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Greater political competition is needed for PAP to avoid group think

by Chris Kuan

It is interesting to note in Channel News Asia piece “Relooking the recruitment and renewal of the PAP’s leadership” that every member of the People’s Action Party’s so-called 4th generation leaders has his/her roots in government. “Must avoid group think“, so said former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong – and by the way, is he implicitly criticizing PM Lee Hsien Loong for bringing in too many from the Singapore Armed Forces? Sound like it.

The problem with the shape of the so-called 4th generation leadership is that the PAP advertently or inadvertently may have created its own version of the nasty old Soviet Union’s Nomenklatura.

The term came from “nomenclature” and were lists of names of the Soviet Union’s administrative and economic elites – those who ran the apparatus of the Soviet state, the state institutions and the state corporations. To make it onto the list, one must demonstrate not only ability and qualifications but ideological correctness and political reliability. Needless to say it was also a vast patronage system in which the nonemklatura were beholden not only to the party but the party leadership for their positions and their promotion to greater power, influence and of course privileges in the supposedly classless Soviet society. And equally needless to say, the system also bred an elite establishment that was not only resistant to change since they benefitted tremendously from it but were cognitively deluded to the realities of the system, hence eventually resorting to obfuscation and downright deceit.

Am not saying we have the same system in place but there are characteristics that are similar to the Nomenklatura, SAF scholars in particular. Unseemly rapid promotion through the ranks and then seamlessly into high political office. Sadly in my humble opinion, as long as we have a massively dominant political party and hence a de facto one party state like the nasty old Soviet Union, these characteristics will remain for how else would the PAP “renew the leadership” than by recruiting among the politically reliable and the top beneficiaries of the system? Forget about avoiding group think. The only solution is greater political competition.

Like the old Soviet nomenklatura, it will be wrong to assume there is no competition among the scholars and the establishment elites. But the point is that they compete among a very select and privilege group with the cost of failing to keep up cushioned by featherbeds of moving into well paid jobs. That is to say the scholars and government elites from whom the PAP recruit do not fall down if they fail, when they fail they fall sideways.

Now compare to most of us in the private sector. Unlike the above we do not just compete among a select, elite local group, we compete against the world with cultural bias thrown in. Not up to scratch? We can be replaced when the company flies in an expat from head office or one of its offices around the world.

But this thing about competing among a select and privileged group can get psychopathological. Government Linked Companies (GLCs) would move in their scholars over the heads of experienced managers and rotate them in and out of positions every 2-3 years so much so the experienced managers felt there is a ceiling against them and a bias for scholars that they will leave. Out goes the institutional knowledge built up by these managers over the years. If GLCs don’t do well outside the confines of the local economy, narrow-mindedness in management resulting from too much a premium put on privileged scholars over experienced staff is likely to be a major contributing factor. The government may be insulated from the effects of such practices given the lack of political competition but such practices are terrible ideas for the corporate sector to follow.

This post was first published at Chris Kuan’s Facebook page and reproduced with permission. The article is a merging of two posts published on different dates.