Monday 12 April 2021
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The importance of meritocracy, pragmatism and honesty

Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, published an interesting article in the Huffington Post in 2015 wherein he attributed Singapore’s rise to success to three main policy factors, (i) meritocracy (essentially appointing government officials on the basis of their ability rather than tribal, political or “ruling class” affiliation), (ii) pragmatism (not trying to reinvent the wheel but rather copying “best practice solutions” and adapting them to the local environment), and (iii) honesty (being ruthless when it comes to weeding out corruption and having government officials whose integrity and conduct is beyond reproach).

Singapore is widely regarded as one of the most successful countries in modern times. When Singapore gained independence on 09 August 1965, it had a GDP per capita income of roughly US$ 500 (same as Ghana at the time). Now, its GDP per capita income exceeds US$ 52,000 whereas Ghana has a per capita income of about US$ 1,381 (source, The World Bank, 2015). Growth has been spectacular, and its citizens generally enjoy a very high standard of living. So how did they do it? Simple really. Singapore’s government created an enabling business environment, placed emphasis on rule of law, created effective government structures which were able to attend to the social and economic needs of its citizens, and built institutions which were largely beyond reproach.

Singapore is of course not the only “successful” country when it comes to economic development and social security.
The Nordic countries, Germany, Japan, and a few others all have largely successful economies that enable its citizens to enjoy a relatively high standard of living. Closer to home, Botswana has an enviable track record when it comes to responsible government and good, enabling policies.

Not all countries are created equal. Some have painful legacy issues to contend with (colonialism, injustice, war, famine, and the list goes on). Some have more natural resources than others. Some are pawns in a greater geopolitical “chess game” over which they have little or no control and which negatively impacts on their ability to prosper. But I would argue that all successful countries are forward looking rather than focusing on the injustices of the past. They all aim to have honest and transparent governments.

They place emphasis on fighting corruption, being transparent and accountable, delivering effective services to all its citizens (regardless of political, tribal or class affiliation). They create an enabling business environment that attracts foreign investment and in turn makes it easier for its citizens to be entrepreneurs and empower themselves (rather than solely relying on government handouts).

This does not mean unbridled capitalism (most successful countries have at least an element of social responsibility) but it is far easier to be socially responsible when there is a surplus rather than having low or negative growth.

The bottom line is that successful countries nurture a relationship of trust between government and its citizens. Politicians are, after all, public servants.

They are elected to serve the country’s citizens. As such, politicians should primarily be concerned with providing effective public services and not with empowering themselves at the expense of ordinary citizens.

In order to do so, it is critical that government appoints capable persons who have a willingness to serve rather than appoint those who regard politics as a “career for life” or are placed in powerful positions for political expediency rather than practical merit.
Government should always appoint people who understand the enormous privilege and responsibility that it means to hold elected office. It goes without saying that government should also welcome constructive criticism of its policies (regardless of whether it comes from individuals, civil society or the media), rather than being defensive when these policies are questioned. After all, all good policies should stand up to the dissecting scrutiny of constructive criticism.

Finally, successful countries are pragmatic and honest in their approach to solving problems. It is not necessary to reinvent the wheel when it comes to creating an enabling business environment and tackling social problems. It is however necessary to be honest.

There is no “one size fits all” solution, but most countries – at some point or another in their evolution – will have dealt with painful issues that can be applied to solve current challenges.
These solutions may need to be adapted somewhat (all policies should in any event periodically be reviewed to determine their relevance and impact), but they should be rooted in an honest and sincere desire to enable all its citizens (regardless of race, class, social status, political or tribal affiliation) to live a constructive and prosperous life in a successful country they are all proud to call home.

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