Sunday 24 June 2012

Meritocracy's enemies

China's long history shows how easily elitism can rear its ugly head
By Wang Gungwu, Published The Straits Times, 23 Jun 2012

MERITOCRACY is a valued ideal in most of the modern world. But it is not natural, it can never be absolute and it needs constant attention. That is true everywhere and I believe that Singaporeans are realistic about Singapore being a meritocratic city-state with institutions in place to sustain it.

I was reminded of the ideal when visiting universities in China recently. There are dedicated scholars and brilliant students in many of the universities but fierce debates are going on about meritocracy as an institution. There is the touching belief that if there were meritocracy, many problems in the country would be solved.

But, in the universities, questions are raised as to how they could be rid of failings like fraud, favouritism, corruption, official interference and plagiarism that plague most corners of the system.

One point regularly made was that the Chinese should be reminded that Confucius was the first to propose that education be the basis for meritocracy in public service.

Indeed, most Chinese know that Confucius formulated the ideal that no one who wanted an education should be denied it. But Confucius was neither dogmatic nor optimistic about the possibility of meritocracy. He also believed that the most natural bonds in society were familial, especially those between parents and children. It was natural for families to favour their own. And many Confucian thinkers considered being filial as the first step to being a loyal subject.

This may seem contradictory. Confucius sought to avoid that by introducing the idea of reciprocal feelings: It was natural that when parents were caring as parents, children would respond with filial love. Similarly, rulers who provided their subjects with good governance would deserve their loyalty. It was in that context that education was the key.

It was therefore necessary to educate children, parents, subjects and rulers to moderate what was natural in society. Only in that way would people be prepared to challenge the idea that only those born to rule should be allowed to exercise power over others.

Therefore, princes, aristocrats and powerful warriors could be told that they could not be good rulers unless they were educated to that task. They could conquer their kingdoms on horseback but not rule from the saddle. They would need guidance from those carefully trained and selected to manage the state according to proper principles.

This led to the belief that the best way to achieve good governance was to choose the most talented people through different kinds of examinations. The system evolved over the centuries, and continuous efforts were made to ensure the fairness that earned the system respect.

With this mechanism, the combination of state power and bureaucratic management was committed to support a form of meritocracy. China's success attracted modern imitations and various forms of examination have now become the global norm.

Yet the system remained flawed throughout Chinese history. The obvious enemy of meritocracy might seem to be the temptations of office, but it was merito-cracy's cousin, elitism, that was more threatening in the longer run. Elitism came easily when mandarin graduates sought to help family members also to succeed. It needed strong commitments to the meritocracy ideal to prevent the rise of a natural oligarchy and even a virtual aristocracy.

This ideal, respected in Singapore and elsewhere, has its roots in the standards required for public service in imperial China. When conditions were favourable and the rewards for examination success were assured, elitist ambitions would grow in most official families. It was natural for those who succeeded and served loyally to hope that rewards will follow for generations. However, for the vast majority, their chances for similar success were slim. They might have to wait for rebellions or foreign invasion to provide new opportunities for these elites to be replaced.

China's long history has demonstrated that meritocracy was never absolute. No doubt it was bolstered by strong family values but it was also continually threatened by the natural instinct for powerful clans to build privileged bases for their clansmen.

Modern states and societies also want to minimise the elitism that could endanger the meritocracy ideal. Of course, no one can guarantee there will always be a level playing field. Birth and talent are never equal, and all societies expect a degree of unfairness. But, like the Confucians before them, they recognise the constant need to nurture the desire for a just society to enable upward social mobility.

The institutions designed to support equal educational opportunity are not always secure but, as long as they are monitored and regularly reviewed, most people will believe that the spirit of meritocracy can survive.

It is in that context that I found it encouraging that so many young Chinese are finding time to pursue some of the ideas of the once officially shunned Confucians. A surprising number of students I met have read the original classical texts to try and fathom what these might mean for Chinese society today. They do not approach it with the faith that their ancestors once had, but are doing so with a readiness to contemplate how ancient ideals might be reinterpreted to help find answers to current questions.

I am not sure they will be satisfied with what they find. It is difficult to relate ideals that flourished in an agrarian society to the demands of people who have moved to post-industrial towns and cities. The lives of the young in China are increasingly like those of their counterparts in Singapore. They are engaged daily in dealing with global developments that could not be more different from what their fathers experienced.

But the Chinese people are remarkably resourceful and pragmatic. Although they will discover that Confucian idealism is not enough, they may find that a strong dose of it can help rebuild the institutions vital for the spirit of meritocracy to survive.

The writer is a University Professor at the National University of Singapore, and Chairman of the Managing Board of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

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