In his recent tour to USA, Premier Imran Khan, spoke at length on the significance of merit-based culture in every walk of life. He drew parallels from Islamic and Muslim history to bring forth his argument that democracy can flourish in a society only if merit is made a cornerstone of its values. Democracy permits accountability — so if merit is compromised, the system will throw out any beneficiary of such compromise. Merit has to be at the root of all initiatives and appointments. A British sociologist and labour politician Micheal Douglas Young wrote a book in 1958, “The Rise of Meritocracy”, in which he coined the term “meritocracy”.
It is only in a noble soul that merit lights the flame of higher performance. This scribe is separated by few lesser years in age with Imran Khan, but having spent a small portion of childhood, in the Ayubian Era, I can readily relate to his romanticism with Ayubian period, during which we as a nation rightly celebrated as ‘the decade of development’. The industrial base that was created then hasn’t been matched in subsequent years. This was made possible by the then upright and honest bureaucracy that prepared a blue print, a vision for an economically prosperous Pakistan. In the mid-sixties, we were ahead of South Korea in economic terms.
The bureaucrats of the 50s and 60s decade were well trained, mostly upright, honest and dedicated. The 303 that was fired by General Yahya Khan actually backfired. The country lost the services of some of the most competent civil servants. For a few black sheep, one doesn’t have to annihilate, the entire herd. Damage had been done to “meritocracy”.
In work is merit — it is not a job. It is about passion. It is about missionary zeal. Honesty and merit have to be in an inseparable partnership for any society to thrive with nobility — leading to better economic productivity.
The early 70s was a period of romanticising with the socialist fad — each according to his needs, against the free enterprise slogan of, each according to his ability. The unfortunate saga of sacrificing merit happened at the hands of the most popular leader in Pakistan’s history and my hero, ZA Bhutto; when he brought in a “talented cousin”— since a brother like Shahbaz Sharif wasn’t available to Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto; a cousin was his best choice. The malice of ineptitude coupled with nepotism had begun to take roots in our society.
Since the late 70s, the nation is witness to dishonest; intellectually corrupt and apparently competent leadership. The only interregnum was General Musharraf’s era, but he fell victim to the diabolical machinations of “seasoned politicians”. Merit was again uprooted by cronyism, patronisation and nepotism. The general stood hoodwinked by the wily banker turned politician, with abetment from Gurjat.
The emergence of dynastic politics in South Asia is a case in point— merit no longer was the differentiating factor; it was the family tree that ensured the smooth transition into power corridors, of those devoid of merit and talent — so inevitably, all hell of corruption had to unleash itself, with full fury upon the society. It did. We are still reeling from its wrath.
Corruption and lack of merit are Siamese twins --- inseparable. They always co-exist, nay, they give breath of life, to each other. Merit in a person works only with divine consent. Merit is a personal privilege and not be-gotten by transfer or inheritance. Merit needs no crutches, it stands firm on its own feet. “Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself, but talent instantly recognises genius,” as per Sir Arther Conan Doyle.
Deceptive societies give more recognition to appearance of merit, than merit itself. A major cause of embarrassment to most leaders and managers is “assumption of merit”. Nepotism strikes at the root of merit. In fact, nepotism is the root cause of all evil. It is like a snowball that once set to roll, gains momentum and swells over time. Countries and organisations should have a policy of no hiring of blood relatives, to the senior leadership or management. There should be zero tolerance to nepotism, despite the presence of best credentials.
Just don’t have them — they develop their own set of cronies; over time this band of individuals, become vicious against each other leading to mismanagement, corruption and corporate chaos. Those readers who have watched “Dynasty”, “Falcon crest” and “Dallas”, may relate to the reality of this phenomenon.
Here on lighter note, I recall with laughter that our local Omar Sharif, in one of his stage plays, based on pure ridiculous gift of the gab becomes PM. On the first day in office, he asks a man standing close to him to fetch him a glass of water — the person obliges — Omer Sharif says to his cabinet secretary (pseudo!), this man served we with water during election rallies, please post him as DIG-Lahore! Hilarious; but close to reality.
Alexander Pope wrote, “Charm strikes the light, but merit wins the soul.” Merit, when backed by hard work, produces masterpieces of productivity and performance. Meritocracy enables development of an environment where anybody with skill and imagination will perform to the highest levels. A society that recognises and promotes meritocracy infuses power to any individual based on talent, skill, ability, effort as against inherited power or wealth. Meritocracy culture must be pursued relentlessly in corporates and in the government functions too. Assessment of merit is critical to the development of culture of merit. It is simply the job of the manager / leader. Lending ears to all, will lead to the leaders corruption of thought. Weak leaders / managers succumb to hear-say, rumours and the anonymous whisperers, who indulge in incognito presence, with unsigned mails, letters and loads of rubbish on the social media, etc. Merit must be recognised in isolation.
Meritocracy shouldn’t be allowed to become a myth. In an article titled, “the Myth of Merit”, Robert Reich, writing about the current US education system, says “Most Americans still cling to meritocracy notion that people are rewarded according to their effort and abilities. But Meritocracy is becoming a cruel joke. The Justice Department recently announced indictment of dozens of wealthy parents for using bribery and fraud to get their children into prestigious colleges.”In Pakistan too, we are all witness to concentrated wealth contrasting with bottomless poverty. And the effect of this is not restricted to only the education sector, but prevails through all reams of the societal structure.
Those who do not let the currency of merit gain strength, either at the country or corporate level are essentially courting disaster for the organisation and their own selves.
Our prime minister spoke at length on “merit” on the American soil, and coincidentally, in the earlier referred article, Reich ends his piece with the following, “meritocracy remains a deeply held ideal in America. But the nation is drifting even farther away from it. In the age of Trump, it seems, everything is for sale”. In Pakistan, let merit be not on loot sale.
Every Pakistani today, looks at Imran Khan to make the culture of merit gain ground and recognition in every segment of our society. Meritocracy should not be rendered into a yet another political rhetoric. No lip service. No more please.
The writer is a senior banker and free lance columnist