Joseph Nathan: 4G political jargoning shows their lack of political competency and courage

by Joseph Nathan

The irony of the 4G politicians just got more ironic with each passing week. Except for Education Minister Ong Ye Kung, who does come across as one of their better politicians, the rest is pretty much hopeless, preferring to hide their incompetence in their bliss of ignorance. His latest speech on the need for political leaders to strive to earn and retain public trust is revealing.

The one-party dominance of the People’s Action Party (PAP) has made its politicians weak and irrelevant. Most of them are incapable of even an ounce of real leadership. That largely explains why Singapore is facing an unprecedented increase in lapses, breaches and structural failures, besides our growing frustration with the many imbalances created by their agenda-driven socio-economic policies.

Instead of addressing these issues and imbalances, the 4G politicians are largely coming across as being more interested in the prosperity of their own political party. This is self-serving and compounded the plights of the majority of suffering Singaporeans.

Their silent is also troubling. That is the irony – if they lack the competency or courage to speak, why do they want to stand for election? In his speech, Ong at least has the decency and courage to try to address the deficit of public trust that he and his political peers are experiencing.

Difference between Tension & Trust

When he started his speech by framing the issue as a weakening of public trust experienced by institutions globally, his “gloss-over” has to be corrected. The tension between people and the government does not necessarily mean that public trust in institutions is weakening. The two are not the same. It is also not a global phenomenon.

Loss of public trust as cited by Ong is the result of an explicit failure on the part of the government while tension is the implicit relationship, or rather the cautionary relationship, between people and powerful entities such as government and their related institutions.

In the case of our government, the loss of public trust is firstly due to the unprecedented increase in lapses, breaches and structural failures, the imbalances created by their agenda-driven socio-economic policies and the absence of any real effort to resolve these pressing issues. In the case of Ong, his courage to try to address these challenging issues will at least set him apart from his many other “courage-less” peers.

His advocacy of his four principles to preserve trust will not cut for many Singaporeans or heals the deep-seated rift that is dividing Singapore in its current form. It breaches the core principle underpinning trust.

Trust is a two-way relationship. Once lost, it must be earned. That means that the party responsible for the loss must first acknowledge their mistake that resulted in the loss and then makes a real effort to earn back the trust that was lost. Apologies without sincere effort to restore will not work. The same is true of effort without apologies.

The hallmark characteristic that is likely to disintegrate the PAP lies in the inability of their 3G and 4G politicians to apologize. The old guards or the First Cabinet, with well-respected politicians like Goh Keng Swee, would not have hesitated in making their public apology, state their resolve publicly and make all efforts to resolve the issues before they became entrenched. That explains why trust and respect is only afforded upon real men like them but not the current 4G boys.

If Ong is sincere, he will be faced with the unpleasant task of firstly having to advocate his own four principles to his peers within the PAP Party and get them to wise up. Time will tell of his sincerity and commitment to his own advocacy and its effectiveness.

He is, however, spot on in asserting that politicians must be competent, uphold codes of conduct, contribute back to society and stay true to the ethos to service. If only the incumbents currently in parliament have been putting these Confucius-principles into practice, Singapore would not have degenerated into being such a divided nation. Real leaders walk their talks with consistency.

His comparative between politician and medical profession, probably to try to tone down the political discourse, is a bit too far fetch as doctors, like lawyers, are referred publicly as professionals. They have public bodies to discipline them should any of them fall short of public expectation in term of conduct or ethics.

Politicians, on the other hand, do not have such a public body to keep them in check except at the ballot box. When they fall short in between elections, the onus is upon the “Court of Public Opinion” to hold them accountable. Unfortunately, in Singapore, that is also not working as our political leaders are starting to ignore public opinion.

Again, when the old guards from our Old Cabinet had to take a painful course of action to help steer Singapore forward, they have the trust and respect of the people to keep them in good order. The same can be true today but the problem with the present elected politicians is that more and more Singaporeans are losing trust and respect for them as we see how out of touch or indifference they have become.

However, most Singaporeans still trust and respect our doctors as compared to politicians. It is true that there is growing frustration with the way our healthcare and hospitals are being managed. Singaporeans are a concern with the increase in medical cost and accessibility. These are governed by our healthcare policies. These policies are the prerogative of the ruling government, not our doctors.

As such, simply equating the challenges faced as being the same is like our politicians are desperately trying to drag our doctors down into the quicksand together with them as they sink. In the words of Ong, our elected politicians must be “competent” in addressing the issues, challenges and frustration created by our present healthcare policies. It is time that our doctors are empowered with better healthcare policies so that they can do more to help fellow Singaporeans. That is more constructive and progressive an option.

The same is true of our civil services and related agencies. If policies are clear, well defined, designed with the interests of Singaporeans and communicated properly, our civil servants will also be able to do more, like in being empowered to step out of their comfort zone to do more for fellow-Singaporeans.

Real leadership matters here. For it to works, our politicians must walk their talks more consistently and stand on the side of these civil servants. Respect begets respect and that, in turn, will foster the growth of trust. After all, our civil servants are also Singaporeans too.

While Ong is trying to do his best, he is looking like a minority among his political peers. His effort ought to be appreciated but the rot may be beyond his singular effort. Nevertheless, I still applause his courage to speak up. The Hard Truth is that in reality, many of the issues that are plaguing Singapore may be beyond any singular person or party at this stage.

Singapore has reached a crossroad and we need to elect the best among us and not be misled by the political agenda of self-serving politicians. Singapore needs many more good men and women to step forward. Ong’s four principles, grounded in Confucius values, may be a helpful framework in this aspect.

Going Forward

The party-politics of any incumbent, if left to fester for a long time unabated can very quickly manifest like cancer. It is hygienic to periodically purge our parliament and remove useless and toxic politicians out of our political system. As such, it is time to bring in real political leaders, who like surgeons, can surgically help us to remove the many cancerous tumours that are plaguing our country.

Why do we want to continue electing “courage-less” politicians who cannot speak up on behalf of their constituents or who have the unique competency in staying blissfully ignorance while their fellow Singaporeans struggle? It may be too little, too late when the political incompetence of our current politicians ripe us apart as a nation.

It is time we think critically about our own future and that of our children. We cannot afford to be trivialized, fooled or blind-sided by self-serving politicians into becoming a nation of slaves, beggars and prosecuted people. Time to wise up because Singaporeans truly deserve better.