On Love, Living and Meritocracy
Love Story, Paramount Pictures, 1970
My father once said, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” It is taken from Love Story, a 1970 movie based on the novel of the same name by Erich Segal. He skewed that line out of context, and I hated whenever he said that, because he used it to excuse any wrong he had done.
But it is a beautiful, profound line.
One that is prone to misinterpretation, and one that is of interest in psychology.
There is an element of making up and forgiveness in that line: perhaps it means never needing to say sorry but rather having the good sense to show, and the other party being willing to forgive if such actions are heartfelt and contrite.
But what about one who does not get (in the sense of not receiving and therefore not knowing) love? To know what love is, one must learn about it, be immersed in it. How does she heal, how does she know how to recognise love otherwise? She must, to be human, to live.
What if someone like me, someone completely friendless, and devoid of love from others, approaches the subject of love?
Well, I know two old men, but they are old, and their love is from a distance, doing what they can to make sure I stay employed and therefore have a means to sustain myself while I attempt to self-actualise.
On the subject of self-actualisation, Appiah (2018) has written:
The central task of ethics is to ask what it is for a human life to go well. A plausible answer is that living well means meeting the challenge set by three things: your capacities, the circumstances into which you were born, and the projects that you yourself decide are important.
On living well: one of those old men said to me, “You are surviving, but that is not living. One must also live well.”
He showed concern for me after reading the first autobiographical piece of mine, and conceded during one of our conversations that he, and those of his generation, are “yesterday’s men”. He told me that he grew up poor, and his present fortune can be attributed to a series of shrewd investments.
Perhaps that explains his partiality towards me. Beneficiaries of the old meritocracy, where one can achieve success through business and enterprise, are rare these days. Meritocracy in Singapore today is rigidly institutionalised, even within small industries.
Through the discourse and institutionalisation of meritocracy, the narrative of large-scale upward mobility is scaled down to the individual level.
What are the contours of ‘meritocracy’? Upward mobility is something individuals can achieve; this is a modern sensibility in its implication that one’s fortunes are detached from that of one’s family. Second, mobility can be achieved via hard work within the formal education system; this is in contrast to the model of success through business and enterprise that was the dominant mode before mass education. Third, the formal education system is strongly focused on academic know-how and examinations that test these. Fourth, while hard work is a necessary ingredient, an element of success is presumed to be about natural abilities; while everyone has a shot at success, there is natural inequality among people and the system cannot correct those natural inequalities of intelligence and talent. Part of what a meritocratic system does then is to sort, select, weed out, and differentially reward students, with examinations being the main tools deployed. (Teo, 2018)
Deleuze (1992, p. 7) said: “Many young people strangely boast of being ‘motivated’; they re-request apprenticeships and permanent training. It’s up to them to discover what they are being made to serve…”
Nearly three decades later, Markovits (2019, pp. 54-55) might have the answer:
Meritocracy has created a new class of super-skilled bankers, accountants, lawyers, and other professionals who seek favourable personalised treatment from government — concerning regulatory requirements, for example, or tax shelters — on behalf of individual clients… All these professions empower the rich to resist regulation and thereby disempower the rest from subjecting wealth to law. They are, moreover, creatures of meritocracy — of the training that meritocratic educations provide and of the enormous labour incomes that meritocratic work affords. In this way, meritocracy directly produces a new means for undermining democratic self-government.
Meritocracy enhances the elite’s power to resist the state. Meritocratic inequality creates incentives for the most skilled workers to grow rich by devoting themselves to defending still richer people’s fortunes against government encroachment. By inventing the superordinate private-sector job, meritocracy endows a class of workers — accountants, bankers and lawyers — with the means and the motive to block the state’s efforts to seize, or even just to regulate, elite wealth.
The “yesterday’s man” who told me I am not living is a respected retired lawyer, who still acts in an advisory capacity. Perhaps he was one of those super-skilled lawyers acting for the richer-still in his heyday, and reading about what this meritocratic system does to someone like me — how it almost destroyed me professionally and personally for not fitting into any societal structure — shook him up a bit.
Perhaps I am not completely devoid of love from others, but something is still missing. The personal, the familial — I realise I cannot write about love for I know not what it is.
With thanks to Jeremy Fernando for being my first reader and my guide.
 Ludden, D. (2016, April 10). Does Love Really Mean Never Having to Say You’re Sorry?. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/sg/blog/talking-apes/201604/does-love-really-mean-never-having-say-you-re-sorry
 Some years ago, in my early-mid 30s, I cut off all ties with an old life, entering a new (still perilous) world as if reborn.
 Appiah, K.A. (2018, October 18). The myth of meritocracy: who really gets what they deserve?. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/oct/19/the-myth-of-meritocracy-who-really-gets-what-they-deserve
 Lilith. (2019, March 10). Ravings of a Madwoman. One Imperative. Retrieved from https://www.oneimperative.com/2019/03/22-ravings-of-a-madwoman-by-lilith/
 Teo, Y.Y. (2018). Step 1: Disrupt the Narrative. In This is What Inequality Looks Like. Retrieved from https://www.ethosbooks.com.sg/blogs/epiphany/step-1-disrupt-the-narrative-inequality-singapore. Ethos Books.
 Deleuze, G. (1992). Postscript on the Societies of Control. October, 59 (Winter, 1992), 3-7.
 Markovits, D. (2019). The Coming Class War. In The Meritocracy Trap (pp. 46-73). Allen Lane.
About the Author:
Lilith is currently a librarian, after several years off-grid working a string of dead-end odd jobs in Singapore. She has also been described as some kind of journalist, and is a BA (Journalism) graduate from Monash University. Her writings have been published in One Imperative and Queen Mob’s Teahouse.