In his speech, ESM Goh issues a call to action – we must “guard against elitism, whether in our schools, public institutions, or in society at large, because it threatens to divide the inclusive society that we seek to build”, we must “get the successful to understand that they have a responsibility to help the less fortunate and less able with compassion” , we must “ensur[e] that elitism and a sense of entitlement do not creep into the minds of [our] students” (Goh). This repetition of things that the audience “must” do allows the audience to feel that ESM Goh believes strongly in the cause and methods he is advocating for. Furthermore, Longaker and Walker explain that according to rhetorical theorist Kenneth Burke, the audience always desires to identify and to feel consubstantial with the speaker (236). Hence, ESM Goh’s invented ethos would allow his arguments to resonate better with his audience, compelling them to give back to society, especially if they consider themselves to be more successful.
For this speech, ESM Goh kept in mind the kairos of the occasion, and carefully structured his speech with his audience in mind. However, due to the inherently controversial nature of the topic that he discussed, his views would undoubtedly be met with opposition in which he had to deal with through the course of his speech. He subsequently managed to address and downplay his opponents mainly through his own situated and invented ethos which lend him credibility and persuasive power. ESM Goh also used a wide variety of other rhetorical moves such as appealing to the audiences’ emotions and through the use of rhetorical devices such as rhetorical questions. Through the analysis of ESM Goh’s speech, we can clearly see that a combination of rhetorical moves can synergise with each other to enhance the persuasive power of a speech.
Bernanke, Ben. Baccalaureate Ceremony 2013. Princeton University. Princeton, New Jersey. 2 June 2013. Commencement Address.