On 22 February 2016, I was one of the participants at an event organised by Singapore Arts Museum, entitled ‘Roundtable@SAM Big Ideas of a Small Nation: Peace’
The following is a transcript of my speech which was partly a response to the following 2 questions that SAM had earlier emailed to me:
- ‘Is a peaceful political climate essential for the dynamic cultural growth of society?’
- ‘In your observations of transitions within Singapore’s political and cultural landscape, what do you envision to be the characteristics of leadership essential now in maintaining a peaceful, yet creative and dynamic society?’
‘Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. It’s a real honour and pleasure to be here today. Regarding the questions that SAM had sent me, I must say they have been helpful in enabling me to tease out the various strands of my thinking on what I consider to be the most important transition event now unfolding before our eyes—the high-profile, much-publicised easing in of the next generation of PAP leaders. Clearly, they are poised to take over, probably after the next General Election in 4 or 5 years’ time.
I confess that for a while, I was just so caught up wondering about what the new leadership would be like, that when I was asked to submit a topic for the Roundtable, I promptly emailed a title that was cast in the form of a rather saucy, impudent question which goes like this: ‘The Next PAP Leadership: More of the Same or a Whole new Game?’
SAM’s questions have more or less dealt with the what, the why and the how of this transition—a peaceful political climate, a dynamic, creative culture, the characteristics of leadership that will make both possible. These will form the substance of my presentation.
But here’s a little warning: I will be redefining, rather drastically, certain terms used in the questions, especially the key phrase ‘a peaceful political climate.’ For instance, I won’t be using ‘peaceful’ in the usual political sense to mean being free of the messiness, noise and raucousness of dissenting voices, that we see in so many democracies today. Neither will I be using it in the purely economic sense to refer to a contented electorate who won’t give any trouble because all their material needs have been cared for.
Rather, I’m coming in as a bit of a trouble-maker, and will use the term in connection with a topic that has become a taboo in political discourse in Singapore—the subject of democratic rights, human rights, freedom of expression, of debate, of assembly. This is because I strongly feel that ultimately, for ‘peace’ to be defined meaningfully, we have to take into account this fundamental need.
But why, you may ask? Why bother about something that the majority of Singaporeans consider as too abstract, too remote from the bread-and-butter concerns of everyday living? After all, isn’t it enough that under the PAP, we have achieved one of the highest living standards in the world? Well, I hope you will bear with me when I share with you a growing concern: I believe that if the next PAP leadership opts for ‘more of the same’, they will be putting the long term future of Singapore in serious jeopardy.
But before I elaborate on this concern, I would like to make something very clear. For all my passionate support of democratic rights, I don’t consider them absolute, unchanging, immutable. Rather, they derive their relevance and value from the context of the society in which they operate, changing and adjusting to its needs and goals as it evolves. Hence, the concept of democratic rights is a dynamic, not a static one.
Indeed, there could arise circumstances that actually warrant the suspension of these rights. Thus, when Mr Lee Kuan Yew, in the early years of his premiership, found himself in a Singapore that was like an unruly frontier town, a cowboy town, with all sorts of troublesome elements seeking to establish themselves—Communist sympathisers, rowdy trade unionists, racist newspaper editors, rioting students, gangsters—he responded by creating the toughest ever model of governance, in which naturally, human rights had no place.
With this model, he was able to crack down hard on the troublemakers, throwing them into jail, deporting, exiling them. If Mr Lee hadn’t used this strongman approach to clean things up and provide a proper environment for people to live and work in, we would not be where we are today. Ironically then, it was Mr Lee’s suspension of human rights that had made it possible for the people to enjoy the most fundamental one of all—safety, security, livelihood.
But alas, instead of just suspending the rights and restoring them when conditions improved, Mr Lee chose to do away with them altogether, seeing them as nothing more than a nuisance that got in the way of PAP efficiency. Since then, his special, stern, uncompromising top-down approach with zero tolerance for criticism has prevailed, even though, as is clear to everybody, Singapore has long since moved from those early turbulent years to take its place among the established, stable nations in the world.
Actually, the need to soften this model, to give it a cultural, a human dimension, had been felt by both Mr Lee’s successors. This was reflected in their choice of national slogans which emphasized the human touch, that is, taking care, not only of the people’s material needs, but the higher order needs related to creativity, individuality, identity. Thus, in contrast to Mr Lee’s slogan of ‘a rugged society’, Mr Goh Chok Tong had chosen ‘ a gracious society’, inspired by George Bush Senior’s call for a ‘gentler, kinder society’, and Mr Lee Hsien Loong had chosen ‘an inclusive society’ in which everybody mattered and would be cared for.
So why hadn’t they lived up to their slogans? Probably because their hands were tied. For as long as Mr Lee was around, his influence was just so enormous that everybody else was like a tiny, timid little sapling under the huge banyan tree of his stature and charisma.
But there was another reason. Mr Lee’s model had succeeded so well in creating an abundance of material prosperity that it became the most natural thing to accept it wholesale. Thus human rights came to be defined in purely economic terms, and freedom meant, not freedom in the usual political sense, but freedom from poverty and want.
But I think that the real reason for the amazing success had less to do with any specific stance on human rights than with Mr Lee’s unique governing style. This can be described as a rather paradoxical mix of stern authoritarianism on the one hand, and a passionate commitment to the well-being of the people on the other.
Whether you call it soft authoritarianism, or benign despotism, or benevolent autocracy, it could only be good news for a whole generation of Singaporeans who remembered living in slums with no proper sanitation. Mr Lee’s vision, dedication and drive had given them an undreamt of life in which naturally human rights had no relevance.
And so, over the decades, a political culture had evolved, which can be summarised as a kind of tacit understanding between the government and the people: the government provided the good life, and the people, on their part, refrained from criticism, and did as they were told.
Now I worry that this is a potentially dangerous situation, and here’s why. The model works well because so far we have had only good, responsible leadership. The model can’t guarantee continuance or permanence of this kind of leadership. And yet the prevailing assumption is that it can. This is because the PAP leaders believe that their procedures for selecting and training their successors are just so stringent, so impeccable, that the model is completely fail-safe, and therefore, has no need for those external checks and balances so crucial to the democratic process.
Surely this is a false and disturbing assumption. As history has shown, good leaders are easily replaced by bad. There is a strong possibility of this happening in Singapore for two reasons, or rather, because of two universal, undeniable truths. The first is the natural human tendency towards a lust for power, and all the perks it brings. The second is the reality that a model of leadership, no matter how noble, loses its influence over time, as its goals and ideals become modified, diluted, weakened through successive leaderships. Put these two factors together, and who can tell whether, in fifteen, twenty or thirty years’ time, there will not emerge a thoroughly corrupt PAP leader?
Here is a truly nightmarish scenario: Singapore is under the domination of a completely self-serving leader who gets away with it because he has inherited a political system that serves his purposes superbly. Firstly, the highly regarded PAP mantle that he’s now wearing enables him to cover his corrupt practices. Secondly, the PAP tradition of discouraging criticism by providing the good life has created a contented, unquestioning majority who will give him their full support. Thirdly, he is secure in the knowledge that there is no mechanism in the existing system to put any checks on him. Here is a supreme irony: the very model that the PAP fathers had so painstakingly crafted to prevent corruption ends up promoting it.
Am I being too much of an alarmist? Well, when the stakes are so high, there’s no harm sounding a few alarm bells. Also, I suppose if we care enough about the country, we will look beyond our lifetime to ponder its long term future.
But now, back to our present concern: with regard to the line-up of future leaders, what can we expect? Are we unlikely to see real change, since five decades of the PAP style could have become hardwired into the collective DNA? Or will the new leaders, free to strike out on their own and develop their own distinctive style, opt for major reform?
It’s hard to tell. But it may be useful to catch hold of a few certainties and see where we go from there. There are three certainties which will most definitely form the guiding principles for the new leaders. They are consolidation, continuity and consensus. The 3Cs. Consolidation: the new leaders will consolidate what their predecessors have achieved, especially in the economic sphere. Continuity: they will want to continue the PAP record of success, not only in the eyes of their own people, but in those of an admiring world. Consensus: they will maintain the PAP practice of decision-making by consensus and thus hide whatever individual differences they may have behind a public face of unity and harmony.
But since they will be facing major challenges in a changing world, they will need a fourth C—conviction. True conviction has nothing to do with brilliance or bravura. Rather, it’s that rare gift which comprises a whole array of leadership qualities, that SAM’s questions to me had asked about. These qualities are: the honesty to acknowledge an existing problem; the courage to undertake corrective action, despite the obstacles; the will to do an overhaul, if necessary, and lastly, the high-mindedness to take full responsibility, whatever the consequences.
Hence, conviction involves qualitative, not just quantitative change. It involves an overhaul, not just tinkering around the edges. It must be our hope that some in the line-up of future leaders will have this conviction and act on it, even if it means departing from the cherished 3Cs.
Now surely this is as huge a task as can be enjoined upon an incoming team. But looking at the line-up—young, fresh-faced, highly motivated—one can hope that instead of being daunted by this task, they will rise to meet its challenge.
Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.