Monday, 19 November 2012

Will new normal lead to different breed of leaders?

By Han Fook Kwang, The Straits Times, 18 Nov 2012

Here's a surprising outcome of the recent leadership elections in the two most powerful countries in the world: While the results were not unexpected, the expectations of what the two leaders can achieve could not be more different.

After one of the most hotly contested campaigns, the consensus among pundits to Mr Barack Obama's re-election as United States president is that it will be more of the same in Washington. With the United States Congress controlled by the opposition Republican Party, political gridlock, which prevailed over much of his first term, will continue.

This is all the more likely given the conventional wisdom that second-term presidents are usually lame ducks in the hard-to-fathom American system because they cannot seek re-election.

On the other side of the globe, in one of the most secretive selection processes but which produced a most predictable result, the view among China experts is that incoming leader Xi Jinping has the opportunity to make changes which will determine whether China continues its heady progress towards becoming a developed country.

It cannot be status quo for him because nothing stands still in China - not when 1.3 billion people are on a relentless move to transform their lives.

The word I heard most often at a recent CapitaLand forum was "reform". Reform the corruption-riven system, the accountability of officials, the disparity in development between the coastal cities and the rural countryside and the widening income gap, and Mr Xi's China will succeed in becoming the largest economy in the world by 2020, according to some estimates.

Fail, and the Chinese juggernaut could skid out of control, with serious consequences for its people and the rest of the world. Indeed, Mr Xi referred to these issues in his first speech broadcast live on television. "To forge iron, one must be strong," he said.

There are such high expectations of him, yet he was not chosen by the vagaries of the "one man, one vote" system.

So how was he chosen?

One view that has gained prominence in recent times is that the Chinese system is highly meritocratic, selecting the best man in a rigorous process that would have eliminated many others along the way.

Both The New York Times and the Financial Times - not the friendliest newspapers towards China - carried pieces last week arguing that it was probably the most meritocratic system in the world, and right for such a vast country.

Writing in the FT, Professor Daniel Bell of Tsinghua University and Mr Eric Lee, a Shanghai-based venture capitalist, said: "The advantages of Chinese-style meritocracy are clear. Cadres are put through a gruelling process of talent selection and only those with an excellent performance record make it to the highest level. Instead of wasting time and energy campaigning for votes, leaders can seek to improve their knowledge and performance.

"The Chinese regime has developed the right formula for choosing political rulers that is consistent with China's culture and history and suitable to modern circumstances. It should be improved on the basis of this formula, not Western-style democracy."

Professor Zhang Weiwei of Fudan University put it this way in the NYT: "Nothing can better illustrate this meritocratic governance than the line-up of the next generation of Chinese leaders... Virtually all the candidates have served at least twice as a party secretary of a Chinese province or at similar managerial positions. It takes extraordinary talent and skills to govern a typical Chinese province, which is on average the size of four to five European states."

Two very different systems to choose leaders in the two countries with the most influence on the rest of the world.

For us in Singapore, we can only hope that chosen leaders will rule wisely. And ponder - among the many issues facing the country - whether the system here for throwing up and selecting leaders is the right one, given our history and culture.

But what exactly is the Singapore system?

Going by how it has been practised over the last 40 years, it has also been described as meritocratic, developed and honed by the ruling People's Action Party in its quest to find the best possible candidates to fill the Cabinet.

They have mainly come from top performers in the public sector, with the occasional but rare private sector addition, in their 30s and 40s but with no prior political experience. Those who make it after a stint as junior ministers go on to helm their own ministries.

In the present line-up, Mr Chan Chun Sing, Mr Lawrence Wong and Mr Tan Chuan-Jin, all from the public sector, are on track along this time-tested route to the top. Education Minister Heng Swee Keat, slightly older, was the exception when he was appointed to head a ministry immediately after the election.

Almost similar to the Chinese system? The key difference is that they first have to be elected by the people.

In the years before the 2011 General Election, this was almost a formality. Yes, they needed to contest elections but under the Group Representation Constituency system, and facing weak opposition parties, they were shoo-ins.

Under those circumstances, the Singapore system was as close to the Chinese system in claiming its meritocratic credentials, though not as competitive or rigorous.

But we are now into a new normal, and if the last GE is anything to go by, those shoo-in days might well be over. Voters' desire for more opposition, and the ability of the more successful opposition parties to attract better-qualified candidates, will make it harder for scholar-type candidates with no political experience to succeed.

If indeed this turns out to be the case, will the PAP talent pipeline dry up, as fewer successful people want to come forward and risk a political future fraught with uncertainty at the first hurdle?

Critics of the present system will argue that this is a good thing because it will require a different breed of candidate, not averse to the rough and tumble of politics. And that the old method of parachuting in careerists with no political flair or experience is what is wrong with the PAP's way and explains last year's backlash from voters.

They will argue that the ruling party needs to fix the way it recruits candidates, and select those who do not only excel at policy work but also connect with the people and can succeed in getting elected.

Being electable might in future become more important. After all, the most competent candidate is of no use to the party if he or she cannot win an election.

So, will Singapore see a change in the way leaders are thrown up? If indeed a new breed of leaders emerges as a result, different from the scholar-types of the past, what changes will they bring to Singapore's governance?

This will be uncharted territory, with far-reaching consequences for the future of this place.

Competent, committed and connected leaders - in the US, China or Singapore - matter to the highest degree. Get the right people elected, and there is a higher chance the right policies will follow.

Leadership selection is a much more fundamental issue, one more critical to Singapore's future than the tweaking of public policies such as housing or transport.

I hope these questions are being asked at the highest level.

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