More than two decades ago, 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, sparking an important debate that centered on the universality of human rights. However, these discussions largely neglected another innovative proposal from Singapore’s leaders: Modern political systems, they declared, 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 (孔子) and Plato to former US president James Madison and John Stuart Mill — struggled to identify the best strategies for choosing leaders capable of making intelligent, morally informed judgements on a wide range of issues.
However, such debates largely stopped in the 20th century, partly because they challenged democracy’s universality. A democracy demands only that the people select their leaders; it is up to voters to judge candidates’ merits. 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 aimed at selecting the candidates who were 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 Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (李顯龍) explained, one of the many Confucian ideals that remains 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 attaining independence in 1965, Singapore’s leaders gained the population’s trust and respect by presiding over spectacular economic growth. However, 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 socioeconomically disadvantaged and the middle class, including by investing in education and making healthcare 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 a tiny city-state with a small population, 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 a Confucian heritage. In this sense, Singapore’s strong relationship with China could do much to advance the cause of political meritocracy.