I was delighted to meet a group of family therapists from Singapore at the Systemic Spring School last week. Having been in England for over 30 years, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to reminisce about the motherland. It really is true that you can take a person out of Singapore but you can’t take the Singlish out of the person – as conference participants discovered when I spontaneously broke into Singlish every time I was around my new friends. As the Singaporeans explained, Singlish is not so much a language but a form of pidgin, comprising of English, Malay, Hokkien, Cantonese, Mandarin and other Chinese dialects, as well as Tamil from southern India. I love it because it is a by-product of ethnic and cultural diversity.
Turns out, this encounter with lovely Singaporeans not only stirred my tongue, it also took me back in time, bringing to mind my early experience of meritocracy.
My first job was with the Singapore civil service as an Administrative Assistant. In terms of career choices, the die was cast when, based on an aptitude test taken at age 13, I was categorised and put into a vocational group of an educational ‘streaming’ programme euphemistically called Normal (Academic), Normal (Technical) and a Gifted Education Programme. In practice, the results of this test predetermined my educational journey, and after that the type and level of work opened to me, i.e., non-managerial, technical and/or vocational roles.
The term ‘normal’ was used to deflect criticism of this practice. Nevertheless, it was blatantly apparent that people were/are(?) being hierarchically categorised based on IQ and aptitude tests. Once, on a visit to Singapore, I asked my nephew what stream he was in? He replied, “the stupid people stream”.
Social engineering to ensure future success were the buzz words when I started work as a Civil Servant in the 80s. I was a trainee administrative officer in an office full of Rhodes Scholars and the like – mandarins in the fast track talent management programme destined for top government jobs.
In those days, work was carried out in smoked filled offices, where the holding and flicking of cigarettes was a sign of sophistication and chic, famously portrayed by the iconic photo of Aubrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. As an asthma sufferer, this romanticised version of the past never had any truck with me. My recollection of this era was that of stale smoke, smelly clothes, the sound of coughing, wheezing and a general sense of discomfort. I wasn’t alone in this. Most of the junior staff felt the same and looked to me for help. So, long before enlightened attitudes towards the dangers of smoking and the effects of passive smoke inhalation, I took a stand and actively campaigned against smoking in common areas where I worked.
As a result, I think smoking was banned in the typing pool because of my intervention. I honestly can’t remember. I may have since made up this narrative! However, what I do remember of this episode was being confronted on the way home one evening in the underground car-park by five desk officers. They surrounded me, lit their cigarettes and blew smoke in my face to a chorus of “who the f@*k do you think you are?”
I’ve been fortunate. Having been stereo-typed and die-casted, I found my way to England where, while working during the day, studied in the evenings to get my A levels, a BSc degree, a Master’s degree, a post-graduate diploma, two post-graduate certificates. I’m now doing doctoral research in the ground-breaking field of systemic practice.
I got my undergraduate degree while I was still with the civil service. I remember being excited about applying to join the management scheme after completing my studies. However, when I discussed this with my then line manager, she said I was better off leaving the service because I wouldn’t move beyond basic line management if I didn’t have an Oxbridge degree or on the fast track management programme. I took her advice.
Some thirty odd years later, I work for one of the largest iNGO in the UK as the Head of Human Resources. Alas, those closest to me tell me that I still find it hard to shake the sense that I am not good enough. All these years later and I’m still wondering who the f@*k I am.
This is my story of how neoliberal meritocracy has the power to create discriminatory social worlds and to frame its elitist practice as, not only the norm but the key to success.
Unfortunately, in recent years, neoliberalist ideals have spread into every aspect of life, inextricably combining commerce and culture, including our constructions of love, affection and personal identity. It has done so by juxta positioning itself against opportunities gained through privilege, with proponents claiming that, in this sense, it is egalitarian.
On the contrary, as meritocracy increases, inequality (and discrimination) increases. This happens in the name of trickle-down economics. Behind the justifying narrative that “anyone can make it” is the reality that in practice, a few (based on various forms of subjective criteria about the nature of intelligence) are given preferential treatment, in the process turning the social ladder into an oily pole behind the chosen elites. Perhaps more importantly, meritocracy promotes market values as the norm in public/social welfare work; and extends the values of corporate business such as competitive advantage into everyday life.
Owning my bias:
This is my account of an event that happened a long time ago. It is a story that privileges my feelings and perspectives. I have no doubt that the people in the story have their own accounts which are equally valid.
I haven’t keep in touch with developments in Singapore for over 30 years, so this might be a version of Singapore that is long gone.
This year’s Systemic Spring School will be held this year in the beautiful Lake District.
I’m excited to be co-hosting a conversation with participants with my long time friend and mentor, Chris Blantern, exploring how people keep their personal values alive at work. However, we thought it would be fun to learn about this phenomena through an art-based exercise, i.e., showing each other what it feels like through the use of images.
For some, the trend for non-profits to be more business-like is necessary to ensure survival and sustainability – a no brainer. For others, marketisation or what’s been called advance capitalism may be antithetical to our own ideology, values and beliefs. According to one healthcare practitioner, the biggest challenge in the NHS is discerning how to go on in an ideologically contested and politically regulated context.
We hope that this will be a space where people can share, reflect and co-create meaningful ways of keeping personal values and beliefs alive at work in an increasingly commercial, consumerist and technological world of work.
Hopefully we will generate visceral, aesthetic and emotional ways of knowing, that can help us reconcile and/or hold the tension between the pursuit of our social values, with the assumptions of profit and competition embedded within neo liberalist business discourse.
So many leaders quote Jim Collins’ “get the right people on the bus” advice as they implement change. Very often, the implicative effect of this statement is re-structuring that leads to the “exiting” of people, i.e., getting the “wrong people off the bus”.
What I don’t get is why no one ever questions how unitarist, judgemental, hierarchical and manipulative this narrative is?
Dare I say there’s no such thing as right people or wrong people, just people in all our glorious diversity. We all have foibles, we all have potential, we all have talent and we all have worth. In this regard, leaders are those who can activate and coordinate human potential; not those who can only work with like-minded people.
The question of whether employees are engaged is not solved through ‘selection’ (where have we heard this ideology before?) but rather through the ability of leader/s to create conditions for genuine cooperation, collaboration and co-working. Therefore, if people aren’t engaged, it’s not their fault but that of the leaders. Why? Because they haven’t got a clue how to inspire, motivate and collaborate.
What gives me the right to say this? Well. I’ve been round the block long enough to see how this tenet has worked in practice. The right people on the bus today (recruitment and on-boarding) always seem to be the wrong people off the bus (restructuring, redundancies) tomorrow.
Nowadays, it is not uncommon in the third sector to hear managers use the phrase “this is not a democracy”.
Why do charity workers accept such utterances from their leaders? My guess is that it speaks to the adage that ‘making decisions by committee’ is unproductive, painfully slow, relationally charged and chaotic; that consultation breeds “paralysis by analysis”; and that “leaders lead, followers follow”. On the other hand, it is clearly a linguistic device used by managers for exercising and reinforcing power.
For me, this is a good example of how managerialism as an organising discourse is not only at odds with the values of many charities, many underlying business assumptions and values are not transferable.
I hope I’m right in thinking that many charitable concerns DO hold the values of democracy and participation as sacrosanct. As such, invoking such a transactional-contractual business value in this context, not only goes against most charities’ intrinsic ideals of self-determination, fairness and justice, if allowed to go unchecked, it is likely to have the adverse effect of replicating the social, economic and political systems they were set up to reform or transform.
Needless-to-say, not ‘walking the talk’ is a big detriment to charities ability to obtain support and to successfully address social problems.
If we are not for democracy, what are we for? Without democratic ideals, what do we become?