To me, the aspiration to hold political office should be a calling. As such, I never really understood or agreed with the ruling Peoples’ Action Party’s (PAP) practice of handpicking people who have not been involved in politics to join the party and run for office. If you want to get people who have hitherto not been involved in politics to join the political scene, you would have to entice them to join. They may have to leave their existing jobs and to get them to do that – wouldn’t you have to sweeten the deal? This is perhaps why our current Members of Parliament (MPs) and ministers are paid so well. Arguably, some were not really interested in political office to begin with and only joined the fray because they were invited to and perhaps made attractive offers? Are these the right type of candidates?
I don’t query the intellect of those who have been handpicked. That said, having a high intellect does not necessitate to being a good MP or minister. A good MP or minister needs to have more than intellect, he or she needs to have empathy, desire and passion to be involved in public service. My concern is that the system of handpicking people not involved in politics to join the party may attract candidates who are only in it for the money or prestige. This, in turn, means that the government has to constantly offer high remuneration as an incentive to otherwise uninterested people. Is this the best use of public money?
Former Prime Minister and current Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong (Goh), has in his newly-released memoirs entitled Tall Order: The Goh Chok Tong Story, confirmed that this practice of inviting suitable candidates to join the firm. He revealed that “in the early 1980s, he approached Ho Ching to enter politics – but was told that the timing was wrong.” He further said that Ho Ching “had the intellect and the attributes we were looking for”. This begs the question – What attributes are they looking for? It sounds rather vague doesn’t it? We are left to speculate what exactly those attributes are. Is it a safe pair of hands that will toe the party line part of the desired attributes? Is what is best for PAP always what is best for Singapore as a country?
It is important to note that Goh was Senior Minister of State for Finance in the 80s. He was, therefore, an important member of the government. In that role, his first loyalty should be to the country of Singapore and not the PAP. Has he, therefore, breached his duties by acting as recruitment personnel for the PAP? In which capacity was he approaching Ho? As a cabinet minister, Goh should have been focused on the betterment of Singapore and not the interests of the PAP. We are left to question whether Ho was considered a governmental asset or a PAP asset. There is a difference between the two however fine. In handpicking people with the “right attributes”, is the government selecting pro-PAP candidates or pro-Singapore candidates?
I believe that the best candidates are those who want to join by their own volition. They should not have to be invited to the party. Inviting hitherto uninterested people increases the risk of the government continuing to offer ever higher salaries to attract people who may not be joining for the right reasons. Secondly, it runs the risk of blurring the lines between what is good for the party and what is good for Singapore as a whole.