Wednesday, April 23, 2008

I could drop Dead tomorrow

When historians start debating the legacy of Mas Selamat to Singapore, one of the things that they will have to examine is the way in which Mas Selamat caused Singaporeans to look at their expectations on leadership.

Trail the internet for comments on the issue and you will find that there are quite a number of Singaporeans who felt that the political leadership was sorely lacking and when the government released the findings of the Committee of Inquiry, a good handful of angry postings felt that it confirmed the need for the Minister of Home Affairs, Mr Wong Kan Seng to resign.

However, I’ve been asked, and I’ve seen the question asked of others – “Who do you think should replace the Minister were he to do the honourable thing and resign?” After thinking long and hard about this, I can’t think of anyone who should replace the Minister. The current crop of ministers is preoccupied running their own ministries to take on a colleague’s portfolio and there are few in the junior ranks that seem ready or willing to take on the challenges of running one of the nation’s most prominent ministries. Mr Wong Kang Seng it seems is an irreplaceable part of our government.

This is presents Singaporeans with a rather tragic reality – namely the reality that human talent is in such pitifully short supply that our current crop of elites are totally irreplaceable. Put it this way – if every minister, statutory board CE, permanent secretary and GLC (Government linked company) CEO were to drop dead tomorrow, Singapore would collapse overnight.

How can we have reached this stage when our entire system is dependent on a very small minority? More importantly, how did this situation come about in a nation that was brought to independence by a man obsessed with succession planning?

Ironically, this rather tragic and dangerous state of affairs has come about by another national obsession – the desire to maximise available talent. Take Mr Lee Kuan Yew as an example. The man is in so many ways a genius. Say what you like about him, but the man found a way of taking a dot of an island in an unstable region with no hinterland to speak of and turned it into a role-model for many in the West as well as in the East (London’s idea of road pricing came from.) However, as the man himself readily acknowledged in his biography – he wanted to step down while his mental facilities were still in order and prevent himself from being in the position to do harm to the nation he founded.

While Mr Lee may have wisely relinquished his premiership while he was still fit and able, he promptly created vast consultancy post for himself in the administrations of his successors. The nation has accepted the fact that Mr Lee has is usually correct in many of the great arguments of the day and his wisdom and experience are an asset to the cabinets he’s served in as Senior Minister and now Minister Mentor.

But are we maximising Mr Lee to such an extent that we are preventing other talents from developing? When you think of the number of high profile activities that the Minister Mentor is taking part in, when compared to the Prime Minister, one cannot help that the office and person of the current Prime Minister is being overshadowed.

Admittedly, keeping active has helped Mr Lee stay healthy. However, there are plenty of ways where someone can continue to be active and contribute to society once they’ve stepped down. Mr Lee should take a leaf from Jack Welsh, former CEO of General Electric and often regarded as the greatest corporate chief of his time. Mr Welsh keeps active on the lecture circuit and by writing books. His experiences have become a source of inspiration for many. Mr Welsh has also made it a point to ensure that he minimises his views on GE’s current leadership in public. This has helped both GE and Mr Welsh to continue to prosper. Imagine if Mr Lee Kuan Yew had taken a leaf from Mr Welsh’s book and remove himself from the active role of government and do things like write books. Hey, we could be selling the “Singapore Way of Management,” to places like Harvard Business School if our founding father actually decided to sit down, let his successors get on with it and write a book of his management experiences. His brand value outside Singapore remains fairly strong but it will diminish if he remains focused on helping the government of the day govern Singapore.

But back to the original point – why don’t we have a situation where we could afford to lose our leaders to either death, disease, retirement and so on? The other reason is probably due to the leaderships other obsession – control. To be fair, Singapore has thrived in no small part to its leadership’s competence. The leadership gets the job done and in return we ensure they can do the job with the minimum interference from opposition parties or an overly critical press. Why rock the system? Why do we even need to grumble about it when they’ve done a fabulous job and keeping you and I well fed?

However, as the Mas Selamat case is proving – Singapore’s leadership is not always competent nor is it always well-meaning. The system, as the government has been stressing in this case, is only as good as the human beings who run it. The Singapore government like most normal commercial organisations goes out of its way to ensure that it has the best, brightest and most honest. Most of the time, the efforts to ensure that only the best fill the job yields the correct result, but there are times when it does not. When you get the wrong man for the job, there are obvious solutions – let him quit or sack him.

But what happens when the man for the job cannot be replaced because no one else can do the job? Do we simply leave him there and let him extricate himself and shrug our shoulders telling ourselves that beggars cannot be choosers?

Thanks to Mas Selamat there is irony in Singapore. Take a look at the nation’s security system. The government spends approximately S$100 million plus a year to ensure that we have the most sophisticated anti-terrorism facilities and technologies. But all that money has gone to waste because the centre where terrorist are held does not have a simple window grill on its windows.

The same can be said for our “People” resources. The “careless” prison guards are replaceable – being Ghurkhas, the Singapore Police Force will have no shortage of recruits willing to give Singapore the dedication that no Singaporean will give in replacing the guards that will be undoubtedly sent back to Nepal. It seems that the prison officers in the detention centre are also replaceable. When a recession takes place, as is expected, the government will have no problem recruiting people. But what about the people who allowed a culture of complacency in the Ministry and its sub-units to develop? Are we stuck with both the Minister and Director of ISD simply because there is no one else who can take the job?

If this is so, then we are really are in trouble. It shows that our leadership has not done its part in ensuring that there is a ready replacement for the people that make the important decisions. Yes, its nice to groom someone at your own pace but you need to ensure that they have the ability to take over if things happen unexpectedly.

Mr Wong and Singapore are lucky. This time it was a mere call for resignation and the Prime Minister made a belated effort to tell the world that Mr Wong had his support. Perhaps Mr Wong develops the will and capacity to amend his blunders. But what would have happened had the matter been more serious and Mr Wong had dropped dead. Would there be anyone to replace him?

PN Balji always insisted that his associates learn to work without him as quickly as possible. As he so eloquently said, “I could always drop dead tomorrow.” I’ve always remembered that. In 2005, he helped keep me alive. In 2006, he made me thrive by not being on the project. Now, if only more of our leaders thought about things that way and actually prepared the nation for their mortality.


Jamie said...


I'm Jamie from The Sunday Times. We would like to quote your blogpost in our blogosphere column this week. Is that okay?

Pls let me know. Do email me at


Recruit Ong said...

“Who do you think should replace the Minister were he to do the honourable thing and resign?”

This is a completely separate issue from that of WKS's accountability as minister of home affairs over the escape of Mas Selamat.

While the question you raise is by itself not invalid. It in no way reduces/mitigates the key issue of WKS's responsibility.

The civil service has so many staff. Let them ponder over which tom, dick or harry will replace WKS. Once WKS is gone there will be many able officials willing to step up for the job. We as citizens of SG should be more concerned when ministers who cannot cut it refuses to budge from office even after such a major blunder!