Thursday, August 06, 2009

Succession in Singapore and Geo-politics (Burma): Goh Chok Tong's comments

This article on CNA troubles me: PM Lee looking for successor in his 30s to be fielded in next GE (By Imelda Saad, Channel NewsAsia | Posted: 06 August 2009 2003 hrs). All quotes in this article are from the above CNA article unless otherwise indicated.

The PAP seems to be obsessed with finding a fresh face to succeed Lee Hsien Loong. I believe this is unhealthy. What about the current batch of ministers? Are none of them reasonably capable of taking the reins of government? Many of them I do not like, but I can name a few who seem to have potential: George Yeo, Teo Chee Hean or even Vivian Balakrishnan (to whom I've not yet forgiven for his statement about giving money to the poor).

Why do I think this is unhealthy?

If we take Goh's words on face value, politicians (from the PAP) are effectively discriminated against based loosely on their age. If I shared the same "political generation" as the current Prime Minister in the PAP, I am effectively disqualified from becoming Prime Minister. What if circumstances put in place a younger person far less capable than I am? How do you think this would make people feel? It makes joining the PAP turn into some kind of race to gain recognition from party bosses. Only one (within each generation) will make it to become Prime Minister. Once that decision is made, no one else will.

I find it ironic that Goh says the following:

Mr Goh noted the next prime minister will have to be in his 30s today. That is because it will take another five to 10 years for the potential candidate to fully understand how to deal with people, policies and international partners.

"It's not an easy task," Mr Goh said. "He's (Mr Lee Hsien Loong is) having a more difficult time now. He's looking for a fourth prime minister."

Mr Goh added that during his time, he could get ministers at the age of 37 or 38. Now, ministers are in their early 40s.

To him (if he even bothers listening), I say the reason is staring right at him in the face. Not only has the PAP created a hostile environment for participating in opposition politics or civil society, they are creating a hostile environment within their own ranks. Surely, he realizes that at one stroke, he had just disqualified every newcomer to the PAP team, including the so-called P65-ers? What effect do you think this has on their morale?

Let me now try to dissect the problem into various components:

1. Managed Succession: The PAP believes in a managed (staged, I say) political succession, for stability reasons. I do not believe this is what a democracy is all about. Vaclav Havel, former President of the Czech Republic, once said (I do not remember the exact quote, nor can I find that article which once carried that quote) he did not worry about who succeeded him as President because the people would choose based on their needs as was required in a democracy. I believe he said if he interfered, he would effectively break that democratic process.

Contrast this with what Goh Chok Tong said was Singapore's "unique approach":

Mr Goh said Singapore has a unique system of political succession. He said Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, who stepped down as prime minister in 1990, marked his own contribution to Singapore not by what he has achieved but whether the country can continue to sustain its development.

"If Singapore can, then he (Minister Mentor Lee) will say, 'I've succeeded in building Singapore.' If Singapore falters, 4, 5 years after he is gone, then he would say he's not succeeded in his ambition of building Singapore," said Mr Goh.

By staying on in politics, Lee is basically unwilling to allow his legacy (by Goh's accounting of Lee's criteria of "success") to be judged after he stepped down. Imho, that is because his ultimate legacy is less-than-sterling. If he had truly succeeded, he would have left behind a self-sustaining political system that would serve Singaporeans well by being robust regardless of who was in charge. The US political system, for all its known flaws, is one such system where succession is usually smooth, even between rival political parties. The British system, changes political ideology in government without much of a fuss.

2. Leadership Longevity: The PAP believes that once a Prime Minister is chosen by the party, for stability and to be effective, he/she needs to stay 15-20 years. I wonder how much of this resulted from the sting Goh Chok Tong took when Catherine Lim suggested he was a "seat warmer" for Lee Hsien Loong. Anyway, I believe this is the primary reason why, in Goh's view, no one else in Lee's political generation can ever become Prime Minister. [Edit: (Reason: Because there simply isn't enough time to fit 2 Prime Ministers over 30-40 years in one generaion.)] While it sounds "reasonable", again it is not what a democracy is all about. The population of informed citizens is the key test for the longevity of a Prime Minister. That is why we have elections, to judge the effectiveness of our current politicians and choose others if necessary.

3. Political Assumptions: The PAP assumes it will always be in government and that it is a monolithic entity where the Prime Minister is always chosen whenever the party wins government. Well, I hate to burst their bubble, but the latter assumption works if Singapore used the Israeli political system where the electorate votes nationally for parties and parties list their political candidates for proportional selection. It is not guaranteed to work in Singapore's own current political system. It doesn't take a genius to observe that the PAP government has already started to lose touch with the electorate and will continue to do so if it does not take stock. I would take joy in a silent giggle the day the electorate elects well-established ministers but throws the Prime Minister out of office. Let's see how the PAP will react when their succession plans are thrown into the resulting chaos.

Finally, on an off-note, I read with distaste what Goh Chok Tong said about Burma in the article:

Separately, Mr Goh also touched on the situation in Myanmar. He said while pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is seen by the West as the solution, she is also "part of the problem" because she believes she is the government.

Mr Goh noted that Ms Suu Kyi's political party needs to seek a fresh mandate in the 2010 general election.

Seek a fresh mandate? They won an overwhelming mandate in the last elections and had it taken away from them by the force of arms. It is the current Burmese government that has ZERO mandate to run the government! Aung San Suu Kyi has EVERY right to consider herself and her party the legitimate government of the country.


Fievel said...

Bravo. Good article.

Kaffein said...

What do you expect when they keep holding onto the power and put so many boundaries?

How can any organisation, political party and government continue with just one party? If you had read all the famous fall of Chinese dynastys, there is a very common trait:

Fear of losing power. Fear that someone else better may ursurp the throne.

Likewise, the PAP has shot themselves in the foot with many yes-sayers. Least did they know there can't be progress with this approach.

It is still not too late for them to wake up and open the political grounds so that fresh ideas can be challenged and debated. And let the people decide who they want to run the country.

Singapore != PAP


Chee Wai Lee said...

Fievel - thanks.

Kaffein - the PAP, I feel, is very deluded and you are totally right. I felt kinda weird writing this entry because I'm effectively trying to tell the PAP they are riding down the wrong path while at the same time, it would pretty much please me to see the PAP get what they deserve, screw up and lose the elections, assuming of course there's a viable opposition capable of running the country and able to convince Singaporeans they can take over smoothly.

Oh yah, one thing I forgot to write in the article proper:

That the PAP makes the assumption that some other party taking over will necessarily change *everything* they have done. This is probably what makes them absolutely paranoid about losing their grip on power. Imho, the PAP could even sincerely believe that someone else coming in would destroy all the good work (some debatable) they have done. We can see this effect through the way the PAP tries to drive this fear into all Singaporeans, that somehow any new government would actively attempt to destroy whatever the PAP did in the past - the most classic example being our Reserves (and hence the idea of the Elected Presidency). Somehow, the idea that a new government would want to take advantage of existing organizational infrastructure in the Civil Service and conduct reforms slowly, if at all, does not register with the PAP leadership.

Running a country is a vast and complicated task, few political groups, particularly groups with no prior governmental experience, would want to shoot themselves in the foot this way (unless the system's totally messed up as is typical in cases of revolution or war). Just look at Paul Bremer and how he messed up Iraq just because he imposed his ideology over the practical aspects of rebuilding a wartorn country.

I'll give credit where credit's due and say the PAP has done a pretty good job in the past. Now, what they need is a good tight slap.