Earlier this week, our newspapers were carpet-bombed by news from the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) annual convention. From a cursory reading of the stories, it appears that there were some introspective speeches, attempting to diagnose what went wrong for the party during the general election of May 2011. Yet, my overwhelming sense, reading the news reports, was that we’ve heard all that before. The PAP has spoken of getting closer to the ground, listening better, being more responsive ad nauseum. Their problem is that their diagnosis is too superficial, and thus their “solutions” are little better than motherhood statements.
My take on the PAP is that they are not structured to be a responsive political party; they are structured to be a ruling party. Structure limits possible outcomes; organisations cannot achieve certain goals if they are not structured for it. So it’s no use wishing for a “new” PAP without looking at the way it is organised and its hard-wired relationship with the administrative bureaucracy.
I posit in this article, four major barriers to real change:
1. A subservient relationship with the civil service
2. Members of parliament who are not fulltime at the job
3. Its cadre system and a lack of internal party democracy
4. Stonewalled by the government’s refusal to share data
As the reader will immediately observe, these are very deep-rooted issues. Changing any of these will be seen as extremely threatening to the status quo. But I will try to explain below why each is a serious impediment to real change.
But first a digression: What annoyed me most of the news stories this week — though it’s been a trend I have noticed from several months ago — is the media’s use of the word “activists” to describe the party’s members. They are not activists at all. An activist is someone who is a fervent advocate of a cause, particularly a political cause, but the word comes with connotations of being against the grain, or working to change or upset the cozy status quo. The word is also coloured by suggestions of direct and militant action.
The very attempt to appropriate this word to describe meek and faceless party members contradicts the message of soul-searching. It’s putting lipstick on a pig, avoiding honest appraisal.
I assume reporters are using this word in the stories because the party wants them to. Hence, not only does this reflect poorly on the party, it strips our media of integrity for using English in such a blatantly partisan and dishonest way.
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Subservient relationship with the civil service
In a properly functioning democracy, when a party wins an election, its leading members parachute into the ministries as new ministers, bringing with them policy directions that the party has formulated and successfully sold to voters. The minister remains a party animal. In his job, he is supported by two senior executives: a Permanent Secretary and a Political Secretary. The Permanent Secretary is the seniormost civil servant. He advises the minister on the practicality of his party’s proposals and operationalises them. The Political Secretary keeps an eye over the implementation of policies to ensure that they do not stray from promises the party made to voters. Policies should not be captured by bureaucratic interests but remain true to the political weathervane.
The above does NOT describe what actually happens in Singapore. It is actually the reverse. Today, virtually all ministers themselves came from the civil service, military, statutory boards or government-linked companies, parachuted into the PAP to be its “leaders”. The position of Political Secretary does not exist anymore (it used to, in independent Singapore’s early days). Diagramatically, our current situation is like this:
Given their origins, ministers bring with them, not ideas developed by the party (which, anyway, are perhaps non-existent) but the mindsets and priorities dear to the civil service. They quickly become defensive about their ministries’ track record and resistant to change. Unsurprisingly, the party has been hollowed out, its role seen by the over-dominant civil service as that of its public relations arm, so to speak. Party members are expected to sell to the public policies that were developed, often in grand isolation, within the civil service. Members of parliament’s (MP) meet the people sessions have become the complaints windows of the various ministries, and MPs reduced to petition writers.
This whole structure is wrong. Policies should not be developed within the bowels of the civil service, unveiled only when fully-formed and hardened against amendment. Policies should be developed in the cut and thrust of public debate and the role of the civil service is (a) to provide the needed information, e.g. costs and benefits, to inform that debate, and (b) to dutifully carry out the policies agreed out of that debate.
It’s the PAP that should be a participant in that public debate. But for the PAP to participate in a debate, it must have ideas of its own. The next three barriers make that a pipe dream.
Members of parliament who are not fulltime at the job
Developing ideas is a lot of work. Especially in politics, it requires frontline service, extensive consultation and much reading. Consultation includes working with civil society and academia, because very often it is there where the real experts in various fields, from social questions to economic alternatives, are found.
MPs who hold down fulltime jobs outside of their political responsibilities simply do not have the time for all this. What little time they have, they become petition writers for their constituents, or embarrasingly bad speechmakers at “grassroots” events.
It was interesting that at the PAP’s convention, Denise Phua was singled out as an example of a parliamentarian with ideas and a mission. She is unusual because she is involved fulltime in her area of interest: autism. And that only proves my point.
It is almost inconceivable for the PAP to dictate that its MPs must be fulltime in their political jobs; the PAP would never be able to recruit anyone if that were the case. So here is a huge barrier to the PAP becoming the kind of thinking, consultative and responsive party that its rhetoric paints.
Cadre system and a lack of internal party democracy
One of the most curious things in this age of transparency is how little Singaporeans are allowed to know about the internal workings of the PAP. What we do know is that it is structured as a Leninist party with a built-in caste system. There are members and there are cadres. In fact, in one Straits Times’ story about last weekend’s party convention, there was a passing mention that the 1,600 people who attended were cadres, suggesting that members were not welcome.
How does one become a cadre? We don’t really know. But from various other sources over the years, one has the sense that they are selected and appointed by the top leadership. Inevitably, a cognitive bias would be in operation, with top leaders tending to select those similar to themselves in personality, attitudes and priorities.
How would fresh ideas emerge from such an inbred circle? And even if one does, how will it rise up the agenda in such a pot of conventional minds?
Moreover, since cadres are chosen by the top leadership, there is the near certainty that they do not reflect ordinary citizens at all. Ideas that succeed in winning cadre approval, percolating to the top of the party agenda, may in fact be unsellable to voters at large.
Stonewalled by the government’s refusal to share data
Even if the PAP goes some way to get its MPs to spend more time on political work, even if it enhances internal democracy so that it is a less unrepresentative collection of handpicked clients, coming up with policy directions that are attractive to voters still depend on one very important factor: access to data. So long as the civil service continues to guard data and information jealously, the party will be as incapable of contesting the primacy of the civil service as other groups.
Here is where the PAP needs to find common cause with other political parties and civil society groups. It needs to fight for access to information. It needs to realise that the continued over-dominance of the civil service is detrimental to the health of the party.
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I mentioned above that the PAP is not structured to be a political party, but a ruling party. It’s a distinction rarely made in Singapore, so I should explain a bit more.
In the decades when parliamentary democracy was nascent in Britain and some European countries, there was a long tradition of what was largely referred to as “the king’s party”. These were the people in parliament who mostly saw their job as that of supporting the king’s right to rule, even in an age when parliament was gaining power. Their job was to support whatever the king wanted, and to shout down the opposition if necessary. The king’s party had a symbiotic relationship with the ministers and other administrators appointed by the monarch to carry out executive functions. They were not totally obsequious; they knew that their positions depended on delivering good governance too, but it was never quite in their nature to contest the general direction of the king’s wishes.
The test for the PAP is whether they can outgrow that.