Advisers: A first step in the right direction…

By TP Saran

If the announcement that the Prime Minister has decided to limit the number of advisers to three per ministry is correct, then we can only applaud this as a first step in the right direction in the matter of advisers. And high time too, one could add.

Everyone knows that this is a real sore in our polity. And for too long has it been left to the whims of ministers to appoint all and sundry to: do nothing that adds up in the end. All governments, indiscriminately, have resorted to the practice, totally unconcerned about vocal public opinion that was against it. So the pot cannot call the kettle black. No one has dared to do anything about this aberration since it became almost institutionalized, and that is why we think that capping the number is a quasi-revolutionary measure – if it is applied! Which we hope it will.

Most of us would be acquainted with one or other of these aliens whose job is to ingratiate the minister who thrust him there to spy on honest officers, and to do his bidding generally. And more often than not, they poke their nose in matters that they have no knowledge of, and try to give orders to substantive officers with long years of experience who are doing their best to serve the country according to good governance principles. One of their brood was squarely put in his place when he tried to question one such officer in the presence of the minister, and he had to shut up and never again dared to act bigger than the puny dimwit that he was, his physical size notwithstanding.

Another one drives into the reserved parking in the morning, sits in the office provided – at the expense of other officers who are chronically and acutely short of working space – and drives out at office closing hour without having done anything constructive at all for the ministry in which he has been parachuted. There are several like him of course, spread all over. And costing a real pile of taxpayers’ money.

The next step should be: an audit of the existing advisers by an independent firm through a structured questionnaire to gauge their performance (oh dear!) and contribution (if any ) during their period of tenure to date. There won’t be any surprises.

If only the ministers were up to it, the PM would not been burdened with the job of having to personally approve every proposed adviser, thus unnecessarily centralising this process and wasting the time of the PM, who surely must have more important things to do.

In a high level forum concerned with a critical national issue, a ministry’s adviser fell miserably short of what was expected of him in such an important meeting. The ministry concerned was duely informed about the serious concern the forum had about the level of representation from that ministry, but there was no remedy proposed until a long time had passed.

As matters stand, it seems that there need be no objective criteria in the selection and nomination of an adviser. As the saying goes, s/he could jolly well be a pied banane. Some burnt out retirees are placed in positions of sinecure where they are beholden to masters other than the minister to whose ministry they are attached. So-called duties are cobbled up to give a semblance of seriousness to their appointment, and no one, let alone the relevant minister, has any clue as to their true role. There is no accountability.

Total waste of the country’s resources, and of precious taxpayers’ money that could have been used better elsewhere.

On a related note, there is also the issue of political nominations on statutory boards. Even colleurs d’affiches do not disqualify! Such is the level of some of our ministers. They have no idea about the specificities of boards to which they nominate, and of the need for high-level representation even if this be lay and not technical. As also the need for balance in terms of differential expert contribution that the function demands. The least they could do would be to find out from those in the know about the appropriate profile required of the nominee — in the superior national interest about which they never cease to pontificate.

And this brings us to the next topic, the example of Singapore.

* * *

Lee’s worldview

It is an interesting coincidence that two articles in last week’s issue of this paper refer to Lee Kuan Yew, ex-Prime Minister of Singapore, and still going strong in a mentoring role.

CT Zen, in a consideration of arbitrary transfers in the public service, explains why ‘we will never become the Singapore of the Indian Ocean.’ Nathan Gardels of The Huffington Post reviews Tom Plate’s ‘Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew, and refers to Lee’s worldview which is that ‘sustained and sustainable progress is possible only when a gifted, empowered elite is in more or less complete control of policy. The complete corollary to that: politics that includes significant decision-making by the unqualified – or by well-organised narrow interests, the lobbies – is the enemy of superior public policy.’

 Where is that gifted, empowered elite in the present dispensation ruling our country? They no doubt have power, but in country that has decided to kill the elite, we are left with a pseudo-elite that would miserably fail by Lee Kuan Yew’s standards.

No excuse or pretext need be offered to cite Singapore afresh, because that’s what we have been and continue to be served with for over two decades now. And we are still as far from the goal as when the idea was first mooted.

Mauritius = Singapore? Come again…

* Published in print edition on 25 June 2010

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