Goh Chok Tong and Lee Hsien Loong. Photograph: Wikimedia Commons

To avoid group-think, PAP must accept fair democratic contestation

“They must try their utmost to bring in potential office holders from outside the SAF and public sector to avoid group-think,” said Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong at a National Day Dinner.

What ESM Goh failed to say is why.

The ultimate goal of every political party that genuinely believes in itself is to remain in power. We may safely assume that the PAP shares this goal. Like any other political party in the world, the PAP believes that it is the only party that is capable of leading Singapore into the future. It considers itself Singaporeans’ best hope against a populist and profligate government. The question, then, is why would the PAP bring in people from outside the SAF and the public sector? How will it help them to remain in power?

One reason may be to avoid group-think. In a multi-party democracy, no party will survive long unless it is able to constantly adapt to the times and remain flexible enough to recognise its mistakes. It would therefore be wise to continuously bring in people who disagree. This, however, assumes that party leaders genuinely recognise the need for party renewal. Unfortunately, self-criticism is rare in politicians, even more so for those who belong to one of the most entrenched ruling parties in the world.

I fear that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s apology for the public airing of his family dispute may be the best we will ever get. Even then, PM Lee only apologised for the way the dispute had affected Singapore’s international reputation and the way it had affected Singaporeans’ confidence in the government. It was not an apology for the alleged abuse of power that he vehemently denies. But this is to be expected since such an apology would be as good as an admission of guilt, and which Prime Minister that wants to keep his job would do something like that?

This brings us back to the question: why would the PAP bring in people who disagree with it if it means having to acknowledge its mistakes? Perhaps the reason is because it may acknowledge its mistakes in private while refusing to do so in public, and so spare itself the cost of public humiliation whilst reaping the benefits of party renewal in private. This sounds good in theory, but it still doesn’t fully answer the question—why would the PAP want party renewal in the first place? Does it even need it?

The answer, perhaps, is that it doesn’t; and this is so because there is no genuine threat to its dominance. If we accept the proposition that we do not enjoy a multi-party democracy—with an independent press, free and fair elections and an active civil society—then we must also accept the conclusion that the ruling party has little reason to continue to renew itself. And so there is little reason to avoid group-think, and even less reason to bring in contrarians.

the PAP may well be
its own worst enemy
a victim of its own success
but in power nonetheless.