Students sit for the National Center Test for University Admissions at the University of Tokyo. Students from Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea were among the highest-ranking groups in math, science and reading. (Kyodo News/Associated Press)

Each week, In Theory takes on a big idea in the news and explores it from a range of perspectives. This week, we’re talking about meritocracy. Need a primer? Catch up here.

Kenneth Paul Tan is an associate professor and acting dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. His forthcoming book is titled “Governing Global-City Singapore: Legacies and Futures After Lee Kuan Yew.”

In Singapore, a liberalizing middle-class society, the once-revered idea of “meritocracy” has recently acquired negative overtones due to its association with elitism. However, meritocracy can — and probably did — provide a successful way of combining rewards, incentives and competitiveness with equality of opportunity. The question for Singapore today is whether this meritocratic balance can be achieved again in a competitive global city obsessed with a war for talent.

Social mobility, where those who do well can rise and those who don’t will fall, is a key component of meritocracy. In theory, leading positions in society should be filled by the most talented and motivated individuals, all of whom have been given the opportunity to succeed and have done so. This can create the conditions for a fair society to prosper and flourish.

Historically, Singapore may have benefited greatly from such an arrangement. When the former British colony became independent in 1965, it had an acute sense of its own vulnerability, not least because it lacked natural resources. Over time, meritocracy — particularly in the education system — became a way of effectively developing human resources and efficiently allocating talent to where it was most in need, particularly in key leadership positions in government, the economy and society.

It also created a widespread competitive culture that worked in tandem with an acute national instinct for survival and determination to succeed. In Singapore’s multiracial society, meritocracy necessitated a nondiscriminatory approach to developing and deploying human resources, which then became the legitimizing basis of social stability, a principle of governance and a pillar of national identity.

Most visibly, meritocracy has been a backbone of talent management in Singapore’s public administration. Each year, publicly funded scholarships are awarded to students to study at top universities, mostly overseas. The competition for these scholarships, on the basis of academic, extracurricular and leadership achievements, has been very keen. The returning scholarship-holders are stringently assessed to join the premier Administrative Service, where they are stretched, tested and groomed to become top public-sector leaders. The best of them become Permanent Secretaries (administrative heads of government ministries) or even cabinet ministers if eventually coopted into politics. Each year, Administrative Service officers are put through a thorough performance evaluation, ranked and subjected to a re-calibration of their career potential. A significant number are mercilessly removed to make way for new officers.

Since the 1990s, Singapore’s practice of meritocracy has shifted in focus away from egalitarian starting points to more outcome-oriented concerns surrounding reward and incentive. To discourage free-riding and maintain business competitiveness, the government developed a strong anti-welfare-state rhetoric. It started to pay its top officials and political leaders some of the highest salaries in the world, attracting the most qualified Singaporeans and raising the opportunity cost of corruption.

Today, the Singaporean idea of meritocracy is criticized for entrenching structural limits on mobility; for its overly narrow idea of merit and success; and for an increasingly self-regarding elite that seems too interested in staying in power and that citizens perceive as arrogant and unresponsive to their needs.

There has, however, been some attempt to re-balance meritocracy, bringing the egalitarian considerations back by introducing redistributive policies in a cautious shift to the left, partly no doubt in reaction to strong signals of popular displeasure in the general elections of 2011. A “compassionate,” “inclusive” and “lifelong” meritocracy has found its way onto the government’s agenda, including changes to its “pressure-cooker educational system,” criticized for streaming students into pathways that determine their life prospects at a very early age.

Learning from American universities more than a decade ago, Singapore’s universities remodeled their original British style of academic programs along the lines of the modular credit system, allowing them to broaden the undergraduate curriculum to include greater exposure to cross-disciplinary learning. In a sense, the liberal arts, usually a more privileged opportunity in the United States, became available to very large cohorts of students each year who pay highly subsidized fees in Singapore’s national universities.

University tuition fees in the United States has been escalating at an alarming level, creating a barrier to education for less-wealthy students and loading those who do manage to pay the fees with debt for several years after they graduate. But strong government oversight in Singapore, by comparison, has kept education fees very affordable. An education at elite schools and the national universities is never priced out of reach of the average Singaporean household, with grants made readily available to students who are unable to bear the full costs of their education. Affordability is thus never a major barrier for students who merit entry into Singapore’s best educational institutions. Meanwhile, the government gives assurance that every school is (at least) a good school.

More recently, the Singapore government rolled out an extensive nationwide program to better connect education with careers and to encourage continuous lifelong learning, with the aim of enabling all Singaporeans to achieve skills mastery at any stage of their lives. This not only offers more Singaporeans a continuous opportunity to earn qualifications; it can widen the pool of talent for an advanced and more inclusive economy.

Some critics have pointed to the need for a radical overhaul of the system rather than what they consider to be tweaks of this kind. Changing an entrenched elitist mind-set deeply committed to a high-results-producing meritocracy will be difficult. But these recent developments may be a good start.

These policies may start to free up the institutional rigidities that hinder social mobility and restore a public sphere disenchanted by elitism, mistrust and envy. The polarization of the public sphere in the United States has to some extent been the result of such disenchantment. A much smaller and younger country, Singapore cannot afford to be paralyzed by permanent cleavages.

Explore these other perspectives:

Tracey Ross: The unsettling truth about the tech sector’s meritocracy myth

Bill Bishop and Julie Ardery: Why self-creation matters more than merit.