More than two decades ago, the political leaders in Singapore put forward the idea of “Asian values” to assert that liberal democratic principles and practices were not suited to the region. This decision sparked an important debate that centered on the universality of human rights. But these discussions largely neglected another innovative proposal from Singapore’s leaders: Modern political systems should operate as meritocracies.Political meritocracy, in which leaders are selected on the basis of their skills and virtues, 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 who were capable of making intelligent, morally informed judgments on a wide range of issues.
But such debates largely stopped in the 20th century, partly because they challenged the universality of democracy. A democracy demands only that the people select their leaders; it is up to voters to judge the merits of the 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 institutionalization of mechanisms that are aimed at selecting the candidates who are best qualified to lead – even if doing so meant imposing constraints on the democratic process. In order to win support, they have often appealed to the 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 honorable men, who have a duty to do right for the people, and who have the trust and respect of the population.”
After Singapore attained independence in 1965, the country’s leaders gained the population’s trust and respect by presiding over spectacular economic growth. But, over the last few years, the public’s trust in its political leaders has diminished considerably, compelling the government to adopt a more accommodating stance.
While Singapore’s leaders still contend that meritocratically selected officials should take a long-term view, rather than cater to electoral cycles, they recognize 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 socio-economically disadvantaged and the middle class, through such methods as 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, largely because it was not presented as a universal ideal. Rather, Singapore’s leaders have consistently emphasized that the need to ensure that the most capable people are in charge is particularly pressing in what is effectively a tiny city-state with a small population, a limited resource base and potentially hostile neighbors.
Nonetheless, their actions suggest a belief that Singapore’s model of political meritocracy should influence other countries, especially those with whom it shares a Confucian heritage. In this sense, Singapore’s strong relationship with China could do much to advance the cause of political meritocracy.
Since the 1990s, thousands of Chinese officials have traveled 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 toward meritocracy. Indeed, following Singapore’s example, 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 such as corruption, 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 according to 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.
In the early 1990s, nobody predicted that China’s economy would become the world’s second largest within the space of 20 years. Perhaps in another two decades, we will be discussing how Chinese-style meritocracy has provided an alternative – even a challenge – to Western-style democracy.
Daniel A. Bell is a visiting professor at the National University of Singapore. Chenyang Li is an associate professor at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. This commentary is adapted from their book “The East Asian Challenge for Democracy: Political Meritocracy in a Comparative Context.” THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate-Institute for Human Sciences © (www.project-syndicate.org).