While the People’s Action Party (PAP) could probably live with not winning back Hougang from the Workers’ Party in the by-election held last Saturday, the most worrying consequence of that defeat would be its effect on the party’s ability to recruit new candidates for the next general election, due in 2016.
The shock loss of Aljunied group representation constituency in 2011 was already a seismic event. It signalled to anyone whom the PAP may approach that being chosen as a candidate is no guarantee of easy passage into parliament. For decades, smooth sailing could be taken for granted as, except for single-member wards Potong Pasir and Hougang, the PAP could coast to victory everywhere else. The loss of Aljunied had signalled that even group representation constituencies were not safe seats.
Now, not only are seats being lost to the opposition, regaining them is no easy matter. In the 2011 general election, the PAP’s Sitoh Yih Pin only managed to squeak past Lina Chiam in Potong Pasir after opposition stalwart Chiam See Tong had suffered a stroke and decided to contest Bishan-Toa Payoh rather than defend his old seat.
The PAP’s defeat in Hougang with hardly a budge in vote share only underlines the fact that electoral calculations have now changed irrevocably.
Potential candidates approached by the PAP will be asking themselves whether the investment the party expects of them – in time, energy, loss of privacy, suffering possible attacks in new media – will pay off. What if the party places them in Aljunied or Hougang at the next election? Or some other constituency that suddenly becomes a hard fight, such as East Coast or Tanjong Pagar?
Hard search for talent
Already, the party appears to be having trouble getting talent for its future leadership.
Just prior to the 2011 general election, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (also Secretary-General of the PAP) said Singaporeans could expect the next prime minister (i.e. his eventual successor) to come from the batch of new candidates the party was presenting. His reasoning was that that person would be in his forties in 2011, and after about ten years serving in the cabinet would be in his fifties. By then (2021), Lee would be nudging 70 years of age and should be retiring.
It sounded neat, though one is immediately struck by (a) the conceit that Lee and the PAP feels it’s a matter they control, and (b) the smooth conveyor-belt model he assumed.
It’s instructive to look at what then happened. Only four new candidates presented in 2011 made it to at least junior minister positions. They were Heng Swee Kiat (born 1961) who was made Minister for Education; Chan Chun Sing (born 1969) made Acting Minister for Community, Youth and Sports; Tan Chuan-Jin (1969), Minister of State for National Development and Manpower; and Lawrence Wong (1972) Minister of State for Defence and Education.
Even if the two ministers of state make it to full minister in a short time, the pace of renewal is still slow. There are 14 ministries even if we exclude the totally useless one (the “minister without portfolio” whose job is to hold the leash on trade unions). Four new faces at each general election means it will take 3.5 general election cycles (about 17.5 years) to refresh the cabinet entirely.
Having cabinet ministers stay for an average of 17.5 years is more a liability than asset. It’s easy to point to the value of experience, but this is likely outweighed by the human tendency to get highly defensive about one’s record and past decisions. What we will have is a government that is resistant to change. It will not even admit to errors, because it is they who would be responsible for those errors in the first place.
With recruitment of new blood getting harder, this trend may get worse.
More than numbers, the type of talent
Beyond the underwhelmingly few new faces inducted after the 2011 general election, there is also the question of quality, or the type of ‘talent’ being inducted. For example, a few persons who attended a recent closed-door dialogue session with Chan Chun Sing told me they didn’t come away with a good impression of the man. While I shan’t go into the specifics of what I was told, it was entirely in keeping with what I expected.
Chan is one of two new appointees coming from the military; the other being Tan Chuan-Jin. A military background brings dangers. The military indoctrinates its men and staffers with a certain perspective – that of Singapore being a highly vulnerable country always under siege. The credo leans towards survival of the fittest, and softness tends to be equated with weakness and rot.
In an increasingly complex domestic and international landscape, such instincts can be self-defeating. This is not to say that people can’t unlearn what they have been taught, or that either or both of these men do not have the capacity and intellectual qualities to surmount their backgrounds, but at this point, the best we can say is: We haven’t seen any sign yet.
Lawrence Wong and Heng Swee Kiat come from civil service backgrounds. I have not met them in person, nor have I followed closely their careers. But generally speaking, civil service backgrounds can have potential. I have met many senior civil servants who genuinely do understand the issues and hold dissenting views of existing policies. But I have also noticed – again generally speaking – a timidity in pushing their own ideas forward. I reckon the civil service culture in Singapore over-emphasises collegiality and harmony. It’s not a culture that values leaders and change-makers. The minority who have these qualities will quickly become frustrated and leave.
Quitters, however, would be considered to lack the right team-player attitude, and will very unlikely be chosen by the PAP as election candidates.
What then after Hsien Loong?
What if none of these four prove themselves able to command the respect of their peers and win the confidence of Singaporeans? How will Lee Hsien Loong’s succession plan play out?
If they still insist on choosing an unsuitable leader from among the four, then either the PAP will suffer electorally, or Singapore will suffer from incompetence.
However, I can also see an alternative scenario: some other PAP cabinet minister, not from the 2011 cohort, saying: Why should the next leader be picked only from that cohort? Why not me? A messy intra-party succession struggle may well erupt. And that will be the moment when politics in Singapore takes another step to normality.