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Rethinking leadership: The need for beyond-PAP perspectives in shaping Singapore’s future

Han Fook Kwang’s commentary on Singapore’s political leadership recruitment overlooks crucial points, particularly the PAP’s reluctance to embrace diverse political perspectives and ideologies.

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In his recent commentary on Channel News Asia, former Straits Times editor-in-chief Han Fook Kwang presents a candid exploration of the challenges in attracting top talent to political positions in Singapore, juxtaposing the idealistic portrayal of leadership recruitment with the pragmatic issues faced by the People’s Action Party (PAP) and the opposition.

However, there are several critical areas where the discussion can be and should be viewed from an alternative perspective.

High Pay and Lack of Capable Candidates

The assertion that high ministerial pay is intended to attract candidates from the private sector is a longstanding rationale. Yet, despite offering the highest ministerial pay in the world, the PAP has still largely been recruiting candidates like former Brigadier-General Gan Siow Huang directly from the military and others from within the public sector, indicating a pattern contrary to this claim.

So, what we have here are public servants who would not have commanded the same pay in their careers, now being appointed to positions that command higher pay. Is this truly any form of sacrifice?

While Han notes the increased difficulty for the opposition in persuading people to ‘take on the mantle of a loyal opposition’—a term that seems to suggest the PAP will always take centre stage—passionate and qualified individuals whom the PAP failed to recruit, such as Economist Associate Professor Jamus Lim and Senior Counsel Harpreet Singh, have flocked to the Workers’ Party (WP) despite the personal risks.

WP’s success in attracting competent candidates from diverse backgrounds challenges Han’s notion that political involvement is unattractive due to privacy concerns or financial reasons.

When we look at the top, Prime Minister Lawrence Wong and Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat’s careers as public servants are emblematic of a system that seems to perpetuate an internal pipeline rather than reaching out to the private sector.

While there are outliers such as Tan See Leng, his performance in and out of Parliament hardly showcases his experience in the private sector, and he toes the party line on policies such as foreign employment.

Social Media Discourse Against PAP Politicians

Han touches on the loss of personal privacy and the “increasingly toxic state of social media” as factors why candidates from the private sector resist joining politics.

Yet, most opposition politicians do not receive harsh remarks against them on social media, except from PAP’s internet brigade. Instead, they receive words of encouragement and sympathy for the prosecution that they face as opposition politicians.

This suggests that the branding of PAP is simply that awful in the eyes of many Singaporeans.

Sure, people still gravitate towards PAP when it comes to voting, but is that “support” due to love, trust, or more of fear? Fear of losing the status quo, fear of being marked as a dissident, or just blind trust from the seniors?

Volunteers who served as polling observers during the recent Presidential Election reported that many seniors—of the Pioneer generation—approached the ballot booth intending to vote for the PAP’s candidate, despite being informed by the supervisory officer at the ballot station that there was no PAP candidate in the presidential election.

PAP politicians would have received more likes and shares on their social media platforms if these seniors had been able to go online and surf the internet.

Handling Diverse Views

The leadership style of Lee Kuan Yew (LKY), noted by Han for his ability to attract talents, misses the point about his willingness and magnitude of managing diverse talents, which starkly contrasts with the present.

The example of former PAP MP Dr Tan Cheng Bock, who opposed the nominated member of parliament in 1992 and stayed as an MP until 2006, illustrates the flexibility earlier leaders had in accommodating dissenting views within the party.

In a Facebook post following LKY’s passing in 2015, Dr Tan recalled his encounters with LKY, who had interviewed him to be a candidate for the 1980 General Election.

“I was only a village doctor with a rebellious streak,” he said. ‘But one striking thing he said was, “We are not looking for yes-men.”‘

Today’s political climate, as perceived by the public and demonstrated in the treatment of figures like Tan Cheng Bock post-2011 presidential election — which compelled him to leave the party and start the Progress Singapore Party — suggests a less tolerant approach towards internal disagreement and challenges from within its ranks.

Past Parliament debates over issues such as the use of Singapore’s Reserves, HDB pricing, and GST hikes have shown us that the PAP is a party that engages in groupthink and cannot accept ideas outside of its own. It never gives credit where credit is due, especially when ideas are influenced by the opposition.

For instance, the upgrade of Medishield Life, unemployment insurance, and the progressive wage model are essentially rehashed ideas from opposition parties’ past manifestos, albeit with twists in their implementation.

Barriers to Diverse and Innovative Leadership

One has to consider that PAP candidates are primarily sourced from the public sector, not because of monetary disincentives but due to a preference for conformity.

The talk on the ground is that generals and public servants are already given a roadmap to their career progression once they sign on as scholars, and at the end of the route is a political career, as many ministers in the PAP have taken.

If the career progression is indeed set for these scholars, would there be any need or even a vacancy for private sector candidates? If any, these private sector candidates would likely be left as backbenchers, who can only utter words of concern and be held back on key issues by the use of the party whip.

The past selection of candidates raises questions about whether the PAP’s recruitment strategy is inadvertently screening for candidates from a pool of talents of the same nature, thereby potentially stifling innovation and critical thinking in governance.

Take Ng Chee Meng, a former lieutenant-general and PAP minister, for example; despite losing to a new team at Seng Kang GRC in the 2020 General Election, the PAP is shuffling him out of the GRC and potentially airdropping him into a safe ward where he can be reintroduced into Parliament and likely be appointed to a ministerial role.

So, if you are a private sector candidate joining the PAP who is unaffiliated with the party through family connections or professional contacts, where would your chances be to take up significant responsibility and the opportunity to enact changes to the system for improvement?

While it is right for Han to posit that Singapore risks mediocrity at the top if too few high-calibre people join politics, we should not just ask why the PAP cannot recruit capable leaders from the private sector to lead the country.  Instead, we should question why Singapore’s leaders must only come from the PAP and whether the PAP alone has what it takes to remain the ruling party and bring Singapore into the future economy.

LKY himself said to Han in an interview, “There will come a time when eventually the public will say, look, let’s try the other side, either because the PAP has declined in quality or the opposition has put up a team which is equal to the PAP and they say, let’s try the other side. That day will come.”

This anticipated shift should not be feared but embraced as a vital aspect of a thriving democracy.

It underscores the necessity for a political system that nurtures diverse perspectives and fosters robust debates, ensuring that leadership is not merely a legacy handed down within a single party.

Instead, it should be a responsibility earned through genuine merit and broad public support, not through gerrymandering in the General Election or the fixing of political opponents, as professed by Lee Hsien Loong.

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Look at, JUST ONLY 2 – 2 is enough PAP said, and acted – Birth Rates, and Work Productivity.

For many many years in RECENT MEMORY, in LIVING memory, PAP FAILED and failed and failed in these 2 IMPORTANT subjects of SG, of every improving countries. SO PAP DRAGGED SG into improvement, REVERSELY.

PAP has IMPROVED, also 2 worth mention – OWN salaries, and NO BLAME CULTURE.

What’s the COMMON thread over last 10, 20 years seen in lives of 1000s, 1000s of Sheeps in SG: 1. For Trash GIVEN Valuable 1000$ of FREE scholarships by PAP. 2.1000s of Trash, Mah claimed to build roads, schools, homes etc LEFT OUT, LIES without saying F Trash TOOK over Bank Jobs, Supervision, Management Jobs whom forced by PAP to report, SCOLDED SG less hardworking. 3. Rising Rising Inflation. 4. PAP has NEVER tell SG THEIR Lowering Inflation Targets 🎯 5. PAP NEVER PLAN how to KeepHomePrices low EXCEPT Afforfable , Affordable, AND many Affordables they SAY. 6. PAP has… Read more »

This regime, and just about everything they do, … is always under the guise of !!!

And most of these “guises”, usually, costs an arm and a leg, … of the nation !!!

So long as the nation are prepared and willing to “pay/fund” these guises, … there’s pretty much nowt that the minority can do !!!

It is what it is !!!

GE must be near..september as many think…seems theyre going ahead full steam.
All the promises from the newly minted pm…
Nothings going to change much.
Action speaks louder than words…
The “action” is far too slow and reaches far too few..
LW, cut the fat in your gov…too many hands in the pie as it is..

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