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Meritocracy Reconsidered: The Politics of Civil Service Recruitment


A prominent literature in political science holds that the meritocratic recruitment of public servants leads to gains in bureaucratic performance. It is also believed that this institution ought to also have positive effects on social cohesion, since the meritocratic distribution of civil service jobs theoretically enables members from all groups---ethnic minority or otherwise---to win coveted employment in the public sector. Looking predominantly at Southeast Asia, and drawing on large scale surveys and archival documents, this dissertation presents an argument and evidence to the contrary. Instead, under certain conditions, the introduction of meritocratic civil service reforms perpetuates existing inequalities, as privileged groups outperform marginalized groups on entrance exams and go on to staff administrative posts at disproportionately high rates, an outcome that heightens group-based resentment and weakens national solidarity.

This dissertation develops its argument in the context of an important but understudied tension between the twinned goals of state-building and nation-building---a trade-off that comes most into focus in the Asian context. At the moment of independence, the leaders of Asian states faced the urgent task of state-building, which mostly involved recruiting a competent corps of public servants to staff the organs of their new governments. But these leaders were also tasked with nation-building to generate a sense of solidarity across their diverse populations. These twinned goals often existed---and continue to exist---in tension with one another. The most "competent" applicants for public service typically hailed from historically privileged groups who had received formal education: the forward castes in India, the Javanese in Indonesia, or the Chinese in Malaysia. A narrow focus on state-building would have led to a disproportionate representation of certain groups in the apparatus of the state, which would have surely detracted from the task of nation-building.

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