Don’t Count Singapore Out Yet

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 possessed of the region's most advanced infrastructure.

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.

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, are more closely associated with income inequality rather than low average per-capita income.

Consequently the electoral landscape is 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 a growing proportion of the electorate wants a change from the PAP’s heavy-handed style. However, one of the issues that may stem a further decline in the PAP’s fortunes is that there is currently a lack of much credible opposition.

Most of the leadership has been drawn from the Baba Chinese community, a group cultured in Malay and Colonial British, as Lee Kuan Yew was himself. Babas hold strong family values, community cohesiveness, and tend to respect authority. This is in contrast to the southern mainland Hakka and Cantonese migrants 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. 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 Lee’s major legacies was the authoritarian style of leadership and the fear it invoked into the Singaporean psych. For decades Singaporeans have been 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.

Lee’s strong control was the dominant driver of society, and the state itself also had the responsibility of being the agent of change, with state capitalism the norm before the mainland Chinese under Deng Xiaoping throught of it. This to some degree squeezed out small private businesses as an alternative engine to growth. This persona of authority and control still exists today.

Government ministers appear to be disconnected with the people who elected them. They have become concerned about running Singapore from a highly-paid, 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 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 and decide whether it is a broadly-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 PAP’s present structure, 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 very way the PAP has sought both meritocracy and stability has become its Achilles heel, paralyzing the ability to adapt to changie, 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. The Lee family has influenced affairs in Singapore for over 50 years, much longer than any other political family in the region. 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 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 the state 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. A thousand faceless cadres have allowed one man’s view of the world to persist.

Murray Hunter is an Australian academic with wide experience in Southeast Asia. This has been adapted from an earlier piece he wrote for Asia Sentinel