The 4G question: Whither exceptional Singapore?

Will Singaporeans be given space and freedom to be exceptional?

It is all quiet on the leadership transition front in Singapore. That is how the fourth-generation (4G) leaders would like it. Leave them alone to decide who among them will become leader, they requested, after questions were raised about the progress of the search for a successor to the current prime minister.

In a statement on Jan 4 last year, they said: "The younger ministers are keenly aware leadership succession is a pressing issue and that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong intends to step down after the next general election. We are conscious of our responsibility, are working closely together as a team and will settle on a leader from among us in good time."

It was the first time the group, which included three ministers said to be front runners in the selection, had spoken out about the task before them. Going by the deafening silence on the issue since then, their message seemed to have been heard and heeded.

Even PM Lee avoided talking about it in the National Day Rally last year when in the past he had referred to it as one of the country's most important issues.

The unspoken rule is to make it a quiet, orderly and no-surprise handover. And that was indeed the case when on Nov 23 last year, Mr Heng Swee Keat was made the ruling party's new first assistant secretary-general. His 4G peers said there was consensus that he was the first among equals, which signalled that he is in line to succeed PM Lee in due course.

Singapore's third leadership transition has been a relatively quiet one. It wasn't always like that.

The first change from founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew to Mr Goh Chok Tong was in fact quite eventful. Even though Mr Goh seemed the obvious choice based on the appointments he held, Mr Lee dropped a bombshell at the National Day Rally in 1988 when he declared to a nationwide audience that Mr Goh had not been his first choice to succeed him.

A strong resilient people with the right values and sense of community may be a better bet for the future than one overly dependent on good leaders, given the stage of Singapore's development, says the writer. Leaders can come and go, but if a people
A strong resilient people with the right values and sense of community may be a better bet for the future than one overly dependent on good leaders, given the stage of Singapore's development, says the writer. Leaders can come and go, but if a people develop the instincts for survival, the benefits will be longer lasting, he adds. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

He followed it up a few days later with even more surprising comments, saying Mr Goh was not as decisive a leader as his first choice - then Finance Minister Tony Tan - and that he was "wooden" in his public communication. In the event, Mr Goh persevered, his colleagues rallied around him, and he was inaugurated PM in 1990.

As for the second handover to the younger Lee in 2004, it was a totally predictable affair but the talk then was all about the father-son relationship. The elder Lee had to answer repeated questions about cronyism and what it meant for Singapore to have two Lees in the Cabinet.

So, what issues surround the current transition? So far, they have been pretty standard fare, with most of the questions centred on who might be the man and whether he will be up to the job.

But even the who question has raised little excitement largely because none of the three - Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing and Education Minister Ong Ye Kung - seems to have made a deep impression on the public.

That is partly because of their relative inexperience, with Mr Heng and Mr Chan elected in 2011 and Mr Ong in 2015. It also has to do with the similarities of their backgrounds - all were in the public service with Mr Chan serving in the military.

As a result, no one stands out exceptionally. But there is a third and more important reason: The leaders have repeatedly emphasised teamwork as opposed to individual performance. PM Lee has himself noted that it would be "unrealistic and impossible" to find a single candidate with all the qualities needed.

He said: "What is important is the team. If among the team's members they have enough of these qualities, are able to cooperate and together, drive Singapore forward, lead the country - this is the most crucial... We have to find a competent team that can work closely together..."

This emphasis on the team raises an important issue. Singapore's leadership transition is always based on a generational change at the top, with most of the new leaders coming from the same cohort replacing their elder colleagues.

It is pertinent therefore to raise questions about the group as a whole - what drives the current generation of leaders, what are the values they hold and how were their thinking and attitudes shaped in their formative years?

For Singapore, these questions may be more important than questions about individual qualities, given the way the leader is selected and the focus on the team.

In the first transition, Mr Goh's cohort was a unique group of technocrats with no experience in politics, handpicked to join the party and parachuted into senior positions in Government after they were duly elected.

The senior Lee was determined to replace his ageing cohort with these young men based on their ability to perform in their previous jobs, never mind their political inexperience. They were reluctant politicians, and by all accounts, no one wanted to become the prime minister after him.

But someone had to do the job, and Mr Goh became the chosen one. As he has said many times, he did not want it, but when asked, he stepped up, out of a sense of duty and responsibility. Other team members had the same approach to the job, and they were thus able to gel together with no political infighting or jostling for the top post. Singapore's first leadership transition was by all accounts successful, and it set the template for future handovers.

But as with copies, you have to ask if the underlying conditions are the same for the replication to work or if circumstances have changed to require a new approach. There are signs it may not be working as well as before.

The main worry is that the current group lacks diversity, with most of the 4G leaders (as these fourth-generation leaders are called) - including all three of the leading contenders - coming from the public service in some way or other.

Groupthink is an ever-lurking danger but even more so given the stage of development we are at. Research suggests that a homogeneous group tends to come to decisions too quickly. American psychologist Samuel Sommers has concluded that such groups agree on likely scenarios too early in the discussion because members make the same assumptions.

It is a self-perpetuating problem as private-sector individuals might in turn be discouraged from joining a group when they see it comprises largely former civil servants and military top brass who think alike and know the system inside out. There is also a tendency for a closed group to preserve the status quo because they are heavily invested in it. As a result, they can become overly risk averse and resistant to change.

TEAM-CENTRED LEADERSHIP NEEDS DIVERSITY

These problems become magnified when leadership is team-centred.

If the team is all-important - as the leaders have repeatedly stressed - it is even more critical to make sure it is made up of people with diverse backgrounds who can offer different perspectives, and are willing to voice their contrarian views.

 
 
 
 

But in Singapore, ministers seldom, if ever, depart from the party line in public, almost always speaking with one voice even on the most contentious issues. No one knows how robust their internal discussions are and if individual ministers might have differing views.

It further reinforces the perception of sameness and homogeneity in its ranks.

To its credit, the 4G leaders recognise this. In the President's Address in May last year which set out their thinking, they said: "...the new leaders are conscious that Singapore is at quite an advanced stage of development. We may feel that we have more to lose now. We may be tempted not to go for bold changes, but instead be content to tweak things at the margins. That would be the wrong approach."

But on leadership succession, the ruling party does not have an alternative way and is unlikely to make any major change to its approach, boldly or otherwise.

It raises a wider question that goes beyond leadership renewal: Can Singapore afford not to consider alternative approaches in its economic and political development; to alter its formula for success if the circumstances require it?

Or is it too set in its ways, unable to respond fast enough to a rapidly changing world? This is the critical question as the country attempts to make the leap forward in the next phase of its development.

Two changes in particular will test the country and its leaders. The first is technology, especially in the digital world, and the second, geopolitical shifts in the balance of power in this part of the world.

The digital revolution has disrupted many traditional businesses in retail, transport, education, media and manufacturing. Singapore's economic growth has slowed down in recent years as it struggled to restructure to a more innovative, higher productivity economy, with local companies that are able to compete with the world's best.

As for geopolitical change, China's rise and America's relative decline will test Singapore leaders' ability to navigate the changing landscape nimbly, to protect the country's interest.

As a small country, it has only a small voice. But that voice will become even smaller if it is unable to replicate its past success and its economy shrinks in importance compared with its neighbours'.

Success begets success, from the economic to the political. Failure can similarly do the same, and a downward spiral can gather momentum quickly. If Singapore is unable to replicate its exceptional performance of the first 50 years of its nationhood, the implications go beyond the economic. Can it continue to be exceptional?

CAN SINGAPOREANS BE AN EXCEPTIONAL PEOPLE?

Exceptional leadership will be hard to come by for the reasons cited above.

Singapore's pioneer leaders were a unique product of the circumstances of the time, unlikely to be repeated again.

Yet, some may argue that a country's fate depends as much if not more on its people than its leaders. This is even more so given where Singapore stands today - an economy that is operating at the cutting-edge of technology, a people who are well educated and well travelled.

A strong resilient people with the right values and sense of community may be a better bet for the future than one overly dependent on good leaders, given our stage of development. Leaders can come and go, and the great ones are as much a stroke of good fortune as anything else.

But if a people develop the instincts for survival, the benefits will be longer lasting.

Can Singaporeans be an exceptional people, innovative and enterprising, daring to question the status quo, to venture out of their comfort zones, not be overly dependent on the Government, and able to bounce back from adversity?

They have the potential to be - with a meritocratic education system that is among the best to be found, with abundant opportunities to develop their abilities and a system that is open to the world.

There is one caveat: An innovative, enterprising people must be allowed space to express themselves freely, to venture into new areas, in business, the arts, and in politics. They cannot be over-protected, sheltered and controlled, made to believe there is one way to lead their lives and organise themselves. Singapore risks being such a society.

Most Singaporeans believe there is one set route to success - do well in school, get married, buy a new house with a 30-year loan, get a steady dependable job and stay out of trouble.

There is nothing wrong with this approach. The problem arises if everyone does it the same safe, risk-free way. The issue is exactly that mentioned by the 4G leaders - a society that has achieved so much in so short a time, afraid to make mistakes and to lose it all. If both leaders and the people have this attitude, Singapore will lose its exceptionalism and dynamism.

Will Singapore leaders be bold enough to allow the people more space in civic, commercial and political life to find new ways to grow and thrive?

Will Singaporeans be bold enough to seize the opportunity in this brave new world?

A Singapore that is no longer exceptional will have to come to terms with a new reality: It will change the political and social compact between leaders and the people, which has depended on leaders delivering exceptional performance.

What will the new relationship be? Of all the disruptions facing Singapore in the future, this might be the most challenging.

• Han Fook Kwang is Editor-at-Large with The Straits Times and a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

• This article first appeared in the National University of Singapore Society's journal, Commentary Volume 27.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 08, 2019, with the headline 'The 4G question: Whither exceptional Singapore?'. Print Edition | Subscribe