Are scholars the best people to run Singapore, asked Seah Chiang Nee in his article published in Malaysia's Sunday Star.
Then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew enunciated the reliance on scholars some 40 years ago, based on the his assumption that academic achievement is the best criterion for good political leadership, as was practised in the system of Mandarin scholars during the days of imperial China.
The route to success in Lee's meritocracy starts with a scholarship from the Public Service Commission. The returning graduates from top universities worldwide are posted to key appointment in the civil service first, and then onto the commercially run statutory boards and government linked companies. Wherever they end up, they are compensated handsomely, and they are moved quickly up the organisational hierarchy until they reach the creme de la creme of postings, the Ministership.
Lee believed that, paid premium rates, these people will deliver, and to an extent there were some instances of how this has worked well in the past.
But not all business opportunities can be addressed by just relying on problem-solving technocrats or technically competent managers. Singapore's billionaire tycoon Quek Leng Beng claimed that scholar-managers might have cost some of his companies millions in lost opportunities.
"Some of my managers involve themselves in too much detail and are afraid to make mistakes," he told The Business Times. "One guy, a scholar with an impressive list of paper qualifications, used to hand me reports of at least 10 pages on anything I wanted. In turn, he demanded reports of at least 20 pages from his subordinates. So he had piles of reports on his table and when I asked him if he has time to read all these reports, he replied that he did not."
For each one of the failures exemplified by Quek's hire, there must be tens more sitting in high offices of the civil service and statutory boards, where they remain immune to critical assessment and protected by the vested interests of political patronage. Goh Chok Tong confessed to what the general public already knew, that the ruling party's political new blood were swept into parliament by manipulating the GRC system, which original intent was to ensure the minorities in Singapore's multi-racial melieu had a representation in government. Lee Kuan Yew himself had lay blame on the "viscereal" motivations of the electorate that they will only support candidates of their own racial genre. Goh was more candid: if the new political aspirants were not guaranteed a high (paying) office, they apparently had let it be known they will not stand on the PAP ticket. One of them, a CEO of the Port of Singapore Authorities (PSA), was actually approached ten times, according to PM Lee Hsien Loong himself, before she agreed to "stand for elections". Since the majority of these "candidates" did not have to fight for their place in parliament or receive any electoral votes from the ballot box, it is a rhetorical question the "mandate" they secured will be reflected in the relation with the constitutents on the ground.
We are told, by Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew no less, that the ruling party co-opted all the best brains in Singapore. Yet the many strategy mishaps in the May elections, and continued mishandling of public sentiments in respect of grouses on rising costs of living and unemployment woes, will strain the credibility of this brainpower, or lack of it. K Bhavani, four times elected President of the Institute of Public Relations of Singapore (IPRS), singled handedly created the island's worst PR fiasco. Since she is the official Press Secretary of Minister for Information, Community and the Arts Lee Boon Yang, one must really wonder where the thinking stopped.
One of the state's better-known (retired) permanent secretaries, Ngiam Tong Dow, doesn't think too much about the PAP policy of putting all the scholars into the civil service. According to him, "This belief that a monopoly of talent is the way "to retain political power forever" was a short-term view. It is the law of nature that all things must atrophy."
Ngiam's proposition is worrying because it implies that Singapore today is in the controlling hands of atrophied Mandarins, and given that Lee Kuan Yew pronounced in the May 2006 elections that "you cannot chanage out a government through an election", what political options are there left for the Singapore citizenry?