Sep 21, 2013
By Rachel Chang
Former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew is a great leader.
Yet, after witnessing a week of salutary tributes on the occasion of his 90th birthday, I wonder if Singapore might have a Great Leader problem.
Not so much a dearth of them - although that is a future possibility that may have to be reckoned with one day.
But that Singaporean society has become so wedded to the idea and style of Great Man leadership that we do disservice to our past, and are ill-prepared for a complex and unpredictable future.
Perhaps this is because Mr Lee remained dominant for so many decades after his founding Cabinet - Dr Goh Keng Swee, Mr S. Rajaratnam, Dr Toh Chin Chye, to name a few - retired from politics and faded from the public view.
Perhaps it is that our current set of politicians and wise men are of the dyed-in-the-wool, learning-at-the-knee generation of Lee disciples, profoundly and deeply influenced by the first PM's style and thinking.
Whatever the reason, the narrative of Singapore's development has now broadly been compressed into one of a Great Leader taking a country, with conviction and vision, from Third World to First.
This is unfortunate, because the reality is that Mr Lee had an astonishing team of men of exceptional calibre and integrity who yet - and this is crucial - did not covet the premiership for themselves.
It was Dr Goh who was the dispassionate pragmatist, who opened Singapore up to the world when the fashion was to turn inwards, and who built up the army and the national reserves.
It was Mr Rajaratnam who was a true believer and evangelist for an ideology of multiracialism that would hold a young country together.
It was Dr Toh's steeliness that galvanised his comrades when in 1961, the People's Action Party (PAP) split in two over the merger with Malaysia.
So many others, like Mr Eddie Barker and Mr Othman Wok, all played roles that Mr Lee himself has described as decisive.
None of these men ever desired to usurp Mr Lee's position, which gave rise to a unity of purpose and avoided the politicking that brought many other developing countries to their knees.
The reason it is so important to remember the founding fathers - plural - is that it was the way they challenged and complemented Mr Lee that made him the leader he was.
In management theory, the greatest organisations are not always the ones helmed by one exceptional leader, but ones where the chief is backed by a loyal but bold team.
A difference in perspectives and views - paired with a humility on the part of the leader in taking on those views - is what makes some organisations great, as opposed to merely very good.
At their best, the Old Guard of the ruling party operated exactly this way. In those early years, Mr Lee was challenged at every turn, and he has said many times that he, and Singapore, was the better for it.
What we believe our past to be determines how we conduct ourselves in the present, and how we see our future. Singapore's Great Man problem is also an attachment to a style of governance that is already having some troubling downsides.
Mr Lee believed in Great Man leadership himself, albeit on a smaller scale: He would identify men of talent and ability, and slot them where he needed them, regardless of portfolio or area.
Hence, stories abound from today's elite about being sent here or there by Mr Lee to fix a ministry or complete a project - cleaning up the Singapore River, helming its biggest media company, becoming the first elected president.
The civil service is cast in this mould. Elite civil servants, known as administrative officers, are rotated among ministries and posted to head different agencies every few years. Depth of knowledge is secondary, because faith is placed in innate intelligence and natural ability to carry the day.
When nation-building was urgent and the group of educated and able smaller, this was an understandable and effective way of doing things.
But times have changed, and the approach has arguably been taken too far. The cream of the civil service - many of whom become top politicians - exist at the level of strategy, are often thinkers rather than doers, who take greater pride in having helicopter views rather than for being close to, and empathetic of, sentiments on the ground.
Various arms of Government are now attempting to redress this: This year, the civil service created a complementary track of "specialist" policy leaders, with depth in a certain area, to work alongside administrative officers.
This week, the Public Service Commission publicised its efforts to recruit more scholarship holders of different backgrounds and from different schools.
It revealed that in 2007, 82 per cent of its scholarship holders were from two junior colleges alone: Raffles and Hwa Chong.
This shocking statistic of just a few years ago is evidence that the Great Leader theory - writ small - has served as a kind of blinder for far too long.
Perhaps even more worrying is the way Great Man leadership has brought about a peculiar, uniquely Singapore, social compact. The populace expects practically omniscient and omnipotent leadership from those at the top - and acquiesces to high salaries only if these expectations are met.
The deleterious effects of this social compact have now become stark. As Nominated MP Laurence Lien pointed out in The Straits Times last year, the anger and bitterness towards the PAP on display in some quarters since the 2011 General Election are precisely borne of the view that infallibility rules out forbearance.
"The danger here is that when a 'great man' fails to deliver or cannot feed the people's hungers, he can be swiftly deauthorised by the group," noted Mr Lien.
When citizens put their trust in great leadership, self-belief in an ordinary citizen's ability to effect change ebbs. It is no coincidence that Singaporeans' first question is always, regardless of the scale of the problem, what the Government is doing about it.
But what is Singapore's alternative to the Great Man theory of governance? The fact that that question is asked only goes to show perhaps how much Mr Lee's legacy has narrowed our minds.
It has been drummed into us that exceptional leadership is the only way that Singapore remains exceptional. But policy goals are now more diverse than in Mr Lee's day, politics more unpredictable, and Singaporeans more educated, assertive, and desiring of more say.
In this uncertain environment, resilience comes from a broad spread of excellence throughout society, rather than its concentration in one man or one cabal.
There are great organisations that run well with good leaders who emerge from their fold, and countries whose strengths are in their industries and their people, not their politicians. Can anyone name Switzerland's last great leader? And yet it thrives.
The fact is also that great uncertainty exists as well over Singapore's leadership. There is little clarity on who the next leader after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will be, not to mention if he or she will be Great.
Perhaps this question would matter less if we could rid ourselves of the thinking that the answer is one on which Singapore's survival depends.