When pressed for clarity on employment statistics earlier this year by Workers’ Party chief Pritam Singh, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing replied: “What is the point behind the question?”
He should now know the answer to his own question. There has been so much debate and controversy about unfair hiring practices and preponderance of foreigners in some organisations and sectors that even NTUC secretary-general Ng Chee Meng now feels compelled to say that the government needs to tighten Employment Pass policies.
The irony is that both Chan Chun Sing and Ng Chee Meng have never had to compete with foreigners for a job – they built their careers in the armed forces, rising to the exalted ranks of Major-General and Lieutenant-General respectively. Do they understand the anxieties, worries and fears of Singaporean workers, long articulated but never adequately addressed?
Minister Chan also said this week that Singapore has to chart a new direction for a post-COVID-19 world. Beyond helping businesses adapt, he should be addressing systemic issues – including the question of whether the idea that generals must rule the roost in this country is valid or obsolete.
What makes the armed forces such a prodigious breeding ground for general after general to take on top leadership positions in this country? This calls for a serious rethink and overhaul.
Several of the new People’s Action Party candidates for GE2020 are from the armed forces, including two generals who have been instantly catapulted to Minister of State – Desmond Tan and Gan Siow Huang. Yet another pair of senior political office holders from the elite class who never had to face foreign competition for jobs.
Beyond the cabinet, the modus operandi for decades has been for generals to infiltrate institutions like the People’s Association, NTUC, administrative service and Temasek-linked organisations.
A classic case is that of ex-general Ng Yat Chung who joined Temasek Holdings after retiring from the Singapore Armed Forces. He then became chief executive officer of Neptune Orient Lines, which reportedly lost $1.5 billion under his watch and got sold off. Next, he was parachuted into Singapore Press Holdings as CEO, which is now languishing despite several rounds of cutbacks and retrenchments. The playbook is job cuts by a guy whose own job security is never in doubt because generals can do no wrong in this country.
With so many generals ruling the roost, all cut from the same cloth, we run the risk of conformity and groupthink. So when Minister Chan talks about preparing for a post-COVID-19 world, the priority must be discarding old formulas and embracing divergence in thinking and problem-solving.
In fact, it starts right from the top. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, also a former general, once asked Singaporeans to “steal other people’s lunches.” The question is: Has he been allowing other people to steal Singaporeans’ lunches all these years?