Saturday, 30 September 2023

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The barren political landscape

~by: Dr Wong Wee Nam~

The ominous forecast is if we don’t continue to attract a stream of good people into political leadership, we are doomed to become a little black dot. This statement is essentially true except that salary, however high, would not be the right solution to alleviate this problem. There are historical reasons why we are starved of political leadership in Singapore. To solve this problem, the right thing to do is the remove the inherent obstacles.

Way back in the fifties and the sixties, when the population was less than 1 million, Singapore had no problem with educated people and professionals coming forward to serve in public office. At that time, pay was not a consideration. Passion was.

In fact in 1963, there were two big parties, the PAP and the Barisan Sosialis and both were ready to and capable of forming a government. The Barisan Sosialis had the intellectual muscle to match the PAP and their grassroot organizations definitely surpassed that of their opponents.

However, it was not going to be a fair contest. In 1963, the Operation Coldstore was launched and 117 opposition party and labor union leaders were detained. Some, like Dr Lim Hock Siew, ended up being incarcerated for up for nearly 20 years.

In 1966, Chia Thye Poh, the Barisan Sosialis Member of Parliament was arrested and subsequently detained without trial for 32 years under the ISA.

At the same time unions and civic organizations were periodically de-registered.

All these had a chilling effect on the political climate in Singapore. As a result, in the General Election of 1968, only seven seats were contested. In 1970, in a by-election of five seats, only 2 candidates offered themselves to challenge the PAP.

Subsequently, to make sure that any dissent is nipped in the bud, the Suitability Certificate was introduced. This certificate was a requirement for entry into to the universities. This was to deny any politically incorrect student a chance to go into an institution of higher learning and ferment political activism.

Then came the arrest of the “Euro-Communists” and later in 1987, in a security operation known as Operation Spectrum, 22 Roman Catholic church and social activists and professionals were detained under the ISA. They were branded as Marxist conspirators.

Over the years, the local media was controlled. Newspapers and periodicals that report negatively were either closed or gazetted. Defamation suits were brought against them and also against those politicians who had the carelessness to make a slip of their tongue.

All these added to the climate of fear and politics became something that is not to be discussed openly and sometimes only spoken in whispers. This fear and helplessness turn Singapore in a country of apathetic citizens. This is why, until the last General Election in 2011, all previous general elections saw massive walkovers.

In such a political climate, how many capable people would want to stick their necks out? On the contrary, many capable people decided to take care of themselves and their families and forget about highfalutin aspirations. Some also decided to migrate. We became a selfish society caring only about cars, condominiums, cash and whatever is associated with materialism.

In the end few people want to go into politics. It affects both the opposition parties and the PAP.  “It’s not worth it” is the maxim. This could mean “not worth the risk” or “not worth the money” depending on which side of the fence you are on.

For the people that the PAP wants, money is apparently a key factor judging by the arguments put forth in the recent Parliamentary debate. Paying ministers a high salary would help it to recruit people. By its own reckoning, without a salary that is pegged to the top 1000 wage earners in Singapore it would be difficult for the party to attract people from this elite group to come forward and serve as ministers.

Humongous ministerial salary is no advantage to the opposition parties as none of them are big enough to fight the PAP and form the government.

There is no doubt that the PAP has been having difficulty finding really good people to join them. The last GE showed that the stream is drying up. But this is no reason for Singaporeans to feel pessimistic. The crop of people, scholars, professionals etc. who came out to join the other parties to contest the election shows that there is indeed a silver lining in the horizon. And if the present salubrious political climate continues, Singaporeans should have reason to be optimistic.

Singapore does not lack political talents. We have seen that way back in 1950s and early 60s, we have enough people to form alternative governments. The Barisan Sosialis had a group of people who would be able to replace the PAP and possibly rule just as well.

If the ISA is not used to cripple political organisations and other laws are not used to deter legitimate activism and drive Singaporeans into political apathy again, we will not be starved of future political leadership. With a fertile soil, a hundred flowers will bloom.

Using high salary to attract people to the PAP is not the solution to Singapore’s long term leadership problem. It is also not good for the country. Such method only attracts the same kind of people with similar mindset. These are the elites whose socioeconomic values have been tempered by corporatist attitudes or gelled by years of administering PAP policies in the civil service.

People who believe in elitism will continue to promote pro-elitist policies as the best solutions to the country’s problem. They will continue to promote and defend policies that increase the income gap in the belief that economic prosperity for the top will eventually trickle down to the bottom. They will continue to believe welfare for the poor is bad because it will promote laziness and a crutch mentality. They will continue to believe that a good and just society should far more concerned with helping the winners to achieve more and thereby benefit society than to concern themselves succoring the losers.

Until each PAP administration stops cloning itself, it would be difficult to expect any major changes.

A healthy society must embrace people of talent. However talent should not be equated with wealth. A person who wants to go into public service must do so because he finds the job fulfilling. If he goes in, not because the job is fulfilling but because the pay is obscenely attractive, then he cannot be a good servant leader.

In forming his Cabinet Lord Atlee, the Labour Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1941 to 1951, said, “The qualities of an ideal Cabinet Minister are judgment, strength of character, experience of affairs, and an understanding of ordinary people.”

People who are parachuted into political positions must have the passion to serve the ground before they can possess every one of these qualities.

Lord Atlee said further, “However, you cannot choose people according to what makes an ideal Cabinet Minister. In the first place, you must choose people with regard to keeping balance within the party….. It would not do to have all trade unionists in a Labour Cabinet, or all constituency members or all middle-class intellectuals or all ornaments of the co-operative Party.”

In other words, we should not have birds with the same feather flocking together to decide what is good for a country that is made up of diverse groups and different classes of people.

The value of diversity was even recognised during the period of the Three Kingdom when the Prime Minister of the State of Shu, Zhu Geliang, wrote his instructions to his officials: “The Prime Minister’s office allows everyone to come and discuss affairs of the country. This is to gather the wisdom and opinions of the people. This is also to listen to beneficial suggestions from all quarters. From this we can derive much better solutions.”


In conclusion, if we want to increase the pool of capable people willing to come into politics and contend for public office, then we should make the job of politics more fulfilling and less terrifying than it is at the moment. That means more democracy and less fear.

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