Meritocracy and political liberalization in Singapore

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Along with a pragmatic approach to policy making and a deep intolerance for corruption, meritocracy has featured prominently in the codification of Singapore's model of governance. Over the course of Singapore's short history since gaining full independence in 1965, this evolving model has served as a self-conscious consolidation of governmental assumptions, techniques, and relationships identified as essential for Singapore's survival and success. However, it has also served as an ideologically defensive weapon for countering the liberal-democratic criticisms of a West in need of finding new demons to battle in the post–Cold War world as well as a soft power resource that has made some aspects of Singapore's development experience attractive to increasing numbers of influential admirers in developing as well as advanced countries.

The basic definition of political meritocracy that underlies most of the essays in this book refers to political leadership by persons with above-average ability to make morally informed political judgments and a process that is designed to select such leaders. But this makes political meritocracy little more than a baggy concept, the intuitive attractiveness of which can obfuscate the problem of what actually counts as merit, who gets to decide what counts as merit, and how it is to be identified and rewarded. Amartya Sen notes that merit is normatively defined by “the preferred view of a good society.” In democratic systems of representative government, political elections are viewed – at least in theory – as the means through which “the people” are empowered to decide what counts as “merit” and who possesses enough of it to make them the best leaders. Representativeness is, here, viewed not so much in terms of leaders who say what the people want them to say, but of leaders who have superior ability to make decisions that are in the best interest of the people they represent, without of course excessively contradicting what the people think they know to be in their best interest. Democratic responsiveness and accountability have never been a straightforward matter, even for staunch liberals wary of the masses. Nevertheless, the idea that democracy and meritocracy are compatible is entirely conceivable.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe East Asian Challenge for Democracy
Subtitle of host publicationPolitical Meritocracy in Comparative Perspective
EditorsDaniel A. Bell, Chenyang Li
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages26
ISBN (Electronic)9781139814850
Publication statusPublished - 12 Aug 2013


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