Monday, March 30, 2009

Top Heavy Management

Singapore's Prime Minister had a pretty busy week last week playing musical chairs. The cabinate saw a reshuffle in which the Defense Minister was promoted to Deputy Prime Minister and three up and a deputy prime minister was moved up to becoming Senior Minsiter in the Prime Minister's Office. Further to that, an additional minister was added to the Prime Minister's office (The local media had a field day making the most of the fact that is the first woman in history to make it to full minister). In addition to that, another former navy man was made the Minister in charge of - Information, Communications and the Arts. Singapore, a land of 4.6 million not only has the highest paid government ministers in the world but also the most top-heavy government. As of writing, we have 1 Prime Minsiter, 1 Minister Mentor, 2 Senior Ministers and 3 Ministers in the Prime Minister's Office - all this in addition to the Ministers who have a Ministry to run. 

One has to wonder why the Singapore government has decided to add on a few extra C-level executives when every other organisation in the world is shedding management? Is there a method in this apprent maddness? Well, you can't discount the Singapore government from making a bet that proves to be right. The very idea of an indepdepdent Singapore is thanks to a contrarian bet. Nobody said we could make it and we did (did we have a choice?) So, does the Singapore government know something that the rest of the world does not when it comes to increasing top-level management? 

This does not make economic sense. Our Ministers do not come cheap but this argument is easily countered by the fact that we need to pay top-dollar to the get the top brains. I can see how this works when we talk about the various ministers running ministries. The Singapore government is by most standards highly clean, efficient and effective in what it does and it benefits the majority of the citizens. Having said that, it does not explain why we need another three ministers to be sitting in the Prime Ministers office. One arguement is that these Ministers do run "Special Projects," such aging. Then, if that's the case, why don't we just give them a title that matches or perhaps assign the portfolio to a Minsiter in charge of a ministry. Yes, it would be hard work but anyone ambitious enough to be a minister will surely be glad for the chance to take on more responsability. 

This leads to the Minister Mentor and two Senior Ministers. What exactly are these jobs and how do they benefit the running of the government? These jobs are effectively consultant positions. The Minister Mentor as the name implies exist to "Mentor" the rest of the cabinate, while the Senior Minister as the name implies is the most "Senior" of all the Ministers. However, neither the senior or minister mentor have executive control - that remains the job of the Prime Minister. 

The theory is that senior and minister mentors provide "Guidence" and lend their "Experience" to the Prime Minsiter of the day. So far, the system has worked. Senior Minsiter Goh Chok Tong in particular has been in asset to the Prime Minister in areas like opening Saudi Arabia and running relations with the Islamic world. But what of Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and why do we need Professor Jayakumar as another Senior Minister? Both men have served Singapore with distinction but are they in danger of overstaying their welcome? 

Look at Minister Mentor Lee. As far as Singapore is concerned, Lee Kuan Yew has created a miracle. The nation owes its very existence and prosperity to him. Having said of all of that, what exactly is his value to the nation by continuing to stay in the cabinate. In Singapore Mr Lee will remain exceedingly powerful and that power comes merely from being who he is. In theory, Mr Lee is hanging on in the cabinate because he's supposed to provide wisdom and experience to the rest of the Minsiters. Surely Mr Lee is capable of doing that without being in the cabinate. All he has to do is to give lectures and write books and Singapore will notice. As things stand, there's an arguement that Mr Lee's continued presence in the cabinate harms the Prime Minister - it provides the impression that the Prime Minister takes orders from him - hence Mr Lee has to tell the world that "I am NO LONGER in CHARGE." Nearly two decades in since he stepped down from the Prime Minsitership, the question remains in Singapore - can Singapore go on without Mr Lee?

Both the Prime Minsiter and Minister Mentor should take a lesson from the late Deng Xiaopeng and his relationship with former Chinese President Jiang Zemin. Mr Deng was regarded as the most powerful man in China right til the day he died. Yet, the only title he held was "President of the Bridge Club," and allowed President Jiang to run the show. So, when Mr Deng died, it was ...a non-event. China did not fall appart as many pessemist were suggesting. This is a lesson both Mr Lee's could do well to follow - The Elder will secure his legacy while the younger will be allowed to form his. In the mean time, the elder can continue to wield quite influence by his mere presence and as the younger Mr Lee's father. 

So much is said about Mr Lee and the need for him to follow the examples of other great CEOs who have gone to pasture and left their companies to carry on. So what about Professor Jeyakumar? Why do we need another senior minister, particularly one who has never been prime minsister? Could it be anything to do with the fact that the good professor comes from an ethnic minority? If it were, it would be shame. The last thing the ethnic miniroties need is another token with little real influence and little real necessity. Ethnic minorities control significant ministries - Finance, Law and the Environment and Water Resources. Do we need a senior minister to oversee these Ministers? The last time anyone checked, the respective ministers were doing quite well without anyone to look over their shoulder.  Surely Professor Jeyakumar could serve the nation more effectively (a nation he has served exceedingly well) by sharing his experiences from the sidelines? 

We live in age where we try not to create work for the sake of it. It's an inefficient thing to do and yet, it seems to me that we are creating high-level jobs for the sake of it. People like Minister Mentor Lee and Senior Minister Jayakumar can continue to add value to the nation without being in cabinate. If they don't volunteer to do it, the Prime Minister should persuade them that this is the best course of action. 

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