by Augustine Low
The “degree of training” that Singapore’s leaders go through before moving up the ranks is what sets them apart from leaders of other countries.
This was highlighted by Minister K Shanmugam in an interview with the South China Morning Post last weekend.
However, that’s only half the story.
To get the full story, we have to ask: Training for what purpose? Training to what end?
The answer lies in the cabinet we have before us. There is a sameness about the ministers – the sameness of men and women cut from the same cloth, straight from the same assembly line.
So much so that it is difficult to tell one minister apart from another.
Look how Minister Indranee Rajah put up her defence for the Keppel bribery scandal and how Minister Josephine Teo did it for the SPH Media circulation scandal.
Both put on the same impassive face, both addressed what they wanted to address, one singled it out as an “in-between” solution, the other singled out readership (not circulation) as the focus. The same “magic formula” from the assembly line.
So it doesn’t matter who said what, who did what, it could have been one or the other.
While many ministers claim to be of a humble origin, their path to the cabinet, more often than not, runs straight through the road of elitism – elite school, elite scholarship, then elite training ground for a career as a political elite.
The SAF has become the most prolific breeding ground for top dogs – first stop general, next stop minister. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was the first one to take that route, so you could say that he was a forerunner of the assembly line formula.
Whether they are former generals or they had their training with the administrative service, with NTUC or some Temasek-linked company, they carry a swagger that one senses comes from two things: the belief that it’s their destiny to be a minister, and the belief that a minister can do no wrong.
Even if they start out different, they soon gravitate to be like each other, to be birds of the same feather. They know that the system is uncompromising and the only way to succeed is to fall in line, to toe the party line and to conform – they have to look the part, they have to sound the part.
For example, ministers who do not have the chops will learn soon enough that they must double up as discipline masters when the opportunity strikes. The system demands it of them.
Apologise! Apologise! Apologise or else! It is as if the ability to extract apologies is a key performance indicator.
In the short time he has been in Parliament, Leong Mun Wai of the Progress Singapore Party has been pressed to apologise by a host of ministers. Sylvia Lim of the Workers’ Party was badgered by no less than three ministers to apologise over remarks on GST test balloons (which eventually turned out to have some vindication).
But when the tables are turned, it’s a different story. Minister Josephine Teo claimed she had not come across even one migrant worker “that has demanded an apology” so no need to apologise over COVID-19 outbreak at dormitories.
So the same assembly line formula can be used one way or the other to suit their purpose.
For an indication that over time, they become more and more like each other, look no further than Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong. He has done awfully well with his smirk lately. You could swear that before becoming DPM, he didn’t have that smirk. But with his elevated status, he now has a smirk to rival Minister Chan Chun Sing.
The Oxford dictionary defines a smirk as a silly or unpleasant smile that shows you are pleased with yourself, and know something that other people do not know.
It’s no surprise that they bring their best smirk to Parliament – as the Opposition only knows too well.
Not long ago, Heng Swee Keat was Prime Minister-in-waiting, today it is Lawrence Wong, and it could just as well be Chan Chun Sing or Ong Ye Kung.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s one or the other since they are all trained to perpetuate the system of ownself check ownself, ownself praise ownself, ownself excuse ownself. They are all products of the same assembly line, making conformity and groupthink their trademark.