‘Consider what compassionate meritocracy entails’

Former top civil servant Lim Siong Guan called for a deeper consideration of what being compassionate meant, after “compassionate meritocracy” became the latest buzzword following last month’s People’s Action Party convention.

The ruling party had adopted a set of resolutions then, including upholding an open and compassionate meritocracy that gives equal opportunities to all.

But Mr Lim argued on Wednesday: “Anyone leading an organisation has an obligation to think about the long-term well-being of their people, not just what’s today…then on that basis you decide what really is the most caring thing you can (do) for an individual."

For instance, if a person is “just satisfactory” at 35 years old, is it compassionate to keep him going for 30 more years in the organisation, he told reporters at his book launch at the National Library.

“Is it compassionate to have him reach 45 years old, 50 years old and suddenly you say, you’re really not making it?”

He was asked if the principle of meritocracy may have been lost in translation between the first generation of Singapore’s leaders and the present one.

Noting that while it is “just not true” that an organisation needs only the people at the top, Mr Lim also said a group is still needed to form the leadership to plan for the future and keep things running.

“I personally don't think you can compromise on meritocracy for that,” he said.

To him, meritocracy is also not absolute but "has to be with respect to who is best for the position to deliver what you expect of the position”.

For instance, if a public service thinks it is important to be responsive to public expectations, when a person is picked on merit, "you have to choose a person who has that frame of mind which says ‘I’m there to serve the people and therefore if the people react and criticise, that's a good thing. I don't like them to criticise but that's a way by which I discover where I'm failing.’”

He added that this would call for a different mindset from someone who says “I've thought this whole thing through, this is a perfect solution. Anybody who finds this not working very well, it's his problem, not mine.”

In an earlier interview with The Straits Times senior writer Cheong Suk-Wai, Mr Lim also spoke about how people who stick to doing only things they are interested in may set themselves back in life. He said that doing things that one knows little about is the best way to grow and improve as a person.




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His book, titled “The Leader, The Teacher And You: Leadership Through The Third Generation”, is published by World Scientific and available at all major bookstores at $48 (hardcover) and $28(paperback).

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