Singapore’s political system a one-legged stool

The Straits Times last Friday (Straits Times, 16 April 2010, PM Lee on nepotism and his father’s legacy) carried excerpts of an interview by US television journalist Charlie Rose with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. I found Lee’s answer to two questions very interesting. The first answer was almost curt, the second rather circumlocutory.

Rose: You seem to be sensitive to the issue of what’s called nepotism.

Lee: We are very sensitive.

Rose: Tell me about this sensitivity.

Lee: The whole of our system is founded on a basic concept of meritocracy. You are where you are because you are the best man for the job, and not because of your connections or your parents or your relatives.

And if anybody doubts that I as Prime Minister am here not because I’m the best man for the job but because my father fixed it, or that my wife runs Temasek because I put her there and not because she’s the best woman for the job, then my entire credibility and moral authority is destroyed because I’m not fit to be where I am.

And it is a fundamental issue of fitness to govern.

First, you must have the moral right, then you can make the right decisions. It’s a basic Confucian precept.

Only when you have the moral right then can you govern and make the country right. In Singapore, people expect that. And if there’s any doubt that this is so, and people believe that I’m there because my father fixed it, or the whole system is just make-believe, then the system would come down.

It’s not tenable. If it’s true, it’d better be proven and it better be kicked out. If it’s not true, it’d better also be proven to be not true and the matter put to rest.

It was obvious that Rose’s question was at least partly aimed at Lee’s own position as prime minister, an angle that Lee himself sensed, as you can tell from the way he said he was the “best man for the job”. What I found interesting was that at no point did Lee defend himself by saying he was elected to the post fair and square.

Yet Singapore claims to be a democracy. It is possible in a democracy for sons to take the top job — a recent example would be George Bush 43 becoming US president after George Bush 41 –, but it would be very odd if such a leader, asked to defend his claim to the job, avoided all mention of being elected to office in an open and competitive election.

And yet, we have this reply (above) from Lee to Rose.

Lee spoke about having the “moral right”, but other than referring to “meritocracy” and being the “best man”, he did not explain where that “moral right” came from. How does one know if so and so is the “best man” for the job in a supposed democracy?

Instead, in much of his reply, he spoke about why it was important to quash all doubts (I would say skepticism or criticism), which only opened the subject of the government’s use of defamation laws.

* * * * *

Just the other night, I watched on Youtube, a program called The Red Tide.  In it, the current Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva defended his country’s lèse majesté law by saying “other people are also protected by the law against defamation, slander, and surely we don’t want the case where the monarchy has to bring charges against people because the monarchy is above all conflicts.” The rationale therefore is that where under defamation law, the person who feels he has been defamed has to take action against his accuser, it is unseemly for a monarch to do so, therefore the state does it for him.

On the surface, it sounds beguilingly understandable, but as Paul Handley, in the same program, pointed out, the problem lies in having a monarch in the first place. In such a system, it is in a way essential to have and use such a law, because ultimately, the set-up is “based on a myth, on a story that tells people that this is why this person who is not elected, not chosen by the people, is the king, is the leader…”

Now we all know that there is a huge uproar right now about Thailand’s lèse majesté law, and how it curtails freedom of expression and an otherwise healthy discussion of an important issue. An outspoken woman — I can’t remember her name — is currently serving 15 years in jail for saying the king has been ill-advised by those around him!

It has long been argued that far from protecting the institution of the monarchy, the law actually damages it.

Coming back to Singapore, is it not also true that far from protecting the legitimacy of our system of government, heavy-handed use of defamation law against what would, in other liberal democracies, be considered fair comment, likewise damages it?

* * * * *

A few days ago, at a private forum, an important point about Singapore was made by Tian Chua, a Malaysian opposition politician, and Larry Diamond, a leading contemporary scholar in the field of democracy studies and Professor of Sociology and Political Science at Stanford University. It was that Singapore’s political system was just one economic crisis away from collapse.

The reason is that the government justifies its “right to rule” on delivering economic progress, not on winning elections fair and square. This justification is similar to the arguments about being the “best man for the job” and “moral right” per Confucian concepts.

Thus, besides smothering criticism over the democratic deficit — the intimidatory measures are too many and well-known list, including as they do, a strict media licensing regime and defamation suits — there is the annoyingly grating citation after citation of economic data and selected world ranking indices. Thus also the constantly changing choice of tables displayed by our Statistics Department on their website, and the prickliness shown by government ministers whenever adverse data is highlighted by outsiders, e.g. when it was pointed out a few years ago that the bottom two deciles had actually gotten poorer over the years.

The claim to legitimacy of the government — and of the entire political system they have set up — has rested more and more narrowly on the economic as the democratic deficit has grown.

Yet, how realistic is it that we will always show stellar economic growth, or that we will come out of every economic downturn quickly? And if we don’t? An economic crisis would quickly spiral into a political crisis. The government’s legitimacy, so dependent on delivering economic results, collapses, but with it also the legitimacy of the political system that is so identified with such a government.

I am reminded here of the time when the authoritarian Suharto government in Indonesia fell in the wake of the Asian economic crisis of 1997. The whole political system that Suharto had set up collapsed with it and Indonesia was engulfed in violent chaos for a while.

Tian Chua had another interesting point to make: Knowing how existential is the threat of a deep economic downturn to the People’s Action Party (PAP) government and the entire political system, the government keeps pushing the civil service to work ever harder to deliver economic results. At what point, he asked, would civil servants, overwhelmed by stress, begin to leave in droves, abandoning the system?

That the Singapore system is extremely fragile is often attributed to our small size and lack of strategic depth (in both security and economic terms). This has created a siege mentality, no doubt one that is very useful to keeping the PAP government in power, but a part of that fragility is really due to the democratic deficit the government has consciously created in its own self-interest. We have hitched our political stability to never-ending economic progress. Why? Why are we like gamblers, hitching our overall well-being to the roll of the dice? Why can’t we have a system that is stable in good times and bad?

22 Responses to “Singapore’s political system a one-legged stool”

  1. 1 Ben 19 April 2010 at 13:32

    I think PM said right cos Prime Ministers are not elected in Singapore. They are appointed by the first-past-the-post winning party. If I’m not mistaken.

  2. 2 Alan Wong 19 April 2010 at 15:03

    I think PM Lee is trying to have the cake and eat it too.

    Let’s say that his wife Ho Ching was really selected based on her capability which is the basis of what we called meritocracy.

    And now that Temasek have suffered such a massive loss in its foreign investments for the last few years, does it prove that his wife as the current CEO of Temasek is a capable CEO or not, by any standards ?

    So on the same token of meritocracy may I ask our PM Lee, why is it that his wife is not sacked for causing Temasek to suffer such a huge loss during her tenure ? Can he now defend that it was not a case of nepotism ?

  3. 3 yawningbread 19 April 2010 at 23:45

    Ben – and how did the winning party win elections?

    • 4 Ben 20 April 2010 at 09:00

      Hi hi. Fully agree the interview might not be what some wanted to hear. But then again, he’s a politician defending his position to foreign media. Par for the course.

      My comment was just responding to your article: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in justifying why he is the prime minister, avoids saying it’s because he won an election.

      He couldn’t say that. PM’s in Singapore are not elected by the people. The party is elected by the people thru election of MPs. The party then chooses the PM. And he’s saying the process was meritocratic. His comments are 100% spot on. The tenor of your opening was off-base. 🙂 Presidents in Singapore, yes, they are now elected, but not PMs.

      As we might say in Singapore: you see the PM no up. 🙂

      • 5 yawningbread 20 April 2010 at 22:13

        Come on, Ben, don’t be pedantic. In a Westminster system or a pseudo- Westminister system that we have, a party goes into a general election with a leader already named. It is obvious to voters that if they vote a certain party into power, that pre-designated person will become PM. So for all practical purposes, PMs are elected.
        Just like the general election coming up in the UK even as we speak, it is obvious that if Labour wins, Gordon Brown will become PM, if Conservatives win, David Cameron will take the job.
        Thus in Singapore’s general election of 2006, it was obvious that Lee Hsien Loong would be PM should the PAP “win” enough seats to form a majority.

  4. 6 James Tan 20 April 2010 at 09:37

    You hit the nail on the head. When I read LHL’s claim to having “moral right” to govern, I wonder where and how he got that notion. What moral right?

  5. 7 George 20 April 2010 at 12:11

    You know Alex it is quite pointless and futile trying to debate rationally or reason with the MIW. They know what they are up to.

    We have to use another approach that would leave them little choice or room but to address such issues directly without being able to ‘siam’ and avoid answering.

    We see a spectacular example of this in the Thai’s ‘Red Shirt’ faction. Basically, the point is one cannot have a real dialogue until and unless both or all contending sides agree to meet on an equal footing.

    As you must be aware the ruling party here often adopts a ‘we are deaf’ to your comments position whenever it does not suit its purpose or position. LKY has long thought it out how to do this. That’s the reason for the closing of so many newspapers/tabloids in the LKY PMship era, the creation of SPH, the continual policy of suing/proscribing foreign media who cross its path, etc.

    This is also the issue of prime importance all Singaporeans must and should address if we want real democracy. we cannot afford to wait till the ‘founding father’ leaves the scene because I have little doubt that when the time comes the measures to entrench the party would have been embedded in place.

    His departure would no doubt significantly remove the ‘halo’ effect from his son and the party, so it would not be unexpected if schemes are already in hand to counter this deleterious effect on the position of the party.

  6. 8 Andrew 20 April 2010 at 13:36

    This post of yours is very insightful.

  7. 9 tk 20 April 2010 at 17:35

    Good to see you back Alex.

    The large apology by the NYT/IHT to the Lee’s highlighted in the ST was hilarious. Especially considering a very similar story in the ST a little while later about the Gandhi “dynasty” in democratic India. (I wouldn’t want the Gandhis to sue me for implying “dynasty” infers nepotism, hence the quotation marks.)

    Incidetally, I wonder if the other families mentioned in the IHT article sued the IHT for damages? I wonder if the Gandhis will bring legal action against the ST? I suspect the rough and tumble of Indian politics has imbued them with rather thick skin, so probably not.

  8. 11 SN 20 April 2010 at 21:20

    “A few days ago, at a private forum, an important point about Singapore was made by Tian Chua, a Malaysian opposition politician, and Larry Diamond, a leading contemporary scholar in the field of democracy studies and Professor of Sociology and Political Science at Stanford University. It was that Singapore’s political system was just one economic crisis away from collapse.”

    Dear Alex,

    I agree that the PAP justifies its authoritarian rule on the basis of performance legitimacy, but wouldn’t the prognosis offered by Chua and Diamond apply regardless whether the political system in question is democratic or otherwise?



    • 12 yawningbread 20 April 2010 at 22:06

      SN – governments formed through an open and competitive system draw legitimacy from the the basis of democratic representation. When a serious economic crisis hits, the voters may well want to throw out the incompetents who form the incumbent government, but rarely do they upturn the entire democratic political system.
      It is important to make the distinction between the government and the political system.
      In Singapore’s case (like Indonesia under Suharto), the system is designed to preserve one government in power. To unseat the government, you actually have to unseat a good part of the entire political system, leaving a very unstable vacuum in its place. Consider, for example, the day when Singaporeans are so fed up they get rid of the PAP, and put in a new government. Would the new government be able to trust the existing senior staff of the civil service? Would they trust the senior judges? The senior police officers? Newspaper editors? To rule effectively, many of these may have to be purged, the rules changed, laws and constitution rewritten…but that will mean a very contentious debate about what new system should take its place. Just like in Thailand today, such a debate can get violent as tempers rise, and can be very damaging to the very stability of the state.
      A liberal democratic system has one great strength. It allows for governments to be changed without destabilising the entire political system.

      • 13 SN 20 April 2010 at 23:19

        Dear Alex,

        No doubt in a liberal democratic state there is a clear conceptual distinction between government and political system (the case of Singapore is rather ambiguous, as you have pointed out). But I would question the implication which you wish to draw, that such systems are naturally robust. (Here, the concept of “fragile democracy” comes to mind).

        The point I want to make is that Singaporean society being what it is, my sense is that it cannot withstand a serious economic shock the effects of which would spell the death-knell of the political system in place, democratic or otherwise.



  9. 14 George 20 April 2010 at 23:01

    You said it Alex,

    They are already entrenched.
    We need a revolution for anything that is even remotely democratic.

    Can we hope to see that change given the status quo.

  10. 15 Robox 21 April 2010 at 00:32

    I’ve been having a eureka moment in the last two days, and this article presents an opportunity for me to present this tough-nut-to-crack from a different angle, not that all others are not valid.

    Whether, it is the “right to rule” on delivering economic progress, not on winning elections fair and square, or about being the “best man for the job” or “moral right” per Confucian concepts, it points back to something that I am now calling the culture of “elite entitlement”

    Before I go on, I will say that I use the word “elite” very sparingly; the individuals from the artificial elite/s, which includes the PAP themselves, that the PAP deliberately puts in place do not possess the qualities that qualifies them as elite.

    Indeed, their only role appears to be the flipside of elite entitlement, which is to act as a predatory force on the non-elites by dis-entitling them.

    Elite entitlement is also the reason to justify so many other things, that of course flow from “the right to rule” because it is a “moral right” and reward for “being the best man for the job”:

    1. the astronomically high incomes – I will follow up with another post that might illustrate this particular point more vividly;

    2. blind respect and obedience to their authority;

    3. an inordinately high, and unhealthy, degree of reverentiality towards them; normal levels of civility towards an “elite” would be interpreted as confrontational. (I happen to believe that this is a barrier to effecticve communication, and anathema to free speech.)

    I am sure you and your readers could come up with more examples of how elite entitlement manifests itself.

    Funny, isn’t it? When it is these same people who charge disadvantaged groups with an “entitlement mentality” when their members asked to be given their rightful dues?

  11. 16 Robox 21 April 2010 at 00:46

    PART 1

    Specifically on the PAP’s elite entitlement to out-of-this-world incomes, they started out justifying it on the basis that it will prevent corruption. I responded by making many stinging online attacks against it charging that ‘the PAP must only attract the easily-corruptible’. They started changing their tune almost immediately after that; it’s now “elite entitlement”.

    I start out with this quote by Lee Hsien Loong from the same Charlie Rose interview:


    “Our attitude is: you must pay for the quality of the person you want, and pay for the responsibility of the job which you want the person to do,” he explained.”And what can be more responsible than running a central bank or running an economy or running an education system, where you’re not only dealing with billions of dollars but where you make a mistake, the livelihoods and the futures of millions of people will be at stake.”You want the best person and you want him to be properly motivated and focused on his job and not based on a revolving door.”


    “Productive capacity”, the attributes needed for productivity by both individuals in a work environment as well as the ability of that environment to enable those individuals, is a topic of both personal and and professional interest for me. When I use those criteria in it to make the assessment of the PAP’s productive capacity, there is only one conclusion that I draw; they are hardly fit to rule, much less being the best people to do it.

    So much has already been written about the quality of their performance, so I will not elaborate on this aspect further.

  12. 17 Robox 21 April 2010 at 00:56

    PART 2

    After having the “prevent-corruption” crutch pulled out from under them, they went on to what is really the “economic rent” justification for their incomes.

    “Economic rent” – os opposed to incomes determined by market forces – would be what you pay to the rare few like baseball and (American) football players, and some celebrities. Even someone like the late newsanchor Barbara Frum was earning economic rent. (Yes, the levels that economic rent get even further skewed in a highly capitalist environment; score one down for the PAP.)

    In all cases where the income is really economic rent, it is paid out on the basis that:

    1. The person being paid economic rent is deserving of it because his/her talents – usually the result of natural attributes, and training and/or education – were further honed by widespread and highly intense competition involving large numbers of people.

    2. That the result of that competition was rare, exceptional and often irreplaceable talent; and,

    3. That not paying economic rent will result in a lowering in profitably greater than that of paying the difference between economic rent and an income at market rate. (If I’m not wrong, Barbara Frum was employed by ABC and not paying her the amount she earned would have resulted in loss of revenue to ABC greater than her income because of the ratings and thus advertising revenue her shows generated.)

    Is any of the above true of either the situation in Singapore or PAP MPs and backbenchers?

    Let’s see:

    1. The PAP has completely disabled any political competition through brutal means.

    2. They don’t know their jobs and have a very low productive capacity for them.

    3. They can all take sick leave for the next year, and the people who are truly doing the work of keeping the country running – the civil service – will still ensure that the country runs. There will just be no public face to policy and no change in vision or policy direction for the next year. My point: most of the work is not done by them, and neither are they the true experts because the top echelon of the bureaucracy andother policy experts like academics and local and foreign consultants will still be responsible for it. Continued profitability is assured.

    This brings us to the fundamental problem with the question of ministerial income. Can you use market- and corporate-based arguments for the determination of income in the public sector where profit is not the motive?

    When people are attracted to a job because of the income, the ideals of public service become very easily corrupted; they would be in public service not because of the desire to be of service to the people but for self interest.

    Now, why I am getting a sense of deja vu?

  13. 18 Robox 21 April 2010 at 07:22

    There is blogger by the name of Carlos Abdullah who very recently termed Singapore’s a “hoax democracy”

    I think it is very apt.

  14. 19 Kenneth 21 April 2010 at 13:29

    I agree with Ben, the point is valid and not pedantic.

    First, the question was about nepotism, which could blight non-democratic institutions. Hence PM’s mention of his wife. I say this without prejudice as to her actual performance.

    Second, you cannot argue that, just because it is known who would become PM when a particular party is voted into power does not mean that people who vote for any politician in the party are voting for the PM. Voters could well be voting for the party because they 1) agree with the party’s policies, 2) are impressed with the governing record of the party, 3) like their MP despite their dislike and disrespect for the PM. It is entirely correct to say that the PM is the best person for the job as chosen by the party that forms the elected government, but incorrect to say that PM is elected (other than as an MP).

    I do not think that the question on nepotism was intended to imply that undue influence could be exercised over an entire voting population based on family ties. Rather, it referred to undue influence over a select group of decision-makers or unfair considerations based on family ties. The answer was thus more to the point of the question. In fact, I would have regarded a reference to having been democratically elected as evasive.

  15. 20 Andrew Tang 22 April 2010 at 10:13

    To even have to refer to moral right and ‘best son for the job’ is all very laughable indeed.

    Confucius would roll his eyes if he knew that educated thugs which are essentially anti-gentlemen, are using his rhetoric on the right to rule. For a bunch of money grubs, they don’t even know that public service is an honour not a pecuniary reward for fixing opposition. Using your power to run down the national treasury is nothing new; past emperors and despots have done it to more spectacular effect and ulitmately ruinous. Why do you think our forebears had to leave The Great Ching Empire or The Imperial Moghul Rule.

    Turning to modern notes on leadership, the person essentialy must have moral intergrity and political suave. Unfortunately, these two qualities are lost on some people who have been proven totally inept in public debate and end up uglier for the record.

    Given a combination of these many defects, what is worrying is that like past emperors who wish to be remembered for eternity, they create a hiatus before pulling the whole society down to make their era look golden. To do so, they either bury a sizable population with them or make life difficult for existence after their departure. These rulers believe that most of their subjects were imbeciles anyway.

    Seems like we’re heading that way.

  16. 21 DT 22 April 2010 at 21:25

    Alex, you bring up a point which i have been thinking about for a long time now. Do you think that the PAP has damaged the machinery of this country beyond repair?

    You mentioned in a comment above that if one day we did decide that we’re fed up with the MIW and decide to kick them out, we’d prob have to overhaul the whole political system and swap out a large portion of the upper echelons of the civil service, media, police force and judiciary to really effect change.

    Looking at the Red Shirts really makes me wonder how they can arouse the passion of such hordes over a single ideal. Our emasculated electorate can’t even vote out a GRC team in civil elections!

    I think we’re doomed.

  17. 22 Thank You One & All 5 May 2010 at 12:33

    This is one of the most educated forum site I’ve had the pleasure of reading and learning some more too.

    Indeed as “yawningbread” thanked “tk”, tk made a very good point in summary of the “nepotism” and “dynasty” elements here. And from all the other comments that followed, they set me thing even more.

    Like why did Dr. H Kissinger so highly praised LKY at the APEC Meeting here last year and again after he return? Wasn’t this Jewish guy was R Nixon’s Secretary 0f State? And he convinced Washington not to keep up with their embargo on China. As it will make China and US go into a lose-lose tit-for-tat not good for all.

    This Jew all also brokered with the Saudi Royal family to trade they crude oil only in US$. And US made money with the NY and then London “Oil Exchanges” that followed. Fort Knox was “dismantled” with US$ then floated as Nixon announced then.

    Yet, not many know of China as having ‘most” of the world’s gold then. Remember the Wealthy Mainland Chinese and government used to Gold “Currencies” literally in gold sheets! Must have been tons of them. heard that again with Kissinger being instrumental, a large part of that went to a now hidden Fort Knox. About half? And as “a deal” for US-China trade for the latter’s opening up to world markets. He of course knew of the “cheap” labor in enormous numbers in the mainland. Then Deng Xiao Peng came into the seen. The rest is history.

    So why did this very “smart” Jewish guy hold LKY in such high regards internationally? Especially when his “must” know too of LKY’s lapses as discussed here which are in “vast” contrasts and contradictions to America’s Political, Cultural and Ethos? Is it just about “economy” growth in a “natural resource” lack in a tinny island? Is or isn’t Henry Kissinger missing something here? As all said and done here in this forum, is Henry really so “daft” about them? As didn’t Obama not only arrived here for APEC at the last minute on Saturday and even left it to an official junior to Hillary Clinto to make a speech on his behalf? Political manoeuvre or political snub?

    And “Robox”, thank you for your insightful comments.

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