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What makes a successful politician?

by: Ghui/

George Yeo and Lim Hwee Hua were both politicians who have made contributions to Singapore. George Yeo especially, was an outstanding Minister for foreign affairs. However, both have resigned from active politics after failing to win in Aljunied GRC in GE 2011.

I am disappointed by their respective decisions because it signals a lack of willpower and commitment. Every politician suffers setbacks in his or her career. All politicians the world over have lost elections and many have come back to fight another day. Most, were victorious eventually. Each failed election campaign is a learning experience after all. Singapore is unique in this because the PAP has been the ruling party for over 50 years with little or no competition, leaving us with a generation of politicians who seem ill adept to fight.

This begs the question; do our PAP candidates lack qualities which real politicians should possess? Are they in fact, true politicians?

In an article entitled “The PAP and the idealism of Nuns”, the writer quotes Laurel Teo, a Straits Times journalist who once wrote “Being an MP is still about helping people, but it is also about wielding political power. One is not asking for scheming Machiavellian types, but those who enter politics must know this. Know why they want that power, and how they intend to exercise it.”

How true! In that one statement, she has identified the difference between a “do gooder” and a real politician. While not undermining the importance of altruistic commitment, politicians must possess additional qualities such as foresight, leadership, charisma and most importantly, tireless persistence coupled with the ability to conquer setbacks. He or she must also possess a certain degree political awareness and realism.

Perhaps there is an inherent problem in PAP’s selection process. New candidates do not appear to take up the challenge of standing for elections (or walk overs) by their own volition. In recent years, it would seem that the candidates are handpicked by senior PAP cadres and invited to serve. Candidates would be selected from a pool of “elites” who have a track record of community service and volunteer work. This therefore rules out home grown politicians within the PAP and creates the “packaged” politician. Most of these individuals may never have had political aspirations had they not been “invited” to “join the club”.

The negative impact of “packaged” politicians is the creation of a “super volunteer”, ill suited to the challenges of the political stage. Someone willing to serve but without an “individual” opinion. In fact, some have no opinions at all! Take Tin Pei Ling as an example. When asked what policies she would change if elected, she replied that she would alter nothing as all existing policies work! This disturbing lack of thought on policies signals an administrator, an able one perhaps, but not a person with the political acumen and skills to qualify as a genuine politician. This lack of awareness for what true politics entail impedes a candidate's ability to engage the voters. After all, if a particular candidate is unable to effectively articulate what he or she believes in or what policies he or she represents, how can such candidate convince voters of what they are voting for?

As Laurel Teo states “These may be do-gooders, but by appearing not to have given much prior thought to a topical issue, they make themselves look as politically apathetic as the worst of the Singaporeans”. In its selection process, the PAP has unwittingly created a breed of politicians who are politically apathetic!

In an article entitled “The 4Cs which leaders need”. Teo Ser Luck described himself as “not a natural politician”. If candidates had not been “manufactured” would someone like Mr Teo have ventured into the political arena?

Not all “created” politicians have been dismal failures of course. In the history of Singapore, a fair few have made genuine and significant contributions to Singapore. However, the drawback of such candidates is complacency and an inability or unwillingness to challenge the status quo. After all, why bite the hand that feeds you?

Juxtapose these “produced” politicians with those who have willingly stepped up to the plate. They have joined opposition parties and contested in GE 2011 without having to be “invited” to participate. You could not have a starker contrast. Take Nicole Seah for instance. She was quick witted at interviews as opposed to Tin Pei Ling’s scripted responses.

There are also other shining examples of enduring and persistent commitment.

Chiam See Tong is one such steadfast figure. Chiam entered politics in 1976 but only won his first election in 1984. At each failed election campaign, he increased his vote share, finally beating Mah Bow Tan with 60.3 % of the votes. In GE 2011, he lost in the Bishan Toa Payoh GRC. Despite this defeat, his age and his ill health, he has said that he will try again. This tenacity and strength of character is truly inspirational and is what defines a genuine politician. Chiam is willing to work hard, possesses a heart for service, realises the importance of engaging his voters and above all, has a "never say die" attitude. Someone who is willing to soldier on no matter the odds. His ability to be "one with the voters" earned him the ongoing loyalty of Singaporeans.

Another familiar figure is JBJ. Despite all his setbacks, he always picked up the pieces to try again. He never gave up till the day he died. He will go down in the annals of Singapore history as the man who was never daunted by defeat, a true hero among heros.

Much as I admire George Yeo for his contributions, he seems to lack this perseverance, announcing his retirement from active politics days after losing the election. While he gave a gracious speech, I was frustrated by his seeming lack of determination. I do not know George Yeo personally so perhaps he had his reasons. But the message sent by this prompt resignation is an unwillingness to fight the good fight. There was talk that Yeo could run for president but he remained undecided, disengaged and finally announced that he would not be running after all.

Perhaps, George Yeo and Lim Hwee Hua, while being able administrators and civil servants were never put in a position whereby they had to really fight for votes. Be that as it may, wanting to fight for every vote is an essential quality every real politician should possess. Chaim is much older than both Yeo and Lim but his love for Singapore is such that he refuses to give up. JBJ was well into his 80s! To these old political veterans, I salute you. You are the real deal. To George Yeo and Lim Hwee Hua, I feel somewhat let down.