Singapore: Hunting for New Blood

2001

James Chin

Although general elections are still a year away, the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) is facing an uphill battle in trying to recruit potential candidates. The next General Election will be critical to Singapore's future. There must be new faces with ministerial potential by then, or the island republic will have problems in 2007. Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong could not be more frank when he observed that he could not get the under 30s to enter politics. The current group of ’second-generation’ leaders will be in their late 50s and 60s by 2007, and if the under 30s do not enter politics Singapore’s prosperity will be at risk. According to Goh, the high standards of key national institutions, such as the Civil Service, the police and judiciary, will be raised further in the coming years and ’quality people’, are the key. The ‘people’ component is the crucial ingredient for Goh’s three pillars of Singapore's survival: strong political leadership, sound national institutions, and quality people. Thus far, with less than a year to go before the GE, the PAP has found less than a dozen new candidates.

Part of the reason why Goh could not find these young people are the incredible high standards imposed by the PAP for its leaders. The top cadres in the PAP not only need to be top scholars from prestigious universities but also must be willing to lead exemplary lives. The potential candidate’s background must be “whiter than white”. Few candidates pass the rigorous screening process.

Even if they do, there is no guarantee that they would opt for a life in a fish bowl. In Singapore, the Confucius-inspired leadership code means that ministers and senior leaders must lead by example in order to ‘earn the respect’ and by extension, political legitimacy, from the population.

In fact, the PAP proudly laments the fact that many of those who do pass the screening turned down careers in politics, opting to join the private sector where the financial rewards are better and anonymity guaranteed.

Thus the PAP is caught in a self-made dilemma: having set incredibly high standards for its leaders, it finds it equally hard to find replacements when they retire. If it lowers its standards, it will lower the standing of the party and leadership among the population.

One interesting sidenote is that the next GE will probably be Goh’s last. He has indicated in private that he will not lead the PAP beyond the next election. The current bet is that BG (rtd) Lee Hsieng Loong, the son of Lee Kuan Yew, will succeed Goh midway through the next term. If this happens, he will be the first son from this region to hold the father’s post this century (Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo from the Philippines holds the distinction of being the first women from the same region to hold the father’s post for this century). It will also confirm the accusation leveled at LKY for many years now- dynastic politics is alive and well in Singapore.

WATCHPOINT: Senior PAP leaders will continue to moan about the lack of ‘new Blood’ in PAP. If the problem persists, the PAP may have to look towards the Chinese population in neighbouring Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan and Hong Kong as potential hunting grounds to source political talent.

 

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