GE2020: Stern political realities call for shift in PAP governance

Overhaul idea of meritocracy, widen talent pool, relook political practices

One conclusion seems painfully clear from the setback that the People's Action Party (PAP) suffered in the recent general election. The party needs a new governance paradigm to replace Mr Lee Kuan Yew's "Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going", exemplified in his 1986 National Day Rally speech:

"We would not have made economic progress if we had not intervened on very personal matters - who your neighbour is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use. We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think."

The PAP no longer decides what is right. Nowhere is this more evident than in Sengkang GRC, where 60 per cent of the voters were aged 45 and below. The party fielded establishment figures, confident that the old formula of paternalistic rule with promised economic results would still work its magic. In contrast, the Workers' Party (WP) fielded young and fresh candidates who offered contention of ideas and wider personal space in people's daily lives. This resonated with the voters, and the WP won Sengkang GRC with 52.1 per cent of the votes.

In the first three decades of PAP rule, most Singaporeans were willing to put up with the benign authoritarian rule of the first-generation leaders because they were seen to be dedicated, drew modest salaries and were in touch with the ground.

But their successors have increasingly been viewed in a different light, as a self-styled "natural aristocracy" that enjoys high salaries and perpetuates the self-serving mythology that, because of their impeccable integrity, people should trust them to "ownself check ownself ".

There is a lesson to be learnt here from the natural sciences. In his path-breaking work, The Structure Of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn demonstrated that over history, each body of scientific theory establishes itself as a paradigm.

For example, the ancient Roman astronomer Ptolemy viewed the Earth as the centre of the universe, with the Sun revolving around it.

Over time, this paradigm became untenable because of inconsistency with observations.

But medieval scientists stubbornly clung on to it, until the evidence was so overwhelming that the paradigm collapsed and was replaced through a "paradigm shift" with the theories of Copernicus and Newton. Centuries later, Newtonian theory itself was supplanted by Einstein's general theory of relativity.

Paradigm shifts occur also in the social sciences and in state governance. What would a new paradigm for Singapore governance look like?

Multi-racialism and secularism for political stability, freedom from corruption and assistance for the poor and the weak are likely to remain pillars. These "hard truths" are likely to endure. But the new paradigm must incorporate some stern political realities.

First, overhaul the notion of meritocracy. The PAP has traditionally looked to academic ability, work experience and emotional intelligence for leadership talent.

More importantly, in the brave new world of technological disruption and rapidly shifting international balances of power, leadership qualities must include the courage to challenge conventional wisdom and a deep strategic grasp of world affairs.

Such wisdom cannot be gained through imbibing knowledge, military training, or a career in the civil service implementing rules.

It is more likely forged in intellectual contention, personal experience of adversity and failure such as in the competitive commercial world, and a culture that does not constrain the mind with "hard truths".

Second, it is inevitable that there be more talent outside the Government than within.

Such talent can be tapped only with a freer media and greater participation of thought leaders in debates on core national issues.

Such participation would be effective only if the Government has greater willingness to share information. Sharing information means that alternative viewpoints can be backed by study and analyses of up-to-date data, thereby weakening the Government's current advantage of defeating challenges to its ideas by selectively using information to which the other parties do not have ready or timely access. Civil servants would then have to be more resilient, and politicians would be less shielded by the cotton wool of superior access to information and a protective press.

Third, the new paradigm will need to recognise the wish of younger voters as well as fair-minded establishment people to limit the power of the ruling party to make constitutional changes.

In 2017, the Constitution was changed to introduce a racial criterion and a raised financial expertise requirement for presidential candidates. This was read by many in the public as a manoeuvre to ensure that a favoured candidate be elected without contest. Such apparent political expediency undermined the trust of the people that had been earned over decades of PAP rule.

Fourth, voters young and old want a level playing field in political contention. The ruling party ignores this at its peril. In its wisdom, the Government introduced the group representation constituency (GRC) to ensure minority representation in Parliament.

Twinning, or two to a GRC, could have achieved this objective, but it was decided to have three.

That was selectively expanded to a maximum of six, before being reduced this election back to a cap of five.

This has been widely perceived as tweaking the system to allow political neophytes and unelectable candidates to hitch a ride with heavyweight ministers.

It undermines the legitimacy of these candidates, some of whom are catapulted to high-paying office-holder positions shortly after election.

In the upgrading of Housing Board estates, priority was given to constituencies that voted PAP, in effect leveraging the resources of the state for partisan support of the ruling party.

The People's Association does not allow opposition MPs to be advisers to grassroots organisations, effectively cutting off elected MPs who are not from the PAP from supervising grassroots organisations in their own wards, whereas PAP MPs automatically become advisers. Even PAP losing candidates are often appointed advisers, over the elected MP. It is manifestly unfair and the practice should stop.

The list goes on. Past PAP supporters were prepared to close an eye to these inequities for a greater cause, that of national solidarity under one party flag.

Singaporeans with a history of Confucian respect for hierarchy and trust in government may have higher tolerance for authoritarianism than citizens of Western liberal democracies. But when governance practices offend their sense of justice, we are on a different turf. This is especially true of millennials and Generation Z.

Finally, the country should relinquish the notion that any party other than the ruling party (or ruling coalition) is "The Opposition".

This antiquated attitude is prevalent in Britain and most of her former colonies, with the notable exception of the United States.

There is no reason for alternative views to be presumptively held as opposing views.

In Daoist wisdom, yin and yang restrain but also support each other to maintain balance and harmony in a robust equilibrium. The ruling party and alternative parties representing different viewpoints should be seen in the same enlightened way.

Hong Hai is an adjunct professor and a past dean of Nanyang Business School at Nanyang Technological University, and a former PAP Member of Parliament. This essay is in part derived from his recent book, The Rule Of Culture: Corporate And State Governance In China And East Asia, published by Routledge (2020).

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 14, 2020, with the headline GE2020: Stern political realities call for shift in PAP governance. Subscribe