Meritocracy in politics: S'pore's influence on China

Meritocracy in politics: S'pore's influence on China
Students of the 'Mayors' Class' - a Nanyang Technological University programme attended predominantly by Chinese officials, many earmarked to be mayors - visit the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau.

Political meritocracy is the idea that a political system should aim to select leaders with above average ability to make morally informed political judgments. That is, political meritocracy has two key components: (1) the political leaders have superior ability and virtue; and (2) the selection mechanism is designed to choose such leaders.

Political meritocracy is central to both Chinese and Western political theory and practice. Political thinkers - from Confucius and Plato, to James Madison and John Stuart Mill - struggled to identify the best strategies for choosing leaders capable of making intelligent, morally informed judgments on a wide range of issues.

But such debates largely stopped in the post World War II era. In China, they stopped because Maoism valued the political contributions of farmers and workers over those of intellectuals and educators. In the West, they stopped because of the intellectual hegemony of electoral democracy. A democracy demands only that the people select their leaders; it is up to voters to judge the merits of candidates. While liberal democracies empower experts in, say, administrative and judicial positions, they are always accountable, if only indirectly, to democratically elected leaders.

In Singapore, however, political meritocracy has remained a central issue, with the country's leaders continuing to advocate the institutionalisation of mechanisms aimed at selecting the candidates best qualified to lead - even if doing so meant modifying the democratic process in order to facilitate the election of these pre-selected candidates.

In order to win support, they have sometimes appealed to Confucian tradition. As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong explained, one of the many Confucian ideals that remain relevant to Singapore is "the concept of government by honourable men, who have a duty to do right for the people, and who have the trust and respect of the population".

After attaining independence in 1965, Singapore's leaders gained the population's trust and respect by presiding over spectacular economic growth. Over the last few years, declining electoral support for the Government suggests that the public's trust in its political leaders has diminished, compelling the Government to adopt a more accommodating stance.

While Singapore's leaders still contend that meritocratically selected officials will take a long-term view, rather than cater to electoral cycles, they recognise the need for greater equality and wider political participation. To this end, they have eased restrictions on political speech and stopped pursuing harsh retaliation against opponents.

Moreover, to reduce income inequality and enhance social mobility, Singapore's Government has increased benefits for the socioeconomically disadvantaged and the middle class, including by investing in education and making health care more affordable.

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