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

 

 

 

Lee Kuan Yew And His PAP: A Party Like No Other


With eulogies from all over the world pouring in and Singaporeans queuing by the tens of thousands every day for hours to pay their last respect to the island nation’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew was already a legend greater than life before he died on 23 March at the age of 91. Lee KYAs he is being described as “mellowed a lot” during the last few years, nearly all comments are positive and remind only discreetly of the former iron fist of the outstanding leader, the aristotelien “zoon politikon” (or political animal) par excellence. His vision and foresight as political leader and motivator have made Singapore’s transformation miracle possible. Nevertheless, the universal recognition for this life achievement is remarkable after decades of international criticism of his leadership as heavy-handed, authoritarian, and undemocratic.
Partyforumseasia will not add another eulogy but a short reflection on the party leadership Lee Kuan Yew style: Political power is a prerequisite for the implementation of policies, but in most democracies it is limited by regular elections, thus limiting the time for implementation. Fast changes of political personnel have a positive side, of course, bad leaders disappear sooner, but in most democratic systems the survival rates tend to be rather low. Governments with different concepts follow each other, institutions are being changed and laws reversed. Some leaders survive somewhat longer with changing coalitions, but the “reign” of Lee Kuan Yew is beating democratic and autocratic systems by far. Being re-elected and keeping his constituency for 60 (sixty!!!) years is a world record, even on the background of uncontested “walkovers” due to his advantages as incumbent, prime minister and party leader. Similarly unique is his tenure of 31 years as prime minister (1959 – 1990), ending with a voluntary resignation after carefully organizing his succession, and his handover as party leader after 38 years in 1992 without giving up his influence in the party’s policy formulation. There was also a strong fear factor in this dominant role, often dubbed as “no-nonsense-style”, but Lee Kuan Yew and his team managed to avoid outright condemnation as dictatorial by delivering the economic goods domestically and finding smart ways to sell limitations to political rights and press freedom as necessary for stability and progress.
Controlling a political party and keeping it dominant with more than absolute majorities like Lee did with the PAP over five decades is an exception many party leaders world-wide would probably dream of. Descriptions of the PAP with its estimated membership of no more than 20.000 as a Leninist-style cadre party are certainly outdated. The roughly 2000 cadres have only a minor role in decision making. But screening office holders and election candidates the rigorous way LKY practiced it, would certainly do many parties in the region good. Another remarkable feature is the weekly meet the people sessions, compulsory for members of parliament. The MPs are forced to be closer to the ground and the problems of the common people. That is easier to organize in a city state but maybe a useful example to MPs in bigger countries and their widespread aloofness.
Lee Kuan Yew once said that it cannot be his role as prime minister to make it easier for the opposition, and he really made it difficult with all legal means. This created a lot of latent resentment against the PAP and increasing numbers of protest votes recently. His son Lee Hsien Loong, successful as prime minister with a more relaxed leadership style since 2004, will most probably manage to maintain the dominant role of the party. He says the next election due latest by early 2017 will be tight, but the opposition is splintered and weak. In this party political perspective the Lee Kuan Yew era does not seem to be over yet.
Singaporeans queuing for up to eight hours in the tropical heat to pay their last respect.
Queue 1

“Singfirst”, A New Opposition Party in Singapore


Partyforumseasia: Three political parties have made it into Singapore’s Parliament: The dominant PAP with 80 seats, the biggest opposition Workers’ Party (WP) with 7elected and 2 non-constituency (NC) seats (which are given to the best losers), and the Singapore People’s Party with one non-constituency seat. There are ten other active parties and twenty-two are registered but not active.
On this background of a splintered opposition camp which had problems in past elections to avoid three- and more cornered fights instead of uniting against the PAP, it certainly needs optimism to start a new party from scratch.

Tan Jee SayTan Jee Say is the man behind this new party founded in May 2014 and registered three months later under the name Singaporeans First or Singfirst in short. Singfirst logoTan is a former civil servant (principal private secretary to PM Goh Chok Tong). He had a short stint in the Singapore Democratic Party, and lost the 2011 presidential election as third of three candidates with 25% of the votes. According to the party’s website (link here: Singfirst.org) Tan Jee Say is the secretary-general, chairman is psychiatrist Dr. Ang Yong Guan, a schoolmate of Tan in the elitist Raffles Institution.  Ang
Under the headline “Chairman says fear no more” Ang explains that Singfirst had to be established because he thinks that the PAP has deviated from the old successful course: “The old service-driven people-connected PAP was able to deliver and people did not mind the tough policies it implemented. Singaporeans were prepared to tolerate living in a nation that is largely apolitical but economically vibrant. (…) The emergence of the new PAP in recent years driven by profits, obsessed with economic growth and disconnected from the people has led to complacency at the top and anger and helplessness on the ground.”
Since Dr. Ang is giving a glimpse into his own political experience as a (PAP??) community leader from 1988 to 2004 and in close cooperation with former foreign minister George Yeo, there may be some space for speculation about different views inside the ruling party and what the establishment of Singaporeans First might mean for the next election, due latest by January 2017.
Partyforumseasia has a little doubt about the expressed intention to find common ground with the other opposition parties. It did not work well among the older opposition parties so far. The choice of the party’s name, though, which sounds somewhat anti-immigrant if not xenophobic, might resonate with the many Singaporeans who resent the pressure created by more than a million foreign workers in the city republic.

PS: Singapore’s “The Online Citizen” (link here) asks what Singfirst can possibly do in Tanjong Pagar, a constituency dominated by Lee Kuan Yew himself since 1955!!! Lee is 91 already and will most probably not run again. With him on the team of candidates no party contested there, providing the PAP with a comfortable “walkover”. See the following chart from The Online Citizen:
Tanjong Pagar

The Future of Singapore’s PAP – Part II


Partyforumseasia:  In most countries with a liberal democratic system anywhere in the world any political party would be more than happy with the comfortable absolute majority the People’s Action Party is enjoying since sixty years. PAP 50But there are also few parties world-wide which have ruled as successfully as the PAP (though there are few city states for comparison). The authoritarian style of founding father and patriarch Lee Kuan Yew, now 91, has been gradually softened under successor Goh Chok Tong and more so under son Lee Hsien Loong. So the debate about future dangers to the PAP looks somewhat overly fearful in comparison to the narrow majorities and shaky coalitions in other countries. As already quoted in part I, Netina Tan has described the mechanisms in the Singapore system which favor the ruling party. Link here:
Parliament SGRocking a big boat like Singapore and the PAP is certainly difficult. Nevertheless, losing one six-member group constituency which looked unassailable in 2011 and a by-election 2013 is painful for a party spoiled by decades of success. And one can expect differences within the party, maybe with a faction that does not fully support the softened style of the Prime Minister.
With the 60th anniversary of the PAP, the 50th of independent Singapore and general elections coming up in 2015, the crystal ball is being kept rather busy. The latest contribution by Han Fook Kwang, senior editor at large at the Straits Times (9.11.2014, the question mark cartoon above also in this article), is correctly adjusting the question to what the PAP will have to do to stay in power. For there are no real threats in the party scene with the runner up Workers’ Party far behind with 7 elected and 2 non constituency (or consolation prize) MPs against 80 PAP parliamentarians.
What is conspicuously missing in the public debate so far is the possibility of a coalition government. At least in the next few decades the election law will not make a coalition government necessary if the PAP can win majorities in Parliament even with less than 50% of the popular vote. Neighboring Malaysia has that already since last year and many other countries with majoritarian or first-past-the-post systems as well.
So the PAP may just be nervous about more signs of protest votes in various forms and some activists being more fearless than anyone since the crackdown on Communists in the 1950s and 1960s. Obviously there is a ant-establishment subculture among younger Singaporeans who take all the material achievements for granted and see social injustices from a subjective, if not parochial perspective. The debate about the supposed shortcomings of the Central Provident Fund (CPF) seems to be a point in case. Social security for everybody is difficult to achieve, and increasing life expectancy threatens all pension schemes in rich countries. But in terms of distribution justice Singapore’s CPF system can match most other schemes.

PAP 1PAP 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

See the Singapore chapter by Netina Tan in
B&N book

 

 

 

available at Amzon, Barnes & Noble and other e-book retailers.

Nine New Faces: Singapore’s Nominated Members of Parliament


Partyforumseasia: Singapore is not short of political parties, no less than 28 are registered, but during 49 years of independent statehood the overwhelming dominance of the People’s Action Party (PAP) has not changed much. Though its share of the popular vote has shrunk to an unprecedented 60.14 percent in the last general election in 2011, and two cabinet ministers were voted out, the ruling party won 81 out of 87 seats due to the (British heritage) first-past-the-post majoritarian election system. But for the first time in 2011, the opposition Worker’s Party managed to win a group constituency with six seats. The Group Representation Constituency (GRC) was one of the tweaks to the election system introduced since 1984 and not really seen as making it easier for the opposition.  Parliament
In order to balance the overpowering hegemony of the PAP, however, the constitution allows for a number of unelected members to join Parliament. These are Non-Constituency MPs (NCMP) or “the best opposition losers”, if they can win at least 15 percent in a single member constituency, and Nominated Members of Parliament (NMP). These are nominated by the President for two and a half years after recommendation by a parliamentary select committee under the speaker. This year’s committee included two ministers and five other MP’s including the chairman of the opposition Worker’s Party. According to the defense minister, who was part of the select committee, the NMP’s are expected to enrich the debates on issues like “ageing, economic restructuring and productivity, sporting excellence, a better living environment, retaining Singapore’s heritage and appreciation of its history, challenges of working mothers, youth aspirations, and entrepreneurism.” (Straits Times, 12 August 2011, p.1) On sensitive issues like amendments to the constitution or public finances the NMP’s can contribute to the debate but are not allowed to vote.
Among the newly appointed NMP’s are a lawyer, a social entrepreneur, an architect, a medical doctor, a unionist, a historian, an economist, and a banker. The somewhat naughty application of a social blogger who is being sued by the Prime Minister for alleging inconsistencies in how the government is handling the compulsory Central Provident Fund, has been rejected.

To put the NMP scheme into a proper perspective, it is fair to say that Singapore has only a part-time Parliament with MP’s following their professional careers as normal. Apart from the seasonal sittings of Parliament they are involved in intense grass roots work in their constituencies. So it makes a lot more sense to co-opt specialists than in classical full-time parliaments with professional politicians.

More information on Singapore’s political system can be found here:
Tan, Netina, Institutional Sources of Hegemonic Party Stability in Singapore, in: Sachsenröder, Wolfgang (ed.), Party Politics in Southeast Asia, Organization-Money-Influence, Partyforumseasia, Singapore 2014.
The new book is available at Amazon under the following link: Party Politics