Why merit isn’t about merit

I had a discussion recently regarding the topic of meritocracy and affirmative action, and how the two can go hand in hand or end up all balls up wrong.

After multiple shots of coffee and even a few sessions 3-metres away, this question comes up from one of my friends.

“So, if we go by merit, then the person with a first class degree regardless of whichever university should be considered of the same level, should they not?”

It’s an obvious question, so I nod my head and take another puff.

“So if I put two candidates in front of you, one from Universiti Malaya, and another from let’s say UCLA, which would you choose?”

I kept my mouth shut, of course. Primarily because I am wondering why the hell anyone graduating from UCLA would end up working in Malaysia.

“Or how about we take one from Juilliard compared to another from Aswara?”

I gulp.

“Or let’s take one from London School of Economics and compare that with…Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. They all have the same degree, same qualification, and even the same results, probably even spoke well in their respective interviews. Which would you choose?”

And this is the point he made – that it was no longer about merit, now it was about prestige. Thus, if we were truly in a meritocratic society, why does the prestige of a school play a role in hiring?

That right there is the problem with the so-called mentality of those touting “meritocracy”. The fact that in the end, it goes down to hiring the person who might have had enough connections and money to go to a better ranked university or school, for the prestige.

This is the same problem we get here in Malaysia when people insist on just touting merit – and looking at affirmative action as “racist” or “unfair” because it discredits this ideology of prestige in hiring.

Well at least, 30 percent of the hiring anyway here in Malaysia.

Thus, when yet another businessman and renowned engineer believes Malaysia can only advance due to merit, I disagree. For the simple fact that corporate Malaysia on many levels have confused the concept of merit and prestige for a very, very long time.

In fact, I would not be surprised if the prestige of the school overtook the very merit of others, even if the prestigious candidate took a course that had no link whatsoever to the job he/she applied for. But with such a mismatch, lies another tale.

There are plenty of discriminatory acts in hiring in Malaysia these days, and if we really do want to venture down the line of basing it purely on “merit”, then we should have an AI to vet through all applications without any discrimination.

And even then, the discrimination would turn up during the interview process, where the interviewer will have a pick for their suited gender, race, and even age depending on what they are looking for.

This, in turn, will lead to continued spiralling of good candidates not getting hired as more and more candidates go for prestigious colleges and such names, while letting the others without such avenues go for lesser jobs.

So, unless you can tell me you would hire a UM first class degree grad over a second class upper Harvard grad who both have the same communicating skills and aptitude, let us not even bother talking about what you define as “merit”.

Because if you did hire the Harvard grad, you made yourself a hypocrite for prestige.

One thought on “Why merit isn’t about merit

  1. This is a difficult one to answer, since it also depends upon the ranking of the university one got the degree from such as the ranking of UM versus the ranking of UCLA.

    However, there also are other aspects which may factor in during the interview, such as the knowledge of practical application and understanding of one’s discipline graduated in, as well as one’s practical experience. In such cases, one with a lower ranked degree such as Second Class Upper or even Second Class Lower may have a better practical understanding and creativity in the application of one’s knowledge than one with a First Class Honours.

    This is especially true when hiring graduates for technical jobs and in disciplines such as accountancy, quite often candidates study for higher levels of professional accreditation from accountancy bodies such as the ACCA or CIMA whilst on the job.

    This used to be the case with engineers and lawyers too before engineering and law courses were offered by universities and it’s also still quite true of computer programmers who are self-taught or learn on the job.

    Even then, before a graduate engineer, law graduate or medical graduate can practice independently, they have to undergo a period of supervised practice under the mentorship of an accredited professional in their field and get accredited themselves.

    A former colleagues who is an electronics technician trained in the British Navy in Sembawang, Singapore use to ask job applicants to screw a panel onto a piece of electronic equipment and would choose the one who did it professionally – i.e. screw the screws in by hand in holes diagonally across and hand tighten them before finally tightening screws diagonally across with a screwdriver. This allows the panel to seat itself properly.

    The same approach should be used when fixing a tyre onto a car’s wheel hub, so as to ensure proper seating of the tyre

    Anyway, where there is an unfair bias based upon race, religion, skin colour or prestige of the university graduated from, some form of affirmative action is required to level against the bias.


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