11.2.4 The Practice of Meritocracy

Dr. Logan Masilamani

In ancient China, people who wanted to serve as officials had to pass a civil service examination, which was a complex but fair system of competition. Meritocracy is another fundamental attribute of Confucianism. Merit versus the notion of patronage has been an issue in a multitude of societies. The examinations focused on Confucian classics, poetry, literature, calligraphy, and policy argument. Variance in the curriculum existed in different periods, but it was generally believed that individuals in good command of Confucian classics (especially the Four Books) would be virtuous and incorruptible officials. This demonstrates the emphasis on an individual’s capacity to understand and practice proper concepts as initiated by Confucius. Confucius strongly believed that to undertake the moral and practical obligation of steering a society, and individual would have to understand the ethical and moral obligations of his ideology.

In the Confucian view, rulers, as individuals, should strive to become outstanding individuals of the good life for other people to follow. Governments must be appropriately institutionalized to formulate proper policies and conduct suitable administrations to promote people’s well-being. Accordingly, the Confucian view of government can fit into the formal definition of a political meritocracy.

Rather than patronage, this ideology believes in the high moral standards of merit. This reflects how many of the countries in East Asia and Southeast Asia employ stringent tests and examinations in all parts of their citizens’ lives. Singapore, for example, still employs standardized examinations for grade three students onwards. This aims to create a well-disciplined individual that is used to the concept of merit rather the notion of patronage to achieve a higher standard of living for the individual and also the collective society.

Singapore’s merit system is also part of the political system. A special brand of individual comprises the core government officials in Singapore who create policies. Based on merit, these individuals become “technocrats” who are trained to become leaders. This is a contemporary example of the Confucian practice of meritocracy. Western scholars have also actively looked at this concept of merit and the political system (for more on meritocracy, see chapter 3 on liberalism in this textbook).

The by-product of relying on merit is an attempt to eradicate the systemic and visible corruption in a society. To a great extent, a strong belief in patronage in some societies can lead to the development of corrupted institutions and processes. Thus, a strong adherence to a system fundamentally built on the notion of merit can eradicate corruption and the economic and political inefficiencies that come along with it.


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Political Ideologies and Worldviews: An Introduction Copyright © 2021 by Dr. Logan Masilamani is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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