The Secret of Good Governance -M.S. Srinivasan.

[Published in Next Future, Oct 2010,]

(Review of the book, Lee KuanYew: The Man and His Ideasby Han Fook Kwang, Warren Fernandes, Sumiko Tan, Singapore Press Holdings, Times Edition, a chronicle of the life, ideas and achievements of a modern nation-builder who was able to steer his country from a state of underdevelopment to one of the richest nations of the world within a span of 30 years.)

Key-Perspectives: (A module of excellence in government; Asiatic flavor; political meritocracy; corporate touch; beyond external growth.)

The story of how Lee transformed Singapore is a fascinating one because no other leader in the modern world has had such a hand in influencing and directing his country’s progress from independence to the developed nation status the way he has.

Han Fook Kwang, Warren Fernandes,  Sumiko Tan

I’m very determined, if I decide that something is wroth doing, then I’ll put my heart and soul into it.  The whole ground can be against me.  But if I know it is right I’ll do it.  That’s the business of a leader.

-Lee KuanYew

A Model of Excellence in Governance

Lee KuanYew, the first Prime Minister of independent Singapore, is a successful nation-builder, who built Singapore into a modern nation.  While many Asiatic nations, which got independence more or less at the same time as Singapore are struggling with poverty and hunger or religious fundamentalism and terrorism, Lee led and built this small nation-state into an oasis of peace, prosperity and a model of good governance.  Singapore’s system of government has become widely known for efficiency, competence and rapid economic progress which was consistent since 1970 at an average annual rate of 9.8%.  And by 1994 Singapore’s percapita income has surpassed that of Australia, Canada and UK.  The Singapore government has been consistently rated by Transparency International as one of the most politically transparent and least corrupt in the world.  Lee was justifiably proud of his achievements.  When he was asked about his political achievements, he said, “what I have to show for all my work is Singapore and Singapore is still working.”  Lee was also criticized sharply by the Western media and his opponents as dictatorial, undemocratic, ruthless.  But, if we are asked to assess the quality of leadership by the results, Lee’s performance is impressive. He has given peace, order, stability, prosperity, good life and efficient government to his people.

What is the secret of Singapore’s success story?  Many books and articles are written on the subject.  This book under review presents the story mostly from the interviews and speeches of Lee Kuanyew, the chief maker of modern Singapore.  But this review-article is not an exhaustible commentary on the book but examines only some part of the book related to governance and leadership.

The Asiatic Flavour

The Singapore’s success as a nation-state under the leadership of Lee has a great relevance for Asiatic nations because Lee was a quintessential Asiatic leader.  When Lee was asked about his greatest personal achievements he replied: “I’m very happy that I’ve got a good family, I’ve got a happy marriage.  I can’t ask for more.   That’s my personal achievement.”  This shows Lee’s value are distinctly Asiatic based on Confucian value-system with its preeminent emphasis on the family.  Lee never blindly imitated western systems of government.  He believed that Asiatic nations must evolve a system of government which is in harmony with the Asiatic cultural ethos.  According to Lee the western parliamentary democracies based on individual liberty and one-man-one-vote system is not suitable to most of the Asiatic nations.

“Each country in Asia will chart its own way forward—-simply modeling a system on the American, British or West European constitution is not how Asian countries will or can go about—On this, I believe I speak for most, if not all of Asia at present.”

Lee strongly felt that Singapore, with its majority Chinese population should have a system of government based on Confucian values of stability, order and family.

“All people of all countries need government—what is good government? This depends on the values of people.  What Asians values may not necessarily be what Americans or European value.  Westerns value the freedom and liberties of the individual.  As an Asian of Chinese cultural background, my values are for a government which is honest, effective and efficient in protecting its people, and allowing opportunities for all to advance themselves in a stable and orderly society, where they can live a good life and raise their children to do better than themselves. In other words:

(a) People are well cared for, their food, housing, employment, health.

(b) There is order and justice under the rule of law, and not the capricious, arbitrariness of individual rulers. There is no discrimination between peoples, regardless of race, language, religion. No great extremes of wealth. ­

(c) As much personal freedom as possible but without infringing on the freedom of others

(d) Growth in the economy and progress in society.

(e) Good and ever improving education.

(f) High moral standards of rulers and of the people.

(g) Good physical infrastructure, facilities for recreation, music, culture and the arts;

spiritual and religious freedoms, and a full intellectual life.

Very few democratically elected governments in the Third World uphold these values. But it is what their people want.”

The Political Meritocracy

What is the essence of good governance: good Men or good system? A major factor behind the success of Lee KuanYew as a leader lies perhaps in his clarity in answering or understanding this question, and more importantly, in putting it firmly and methodically into practice.  And the result is a political meritocracy, a ruling elite of highly competent leadership in government, which keeps Singapore in top gear of development.

Lee was very clear and firm in his conviction that the essence of good governance is good men and not good systems.  Systems, however good and efficient they may be will ultimately fail, if men governing the system are not good.  If men are good, they can get things done even through defective systems.  As Lee sums up his conviction:

“At the heart of the question is, what makes a good government? That is the core of the question. Can you have a good government without good men in charge of government? American liberals believe you can, that’s their belief.”

“My experience in Asia has led me to a different conclusion.. To get good government, you must have good men in charge of government. I have observed in the last 40 years that even with a poor system of government, but with good strong men in charge, people get passable government with decent progress.”

“On the other hand, I have seen many ideal systems of government fail. Britain and France between them wrote over 80 constitutions for their different colonies. Nothing wrong with the constitution, with the institutions and the checks and the balances. But the societies did not have the leaders who could work those institutions, nor the men who respected those institutions.”

This brings us to the question, What do we mean by “good” men? What are the qualities required for effective leadership in politics and public administration? Lee answers this question is briefly in the following passage:

“Singapore must get some of its best in each year’s crop of graduates into government. When I say best, I don’t mean just academic results’. His ‘O’ levels, A’ levels, university degree will only tell you his powers of analysis. That is only one-third of the helicopter quality. You’ve then got to assess him for his sense of reality, his imagination, his quality of leadership, his dynamism. But most of all, his character and his motivation.”

Lee considers conceptual and logical intelligence as a necessary quality of leadership but not the most important.  More important than intelligence is the “sense of the real” which means a firm grounding on facts and the ability to adapt continually to the changing realities of life.  Another related quality which Lee emphasized is the ability to learn from the experiences, ideas and best practices from history or from the world around and apply or adapt them to the needs of the existing environment.  But too much of realism or pragmatism makes the mind mundane and earthly.  There must be imagination which can discern unmanifest or future possibilities.  So intelligence, realism, pragmatism and imaginations create a smart leader.  But mere smartness is also not enough because as Lee points out, “smarter a man is, the more harm he will do to society.”  Much more important than smartness is character which includes a big family of qualities like determination, integrity, honesty, idealism, vision, dedication to larger cause beyond the self and the ability to stay cool in a crisis or difficulty.  Here are some interesting observations of Lee on leadership and government.

“I’ve spent 40 years trying to select men for big jobs – ministers, civil servants, statutory boards’ chairmen. So I’ve gone through many systems, spoken to many CEOs, how did they select. Finally, I decided that Shell had the best system of them all, and the government switched from 40 attributes to three, which they called ‘helicopter qualities’, which they have implemented and they are able to judge their executives worldwide and grade them for helicopter qualities. What are they? Powers of analysis; logical grasp of the facts; concentration on the basic points, extracting the principles. You score high marks in mathematics, you’ve got it. But that’s not enough. There are brilliant mathematicians but they make poor executives~ They must have a sense of reality of what is possible. But if you are just realistic, you become pedestrian, plebeian, you will fail. Therefore you must be able to soar above the reality and say, ‘This is also possible’ – a sense of imagination.”

“At the end of the day, you also must have idealism to succeed, to make people come with you. You must have that vision of what is at the bottom of the rainbow you want to reach. But you must have a sense of reality… to feel when this vision is not practical, that it will ruin us.  A leader without the vision, to strive to improve things, is no good. Then you’ll just stay put, you won’t progress.”

“You need, besides determination, all the other attributes that will push a project along.  You must have application, you must be prepared to work hard, you must be prepared to get people to work with you.  Especially for political leaders, you’ve got to have people work for you and work with you.  You’ve got to enthuse them with the same fire and the same eagerness that pushes you along.  I think that’s very big factor in leadership.”

“And it is this as yet unmeasurable quality called ‘character’ which, plus your mental capacity or knowledge or discipline, makes for leadership.  You see, this is the other quality that is required in leadership: character – whether your melting point is low or high; whether you believe enough and fervently in what you have to do, to go through a great deal of trial and tribulation.”

“You start off with idealism, you should end up in maturity with a great deal of sophistication giving a gloss to that idealism. But what usually happens is a great deal of erosion by the soft and baneful influences of power, leaving almost nothing of the idealism behind and only the professionalism of political leadership without its leavening values.”

 “My idea of popular government is that you don’t have to be popular all the time when you are governing…There are moments when you have to be thoroughly unpopular.  But at the end of your term, you should have brought about sufficient benefits so that the people realize what you did was necessary and will vote for you again.  That is the basis on which I have governed.  If you want to be popular all the time,  you will mivgovern…”

The Corporate Touch

The next question is how to bring or attract people with these qualities to politics and public administration?  There are now many and better career opportunities for bright and talented people in other domains like business.  How to attract them to politics? As Lee points out: “There are so many career opportunities now that unless we do something to make politics more attractive incentive wise your best men are going into executive and managerial careers.”  Lee’s approach to the problem involves two tasks: first is a rigorous and systematic screening, testing, selection for recruiting people with the requisite leadership qualities to ministerial and administrative posts in government.  In this task, Lee turned to the corporate world for help and guidance.  In fact, much of his thinking on leadership is influenced by the leadership philosophy of Shell Oil Company,  which also helped Lee in evolving and formulating the selection and recruitment system. The other aspect of Lee’s approach, which is unique and unprecedented in political management, is a reward system which makes ministerial and administrative jobs in Singapore government the highest paid in the country.  As the authors of the book under review explain:

“It is 30 years now since Lee spoke of the need to improve the incentives to draw the best and the brightest into government. Over the years the financial incentives have been increased. But 1995 saw the most radical move ever made by any government, indeed any organisation, to tackle the problem once and for all. Henceforth, ministers’ salaries will be based on a formula pegging them to the six highest paid men in the private sector – in banking, manufacturing, accountancy, engineering, law and managing multinational corporations.  There can be no greater departure from the conventional wisdom that political leaders must be motivated differently from bankers and lawyers as far as rewards go. But having thought through this particular problem of getting good men into government for 30­odd years, Lee finally came to the conclusion that there is no need to re-invent the wheel, that the answer had already been found and tested over the decades, in the private sector.”

But an idealistic mind may raise objections to this approach and say: “Can money alone is sufficient for motivating leaders will it not lead to the careerist and money-minded mentality among the rulers of the country.”  Lee’s answer could be somewhat like this: “My approach is pragmatic.  Select high-caliber leaders with competence and character, vision and idealism.  Place them in positions of power and responsibility in government.  Pay them as well as you can.  This is the most effective way to keep the government efficient, honest and free from corruption.  My approach is validated by the assessment of Transparency International which has consistently rated Singapore as the least corrupt nations in the world.”  Whatever may be the objections to Lee’s approach to governance, this strong-willed leader has proved that politics can be the most preferred career for the best men and woman of the country and not the “last resort of the scoundrel” as it has become in many nations.

Beyond External Growth

Lee’s achievement in Singapore is undoubtedly great.  He and his able team have created a near ideal state with economic prosperity, political stability, social discipline, efficient government, meritocratic culture and a supportive physical, economic, social and educational infrastructure.  But is this the highest aims of development or is there something beyond? Interestingly there are some clues and hints to this still higher ideal of development in Lee’s description of an Asiatic model of good government, where he makes the following points:

  • High moral standards of rulers and the people
  • Good and ever improving education
  • Full intellectual life
  • Facilities for music, arts, culture.
  • Spiritual and religious freedom

To understand the next higher stage in development we have to examine the above points made by Lee in a deeper and broader perspective.  What is the essence of these ideals indicated by Lee? It is the development of our higher nature called as Sattwa in Indian thought.  This higher sattwic nature in us has three aspects: first, is the cognitive element made of our intellectual, ethical and aesthetic being which seeks for knowledge, truth, beauty, goodness, harmony.  The second is the deeper emotional being with sensitive feeling for these higher values.  The third aspect, the dynamic element is the self-governing will which is the source of the inner strength, character and the higher executive force in us which can enforce the values and ideals perceived by the cognitive element in our life and action.  This sattwic nature in us is the source of true culture.  As Sri Aurobindo explains:

“Not to live principally in the activities of the sense-mind, but in the activities of knowledge and reason and a wide intellectual curiosity, the activities of the cultivated aesthetic being, the activities of the enlightened will which make for character and high ethical ideals and a large human action, not to be governed by our lower or our average mentality but by truth and beauty and the self-ruling will is the ideal of a true culture and the beginning of an accomplished humanity.”

The next higher stage in human development, individually and collectively, is to develop all the powers, faculties and potentialities of this higher sattwic nature in us and make it the governing self of our lower nature made of our physical, vital and sensational being which seeks for power, wealth, material satisfaction, sensuous enjoyment and also the pragmatic mind which seeks for efficiency productivity and utility.  This cannot be achieved by external means or an information-stuffing or job-oriented education.  This higher ideal requires a new kind of education based on a deep and clear understanding of the nature, potentialities and faculties of our intellectual, emotional, ethical and aesthetic and volitional being and the learning process of the child and the adult.   At the collective level, there we have to create a supporting and enabling environment which encourages the creative self-expression of our higher sattwic nature not only in art, music and culture but also in every activity of the outer life, in business, politics, commerce, science, industry, family and the community.

This is the next stage of social and cultural transformation beyond economic progress, political stability and social cohesiveness.  Those communities, especially the smaller ones like Singapore, which have achieved a certain threshold of progress in the economic, social and political spheres are perhaps well prepared for this next phase of transformation in the intellectual, ethical and aesthetic domains.

But even this higher stage of transformation is not the highest ideal of human development.  Beyond or behind our surface self and its externalized intellectual, emotional, ethical or aesthetic being there is a deeper and inner subliminal being and a deepest and innermost spiritual self which are the source of our greater and highest potentialities.  The highest stage of transformation beyond the sattwic requires a further shift in the centre of our consciousness from the surface levels of our being to the inner subliminal and spiritual being.  This requires still another kind of education based on the principles of yoga.

These two higher stages of inner transformation can be pursued simultaneously through a process of integral education.  When this process of integral spiritual transformation of the individual expresses itself in every activity of the outer life, it will lead to an integral spiritual transformation of the society.

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