What’s ahead for my son, autism and meritocracy?

woman in yellow and brown jacket standing on gray sand

Recently our nation’s President re-opened Parliamentary sessions with a call for everyone to create a broader and more open meritocracy in the coming years.

As much as I welcome that call, I’m wary as to how, or even if, this can come to pass. And more importantly, how authentic and strong is the will to make it happen.

Call me an eternal skeptic, but reversing the ever-expanding gulf between the haves and the have-nots in society is a challenge many first-world countries still struggle to overcome.

Assuming of course politicians are genuinely concerned to do something about inequality, or merely appearing to be just before election year!

Now you’re probably wondering (after reading this far), so what? And what has meritocracy to do with autism?

Allow me to explain.

How my son with autism fits into a meritocracy

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When my son C was first diagnosed with autism six years ago, my world splintered.

While I hadn’t any clue back then what autism was, I did recognize one thing right off the bat.

Being autistic meant my son will never fully fit into society. He (and by association his family) will never quite enjoy the same level of acceptance as everyone else, and will always struggle to keep up.

How came I to such a doomsday conclusion then? Living in this meritocratic country for over 50 years, that’s how!

A country that values hard work, achievements, productivity, and the constant need to excel in every endeavor. All are markers of meritocracy. All are ideals many societies around the world desire and strive for.

At this point, you’re probably thinking: “What’s wrong? Aren’t these nationwide virtues honorable and worthy of pursuit?”

On the surface, yes of course. I’ll be stoned to death if I even dare object to any of them publicly!

After all, these wonderful traits are what made our nation a first-world country and economic powerhouse in Asia today. And all within the last 58 years of our tiny nation’s short history since independence.

We are the envy of many, with our stable government, much-vaunted education system, and hotly-pursued manpower talent (the TikTok CEO who kept his cool while grilled recently in Washington was one of ours).

But the perpetual and relentless call to stay on top, go the distance, reach greater heights of achievements, and set new records? What does it mean for those with disabilities, like my now 12-year-old C with autism?

For he still struggles to legibly write a sentence like “the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog”. He still puts on earmuffs and cowers under several cushions when thunder rumbles outside our window. And he still drools every other minute down his shirt.


What about him?

What about others with far more severe disabilities?

The “dark side” of Meritocracy

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Harvard Professor Michael J. Sandel wrote in his excellent 2020 book “The Tyranny of Merit“, that the “dark side” of meritocracy is that it — if left unfettered — seduces those who “make it” into believing it was their own hard work that garnered their success. And those who don’t, have only themselves to blame.

While this might seem an oversimplification, it’s not. Not when Prof Sandel spent 260 painstaking pages of his book to explain why (I would urge readers to go check out the book for themselves to fully grasp the issue).

And Prof Sandel’s not alone.

In recent op-eds published in our main local daily, others with standing in my nation have talked about meritocracy with misgivings too.

Like Professor Simon Chesterman, vice-provost at the National University of Singapore (NUS) and dean of NUS College. In his op-ed published five days ago, he too quoted Sandel extensively and reminded us that we must guard against equating academic and meritocratic achievements with a person’s innate self-worth and identity.

Yes yes, the irony isn’t lost on me. Both are esteemed professors in esteemed institutions so it’s almost laughable for them to speak about the subject. Still, I opt to put that aside and just focus on their message.

There’s also lawyer, head of the local Security Association, and a nominated member of parliament Mr. Raj Joshua Thomas, who wrote today that meritocracy is to blame for the rise in cases of security officers being verbally and even physically abused by the “elites” in society. Those who own several condo units and drive fancy cars.

All because these officers were simply doing their jobs: either clamping illegally-parked Bentleys or restricting condo entry for good reason.

And let’s not forget the call my nation’s President herself made, which kickstarted this post.

In essence, there can be no inclusion as long as there’s an unchecked meritocracy.

And inclusion is what’s gonna ensure my son has a place and a future in his country of birth.

It’s about elevating inclusion & eroding meritocracy

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I’ll be honest.

I seriously doubt I will see an inclusive society here during my lifetime. (Good thing I’m already in my 50’s so…anyway, you do the math!)

That doesn’t mean I don’t do anything about it while I’m still alive and kicking. Nor do I pooh-pooh attempts by others to do something about it. Including, God forbid, my own nation’s President!

For to be apathetic or cynical would only be to realize my worst fear of raising a child with special needs.

That my kid will grow up to be ostracised from the community he lives in because of his perceived disability. That when I’m gone, he’ll live a lonely life with no friends and no support.

But the truth is, simply calling for more inclusion and a broader perspective on what defines merit, even if one is the country’s President, doesn’t mean things will change right away.

Now I’m no political pundit (an observation I once stated and still stand by today). But I don’t see how making grandiose statements shows the will to make the tough decisions for changes that are sorely needed.

Especially when the ideology of meritocracy is so deeply embedded in our country’s history, systems, and the people’s psyche.

Hence, I’ll be watching in the months ahead how the President and her team plan to turn rhetoric into reality.

And where I can play my part.

For the sake of this country I still love.

And for the sake of my son, whom I love even more.

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