Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The unequal race

I saw this picture that just strikes out at me, urging me insistently that I put it up on my blog. Here it is:

In the picture, it clearly shows the difference between those from a wealthy family background and those from a poorer background. Even though the physical starting line is the same, the race can never be fair simply because the financial starting line will never be the same. Considering the two person running the race. They had started work at the same age and time, so their physical start line is the same. But the person in the foreground had to run the race carrying the burdens of their parents while the one in the background is 'pushed' ahead effortlessly by their Mercedes driving parents.

Unlike a photograph, everything in a hand drawn cartoon strip is done with deliberation and purpose. Every little detail bespeaks something that the cartoonist is trying to portray, from the fact that the two person have different body weight (one is more massive than the other) to the graduate hard-top hat and the harness that is strapped to the guy in the foreground.

Perhaps this is where meritocracy fails us all. Success is so often portrayed as the result of meritocracy, where the standing of one's position in society is based on one's individual efforts or merits. But how can this be fair if all of us begin with different starting lines in the first place? The flip side of meritocracy is also the sad perception that if you've done your best but you still didn't make it in life, it's your own fault because in a meritocratic society, this is what we're saying - individual efforts produce individual success. If you don't succeed, you're either dumb or stupid, so shut-up and accept your lowly lot in life.

This is totally unacceptable. Totally. I really hope that the elites do not have this kind of condescending view point on those who did not quite make it in life, especially in comparison to them. My knuckles whitened in anger when I think of this.


Createwealth8888 said...

The Better Poorer starters may be able to catch a little of the unequal race after 15-20 yrs. At first, work harder at your job and later on let your money works even harder for you as Second pillar of wealth. Then your next generation will have a better starting point.

Born poor is not our fault. Die poor is definitely ours.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for sharing!

Do you envy the rich boy? I don't! Where will he be when the car move? If he is not lucky, he will fall off and knock down by the car. If he has a good sense of balance(which I doubt so), he will have no say in where he is going.

I feel sorry for the graduate. Look at his sadness. He has already given up. C'mon the race has not even started!!

If they fail, they know who to blame.

Why not change the mindset and take responsibility from now ?

Toh Wee

sgdividends said...

great pic and very to the point.

I read the book " hard truths" and my opinion is it is a fact of life.

I hate the pic because i belong to the thin person with the hard hat.

However, when i reflect and think to myself...what's the alternative to the present system,the mertiocracy system where everyone has equal opportunities but different results?

I cant think of one....


Anonymous said...

Isaac said...

LP, I totally agree with you.

Rich people have an advantage and should not be condescending and patronising towards those born poor.

No system is without it's flaws and Meritocracy is not spared.

Consider someone wanting to go medical school. Someone who is just a normal guy with normal parents, and the other who has doctors for parents.

The doctor's child has a few advantages- the parents can afford whatever tuition and enrichment classes. When it comes to experience, the parents can also pull some strings to get the child a coveted hospital attachment. (Believe me, these are HARD to get without connections). The interviewers for the medical school might be their ex classmates, colleagues etc. And a word or two could be put into the interviewers.

But I digress.

LKY has an interesting viewpoint in his book Hard Truths too. He's a firm believer in eugenics.

So taking his viewpoint and the fact that rich parents are better able to provide a good environment for their children, the whole "nature vs nurture" debate is moot.

Rich parents are likely to be highly educated and will pass their genes down to their offspring. Moreover, the superior environment in which the offspring grows up in gives him yet another advantage.

Basically, a vicious cycle, don't you think?

Anonymous said...

LKY only believe in Scholars. The rest are worker bees. Just like the systems of ancient China.
And yes the Rich always have their choices. If i am from a rich family, most probably i am a musician now.

Anonymous said...


Every system has its flaws if you look hard enough. The important thing is to work at the weak points of the system and strengthen the good points. Can you think of a better system than one based on meritocracy ?

For me, the most important point in meritocracy is that opportunities must be made available and given to those that are willing to work hard to move themselves to the next level. Hard work and opportunity must go hand-in-hand for most to succeed. If the poor are only going to lament their luck in being born poor, no amount of opportunities given is going to change their luck. Perhaps their luck may not change overnight or in one generation but there is better hope for the next generation to improve their lot. Not many of us were born with silver spoons in our mouths. So, I would agree with CW888.

The world is unfair. So, Isaac, be thankful that you have an opportunity to go to medical school and forget about those who have doctors for parents and the strings that they can pull. Who contributes more to society ? The plastic surgeon or the doctor working in A&E ? Who makes more money ? So is money the only yardstick for success ? Would you envy the footballers who make more money in one week than most of us in years ?

To a large extend, we have more control over our destiny than most of us would admit. LP, just look at your own situation. You are not satisfied doing what you are doing and maintaining the status quo. You are planning to do bigger things, from what I can gather from your posts. That is taking charge of your own destiny and you will come out the better for it, whatever the outcome. But from your plans for getting your First Class Honours, I am very sure you will succeed in whatever you put your mind to do.

If anyone accepts that life has not been fair to them and dealt them lousy cards and does nothing about it, then they deserve what they get.


Isaac said...

Hi Li

I'm very grateful, don't you worry. I'm just pointing out an anecdote on how the rich have an advantage.

But I definitely agree with you. No amount of whining or whinging will get one anywhere.

As much as it is not good for the rich and successful to be condescending, it is also not good for the poor to lament and lament over their poor lot in life.

Singapore Man Of Leisure said...


I sense your anger is more about "how" people treat each other. Your use the words "perception" and "condescending view" - I call it "labelling" of people.

Even if one is a multi-millionaire, the blue blood or old money rich may still make fun of the nouveau riche for speaking with the "wrong" accent and/or lacking the "finesse" in dressing.

Same goes for the "poor" (or middle-class). The discrimination the "poor" against other less well off people can be even uglier.... Just look how we treat and comment on foreign maids/workers in Singapore.....

I guess we need more carpenters who can accept prostitutes, tax collectors, and other pariahs as our brothers and sisters.

We need more Grace in our hearts.

Jared - with humility and shame

PanzerGrenadier said...


I read the book, "Outliers" by Malcolm Gladwell and think that he writes an convincing case that how and when you were born also makes an impact on whether we achieve success in the future.

Ceteris paribus, if two persons born with about equal IQs, EQs, the one that is born into more well-off family would have access to more things to help him along in life e.g. connections of family members, tuition, parents who are able and willing to pay close supervision to children in studies and CCA as they are not so living hand to mouth.

Ultimately success in life is a confluence of many factors including how, when you were born and how hard you work and the "luck" that presented opportunities to you (and if you seized them).

Be well and prosper.

CECiL said...

In my humble opinion, what is more fulfilling in life is achieving success when you started poor, rather than reaching success when you started rich.
The most satisfying is how you bring yourself to the next level, rather than having other people doing it for you.

la papillion said...

Hi all,

Wow, first of all I was surprised by the number of response..goes to show that this topic is close to a lot of people's heart.

I've got some issues to clarify. First of all, when I mean that I'm angry and 'this' is totally unacceptable, I mean the fact that the elites are looking down on those who cannot make it in life. I'm not angry with meritocracy per say, who can I be? I benefited from it. But to think that success is solely based on meritocracy is something that I find issue about.

Meritocracy is a good social mobility tool, but we have to worry about the two extremes coming from the top elites and the bottom rung people who struggle in this system. I take issue with the fact that the elites view the poor as individual failure, which is what meritocracy is all about. If you're good in what you do, you'll be successful. Thus conversely, if you're not successful, you're a failure. To think that the success of the elites are solely based on their own efforts alone is just purely delusional.

I'm asking for compassion and humility in the light of their success for these elites.

For those who struggle with the system, do not take it as individual failure but strive to be on the correct side of the fence. A system will always separate people into two sides- one who is exploited more and the other who benefited more. Since we can't change the system, we just have to find a way to jump over the fence to the correct side and help others cross it too when we're there ourselves.

A little compassion from the top and a little ambition from the bottom?

la papillion said...

Hi bro8888,

I always believe your quote too. Never will I give my kids a chance to complain about myself.

Hi Toh wee,

I didn't analyse the sadness on his face, so thanks for pointing it out to me :) To say that I don't envy the rich boy is to lie. But we all have to account for our own success.

Instead of saying we can only succeed because of our background, I suggest saying we succeeded in spite of our background.

Hi sgdivy,

Hard truths...I read a lot of reviews about it. Would like to get a copy to read it too :)

I can't think of a better system too. But we still have to criticise the bad points about the system. That's what I'm trying to do in the blog post :)

la papillion said...

Hi Isaac,

Eugenics...I can never agree with him on that. It may lead to a society where the uneducated are sterilized and given a job based on the job that his/her parents did. Have you seen the movie "Gattaca"? It's a horrific society that might just happen if eugenics is allowed to happen.

But I is a vicious cycle. It takes tremendous effort to break that cycle, and I feel that sometimes, I'm the one who is doing that breaking for my future generations. It's hardwork.

Hi Temperament,

Hmm, are you interested in music? Haha, for me, if i'm from a rich family, I'm be either a musician or an artist. I've never had training in music and how I loved to be able to do so...

But that will have to wait while I settle the more important issues in my life. At this pt in time, I have to serve others before my needs :)

la papillion said...

Hi Li,

Thank you for your balanced views. I'm totally in agreement with you. As mentioned, I do not see meritocracy as a bad system. It's just a system where we have to temper it with compassion.

I hope there are less elites who are not like a certain daughter, who infamously coined the term "uncaring elite". It's a sad day for all of us if the elites actually think like that.

la papillion said...


Hey, you're anger has nothing to do with the system itself but the way people label each other.

Haha, I like the way you put it...we do need more of such carpenters and perhaps we can throw in a few princes who threw away their status to find out why the world is suffering.

With more grace in our hearts indeed.

la papillion said...

Hi PG,

Hmm, I got to read the outliers...seems like you're deeply enthralled by it.

The results is what we have expected, isn't it? Luck is not for the unprepared, don't they say? haha


Oh, I'm not so saintly...I do envy them but ultimately what can I do but to reach my own success in my own way? Imagine how even more successful one would be with all the resources available at your finger tip.

Perhaps that is the point. With the fruits of success at your fingertip, because the hunger will no longer be there.

So a philosophical question: would you rather be rich at birth or be poor but equally rich?

Chong Jun said...

Hi LP,

I believe in working diligently to gain success. While one might have a good head start, it doesn't warrant them any success at all, at most a higher probability. Eventually, its down to oneself's choice and what they want.

Thus, I would like to add on that I personally wouldn't be bias towards people who've reached the pinnacle just because they have a better head start. While it is not right ethically to mock at those who're at the bottom of the hierarchy, I believe the success they've got should at least give them the benefit to do so.

Of course, I wouldn't encourage anyone to do so cause it's definitely not a polite thing to do. However if there are unfortunate times for me to receive hurtful comments, I'd just tell myself there's nothing much I can do but to aim towards the success they got.

la papillion said...

Hi CJ,

Perhaps you need to be reminded of how snoobish such attitude can be:

No no no, I vehemently disagree that we should mock those who didn't make it. If you've tried to give advice but they didn't take it, then so be it. Be to view them differently because of your success, I really don't think that is what we should do.

I think Buffett's advice on how to be a good CEO applies here. He mentioned that he should act in his position of power to his shareholders , in such a way that even if their positions are reversed, he wouldn't find it disagreeable. Something like that :)

Now that's an advice everyone in positions of power should strive for, don't you think? :)

AK71 said...

Hi LP,

I didn't want to leave a comment but, now, I cannot tahan after reading all the other comments.

To the disgruntled, we need to give them proper guidance. The system in Singapore does give everyone a chance. Don't want to talk about whether someone has an advantage or not. I don't think it is useful to talk about this.

My parents are not graduates but they provided for us children to the best of their abilities. They definitely gave us what they did not have when they were children, I am sure. The rest was up to us children. All of us graduated from NUS and I was lucky enough to get a scholarship from PSC too.

If we want something bad enough, we would find ways to do it. Hey, that sounds familiar. Of course, I blogged about it too. A question of attitude? For sure. ;)

Createwealth8888 said...

Read? The Best Gift To Your Child

la papillion said...

Hi AK,

Haha, why cannot tahan? :)

You give very well balanced and thoughtful comments, and I thank you for sharing them :)

Hi Bro8888,

Oh I read your post on this before. I leave the child without any burden is a good gift already. Anything more is a burden in these times.

Being the sandwiched generation isn't funny, really.