By Han Fook Kwang Managing Editor
Here's a surprising outcome of the recent leadership elections in the two most powerful countries in the world: While the results were not unexpected, the expectations of what the two leaders can achieve could not be more different.
After one of the most hotly contested campaigns, the consensus among pundits to Mr Barack Obama's re-election as United States president is that it will be more of the same in Washington. With the United States Congress controlled by the opposition Republican Party, political gridlock, which prevailed over much of his first term, will continue.
This is all the more likely given the conventional wisdom that second-term presidents are usually lame ducks in the hard-to-fathom American system because they cannot seek re-election.
On the other side of the globe, in one of the most secretive selection processes but which produced a most predictable result, the view among China experts is that incoming leader Xi Jinping has the opportunity to make changes which will determine whether China continues its heady progress towards becoming a developed country.
It cannot be status quo for him because nothing stands still in China - not when 1.3 billion people are on a relentless move to transform their lives.
The word I heard most often at a recent CapitaLand forum was "reform". Reform the corruption-riven system, the accountability of officials, the disparity in development between the coastal cities and the rural countryside and the widening income gap, and Mr Xi's China will succeed in becoming the largest economy in the world by 2020, according to some estimates.
Fail, and the Chinese juggernaut could skid out of control, with serious consequences for its people and the rest of the world. Indeed, Mr Xi referred to these issues in his first speech broadcast live on television. "To forge iron, one must be strong," he said.
There are such high expectations of him, yet he was not chosen by the vagaries of the "one man, one vote" system.
So how was he chosen?
One view that has gained prominence in recent times is that the Chinese system is highly meritocratic, selecting the best man in a rigorous process that would have eliminated many others along the way.
Both The New York Times and the Financial Times - not the friendliest newspapers towards China - carried pieces last week arguing that it was probably the most meritocratic system in the world, and right for such a vast country.
Writing in the FT, Professor Daniel Bell of Tsinghua University and Mr Eric Lee, a Shanghai-based venture capitalist, said: "The advantages of Chinese-style meritocracy are clear. Cadres are put through a gruelling process of talent selection and only those with an excellent performance record make it to the highest level. Instead of wasting time and energy campaigning for votes, leaders can seek to improve their knowledge and performance.
"The Chinese regime has developed the right formula for choosing political rulers that is consistent with China's culture and history and suitable to modern circumstances. It should be improved on the basis of this formula, not Western-style democracy."
Professor Zhang Weiwei of Fudan University put it this way in the NYT: "Nothing can better illustrate this meritocratic governance than the line-up of the next generation of Chinese leaders... Virtually all the candidates have served at least twice as a party secretary of a Chinese province or at similar managerial positions. It takes extraordinary talent and skills to govern a typical Chinese province, which is on average the size of four to five European states."
Two very different systems to choose leaders in the two countries with the most influence on the rest of the world.
For us in Singapore, we can only hope that chosen leaders will rule wisely. And ponder - among the many issues facing the country - whether the system here for throwing up and selecting leaders is the right one, given our history and culture.
But what exactly is the Singapore system?
Going by how it has been practised over the last 40 years, it has also been described as meritocratic, developed and honed by the ruling People's Action Party in its quest to find the best possible candidates to fill the Cabinet.
They have mainly come from top performers in the public sector, with the occasional but rare private sector addition, in their 30s and 40s but with no prior political experience. Those who make it after a stint as junior ministers go on to helm their own ministries.
In the present line-up, Mr Chan Chun Sing, Mr Lawrence Wong and Mr Tan Chuan-Jin, all from the public sector, are on track along this time-tested route to the top. Education Minister Heng Swee Keat, slightly older, was the exception when he was appointed to head a ministry immediately after the election.
Almost similar to the Chinese system? The key difference is that they first have to be elected by the people.
In the years before the 2011 General Election, this was almost a formality. Yes, they needed to contest elections but under the Group Representation Constituency system, and facing weak opposition parties, they were shoo-ins.
Under those circumstances, the Singapore system was as close to the Chinese system in claiming its meritocratic credentials, though not as competitive or rigorous.
But we are now into a new normal, and if the last GE is anything to go by, those shoo-in days might well be over. Voters' desire for more opposition, and the ability of the more successful opposition parties to attract better-qualified candidates, will make it harder for scholar-type candidates with no political experience to succeed.
If indeed this turns out to be the case, will the PAP talent pipeline dry up, as fewer successful people want to come forward and risk a political future fraught with uncertainty at the first hurdle?
Critics of the present system will argue that this is a good thing because it will require a different breed of candidate, not averse to the rough and tumble of politics. And that the old method of parachuting in careerists with no political flair or experience is what is wrong with the PAP's way and explains last year's backlash from voters.
They will argue that the ruling party needs to fix the way it recruits candidates, and select those who do not only excel at policy work but also connect with the people and can succeed in getting elected.
Being electable might in future become more important. After all, the most competent candidate is of no use to the party if he or she cannot win an election.
So, will Singapore see a change in the way leaders are thrown up? If indeed a new breed of leaders emerges as a result, different from the scholar-types of the past, what changes will they bring to Singapore's governance?
This will be uncharted territory, with far-reaching consequences for the future of this place.
Competent, committed and connected leaders - in the US, China or Singapore - matter to the highest degree. Get the right people elected, and there is a higher chance the right policies will follow.
Leadership selection is a much more fundamental issue, one more critical to Singapore's future than the tweaking of public policies such as housing or transport.
I hope these questions are being asked at the highest level.
The real China model: Not quite meritocracy
by Mark Elliot
Nov 16, 2012
In the ongoing discussion of so-called Western and Chinese models of political development, a number of commentators have recently drawn attention to China's "meritocratic" practices as deeply rooted political traditions that remain an effective vehicle for any citizen to rise to the very top of the country's leadership structure.
With "princelings" - sons of China's revolutionary heroes - making up a big part of the Communist Party's new Standing Committee, the case for meritocracy in China's current political system is tough to make, but I will leave this question to students of modern Chinese politics.
As a historian, however, I cannot let pass unchallenged the characterisation of premodern Chinese political culture as "meritocratic."
FABLED EXAM SYSTEM
Political scientist and best-selling author Zhang Weiwei suggested that "the Communist Party of China may arguably be one of the world's most meritocratic institutions" ("Meritocracy versus democracy," Nov 12).
Whether in essays by political observers or in remarks by Communist Party leaders, references to "meritocracy" like Mr Zhang's inevitably call upon associations with China's fabled examination system, broadly instituted in the 7th century A D and liquidated only many centuries later, in 1905.
The popular perception of the examinations (called keju in Chinese) maintains that they served as an objective tool whereby all aspirants to public office were measured according to their ability to prove mastery of a substantial canon of classical texts, wherein was believed to lie the knowledge essential to good government.
Since (almost) any male was eligible to take the exams, the idea was that they regularly elevated top talent from across the country into the elite, injecting new ideas and blood into the body politic and ensuring an avenue upward for clever, ambitious individuals.
In this view, to which proponents of the "China model" like Mr Zhang evidently subscribe, up until a little more than a century ago, a young man with no connections could dream of becoming a powerful (and wealthy) minister if he only studied hard enough.
It is an admirable ideal. But how meritocratic was the examination system in its actual practice?
AN EXCLUSIVE LADDER TO SUCCESS
Over the last 20 years, research has shown that the keju was far from the "ladder of success" it was long widely reputed to be.
We know that during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), for instance, merchants' sons were not allowed to take the examinations at all, and that in the Qing (1644-1911), as Mr Benjamin Elman, a scholar from Princeton University, has decisively shown, "the content of the civil service competition clearly excluded over 90 per cent of China's people from even the first step on the ladder to success."
In other words, to have any kind of reasonable shot at passing the exams, you needed to come from a family with an established tradition of classical literacy, meaning a family with money to buy books or close connections to another such family. Only 10 per cent of the population made that cut.
Furthermore, as a former student of mine, Mr Lawrence Zhang, persuasively argues in his dissertation, the number of Qing officials whose path to glory was facilitated by office purchase has been considerably underestimated. Not only did families from outside the "power elite" spend money to advance their sons in the competition, literati families themselves - long thought to have no need to sink to such tawdry schemes - used their money freely to game the system.
With the odds of making it all the way to the highest levels of the exams literally one in a million, who can blame them?
The fact is that a majority of elites in imperial China relied on means other than "merit" to succeed politically: They depended on family connections and material resources, much like political elites in Western societies.
Because so few people ever had any hope of passing the exams and yet so many still took part, the consensus today is that the main significance of the examination system was the reinforcement and reproduction of specific modes of elite discourse that served state needs on social, political and cultural levels.
Contrary to the claims of Mr Zhang and like-minded writers, it had little to do with scouring every village of the empire in the search for geniuses to recruit to court service.
That is not to say the system was totally ineffective. Then, as now, people of merit were indeed chosen for official service. It was just that most of them were not chosen in an especially meritocratic way, if by "meritocratic" we mean "judged superior according to an objective standard of ability" (like an examination of philosophical knowledge and literary skill).
Writers like Mr Zhang Weiwei may disagree with that understanding of meritocracy, since in Chinese they use the classical phrase xuanxian renneng, "selecting the wise and employing the capable" - hardly the same thing, I would suggest, since it says nothing about how selection happens.
It may well be that we are dealing with very different definitions of what constitutes "meritocracy" in the first place. Of course, among much of Chinese society before the 20th century the belief prevailed that "anyone could make it", and the state connived at this; but literary sources make it clear that only the naive clung to such a fantasy.
That present-day commentators still promote outmoded thinking regarding the imperial "meritocracy" demonstrates not only the long half-life of that ideology, but also the strong hold that the Chinese state continues to have over much of China's (and not only China's) intelligentsia.
That hold, rather than meritocracy, is a much better example of the way in which the effects of China's long history continue to be felt today.
Mark Elliott is a professor of Chinese and Inner Asian History at Harvard University.
See also: Westerners who laud a Chinese meritocracy continue to miss the point