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The Spiral Staircase: An Analysis of Technocratic Governance in Singapore

By Tessa (Editor)

Photo: Mitchell Luo on Unsplash
The backbone of Singapore’s technocracy is its civil service, which operates like a spiral staircase. Photo: Mitchell Luo on Unsplash

What is technocracy?

Technocracy is a form of government in which decision-makers are chosen based on their technical or scientific expertise. The ideology can be traced to a 1933 proposition made by Howard Scott, who argued that apolitical, rational engineers should be entrusted with the authority to direct the nation’s economic machine into a balanced load of production and consumption. [1]

Technocracy is thus a minimum expenditure of energy for maximum social gain, with a focus on efficiency in delivering public goods to the people. [2] Although Scott’s then-radical idea was lambasted amidst the Great Depression, the core principle of “rule by a technical elite” has been used by many Asian countries today.

Technocratic governance in Singapore

Singapore has been cited as a technocratic role model. [3] Pragmatism undergirds its approach to governance, a legacy of the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who believed that no policies are cast in ideological stone. [4] Indeed, a functional technocracy is far more adaptable than dogmatic regimes. [5] By adopting utilitarianism—a doctrine in which the right action is decided by the usefulness of its outcomes [6]—whatever works best is kept, and whatever does not is jettisoned.

However, technocracy has sparked controversy for being undemocratic. If people cannot understand the decisions of technical experts who run government, they cannot meaningfully check them, and cannot fully exercise their right to self-government. [7]

Furthermore, to get people with the best ideas into Parliament, Lee established a Singaporean brand of politics, amending the British-inherited system of constitutional democracy. [8] This led to the creation of the Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) scheme that would ensure representation of a minimum number of opposition members in Parliament. [9] The scheme drew criticism as a manoeuvre to maintain one-party rule by discouraging citizens from voting for the political opposition and bringing in the best election “losers” through the back door, [10] which would undermine the democratic process. Coupled with this, the Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) scheme enables the appointment of members of parliament (MPs) to supply “alternative nonpartisan views in the House” even if they have not been elected, [11] which was said to erode the parliamentary bedrock of government [12] through selective representation of agendas.

Why technocracy?

The strongest argument in favour of technocracy is that it is often highly effective in producing concrete economic results. In the case of Singapore, its robust civil service operates like a spiral staircase: with gradual progression up each rung, a civil servant learns to handle a different portfolio, accumulating relevant experience and knowledge. [13] In contrast, the United States’ bicameral system [14] is similar to an elevator: one can enter from the bottom floor and be brought straight to the top, missing out on the learning in between. [15] It is this system that enabled the catapulting of Donald Trump to the highest seat in office during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Thus, technocracy is based on expert knowledge and strategic planning rather than reactive and short-term populist demands. It values competence, with leaders being rigorously educated, trained and experienced professionals. As such, technocracy can accomplish what democracy cannot. Democracy assumes a compromise, but technocracy optimises and offers actionable solutions. [15]

Case study of technocratic governance in Singapore: COVID-19 outbreak

Singapore’s technocratic model has been key to its overall successful delivery of healthcare to the Singapore population, [16] and more recently, its prompt responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, though not without shortfalls. [17] For instance, the government’s delayed response to the COVID-19 outbreak in the migrant worker dormitories was a notable mistake, with 175,000 out of 323,000, or 54% of dormitory residents having caught the virus by the end of 2021. [18]

As technocracy seeks to bring the greatest benefit to the majority, it is unsurprising that peripheralised and vulnerable minorities might be left behind. COVID-19, being an unprecedented global health crisis, exemplified the blind spots that might arise out of scenario planning. This is corroborated by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during a December 2020 interview, in which he admitted, “we were prepared but not enough … we [had] to manage the dorms in a different way from the way they have been handled.” [18]

Therefore, the Singapore government has to consistently shore up its technocratic model with support schemes targeted at the weaker members of society. For more people to reap the benefits of technocracy, the government must bridge the gap between expedient governance and social equity through active inclusion of various interest groups in their planning.

Democratic feedback as the key driver for technocratic governance

Democratic feedback is critical for a technocracy to flourish. The Singapore government has attempted to hold deliberations through surveys and social media that grant civil servants the data they require to modify and improve policies. By marrying data with democracy and foresight with feeling, [19] technocrats can more effectively capture the public’s interests, taking into account the needs of different segments of society.

Understandably, a democracy or technocracy cannot on its own guarantee “good” governance, which in itself is a subjective, contested concept. For Plato, an ideal polis would consist of a wise ruling class and an educated citizenry; democracy without these features would result in a free but dangerously anarchic society liable to tyranny. [20] Technocracies do not have philosopher-kings, but instead have engineer-kings and scientist-kings who use their domain knowledge to expertly steer policy. In contrast, a liberal democracy would limit the government in its powers and modes of acting by the rule of law, while protecting individual freedoms. [21] Ideally, governance should incorporate the best of both worlds: the administrative efficiency and performance-driven characteristics of technocracy, along with the civic participation and protection of individual rights from democracy.

Nevertheless, against a global backdrop of democratic backsliding, [22] perhaps Plato was right. With the declining ideological dominance of the West, [23] increasingly, more countries are paying attention to Singapore as a technocratic model to emulate. [24]

By leveraging the best techniques and practices, proper technocratic regimes are dynamic, agile and resilient. If technocracy is the future, then the path ahead will be forged by Asian technocracies, foreseeably with Singapore at the helm.


[5] See Parag Khanna’s “The Future Is Asian”

[7] See Frank Fischer’s “Technocracy and the Politics of Expertise”

[13] See Parag Khanna’s “The Future Is Asian”

[15] See Parag Khanna’s “The Future Is Asian”

[19] See Parag Khanna’s “The Future Is Asian”

[20] See Plato’s “Republic”


Tessa is a first-year Political Science major who is an Editor at The Convergence. She believes in the importance of raising political awareness and interest among the youth, hopefully inspiring them to mobilise and take action on the issues that concern them. She seeks to research and write informative articles on current affairs, taking a nuanced approach to her work. Tessa is always down for a cup of iced matcha latte, much to the protests of her wallet. In her free time, she enjoys reading, playing netball, or going for an evening run.


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