28 May, 2022


Restricting The Cabinet To 25 Alone Will Not Do The Job

By W.A Wijewardena –

Dr. 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 waw1949@gmail.com

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Latest comments

  • 0

    WAW is an ornament that would have adorned the Central Bank and brought in its wake recognition in the financial circles of the world.He would have also with his wide experience been an asset to good governance and correct financial discipline.However the need was a stooge who will do the bidding who will take charge of the printing press. WAW was not the man for that,an economist of repute who had deviiled under NUJ and was also an admirer of the founder John Exter.If the man had a backbone he would have advised against spending a fortune to please a vain man and not led at great cost to the countrya battalion to host the Commonwealth Games.He made the Central Bank whose function was to act independently an appendage of the government.
    There is no dispute China is giving loans and using their labour and materials as their home needs too must be met.What we see by way of infrastructure development is laudable and will benefit Hambantota more than the country.Its not only the south and Hambantota that needs development. I guess the repayment aspect is also safe as all chances are that they will absorb such costs as they have got a cost effective maritime route which they can use as they please.
    WAW’s suggestions are laudable however given the nondescripts that all parties will field and th acute shortage of technocrats coupled with no man with self respect ever jumping into this cess pit the future is bleak.

  • 0

    There is no need for a 25 member Cabinet. If you are serious about reducing the size of the Cabinet, it should be reduced to 15. That is more than adequate for a small country.

  • 0

    Dr. Wijewardene,

    A timely essay that not only pinpoints the major problems with our system of governance at the cabinet level, but also points the way as to what could be done to overcome these problems. I would suggest that an Executive Presidency, with well defined checks and balances and a cabinet system like in the US, may serve the interests of SrI Lanka better. The cabinet members should be persons with proven ability and have expertise in their subjects. they should not also be part of the legislature. They should be nominated by the president and approved by the legislature. However, they should be also answerable to the legislature. A elected member of the legislature should relinquish the elective office, if nominated to the cabinet.

    I think we are a very long way off from having a Lee Kuan Yeu as a president in this country! However, even a mediocre president with atleast the ability to nominate some capable persons to his cabinet will serve this country better! A mediocre or even an exceptional president having the option to only choose cabinet ministers from the politicians of the quality we elect to parliament, is a fatal flaw in our sytem, especially in circumstances where there is no longer the required quality in the top rungs of the public services.

    Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

  • 0

    The new Constitution proposed by Ranil is only of academic interest, as he has not shown the capability to lead his party or the few institutions under the management of UNP.

    At a time when the traditional UNP voters are praising the good work of the Urban Development Authority under the leadership of Gotabhaya Rajapakse, what is the response of UNP?

    The crazy Western Province Provincial Council under UNP management is trying to pass a resolution preventing Private Hospitals like Lanka Hospital and Asiri Sugical Hospital as well as owners of high-rise buildings with private car parks from charging parking fees. This will permit these nincompoops and their retinues to abuse these vital facilities. It will make it impossible for members of public who use these facilities to find a parking spot.

    My advice to him is show by example that UNP under him will do a better job of ruling Sri Lanka than the present Government. Use a market research organisation to measure the popularity of UNP and his personal popularity at regular intervals, to be a credible alternative to the ruling party.

  • 0

    This Dr can’t be serious about Ranil’s Models.

    The burning question is ,should the LTTE proxy Sambandan be given his own Police Force and total control of all Govt owned Real Eastate in the North?.

    If Ranil answers this in the affirmitive or otherwise there is no need for this smoke screen.

    Ranil is totally emedded with the TNA.

    When the ex Militant Premachandran becomes the CM after Sambandan wins the upcoming election,there is going to be a massive confrontation between the TNA and the Govt over Police Powers and Land.

    If Ranil is still embedded with Sambandan when this happens that will be end of the story for Ranil and his Faction.

    If the Diaspora IC intervenes to help Sambabdan,it will be the end of the story for the whole UNP, unless the Southern members do a Puranappu.

    • 0


      The 13th amendment is a damp squib and it is being portrayed (by you as well) as an atom bomb for obvious political reasons. Why obvious? Because there is no will to devolve power to the periphery, even as an efficient management tool and the linking of devolution with the Tamils, provides as easy and palatable escape route. It is political chicanery of the worst type possible. The Tamil political formations are running after the mirage that is the 13th amendment and the UPFA and its affiliates are acting as though the country is confronted with a mean monster! What a shameless drama!

      If the ‘Type’ of severely circumscribed and ‘by your Excellency’s grace’ devolution is not acceptable what else would be? It is a ‘Placebo’ to placate the Tamils. It is not the medicine required. It is an attempt at pyscho-therapy. It is the biggest political deception in the political history of the country, even outpacing the ‘Parangiya Kotte giya vagey’ story. Please do not make ‘Much Ado about nothing’!

      Please let those who are elected to the northern PC also enjoy the perks office and expose their impotency and that of the PC system to the Tamils on the ground here. Do at least this favour for the Tamils! Let them experience the reality!

      Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

  • 0

    JR increased the salaries and emoluments of politicians to enable them to resist the temptation to be corrupt. Sadly, their corruption knows no bounds. Any future system should cut back on all these perks such as duty free vehicles, pensions etc which have lured the wrong type of people to enter politics. They too should be subject to the same laws and regulations as ordinary public servants. They may be allowed one vehicle and fuel for official and private use.

    At present the ranks of politicians are bereft of qualified people. So the training of ministers to fulfill the tasks of their ministries is required. Simply appointing people to satisfy political demands is disastrous. These people play havoc in their ministries. Even with a politician at the head the power of the minister should be devolved to the permenant secretary who would be a qualified individual.

    • 0

      Safa, you say,’JR increased the salaries and emoluments of politicians to enable them to resist the temptation to be corrupt.”

      How does this tally with his wellknown:’I’ve got a FILE on you!’?

      I was never there to see it of course, but press & other reports describe how JR often dealt with an MP who showed signs of ‘getting out of line’, ‘taking too independent a view’, challenging something JR was proposing or supporting. He’d pick up a file from the table,& wave it in the air saying: ‘I’ve got a FILE on you!’. What else could have been in that file which usually shut up its subject, but evidence of wrong-doing, corruption, etc. Some of us had the impression that in fact that corruption, etc, was, on the other hand, NOT discouraged too much), since it created a vulnerability that could always be used to the advantage of the Master. One of many tricks that has been digested by the current master.
      Oh yes, JR was perfectly well aware of his MPs and Minister’s failings and corruption. One occasion he made that clear was at the referendum when he urged people to “Vote for the Lamp” and “I will change” all the bad guys in my present government. He knew and they (the MPs) who would have to therefore fight extra hard to bring their voters over to the Lamp (many of whom had, only two months before) voted even against the MASTER himself! (when he has been so cocksure he would come in with a thumping majority). So the bad guys had to go to even further lengths (or have JR sign their resignation letters) than they had in the Presidential Election, which meant absolutely NO HOLDS BARRED.

      Do you really believe JR wanted them to resist corruption? Anyway, JR himself handed out official houses to various kith and kin. So he wasnt exactly lily white himself.

  • 0

    Will this open the eyes of the President?

    Of very similar substance was the speech by Prof John Richardson and it doesn’t seem to have made any impact:
    Prospects For Post Conflict Reconciliation And Development In Sri Lanka: Can Singapore Be Used As A Model? By Prof John Richardson, http://groundviews.org/2010/11/05/prospects-for-post-conflict-reconciliation-and-development-in-sri-lanka-can-singapore-be-used-as-a-model/

  • 0

    There is nothing new in this article. These are all established facts and Ranil Wickramasinghe for one, would be fully aware of these prerequisites and requirements for suitable ministers.

    We have 2 problems :

    (1) Do 25 or even 15 such persons remain in this Country ?

    (2) Can Ranil survive in power if he ever even tries this ?

    The level of corruption and the fact that all the voting majority wants is short term gains, preferably in the form of free handouts will see to it that this never succeeds.

    First the level of education of the voting public has to be raised to a level when they understand that it is the long term that matters….

  • 0

    Ministers should be chosen for expertise in fields which come under their purview.
    The ministers of the Singapore Government hold high qualisfications and exemplary records of public service.
    Is it any wonder that singapore is a highly advanced country in all that a nation is required to be?
    We have not only ministers with insufficient education,but also similar persons in charge of almost all important state enterprises which are wasting the nation’s wealth.
    When will we emulate Singapore ?

  • 0

    More important is the provision for a care-taker govt. during. Gen.elections.

    Also if the Presidency is to be “beheaded” & a Hd. of State be elected, it is the 225 M.PP who should
    select him by Voting, say within30 days of convening the Parliament. This will save us a lot of funds &
    More pointedly the dirty politics practiced hitherto. If India follows this wise method why not the big sl !!

  • 0

    This is all pie in the sky as far as ground realities and agendas are concerned…George W Bush, during the invasion of Iraq on trumped-up allegations and falsified documents commented to researchers that while they (the researchers) judiciously documented and analysed history, Bush and his administration would create more history for the researchers to investigate and write about, and that it did not matter in the least, what they wrote… such was his contempt of legality and common decency…

  • 0

    A good article which will not be read by any one in the government, least of all by the President, who does not read any thing any way.

  • 0

    I have received the following comment from an anonymous academic in Singapore:

    I have read the article and have no argument nor disagreement with the views and principles espoused in the books referred to in the article. Very wise very profound. But in matters relating to politics and governance (generically – anywhere in the world under any system) the devil is in the detail and there is the reality that, as with all leadership challenges, there will be times when the leader takes licence to make decisions for reasons privy only to himself ie there is subjectivity, prejudice, all sorts of factors influencing decisions. Not every decision needs to be or can be explained. But overall performance, transparency to a point, reputation and integrity, and a good dose of healthy respect for human dignity, rights, basic welfare for those incapable of helping themselves, keeps a leader in power.

    For a long time the systems and framework here were in place and continually enhanced. As we progressed understandably the challenges evolved and became different requiring different approaches to address different problems and also meet different expectations. The paternalistic “I know best leave me to do the thinking” style was tolerated because we were in transformation mode, people were less educated, less traveled and information availability was limited and well regulated. And the basics were delivered – jobs, affordable cost of living, homes, transport, education and healthcare. The model was based on meritocracy, hard work, thrift, respect for fellow citizens, servant leaders. Today the words remain but in practice they have been redefined. Meritocracy is tinged with elitism, selection by observation of performance and assessment of fit is largely formularised via a “scholar” system of academically brilliant candidates given government scholarships, raced through a premier service “school”, but mostly drafted from the armed forces and the labour movement such that the espoused diversity in “equipping, enabling and empowering” is being questioned by those outside the system. The rhetoric continues ad nauseam about policies being for the people but nobody believes it because the man in the street feels the pain of increasing unaffordability and the looming spectre of a bleaker future for self (job security & inadequate savings from diminishing purchasing power) and the next generation (no social mobility, poor quality of life, 30 year mortgages and shoe box homes for the average family).

    In short yes we have systems in place to groom good leaders but the invisible and insidious effects of leaders with gaps in leadership attributes and qualities eg litlle or no EQ, who view issues as mathematical problems solvable by some algorithm, steeped in elitism believing “we can enrich the country and all boats will rise” and using that as an excuse to focus only on the numbers like growth & GDP, fixing long term productivity problems using quick fixes like cheap labour from outside, current & tomorrow’s problems using yesterday’s solutions … and the list continues. Smart maybe, pragmatic definitely, effective questionable in the light of the current problems, moral authority to lead… other than the mandate from the previous election, a resounding NO, going by the level of public angst arising from unanswered questions, summarily dismissed, and the group mind and lack of courage to slaughter a herd of sacred cows. As for paying top dollar to discourage graft a man predisposed to get rich the easy way will still do it. On the other hand a platinum ricebowl may have a deleterious effect on courageous decision-making, daring to change, and questioning the conventional wisdom of the group mind influenced by the ultimate leader’s mind, at every stage of planning, execution, problem solving and decision making.

    Yes the cabinet and attaching costs should be contained for all the reasons articulated in the artcile. But as the writer rightly pointed out that alone wont solve the problem What’s missing? Continually redefining what a leader should be, what the KPIs should be, and how you measure it with transparency and objectivity.

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