The ‘tyranny of merit’ in Malaysian education

At first glance, the word ‘merit’ does not imply any form of tyrannical bent. But according to Michael J. Sandel [1], the ‘tyranny of merit’ refers to a society that valorizes those who are highly educated and credentialed but stigmatizes those who lack these elements at their disposal. He also stated that merit isn’t solely earned due to one’s effort but also tied in with other forces, such as our socioeconomic background and infrastructural support. 

Sandel’s experience in an eighth-grade math class at Pacific Palisades junior high in the late 1960s instantly reminded me of a particular school practice that we still inherit up until today. His teacher seated students in a precise order according to their grades. As their grades shifted with the dramatically announced results of every quiz, so did the seating. Sandel went from the second seat to the fourth seat. He thought that was how the school worked. The experience that Sandel had when he was in eighth grade was in parallel to the following practice:

In our context, a manifestation of ‘tyranny of merit’ can be illustrated through the sorting mechanism of students based on observable test scores. Academic adept students are placed in front classes, while low-performing students occupy back classes. The main purpose driving this systematic sorting is for teachers to provide the right enrichment or intervention to serve their student needs. Similarly, it also aids in crafting lesson plans that fit their students’ levels and abilities. However, this practice leads to teachers favoring academic adept students to excel, while underperforming students to barely pass through. This creates a Pygmalion effect where teachers’ expectation influence the outcome of their students’ achievement. Subsequently, academically low-performing students internalize these negative labels which leads to poor academic attainment.

Apart from the previous example, this also applies to how teachers view students who managed to get into top universities and those who ‘lack credentials’ to even pursue higher education. Teachers solely view students who managed to get into universities by seeing them as ‘gifted’ or ‘diligent’, or if students who are more likely to quit school or not academically inclined and prefer to work at moderately paid jobs, teachers tend to accuse them of being ‘lazy’ or ‘unmotivated’ to the point of unwilling to put more effort into teaching these classes more effectively and according to their needs, when in fact socioeconomic factors [2] or supporting infrastructures [3]&[4] could play a role in their achievements (or ‘failures’). The stigmatization of ‘lazy’ or ‘unmotivated’ students is a manifestation of the tyranny of merit, reflected in the culture of Malaysian education. 

Teachers are not exempted from the forces of the tyranny of merit. Teachers’ teaching performance is evaluated based on the students’ academic performance. If the teachers have not reached the expected Key Performance Index that has been targeted by the school, then the teacher would most probably be looked down upon or get blamed by the higher-ups for not reaching the target. Hence, teachers indirectly bear the brunt of the tyranny of merit when they fail to increase school grade averages due to students’ low academic performance, thus not getting any acknowledgement or recognition from the higher-ups such as getting an ‘Excellence Service Award’.

Teachers who look down on underperforming students need to look at the surrounding structures and the socioeconomic factors that have contributed to their underperformance. They are not as privileged as the students who are of wealthy backgrounds that can afford to attend tuition or be provided with other supplementary materials that could aid in their studies. Or if they are from the rural areas, their school facilities might not be as well-equipped as schools that are in the cities, hence not being able to aid in their studies as well. 

As for education administrators, admonishing the teachers who failed to reach the targeted KPI would be the typical response. However, the correct response would be to identify infrastructural problems and do everything within their capacity to address that. This is because systems should be organized to support quality teaching and equity [5]. The lack of learning facilities and infrastructure such as those in the rural area not only impedes quality student learning, but also quality teaching. 

When infrastructural problems are not solved or not met for those from underprivileged backgrounds, the students will be stigmatized by the teacher for not performing well in their subject matter. Subsequently, the teacher will be reprimanded by the higher-ups for being unable to reach the Key Performance Index. This creates a never-ending cycle that is caused by the tyranny of merit.

I am not saying that we should let go of our teaching responsibilities or forgo merit altogether. What I am suggesting here is to look at the wider structural problems that could contribute students academic underperformance, instead of stigmatizing them or their teachers. At the same time, we should adopt a sense of contributive justice, that is to acknowledge the contribution of every member of society (e.g. teachers who have done their jobs despite infrastructural challenges, or students who have not managed to get into university but have obtained jobs with decent salary) regardless of whether or not they are valued by the neoliberal conception of education or the market economy. The objective of contributive justice is to shift the perception of what makes life good by pinpointing what we can contribute to society instead of what we can receive from society. 


[1] Sandel, M. J. (2021). The tyranny of merit: What’s become of the common good? Penguin Books. 

 [2] Thomson, S. (2018). Achievement at school and socioeconomic background — an educational perspective. Npj Science of Learning, (January)., 

[3] Nepal, B. (2016) Relationship among school’s infrastructure facilities, learning environment and students’ outcome. International Journal for Research in Social Science and Humanities Research, 2 (July), 44-57.

[4] Hong, K., & Zimmer, R. (2016). Does Investing in School Capital Infrastructure Improve Student Achievement? Economics of Education Review, 53, 143–158.

[5] Darling-Hammond, L. (2017). Empowered educators how high-performing systems shape teaching quality around the world. Jossey-Bass.

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