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”.
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.