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Bertha HarianBertha Harian

News Reports

The meritorious path and the money trail

There’s really nothing more to say about meritocracy, whether of the compassionate or rigid kind, because so much has been said about it. But I’m glad that there is not much of a quarrel with the “core’’ of the idea – being assessed based on what you have done, and rewarded or penalized, as a result.

We grumble about the hard edges of meritocracy, lamenting that there will be people who simply cannot keep up whether through inability or circumstances. Or how some have a head-start simply by being born into the ‘right’ family.  We all know, however, that we have to run the distance.

The meritocracy issue about whether some people are “advantaged or disadvantaged’’ through no merit of their own has actually morphed into something else in recent time. It’s not so much about how a person managed to accumulate the merits, but what exactly ‘’meritorious’’ refers to. Clearly, the G is trying to get people to look at merit in broader ways than merely academic grades. So the new mantra is that being an expert technician or craftsman is also good.

Nothing, however, is said about what merit ultimately translates into – money and power.

So try as anyone might to redefine merit, we’re always up against the almighty M. It’s the way we are, transactional beings who laud ourselves on being pragmatic when we might really be grasping mercenaries who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

I got to thinking about this when I had to move house and deal with people I would have no reason to otherwise. (I admit to being in a closed circle too) There was the father-and-son team of renovation contractors, with an uncle who is an electrician. There was a grandfather who supervised the moving of furniture and belongings, including doing most of the heavy lifting. There was a young PRC national with a wonderfully hardworking, resourceful and cheerful work ethic. Then there were three from the Indian subcontinent who clicked together beautifully to fix my fibre optic wiring.

I ask myself how much they earn from doing the things that I don’t know how to do, or will not do.

The young and old men who expertly and efficiently wrapped my furniture, including odd shapes that defy closure, for example. Each time they lifted a particularly heavy carton, I worry about their backs. It looks easy – moving stuff from point A to B. Only brawn needed, so it looked from the outside. I thought to myself that we’d never say something like “only brain needed’’.

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We don’t think much of manual labour even if the labour involved adhering to a system and some skill. The movers told me they had to go through short courses on the different ways to handle different types of cargo. It was just a matter of load up and go. Truth to tell, I was particularly impressed by how they never needed to wield a pair of scissors – bubble wrap, shrink wrap and scotch tape simply yielded to a mere twist of some fingers. The knife was reserved for slashing cardboard only.

I ask myself if, over time, they could be replaced by robots. Would robots be as careful with a person’s belongings? The fact is, robots haven’t arrived yet and we’d still need people to do the work. Maybe, they would be teaching the robots what to do, and move into working in an air-conditioned robot factory.

I didn’t ask them about their salary, but I tipped them handsomely because I admired the amount of strength and skill they had exhibited. I asked the grandfather, a wiry fellow who could lift an ancient Singer sewing machine solo, about his family. Very proudly, he tells of a son who is an elite police unit, a much better job than his, he said. He made a distinction between his type of labour and his son’s job. I think his son should be as proud of his dad too.

I was totally heartened that the contractor’s son, an undergraduate, was learning his father’s trade. There seemed to be a division of labour, with the young man doing the administrative work while the father dealt with the nitty-gritty of measurements and material. The father lauded his son’s design skills (“he is in university!’’) – but it was the father’s long experience which showed through. He knew better what was functional and what was merely pretty. We went with the father’s recommendations. Doubtless, over time and under the tutelage of his father and uncle, he would know all facets of the job and be as much of a master craftsman as his seniors. With educational qualifications, he would have an edge over others if he attained the skills. That, I suppose, is what those in the trade should aim for – skilled professionalism.

And what about their PRC foreman with the ever-smiling face? They said he was worth his weight in gold. Curious, I asked the man about his family. They were back in China and his eldest daughter, he said with under-stated pride, is ‘’studying in  university’’. I thought to myself that he would make a great new citizen, a worthy addition despite his work permit status. My mother told the contractor that she hoped he was paid well.

The trio who fixed my wiring spent less than a half hour in the house. I got to talking to their local supervisor who said that while he was the “engineer’’, he would be hard pressed to do the job as efficiently as they could. But why three people, I asked. One driver, one technician and one group leader, he replied. I was beginning to think this was a waste of manpower until I saw that all three were working as one. The engineer said though that he knew of one Indian national who could manage the job solo, and in even shorter time. He was simply so skilled after doing the same job for years. But he was booted out of the company because of a customer complaint. I thought to myself the company could pay one man to do the job of three. But would he be paid the job of three people?

When we talk about meritocracy, do we think about the people who do things we don’t know how to do or don’t want to do? Or do we label them as “unmeritorious’’ or casualties of meritocracy? Do we sniff at their jobs and connect them with a lower socio-economic status instead of looking at how well they do their jobs?

Sure, we pay people to do things for us. The sad thing is we pay them low wages because we don’t think the work deserves more. I’d wager that the more skilled a person and the less time he takes on a job, the more we balk at paying them a good fee. We think the work is too easy. My mother and I, for example, balked at paying $50 for a locksmith to come unpick a lock – a task done in under a minute. But that is the price of a skill that we don’t have.

I wonder if our mindset will change if we had to do things by ourselves – paint our own walls, make our own furniture, fix our car when it gives trouble, do our own plumbing and electrical wiring and so forth. We know that in developed countries, the DIY mentality is deeper ingrained. That is why their plumbers and electricians charge a bomb – because they are fewer in number and because they are probably called upon to do complicated work.

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We’d never look at skills differently if we think we can easily afford to pay for them. We’d need a drastic over-hauling of the system – fewer foreign workers and an appreciation for manual labour and technical expertise. We’d need to re-brand our jobs, re-calibrate salaries and acknowledge that sometimes, people who can do the jobs we can’t or won’t deserve acknowledgment. This is so we won’t go: “Wah only technician/plumber/carpenter but can drive big car!’’

In other words, there is merit everywhere, but it has to come with the money. Or parents will simply look at the money trail and equate it with the meritorious path.





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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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