Educational meritocracy and East Asia’s development miracle

Japanese schoolchildren on a class outing in Tokyo
In Japan, so-called “escalator schools” have extended the preparatory track for elite universities down to the junior high, elementary or even kindergarten level (source: dpa)
  • East Asia’s economic success is not explained by politics and development strategies
  • At the core of their superior performance are rigorously selective educational systems
  • Dilution of this approach through political favoritism could threaten the “tiger” model

In the 20th century, very few countries made the leap from the ranks of developing nations to join the highly developed industrial nations. There are several recognized gauges of such progress: the World Bank list of high-income countries (which sets the cutoff at $12,056 of gross national income per capita), the World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Index (27 countries with a score of 5.00 or better), the United Nations Development Program’s (UNIDO) Competitive Industrial Performance Index (countries with scores of 0.12 or higher).

At the very top of the lists, one finds the “usual suspects” – much of Western Europe, the United States, Canada and Australia. However, there are also five relative newcomers: Japan (the first non-Western country to catch up with the leading industrial nations), Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan (China) and Israel.

Why did these countries succeed in catching up while the rest of the developing world failed? With the whole field of developmental studies hard at work to answer this question, it would be extremely naive to propose a single answer. However, it does seem possible to identify one factor common to all four East Asian economies in this select group.

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