Political Leadership, Competition and Succession

Partyforumseasia: Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (64) had a moment of exhaustion during his National Day Rallye speech on August 21 and needed a break behind the stage to recover. The audience in the lecture hall and in front of the TV sets all over the island was scared, being so used to his marathon speeches on these Captureoccasions, delivered in Malay, the national language, Mandarin, and finally in English in a row. Lee came back to the rostrum after a while and continued his speech with a reminder that his government is working on renewal and succession – including his own. After the incident, he said to applause and with a big grin, that the problem of succession was more urgent than ever.

Singapore’s dominant party rule by the People’s Action Party (PAP) – in power since 1965 and returned with nearly 70% in the last election – has not enjoyed a very positive international media image since the more authoritarian times of the country’s founding leader Lee Kuan Yew. But it is difficult to deny that the style has changed and that the city state is well governed and by far the cleanest and least corrupt in Southeast Asia. It pays its civil servants and politicians quite well, which helps to attract capable people to serve the country. But the legacy of the late Lee Kuan Yew goes beyond that material incentive. He rigorously screened candidates and stressed the importance of character in politics and public administration.

TrioThat may apply to other countries as well, while so called populists and rather “flamboyant” personalities are considered electable by majorities, say in the US or the Philippines, not to mention the dictators in other parts of the world. The bad image of politicians and political parties in most countries in Southeast Asia suggests  that instead of good character and inclination to serve   less desirable qualities are helpful in political careers. The greedy and power hungry personality types shape the public perception of politics as dirty business. As a case in point the positive outcome of the military-controlled referendum in Thailand shows the degree of the Thai people’s disappointment with corrupt political parties and their hope for a cleaner regime to come, be it under the army’s supervision.

In Malaysia, many citizens are fed up with Prime Minister Najib and the blatant money politics of his ruling coalition. But Najib, under pressure by international financial investigations for an unbelievable sum of nearly 700 m US$ which he declared a donation from the Saudi royal family, and beleaguered as he is, does not think of stepping down and has instead fired all potential successors. If he is not innocent he is remarkably cold blooded. But as Partyforumseasia has argued before, with a patronage system like UMNO’s they cannot afford to lose…

In terms of political psychology, at least in open and competitive regimes, there is a rather fine line between leadership qualities and charisma on one side and the talent to keep possible competitors at arm’s length or worse on the other side, also called killer instinct. There is still enough internal criticism of the Singapore system and the PAP. But planning and scouting for, preparing and grooming  future leaders is a feature few other regimes or parties practice or never even think about. As the 18th century French diplomat-politician Talleyrand said: The most difficult farewell in this world is the farewell from power, but an orderly handover should be more normal in democratic systems.

The succession problem in older posts:
See: How Communist Are Vietnam’s Communists? LINK

 

 

 

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