20 May, 2022


Ministerial Aspirants Should Be Good Learners Too

By W.A Wijewardena

Dr. W.A Wijewardena

Dr. W.A Wijewardena

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.

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.

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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Latest comments

  • 2

    Wow WAW… Well-articulated piece, which is so relevant at the moment. But, like the National List (particularly of UPFA), the nominees would be chosen according vested interests and to satisfy certain factions. I hope Chandrika and Ranil will put together a decent team.

    • 0

      Dr W , unfortunately corruption has already set in. Kautilya would be turning in his grave when he thinks of Mahendran Affair, Mangala’s imaginations about his opponents, Ravi K’s reputation – Kudu, Rajaratnam business etc, Amaratunga’s thuggery etc. In that sense, we can expect very little from Maithree, Ranil and the rest. The very formation of a National Govt itself like now is a JOKE to many.

      Its very disappointing.Say for example instead of offering the HC’s post to Rosy and Sangakkara why do not they think of people like you who have diligently served the country and know high level planning and economics? Just think…does not that show that our President and PM are not serious about any appointment under the Diplomatic Division or even to the parliament.See how cheap their thinking is. Ranaviraja to France and Gunasekera(Career DPL) to Bangladesh are fine. But Gunasekera would have been better than Sangakkara to U.K. I am serious…please send this message of mine to them or to Rev Maduluwawe Sobhitha as an eye opener and as your credentials.Think also of the statures of Sir Claude Corea, Sir Lalitha Rajapakse, Dr Nonis ,Mr Gunasena de Soyza Mr Mahendran Sr (career DPL) and Chandra Monarawela (DPL)who held those positions and compare with Rosy and Sangakkara. Speaking English, some political or DPL experience and the like is not enough to be the HC in London.

      • 0

        You are quite right. Sirisena is like a ship without a rudder in matters of important appointments. Goes where the wind takes her.

        If one were to ask him for what reason he made the decision to offer the HC London post, what do you think would have been his answer?

  • 2

    I browsed your opinions and ideas and listened to the Steve Job’s video.

    Keep writing.

  • 2

    Great advice, very useful.

    Sadly, in SL context if these criteria were applied other than Eran Wickrameratne and Sumanthiran, who else will pass the test ?? Perhaps one or two others however even educated people of good pedigree like GL have failed the test by owing allegiance to the devil and jumping sides. Disappointingly the rest of the politicians and ministerial aspirants are scum bags, political opportunists and oxygen thieves.

    Why does MS & RW give persons ministerial posts when they lack knowledge of their respective portfolios and have no proven experience or ability ??

  • 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.”

    This is what we needed on March 12th. No need to sign, just reading this out in parliament would have been worth the time.

    It is not too late! We have a free education system : why not free education facilities for parliamentarians! They will have to pass exams, however, and it should not interfere with their work!

  • 2

    Ranil may be already conversant with Kautilya and Lee.

    But can he limit the Cabinet to the best he could find among the 225 parliamentarians. I think he and Maithree should agree on a Cabinet of no more than 30 from both the UNP and the SLFP. Forget about the riffraff who seek office for selfish reasons–women, wampum and wrong-doing.

  • 3

    There is a reason why Rajapske was successful in getting over 7 GDP growth year-on-year.

    He preferred expediency over working things systematically. Its good in a way. When you have so many stake holders and a thick bureaucracy things get bogged down quite easily.

    The power plant was a classic example. Ranil dithered over many years trying to get environmental assessments and consultations. In the end there was no power to half the island to light up houses and to make factories work.

    So we need a middle path. Not too much expediency at the cost of due process. The system must also reduce the red-tape with a light and efficient bureaucracy.

    I think a new constitution is a matter of priority. At present we have a Provincial system and District system working in parallel doing identical things. Either make provinces heavy and district light or vise-versa. Ideally remove one system all together.

    • 4

      //There is a reason why Rajapske was successful in getting over 7 GDP growth year-on-year.//

      Because he could cook up the numbers and nobody would question them (no data or no guts)….

      • 1

        Util proven wrong those numbers will stand.

  • 2

    Dr W.A.Wijewardene,

    It is alright for ministerial aspirants to be learners.

    Then what about ministers, let them be learners as well because learning is a lifelong process. There is no end to learning.

    The exponential manner, the knowledge is expending, the persons who fail to update continuously from birth to death will do so at their own peril.

    But what you failed to write either deliberately or inadvertently is about emotional intelligence EI.

    Emotional intelligence is much more important than Intelligence Quotient IQ.-Modern Studies reveals.

    Let us have emotional intelligent Ministers in addition to having other skills.

  • 2

    The formula is very simple: individuals elevated to Cabinet status MUST BE principled individuals above corruption and capable of employing those with the technical skills to provide the services they’ve promised. NOTHING LESS WILL SUFFICE.

    • 0


      May I add a little here.

      a) Preferably someone who has had some previous exposure to the subject.
      That would enable making proper staffing decisions.
      b) Having real trust of the PM.
      That would stop interference of ‘others’ in his/her decisions.
      c) Comfortable in entrusting responsibilities to the Secretary.
      That would earn extra time for better planning and management.
      d) A believer in his/her shoes.
      That would enable him/her to be firm once a decision is made.

      Etc., etc.

  • 1

    It was easy for Kautilya. His advice was offered to Absolute Rulers whose words were the law, and had the power of life and death over their Ministers and subjects. Lee too was someone like the AR although legally not quite.

    Mr Wijewardene’s views are based on the assumption that the honesty and integrity of the Head of Government of Sri Lanka is a given and beyond dispute. But that is a false assumption. From 1956 onward every Head of Govt had enriched himself/herself, or actively supported associated politicians and businessmen to enrich themselves through corrupt practices. The last President was an encapsulation of the most refined corruption theory and practices.

    We hear that now there is a proposal for installing a Cabinet of atleast 50 Ministers. This entails additional State Ministers, and Junior Ministers. This translates as bribery by the Head of Government to keep himself in power. When the Parliamentary vote is secured in this manner, it is tantamount to giving the Minister and his coterie a licence to steal and plunder.

    There is a simple way to curtail or even eliminate the corruption that flows into the System of Government through the Head of Government, who is currently the Fountain of Corruption. It is like this:

    1. Appoint a permanent panel of Judges, Experts, and those with Judicial experience, referred to as Judicial Authority, to hear by a panel from among them, any charges of corruption against any politician including the Head of State. They are by law absolutely independent of any politician after their appointment and are accorded security of tenure and remuneration.

    2. By legislation, enable any citizen, corporation, Private Business, Government Dept, or other interested entity to lodge complaints with the Authority against any member of the Government. The panel will be authorized to independently employ expert investigators and prosecutors at their discretion. Citizens, and other categories of informants, will be rewarded and protected by the State for their help to indentify the corrupt act and responsible person(s) and provide proof of corruption.

    3. Severe punishment will be prescribed by law for corruption by politicians, the higher the grade, more severe the punishment. A crime that will cost a junior minister five years in jail, for example, will cost a Minister ten years. Only one appeal is allowed, and that, only to a panel of 3 judges of the Supreme Court. Swift justice is a must.

    It is easy to see then how the corruption will disappear. A side benefit is that persons who adopt politics as a profession to enrich themselves will cease to do so.

    BUT, in Sri Lanka, I guarantee that the existing Parliamentarians, including Ranil Wickremasinghe and Maithripala Sirisena, will REFUSE to take the initiative to pass the necessary legislation. If there is such a system we will have a set of politicians of an entirely different character than existing now. Ranil and Maithri will not want that. Past Prime Ministers and Presidents prove that statement. Every CURRENT politician in Sri Lanka wants to keep the door that permits corruption WIDE OPEN. My advise, to the people: Find, and get a Lee Kuan Yew from and for Sri Lanka.

    I urge the millions of citizens who are yearning for a civilized, corruption free government, to do what little they can to achieve that.

  • 0

    “Ministerial Aspirants Should Be Good Learners Too” – Oh yes Mr. W.A.W’wardene.
    It includes the Mr. Yahapalanaya as well and he has already shown how speedily this gramaya can learn.
    The Monkey Seven kicked out and sent packing home by tghe Voter has been summoned to the Parliament through the National List even before they started packing.
    Voters hiding their faces in shame and humiliated by the Chief Executive of the Country……….
    Wonder whether they will be able to return to their lavish Country Homes.

  • 1

    Yes Mr. W.A.Wije we have a very competent Jangi designer as Foreign Minister. Hope you & Lee Kwan Yue must be quite thrilled.

    Hey !!! Rohan…. It was CBK and Yahapalanaya who brought in the loosers through the back door to form the National Govt with SLFP contribution.

    Ranil is contemplating on electing a 1Cabinet of 113 in addition to State & Deputy Ministers. Another set of Jokers and Loosers.

    Ranil can play the Piano while CBK can dance what she has learnt only.

    • 2

      “Ranil can play the Piano while CBK can dance what she has learnt only”

      Ranil will soon get bored because she will only dance to one tune -Rajina Mammai, Rajina Mammai, Magey Raaje.

  • 0

    The BEST LESSON that can be taught to the Aspirant Ministers is to hurry up with the investigations against the former regime and put all those found guilty behind bars including removal of civic rights for life.Then ONLY these “Aspirants” and those who assume duties in the respective Ministries will learn. For 60 years we neglected that aspect and the time is ripe to teach that lesson as otherwise it will never be possible to teach and tame these idiots who think no end of themselves after becoming Ministers and Members of Parliament. So Mr. Prime Minister and Mr. President in the name of Yahapalanaya, please, please don’t interfere with those investigations and court cases. Those guilty in their own conscience will seek meetings with you and call you on the phone; but at such meeting you can politely reject any HELP and say such actions are BEYOND YOUR PURVIEW. That will make you very much easy to Govern and establish GOOD GOVERNANCE. That is the lesson you can teach these would be Ministers and all the Members of the Legislature.

  • 2

    W.A Wijewardena:-
    “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.”

    Singapore may be ‘Developed’ upto ‘First World’ standards in the eyes of Lee Kwan Yew, but what about the Quality of Life of the People?

    Is Living in High Rise Buildings, with no connection to the Environment, considered Progress for us Humans?

    Sri Lanka Leaders have to think Differently, and Positively, and not get trapped in the Singapore and Dubai Nightmares. We Still have so much more on offer!

  • 0

    Dear Mr Wijewardena

    Thank you for the inspiring article. Many believe both MS &RW want to do the right thing but you have not addressed the practical problems they have to face with the corrupt MPs in the parliament and the rouge systems that had been developed over the years. Remember what nearly happened to Premadasa.

    Any way one cannot overnight change the ‘people screwing’ (want of a better word) regime in to a ‘people friendly’ democratic one and I am sure you can recall that Lee himself was a autocratic ruler with expediency as a main objective in the early periods. Therefore, It would be good if you can suggest ways and means how MS & RW can overcome the problems to keep sharks at bay and democratise our ‘system’.

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