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.

This new approach has been dubbed "compassionate meritocracy".

Singapore's discourse on meritocracy has failed to gain much traction abroad. This is largely because it was not presented as a universal ideal. Rather, Singapore's leaders have consistently emphasised that the need to ensure that the most capable people are in charge is particularly pressing in a tiny city-state with a small population, limited resource base, and potentially hostile neighbours.

Nonetheless, the discourse on political meritocracy has been revived beyond Singapore in recent years. One reason is the increased realisation that electoral democracy is a flawed political system, and that meritocracy can help to remedy some of its flaws. Winston Churchill famously said that democracy is a flawed political system except for all the others. But he had Nazism and Stalinism in mind as the alternatives.

The most obvious problem with electoral democracy is the "tyranny of the majority", which allows the voting community to oppress unpopular minority groups. But today, an equally serious problem is the "tyranny of the minority" in which a well-funded minority group can block necessary reform.

But perhaps the most serious problem is "the tyranny of the voting community". This occurs when voters support benefits for themselves at the cost of future generations, who lack representation in the political process. On issues such as global warming, the "tyranny of the voting community" might well spell the end of the world as we know it. At the very least, meritocratically-selected political leaders could help to check such tendencies.

The second reason for the recent revival of political meritocracy is the rise of China. Here, Singapore has played an important role. Notwithstanding claims about Singapore's unique context, the actions of Singapore's political leaders suggest a belief that Singapore's model of political meritocracy should influence other countries, especially those with a Confucian heritage.

Since the 1990s, thousands of Chinese officials have travelled to Singapore to learn from its experience. While Singapore's political system could not readily be transferred to a huge country like China, it constitutes a model that has helped to shape China's recent move towards meritocracy. Inspired by Singapore's example as well as its own history, China has developed a sophisticated and comprehensive system for selecting and promoting political leaders that involves decades of training and a battery of exams for officials at various stages of their careers.

These meritocratically selected leaders have overseen an economic boom that has lifted several hundred million people out of poverty. At the same time, however, problems like inequality, environmental degradation, official corruption, and repression of political dissent and religious expression have worsened.

In order to reverse these trends, China needs to implement democratic reforms aimed at checking abuses of power. It also needs to develop its meritocratic system further. Government officials should be selected and promoted on the basis of ability and morality, rather than political loyalty, wealth, or family background. And officials should be rewarded for their contributions, not just to GDP growth, but also to reducing social and economic inequalities and promoting a more caring form of government. Here, too, Singapore's example of compassionate meritocracy can offer useful lessons.

With the global balance of power shifting rapidly, China can no longer be judged solely by Western liberal-democratic norms.

Meritocracy, which is central to the Chinese political tradition, will almost certainly serve as a reference point from which to assess the country's development. But what precisely should be the standards for assessing meritocratically-selected political leaders? That will be the subject of my next comment.

The writer is visiting professor in the Departments of Philosophy and Political Science, National University of Singapore. An earlier version of this article was published by Project Syndicate. His latest book is The East Asian Challenge For Democracy: Political Meritocracy In Comparative Perspective (Cambridge University Press).

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