By W.A Wijewardena –
Two of the draft proposals that have recently been presented by sections of the Opposition for a new constitution for Sri Lanka have one common feature – that is to restrict the number of Cabinet ministers to 25.
Reducing the size of the Cabinet will ease budgetary burdens
This proposal merits consideration in view of the huge cost that has been imposed on the nation’s public finances by the ever-expanding Cabinet and the correspondingly expanding public service. This is because when a new minister is appointed, he has to have an office with staff and that staff should have additional supporting staff and so on.
So, the number of the public servants in service and the logistics needed to support them multiply even without the knowledge of the Executive that appoints the ministers. This has imposed a huge constraint on the Government budget which has tax revenue of only 11% of GDP but has to use more than half of that – roughly about 6.5% of GDP – to pay salaries to existing public servants and pensions to those who have left the service.
An emerging economy like Sri Lanka aspiring to undertake a massive infrastructure development program out of borrowed money from foreign sources cannot afford to run a huge public sector with such high costs without running into a severe fiscal crisis and from that point, restricting the number of ministers is a worthy proposal.
The Executive taking over the legislature through a large Cabinet
There is another reason for restricting the number of Cabinet ministers. As pointed out by retired top civil servant V.K Nanayakkara in his recent publication titled ‘In Search of a New Sri Lankan Constitution’, the expansion of the Cabinet has diluted the difference between the Executive and the Legislature in Sri Lanka.
This is because, as he has pointed out, of the Parliamentarians in the Government party, almost everyone holds an executive office and therefore, they all belong to the Executive. Thus, the true legislature has been reduced only to the Opposition Parliamentarians who account for only less than one third of the members of Parliament.
Thus, the separation of powers among the Executive, Legislature and Judiciary – a measure to guarantee protection to citizens and check the abuse of powers by the Executive – has become a thing on paper and not in practice.
However, though the restriction of the size of the Cabinet may be useful, it alone does not solve the problem of establishing an efficient and effective administration in the country. There are two reasons for this.
Smart ways to beat the Constitution: Spoiling the soup with so many Ministers
One is the possibility of circumventing the constitutional provisions by appointing as many Parliamentarians as possible as subject ministers, deputy ministers or supervisory members. Though they are not Cabinet ministers, they too wield enormous powers relating to the administration and thus interfering in the efficient working of the Government. Their presence too entails additional costs on the budget since they too are provided with many perks, though not to the level of a Cabinet minister, but in handsome amounts.
Ministers should be true professionals
The second relates to the quality of those who are appointed as Cabinet ministers. It is not a mere person who should be appointed as a Cabinet minister, but a professional who can give leadership to the Government and the public service.
That was a significant challenge even in the past as advised by Kautilya to his king in his famous treatise on economics – The Arthashastra. This was a problem faced by Lee Kuan Yew, the founding Prime Minister of Singapore, when he established the city state which now earns awe and admiration from many as a success story. Hence, it may be useful to tap the wisdom of Kautilya and Lee on the subject of appointing ministers by a king or a modern ruler.
Quality and integrity of ministers are a must
Kautilya recommended to the king that, when appointing ministers and high officials, he should look for quality and integrity in them. This is relevant even today. There are essential qualities which a minister should have, according to Kautilya.
A minister, says Kautilya, “should have been trained in all the arts and have the logical ability to foresee things. He should be intelligent, persevering, dexterous, eloquent, energetic, bold, brave and is able to endure adversities and be 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.”
Continuous learning a must for a minister
The disregard of these essential requirements by a king when appointing ministers will be to the peril of both himself and his kingdom. While the king himself should be educated, according to Kautilya, 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 competent today differ significantly 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 the Chulavansa which states that 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’.
Essential skills of ministers and top public servants
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 from outside. Hence, the emphasis placed on acquiring skills in warfare. The mastering of foreign languages enabled them to acquire new knowledge and undertake cultural, religious and economic transactions with foreigners.
Even Kautilya has said in his Chanakya Neethi or Ethics of Chanakya that though he is well versed in Sanskrit – the language of the administration at that time – he wished to learn many other foreign languages to enhance his knowledge.
Kautilya: Good counsel is superior to military strength
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 behoove 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.
The training, learning and intelligence will equip a minister or a councillor with sound judgmental 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 or numbers. Hence, there is no short cut 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.
Singapore has a selection process for ministers
Singapore, a success story of efficient government and administration, has a selection process for ministers in addition the election process provided for in the Constitution. The objective has been to select the competent and qualified persons to run the government. Under this selection process, any person desirous of holding a ministerial portfolio should undergo a strenuous training and learning program on the subjects which he desires to be appointed as a minister.
For instance, a person desirous of being appointed as Minister of Trade should master international trade theory and practice, global trade trends, current trade issues, globalisation and its impact on the country and issues relating to international finance etc. The chosen politician is appointed as the Minister of Trade only after he has shown sufficient competence in the subject. This selection and training process is applicable to top public servants as well.
For instance, as Lee Kuan Yew has reported in his autobiography ‘From Third World to First’ that when the Chairmanship of the Singapore Monetary Authority fell vacant in 1997, the earmarked candidate had to undergo extensive training in money, banking and financial affairs for one full year before he was appointed Chairman of MAS. In this manner, Lee says the appointee was ‘ready to move’ in the expected liberalisation and establishing monetary and financial stability of the country.
Lessons from Kautilya and Lee Kuan Yew
A modern country can learn many lessons from both Kautilya and Lee Kuan Yew when appointing ministers. Similar to The Arthashastra which Kautilya wrote as a manual for future kings, Lee also published his memoirs in two volumes titled ‘The Singapore Story’ and ‘From Third World to First’ to guide Singapore’s future generations. A modern ruler can seek wisdom from these three volumes. According to Lee, competent people should be appointed to the Cabinet because “no Prime Minister can achieve much without an able team.” Hence, his style of selection has been to appoint the best man he had in his team as the Minister of Finance, the most important subject in the government.
Ministerial knowledge should be global rather than narrow local
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 book, he identifies six attributes of a good learner which a ministerial aspirant has to cultivate in himself. 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 which he has recommended to others wishing to improve theirs as well.
Integrity too is a must
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 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 temptation of the enemy or rising up in revolt’.
Pay high salaries to ministers to get best talent
Lee justifies high salaries to ministers on the grounds 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.
Keep the Cabinet to a minimum
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 inbuilt 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.
No unaccountable perks but a block salary for 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.
On top of this, ministers in many countries, Sri Lanka not being an exception, have the habit of appropriating the resources of semi-governmental institutions for private gains generating substantial fiduciary risks for the nations concerned. 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 of treasures for them to dig at their will.
Miscreants too should be brought to book
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.
Place the country in the hands of competent people
Thus, while restricting the number of Ministers, there are other aspects which merit consideration. In this respect, lessons to be learned by Sri Lanka from Kautilya and Lee are the same. That is, the future Sri Lanka 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 getting enriched through their public offices.
Reduce the Cabinet both in letter and spirit
Kautilya says a king and Lee says a modern ruler will perish along with his nation in no time if he does not follow those principles when appointing ministers. So, the proposed reduction of the size of the Cabinet should not just be in letter; it should be in spirit as well.
*W.A. Wijewardena can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org