Saturday May 28, 2022

Shades of governance

October 17, 2018

I have been advocating a technocratic system of governance for many years. Such a system can exist under both a presidential and parliamentary systems of democracy and there are many successful examples of countries that have operated under this arrangement – Singapore being the most prominent.

I had received a comment from Dr Raahim Ali regarding one of my columns: “Dr Rahman laments that our political governance model has not delivered, and we need to find a better system that helps pull Pakistan out of the quagmire. This thought reverberates in every citizen’s heart, save perhaps those that are the architects of the present non-delivering system and want the status quo maintained for obvious reasons.

“No one can argue with the idea that technical expertise must be harnessed in public-policy formulation to effectively address issues faced by the populace. Any system of governance must satisfy the needs of the lowest-common-denominator of the populace – the poor and the disenfranchised – otherwise popular votes [create] a sham democracy that the charlatans milk to their [in]satiable greed”.

Setting up such a technocratic system in Pakistan can be most successfully accomplished in a presidential system of democracy, as this system of governance allows the president to select his own team of experts in different disciplines as ministers. In a parliamentary system, the hands of the prime minister are tied, as he/she is forced to appoint ministers from a group of ‘electables’ in parliament.

Many of these elements have dubious credentials –as we have witnessed in the past when it was discovered that some 200 of them had forged degrees. As a result of this continuous misrule, we stand today on the edge of an abyss, hoping that the IMF will once again bail us out and take us deeper under the mountain of debt in which we are already buried.

Our national debt has more than quadrupled during the last 10 years, going up from about Rs6,000 billion in 2008 to about Rs30,000 billion at present. This has left us in such a dire state that we must turn to Saudi Arabia, China and the IMF to borrow even more just to pay the interest on this huge debt. Meanwhile, our former finance minister retires comfortably in London, protected by Britain, having played his role successfully on the bidding of foreign masters.

The world has changed. Nations investing in education, science, technology and innovation are forging ahead. Rapid economic progress has been achieved in a number of Asian countries with remarkable success, largely due to a strong leadership. Singapore represents an excellent example.

A small country with no natural resources, Singapore has been transformed during Lee Kwan Yew’s rule (1959-1990) into an economic giant that today has exports worth $330 billion. He refused to attract foreign investment on the basis of low-cost labour and instead focused on developing a highly-skilled workforce that could undertake the production and export of high-technology goods. This was achieved by establishing top-class schools and universities, with a focus on new and emerging disciplines, such as biotechnology and electronics.

A corruption-free government was established and top professionals were appointed as ministers. The result was an astonishing turnaround – the numbers speak for themselves. Between 1964 and 1978, Singapore developed an export-oriented economy instead of relying on import substitution as many countries do. As a result, the manufacturing sector’s share of GDP jumped from 14 percent in 1965 to 24 percent in 1978.

During this period, the GDP growth rate averaged at a remarkable 10 percent per annum and the unemployment rate fell from 10 percent in 1965 to 3.6 percent in 1978. Between 1978 and 1985, the share of skilled workers doubled from 11 percent to 22 percent as a percentage of total employment.

The strategy to give priority to the manufacture and export of high-technology products resulted in the elimination of poverty and the salaries of workers were increased. This policy was continued in the period between 1986 and 1997, with efforts to promote of niche industries. These measures resulted in the country’s GDP growth rate averaging 8.5 percent.

Research was given the highest national priority to enable Singapore to lead and not just follow others. The number of research scientists rose from only 3,361 in 1987 to 28,296 in 2010. The strategies adopted worked wonders, and Singapore’s GDP increased from $12 billion in 1980 to $308 billion in 2014.

The country has acted as a magnet for foreign investment and about 3,000 multinational companies have commenced operations in Singapore. To create the required innovation systems, government funding for research and measures to convert technology from the laboratory to the production stage have been vital in the development of Singapore, Korea and China.

Under a myopic leadership, Pakistan has gone the other way, with a poor allocation of the Ministry of Science and Technology’s development budget of Rs3.5 billion in the last financial year. To add insult to injury, this budget was slashed to only Rs0.9 billion and the funds were diverted to the Orange Line project. A similar cut was witnessed in the development budget for the higher education sector, which was slashed from Rs35 billion and only Rs15 billion were released.

In sharp contrast, the Indian government has announced an ambitious plan, Startup India, to build a strong ecosystem to nurture innovation and start-ups. As part of this initiative, the government has announced its plans to nurture industry-academia partnerships. This will involve setting up seven new research parks in institutes with an initial investment of $18 million each.

These new research parks will build upon best practices from successful research parks, such as those at Stanford, MIT, and Cambridge shall be modelled on the research park at IIT Madras. These parks will have a strategic focus on creating an enabling environment for innovators, scientists and technologists to develop novel products for manufacture and export.

We are fortunate to have a chief justice who has taken suo motu notice of many pressing problems, such as the depletion of water resources. But the most pressing issue facing us is the system of governance. Our constitution guarantees me certain basic rights as a citizen of Pakistan. But I don’t have access to those rights under the system of governance imposed by the same constitution. This charade of democracy has been going on for more than 70 years.

Another amendment to our constitution is, therefore, urgently required to ensure that the basic rights incorporated in our constitution are actually delivered. What use is such a constitution that allows massive loot and plunder while thousands of children die of hunger and disease, and leaders continue to pile up billions abroad?

The writer is the former chairman of the HEC, and president of the Network of Academies of Science of OICCountries (NASIC).