Friday, April 4, 2008

Mark of a leader 'not in his top grades'

April 4, 2008

That is the assessment of those who were top students. They value competence, leadership qualities, including EQ, more
By Jeremy Au Yong
ACADEMIC grades are a useful measure for identifying a potential political leader but it should not be the topmost criterion.

That assessment came, interestingly enough, from people who were top students, with four As in their A levels.

They were reacting to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's statement on his urgent search for a successor in an interview on Tuesday, when he also highlighted the brain drain among the 4As students. PM Lee had also indicated that based on past experience, it would take about three elections to groom a leader.

The Straits Times interviewed 10 people who had 4As, and the key traits they seek in the country's leaders are competence, capability and leadership qualities, including emotional quotient or EQ.

Top grades are not critical, they added.

Even a PM without a university degree is not anathema to civil servant Jenny Tan.

'I'm not vehemently against it,' said the 28-year-old. 'It's just one factor. Work and track record are more important.''

Another civil servant, Mr C.L. Lian, 31, put it this way: 'The person must have demonstrated intellect and problem-solving ability, but the emphasis doesn't have to be on grades. I'm sure Bill Gates would be someone you want.'

Mr Gates, co-founder of software giant Microsoft, is one of the world's most famous university dropouts.

Mr Lian added that though the current selection system was sound, the grooming period might have to be shortened.

'Currently, there is this grooming period but we may not have 20 years to give,' he said, referring to PM Lee who entered politics in 1984 and became PM in 2004.

Mr Lian said it was important for the political leaders to decide which parts of government need leaders with knowledge and experience in government, and which ministries can do with leaders without government experience.

He cited Senior Counsel K. Shanmugam - who is going straight from being an MP to Law Minister - as a case of a person who was not groomed to be a minister, but had the right skills and experience.

Some interviewed, like Nominated MP Siew Kum Hong, felt there may be a need to change the way leaders are chosen.

Said Mr Siew, who had 4As in his A levels: 'Now, we seem to be going about choosing one like we go about giving scholarships. There's this list of objective criteria.'

The answer to who should be the next PM will depend on how the question is framed, he added. 'If we are looking for technocrats and managers, then you'll be competing with the world. If you frame it differently, if you're looking for leaders of the future, you probably could come up with a different characteristic.'

MP Baey Yam Keng, another top scorer, said academic excellence was a 'necessary although not sufficient' criterion. Even then, he said exceptions could be made. 'Grades are important at the entry point but over the years, they become less and less important.'

In his interview with The Straits Times and Lianhe Zaobao, PM Lee had highlighted data that show one in four - 150 out of 600 - top A-level students yearly works overseas after their studies. 'This flow is going to continue. So it's a big challenge to find successors, particularly for politics,' he said.

The extent of this brain drain does not surprise those interviewed, who added that it is not at the heart of the problem.

Said corporate tax associate Sarah Seow, 26: 'I believe the greater problem isn't the brain drain, but the political apathy of my generation.

'I know that among my peers still staying on in Singapore, many of us are talented and intelligent enough to become the Government's next tier of leaders - the only problem is that we may have become so caught up in our own careers and desires that we don't see a reason to get involved in politics.'


[Comment: I think the point was not that only Top 4A students can become PM or ministers, but that there is a brain drain as evidenced by the number of top students (defined as those with 4 "A") who are leaving, or staying away from Singapore after graduation. This is the style of Singapore's govt. They don't say vague things like, "there is brain drain" without providing evidence.]

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