Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew told reporters today in Australia that Singapore cannot afford to have a “revolving door” style of government, but instead needs “good, competent people who will stay (for the long term)” in government.
He warned that Singapore’s economy will be in jeopardy if ministers do not receive their multi-million dollar salaries, and that the “cure for all this talk (the debate about ministers’ salaries) is really a good dose of incompetent government”, which will result in our women becoming “maids in other persons’ countries”.
Apart from the classic insensitivity to our neighbours, MM Lee’s remarks reflect an unwavering confidence in the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP)’s ability to maintain its high standards in perpetuity. This overconfidence has led the PAP — and indeed many Singaporeans — to believe that the “men in white” are the only hope for our nation’s future prosperity, forever and ever.
“Revolving door” is a metaphor commonly used to describe American politics where its elites alternate between appointments in the government and private sector, depending on which political party is in power. For example, Dr Condoleezza Rice was a National Security Council Director under President George Bush (senior), returned to academia as the Provost of Stanford University during the Clinton Administration, and was then appointed National Security Advisor and later Secretary of State by President George W. Bush.
Having two teams of sound administrators has in no small part contributed to the political stability of the US. Americans, and indeed the world, can be confident that no matter who lives in the White House, the US will still continue to function along the same principles that have contributed to the country’s economic success and political stability for over 200 years.
This bipartisan system has played out successfully not only in developed countries, but also in Third World democracies. In India, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lost power in a shock election in 2004 to a coalition led by the Congress Party. Nevertheless, life continued as before, and India continues to enjoy sterling growth rates under the leadership of the original architect of India’s economic liberalisation, Dr Manmohan Singh, who himself was relegated to the Opposition when the BJP was in power.
Outside of the political arena, having a backup or a good reserve team is seen as essential in almost every major endeavour, from computer data management to sports. In a very memorable interview with The Straits Times several years ago, former permanent secretary Ngiam Tong Dow had this to say:
“..we should open up politically and allow talent to be spread throughout our society so that an alternative leadership can emerge. So far, the People’s Action Party’s tactic is to put all the scholars into the civil service because it believes the way to retain political power forever is to have a monopoly on talent. But in my view, that’s a very short term view. It is the law of nature that all things must atrophy. Unless SM (Lee Kuan Yew) allows serious political challenges to emerge from the alternative elite out there, the incumbent elite will just coast along. At the first sign of a grassroots revolt, they will probably collapse just like the incumbent Progressive Party to the left-wing PAP onslaught in the late 1950s. I think our leaders have to accept that Singapore is larger than the PAP.”
Singapore‘s first team of leaders, including Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Keng Swee and S Rajaratnam, did a phenomenal job transforming a muddy swamp to a gleaming metropolis. However, continuing to expect successive generations of PAP cadres to maintain and improve on Singapore’s success is somewhat like continuing to pump all one’s money into a single equity stock. Although the initial purchase of the stock may have been a wise decision which yielded good dividends, any investment advisor would caution that putting all our eggs in one basket, as opposed to maintaining a balanced portfolio, is a recipe for disaster.
Past success is no guarantee of future performance, as the familiar disclaimer on unit trusts warns. When our current PAP leaders boast about how excellent leadership has brought us our current success, they seem to forget that it was our forefathers, not them, who built Singapore into the success it is today. Statistics show that most family businesses do not succeed beyond the third generation.
Singapore needs an “alternative elite” that is prepared and ready to take over should the “starters” falter. This alternative elite need not reside in the Opposition parties (for now), but it is not healthy to continue this situation whereby almost every high-powered critic of the government — including CEOs, top academics and even popular bloggers — is co-opted to be part of the ruling party’s machinery, whether as PAP politicians, NMPs, ambassadors or civil servant-scholars. Obviously the PAP has every right to attempt to cream of as much of the talent for themselves as possible. So it really depends on our talented and capable Singaporeans to decide whether to allow themselves to be co-opted, or to remain free to speak and act according to their own consciences, for the good of Singapore and Singaporeans.