Compassionate Meritocracy

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.

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 Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong 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.”