I have been following the run up to Singaporean General Elections very keenly online and on the print media (read Straits Times) as this is the first time I am following democratic elections being in the place in a very long time as I spent a very long time in Oman which is a Monarchy in its purest form. Singapore is small by global standards, but its strategic geo-political coordinates and its unique demographic make up makes it a case study for meritocratic governance and how a place sans any resources made it from Third World to the First World. I grew up in Mumbai, India in the steaming cauldron of democracy in India…India has the most vibrant chaotic democracy which is very feudal in nature with the fuel driving being money and muscle power. It is almost impossible for a middle class chap who is interested to participate in the electoral process to contest elections and to win unless he is having money and muscle backing him. A Shashi Tharoor is an exception, a global personality in his own right- an asset to any administration with his acumen. More educated technocrats like him should enter politics to bring in a sense of competence in the system. Although a Jairam Ramesh or a Kapil Sibal are doing a great job, they are very few and far in between. Institutional mechanisms are not there tap the best of talent in the system to contest elections.
The People’s Action Party in Singapore- the ruling party since independence; selects its candidates for the elections with a very scientific recruitment process, head hunting for the best talent to fight the polls and eventually taking up public office. The Singaporean Cabinet is filled with ‘A’ Players with degrees from Ivy League and Oxbridge, who were at the top of their respective professions. A Singaporean MP earns 13000 SGD per month and a cabinet minister earns a salary equal to the top management in corporations as the pay is linked to the private sector. This attracts the best of talent. The PAP uses the same methodology Shell uses to hire its top management. The candidates this time contesting the elections includes a former army chief, top civil servants and professors.
Its technocratic culture is spreading to the opposition too, a harvard educated lawyer and civil servants are contesting on opposition tickets. Being a very urban society, social media is having a big role in the electoral dialogue in Singapore. Websites like the Online Citizen and Temasek Review are devoting a lot of pixel space to the elections. Straits Times Online has a separate micro-site for the elections. I do agree that the talent of the leadership plays a game changing role in the governance of a nation. Asian nations who suffer a ‘governance deficit’ have to learn something from ‘the tiny red dot’ on the map on how to build up institutional capital. As there has been democratic single party rule here, long term planning has been possible although the same cannot be said of West Bengal. As the former Afghan Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani says – ‘ the difference between rich and poor countries is not money but mechanisms’… Singapore has not only the mechanisms but also the political will to drive pro active policies which is being demonstrated in the election run up here… Politics & Public Service is about making a difference