Crisis of leadership in S’pore

Mr Viswa Sadasivan, CEO of communications training and consultancy Strategic Moves and renowned social commentator, recently gave a talk where he shared his views about politics in Singapore.

True to his style, Mr Viswa’s off-the-cuff presentation was peppered with witty anecdotes, incisive observations and a strong sense of conviction about what Singapore needs to change in order to reach the next level of development and progress.


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Salient points from speech by Mr Viswa Sadasivan

We Singaporeans are often exhorted by our political leaders to take ownership, be innovative and think out-of-the-box. But the term “think out-of-the-box” is much abused, as oftentimes we step out of the box into a larger box.

One of the key challenges we are facing increasingly is a crisis of leadership. While we have no shortage of good managers — people who are pre-occupied with and are able to get things done right – we don’t have enough leaders, people who want to do the right thing, and who have the conviction and wherewithal to do it.

It is not clear whether this “crisis” is a result of us simply not having people with leadership qualities, or is it because such people are not willing to step forward because of a host of reasons which could include cynicism and apathy. It probably is a combination of both.

Consider how few people have the courage to disagree with strong personalities such as Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew. Is it because there aren’t enough things that matter enough, or because we are afraid of getting a robust response or being rapped in the knuckles? Will there ever come a day when we do not need MM Lee to step in to help carry the ground when Singapore makes fundamental policy shifts?

Accountability and the media

An increasingly sophisticated, exposed populace demands a greater level of accountability – and it has to be seen to be so. The media is opening up, but often it looks like it is taking one step forward and two steps back. Certainly, the pace at which the media is opening up is lagging behind the pace the people expect of it. This consequential erosion of media credibility – especially in reporting on local issues – is unhealthy. If uncorrected, in a crisis the government will not have an effective vehicle through which it can convey critical messages. This is especially so in the increasingly porous new media environment.

For example, in the wake of the Temasek-Shin Corp saga, the local media remained largely silent. The more it was silent, the more credence was given to the many conspiracy theories that were spreading fast and furious. Singaporeans wanted to hear from the establishment about what really happened. But this hardly came. As a result, the only source of information, by default, ended up being the likes of foreign newspapers such as the South China Morning Post (Hong Kong) that provided commentary and analysis on the issue, which, needless to say, were not favourable to Singapore.

Another example is the Mas Selamat Kastari escape incident. From a public relations and communications perspective, it was a disaster and crisis of national proportions. Yet there weren’t enough statements by our political leaders – statements that could actually have helped turned the crisis into an opportunity to bring the people together, as was the case in the way we managed the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) crisis.

Qualities of leadership

Leadership can be defined as having the confidence to stand up and make assertions on issues that matter, which in turn will inspire your audience to buy into your belief. To do this, a leader needs to have clarity of thought and the courage to move out of his or her comfort zone, when necessary.

Leaders need to have an intrinsic sense of right and wrong. These qualities don’t seem to be apparent in our society. This is worrying.

The difference between what is expected of a political leader and a senior civil servant is that the latter helps to formulate policies, while the former assesses the soundness of the proposed policies, their long-term implications, and then goes out to convince people to believe in them. While we have good people with credibility and integrity in cabinet, not enough of them appear to have the acumen to explain them clearly and simply, and persuade the ground. This is a key quality of leadership, which in turn is a tacit balance of IQ, and EQ – an intrinsic capacity to listen.

Pragmatism, a cornerstone of Singapore’s approach to governance, affords us the flexibility to move with the tide and not be constrained by ideologies. This has worked pretty well for Singapore, especially economically. But going forward, especially with so many distractions and conflicting signals and priorities, it is imperative that the government and we as a people be clearer about our anchor values and things we stand for, especially on issues of meritocracy, equality, homosexuality and race and religion. This is what will determine our moral compass as a society. It is something we need to give to our young.

Political participation

Most of our leaders appear to be of the same ilk — possessing strong academic and work credentials, with a very cautious approach to almost anything. You wish there would be more occasions for spontaneous remarks. Some of those who were considered non-conformists in their pre-government days appear to become thoroughly assimilated within a matter of months of assuming office. Yes, this might be perception and not truth– but perceptions do matter, as that is what determines the votes at the polls.

Singapore needs alternatives – in thought and action – to better cater to the proliferation of niche perspectives and interests, and these alternatives must be authentic.

Some years back, then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong remarked that Singapore does not need political opposition. A pertinent analogy in response would be that of an athlete who has won the gold medal in the Olympics. His next goal would be not just to retain his gold, but to beat his own record. However, is it possible for him to better his performance without having worthy competitors to pace him?

So why have so few good people stepped forward to join the Opposition?

Firstly, our citizenry today are products of decades of depoliticisation, with little propensity to enter politics, much less opposition politics.

Secondly, the “fear factor” and a keen awareness of the fate that has befallen quite a few who have campaigned under the opposition banner over the years has had a chilling effect on the people. Those who still choose to enter opposition politics despite these considerations either have nothing much to lose, or are persons of great moral courage and deep conviction who deserve our respect.

Even the PAP faces similar challenges in recruiting good people. It would appear that a number of people who were approached to join the party declined because they felt they would not fit in. Some I spoke to even expressed concern of losing the respect of their peers if they stood for elections under the PAP banner. This is not a healthy sign and the ruling party needs to ask themselves why is such a feeling amongst some of the more credible, accomplished potential political leaders.

It would be not just in the PAP’s interest but in the best interest of Singapore to repoliticise the ground, and find an effective, sustainable antidote to the antipathy towards political participation.

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This was first published on The Online Citizen, with Mr Viswa’s permission.

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.