Lee Kuan Yew, the ‘modern father’ of Singapore, who is also the father of current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, launched his latest book “One Man’s View of the World” recently. In it he gave his views on major powers and regions of the world, often with scathing remarks about Singapore’s neighbors and past Chinese leaders. What’s more, the book has been endorsed by former US Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Schultz. The book is also full of interviews conducted by Lee’s editorial team. They were defensive of his past actions and policies, yet very critical of others, not even sparing the daughter of former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong who immigrated to the UK with her English husband.
However, Lee’s book is totally silent on the mechanism that maintained his tenure and influence over Singapore, an issue that is very much alive in the local blogs. That mechanism is the People’s Action Party cadre system – something that political commentators domiciled within Singapore are very hesitant to discuss. This too is very much part of Lee Kuan Yew’s pragmatic approach to solving problems.
The People’s Action Party (PAP) was conceptualized out of friendships between Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Keng Swee, and Toh Chin Chye during their education in Britain. In 1954, with the help of trade unions that represented the Chinese educated majority, the left-leaning nationalist party PAP was formed. With the help of Lim Chin Siong and Fong Swee Suan, the party would appeal to the Chinese educated working class and go on to create a broad base of support. The PAP started out as a mass mobilization party based upon a Leninist model. Much of this model is still intact within the party today.
The PAP is well disciplined and cohesive, with extremely powerful machinery on the ground. Leadership is very much ‘top down’ through an institutionalized cadre system. This has been kept in part to prevent any future hostile takeover attempts. A potential cadre must be recommended by a member of parliament, and then the candidate is interviewed a number of times by a committee appointed by the Central Executive Committee (CEC), which will include 4 to 5 ministers and members of parliament. There may be up to 1,000 cadres in the party today, but the exact number is kept a secret. A cadre has the right to attend the party conference and vote for the leadership every two years.
Consequently, political power is centered in the Central Executive Committee, headed by the secretary-general (the head of the party), who is usually also the prime minister. There is a very strong overlap between CEC members and cabinet ministers. Twelve members are elected by the cadre and six are appointed. Any outgoing CEC member must recommend a list of potential candidates to fill his/her position for the CEC. The CEC looks after the Young PAP, Women’s Wing, as well as selecting cadres and parliamentary candidates.
Ordinary party members are screened before they can join the PAP. Potential members must demonstrate some involvement in the community before memberships are approved. Lee Kuan Yew did not want a mass party with populist demands, and also wanted to avoid the problems of ‘guanxi’ within the party. Party members are basically unpaid volunteers, serving their MPs on branch sub-committees, and helping to mobilize support during elections.
By international political party standards the PAP is very small, with maybe about 15,000 members and a small central administrative apparatus. There is a small HQ executive committee that oversees the daily administration of the party, i.e., “maintaining party accounts, memberships, overseeing committees work, publications, and branch coordination.”
Like with Lee, the major ideology of the PAP is pragmatism, meritocracy, multiculturalism, and communitarianism. The PAP is pro-economic intervention through fiscal policy and government enterprise involvement, against a generally free market backdrop. The party strongly rejects the concepts of Western liberal democracy, citing a philosophy based upon ‘Asian values’ as the guiding principles of social development. Perhaps one of the greatest concerns of the PAP, reflected in the way it is structured and leadership is institutionalized, is the issue of succession, where it is believed that succession is the root of stability. Formal and informal rules, norms, and procedures guide who can and cannot stand for party and public office.
Singapore’s cadre system is partly responsible for the country’s success story, but at the same time it is an albatross around the government’s neck, arguably responsible for the ‘groupthink’ culture many local blogs are critical of in contemporary Singapore society today.
Since 1963, the Singapore government has turned the island from a sleepy backwater into one of the world’s most vibrant economies. Although nobody can fault the ruling party which has governed Singapore for more than 50 years of abandoning its responsibilities, many wish that it would tackle these responsibilities with some heart and connect emotionally with the people.
Times are rapidly changing in the island republic. There is genuine disenchantment with rising prices, the influx of foreign workers, competition for jobs, crowded public places, rising home prices, rising cost of education, and the widening income gap in Singapore. There is even some feeling among Singaporeans that, with the migration of foreign professionals, they may one day become second-class citizens within their own country. Migration is expected to continue as the local Singapore population is aging. Today it is not uncommon to see the old and infirm waiting on restaurant tables, clearing rubbish in the streets, or even scavenging in rubbish bins. Singapore’s GINI index has declined from 0.433 in 2000 to 0.465 in 2010 and is similar to many African and South American countries. Social ills like erosion of trust, crime, obesity, teen pregnancy, mental health and drug addiction, is more closely associated with income inequality rather than low average per-capita income. Consequently the electoral landscape is quickly beginning to change, where the PAP will not in the future be returned to power uncontested on nomination day due to the failure of opposition candidates to nominate for election.
The scraping in of the PAP’s preferred candidate Tony Tan for president in 2011 showed that there is a growing proportion of the Singapore electorate that wants a change from the PAPs heavy-handed style of government. However, one of the issues that may stem a further decline in the PAP’s fortunes is that there is currently a lack of any credible opposition in Singapore.
From another paradigm, Singapore could be seen as the domination of one group over another. Most of the leadership has been drawn from the Baba Chinese community, a group cultured in Malay and “Colonial British.” Babas hold strong family values, community cohesiveness, and tend to respect authority. This is in contrast to the southern mainland Chinese migrants to Singapore who fled oppression and tended to oppose authority. Singapore has thus been run more in the manner to which a British colonial administrator would have aspired. Thus patriarchal leadership with neo-Victorian values is not something the migrating Chinese accepted openly. Singapore has seen many campaigns, incentives, and deterrents to achieve the values of the Baba class.
One of the major legacies of Lee Kuan Yew was the authoritarian style of leadership and the fear it invoked into the Singaporean psych. For decades Singaporeans were expected to fall in line with what leaders expected without question, as they were told that this was best for them. The bounds of what couldn’t be done were clearly set, i.e., not to criticize leaders, not to discuss ‘sensitive’ issues, or not to give alternative opinions. If these boundary crossings were noticed, harsh penalties would be applied to those who crossed them. The strong control of Lee Kuan Yew was the dominant driver of society, and the state itself also had the responsibility of being the ‘agent of change’. This to some degree squeezed out small private businesses as an alternative engine to growth in the Singapore economy. This persona of authority and control still exists today.
Singapore government ministers appear to be disconnected with the people who elected them. They have become so concerned about running Singapore from an elite bureaucracy, trusted to make the best decisions for the country to protect and improve the livelihoods of its citizens. However as they live in some of the choicest real estate in Singapore and have rewarded themselves with some of the highest salaries in the world, they have fallen out of touch with the struggles and plight of the common people of Singapore.
For Singapore to prosper in the long term, and for Singapore to maintain the unique system of government that has evolved, with all the good, and perhaps less of the bad and ugly, the PAP needs to re-evaluate itself for the future and decide whether it is a broad based political party, or just the extension of one man and an elite group that has ruled over Singapore for the last 50 years.
Under the present structure of the PAP, it will be impossible for the party to reform itself from the grassroots and allow new ideas to reach the top. The ability of people to rise through the ranks of the party via new ideas is heavily restricted. The Lim Chin Siong legacy saw to that. The very way the PAP has sought both meritocracy and stability has become its Achilles heel, paralyzing the ability to adapt to a changing Singapore, where ironically the country has been so successful in adapting to outside factors of change while being so internally rigid. The cadre system itself prevents change, as the selection process is a closed system selecting only same-minded people to the leadership, subjecting government to the risks of groupthink.
Lee Kuan Yew had dominated Singaporean politics, economy, and society since the 1950s. The family has influenced affairs in Singapore for over 50 years, much longer than any other political family in the region. His eldest son, Lee Hsien Loong became Prime Minister in 2004. Lee Hsien Loong’s wife Ho Ching was CEO of Temasek Holdings. Lee Kuan Yew’s youngest son Lee Hsien Yang is the head of Singapore Telecom. The Lees have achieved their positions on merit and are genuinely an exceptionally talented family. The official reason given by former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong for this is the small talent pool in Singapore. Both the political and business sectors appear incestuous in Singapore, but due to the ‘city-state’ nature of the country, there appears to be little in the way of any solution. When the opportunities rose under Goh Chok Tong’s Premiership in the mid 1990s, no moves were made to check the power of the Lee family. There is no doubt that the Lee’s legacy is embedded in Singapore and its influence will last decades. Just how and when this influence begins to dissipate remains to be seen.
However, the cadre system within the PAP is an issue within Singapore society that will never see the light of day as an item of national discussion.
One thousand faceless men have allowed one man’s view of the world to persist.
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