Tuesday, December 20, 2011


Can true equality within a society ever be achieved? People have, for ages, been expressing the hope that we will live in a world where we are all equal, where divisions within society, especially wealth and class based divisions, will cease to exist. Entire governments have staked claims to power on the belief that they can create a truly egalitarian society.

But can true equality be achieved? No.

The reason for this is simple. All men are not created alike. Within a system, there will always be people who work harder, know how to bend the rules or are plain lucky. These people will end up richer and more successful. Inevitably, there will be people left at the bottom of the pile. 

Now, if governments start giving preferential treatment to those left out, that would in itself be a source of inequality, because not everyone is going to get such treatment. In that sense, there is another kind of inequality, in the way the government treats its people, as some people get special protection from it, and others don't.

Even with such handouts, there will be people who know how to put them to the best use, and people who take them for granted badly enough to end up just scraping by. Or even worse than before. Inequality cannot be eradicated, but it can be reduced.

Yet, governments still promise equality when it's impossible to achieve. In Malaysia, politics is essentially a battle of the Equalizers- which party (or coalition, rather) can truly achieve equality in our sorely divided country? Tragically, most of the solutions that would make a strong dent in inequality (improving rural education, eliminating quotas, and workfare instead of welfare) are often not the most catchy of political initiatives. For starters, they take time, and usually involve the disadvantaged community in effort of its own.

So what to do? The closest governments and societies can ever come to true equality is by providing equal opportunities for all. That means improving the standards of the educational facilities offered to the entire population, instead of using government funds to pay for excellent educational facilities for certain groups (i.e. MARA). It means a welfare system that focuses not on handouts, but on handups. It will also require all ethnic groups to do some heavy lifting, like rejecting the primacy of any particular group and eliminating vernacular education (more on that in another post, maybe). 

This is not a diatribe against welfare, mind. Just because inequality can't be eliminated doesn't mean we shouldn't try. Rather, it is a reminder that we can never be a truly equal society, and so the endless pursuit of quotas and other blunt force tools to eliminate inequality should be scrapped, because the harm they bring does not justify pursuing an impossible ideal. And it is an appeal to recognize that equality of opportunity is the best we can provide, and also that most (or all) forms of welfare should aim to put the disadvantaged peoples back into earning their own keep. Tying benefits to eventual employment or food aid to continued schooling are examples.

Inequality cannot be eliminated. But if governments give every person an equal (or as close to equal) chance for personal advancement while steering clear of quotas  and other blunt force preferential tools, we can go a good way to reducing it. 

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