|Paying high salaries to top professionals to entice them to serve as PAP leaders has long been a government strategy. In the past it worked but in today’s changed environment, less so.
March 30, 2013
INSIGHT: BY SEAH CHIANG NEE
SINGAPORE’s continued well-being is dependent on an ability to attract more capable people with an attentive ear and a caring heart into politics.
This need to inject passion into governance will apply particularly over the next three years for the People’s Action Party (PAP).
Reason: it is identifying candidates to face one of its biggest election tests in 2016.
Every five years, the party traditionally replaces 20 to 24, or a quarter, of its parliament members in an act of self-renewal.
This time, however, it will face a bigger challenge.
Several ageing, retired ministers have to be replaced at a time of declining fortunes when many capable people are reluctant to join it.
For the opposition, the problem is pretty much the same – how to get new blood to contest all the 87 seats.
Most Singaporeans prefer to make comments on the sideline.
Paying high salaries to scholars and top professionals to entice them to serve as PAP – and Singapore’s – leaders has long been Lee’s strategy.
In the past it had worked but less so in today’s changed environment.
Increasingly, when trouble struck, some of the capable people are often seen as arrogant, out of touch with the common folk or unable to empathise with them.
The party that Lee co-founded and now led by his son will likely review some of the recruitment criteria.
His iron-fist rule had raised many underlings with similar traits but without Lee’s brilliance, said one of his long-time civil service leaders.
Few scholars or rich PAP leaders are able to really see themselves as elected servants of the people.
People are beginning to question the effectiveness of choosing scholars and other professional elites for political office – often over party veterans.
They are known as “parachute leaders”, people who were taken from army barracks or an executive suite and turned into leaders sometimes without a real electoral fight.
“Without any effort to fight and win elections the hard way, some elites become distant and unable to resolve problems of the commoners,” said an analyst.
Two years ago, the ageing Lee, now just a passive MP, warned his successors that the ruling party could be voted out if it declined in quality or if the opposition fielded a strong alternative.
Besides rectifying poorly implemented policies, the PAP’s priority is to decide the sort of new candidates it needs to have for the future.
In the recent Punggol East by-election, voters shockingly rejected a prominent colorectal surgeon with a long list of achievements.
Instead, they elected a young lady in the opposition who barely passed her secondary school exam.
Lee Li Lian of the Workers Party (WP), who had only a Normal O-Level Certificate, became a giant slayer.
She attended polytechnic before working her way to a university education, relatively low-level academic stuff compared to her more luminous rival.
As one blogger said after her shocking victory: “The voters wanted someone they could relate to, who was motherly, caring and soft.”
It amounted to a rejection of an old Lee adage that Singaporeans would vote only for the academic best and professionally high achievers. The result was widely talked about in Singapore.
It has led to two possible consequences for the ruling party.
Firstly, it will likely make many scholars more reluctant to join the PAP, and secondly, some party leaders have begun to think of changes in the recruitment system.
Last week, leading opposition figure Tan Jee Say told a Hong Kong newspaper that “it is a possibility for the opposition to take over the government in 2016”.
A defeated candidate in the 201l general and presidential elections, Tan drew his conclusion from three PAP polling defeats.
The majority of Singaporeans on both sides of the political divide, however, dismissed this as “an over-reading” of the trends.
Most feel that it will take at least another one or two more elections for that to happen, if at all.
However, they are also in agreement that the inability of the PAP to recruit good candidates from the private sector will result in a further loss of more seats.
Lee himself has spoken of the leadership shortcoming.
In January, he admitted the government lacked foresight and acknowledged the problems of insufficient housing and transportation network.
Netizens were surprised by the frankness. A writer under the pseudoym Scroobal said there could be a change in the usual make-up of PAP candidates in the next election.
“We now know there is an issue with the PAP’s recruitment process and that its internal screening is also faulty.”
The party chairman Khaw Boon Wan had said PAP must connect with the people not by being populist but by widening its base to include a wider range of candidates.
Several years ago, Harvard University Professor Dean Williams observed that Singapore had many extraordinarily capable managers but few talented leaders.
Williams defined leadership as having the ability to mobilise others to confront diffi-cult issues and solve problems collectively.
Managers, on the other hand, simply maintain order, protect resources and provide direction with the authority they have been given, said the American academic.
This is one way to describe the difference between the current set of leaders and the first pioneer generation that created Singapore.
To a large extent, the same issues could be directed at the opposition, whose leaders are the by-products of the same society and upbringing.
o Seah Chiang Nee is a veteran journalist and editor of the information