Sunday, June 19, 2011

What’s next for George?

I am really happy that Singapore’s much liked former foreign minister; George Yeo will not be running for the Presidency. Mr Yeo, who was regarded as one of the more ‘liberal’ members of the ruling elite would have had an awful time as President.

He would have been caught between his former cabinet colleagues who would expect him to be on their side and the public who would have expected him to be an independent minded President. Mr Yeo has wisely decided that it is better not to be caught between a rock and a hard place.

So what’s next for Mr Yeo? If you look at his credentials and his number of years of service to the nation, Mr Yeo should have plenty of options. He could, for example, take on the role as an advisor to a number of statuary boards and government linked corporations. He could easily take up a role as a lecturer, talking about Singapore’s place in the world. Not only would Singapore’s universities hire him, he could also lecture in universities around the region.

Personally, I think Mr Yeo should be bold and look for opportunities beyond Singapore and the Southeast Asian region. He should look towards getting a senior management role in a big multinational – which if you consider GIC and Temasek Holding’s investment in some of the world’s largest corporations, should not be too difficult.

To put it simply, Mr Yeo’s presence at a multinational corporation like General Electric (GE) or 3M or JP Morgan would help his former cabinet colleagues seal the argument about the need to pay themselves high salaries.

The argument for paying ministers high salaries has always bordered on the need to counter corruption (well paid people have less temptation to look for bribes) and to attract talent. On the corruption front, this argument has worked relatively well. Singapore has been a steady number four on the list of the least corrupt governments in the world (though the more cynical do argue that Singapore should be number one).

On the argument of attracting talent, this argument is less effective. The initial argument for paying Ministers high salaries was that it was necessary to bring bright minds into politics, which might otherwise have gone into the private sector.
As far as politics is concerned, it is OK for big countries like the USA to accept that you can pretend to be a President for US$20 million in a movie instead of being the President for US$400,000 a year, but it is not possible for small countries like Singapore. We need the best political talent we can get and we need to pay high salaries to stop them from running to places like JP Morgan and GE.

However, there’s one small problem. If you look at the pre-ministerial careers of most of our cabinet ministers, you’ll find that more often than not they’re careers have always been in Singapore and in the public sector. We have plenty of former military people and other civil service types and even the rare few who have spent their careers in the private sector have spent it in Singapore – Tony Tan, former Deputy Prime Minister for example, was the CEO of OCBC and our former Prime Minister, Mr Goh Chok Tong was once at Neptune Orient Line (Temasek Holdings is a primary share holder).

This in itself has not been a bad thing. As governments go, the Singapore government has been acknowledged as a fairly good one. Our public sector is filled with bright people who do quite a good job in running the show.

However, having good people does not mean we’ve been getting the best. The point about paying high salaries has been that we need to attract people who might otherwise have gone to JP Morgan into politics. However, not one of our cabinet members has come from international organisations. The majority have in fact been bread at home and on government scholarship – ie they’ve been bonded to the government before they could even decide if they wanted to go for jobs at places like JP Morgan.

Not only have our top people started in the government, they’ve stayed within the protection of the Singapore government after they’ve retired from active cabinet duty. Think of the most high profile retirees, Senior Minister Goh and Minister Mentor Lee, who became advisors to the Monetary Authority of Singapore and Government Investment Corporation respectively.

So, how good are our top people? They’re good by Singapore standards but where does that leave them on the international stage?

Well, Mr Yeo should look at answering that question and discover what he can do on the international stage. Getting a job at a top level corporation would be a good place to start.

Alternatively, Mr Yeo might decide that he wants to do something entrepreneurial or perhaps philanthropic. Mr Yeo has made plenty of money from his career as a minister and built up a contact base of movers and shakers. All he needs is a little bit of imagination and he could start something that could make an impact on the world. Look at what former US Presidents do. Bill Clinton’s foundation is devoted to fighting AIDS while Jimmy Carter travels round the world trying to make peace.

Losing an election could be the start of something great for Mr Yeo if he puts his mind to it. Chris Patten lost an election and became a much respected Governor of Hong Kong as well as European Commissioner. Mr Patten travels the world writing books and giving seminars. He’s Chancellor of Oxford University. In short, we think of Mr Patten’s success and the failure of a lost election has become a distant memory. This should encourage Mr Yeo in his post-political career.

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