By Andreas C Chrysafis
January 2012 (No27) ©
Meritocracy is the power-source that drives nations to prosperity within the boundaries of a fairer society free from political suppression. It is not a government or a political system, but rather a practical ideology advocated for hundreds of years. Plato believed that: “only a select few have adequate knowledge to lead the state”, and the state should be based on a merit system to reward those who excel in their line of work. Although in contrast, he also advocated the principle of “majority rule”, he also considered democracy a system that encourages corruption and nepotism – not a bad assumption for a man who lived two and half thousand years ago!
This philosophy is not as rare as people may think; it is an attitude that societies, industries and governments should all strive to attain. Its underlying principle has played a major influence in many areas and it can be found in the hierarchy of academia, banking, sciences, medicine and other professions, but mostly, in the operational structure of progressive large corporations. Meritocracy has been the main driving force behind some companies becoming successful while others remain stagnant.
The modern-day concept of meritocracy spread from China to British India during the 17th century and then into continental Europe and the United States. Yet one of the oldest examples of a merit-based system, which relied on competitive examinations for recruiting civil servants, dates back to the Han Dynasty – 200 B.C. In order to deter and prevent the infestation of favouritism, only those that scored the highest marks were hired; this strict criteria applied to all applicants equally without any exceptions!
Therefore, meritocracy can be described as a method of prohibiting job appointments to unqualified individuals. It is a fair and an inspiring concept suitable for industries, corporations, governments and institutions, wherein appointments are assigned to individuals as determined by examinations. Merit can take the form of intelligence, credentials, education, practical expertise, general aptitude or specific knowledge, but above all else, reasoning and common sense by the recognition of one’s own limitations. Having “the right connections” then becomes meaningless!
A society or a state that respects peoples’ worthiness and achievements will ultimately succeed over the rest – provided an elitist society is not nurtured or encouraged to develop. Meritocracy is forever immune because it has the ability to conform to all given social changes. Like truth, it is indestructible!
At the other end of the scale, there exists a culture where equality of opportunity, based on merit, has been avoided or worse, not practiced at all. The present-day pseudo-democratic ethos of cronyism chips away at this most fair-minded practice with unprecedented bad results. In this case, meritocracy has been replaced by a thriving nepotistic system that grew worldwide due to the abuse of power, greed and corruption so commonly found in societies ruled under the principle of plutocracy.
No government has ever attempted to introduce a meritocratic system on a large scale – probably with the exception of the Republic of Singapore, an ex-colonial nation since 1963. Today, it has a highly qualified government; a massive increase in wealth backed by a skilled Civil Service, and has an unsurpassed education system with emphasis on achievement based on meritocracy. In a short few years after gaining its independence from British rule, it has become one of the Four Asian Tigers. There, meritocracy has played a major role in the county’s economic miracle and social consciousness. But to achieve this, it was necessary to introduce radical changes, break down barriers and old taboos, face extreme opposition and ultimately change the status quo. This proves one thing: radical changes for the better are possible and there is no place for defeatism or negativism!
To achieve such an uphill task however, having a strong leadership with a clear vision is of the utmost importance. Unfortunately, Cyprus was never blessed with such a vision. The argument that Cyprus is a young country with “teething problems”, and therefore cannot be compared with other nations, is absolutely false and represents a cop-out; Singapore is a much younger state and has achieved miracles due to a positive driving force, meritocracy and a good government with determination!
Sadly, the political elite in Cyprus thrive on the present self-serving system; the labour unions love it, the government practices it, institutions depend on it, its education system encourages it, and the public sector thrives in it. Indeed, something has gone really wrong somewhere on this little island…
The prevailing culture in Cyprus needs an overhaul, but the question arises, which government dares to do that? Not one! Unions, in collusion with the political parties, both control the government and dictate government policy. In a sense, Cyprus has never had a meaningful leadership elected by the people, for the people, to lead the nation into new horizons. To understand the system one needs to dig a little deeper and enter into the psyche of the people and the system’s entire structure.
It is a well-known fact that no person or a professional can secure a position in the public sector or semi-government institution “off the street” as they say; not unless he/she has a party identity card and the “wise committee” approves the application before it’s processed. Who is this wise committee? It’s a group of party-faithful diehards appointed by the unions, government and political parties to ensure no outside influence tampers with the system – it is an unspoken rule! Those unwavering “wise committees” are there to ensure the pie is shared equally only among certain elite members by strategically appointing their own people in key positions with party/political objectives in mind; they are all doing it, and have become part of an accepted evil.
Regrettably, this appalling practice has blossomed out of an archaic system that does not allow outsiders or better-qualified candidates to get their foot in the door; not unless they succumb to the entire rotten system and become a part of it. The powerful unions always make sure the country stays mired in a time warp.
All considered, the Republic of Cyprus has the potential of becoming one of the most desirable nations in the Mediterranean; it has year-round sun, an ancient culture, strong traditions, a multi-ethnic population, and now, with the discovery of natural gas, natural resources that have attracted global attention. That potential, however, can only be realized if the Republic starts to reform its outdated ways and puts in place a series of social changes to enshrine the rights of all citizens on the basis of equality free from ethnic, social and job discrimination.
The present mentality endorses the misconception that people at the top have secured their position because of their know-how, worth and aptitude. In most cases, that is far from the truth! In fact, the existing system is open to manipulation and corruption, which ultimately promotes complacency at the very top, which then encourages sluggishness at the bottom end. It is crucially important to eliminate the causes of failure in the pecking order. Consequently, firing should be a “top-down” affair to clear the air, and hiring a “bottom-up” affair to encourage growth based on merit and not “connections”.
The biggest advantage of all, is that academics, scientists, and other professionals will be encouraged to remain in Cyprus rather than migrate abroad. This is one of the biggest problems facing the nation today: the “brain drain” of most of its young professionals, because the government has failed to create opportunities for growth. A teacher or a doctor for example, may have to wait over 5-7 years before being assigned to a job; that is, if they are lucky!
Avoiding stopping down to the unions, political cronyism and “inside connections” in order to be hired, will liberate peoples’ minds and push the nation forward. A society shall then develop on the basis of the Rule of Law and Justice; a society that shall treat all citizens fairly without favouritism; merit can then play a major role. If those prerequisites are not met, Cyprus’ failure is almost guaranteed, big time!
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