Don’t Count Singapore Out Yet
Lee Kuan Yew left a governing system behind that, while fading, remains formidable
Although some skeptics, including Gordon Chang, who erroneously predicted the collapse of China, are now predicting the collapse of Singapore on the death of founder Lee Kuan Yew, the odds of any quick deflation are against it for a variety of reasons, one being the city’s geographical location as the economic capital of the region and by far the most advanced infrastructure in the region.
But another is that Lee concentrated on building a system that he could pass on. The patriarch has been separated from government for more than two years and it has been practicing without him. The civil service, while humorless and lacking innovation, is nonetheless extremely capable and efficient – far more so than any other country in the region. Decisions are made on their merits and not on the possibility of enrichment for the government official making it. It appears unlikely that will change anytime soon.
How long the People’s Action Party, which has ruled the country since Lee took power, will last is another question. Its support has been trending down for more than a decade, to about 60 percent of the popular vote in the 2011 general election although the party captured 80 of the 89 electoral seats through gerrymandering and the imposition of group constituencies.
Nonetheless, the party is well disciplined and cohesive, with extremely powerful machinery on the ground, built on an institutionalized cadre system in part to prevent any future hostile takeover attempts. Potential cadres must be recommended by a member of parliament, and then is interviewed a number of times by a committee appointed by the Central Executive Committee (CEC), which will include four to five ministers and members of parliament.
There may be up to 1,000 cadres, but the exact number is kept a secret. Cadres have the right to attend party conferences and vote for the leadership every two years. Consequently, political power is centered in the Central Executive Committee, headed by the secretary-general, 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 cadres 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. Potential members must demonstrate some involvement in the community before memberships are approved. Lee Kuan Yew didn’t want a mass party with populist demands, and also wanted to avoid the problems of guanxi, the web of family and professional relationships that rule Chinese societies. 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.”
As with Lee, the major ideology of the PAP is pragmatism, meritocracy, multiculturalism, and communitarianism. It favors 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 party’s greatest concerns, reflected in the way it is structured and leadership is institutionalized, is the issue of succession, seen as 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 that many local blogs are critical of in contemporary Singapore society today.
Nonetheless, times are 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. 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 population ages.