"Alternative elite" needed for S’pore’s long-term survival

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.

Author: Gerald Giam

Gerald Giam is the Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC. He is a member of the Workers' Party of Singapore. The opinions expressed on this page are his alone.

23 thoughts on “"Alternative elite" needed for S’pore’s long-term survival”

  1. Hi Gerald,
    Excellent comments and commentary on the state of our nation’s affairs.
    There is nothing I disagree with in your post.
    The sad thing is what can we do about it?
    Just look at the minister’s salary issue.
    If we do a proper poll ( unbiased and one sound statistical basis), and we get 90% S’poreans against it, the PAP will still railroad the thing through irregardless of what almost all rational S’poreans feel!
    So does it mean that we are fated to live as serfs without any rights and considerations?
    What are you gonna do about it?
    What am I gonna about it?


  2. Maybe u can start by volunteering in some of the oppo parties u like.

    Afterall, u are considered a potential as an alternative elite to many to ppl.

  3. Maybe u can start by volunteering in some of the oppo parties u like.

    Afterall, u are considered as a potential alternative elite to many to ppl

  4. Agree, good post. Because what you have written has highlighted a something very important that the 66.6% have missed – that the ruling party is primarily concerned about it’s own dominance and power.

    It’s strategy is to create a false sense of monopoly over available talents through the scholarship system to trap the electorate into thinking there are no alternative talents.

    Having trapped them using fear (as seen in the numerous warnings that Singapore will collapse without them), they are free to demand anything regardless of how much turbulence there is on the ground.

    In order to be free from this entrapment, the 66.6% have to realize that Singapore will not collapse and there are many alternative talents around. It is the system that has prevented us from enjoying the freedom of choosing the leaders we want.

    We have to vote against the system in order to change it. 33.3% have done so and nothing disastrous has happened to them. So the fear that we will be persecuted if we vote against the ruling party is uncalled for.

  5. I like what you say about never put all our eggs in one basket. PAP may be good for now, but nobody can guarantee that they will be good forever. Without credible alternatives, we may end up with a basket of rotten eggs in future. Who knows, maybe the eggs are already rotten, just that nobody check.

  6. Dr Huang – You’re right. We can’t do a single thing about it. We can throw them out at the next election…but then it’s silly to do so over a couple of million dollars. Each of the ministers might now earn a million or so more per year, but they have probably lost much more than that in political capital. That’s the only satisfaction that we serfs can get from this ridiculous exercise.

    anon @ 6.01 – Haha…I may be alternative, but definitely not elite! :)

    anon @ 6.28 – We’re on the same page here. But honestly, when I vote at the elections, I’m bound by my conscience to vote for the best man (or team, in the case of GRCs). Until the Opposition can field a better team, I can’t simply vote for them just because they are not wearing white. We need alternative elites, not alternative pro-democracy anti-authority activists. (Note: I speak as a Sembawang voter, not an Aljunied or Hougang one.)

    unchartered – hmm…already rotten? I wonder.

  7. Hi Gerald,

    Yes, same page too. But the biggest problem we have is actually not the lack of alternative talent but an electorate that is afraid of being mugged if they vote otherwise (from my observations, so may be wrong), so much so that even if there is a credible alternative, they will still choose status quo.

    There is also an element of risk/uncertainty which most Singaporeans are not willing to take/face.

  8. Worry not fellow citizens! Singapore has been a gem since the day Raffles developed it into a most useful seaport> You and I love it and so are others! The Land will always be here unless nature decides to take away< in which case gods< elites< talents will not be able to save it> Be assured we will be living here no matter who rules it< unless of course one chooses to go down infront of an oncoming MRT Train> CHEERS!

  9. methinks:

    most of your alternative elite have chosen to find quality of life elsewhere.

    and many who even contemplate being non-white elite in SG, end up being seduced by the system.

    Legalism at its very best. Anything to ensure the continuity of the state. Everything else is just ‘fluff’.

  10. Arrived via LittleSpeck.

    Thanks for writing this post.
    Hopefully the alternative elite that surface won’t (be forced to) go down the path of Francis Seow and Chee Soon Juan – probably brilliant people if they hadn’t become so bitter.

  11. anon @ 6.28 – Well I agree that many in the older generation still have this fear of PAP reprisals from an earlier era (perhaps young punks like me are just naive). But I don’t think we should play up that fear, because it only makes the opposition lose more votes. The WP has been trying very hard to show that the electoral process is free – e.g. when they publicised their visit to the incineration plant to witness the destruction of the voting boxes.

    There certainly is an element of risk voting for Opposition, but Hougang and P.Pasir voters have shown time and again that they are willing to take that risk. So I have faith in our electorate that if good candidates are put up, they would vote for them.

    anon @ 12.51 – I presume you meant it in jest. :) Our future is certainly not a given dude. Zimbabwe is a good example of a promising country that went down because of lousy leadership and an almost equally lousy opposition.

    kiweto – I don’t believe the PAP rhetoric that we have no talent outside of the Govt. Simple evidence: most MNCs pick Singaporeans to head their Singapore offices, instead of putting their own people there. The problem is that our alternative elites don’t want to go into Opposition politics. It will take many Sylvia Lims to convince them that opposition politics is a worthy cause to fight.

    fabian – I think the era of JBJs, CSJs and Francis Seows is past. They have a role to play in pro-democracy activism, but not in opposition politics. My hope is that the WP will continue to attract rational, moderate candidates who contest politics on issues rather than personalities. This, I believe, will be the key to winning S’poreans’ trust.

  12. anon @ 2.30 – Claire Chiang was co-opted as an NMP (which i consider to be part of the PAP machinery). Ho Kwon Ping is now fully co-opted as chairman of MediaCorp. So is Simon Tay (former NMP, now chairman of NEA), Walter Woon (former NMP, now 2nd solicitor general). Heck, even WP founder David Marshall got co-opted as ambassador to France. Now I hear that the Govt is trying to entice a popular teen blogger to take up a PSC scholarship. The list goes on and on…

  13. quite so; talk to them and ask them why there is no alternative elite, i.e., why the effort to co-opt was so successful


  14. Hi Gerald,

    I think we should acknowledge that fear and deal with it by convincing the people that the fear is baseless. We need to help them face the fear and get rid of it.

    There is a reason why the MM spoke about giving the older generation more votes per person, and why he is still using threats like our security will be jeapardized and our women will become maids without the current leaders.

    Furthermore, our population is an ageing one. We should not underestimate their potential to change things, hand in hand with the younger ones. At the very least, having more enlightened voters will help the opposition gain votes, not lose them.

    That, we need to do, in addition to waiting for more alternative talents to surface.

  15. It was said that the army may step in should a freak election resulted(in Singapore) I recalled that when Korean and Philippines Armies set themselves against their fellow citizens< I cannot helped feeling sick to the core> Their compatriots were demonstrating to fight the less desired leaderships for everyone< the armies and polices themselves included and yet were set against one another! Hopefully here in Singapore we will have more sensible soldiers and policemen

  16. You may wish to visit Sammyboy’s and hear what our men have to say about fighting for the Leegime.

    Maybe that’s why they have gurhkas trained near Mt Vernon.

  17. anon @ 6.28 – I agree fully with you. In addition to a new generation of “thinking Singaporeans”, I personally feel that things will also change quite a bit once MM is no longer in power. The question is, what are Singaporeans going to do with that newfound “freedom”. We don’t have the structures and mindsets in place yet to support a vibrant bipartisan system of governance.

    Instead of constantly decrying our govt’s freedom-stifling measures (which I admit I’m often guilty of), we should be working on building up a responsible, respected and influential civil society and opposition.

  18. anon @ 1.10pm – armies and policemen just follow orders from the top. You can’t put all the blame on the footsoldiers when they start firing on their on compatriots. I have no desire to see the army take over S’pore, no matter how incompetent the govt of the day is.

    anon @ 6.28 – I’m personally quite disappointed when I read about S’pore men saying that they won’t bother fighting for our country just because they don’t like the Men in White. Singapore is bigger than the PAP, as Ngiam Tong Dow said.

  19. Here’s some food for thought from a friend of mine. I want to add that I don’t agree with it but nonetheless thought provoking (to me). It basically goes like this:

    Most of the people in the government are capable and generally deserve their pay. Most of the rest of us are really just normal and would probably never even taste a fraction of their salaries in our lifetime. We are just being envious and should stop whining at capable people making good money.

  20. I think your friend misses the point. Just like George Bush’s “terrorists hate us because we are free and democratic”.

    If it is envy that’s driving this debate, then why isn’t there an outcry about Wee Cho Yaw or Jackson Tai’s salary, which is much more than our ministers’?

    I think what really irks people is how our ministers are constantly congratulating themselves over their predecessors’ achievements, and painting doomsday scenarios based on the questionable assumptions of one old man to justify their own double-digit pay increases.

  21. That’s where you are wrong Gerald. Many Singaporeans are resentful of CEO’s making big bucks too. It’s just that the government is a higher profile target and people rant about it more.

  22. I think that our govt leaders just have poor PR – they’re still in a 60-70s mode of operations, when we are now working in the 21st century.

    The govt has done a lot of good. But the good has not been represented well enough to the public. Because our govt only talk about GDP or being first on some international list – which the average HDB heartlander doesnt give a s**t about. Singapore govt feels its more important to tell the rest of the world first, to put perspective to the international community – rather than focus on its citizens first.

    This, to me, is the biggest fault of our govt.

    Announcement of the GST and ministers’ raise could be handled a lot better. Instead, they prefer a firefighting mode – of trying to justify themselves. becuase they all assume (wrongly) that Singaporeans either accept or not bother about what’s going on.

    Its a real wonder – with all those great minds in the govt, from lawyers to doctors to engineers to academics, none have the simple ability to connect with the people and communicate with people.

    which leaves me to think – politics should be left to politicians – individuals who really want to serve the people. let the doctors and lawyers go out and earn their big bucks in the private sector. then this pay issue would never come up.

    separate the Legistative Council from Executive Council. let both Councils debate on policies.

    Maybe all of them should sit back and watch West Wing to get some inspiration – on how to communicate with the people better.


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