The Next PAP Leadership: More Of The Same Or A Whole New Game?

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:

  1. ‘Is a peaceful political climate essential for the dynamic cultural growth of society?’
  2. ‘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.

Political Commentary

In Victory, Magnanimity, Not Recrimination: An Open Letter To The Prime Minister


It was with much dismay that I read the report ‘Blogger ordered to pay PM 150k in damages’ in the Straits Times of 18 December 2015. I was less struck by the specifics of a court case that Singaporeans must have been following with great interest over the months—the standpoints taken by the contending parties, the various judicial processes, the assessment of damages to be paid to the plaintiff—than by one stark fact: once again, Sir, your powerful government is putting to use its most powerful instrument for silencing critics, namely, the defamation suit.

This dreaded instrument that had been created in a past era to punish political opponents specifically and instil fear in the people generally, could not have appeared at a more inappropriate time. For this is supposedly a period of sweeping change and new connection with the people, following the PAP’s resounding victory in a highly fraught general election. Charged with new energy, the government has been engaged in a massive exercise of goodwill and generous giving to the people, firstly to consolidate and strengthen the support that they had given in the election, and secondly, to lead them, during this crucial period of transition, into a new era of PAP leadership that promises to be even better connected with their needs and aspirations.

In such a celebratory climate of amity and unity, the continuing use of a political tool that Singaporeans have come to associate with the least attractive, nay, the most repulsive aspect of PAP rule, must surely inject a discordant note.

What does all this mean?

The usual PAP rejoinder in the past to any criticism of its harsh treatment of critics—‘We cannot allow anyone to undermine trust in the government’—cannot be very convincing at a time when the landslide victory has given firm assurance of that trust and probably even ensured permanent PAP entrenchment in the political landscape.

Indeed, the electoral victory of September 2015, with its warm afterglow that the PAP is still basking in, surely calls for the exact opposite of recrimination and punishment, namely, magnanimity. This special kind of response is all the more to be urged when the power differential between the victor and the loser—in this case, between the mighty PAP and a low-standing, obscure young person—is, without doubt, maximal.

Magnanimity, whether pertaining to an ordinary individual or the highest governing authority, can manifest itself in a variety of forms along a wide spectrum of responses, from simple withdrawal of all threat of punishment, to open forgiveness, to the nobility of actually stretching out a helping hand to the adversary.

There are three compelling reasons why your government, Sir, should choose Magnanimity (M), in whatever form, over the Defamation Suit (D):

1) While D will always project the image of an insecure, hypersensitive and over-reactive government, M can transform that image marvellously, to make it match the high expectations of a dawning new era. The reason is that M is unique in being not just a single attribute, but a whole constellation of those very qualities that mark great leadership.

A primary quality is grace, that rarity of human disposition that has enough breadth, depth and expansiveness to override all mean and petty concerns, and even matters of practical, functional and legalistic value, to clear the path for the larger workings of spirit. Strict convention gives way to an embracing liberality and formal correctness is replaced by empathy and compassion, in this way defining the truly gracious society that had actually once been a Singaporean dream.

Another component of M is an enlightened creativity. For it is ready to abandon the solidly rational, well-tried and success-guaranteeing path of D, to create new paths, in which imagination and intuitive feeling also have a part to play in the discovery of new options for dealing with fractious elements in society.

Yet another, and arguably the best quality of M is courage because the new option it is trying out could mean taking major risks. There is the risk, for instance, that the recalcitrant critic may reject M’s overtures of dialogue and reconciliation, or even exploit them for his own purposes. There is the risk that the public may interpret M as a sign of weakness in a leadership reputed for its toughness, and accordingly react in a negative way.

Grace, enlightened creativity, courage. What better time than the present period of historic transition for you and your colleagues, Sir, to be exemplars of these qualities for an entire nation of Singaporeans long used to looking to you for guidance.

2) Perhaps the group of Singaporeans who will benefit most by this guidance is the next generation of leaders who have already been lined up and are being groomed for their future role. Always looking respectfully to their seniors in the ruling party to set the tone for leadership and continuity, they will surely perceive the unremitting use of D as an unquestioned, immutable aspect of PAP strategy for dealing with dissidents. Hence they will have no choice but to accept that D, like its companion the ISA (Internal Security Act) must be kept intact, to serve PAP interests, through each succession of leaders.

But the reality, as everyone is aware of, is that the Singapore which the younger leaders will inherit five years, ten years from now, will be a vastly different and more complex society, as can be predicted for a small nation state constantly subjected to the fluxes and upheavals of a rapidly changing world. That world is inexorably moving in the direction of greater involvement and participation by the young who are exponentially empowered by the revolutionary Information Age of the Internet and new technology. In Singapore, the new leaders can expect to deal with even bolder, more aggressive young Singaporeans who are unlikely to be daunted by the threat of D; indeed, they may even bait it for its populistic appeal at home, and the media attention it gets from abroad.

Troublesome as they are, they must still be accepted as part of a society in the world of practising democracies into which Singapore is securely plugged. Indeed, Singapore which prides itself on its national slogan of ‘An Inclusive Society’ where everyone has a place and will be cared for, must see the need to find ways to re-integrate them into this caring society, other than rely on the quick administration of D to punish them for being misfits and law-breakers.

If, for the first time in Singapore’s political history, the PAP leaders break away from precedent, and decide to give M priority over D, they will in effect be setting another precedent: giving the nod to their successors to try a completely different approach in dealing with the voices of dissent and confrontation. The result will most certainly be a totally new strategy that will be marked by openness and flexibility, which will thus be more attuned to the challenges and demands of a new age. The long term result may well be the emergence, at long last, of a mature, broad-minded, introspective, self-critical and ultimately self-regulating society.

3) M may be the only solution to a problem that has been around for nearly 50 years. For the stern and relentless use of D over such a long period has created, for many Singaporeans, the perception of a vicious cycle of nasty, highly predictable events: Critic makes Government angry, Government sues Critic, Government wins outright, Critic pays huge damages, Critic is ruined. If Critic doesn’t learn his lesson, the cycle starts all over again. Underlying the rough humour of this simplistic narrative, is the cynical innuendo that the PAP invariably wins because it has the unquestioned support of all the institutions, resulting in an incredibly unlevel playing field. The image of the huge PAP juggernaut ranged against its small, helpless adversary can only provoke strong emotions of resentment, anger and frustration which the anonymity of the Internet allows to explode in alarming vitriol.

Only a very large dose of the antidote M can break this toxic legacy. Sir, it is time to retire this noxious instrument of control. For what’s the use of winning in a court of law and losing in the court of public opinion?

Something to Tell and Share

Mentoring Program on Writing Skills: Supplementary Notes Part 2

In connection with my mentoring program on writing skills, I have issued the second (and last) batch of Supplementary Notes to my mentees, and am putting both batches on my website for those readers who may find them useful. The list of titles and contents of this latest set is given below:

Supplementary Notes Part 2—Contents

  1. The importance of the WHAT, WHY and HOW in argumentative writing
  2. ‘What basic facts of Singapore’s socio-political landscape would be useful background knowledge for my writing?
  3. Another list of words that are sometimes confused with each other
  4. Can you spot the following grammatical and other mistakes?
  5. ‘As an aspiring social and political commentator, I would like to make sure I understand an issue fully before I take a firm stand on it. How do I do this?’
  6. ‘Are there cliches and other stale expressions that I should avoid?’
  7. ‘Suppose I am passionate about a certain national or world problem, but have absolutely no idea about how it can be solved. Can I still write about it?’
  8. An example of writing that could be substantially improved.
  9. Use the Antithesis—a powerful argumentative device
  10. ‘Should I give a title to my argumentative essay?’
  11. Give your writing a little playful touch!
  12. ‘Can I use foreign expressions in my argumentative essay?’
  13. ‘I enjoy reading an essay where ideas, no matter how abstract, are presented in concrete images to give a visual impact. I would like to do that in my own writing.’
  14. ‘Can I use the personal anecdote in argumentative writing?’
  15. ‘Is it the responsibility of the social/political commentator to convey sound ethical values, even if only indirectly, through his writing?’

View Supplementary Notes On Writing Skills Part Two.

Something to Tell and Share

Mentoring Program on Writing Skills: Supplementary Notes

I am currently doing a mentoring programme in the teaching of writing skills. Following a lecture I gave on 5 September, I issued notes supplementing the lecture, and would like to share these notes with those readers of my website who may find them useful.

There is a total of 15 of these supplementary notes, accompanied by a list of contents.

Note to mentees: The following are a set of supplementary notes on the skills for argumentative writing, following my lecture on 5 September. They serve the following 2 purposes: i) to reinforce important points made in the lecture and ii) provide new points that could not be covered within the 2 hour lecture duration.

Although numbered, they have no particular order or sequence, and can be read and used independently of one another.

  1. The importance of writing skills
  2. ‘I am interested in writing about sensitive subjects. Will I get into trouble?’
  3. Build up a special vocabulary for argumentative writing
  4. Don’t be confused by words that overlap in sound, spelling or meaning
  5. The importance of a good introduction in argumentative writing
  6. American or British English?
  7. Avoid this common grammatical mistake!
  8. ‘How do I connect my ideas smoothly so that the reader can follow my argument clearly?’
  9. Some famous quotations to exercise your thinking and writing skills
  10. Never be verbose or pretentious in your writing!
  11. ‘How do I write short, compact sentences that have punch, rather than long, loose, wordy ones?’
  12. Do you know all these -acries and -archies?
  13. ‘I would like to give my commentary a lively tone and not bore the reader. How do I do that?’
  14. Use the creative hyphenated adjective
  15. ‘Can I express strong feelings of disgust, contempt, anger, etc in my commentary and still keep a civil tone?’


Some Post-GE 2015 Comments

Sometime before the General Election of 2015, I wrote about the Knowns and Unknowns that would affect the election outcome. Little did I think then that the biggest—and most disturbing—Unknown would be the shocking performance of the opposition. There was a heart-stopping moment for me when I actually thought the Workers’ Party might be wiped off the parliamentary slate.

Whatever the reflections and feelings about this election which in many respects was as momentous as the watershed election of 2011, I cannot help wondering about two possible scenarios of a changed PAP leadership following the landslide victory. The first would be most alarming, and the second most reassuring.

Scenario 1 Flushed with success, the PAP leaders see it as their best chance to ‘fix’, once and for all, the opposition which they have always regarded as a nuisance and a hindrance to their getting a job done quickly, smoothly and efficiently. From weakening an already demoralised opposition in Parliament, they rapidly move on to squash all dissenting voices in the social media, especially the persistently troublesome bloggers. Their action, they claim, has the support of the majority of Singaporeans who, through the polls, have shown enough trust for the leaders to be their own checks and balances. The dominant one-party system is well on its way to being permanently entrenched in the Singapore political landscape, and the PAP will soon claim entitlement as a government in perpetuity.

Scenario 2 Flushed with success, the PAP leaders see it as their best chance to bring about the political changes which had not been possible in the Lee Kuan Yew era, but which they now know to be inevitable. They are aware that in the long run, as the society matures, people will look beyond the material benefits of housing, transport, jobs, etc to the higher needs related to those basic civic liberties taken for granted in all practising democracies, such as freedom to express one’s views without fear of recrimination, especially the dreaded defamation suit. This progression from bread-and-butter concerns to the less tangible but equally important needs related to the human spirit is a universal one in every society as it aspires to take its place among advanced nations in the international community. Singapore certainly wants to be a First World nation, not just a society seen as successful only in a limited sense of the word.

The leaders, above all, realise that long-term planning for a stable, mature society cannot be governed simply by an election-to-election imperative, urgently correcting the damage caused by a disastrous election on the one hand, and trying to replicate the favourable factors of a successful one, on the other. This is at best a tactical approach when what is needed is an overarching strategy.

In view of all the above considerations, the PAP leaders brace themselves to take a hard look at the matter of civic rights, and address it honestly and openly. They know that in doing so, they will make it easier for the new team of PAP leaders to deal systematically and effectively with an issue that has, over the last 50 years, been consigned to the fringes but which has to be ultimately faced. Through this action, they will transform the PAP model of governance into a truly great one that other countries will find worth emulating. For the first time ever, their ranking on human rights in international surveys will climb from the dismal lows to match that of their economic achievements.

In short, the leaders are ready to keep their post-election promise to serve the people ‘humbly’. Humility, in the truest sense of the word, means being prepared to listen respectfully, genuinely and patiently to even the 30% who voted against them, and to work hard at narrowing the divide that has existed between government and people for too long.

It is worthwhile mentioning at this point that GE 2015 has highlighted the special position of a senior minister in the PAP leadership, whose huge popularity in general and at the 2015 polls in particular, is clearly based on Singaporeans’ perception of a leader with precisely those qualities that will make this new attitude of the PAP possible. He not only represents the respected PAP qualities of hard work, efficiency, competence and mental astuteness, but also the not-exactly-PAP qualities of approachability, sincerity, authenticity and simple, warm connectedness with the common man. This is as good a time as any to single out this highly respected and well trusted minister by name—Mr Tharman—and to express the hope that with men like him in the post GE 2015 PAP leadership line-up, Scenario 2 may evolve, at long last, in the months and years ahead.