The lack of a “real collaborative approach with the rest of society” proves to be a crucial flaw in the approach of the fourth generation (4G) leadership, says former People’s Action Party (PAP) Member of Parliament (MP) Inderjit Singh.
In an Inconvenient Questions interview with former Nominated Member of Parliament Viswa Sadasivan on Wednesday (17 June), Prof Singh expounded on the importance of leaders listening to sentiments on the ground when formulating and enacting policies for the country.
“If you look at the first generation of leaders, and maybe to some extent the second generation of leaders, they basically became political leaders by listening to the ground. And so many of the policies that came about was how to improve the situation for Singaporeans and an improved Singapore in general … This is something that good leaders should continue to do,” he said.
“In terms of working hard, I’m sure our leaders are working very hard. They are smart. They work very hard, but it’s also very important to understand where to get that feedback from,” Mr Singh opined.
Noting that the crux of the problem may lie in “the extent to which they are listening” to people on the ground, Prof Singh said that it is “also a question of who you listen to and what do you hear”.
The 4G leaders, Prof Singh observed, “did not have a long runway in testing who they are and their capabilities”, noting that some of their policies are still resonant of those formulated by 3G leaders.
The COVID-19 situation, he said, is an “opportunity for the leaders to show their capabilities”, but some of the decisions have made some Singaporeans worried about the 4G leaders’ abilities to take the country forward.
“I think [Deputy Prime Minister Heng] Swee Keat did an excellent job in presenting the Budget … The leaders understood what needed to be done for the business community and for Singaporeans. So I think his reaction was excellent.
“But you know, I wish that we could have a better outcome from many of the other leaders. This was an opportunity they could have shown excellence in performance. And this is what Singaporeans want, not just for handling a crisis, but it shows the ability to handle future issues,” he said.
Replying to Mr Sadasivan’s question on how the Government’s continuous assurance that it will always deliver has contributed to extremely high expectations from the nation, particularly given the Ministers’ high salaries, Prof Singh said that the matter should have been earlier addressed in a collaborative way by working with NGOs and the people.
“Instead, they continue to push this point that our government will solve all of our problems … Now if we look at 4G leadership, some of them have done well, some of them have not done well. So we should not see that they are not good,” he added.
Further, people are quicker to point out issues during the current COVID-19 pandemic on social media in comparison to during the SARS outbreak, said Prof Singh.
When asked by Mr Sadasivan as to how such expectations could change or be better managed, Prof Singh said that “there was an attempt by the 4G leadership” to bridge the gulf between itself and the people through the Committee for Future Economy “to consult as widely as possible”.
It does not appear, however, that all of the ideas “may have been taken into account from the outside”, as some of the outcomes have “surprised many people” from the demographics being consulted such as the private sector, said Prof Singh.
“The world is complex. And if you look at the composition of the 4G leaders, many of whom — almost none of them — have got that kind of private sector experience. Now, will they have experience in civil society in some other areas like migrant workers?” he questioned, adding that this is where the Government should have partners to consult certain issues with, rather than cementing the idea that “Government knows best”.
“I think that era is gone. We have got many good people who are not in government and who could be useful contributors. We must make them feel welcome, and I value their input so that they volunteer.
“But if let’s say every time someone comes along with an alternative idea, and we hit them with a sledgehammer, people will stop giving you ideas, and then it will be a monopoly of a few ideas,” he warned.
When asked by Mr Sadasivan if he thinks such a collaborative approach “will only take place if the Government is also more willing to share the credit when things go right”, Prof Singh said, in his experience, that there have been instances where he came up with views deemed by some other MPs as “wrong” and “radical”, only to find the same ideas being implemented “a few years down the road”.
“For example, the streaming in schools policy … Not just me, many MPs before me argued that when the system changed, no one got any credit for it,” he said.
Admitting that certain policies were inspired by ideas from outside and sharing credit, said Prof Singh, would do the Government “more good than bad”.
Doing so, he opined, will “encourage more people to contribute” to the process of policymaking.
People with alternative views are not “traitor”, most are “patriots”: Prof Inderjit Singh, on pro-establishment perspective on critical voices
Responding to Mr Sadasivan’s question on how he felt when handling strong dissenting opinions during his time as an MP, Prof Singh said that as a backbencher, he spent a lot of time listening to his residents, who he said gave him “a lot of input” that he brought to Parliament “to try to convince the leaders that change is needed”.
Along the way, said Prof Singh, he received opposition — and sometimes even ridicule — during the Parliamentary debates.
“But I was not deterred … I observed, over a long period of time, you know, that I was not wrong. And finally the leaders understood. It took a long time,”
He cited the shift from a “growth at all costs” economic strategy to that of a more inclusive one after the 2011 General Election as an example.
Prof Singh criticised the current leadership for coming down “hard” on critical voices, which may lead them to stop giving “frank feedback”.
Seeing recent comments such as “some of us are traitors to the country now”, Prof Singh said: “This is completely wrong … I can give I give you my own example. Actually the Prime Minister wanted me to do one more term in 2015. I declined. I wanted to step down and focus on other things.”
“So I stepped down not because I was unhappy — I did 20 years, four terms — and I wanted to change. I have Singapore at heart, and whether I am in Parliament or outside, I continue to do the same thing.
“So we are patriots, and I think leaders need to realise that anyone with an alternative view is not a traitor,” said Prof Singh.
Responding to a question on whether certain members of the PAP presently see him as “a turncoat” and “trying to score points” after stepping down as an MP, Prof Singh said that he is still the same person before, during and after his time in politics.
“I have not changed, and so many people have many different views of me. I mean, I’m very passionate about doing what is right for the country,” he said.
“So whether I was in Parliament or now [out] of Parliament, I continue to do this. I know it does make some of them uncomfortable, but I think anyone who thinks that I am not patriotic is wrong and is making a silly mistake,” Prof Singh continued, adding that he is “as patriotic as before” and that it does not matter if other think of him otherwise.
Inderjit Singh “very much a part of the PAP” despite some frank criticisms: Social commentator Min Zheng
Social commentator Min Zheng of the “Jentrified Citizen” blog in a Facebook post on Thursday night said that the Inconvenient Questions interview has “removed some wrong assumptions” about Prof Singh being an objective voice in offering the latter’s analyses.
While noting that Mr Singh criticised the Government’s civil servants and urged the Ministers to be more in charge, Min Zheng argued that several instances in Prof Singh’s responses indicate that he is “still very much a part of the PAP”.
Min Zheng disagreed with the suggestion that the current 4G Ministers are “good quality leaders”, pointing at Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing and Manpower Minister Josephine Teo‘s handling of the COVID-19 crisis as examples of “mismanagement” errors.
“A good leader seeks the truth on the ground, stays humble and is good at coming up with solutions with his team. Do not blame the civil servants who often follow the culture and example set by the Top, some of whom clearly want to do things their way and are not open to honest feedback.
“Those who have worked in corporate for a long time know that for real change to happen, it has to start from the top especially in a govt with a very top-down culture,” Min Zheng argued.
Min Zheng also pointed out how in encouraging the public to give the 4G PAP leaders a chance, Prof Singh had put down Workers’ Party MPs by stating that they have not performed up to “expectations”.
Min Zheng also noted that Prof Singh had referred to the Government as “We” several times when making “many defensive remarks of the Govt despite having retired from politics”.
More notably, when questioned by Mr Sadasivan on the climate of fear of speaking up on political matters and criticising the Government, Prof Singh “kept palming that off by claiming there is no more such fear and even cited himself as having been unscathed for speaking up”, observed Min Zheng.
“Hello Inderjeet [sic] you were and are a loyal part of the PAP so of course you are unscathed lah,” Min Zheng quipped.
Prof Singh’s remark — akin to the “stock reply” of PAP Ministers — on refraining from defaming and slandering leaders, said Min Zheng, appears to be a way of “side stepping the issue”.
“I wish Viswa had pressed him further on this such as highlighting the fact that unlike in the past, that fear has become more entrenched, no thanks to the ridiculous POFMA law which can be used as a weapon to takedown any vocal critic of the ruling party,” Min Zheng said.
Concluding the commentary, Min Zheng said that while the return of the Inconvenient Questions interview series is a promising development, future interviews in the series should be held as webinars “in which the audience can ask more piercing questions to flesh out the issues”.