These days, there is a rather peculiar interest in the educational qualifications of the prospective contenders for the forthcoming presidential election. Minister Champika Ranawaka, an Engineering graduate from Moratuwa university has said the UNP would field a candidate who has ‘ passed the GCE ordinary level, Advanced levels, and a university degree’.
Last week, Minister Ravi Karunanayake challenged the UNP presidential hopeful Sajith Premadasa to show his academic certificates. Mr Premadasa is said to have attended Mill Hill School, London, when his father was the president of Sri Lanka.
However whether he has passed the local GCE OL, or a foreign equivalent – or received a waiver- is not clear. His detractors are looking for his O/L certificate and have found nothing so far. After high school in London, Mr Premadasa went to the prestigious London School of Economics. Questions have been raised about whether he completed his degree there. He is said to have received an Aegrotat Certificate, an unclassified university degree granted to a candidate who is prevented by illness from attending examinations. That is different from earning your degree from academic merit. (LSE for that matter has a chequered history of giving degrees to offspring of the third world political big shots, and was recently at the centre of a controversy over a PhD conferred to Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the son of the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.)
This is not about Mr Premadasa and his degrees. Rather, a less divisive question on whether politicians should have basic minimum qualifications? Do such qualifications matter? Are they reflected in the social and economic performances of the countries under their watch?
The answer is a rather qualified yes. There are two obvious examples such as People’s Republic of China and Singapore, two of the most efficiently governed Asian states, both pick their politicians through an extensive meritocratic assessment. The innermost sanctum of the Chinese political establishment, the Chinese Communist Party Politburo Standing Committee is the world’s most selective and probably the most meritocratic political institution. (The current seven-member committee is populated by those with a background in engineering and economics. The CCP promotes its members through the party ranks until recently based on wealth creation and maintaining of the law and order in the provinces they were assigned with).
A better option would be to promote the inner-party meritocracy. Interestingly, neither Singapore nor China has set minimum academic requirements for the political office
However, in both these places, it was much more than meritocratic appointments that are behind their success.
As Lee Kuan Yew once said, “If I were in authority in Singapore indefinitely without having to ask those who are governed whether they like what is being done, then I have not the slightest doubt that I could govern much more effectively in their interests.”
Neither the Chinese nor Singaporean leadership is answerable to the public as it would have demanded by the classical democratic practice. But, immense, and at times, unchecked political autonomy accorded to political authorities has enhanced the efficiency of the state, turning it into the catalyst of social and economic transformation.
That success is however not universal. Manmohan Singh, India’s prime minister from 2004 – 2014 had a doctorate in Economics from Oxford and served as the governor of Reserve Bank of India, and was also instrumental in opening up the Indian economy as the finance minister in 1991. However, Mr Singh’s two terms in the office as the prime minister were clouded by crippling political paralysis and unfulfilled economic reforms. Corrosive effects of democracy tend to hold back the state rather than support development.
Interestingly, there is hardly any conclusive evidence to suggest a positive correlation between democracy and economic growth. (If anything to deduce from data, most high growth states from 1950- 2000 were pro-growth authoritarian).
Elsewhere, the brains have not only failed to deliver the progress, rather dragged down their countries further down the economic decay. LSE educated double doctor N.M Perera oversaw the economic ruin through his dogmatic economic policies. His colleague Dr Colvin R. de Silva of King’s College concocted a new Constitution, negating the salient features of its predecessor and set the tone for a dangerous ethno-political fragmentation.
Still, the bright and competent people with right political outlook, when accorded sufficient political autonomy can deliver miracles- But getting that combination of ideal conditions is not an easy deed.
In the first place, it is hard for them to get elected. Entry barriers discourage them giving a shot, and regressive developing world electorates (And the first world ones with newly found grievances) could well favour someone who appeals to their cheap primordial instincts than a politician who is properly equipped to provide long term solutions.
Then why not set a minimum education requirement for politicians, and prevent the rot from entering the elected office. Though the idea is tempting, that reneges on the basic principle of justice, on which the whole notion of democracy and a just and moral polity is founded. It envisages (a) to guarantees the right of each person to have the most extensive basic liberty compatible with the liberty of others and (b) to make sure that social and economic positions are to be to everyone’s advantage and open to all.
A minimum academic qualification on the elected office effectively deprives the vast majority of people who do not fulfil these requirements, their opportunity to serve in the most consequential positions in democratic life.
In other words, a minimum academic or professional qualification would have a prohibitive effect, similar to that of poll taxes and literacy tests that were used to disenfranchise the poor and the disadvantaged before the adopting of universal suffrage.
Also importantly, it would be hard to exercise an elected mandate obtained through electoral suppression. Protests from social groups who are left out from the process would take a far more virulent form than in a usual democracy. Without a fresh bout of white terror and a state that is willing to hunt its detractors, such a government is unlikely to survive. Even then, stability and prosperity achieved as such would be hollow- at least in the short term.
Probably a better option would be to promote the inner-party meritocracy. Interestingly, neither Singapore nor China has set minimum academic requirements for the political office. Instead, an unwritten tradition promotes meritocracy, though linage and ‘Guanxi’ have always paid off.
However, South Asia has a history of picking its leaders from widowed housewives. Internal party dynamics within both main political parties in Sri Lanka do not support a meritocratic elevation within their ranks.
This brings to the second option. Perhaps, ignorant housewives and presidential scions could still govern their ward with the help of a competent bureaucracy and a group of qualified advisors.
Augusto Pinochet could well have ended up being just another American -backed military despot in the cold war era. Instead, his Chicago Boys, a group of the University of Chicago educated economic advisors, with whom he assigned the country’s economic policy transformed Chile and built South America’s richest economy.
However, the problem in our part of the world is that the politicians have a manifest preference to be surrounded by yes men, who have often happened to be conmen as well. Mahinda Rajapaksa, who enjoyed near-absolute political autonomy could have made miracles, and fixed the long- persisted economic maladies in this country, had he been flanked by advisors of right intellectual disposition. Instead, what he had were cavemen, whose shallowness and Mr Rajapaksa’s egoism laced - ignorance ran the national carrier to the ground, and halved exports during his two terms. (Though to give the devil his due, Mr Rajapaksa is also the pioneer in the much-needed infrastructure boom. His much brainy successor could not match him)
Meritocracy in the elected office is a long shot in any democracy, let alone Sri Lanka, where odds are higher. That is also due to the anomalies of democratic promise and its delivery. Still, it, as Churchill once said is ‘the worst form of government, except for all the others.’
That should probably be a consolation when faced with all these unglamorous choices on the ballot paper.