May 18, 2013
INSIGHT: BY SEAH CHIANG NEE
IN all discussions about national
issues, Singaporeans point to a possible shift in political power during the general election. In particular, is the current government still good enough to helm the country’s progress?
The year 2016 seems to be the most frequently mentioned in Singapore these days. It is when the next general election will take place.
Whenever angry Singaporeans talk about national problems, one or two will likely end up with an implied threat, “Wait for 2016!”
It reflects the rapid politicising of the Singaporean, once renowned for being among the region’s most apathetic.
This means that more people are also readier to come out and defend the government, although given the Internet’s nature, they are fewer in number.
(The ruling People’s Action Party polled 60% of popular votes in 2011).
But with election three years away, people are asking a once-seemingly ridiculous question: “Can the PAP actually lose?”
The most common answer, even from critics, that I heard is: “Unlikely; not yet anyway.”
After exercising power for 54 years, the People’s Action Party (PAP) has developed strong fundamentals that are hard to overturn.
But voters, still bitter about immigration, could likely inflict more losses of seats on it.
This could be reversed if it recruits enough new talents – fresh, articulate candidates with a serving heart. But the same applies to the opposition as well.
Singaporeans still remember the remarks made by former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew that the PAP could lose power if its leadership quality drops.
His warning coincided with the government’s decline in popularity as a result of its ill-conceived immigration strategy.
All this has stirred up nostalgia for the past, and their brilliant first-generation government.
More people have been comparing the current Cabinet capabilities with those of Kuan Yew’s Cabinet in early Singapore.
In 2011, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong apologised to Singaporeans for the mistakes under his watch in the last five years.
He also pledged to do better, particularly in improving housing and public transport, which failed badly due to over-crowdedness.
Then, in January this year, Hsien Loong admitted that his government could have done more to get ready for a larger population.
So, is the current leadership of scholars, once described by Hsien Loong as representing the best in the land, inferior to Kuan Yew’s generation?
Some believe that organised selection cannot necessarily produce good political leaders. Neither can they be easily trained in rich and contented societies.
The brilliant ones are thrown up by the chaos of history, when millions need to be delivered from wars, droughts or national calamities.
Examples are Abraham Lincoln, Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Mahatma Gandhi, Winston Churchill and of course, Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew.
Singapore in the two decades after independence was such a chaotic situation.
After two generations of peace and collective prosperity, it will be tough for Singapore – like Australia and Switzerland – to throw up new great leaders.
Ask the founding leader, Kuan Yew, and he will say he does not think the current team is inferior to the old one.
“Intelligence, administrative capabilities and political sensibilities’ have improved over the years,” said Kuan Yew not long ago.
What’s missing, Kuan Yew added, was the “combat experience” of the first-generation leaders and this could not be recreated.
One of the first to talk about it was the late S. Rajaratnam, Singapore’s first Foreign Minister and PAP political theoretician.
Kuan Yew’s successors, he said, were technocrats better at solving modern-day problems, which was what was needed.
After the visionaries, he said, the country needed leaders who were practical and good at solving problems.
He was only partly right in his description.
In many ways, it may not be fair for direct comparison.
Today’s leaders are confronting a different set of problems.
“Greatness thrust upon many of our political leaders will never make them good leaders,” said a commentator.
The human element, the relationship decorum and the ability to fathom many issues from a human heart is furthest from their mind, added G. T. Raj.
“The end result is that you are disengaged and use digital means to solve problems.”
To many observers, the PAP today faces two serious problems outside making policies.
One is a shortage of high-calibre people from within the party.
The second is finding it harder and harder to recruit able political candidates from the private sector.
The majority of its recent candidates had to be drawn from the civil service, armed forces and government-related trade unions.
This restricts diversity of experiences and capabilities.
The other perceived bugbear is the overwhelming use of civilian and military scholars.
Many of them were parachuted, like other PAP leaders, into leadership roles without much combat or debate experience. They are paying the price today.
Amidst the rising criticisms, there is also a strong other voice.
One senior citizen wrote: “I have supported the PAP all these years – and still have faith that they are capable of delivering the good life for my children in the future.”
o Seah Chiang Nee is a veteran journalist and editor of the information