“Unpopularity Contests” or What Type of Leaders Do We Deserve…


Who should sit here?

Partyforumseasia: Nurturing Good Political Leaders and Character Screening for Candidates – an Unusual Debate about “Presidential Material” in Singapore:

Foreign Policy, in: Battleground ’16, 15 September ( LINK ) calls it “Unpopularity Contest“. Election campaigns, in the US and elsewhere, come with a lot of dirty tricks, heaps of dubious funds, and increasingly dubious candidates. If they are popular, they are called populist, which is supposed to be a negative qualification but remains rather fuzzy one. The Trump-Clinton trumpclinton2competition is alienating sensible citizens who think that both do not deserve their vote,  as if the image of politicians and political parties was not bad enough already. Political gurus say it is not a crisis of democracy as such, but more people than ever are fed up with corruption, mud slinging, eternal infighting and bickering in and between the parties, and all too often impunity of their errant leaders.

In Southeast Asia, cultural traditions and social norms of avoiding open conflict and face-saving attitudes in difficult situations should provide a less antagonistic picture on the media surface. But the name of the game is power politics like everywhere else, sometimes skillfully hidden behind a smoke screen or the traditional shadow play dutertenajibscreen. Here are some examples:

– In Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak is fighting against the fallout of a huge financial scandal and tries to save his own skin as well as the patronage system on which the dominance of his ruling party is based. The electorate is more divided than ever.

– In the Philippines the new president Rodrigo Duterte, who won with a landslide margin in May, is already under heavy pressure from political enemies and human rights groups for his crime busting trademark and alleged personal participation in the extralegal killing of criminals and drug dealers.

– In Thailand a military coup has created a semblance of political and social calm after the earlier multi-party system had led to years of crippling controversy close to civil war.

– In Cambodia Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Cambodian Peoples’Party are so insecure about their continuing grip on power that they are all out to destroy the main opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party with law suits, defamation and violent intimidation.

So far the regional backdrop. In stark contrast to the dominance of violent power struggles and aggression in the regional and international political arenas there is a small island state, sheltered from taifuns, earthquakes and other common natural disasters. Singapore‘s hegemonic People’s Action Party (PAP) enjoys uninterrupted rule since independence 51 years ago. Regular elections are sufficiently free and reasonably fair in terms of registration of parties and access to elections, though, like in other (British) First-Past-The-Post electoral systems the playing field is not even. But the dominance of the PAP against a splintered and weak opposition is also based on good governance, control of corruption, a carefully balanced communication strategy with growing participatory and nudging policy implementation, as well as the successful creation and maintenance of a conducive economic environment.

A review of the elected presidency, a widely ceremonial office but also called “the second key” because the president is supposed to safeguard the republic’s financial reserves against a potentially spendthrift and less responsible parliament is on the way. One of the reasons for a review are the eligibility requirements which would formally qualify many more candidates if not updated. In the 2011 election a former PAP member of parliament, running as an independent, came dangerously close to victory. The PAP’s candidate, President Tony Tan,  won with 745,693 votes against 738,311, a margin of 0.35 % only.

Singapore is now adopting many of the recommendations of the Constitutional Commission. An article in The Straits Times, 16 September, page A4, summarizes: “Potential presidential candidates will have their reputation, character and integrity assessed more stringently by the Presidential Elections Committee (PEC). (…) Applicants would also be required to list any “negative incidents”, such as disciplinary proceedings by professional bodies and market regulators in and out of Singapore, bankruptcy orders, personal protection orders for family violence and whether they have been the subject of legal proceedings of any sort.” The PEC will also be enlarged to six members, one from the private sector who will assess candidates without experience in the corporate world.

One may belittle these procedures as a luxury problem of a city state already known  for exceptionally good governance and cleanliness. But after a world-wide check of the political reality, dominated by too many aggressive and power hungry alpha males and females in leadership roles, caring about old fashioned personal qualities like character and integrity cannot be dismissed as naive. Ambition is necessary in politics, but especially in Southeast Asia’s predominant money-politics-model it can be more dangerous than we want.
Many political parties in the region would be well advised to think about character if they really care about their country and the citizens.


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