Sunday, December 02, 2007

PAP and the Economic Imperative

Will local politics change?
In the end, it is the economics that will dictate

Loh Chee (Today 1st Dec 07)

THE year is 2030. Now, imagine a Singapore with no Group Representative Constituencies (GRC), no defamation suits, no one-dominant party and personality.
This is what the young people who attended a session three weeks ago with Dr Vivian Balakrishnan seem to want. And the youngest Minister in the Cabinet seems prepared for such a scenario.
"I'm not so obsessed with whether or not the PAP wins elections, what I am more interested in is the quality of candidates," said Dr Balakrishnan, Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports, dismissing the suggestion that the People's Action Party (PAP) was fixated with one-party rule.
In fact, from a "purely national point of view", he felt that youth should even take up opposition politics if they do not want to join the PAP.
Responding to a comment on how the ruling party and the opposition trip over themselves in claiming credit for improvement works in opposition wards, the Minister also urged the youth to look beyond the political "wayang".
"The PAP plays games, the opposition plays games … while all these games go on, make sure nobody loses out.
"My point is not that we will not change. We will change but make sure that even as we change, that we understand the consequences … and are prepared," added Dr Balakrishnan, who reiterated that Singapore's political stability is a cornerstone of its success.
For a party that has forged a formidable reputation for the way it crushes political opponents, Dr Balakrishnan's words would get the optimist excited.
They would, at the very least, imply a tacit acceptance by the PAP that there is space for opposition politics.
Not so fast, said a political analyst, who applauded Dr Balakrishnan's "good statesmanship" in answering the way he did. But that is not the way the PAP "runs or plans things", she added.
"They play to win. If out of enlightened self-interest, the PAP changes the rules of the game then we have a whole new ball game," said the analyst.
Sceptics could even interpret Dr Balakrishan's answers as a clear slight on the quality of the opposition and how it would stay that way. And that if Singaporeans want more opposition in Parliament and more relaxed rules on public speaking, they have to be prepared for political instability and loss of foreign investments.
But the giveaway was this comment by Dr Balakrishnan: "Can we afford not to change? If the change is necessary for our survival or prosperity, then we must."
The political landscape is set for changes, if, and only if, the PAP Government sees their necessity in sustaining and promoting economic growth — not social progress.
Never mind if it means losing a few seats to the opposition as long as it serves the economic objectives. Never mind political diversity, it's the dollars and cents that matter.
But therein lies the conundrum. While economic and social objectives can be neatly compartmentalised in the early days of nation building, they become increasingly intertwined and untidy as a society matures.
From the 1960s to the 1990s, most Singaporeans had little choice but to stay and build up the Republic's economy.
Today, people uproot themselves to other countries when they disagree with Government policies or feel left out of the political process.
Which is why Singapore's political system has few options but to progress.
First, the playing field has to be level — a perception that is certainly lost on Singaporeans.
While politics is a dirty game everywhere, it has to appear to be fair and just.
The security sweeps — Operation Coldstore in 1963 and Operation Spectrum in the 1987 — against alleged communist movements had set back the two strongest opposition parties, the Barisan Socialis and the Workers Party, of the respective periods, albeit if it was an unintended outcome.
And while rules of the game apply equally to all, the opposition parties are still playing catch up while stuck in a vicious cycle: They cannot attract better candidates unless they make inroads into the government and vice versa.
While the elected presidency, in principle, guards against a rogue government by holding the key to the national reserves, hurdles must be put in place to prevent inept politicians from entering Parliament in the first place.
But such safeguards should be in the form of an independent media, strong civil society movement and Singaporeans' own critical thinking, not artificial barriers such as election deposits, the GRC system or the threat of defamation lawsuits.
While the GRC system was established with the stated intent of ensuring minority representation, it has inadvertently become an impediment not just for opposition parties but crucially, for aspiring independent politicians, who do not want to be tied down by the baggage of existing parties.
It has also deterred political competition by cutting off smaller political parties, while allowing larger ones to consolidate themselves.
In the 1984 elections (the last General Election before the GRC system was introduced), candidates from nine political parties and three independent candidates contested the polls.
In the 2006 GE, candidates contested under four party banners and there were zero independent candidates.
Given such statistics, it is not difficult to draw a link between these artificial hurdles and why fewer young Singaporeans are willing to enter politics — when their choice is limited to joining the PAP to have a more than half chance of winning.
By Dr Balakrishnan's own admission, "politics in 2030 cannot be politics in the 1960s".
"In 2030, if you are the Prime Minister, do you think you would have the same authority, overarching stature of someone like our Minister Mentor Lee (Kuan Yew)?" he added.
The days of personality-driven politics are long gone and future electoral battles would be about national policies as much as local politics. Opposition politicians banking on fiery rhetoric should be advised to back it up with sound policy alternatives.
The implications of a "collegiate" type of leadership, as Dr Balakrishnan put it, point to a more effective consultation process both within and without the government.
When no one person wields an inordinate amount of influence, diversity of views would flourish but it also makes it harder to push through policies — an argument that the PAP has made in support of one-party rule.
But while efficiency could be increasingly compromised, effectiveness need not. And that can only be ensured when there is a healthy process of political debate and consensus building, where opposing voices are satisfied that they have been heard even if the final decision goes against them.
The Government's aggressive drive for new citizens would pose political ramifications in time to come.
While these citizens would want to preserve the state of affairs that attracted them here in the first place, they are also the ones who would not be tied down by historical baggage when the situation turns for the worse.
In other words, in the event of a national crisis, new citizens would be the quickest to vote the government out, while Singapore-born voters bank their faith on the PAP's track record.
Which is why the PAP may find it worth its while to lose a few seats in the future — if only to keep an increasingly sophisticated electorate happy.

My comments:

The Economic Imperative


Loh Chee Kong has done all of us a favour by getting Dr.Balakrishnan to crystalise for us the government’s bottomline for political change.

If Balakrishnan is to be believed (and I do know him to be an honorable man- after all he is a medical doctor), and if he does indeed speak on behalf of the PAP’s stalwarts, then true political plurality may not be a pipe dream. And hopefully it may not be far away.

Economic imperative in Medicine

If we take the medical sphere as an example, the Ministry of Health has more or less removed barriers against advertisements for medical services. For many years, doctors could not even mention their specialties in newspaper interviews as this would be misconstrued as advertising which was deemed unprofessional. The thinking then was that if one was good, one’s reputation amongst peers would naturally attract referrals.

In recent years, doctors get the unwritten message that so long as an action helps Singapore become a medical hub, it would not be frowned upon (unless it is blatantly stupid or unethical). In other words, so long as the economic imperative is served, almost anything is possible.

Obsession with economic imperative

I have also heard that a certain elderly man is still as obsessed about Singapore’s economic survival as before. He still goes around scouting for talented Singaporeans to recruit into his fold. The aim again is the economic imperative. Somehow it is hard to imagine this elderly man saying as Balakrishnan has said, “"I'm not so obsessed with whether or not the PAP wins elections…” Maybe those close to this man should mention that Rousseau said, “If Sparta and Rome perished, what state can hope to endure forever?”

If Words not matched by Deeds = Hollow words?

Assuming that the whole leadership thinks like Balakrishnan ( just that some dare not speak as openly as he for reasons of self-preservation), there is a dis-connect between their words ( or intentions) and their deeds.

If opposition politics of the less boisterous sort, could in the long term be helpful from a “purely national point of view”, why use rules and laws to prevent the organization of seemingly innocuous activities such as the WP outdoor cycling event?

Ministers should know by now that they can talk all they want, but only when their actions match those words, these words will forever ring hollow.

Anyway, Loh Chee Kong, nice piece of journalism. We look forward to more from our journalists.


Dr.Huang Shoou Chyuan


Anonymous said...

A relevant article to comment on, particularly so, given that singapore is now at a point where it straddles between having to lose its 'emotional' and historical baggage albeit at a stage where there is stability (one may even call it a staid state of affairs) and a point where change is imminent yet with a severely heightened risk to national security. We are at a transition period between old world and new, and this situation scares not only the people of Singapore, but the heads who govern it.

Coming from the younger generation of Singapore, I am exposed to and am aware of the views of the government that my peers have. "The PAP is here to stay." "PAP are the only players" "It's a monopolistic environment" are just some of the comments that are oft heard.
most of us actually feel that as much as the govt tries to say "hey, we welcome the opposition to take us on (provided you are of quality, etc.)" how much does this really translate to reality? and how do they define "quality" exactly?

There are of course opposition MPs and opposition parties. but most of us know of the attempts by the PAP to limit the power of these people. it is a harsh but true fact that these parties have a problem of gaining headway into the government because they lack "quality" candidates and that yet it is a vicious cycle that they cannot recruit "quality" candidates BECAUSE they do not have political headway.
this brings us back to the question, what is this "quality" that is often spoken about?

Does it necessitate a certain education status? Need phD-holders only apply? Or is this open to everyone? across the board? may the man on the street with only O-level qualifications someday dream of a politcal career? are we still tied onto the idea that only with that paper certification are then our views recognised and valid? need not the experience that was gained by this man-on-the-street count for something? are his views of 'inferior' worth and to be disregarded?

or does this "quality" actually refer to an entire set of attitudes and aptitudes? need our values be aligned with the current ruling party THEN and only then are our views of a certain worth?

we are unfortunately at a fragile time where the older generation have problems relating to the youths today and the youths today already turning numb to the on-goings and are already starting to believe that the state of governmental affairs in singapore can no longer be changed.

how then can this mindsets be altered and new generations of people becoming more welcoming in taking part in politics and even in an overall widening of the political landscape of singapore?

The PAP has a lot of 'work' to do in terms of changing the already 'embedded' mindset of young singaporeans. although it has already tried several ways (singing and dancing MPs at Chingay are not so hip, mind you) how viable are these methods?

we youths may be young but we do not need 'dumbed down' political offerings. we are capable of understanding the various policies and knowing that perhaps, in the not-so-distant future that we may have a part to play. the media may cater to the lowest common denominator but it does not mean that the govt has to (with regards to the youths)

Dr. Huang, i agree with you that words mean nothing without the accompanying actions. in fact, the meaning of communication is the response i get and not the intention.

i did note, however, that you said "(and I do know him to be an honorable man- after all he is a medical doctor)", it leads me to believe that you are implying that all medical doctors are by nature honourable man. I do not necessary believe the opposite is true. but i do believe that this automatic association is stereotypical and serves no greater purpose other than to create a flawed generalization.

nofearSingapore said...

Hi anonymous:
Thank you for your erudite comments.
I apologise that my tongue-in-cheek comment about “honorable doctors” offended you. Actually not all doctors are honorable- I know some very dis-honorable ones but am not able to publish their names here! Haha

We live in exciting times-the PAP seems to be schizophrenic about whether to open up Singapore more. Globalisation demands that we get plugged into the world and not shield ourselves from it. Unfortunately the rest of the world sucks so much that what we already have here is already desirable by most other standards. So the PAP knows that it does not need to totally open up and it will be able to get voted in year after year ( barring major scandals). Eg Malaysian minister’s behaviour etc

PAP’s schizoid behavour means it opens up every facet of its governance except in politics. It does not believe that only in the free competition will the best ideas emerge. It believes in a managed top-down approach where talents are spotted early- nurtured and then put into the cockpit after some test runs.

PAP does not discount changes but espouses evolution and not revolution. I am not affiliated with the PAP but have realized in my 40-something years that this is what the top man/men in the party thinks.

What is worrying is the extreme apathy in the younger Singaporeans- not that my generation is very civic-minded. I suppose that is the price we pay when we molly-cuddle our population- they would behave like babes and leave everything to the carers.

Our society still has ingrained perceptions that only the learned educated person has abilities. This is because education plays such an important role in the nation’s psyche. Only when Singapore gets more entrepreneur role-models – of people who dared take risk, will we realize that ability lies not in paper qualifications but in the grey matter of the people. From my interaction with Singaporeans – there is lack of “go-getting gumption”. We have been cowed into thinking that nothing is possible. What is the point in doing this and that etc? Psychologists call this “low locus of control”.

We must develop higher locus of control over our own lives and the lives of the society we live in. We give in/up too easily. That’s why we don’t get no Nobel prize winners- only whinners!

Hi, young people like will be the platform for a change in mindset of the future Singapore. The PAP knows this – that’s why they are bending backwards to accommodate the younger set.

People like you would have to carry the torch and tell the rulers what you think about their policies. But I think it is counter-productive to only criticize them. There are good policies and there are bad policies. Give credit where they are due.

There are good PAP men and bad ones too ( but don’t mention names lest we get sued).

Despite the strong grip the PAP has on Singapore, there is still room to manouevre. There is still room to do your own thing- whatever it is. Make big bucks, move the cultural scene, try garage punk music whatever. Even make Singapore politically pluralistic- but the last will take a wee while longer.

Nice to hear sensible stuff and Cheers,


kim said...

As a Singaporean myself, I feel very strongly about this topic.
Truly, one doesn’t need to be a doctor (no pun intended) to sense PAP’s ever-tangible domination of politics in Singapore. The party ‘crush(es)’, as so clearly put by Dr Huang, all opposition.

However, no-one is ever an island, thus raising the question: Is PAP really able to maintain (especially political) stability in the rising era of the new generation?

Yes, what we’ve been doing for the past 50 years since Independence has giving us stability and safety. Of course, PAP has brought Singapore to its current level of stability, and status in the world for being the ‘hub’ of many areas. Globalization has also been managed, I dare say, very safely, with the PAP watching its back in every step it takes.
With epidermal observation, we’re doing well!

But, is diversity too messy and unsure for us, for the government, to handle? I get this nagging feeling that we’re either too lazy, or too comfortable.

I sometimes wonder about the percentage of Singaporeans who would willingly say ‘I’m so proud of the PAP, and everything it’s brought Singapore through’.
How many are willing to stand up for personal rights?...or has the PAP defined that area also?

Change is constant and necessary, but without diversity, if we continue doing what we’ve been doing, expecting the same results (ie. Enthusiasm for the young to join the political mambo-jambo), aren’t we being idiots?
In my opinion, we’re (most of the young ones) playing it too safe, taking for granted our future, leaving it to the PAP, to want to take the baton of politics in the future.

nofearSingapore said...

Hi Kim,
Thanks for your comments!
No one knows for sure if the PAP can perptually deliver for us the goodies- economic properity/ multi-cultural harmony for your generation etc. That is why all of us must act as watch-dogs to ensure that they continue to take the straight and narrow path. I am glad that you feel strongly about Singapore’s affairs but unfortunately you and I are in the minority. This is partly the result of PAP’s success ( or is apathy the intended result?).

Yes all of us are too lazy- from the PAP top man down to the guy on the streets. There is lack of urgency to try the new way- a better way. Like you said superbly,” , if we continue doing what we’ve been doing,(we) expect the same results!”

But how many of your friends out there are willing to come out of the comfort zone to strive for the ideal? Very few. In my comments above, I used the term “low locus of control”- actually the correct term is “internal locus of control”. All of us must have high “internal locus of control” such that we feel that we can change things- we can change society if there is a need. What each of us individually do, definitely can influence the way things are done around us and hence ultimately affect how our leaders rule us.

You believe in the “Butterfly effect”? – There are many versions, it goes- If a butterfly flaps its wings in California- it causes a hurricane in China!” This is the effect of small changes- chaos theory etc.

Kim, the future is really what we make of it. Don’t let the grumbling pessimistic types around you stop you from doing what you think should be done. If the PAP is good, make them better ( from inside or outside). If you believe in multi-plural system- find another party that reflects your philosophy and make them work for your ideals. Whatever it is- don’t be apathetic!

Carpe diem- sieze the day!


Gerald said...

Hi Dr Huang,

I believe genuine competition is the best way to bring out the best in organizations, whether corporations or political parties. Without competition, the incumbent will tend to get lazy and underperform.

Unfortunately, opposition parties haven't risen to the challenge so far. The PAP may play dirty politics sometimes, but I think even if they allowed 100% free and fair elections with a free press, Singaporeans will still return them to office.

Anonymous said...

Dear Gerald

"Unfortunately, opposition parties haven't risen to the challenge so far."

How to if you keep on shifting the goal poles. Ask youself this question. Which side has the easier task e.g the incumbent or the challager in our context.

"but I think even if they allowed 100% free and fair elections with a free press, Singaporeans will still return them to office."

The problem is that the events stated in your statement are not fully tested out yet. How to know then? Guess work?