SINGAPORE – 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. But 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 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 twentieth 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.