Forget politics-as-priesthood. Politics is now a career option

The new normal of politics in Singapore comes with a revolving door.

People enter politics, lose, try again. Some enter politics, win, become ministers, then quit.

Despite the uncertainty, there is a line of others outside to get in. They give up their successful careers in the civil service, the military or government-linked companies.

And for what? The political race, which they may lose. Even if they win it and get a Cabinet post, there is no guarantee of a long-term career. It makes for uncertain personal careers.

Worse, it can change the face of government. If those in power today fear being out tomorrow, will they make decisions with an eye to their own future?

This is not just fear-mongering.

Just listen to Mr Lui Tuck Yew, who this week said he was stepping down from politics. Mr Lui, 54 this month, has been Transport Minister for five years. In that time, the train and bus network has expanded, but train breakdowns have also been regular, with 12 disruptions of over 30 minutes in 2014, more than the 11 in 2011, when public transport became a political issue in the May General Election.

What's next for him? He has no idea. He told reporters: "No thoughts, no whatever of what's to come yet. That's for much later. In any case I'm in no hurry. I don't have the financial needs. My lifestyle is a simple one. So none of those financial worries or things like that that require me to really look very quickly into something else."

In an earlier interview with Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao, he had put it more starkly: "I don't want my mind to be cluttered with transitions, what's to come... The last thing you want is for decisions to be second-guessed, for people to say, 'Oh, you were planning to go to this company, that firm, that whatever, so did you make your last decisions supporting them, favouring them, or anything like that?' That's the worst way to do things."

Might future ministers, who know too well the vagaries of politics in the new normal, make decisions flawed by self-interest?

This was not such a worrying issue in the past. Entering PAP politics and getting a Cabinet post was like entering a priesthood, with job security virtually for life.

Iron rice bowl, critics will sniff. Proponents say it allows for stable government and long-term policy-making.

Whatever one's view of its pros and cons, that era is over.

It was of course the 2011 election that changed things.

In that election, Foreign Minister George Yeo lost his seat, and hence his Cabinet post.

Within two weeks, five more ministers left the Cabinet in a radical reshuffle by the Prime Minister: Messrs Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Chok Tong , Wong Kan Seng, Mah Bow Tan and Raymond Lim.

Mr Lui took over from Mr Lim then, as Transport Minister, but he has lasted only one term.

Meanwhile, this time round, waiting in the wings, are a new batch of candidates likely to make it to Cabinet if elected in the coming election expected in September 2015.

They are Mr Ong Ye Kung, Mr Chee Hong Tat and Lieutenant-General Ng Chee Meng. The first two were from the elite Administrative Service, while LG Ng was chief of defence force. All have had to leave their public service careers for a chance in politics.

In the past, men with such pedigreed careers would be assured of a Parliamentary seat and a Cabinet post. These days, nothing is assured, as Mr Ong knows. In 2011, he was the newbie in a Aljunied GRC team that lost to the Workers' Party.

Of the five candidates who lost there, Mr Ong, the youngest, is the only one vying to make a comeback. He remained as grassroots advisor in Kaki Bukit division of Aljunied GRC until last September, when he became more active in Sembawang GRC where he will be contesting this time round, in a ward considered "safe" for the People's Action Party. After the civil service, he joined the labour movement then left after 2011 and plunged into the private sector in Keppel.

Yesterday, he described losing Aljunied GRC as a setback which helped make him a better person. Politics is binary, he said: there are winners and losers. Setbacks are common, people fail exams, break up in a relationship, or do badly at work. He lost an election. But "no setback is a waste", he added.

For decades, Singapore has been insulated from the more unsavoury aspects of revolving door politics, a term that refers to the entry and exit of people who are in the government as regulators one day, and out in the private sector the next.

The opportunities to trade in information and favours and capitalise on networks, are many, and the temptations, real.

In contrast, when ministers know they are in it for the long term, they get assurance of career and income which are vital for their family's well-being. In return, citizens get continuity in policies and long-term thinking.

What does revolving door politics in Singapore mean?

For now, it just means that those entering politics jousting for political office need a Plan B in case they lose. Those who are already in Cabinet understand that their seats are not assured.

Longer term, I think the revolving door will have a bigger impact on politics and policy-making here.

Human nature being what is is, the temptation to make biased decisions to safeguard one's future cannot be wished away.

It becomes more important than ever, in such a climate, to make sure that those who aspire to a post in Cabinet are not motivated by profit or power, but by a sense of purpose and a desire to make good policy for the people.

muihoong@sph.com.sg