Merit and Inequality: Confucian and Communitarian Perspectives on Singapore’s Meritocracy

Journal of Confucian Philosophy and Culture 41:29-64 (2024)
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This paper compares criticisms of Singapore’s meritocracy, especially against its impact on income disparities and class divisions, with Michael Sandel’s critique of the meritocratic ethic in the United States. Despite significant differences in their history and politics, meritocracy has similar dysfunctions in both societies, allowing us to draw theoretical conclusions about meritocracy as an ideal of governance. It then contrasts Sandel’s communitarian critique of meritocracy with recent Confucian promotion of political meritocracy and meritocratic justice and argues that the Confucian principle of “promoting the virtuous and talented” is different from the contemporary conception of meritocracy. Textual evidence indicates that a Confucian understanding of “merit” is contrary to the technocratic expertise of contemporary meritocracies. Furthermore, pre-Qin Confucian texts do not support a conception of justice that emphasizes individual desert; they address distributive problems from the perspective of needs and sustaining social relations. The texts also support limiting the reign of merit when it results in inequalities that cause suffering, inhibit personal cultivation of some groups, or undermine social relations. The paper concludes with an assessment of Singapore’s on-going attempts to improve its meritocracy from a Confucian perspective.


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