Coaxing corporate execs to join politics

The Straits Times did an Insight piece on how difficult it is to get corporate exec types to enter politics. I think they did it from a rather biased angle, assuming that execs will only join the PAP if ever they consider entering politics. But in any case, I think the mindsets expressed pose a challenge for both the ruling party and the opposition in recruiting good men and women to lead the country.

Some of the interviewees said they would be willing to step forward “if one day the Government fails, it is corrupt and there are policy failures”. This is heartening to hear, but is still the wrong thinking. Once the rot is apparent, it may be a bit too late to set things right. Singapore is a small country and cannot afford a “transition period” where things are in a mess. People who have the interest and ability, and genuinely care for their fellow citizens are needed in both the ruling party and the opposition. They should step forward and not wait to be asked, as if it is some badge of honour to be “headhunted”.

Read also: Having a capable alternative party is in the national interest

Red carpet for (foreign) Opposition member

This is a press release from MFA today:


His Excellency Gregory Hunt, Shadow Minister for Climate Change, Environment and Urban Water of the Commonwealth of Australia, will visit Singapore as the 29th Lee Kuan Yew Exchange Fellow from 3 to 11 April 2009. During his stay, Mr Hunt will call on Minister for Foreign Affairs George Yeo and Senior Parliamentary Secretary for the Environment and Water Resources Dr Amy Khor. Senior Minister of State for National Development Grace Fu will also host him to an official meal.

Mr Hunt will participate in a roundtable at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies. He is also scheduled to attend a PAP Meet-the-People Session.

Other elements of Mr Hunt’s programme in Singapore include meetings with senior officials at the Ministry of Defence, Ministry of National Development and Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources. He will also visit the Agency for Science, Technology and Research, Urban Redevelopment Authority’s Singapore City Gallery, the NEWater Plant, the Marina Barrage, the Changi Chapel Museum and the Night Safari.

Now I’ve never heard of Gregory Hunt, but from the red carpet treatment he is receiving from the Singapore authorities, one would assume he is some really big, influential chap in the Australian government. Well, yes and no. Technically he is not a member of the Australian Government, because he is an MP from the opposition Liberal Party. However, as a Shadow Minister he is accorded a protocol level equivalent to a minister in the government, or close to it, hence the “His Excellency” honorific.

What is interesting to note is the honour the Singapore government accords to opposition MPs of other governments. From a realpolitik standpoint, it makes sense: These leaders could, in the next election, become government ministers if their party wins the majority vote. So it is important to cultivate them.

But it is in stark contrast to the disdain demonstrate towards our own opposition politicians. Perhaps it’s because our opposition leaders have yet to reach the stature of their counterparts in other developed countries. Nevertheless it still makes political sense for the PAP to treat opposition members as persona non grata so as not to give them any credibility with the electorate.

C’est la vie…

Straits Times articles on Opposition and PAP

I’ve followed the Straits Times’ last two Saturday Insight articles — last week’s was about the Opposition’s plans for the coming election; this week’s was a report card on the 24 PAP MPs who were brought in for the 2006 election.

Overall I feel that both articles were relatively balanced. In a rare departure from the ST’s usual reporting style, the two articles extensively quoted sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Given the political climate in Singapore, where fear of retribution runs high, I am not surprised that these anonymous sources provided some of the more juicy tidbits about political players on both sides.

Of the interviewees who were willing have their names quoted, I think SMU law lecturer Eugene Tan appears to have the best grasp of the issues:

On the P65 MPs:

They and others urge the younger MPs to go beyond ‘the mere stylistics and cosmetic branding’, as law academic Eugene Tan puts it.

‘They need to connect at the cognitive and personal level and I don’t think we have seen enough of that – well, not yet,’ he says. For instance, politically, the younger MPs have imbibed the party attitudes such that they are almost indistinguishable from the pre-65 MPs.

‘In Parliament, they have not distinguished themselves at articulating the younger generation’s perspectives, concerns and thoughts on national matters.’

On the WP:

Like it or not, the hammer is the most recognisable symbol after the lightning. How well they do will depend on whether they are able to bring new candidates and raise the calibre of candidates.

E-Engaging young S’poreans…with whom?

An article appeared on Saturday (March 7) in Malaysian newspaper The Star titled “Engaging the young and restless on their virtual turf”. The writer, veteran Singapore journalist Seah Chiang Nee, mentioned me briefly:

Prominent blogger Gerald Giam believes that until now the PAP did not see a need to use the Internet because it had firm control of newspapers and television.

He probably paraphrased it from a blogpost I wrote:

…back then, I think the PAP did not plan to use new media in a big way to win over the electorate. It didn’t see a need to since it had effective control over the mainstream media (it still does) and few Singaporeans were getting their news from the Internet (that number has grown, and it includes not just young people, but retirees as well).

Mr Seah also wrote that:

In his interview, PM Lee apparently realised it. Moving forward, he said, what is needed are young MPs who are comfortable with the new media landscape.

I’m interested to know who these young, potential MPs are — and if they even exist. Scanning local blogosphere for the past two years, I don’t know of many fellow bloggers who are pro-establishment and have made a name for themselves (i.e., Netizens know about them, for better or worse). Only a few come to mind: Ephraim Loy, Nicholas Lazarus, Kway Teow Man.

The fact that more than two years after PAP MP Denise Phua said the Internet is “85% against the government”, our blogosphere is still as anti-establishment as before indicates that there really aren’t many prominent bloggers in the PAP ranks to balance the anti-PAP rhetoric.

Added to the stringent qualifications for being a PAP candidate (scholar, CEO or can speak Chinese/Malay very well), this means that the party probably has to settle for candidates who are IT savvy, but are not necessarily bloggers.

This does not spell well for their e-engagement strategy. Being IT savvy doesn’t mean that one knows how to engage Netizens. Those are two completely different skillsets. It’s like asking a programmer geek to be a public relations professional.

The PAP’s evolving new media strategy

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong gave an interview with Channel NewsAsia on the topic of new media that was aired yesterday. The report, titled “Government building capabilities to tap on new media at next GE”, said:

The Singapore government is set to actively engage and leverage on the new media at the next General Election due in 2012.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the government is already building up some capabilities. But he added there is still a place for traditional media to be the trusted source of information.

After giving his strong endorsement to the government-controlled traditional media, he made mention of new media:

Mr Lee said: “Well, there is a place called the Wild West and there are other places which are not so wild. And the new media – some of it are Wild West and anything goes and people can say anything they want, and tomorrow take a completely contrary view. And well, that is just the way the medium is.

“But even in the Internet, there are places which are more considered, more moderated where people put their names down and identify themselves. And there is a debate which goes on and a give and take, which is not so rambunctious but perhaps more thoughtful. That is another range.”

It is interesting how his public statements on new media have shifted from just over two years ago. Back in October 2006, in a speech at the Asian-European Editors’ Forum, PM Lee declared that while the traditional or mainstream media is “reliable, verified and insightful”, the new media is “full of clever propaganda, inflammatory opinions, half-truths and untruths” which are “not always easily countered by rational refutation or factual explanation”.

In response, I had written in a blogpost:

This belittlement of the new media is a government line which has been repeated so often that many Singaporeans have started believing and internalising it. Some journalists, in particular, love to cite this in their commentaries about the new media without substantiating it with evidence.

I’m sure he was fully aware even back then that there were “more considered” blogs where people put their names down and identify themselves (not that this in itself is a requirement for “credibility”).

So what is the difference between then and now?

Well back then, I think the PAP did not plan to use new media in a big way to win over the electorate. It didn’t see a need to since it had effective control over the mainstream media (it still does) and few Singaporeans were getting their news from the Internet (that number has grown, and it includes not just young people, but retirees as well). However, seeing the effects of new media on elections in the US and Malaysia probably got them thinking that perhaps the Internet could — or should — also be harnessed to win a few more votes. Hence the “liberalisation” of the new media and legalisation of some types of political films.

So now that the PAP is hopping onto the social media bandwagon, they probably realise they can’t afford to rubbish the entire platform as being “full of” half truths and untruths. Perhaps they are now employing a “divide and rule” strategy: continue to discredit the unruly sites, and make positive mention of the sites that they either control (like REACH) or they feel they can live with (like TOC?).

Netizens on the “Wild West” sites will then get all riled up and shift the focus of their criticisms away the PAP and start attacking the moderate sites as being government-aligned, or worse, part of the PAP’s Internet arm. Then all the PAP needs to do is stand back and watch while Netizens slug it out among themselves.

In the meantime, George Yeo and Teo Ser Luck will continue to collect more and more Facebook “friends”, and REACH will continue to draw more members who are sick of the petty mudslinging among bloggers.

It’s a clever strategy, don’t you think? Will bloggers fall for it?

Having a capable alternative party is in the national interest

Voices Editor
TODAY newspaper

Dear Editor,

I refer to the report, “Adversarial two-party system not for S’pore” (TODAY, November 17). Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong felt that the two party system cannot work for Singapore and that we are much better off with one dominant party.

Mr Lee’s familiar argument is that because we are small and lack talent, if we split our talent into two groups, we will end up with “two second division teams”. This is akin to saying that it is better to put all our eggs in one basket, than to have two baskets with fewer eggs each.

I disagree.

While few would argue that the PAP has performed commendably over the past 40 years, past performance is no guarantee of future success, as investment advisors always caution.

Mr Lee said that if ever the PAP becomes ineffective or corrupt, many opposition parties will spring up to take on the Government.

Therein lies the danger: If the PAP ever becomes corrupt, there will be absolutely no time for a viable alternative party to suddenly “spring up”, since political organisations take years to build up credibility. Furthermore, a corrupt government with firm controls on the levers of power will tend to use that power to entrench itself, stifling any potential opposition from arising. This is because their corrupt leaders will know full well that they will face prosecution if anyone else takes over the government.

Singapore may then be left in a disastrous situation of having a bad government with no capable alternatives.

For a small city-state like Singapore with little margin for error in governance, this could spell an unrecoverable decline leading to our very obsolescence as a nation.

It is therefore in the national interest for a well-organised, competent and morally upright alternative party to emerge, so that should the PAP falter, there will another party to take over the reins of government at the next elections and ensure that our country continues to prosper with interruption.

Obviously I do not expect support for an effective alternative party to come from the PAP, since it goes against its partisan interests.

However, I hope more Singaporeans will realise that greater political competition can produce not just better governance now, but improved stability for our future as well.

Gerald Giam

This was published on 19 Nov 08 in TODAY.

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.