Singapore's Manager-Politicians (or How Talented Managers are Recruited into Politics to Help Run "Singapore Inc.")
by Kai-Lit Phua, PhD

By all conventional social and economic indicators, Singapore has leaped from the Third World into the First World within a few decades after its ejection from the Federation of Malaysia (in 1965) into reluctant political independence.

Although this prosperous, cosmopolitan city-state of about 4 million citizens and expatriates is made up of a group of Southeast Asian islands that only add up to the size of metropolitan Chicago, it is an economic power house in the Far East and in Asia. For example, its well-managed air carrier, Singapore Airlines, has spread its wings over much of the globe. Another home grown company, Creative Technology, is a leading maker of sound and video cards for personal computers.

The transformation of Singapore from a slum and poverty-ridden Third World nation into a First World, "air-conditioned nation" has been largely credited to the heavy-handed but efficient and effective rule of politicians such as Lee Kuan Yew and his successor Goh Chok Tong (in this essay, last names are written first in the East Asian manner) from the ruling People's Action Party or PAP. However, it should be pointed out that the PAP's policy of actively recruiting "talent" into Singapore's political elite has also played an important role in this dramatic transformation.

Most of its current group of cabinet Ministers are individuals with brilliant academic records. High achieving scholastic performance is often coupled with academic studies overseas at elite universities at either the undergraduate or the graduate level. Besides being outstanding scholars, they have also proven themselves as effective and competent managers and administrators in the armed forces, the private sector or the public sector before being recruited into politics. Biographical details of some of Singapore's more prominent Cabinet Ministers will be sufficient to illustrate my point:

Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong - He holds a First Class Honours degree in economics from the local university as well as a Masters degree in development economics from Williams College. He managed the state-owned shipping company called Neptune Orient Lines before being recruited into politics by the PAP.

Deputy Prime Minister BG (Brigadier-General) Lee Hsien Loong - The eldest son of Lee Kuan Yew, he graduated with First Class Honours in mathematics and a diploma in computer science (with distinction) from Cambridge University. He has also studied public administration at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. He served in the Singapore Armed Forces before moving into politics.

Deputy Prime Minister Tony Tan Keng Yam - He holds a First Class Honours degree in physics (Singapore), a Masters degree in operations research (M.I.T.) as well as a PhD in applied mathematics (University of Adelaide). He lectured at the National University of Singapore before becoming a successful banker with the Overseas Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC). He was recruited into politics by the PAP.

Richard Hu Hsu Tau - Dr Hu holds a PhD in chemical engineering and is the former chief executive of Shell group of companies in Singapore as well as the former Chairman of the Monetary Authority of Singapore (equivalent to the Federal Reserve Board of the United States). He is currently the Minister of Finance.

BG (Brigadier-General) George Yeo Yong Boon - Another Cambridge University graduate with First Class Honours (in engineering), he also holds an MBA from Harvard University (with High Distinction).

Lim Hng Kiang - Yet another top PAP leader with a First Class Honours degree in engineering from Cambridge University. He also holds a Master of Public Administration degree from Harvard. He served as the top manager of the Housing and Development Board (HDB) before moving into politics. (As a matter of interest, more than three quarters of all Singaporeans live in high rise apartments built by the HDB).

Rear Admiral Teo Chee Hean - Teo is an engineering graduate with First Class Honours who studied at University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology. He has also studied at Imperial College in London and at Harvard University.

It is interesting to note that Singapore's present political leaders are composed heavily of individuals with technocratic backgrounds (economists, engineers and other technically-trained experts) who have had significant managerial and administrative experience. In contrast, most of the members of the British Parliament and the U.S. Congress have a legal background. With each new generation of leaders, the composition of the Singaporean political elite has become even more and more technocratic.

Why has this turned out to be the case? According to political scientist Raj Vasil,

As with other things in Singapore, the process of leadership renewal has to be a thoroughly planned operation. (Then) Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and his associates were entirely certain that the key objectives of state policy, and the broad strategies to achieve them, that they had devised and introduced were the only correct ones, the only ones suited to the realities of Singapore. Therefore, what was required was a second generation leadership that had the necessary technocratic-managerial skills and capabilities to be able to pursue those objectives and strategies effectively. They did not see any special need for new leaders who possessed political skills, who were "word spinners" Vasil, 1992: 200-201

Thus, Singapore's ruling elite is actually composed of brilliant individuals with technocratic training who have been recruited directly into politics after performing competently as managers, administrators or military top brass rather than conventional career politicians. The Singaporean PAP's system of political recruitment is unique in the world: after talented individuals have been "spotted" and recruited, they have to undergo a barrage (gauntlet?) of observations, interviews, periods of training under veteran Members of Parliament and they even have to pass psychological tests before being offered safe parliamentary seats to contest in the General Elections. After winning a safe seat, the new PAP talent may be asked to serve as a junior minister. If he or she does a good job, a higher level position with greater responsibility would be the next step. However, individuals who fail to perform to expectations are unceremoniously dumped. This would consign them into political oblivion and effectively end their careers as would be politicians and ministers.

A very unique system of political recruitment indeed! I will end this essay by posing the following question: has Plato's vision of a Republic run by "Philosopher-Kings" (albeit brilliant technocratic managers rather than Socratic thinkers) come to pass in the shape of contemporary Singapore after all?

Dr. Phua is a sociologist who received his PhD from Johns Hopkins. He also holds professional qualifications in insurance. He has worked in both the public sector in America (with a state health department) and the private sector in Singapore. He currently teaches public health at the International Medical University in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. His personal website is at: .

Further Reading:

Crowell, Todd and Andrea Hamilton. 1998. "The Next Generation". In Asiaweek, November 13

George, Cherian. 2000. Singapore: The Air-Conditioned Nation. Singapore: Landmark Books.

Leifer, Michael. 1995. Dictionary of the Modern Politics of South-East Asia. London: Routledge.

Ooi, Can Seng. 1998. " Singapore". Pp. 343-402 in Political Party Systems and Democratic Development in East and Southeast Asia, Volume I: Southeast Asia, edited by Wolfgang Sachsenroder and Ulrike E. Frings. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Limited.

Vasil, Raj. 1992. Governing Singapore. Singapore: Mandarin.

Also by Dr. Kai-Lit Phua - Who Says That Organization Theory is Boring? | See Executive Performance and Creative Leadership in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2001 by Dr. Kai-Lit Phua. All rights reserved.

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