Meritocracy, Multiculturalism, Democracy and the Elected Presidency

As a small nation-state, Singapore has claimed meritocracy, the idea that those who are “best qualified” should rule, as fundamental to their political system. Certainly, the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) has emphasized this from the early days of independence. However, I argue that recent events surrounding Singapore’s Elected Presidency have called into question not just the issue of democratic norms (which, admittedly, has been a debate well-worn out), but even the idea of a multicultural, meritocratically-run government itself.

Meritocracy vs Democracy

Meritocracy, as Daniel Bell notes, operates under a simple assumption: “ordinary citizens often lack the competence and motivation to make sound, morally informed political judgements” (Bell, 2015: 153). As a result, good leaders that are chosen on the basis of merit must be in charge to ensure order in society. Singapore’s leaders have, traditionally, held on to this view. Lee Kuan Yew has gone on record in an interview with the Straits Time to say, “I say without the slightest remorse, that we wouldn’t be here, we would not have made economic progress, if we had not intervened on very personal matters – who your neighbor is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use. We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think” (Lee, 1987).

Before examining meritocracy’s tensions with democracy, a word on how Singapore has traditionally defined merit. Chua Beng Huat has identified the centrality of economic growth in the government’s argument for their legitimacy. So long as a government is providing material prosperity to the people, it remains legitimate. Frequently, the PAP has stressed material success as a defining trait of merit, as the presence of a significant proportion of high-flying ex-military generals and civil servants in the upper echelons of the government suggests.

Naturally, such ideas seem to conflict with contemporary democratic thought. Hannah Pitkin, in her work on representation, distinguishes between two different kinds (Pitkin, 1967). The first, the Burkean or paternalistic view, places decision-making power on the government, who supposedly acts in the interest of the people. Taken to its worst possible conclusion, such representation can lead to authoritarianism. Certainly, the PAP falls under this category as its ministers and politicians do subscribe to Burkean representation, with then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong saying, “As a custodian of the people’s welfare, it exercises independent judgment on what is in the long-term economic interests of the people and acts on that basis” (Kausikan 1997: 26). Conversely, the Liberal or democratic approach to representation places that same power squarely in the hands of the common people, with representatives elected to execute their will on a national, legislative level. As we have seen in the earlier quote by Lee Kuan Yew, that is not the stance of the PAP.

However, the PAP does try to mitigate such criticism, with attempts at ensuring a more diverse selection of views in Parliament through the Nominated MP and Non-Constituency MP Schemes (NMP and NCMP respectively). Under the NMP scheme, members of certain key sectors of the populace (e.g. the arts industry, entrepreneurs, academia etc.) are invited to apply to be MPs for a term of one year. They are appointed by the President and are allowed to vote on any bill except on constitutional amendments, no confidence motions and Presidential impeachment bills. And under the NCMP scheme, if the opposition gets less than nine seats in an election, the top losing candidates get seats to ensure that, at minimum, there are nine opposition parliamentarians with similar powers as the NMPs. Thus, the government has tried, in the past, to increase representation in order to ease tensions between democracy and meritocracy.

A further trait. of Singapore’s meritocracy is the emphasis on multiculturalism. In a heterogenous society of many races, religions and cultures, the government has tried to be inclusive of all races in its governing approach, as the requirement of one minority representative per ticket in Group Representation Constituencies attests to. Certainly, there have been some misfires on this front, as was the case when Lee Kuan Yew expressed certain negative views on the Malay community, claiming that “the other communities have easier integration … than Muslims” (Han et al., 2011: 228). However, by and large Singapore adopts a more or less race- and religion-blind approach to merit in politics and society.

The Elected President

One strange feature of Singapore’s meritocracy has been the elected President. Functioning in a predominantly ceremonial role, the President remains largely apolitical, with his main functions being diplomatic (welcoming visiting heads-of-state), unifying (together with a Council of Presidential Advisors, they ensure legislation preserves racial and religious harmony) and accountable (safeguarding the national reserves). The serious nature of the Presidency can be gleaned from the criteria to run for office, including:

  1. Being of outstanding moral character
  2. Being at least 45 years of age
  3. Having either:
    1. Experience as a Minister, Chief Justice or in other key political appointments
    2. Experience as the CEO of statutory board
    3. Experience as the CEO of a company worth $500 million in shareholder equity
  4. Being independent of any political party associations at the time of the election process

The Presidency clearly conforms to Singaporean standards of meritocracy, since a heavy focus is on their personal integrity and their financial experience. Naturally, there have been accusations of a lack of democratic integrity. Despite the stipulation of depoliticization, the three presidents before the 2017 election have had strong ties to the PAP (with two of them being ex-Deputy Prime Ministers and one a high-ranking civil servant and diplomat). It is also seen as a further consolidation of PAP control over the apparatus of the state, since if a different party is elected to power, their access to the reserves might be blocked by a PAP-friendly President.

However, for the sake of the argument, let us grant the PAP the benefit of the doubt and assume that the Presidency really does work as intended. In the next section, I examine the events surrounding the 2017 Presidential Election and show how, even given the most charitable analysis, the recent moves by the PAP government in amending the Presidential Elections Act have constituted a fundamental undermining not just of democratic integrity, but of the meritocratic nature of the office of President.

The 2017 Presidential Election

In January 2016, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, through the recommendations of a commission, proposed several changes to the Presidential Elections Act, including, among other things, the reserving of an election for a minority ethnicity which has not had a President from their group, as well as the raising of the bar for private sector individuals from owning a company worth $100 million worth in paid-up capital to $500 in shareholder equity. This raising of the bar excluded several candidates from the non-Malay communities, and even within the Malay community, several potential candidates from the private sector who could not meet the new criteria, led to a walkover with Halimah Yacob, ex-Speaker of Parliament, becoming President. While few have problems with her as a person and a candidate, there has been much disquiet about the nature of the election. I examine this under three criteria:

  1. The Democratic Criteria

Even if, as earlier stated, we look upon previous Presidencies with a charitable eye with regards to their adherence to democracy, I argue that this particular election represents a deep and fundamental break from any notion of democratic norms. The twin requirements of ethnicity and increased financial acumen have excluded people like Dr. Tan Cheng Bock, the runner-up from the previous election, who would have been more than capable of running for the office again under the old criteria. This has led, as noted, to a walkover in which people were deprived of their fundamental democratic right to vote.

  1. The Unifying Criteria

No one denies that Halimah Yacob herself is a person of outstanding moral character, as her record of public service attests. However, the President is supposed to be a unifying figure who transcends any socio-political category. Because of the new ethnicity requirement, it seems that the Presidency has become subject to the same kind of token affirmative action that has been the subject of heavy criticism in other government schemes (e.g. the GRC minority requirement). This greatly diminishes the moral gravitas of the President, since now, in this case in particular, it seems that the President is a tool of affirmative action, whose only job is to ensure the representation of a certain minority group, rather than the national symbol that people can unify around.

  1. The Meritocratic Criteria

Because of the increasingly stringent standards for private sector candidates, there appears to be an increasingly exclusionary effect against private sector candidates in favour of civil servants. This focus on the financial acumen of the President also excludes people who possess other qualities which are admirable in a President (e.g. integrity, honesty, ability to manage diverse populations) who previously qualified under the old $100 million requirement.

Under these three criteria, I argue that the 2017 election and the subsequent walkover appointment of Halimah Yacob to the Presidency, are not in conformity to even the most charitable reading of Singaporean meritocracy and democracy. It has reduced the Presidency from an office of unifying moral gravitas to one of mere political affirmative action. It has excluded many of the nation’s best minds in favour of a particular focus on business acumen. And, because of the increasingly exclusive criteria, it has deprived Singaporeans of the fundamental democratic right to vote.

Conclusion

Lee Kuan Yew once said, “Whoever governs Singapore must have that iron in him or give it up! This is not a game of cards, this is your life and mine” (Lee, 1980).  It is beyond this essay to judge whether Halimah Yacob truly has the iron in her to fulfil her role as President. However, the events surrounding her election do, to some cynics, seem like a political game of cards. By tweaking the rules in such a drastic way, the government has abandoned any notion of democratic norms and, more damagingly, has contradicted its own long-standing philosophy of meritocracy.

Bibliography

Chng, Henedick. “In 1980, Lee Kuan Yew Told SIA Pilots’ Union He Was Prepared to Ground Airline & Start Over.” Mothership.sg, November 16, 2016. https://mothership.sg/2017/11/lee-kuan-yew-singapore-airlines-union/.

Chua, Beng Huat. Communitarian Ideology and Democracy in Singapore. London: Routledge, 1995.

Han, Fook Kwang, Zuraidah Ibrahim, Mui Hoong Chua, Lydia Lim, Ignatius Low, Rachel Lin, and Robin Chan. Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going. Singapore: Straits Times Press, 2011.

Kausikan, Bilahari. “Hong Kong, Singapore, and ‘Asian Values’: Governance That Works.” Journal of Democracy 8, no. 2 (April 1997): 24–34.

Koh, Valerie. “Sweeping Changes Proposed for Elected Presidency.” TODAYonline, September 7, 2016. https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/sweeping-changes-proposed-elected-presidency?cid=h3_referral_inarticlelinks_03092019_todayonline.

Pitkin, Hanna Fenichel. The Concept of Representation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013.

Tan, Eugene. “Reserved Election: Boost for Multiracialism?” TODAYonline, September 9, 2016. https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/reserved-election-boost-multiracialism.

Yong, Charissa. “Parliament: 2017 Presidential Election Will Be Reserved for Malay Candidates, Says PM Lee.” The Straits Times, November 8, 2016. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/parliament-2017-presidential-election-will-be-reserved-for-malay-candidates-says-pm-lee.

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At Yale-NUS College, we are thinking about ideals of equality and democracy, and how they relate to practice, in Singapore and in the wider world.

This website showcases our reflections.

Articles were originally submitted as course papers for Professor Sandra Field’s classes Contemporary Egalitarianism and Democratic Theory.

The Equality&Democracy project has been made possible through the support of a Teaching Innovation Grant from the Yale-NUS Centre for Teaching and Learning: ‘Applying Political Philosophy to Real World Cases’.

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