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Ministerial aspirants should be good learners too

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Fourth Century Indian Guru Kautilya offers several pertinent lessons for Sri Lanka’s new Government

The late Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew made certain that all his ministers possessed the virtues of competence and integrity - AFP 



Lessons from Kautilya and Singapore

The election is now over, a Prime Minister has been sworn in and a new Cabinet is to be appointed shortly. Many in the government party as well as those planning to cross over from the Opposition are aspiring to be Ministers. 

The new Government, as announced at the election, is committed to delivering an extensive program within 60 months. The ability of the Government to do so will depend on the competence of the Chief Managers – known as Ministers – who are in charge of the program. Thus, the knowledge, ability and willingness to learn and the width of the world outlook of the prospective Ministers are the key factors contributing to the success of the Government. In this connection, there are some lessons from Kautilya, the fourth century BCE Indian Guru and from the experiences of Singapore that would come in handy for the new Government.



Quality and integrity of ministers a must

One piece of advice which Kautilya gave to the king in his treatise on economics, The Arthashastra, was that, when appointing ministers and high officials, he should look for quality and integrity in them. Untitled-1

The essential qualities of a minister are that, according to Kautilya: “He should have been trained in all the arts and have the logical ability to foresee things. The ministers should be intelligent, persevering, dexterous, eloquent, energetic, bold, brave, able to endure adversities and firm in loyalty. He should neither be haughty (arrogant) nor fickle (inconsistent and wavering). He should be amicable and not excite hatred or enmity in others.” 

Kautilya further recommended that those who had the highest number of qualities out of the above attributes should be appointed to the most important positions. 



The need for educating ministers

A king will disregard these essential requirements when appointing ministers to the peril of both himself and his kingdom. While the king himself should be educated, his ministers should also be educated, intelligent and skilled in numerous arts and sciences. 

The arts and the sciences in which a minister should be versed differ significantly today from what was required in ancient times. Just to get a taste of those arts and sciences considered useful in those days, one may refer to Chulavansa which states that the King Parakramabahu the Great, who is said to have been well versed in Kautilyan ways, had a civil servants training school in which the future ministers and top civil servants had to master “skills to command horses and elephants in war, fencing, foreign languages, dancing and singing.”



Learning foreign languages comes in handy for ministers

In ancient times, both ministers and top civil servants had to take up arms to defend the country and the king from enemies, both from within and outside their kingdom, hence the need for acquiring skills in warfare. 

The mastering of foreign languages enabled them to acquire new knowledge and undertake cultural, religious and economic transactions with foreigners. The skills in dancing and singing are ways of killing the stress which such high positions naturally entailed on them. In today’s context, learning foreign languages and arts is still valid. In addition, it will behove ministers and top civil servants to learn of international laws, global economic and political issues and every aspect of the subject matter which has been assigned to them.



Good counsel is far better than a whole military

The training, learning and intelligence will equip a minister or a councillor with sound judgemental powers. Kautilya, having given the highest value to this quality, has advised that “the power of good counsel is superior to military strength; with good judgment, a king can overwhelm even kings who are mighty and energetic.” This emphasises the superiority of the power of the brain over the power of the muscles, money and numbers.

Hence, there is no shortcut for a person to become a minister or a top civil servant. He has to undertake an arduous skill and capacity-building exercise by placing him on a continuous learning program. 



A selection process for ministers

One secret behind the much envied success story of Singapore is that it has in fact seen to the appointment of qualified, competent and quality persons as ministers. In that little city state, there is a selection process for appointing ministers, in addition to the election process already set in through normal elections. Any politician who desires to become a minister has to undergo strenuous training and learning in the subject which he plans to be in charge after being appointed as a minister. 

Accordingly, if a politician desires to be the trade minister, he has to acquire knowledge on current international trade issues, globalisation and its impact on the country, trade theories and competitive efficiency and so on. 

The chosen politician is appointed to the post only after he has shown a good progress in his learning. According to Lee Kuan Yew, the leader credited with Singapore’s miraculous achievements, even the appointment of the Head of the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) was done by following this process. The chosen candidate had to undergo a rigorous banking, monetary and financial training program for one full year in 1997 before he was appointed as the Managing Director of MAS in 1998. In this manner, Lee says, the appointee was fully “ready to move” in the expected liberalisation and establishing monetary and financial stability in the country.



Appoint best men as ministers or lose

There are many lessons which a country of modern times could learn from Kautilya’s ancient wisdom and Singapore’s modern wisdom. Similar to The Arthashastra which Kautilya wrote as a manual for future kings and rulers, Lee Kuan Yew too has written his memoirs in two volumes titled ‘The Singapore Story’ and ‘From Third World to First’ for the guidance of Singapore’s younger generations. asfsasfa

A modern ruler can use these three volumes as his Bible for attaining success for himself as well as for his nation. 

In addition to having a continuously improving knowledge base, Lee says that ministers and top civil servants should be of the highest degree of integrity and probity. Kautilya too focuses on these two requirements. 

Competent people should be appointed to the Cabinet, according to Lee, because “no prime minister can achieve much without an able team.” Hence, his style was to appoint the best man he had to be in charge of the most important ministry, namely, finance. 

According to Kautilya, if the Treasury is empty, that is the end of the kingdom. Thus, if the head of the Treasury causes losses to king’s treasures deliberately, says Kautilya, he should be whipped in public. In the past, two ministers who caused governments to fall in Sri Lanka were the Minister of Finance and the Minister of Education. Hence, appointing competent people with a future vision to occupy these two critical ministries is a must today. Any failure in this regard will be fatal to the new Government which has come to power at the recent election.



Qualities of a great learner

With regard to knowledge, Kautilya says that the king, his ministers and top civil servants should be good learners. Knowledge for both Kautilya and Lee was ‘global knowledge’ and not a narrow indigenous knowledge. 

In Ethics of Chanakya, Kautilya praised a learner’s desire to acquire global knowledge by saying that, for a scholar intent on gaining knowledge, “no country is foreign.” 

In the same text, Kautilya identifies six attributes of a good learner which a ministerial aspirant has to cultivate. They are obedience to teacher (self-discipline and humility), ability and willingness to learn (desire for knowledge), ability to understand what is learnt (high IQ), retaining what is learnt (cultivating memory power), reflecting on what is learnt (keeping a constant touch) and ability to make inferences from what is learnt (application). 

This requires all those in high positions in Government to place themselves on a continuous learning program. Lee says that after serving as Prime Minister for nine years, he enrolled himself in the Harvard Business School in 1968 to brush up and update his knowledge base and during his entire career as PM, had frequent and regular discussions with learned people and industry leaders to acquire new knowledge. He has advised others too to follow suit.



Sri Lanka’s new PM goes to school once again

Following this global trend of developing new leaders, Sri Lanka’s new Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe followed a similar course in 2014 at the Centre for International Studies of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA. 

There are at least two up-and-coming politicians in the ruling United National Party who also have followed similar advanced courses in US universities earning Fellowships. This has to be expanded to cover all the new ministerial aspirants in Sri Lanka. If they are unable to attend such courses in foreign universities for prolonged times, arrangements could be made to have such courses in Sri Lanka with foreign collaboration. It is essential that Ministers should have a good knowledge of macroeconomic framework and policies, emerging global developments and how Sri Lanka should be placed within such a framework in the future.



Remunerate ministers well to take incentives to steal away

Though integrity and probity are important aspects of public life, both Kautilya and Lee admit that it is difficult to ensure it unless people become self-disciplined. Lee says that in the case of the founder generation of Singapore’s leaders, it was not a problem because honesty was a habit. His colleagues were able to “spurn any attempt to suborn them.” They had taken trouble to assume power not to enrich themselves but to change society. However, he says that “this group could not be replicated because it was not possible to recreate the conditions that made them different” from others. Hence, he suggests that ministers and public servants should be remunerated adequately to thwart greedy desires to earn undue benefits from their positions. Kautilya too has recommended very high salaries to ministers in order to “prevent them from succumbing to the temptation of the enemy or rising up in revolt.”



Ministers being economic managers should be paid well

Lee justifies high salaries to ministers on the ground that they are the managers of the economy charged with the duty of enhancing the wealth base of people, just like the top officials of a private company that is required to raise the asset value of the shareholders. 

If private companies can remunerate top officials for the extraordinary talents and skills they have brought to the company, ministers and top civil servants too should be treated with the same yardstick. To be competitive with the private sector, Lee suggests that ministerial remunerations should be upgraded every year depending on the growth of the economy and improvement in its productivity.

To pay well, there should be growth in the economy

For a country to remunerate its ministers and civil servants well, the important requirement is the continuous growth and limiting the total size of the wage bill. The first is decided by the in-built infrastructure, investment levels and the overall efficiency of the economy for which ministers are substantially responsible. 

However, to ensure the second, it is necessary to keep the ministerial positions to a minimum number needed to run a Government efficiently. If there are too many ministers, then the payment of high remunerations to ministers will soon drain all the resources of the state.



Pay a block salary to Ministers

Lee has a further recommendation that, while paying ministers high, they should be paid a high block salary as the final payment. He criticises the practice of many countries to mislead the public by paying a small salary to ministers and providing them with a plethora of hidden perks. 

These perks include Government-paid bungalows, servants, security officers, vehicles, drivers, coordinators, private secretaries, telephones, mobile phones and so on. Because of the hidden nature, they cannot be effectively controlled by the Treasury. Since the total cost of these perks is not known, the public too does not know how much they spend to maintain a minister. Hence, in the name of transparency, disclosure and good governance, Lee says that it will be better for a society to pay a high salary which is known and fixed to ministers rather than opening a bottomless pit for them to dig into at their will.



Apply rules to ministers too

Paying a high salary may not be sufficient to deter an extra greedy person from abusing his powers. In this connection, both Kautilya and Lee recommend that those who have been found guilty of corruption should be severely dealt with. 

In fact, Kautilya recommends that ministers should be subject to unannounced “corruption temptation tests” and those who are found to be susceptible, should be promptly expelled. Lee, in his ‘From Third World to First’ has given numerous instances of dealing strictly with his Cabinet colleagues who happened to have resorted to corrupt practices. 

In fact, on one occasion, when the Opposition charged that his wife and son had an undue advantage in a real estate transaction when he was out of office, he demanded the incumbent Prime Minister to conduct an investigation into the charges forth with. Though the inquiry found that there was no impropriety in the transaction, he got his wife and son to donate the sum involved to charity as a good gesture and an example for others.



Ministers with desire to learn will deliver

The lessons to be learnt from Kautilya and Lee Kuan Yew are the same. That is, a country should be placed in the hands of learned and intelligent people who have a desire and will to upgrade their knowledge base continuously and who will not succumb to the temptation of enriching themselves out of their public offices. 

Kautilya says a king, and Lee says a modern ruler will perish, along with his nation too, in no time, if he does not follow these principles when appointing his ministers.



Stay hungry, stay foolish!

Perhaps the real advice to ministerial aspirants was given by Steve Jobs of Apple fame, a high school dropout, when he delivered the commencement speech to students of the Stanford University of USA in 2005 (available at: . http://youtu.be/mFi4zNJ7AxQ ). 

He advised the students to “stay hungry, stay foolish”; hungry meaning that they should never abandon their quest for knowledge and wisdom, foolish meaning that they should never think that they know everything. Any minister who follows this wisdom will stand to thrive and make the country that he is to lead thrive as well.

(W.A Wijewardena, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, can be reached at: waw1949@gmail.com )

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