Where Are the Potential Prime Ministers?

Written by Dr Wong Wee Nam
16 April 2008

The Malaysian General Elections has just ended and Abdullah Badawi has continued as the Prime Minister. But he is now having problems keeping the job. This is because there are many who want to take over. Even Anwar Ibrahim, who is not even an elected Member of Parliament, is eyeing the job. Just as there are many who had vied for the posts of Menteri Besar in the State governments, there is no lack of candidates for the post of the Prime Minister of Malaysia.

In the United Kingdom, when a schoolboy visits 10 Downing Street, he invariably likes to pose in front of the official residence of the Prime Minister of Great Britain for a picture. In other words, it is a schoolboy’s dream to become the Prime Minister of Britain. It is not that the job of the Prime Minister in Great Britain pays very well. It does not.

Compare to footballers like Christiano Ronaldo or David Beckham, the Prime Minister’s job is a lowly-paid one. Even by Singapore’s standards, it is an extremely lowly-paid job. The pay is only a fraction of the salary of a similar position in Singapore.

Yet Great Britain, like Malaysia, does not lack candidates for the position of Prime Minister. In fact, there is even no lack of candidates for the position of a shadow Prime Minister on the opposition bench.

No country in the world has difficulty finding people willing to become Prime Minister or running for Presidency. No country except Singapore, that is. The Straits Times of 2nd April 2008 reads : “PM still looking for his successor”.

Uniquely Singapore

We must be in a very unique situation in the world. With a job that is the highest paid in the world, it is a wonder we are still looking for a successor. This must be the only country in the world where people are very reluctant to be office-holders. Something must be very, very wrong – either with the country or with the quality of our people.

Has our gene pool become so depleted that we do not now have capable people to run the country? This cannot be so. Every year there are hundreds of students who graduate from our colleges with straight A’s and S-papers. Competition for scholarships and places in the universities is very keen. In world competitions, our students still come up top in Mathematics and Science. Our students regularly win the Angus Ross Prize for Literature and the Jessup Cup for mooting. So the quality of our gene pool is still very good.

The Failed Graduate Mother’s Scheme

The problem of a depleted good gene pool was raised a long time ago. Herbert Spencer and Francis Galton, the two famous social Darwinists, had told the world that having more intelligent people and less stupid people around would benefit society tremendously Many years ago, to enrich the gene pool and solve this problem of talent shortage, we tried to encourage the better-educated and our graduate mothers with a lot of incentives to reproduce more. Naturally the policy did not work because our womenfolk are not farm animals which will breed just because the farmer decides it should be done.

Even if our graduate mothers had consented to breed, the policy would still have failed to achieve its objective. Any breeder of racehorses, cows and pigs for speed, milk and bacon respectively will tell you that the success rate is very low even though there is only one attribute to aim for. What more then with human beings where there are more attributes to consider? The problem with breeding human beings is we would not know what attribute to aim for. A leader is not just someone who can produce good results in examinations. He must have the right temperament, the ability to communicate, creative thinking, compassion, courage and be decisive and possess a certain charisma to lead. Can these be bred?

True, a few of our students had broken scholarship bonds and some who went overseas to study have decided not to return. Still, this should not affect the number of people who are qualified to fill the post of the Prime Minister or any other ministerial post. After all, in Singapore, a person usually holds office for about fifteen years and this means you only need to find one replacement every fifteen or twenty years.

Reason for the Problem

So what is the problem? Why is it so difficult to find someone to become a Prime Minister in Singapore? It is not because Singapore is not ripe for revolution or that our people are so well-taken care off that we like to leave governing to others that we are faced with this problem. If revolution and economic dissatisfaction are the reasons for people wanting to become Prime Minister, then all the well-to-do stable democracies in the world would have difficulty looking for leaders.

The reason for the problem is in our culture. In Singapore nobody is taught from young to covet the job. The political climate here does not allow anyone to covet the job. Politics is not a profession that parents encourage their children to pursue. Therefore, a child in school will write about his or her ambition to become a doctor, lawyer, accountant, an engineer, an artist, a teacher or a writer but none will write about becoming a Prime Minister.

Furthermore, over the years, the general public has been primed to believe that a Prime Minister will only come through the PAP selection process. This is why Singapore will not be able to produce someone like Barack Obama, a first-term Senator trying to be leader of the world’s biggest democracy and the richest country in the world, vying for a job that would pay him only a fraction of what he could earn as a lawyer.

Without political contention, it is not surprising that Singaporeans have become so apathetic that even the PAP itself has difficulty finding good people.

If we want to have good flowers, then we need to allow many types of flowers to bloom and many nurseries to grow them. If we only inbreed a few species of flowers in one nursery and nip the rest in the bud, then the choice will be limited. Even if we add in a lot of fertilizers, the quality will still suffer from inbreeding and chemical poisoning.

Not only plants suffer from a lot of fertilizers. Psychologists have shown through experiments that even rats don’t work as hard when given too much rewards. Those given too much food lose their motivation to run on the treadmill than those who are rewarded with small increments. Similarly with human beings, psychologists have also found that people with intrinsic motivation perform better than those who are driven by extrinsic motivation to do the job.

It can therefore be concluded that with the exorbitant salaries paid to our office-holders, we will one day be bound to attract mainly extrinsically- motivated people to public office. When that time comes, it would indeed be a sad day for Singapore. A politician who is not intrinsically-motivated will serve himself first and cannot provide the servant leadership to serve the people. When that day comes, it would be even more difficult to find a really good person to fill the post of Prime Minister. A politician led by reward to work cannot be better than one motivated by altruism to serve.

  1. Please don’t compare our top leaders with those in S. Korea, Taiwan, Japan etc. These are lowly paid and never gone through the rigorous selection process with which we select our leaders.

    The PAP has problem finding people because of its stringent quality control process. Look at PM Lee, can we ever find someone as good and as qualified as him? I think it is hard. The PAP had to search very hard and through every segment of society to discover him. Hence we are lucky to have him as our leader.

    We cannot let our country be run by people who are not carefully selected through the PAP process. People who just put themselves up for election as choices for the people tends to be from the opposition we have to be suspicious of their credentials. Are they properly groomed for leadership? You can’t just be the people’s choice just because you have a burning desire to represent their interests. That is why Singapore elections are about upgrading – you elect the best possible upgrading for your estate.

  2. I don’t think there is a dearth of Singaporean talents who are competent to do the Prime Minister job. I hope it is the case where the truly talented and competent cannot find themselves joining the PAP fold and toeing the party line against their conscience. If so, it is a good thing for Singapore. : )

  3. Hi;
    I once posed the Question whether we have leadership calibres in the Population(Singaporeans) at Mr Wangs’ Blog.
    And the Responses were most positive, in fact, many said that there are calibres much better than our present leaders. Obviously, I felt(feel) very happy.

    Let us hope that these calibres will do us, the people, some services by coming out to lead us. Pray it will happen.

    Yours truly: patriot.

  4. I honestly believe that if not for his father, he would not have the slightest chance of becoming our leader based on the so called world class standards :-

    Right temperament – lacking if the slapping incident is true.
    Ability to communicate – needs lots of improvement eg fixing opposition, mai-hum incident.
    Creative thinking – none that I can really think of.
    Compassion – unconvincing or yet to be seen.
    Courage – apparent impression is he is devoid of guts.
    Decisive – obviously can’t stand on his own feet, remember 377A
    Charisma to lead – very doubtful.

    In short, I don’t think he qualifies as PM-material :-

  5. I seriously hope that LuckyTan is being sarcastic, because if it reflects a true mindset and perspective of your everyday-man voter, no wonder our politics are such a farce.

  6. Singapore, a small island-city with a population of about 4.5mil, around 3mil being pure Singaporeans. No talents? I think the government is blind. We’ve got so many talents – sports talents, engineering talents from China and India, etc. Since Singapore got so many hubs, how can we have a lack of talents?

    Anyway I don’t acknowledge the current PM, because he’s not voted by Singaporeans but merely passed onto him by his own daddy.

  7. If the PAP’s selection process is to engineer the third generation of Lee’s to continue a
    dynastic rule, of course it is very difficult, because the present-day public would most likely
    not accept such a nepotistic method of succession. But the govt (not PAP) is sincerely
    interested in finding a replacement for the present PM, I doubt it is that difficult as put forth
    by the present PM. I believe there are hundreds, if not thousands, who can easily do the
    job of a Singapore PM for one simple reason: that he has the luxury of seven other people
    helping him, i.e. a MM, a SM, two DPMs and two Ministers Without Portfolios in the Prime
    Minister’s Office. In addition, he has a team of consultants and a pool of top-brain scholars
    to give him advice and help him do research and write his speeches. Under such a
    surrounding, even if we put a dummy up there as a PM, the orchestra would still play
    beautiful musics. Didn’t LKY said something like this?

    Lucky Lee.

  8. the4thwall
    For your information, Lucky Tan has always been sarcastic and give satire to the PAP. It is his unique and humourous way of conveying message that what make his blog interesting and worth reading.

    But worry not, Lucky Tan is a patriotic citizen otherwise how can he be so lucky not to be treated as troll or PAP mole ?

  9. Under such a surrounding, even if we put a dummy up there as a PM, the orchestra would still play beautiful musics. Didn’t LKY said something like this?”


    Lucky Lee’s parting shot make him a contender for the Lucky Citizen of Singapore Award. Lucky Tan! You’ve a competitor!

    hiak! hiak! hiak!

  10. Singapore has also lost many potentials who had been forced to flee the country and many who had been arrested under ISA and made to denounce involvement in politics.

  11. The really smart ppl dont want to have anything to do with gahmen or PAP after the recent NLB fiasco, I believe the trust has been broken here. they are suspicious and it doesnt look promising. It’s very costly to piss off the real intellectuals, as they are the real elites and not the ministers etc, those are just show pieces.

  12. Dr. Wong’s article certainly contains many enlightening and awakening facts about Singapore which Singaporeans must sit up and pay attention to especially in the political situation. His reason for the problem of finding a person to replace the Prime Minister is due not to other factors but the cultural factor is very true because no parent would encourage their children to become a Prime Minister when they were young children. This prevailling culture was caused by very harsh events in l963 to1965 and in l986 when the internal security laws were used to detain many people without trials. Until today these people who were detained for several years and some of them for over 20 years, especially Chia Thai Poh for 27 years, even the famous Nelson Mandela of South africa cannot beat him in term of jail time, are unhappy still. Besides being jailed some were tortured badly until they suffered physical disabilities. With such a situation prevailling then do you think parent want to encourage their children into the political arena. The excuse government gave was for economic development at all cost; they would not allow any opposition.Becuase of this sole aim every political and social development was swept away. But since then we have achieved our economic success, do our common people get to enjoy this success or the people in power with their members and friends get it? Many common people give a negative answer and the lower ten percent even worse. I find we are in an ironical situation in Singapore where many of our talented people are leaving and migrating and in come the new immigrants from many countries to replace them. We are not against foreign talents. We welcome them but what we are afraid if they are being treated more equal than our born talents which happen in many instances. This situation is bought about because we have a one dominant party system and there is no checks and balances system which ensure the separation of power where the judiciary and parliament share equal power with the executive. The vital question to ask:Have our people in their swiftness and eagerness for economic development in the earlier years did not even care to retain some power to check against abuse of power. The answer to this question is politically and socially yes and for many people the answer is yes politically, socially and economically.

  13. Actually, I always have the dream for world domination…. and I think I’m definitely talented, but I don’t think I’ll dare to start in Singapore… probably get shot down before I even get to grassroots leader…

    It’s a fact that people criticize the political system SECRETLY, but don’t dare to go out and try to change anything… so even if you do make it into it, you know that you’ll have family and friends criticising you behind your back because the only way you can make it into parliment without ending locked up on Sentosa is the PAPA way….

    So… talented people in Singapore are actually VERY clever to not try… at least not until the “god of Singapore” releases his grip…

    Maybe we can import foreign talents for PM, no shortage of imports of Chinese and Indian nationals into Singapore….

  14. Let me suggest to those really serious about political leader. Go watch “Lions for Lambs” . The movie suggests how and what the US political system has deteriated into.

    Some highlights (if i can recall … ), not 100% exact words , more to the effect…:

    “Political Science is the science of winning election. It is no longer about bringing better lifes to the people of the USA”
    “Never have I seen such brave lions led by lambs… this best describes the stage of the governement here how”
    “… Now they are saying the made a mistake… after 35,000 of our troops have died?”
    ” We sent 150,000 troops to attack a country that never invaded us and yet we send only a temth of that number to one that did…”
    ” Why are we building neucler subs and air carriers when these are total useless against the real enemies we are dealing with ?”
    “the second world war took 5 years and it has been 6-7 years since 9-11 and we are still asking questions….”

  15. Who ever thaught that LEE KUAN YEW will be the Prime Minister. The British,The Malayains,
    and almost all of Asia branded LKY as a PRO COMMINIST and he made every one eat their words. He took us through, The Seperation,British pull out, now they began to tell without LKY Singappore will fail. He gave Goh and Lee and we are a first world country now. As MM he he had a BIG SAY in the two PMs. I hope and pray that he will be a part in choosing some one to take over BG

    [edited by the Moderator to remove address of comment author]

  16. Teck Siong,

    To put it simply, we have to ensure that our children inherit a more equitable nation who does not run on the personalities of a few but by the talent of the many.

  17. Singapore is not short of leaders. It is short of capable and influential leaders.

    Thats why is is difficult to find a replacement. How many influential leaders do we know of coming from our homeland. Someone who make a big difference to the world and he does not have to be a politician. Maybe just a few. Or maybe the leader are put away or obstructed by the system till one lost the charisma to continue.

    Our educational system need to not only produce bright and intelligent people. It should be developing and nuture great leaders as well. And our system should encourage good leaders to surface although they have opposite views so that they have opportunity to become great leaders one day.

  18. Wee Nam, one of the problems in Singapore is the success of the PAP in bringing Singapore to what it is today. This does not mean we must be complacent..one must always question and never, never give up this right to question…..why, what, when, etc..so that those in power wd be on their toes and accountable for their actions. Today’s population is no more complacent…ufortunately,this also the result of the PAP’s achievement. But, how far to rock the boat? That is the crux…Look into the history of NAURU, once one with one of the highest per capita income, a very small island with large income and reserves and very few people….where is it today? That is also a danger of us going down the hill, like Athens of ancient Greece. Where is the dividing line? Is there a permanent one? How grey is this line?

  19. I don’t think we lack leaders. We have a problem with Political Apathy and fear.

    People can declare themselves as “Liberal” or “interested in Politics” in Facebook, or on the blogs, but when it comes to the meat, they back off. Ask the majority of your moderate friends to join a political party, they’ll go “Noooooo! Are you crazy?” They’re pretty much not interested in improving the scene here because the PAP has done such an exemplary job of boring people out of politics to the extent that they themselves feel it too and are slapping themselves over it. Even so, they want to choose the better peanuts, can you believe that? And they want to get ripped off at the same time, too, with promises of a high salary to most potentially “amazing” candidates for ministers.

    And fear? Because Opposition Politics is linked to the ideas of losing your job, your life, your car your soul, your whole package. It’s linked to JBJ, it’s linked to CSJ, because of the bad media coverage on them.

    We only ever need 1 Prime Minister, 1 Deputy, 10 to 20 ministers and the same number of junior ministers. And the junior ministers are, junior of course, they’re supposed to learn. Do we really need to put “superheroes” and “geniuses” in the posts of junior ministers, as the PAP are advocating?

  20. The comments seem to describe a rather sorry situation now, but what could be done next? How should the PAP go about looking for or cultivating leaders? What could opposition parties do? Anyone have any good suggestions?

  21. Ladies & Gentlemen,

    Don’t be so easily convinced by LHL’s public declaration that he’s looking for a replacement for himself. Have it ever crossed your mind that by letting it out in the open, he could be telling his cabinet rivals that none of them will be considered for the job? Therefore, he will be sitting tight until LKY’s departure.

    The real problem in Singapore is that many highly qualified people just cannot stomach many of PAP’s policies. Joining PAP is betraying their own conscience.

  22. Wow it is so great to see people who are actually critical of the singapore government and who actually know their stuff. How about instead of just sounding off on this blog, start a political party and make a real difference. It would really rejuvinate the interest of youths in politics , look whats happening in the US a virtualy unknown senator who has been in politics awhile has become the nominee of the democratic party, it just goes to show that it doesnt require experince to win just an ability to be honest and an eagerness to make a difference. It would be a great day when there is a formidable party on the ballot besides the PAP when i go out and vote.

  23. Recycled cliches, Dr Wong.
    LKY himself had brilliant and bold ideas of leadership which he preached when in opposition and in his early years as Prime Minister. No discussion on leadership succession in Sg must ignore LKY’s failure to live up to his original beliefs. And maybe offer explanation as to how come sg has deteriorated … more so by LKY’s standards. Dr Wong reaches out for cliches and standard fare too quickly. A bit of a quackery here!

  24. Of course with a master planner like MM Lee around who plans Singapore to have a dynastic heritage where got next PM maybe Ho Ching is next in line then Lee Wei Lin then their sons or daughters with the secret police castrating all forms of opposition even the toilet kind!!

  25. In Singapore, the PM comes up through the ranks of PAP by rigorous selection, not competition. Our system is more similar to a Communist Party, where the potential candidates for Poliburo come up through the ranks of the Party machinery. In Singapore, the selection process starts from Civil Service, SAF or GLCs. We are not modeled after UK or US. Problem now is the Public Sector itself is having problem finding smart people. Ver difficult problem.

  26. Everything is about foreign talent in Singapore. If our minister is not capable enough, they could consider looking for foreign talent! See how readily Singapore welcomes in people who quit their countries while we are being label as quitters when we do the same. Excellent piece of work there.

  27. what he can’t find now is a good “seat warmer”. he must be regretting for not married young to have a son earlier to take over him now.

  28. What make a unique leader?yes strong opposition candidates that can truely make a strong leader shines and be set apart from pseudo ones.what opponents did LKY faced during the 60s and 70s……definitely very much tougher than the ones faced by our present prime minister.So,where are the David marshalls,the JBJs,and the Lee Siew chows of this present generation.Lets flush the true leader out by first encouraging talented opposition candidates to forward themselves and be recognised.PAP may have some who may be potential PM but if untested by tough opponents….how can we really know ?So,leaders ,patriots…please show yourselves and join the opposition.well,maybe you are the next prime minister….who knows!!!!

  29. There are much talk going around that Philip Jeyaretnam has all the qualities to be a leader of this nation but i suspected that he does not have the guts to come out and be recognised or maybe that part of the genes of JBJ does not flow in his blood.its ok if he joints the PAP…that is his political right…but the people need you….come out and be counted…i dare you to face your brother Kenneth and his team if you are a true lion.!!!!!Singaporean need you!!!

  30. There is no shortage of talent.The problem is that the PAP only recruits yes man.That is why they can only recruit those who have been scholars and bonded to work in SAF,civil service,GLC,public hospitals and those who are willing to be yes man or have the same philosophy as the PAP.
    As there are now more scholarships available, the PAP will not be able to recruit all of them as some will either break their bond or prefer to work nin the private sector.
    Only very few Like Mr Chen Shao Mao of the workers party have the wisdom and do not have the greed for salaries paid to the ministers,have the courage, wisdom and empathy for the people.He is willing to return to Singapore really to serve the nation.
    Apparently his classmates SB and TLS who are now in the PAP cabinet have approached him to join the PAP but he has declined as he know that besides money there is spomething greater than self itself.Money is not an issue for him.
    There are therefore many CHen Shao Mao around but they are all in the private sector.As these people are not yesman and do not agree with the PAP philisophy,they have declined to join the PAP.So there is really no shortage of talents that the PAP claimed.
    The PAP also think that Singapore is too small to have a two party system but they have been proven wrong by this election 2011.The opposition candidates consists of not only graduates but scholars as well.
    The next election will see many more scholars and graduates joining the opposition party..
    The invisibilty of the PAP has been demolished by loosing a GRC.This was the advice given by no less than MM who said that the opposition should get good and creditable canditates and capture a GRC.This has been done as he so advised LTK.
    With the winning of a GRC,by the workers party, we can expect to see the gradual downfall of the PAP especially with MM and SM being out of the cabinet.This can only be good for the nation.

  31. His father didn’t expct to be the PM (even though he had wanted it and went for vote against Ong EG) The new cabinet a that time didn’t know what the hell to do with their responsibilities to run Singapore. Is it by chance that we were lucky to have Goh KS, Toh CC, Ong PB on board to chart the destiny of Singapore to what it is today.

    After more than 40 years of absolute powers and mad laws, we the citizens were made powerless, saved for a few Oppostion members who ar bave enough to stand up to the might of the kings and princes.

    Work harder, oppostion parties, win more seats to form a new goverment in the 21st Century.

  32. Personally I feel our Current Prime Minister do not have the charisma to be Natural Leader of the Country. We have seen the world and they were great leaders of the past who are still remember and love even they have past on. My dad told me once that if you force yourself to be leader your ending will never be good.

    There are 2 types of Leaders in the world. (1) Train and Self Proclaim Leader (2) Natural Leader.

    (1) Train leader are train in a system and they will never have conscience of their subordinate when discharging their duties as they put duty first and feeling of their colleagues second. They decide how to talk and what to talk and how to behave in public life.

    (2) Natural Leader are not made but their are born with it. They have the great charm and charisma the when talk and walk people tends to follow and walk the talk. This Leader don’t put themselves first but they put the Colleagues First and themselves the last in everything they do. They do not fear or worry of anything within themselves.

    So what do you think PM LHL fall into?
    Why he cannot recruit good talented Politician?

    this is my personal opinion that PM LHL do not have neutral and natural leadership in him. He was GROOM and TRAIN to take over even though he doesn’t have the natural leader pleasant have….