Time for term limits

This August (2014), Lee Hsien Loong will have served ten lacklustre years as prime minister. Enough. Even undemocratic China has instituted a ten-year rule for the top posts in both the party and the cabinet.

In all areas of life, creative destruction makes regeneration and revitalisation possible. In Singapore’s politics, this cannot happen if people stay too long in their offices getting ever more defensive about their record and unwilling to admit that past decisions were wrong and therefore need changing.

The ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) may counter by saying that they regularly refresh the cabinet with new blood. But here are the facts:


As you can see from the table above, the average length of time a minister has been in his job is over nine years. Lee himself has 28 years of decisions to worry losing face over. Others, like Teo Chee Hean (right) and Lim Hng Khiang, have been around for about twenty years. For a small country that needs to be nimble and at the cutting edge, this sclerotic state of the cabinet is a recipe for failure.

pic_201403_24It also explains why the “out of touch” criticism has currency. Paid ridiculously high salaries and isolated behind security men, their last memory of “average” Singapore life is a decade or more ago. That is provided they grew up in average families. If they didn’t, e.g. Teo Chee Hean, son of a rich banker, Grace Fu, daughter of a the Press Secretary to Lee Kuan Yew, or Lee Hsien Loong, the son of Singapore’s fiery demigod, they probably never knew average life.

Trouble is compounded by the way people rise in the PAP to become ministers. Absent internal democracy, the party has an opaque selection process where the “elders” choose their successors. They may claim, and perhaps even delude themselves, that they are objective, but anyone with the slightest inkling of human psychology will suspect that the process filters out anyone that is uncomfortably different from those who do the filtering. They may be looking for management expertise, but they are also, subconsciously or otherwise, looking for similar belief systems.

So not only is the average of nine years way more than the in most other developed countries, it is worse because of the closed nature of the promotion process.

I think we need to institute a rule that

  • no one shall serve more than 12 years in total, continuously or discontinuously, as a cabinet minister;
  • no one shall serve more than 8 years continuously as a cabinet minister — and that includes as prime minister.

[Update 17 March 2014: On second thoughts, maybe we can add eight more years for those who make it to prime minister or deputy prime minister]

* * * * *

Related to this the call by Workers’Party leader Low Thia Khiang for Singapore to institute a thirty-year rule for the release of cabinet papers into the public domain.

… in many democratic countries with advanced social and economic development, they have what has been famously termed, the “thirty-year rule”, whereby yearly Cabinet Papers are released for public information and research, thirty years after they are created. In fact, the United Kingdom is now moving towards a twenty-year rule. In Israel, the thirty-year rule is subject to state security and foreign policy sensitivities. Mdm Chair, I am sure we are in a better position than Israel in these respects.

The principles behind the thirty-year rule, not only concern transparency and accountability to maintain public trust in the government, but also in encouraging historical investigation and writing, to foster a strong sense of national identity.

— Low Thia Khiang, Parliamentary debate (Committee of Supply), 10 March 2014

This must be a scary idea for the PAP cabinet, especially Lee Hsien Loong. It won’t be long, for example, before it’s been 30 years since the arrests and detention without trial of the so-called “Marxist conspirators” in 1987. It is an episode now widely believed to be an abuse of power by the government of the day. Lee was a cabinet minister then. Wouldn’t we like to see what contributions he made to the decision?

Also, what kind of debate occurred in cabinet in the 1980s prior to the implementation of the Group Representation Constituency scheme that has distorted our democracy so much since?

Of course, the PAP government rejected Low’s proposal, but look carefully and you’ll see how weak their argument was. That didn’t stop our lapdog mainstream media from leading the story with the rejection. In typical Straits Times journalistic style, the PAP’s position is given the headline and the opening of the story; only if you read on, do you get to the opposition member’s question. Its placement tells you it is treated as mere background context to better understand why PAP pronounced the “truth” as it did.

As archived on AsiaOne, here is the Straits Times’ story:


Lawrence Wong firstly relies on the “good governance” test as if it were some uncontroversial litmus test when few people can agree on what exactly constitutes good governance. In any case, it is not assured that the PAP has delivered good governance and will pass the test, especially as good governance can be said to include transparency, accountability, democratic resilience and solid pillars of rights, including the right to information. It is precisely in support of these elements that cabinet papers should be released within a reasonable time frame.

Secondly, saying that knowledge that papers will be released in time will cause civil servants to avoid putting thoughts on paper doesn’t gel with reality. In a bureaucratic age with a vast state machinery, you cannot avoid communicating by writing. Even if a few things are carefully left out, a release of masses of evidence will allow investigators to piece together the missing nuggets from references made in other papers.

It’s time for both: term limits and a 30-year rule for the release of cabinet papers.

37 Responses to “Time for term limits”

  1. 1 Jog on mate 16 March 2014 at 15:04

    Oh no, term limits are an invention of the West, Singapore is an Asian society with special needs and thus require political stability instead of the chaos of a frequently changing leadership that term limits bring.

    In fact, the ideal Asian style of leadership is that which has the longevity of the Vatican’s Pope (stay in office until you die) and the father-to-son style of succession: Refer to: LKY to LHL, Kim Jong Il to Kim Jong Un, Rama IX to Rama X, Henry VII to Henry VIII, Cao Cao to Cao Pi. Lengthy terms and familial continuation will ensure that things get done.

    • 2 Marcus 16 March 2014 at 16:30

      I think it is also quite Asian that the son will bring down whatever the father has painstakingly built.

    • 3 Duh 16 March 2014 at 19:55

      Your examples are quite interesting and doesn’t support your point –

      (i) N Korea isn’t exactly a bustling economy and has numerous economic sanctions because of their violation of human rights.

      (ii) Egyptian empire was finally conquered by the Romans and their glorious past are now tourist attractions and academic investigative sites.

      (iii) UK has succumbed to a democratic rule with changing political dominance.

      (iv) Cao Cao was in a part of China’s history known as the Warring States – hardly a period of political stability as you would had put it. Is the Chinese dynasty still present in China now? Now, we know the answer to that one…

      Try harder…

    • 5 Alan 17 March 2014 at 15:49

      We are neither a communist country nor one based on nepotism like North Korea, so term limits cannot apply. Afterall we are still a conservative country, so it is better for Singapore that LHL continue as PM as long as he wants until he is too old to govern just like his father. Anyway our Ministers & MPs are paid handsomely to make them happy enough to keep their mouths quiet.

      If anyhow change PM, Singapore will collapse. I think.

    • 6 Steve 17 March 2014 at 19:52

      Bet most who read your post can’t sense the sarcasm in your tone! 🙂

  2. 7 yuen 16 March 2014 at 15:54

    isnt it simpler to have an age limit? for judges and lawyers, it is 80; you can argue for a lower limit for MPs, since they have constituency and campaign work that require greater physical efforts; in addition, a stringent medical checkup might also be required

  3. 8 Marcus 16 March 2014 at 16:16

    What? If civil servants do not put their thoughts in paper, do they rely on word of mouth? Doesn’t make sense. If my boss tells me to do something, I better write it down in case he changes his mind in the future, wasted my time and then end up accusing me for being unproductive.

    It is only people at the top who does things like this to avoid accountability. Ask Khong Hee how he does it. He is in the same league as some of those PAP MPs who does things like he does. And look, the parliament has even do away with attendance record. What more with the tinkering off our unemployment figures and the Gini coefficient. This government is devoid of integrity and honesty.

    You would be hard up to get the truth. I would vote a dog any time if it is between a dog and a PAP MP. At least the dog would not do things to put its own interest above the nation.

  4. 9 Marine Parade Lobster 16 March 2014 at 21:42

    Just to fill in the (?). S Iswaran is Second Minister for Home Affairs and Trade and Industry, Grace Fu is Second Minister for Foreign Affairs and Enviroment and Water Resource. Also Chan Chun Sing is Second Minister for Defence.

    • 10 yawningbread 17 March 2014 at 00:07

      Yes, I should have footnoted that I left out the “second minister of….” parts for reasons of space. And also because the portfolios didn’t matter. The table was meant to show the number of years in cabinet regardless of portfolios.

  5. 11 Anon BDsW 16 March 2014 at 22:09

    It will be pointed out that office holders are subject to re-election every 5 years. In a willing-seller / willing-buyer situation, imposing term limits may potentially go against the wishes of the voters, and this is sooo… “against the principles of democracy”.

    But even then – if one still can’t hack it after 28 years, voters probably have no better choice but to… accept lah.

  6. 12 Singapore Son 16 March 2014 at 22:37

    Agreed one zillion percent. Just look at the numerous flawed policies dished out by the present cabinet, the whole lot of useless morons should be fired. Low Thia Kiang made an astute observation. Sg has gone from 3rd to 1st world and then back to 3rd world in one generation. LHL and his cabinet of dummies shall be remembered as Sg’s worst performing cabinet. The biggest irony is that LHL and his clowns are the highest paid ministers in the history of mankind. Uniquely Singapore!

  7. 13 Rabbit 17 March 2014 at 03:08

    Which means LHL will be giving his 10th National Day rally speech soon. Recap all his 9 speeches, with sound and fiery, talking almost the same motherhood (with digital photos to match) every year. 10 years on, have our poor folks getting any better than 10 years ago or has Singaporeans’ life became worse with every passing years under the same govt?

    I am not optimistic that Singaporeans life have improved. It could get worse looking foward – cost will escalate, SMRT breakdowns will become a norm, workers’ salary will remain low as clamoured by pro-employer NTUC, productivity is alien, petty politics, divisive society, broken down infrastructures, Housing policies will still be messy, laws still need improvements to ensure equality and fairness, the same ST editors will still be praising this govt and attacking opposing voices.

    10 years ago, the so-called promised Swiss standard of living has turned out to be “rojak” today, and it gives me goosebumps everytime we were reminded of such empty promises. The “G” has indeed overstayed their power and lost foresight and its moral compass. We need a new freshener to wash away the old stench to prevent maggots from thriving, metaphorically speaking.

  8. 14 Hawking Eye 17 March 2014 at 09:28

    There is bucketful of State-made diktats which one can argue as going all “against the principles of democracy” for example the GRC system, Compulsory National Service, Elite schools, Racial quotas in public housing etc. So why should setting term limits for PM and Ministers holding office be considered undemocratic? People only elect a Party to power. It is the Party that elects the PM and the Ministers. It is the Party again that provides the changing leadership.Term limits which compels infusion of new blood, new faces with new mind-sets to tackle national issues and policies will be good for the Nation as well as the Party.

  9. 15 ;Annonymous 17 March 2014 at 10:01

    Note the way they always frame the issues- black or white. How does the release of Cabinet papers lead to bad governance? This sort of argument is so juvenile that we wonder at the quality of these highly touted mandarins. Read the Acknowledgements to LKY’s The Singapore story in which he thanked his successor GCT for allowing him access to government papers and the British Public Record Office at Kew for Colonial Office and Commonwealth Office documents.Undoubtedly these papers reveal the “Singapore Story”. Lately, the same records at Kew reveal the truth about the actions and intention of LKY from 1955 to 1963 and the reasons behind Operation Cold Store. In my opinion, the very prospect of the truth being revealed will act as a check on the probity of office holders. Coing to the point of term limits, The drafters of the American Constitution limited the President’s term to 4 years because of the recognition of the failing of human nature – the desire to entrench wealth and power, leading to absolute power. This is recognised in our society in the limiting of the term for auditors. The egregious desire of LKY’s to “play for keeps”(to quote him) should never be tolerated.

  10. 16 Logic you lack. 17 March 2014 at 10:03

    The length of time the current party has been in power can be a testament to the recognition given by the majority. *”Current” and “Majority” means that it is open to change.

    Further, being in office for a long time does not equate to sub-par performance. You are just grasping at straws here.

    What you are proposing might result in a game of pseudo-musical chairs instead of having a competent government keep their eye on the ball. Which, in my opinion, is way more important than the length of time they are in office.

    Admittedly, if they are shit, vote them out. No two ways about it. If however, they are better than the next best alternative, keep them in – for as long as this stays true.

    • 17 yawningbread 17 March 2014 at 11:47

      You’re assuming that there is an effective democracy where people can just vote them out. You’re assuming that the system does not hinder alternatives from stepping forward, so that people have a real choice. In Singapore’s context, relying on the argument that they won the endorsement of voters at elections (and therefore should be serving for as long as they win their “properly organised” elections), is therefore suspect.

      You’re also ignoring the fact that even countries with effective democracy, e.g. France, South Korea, have term limits. So, just saying that people can “vote them out” is not a sufficient argument against term limits.

      • 18 ;Annonymous 17 March 2014 at 13:56

        You are absolutely correct in pointing this out. The GRCs. the politicised PA,NEA, and other state organs and other groups like CCCs, RCs and the fear of god being driven into dissenters, etc, do not make for a real democracy.

      • 19 Logic you lack. 17 March 2014 at 21:56

        Are you then prepared to accept a system without term limits IF there is an effective democracy and that the system does not hinder alternatives from stepping forward?

      • 20 ;Annonymous 19 March 2014 at 18:49

        Logic you lack – This is precisely the kind of logic you and others like you display. The thesis is that even in an effective democracy you need term limits as in the US Constitution to prevent it from being hijacked and to ensure the continuance of effective democracy.

    • 21 Sam 17 March 2014 at 14:00

      The length of time the current party has been in power has been used to make the playing field more and more against those who wish to challenge them and to make the population docile. The impact of internet and social media caught the current party by surprise. I am wondering how long it will be before they close this window as well. I intend to enjoy the fresh air while it lasts.

  11. 22 Dy 17 March 2014 at 12:22

    Alex, what about MP’s term. Is there a similar argument to be had for MPs?

  12. 23 malu 17 March 2014 at 12:36

    If u have MP hijacking the MP post without being physically around and getting paid while some of their fellow consitituents who are aged still having to struggle and limp around to collect plates clean after tables, pushing carts to collect cardboards tells much about the G promised Swiss standard of Living – depressed wages, non existent subsidies for healthcare (u die your business), increased costs – while suffering from frequent breakdowns in transport, higher property taxes, utilities, medical, beer, food prices. All the empty promises would make the chicken posterior fart looks pathetic compared to his empty farts . Definitely need a change.

  13. 24 Richard Lee 17 March 2014 at 14:13

    This is absolute nonsense Mr. Au!

    I refer you to DPM Teo (who hopes to marry into the HoLee Family) on 28jun12.

    “Third, there should be a system of succession that can take the country forward beyond one or two generations.”

    Besides 28 yrs is hardly enough time to accumulate sufficient Dignity for a minister to retire to Switzerland. Witness George Yeo who has to seek work with the Vatican to make ends meet.

    .. a public service message from the Min. of Truth – working incessantly to Improve History.

  14. 25 Jake 17 March 2014 at 21:00

    Rulers in imperialist systems tend to become complacent and lazy after a long period of rule. Most recently in China, the Qing emperors Kangxi and Qianlong. Both ruled for over 60 yrs and both saw highs early in their rule and declines subsequently.

  15. 26 Huang 17 March 2014 at 21:58

    Wow, 28 years. Without Daddy, would he have lasted this long or even made it to Cabinet or PM? He has said Singapore is too small to have two-party system. Think he seriously believes that to be true. Ditto Singaporeans as simply lacking talent, hence need to import. In normal countries, he would have been impeached by now for selling out his people. There will be a group of scared Singaporeans who cannot envision a Singapore without the Lees to vote him out. The onus is also on the opposition to up their game because there’s another bigger group of Singaporeans ready to cross-over but can’t seem to find an oppo. worthy to be voted in. So cronies will chug along until and unless they majorly screw up. And then people will throw caution to wind and just vote in the other side…Tan, Tom or Tamby newbies.

    • 27 Mike 18 March 2014 at 11:01

      It is a chicken and egg problem. As long as people like you don’t give them chance by voting them in, how would they ever grow and be strong and ready to be government? The PAP would continue to find ways and means to suppress them, be it the media or grassroots or using various ministries. And they will continue to be weak and you will continue to not vote for them based on this excuse. See the fallacy of your stupid logic?

  16. 28 Huang 17 March 2014 at 22:04

    28 years as super rich civil servant. Can someone calculate how much his take home pay is all these years? And what does he do with his incredible wealth??

    • 29 yuen 18 March 2014 at 04:49

      at a guess, 50M; of course, a top corporate CEO gets that in a year, including some companies that are not profitable; the shareholders of those companies react in much the same way as many singaporeans

      also, to get those jobs, it too helps to have connections

    • 30 Gong Chan 18 March 2014 at 08:14

      Well Huang, FYI they are free to do whatever they like with their wealth. One thing is for certain though, the MAJORITY of them DAMNED WHITES will BURN in Hell! That is for certain!

  17. 31 Taufik 18 March 2014 at 09:06

    Why aren’t Singaporeans outraged by this? A good chunk employed by government and live well, the rest tied to government via property and don’t rock the boat, the rest? Singaporeans see Lees as the GOOD GUYS, they work hard, put Singapore on the world map, and it just can’t be that they are doing this at the expense of the people. After all, everything they do is for Singapore, Singapore’s best interest but never for them, right? When will Singaporeans wake up and see the light?

  18. 32 Ayodya 18 March 2014 at 09:44

    Ridiculous justification from Lawrence Wong. I think many of these MPs and Ministers would collapse from an aneurysm if exposed to the cut and thrust of real parliamentary debate and a free and questioning press. An embarrassingly molly-coddled lot. The cognitive dissonance that arises from having to practice double-speak on a daily basis must surely erode the reasoning faculties of anyone after a couple of years.

  19. 33 patriot 18 March 2014 at 09:52

    If they pay themselves and work for their remunerations, well and good or at least fair and justifiable.
    Events and developments over the Last Two Decades or So showed their pathetic performances. The Losses in By-election and the razor thin capture of the Presidency were self evident of their incompetencies.
    They should also know that those Ex-military Generals they placed in the Cabinet have been dis-enchanting most citizens.

    Personally, me feels the Rulers care not what the People think of them and how the People live. They preach their Sermons like telling bull and cock stories. They could not be bothered whether they had irked students, cursed and swore by coffeeshop patrons and badly denounced by netizens.

    They have hides that no spur can penetrate and this simply does not augur well for Singapore. For it means many of the Top Men and Women In White do not care much about their own competency,
    respectability and integrity.


  20. 34 Hawking Eye 18 March 2014 at 18:49

    If a PM (or longstanding Minister) at present times opposes limitation of office terms to two or three election cycles and at the same breath opposes declaration of personal and immediate family member assets, I would say something really smells fishy.

    In the US, Indonesia, India and many other countries those eying for topmost posts declare their income and assets. Why not Singapore? The simple reason perhaps could be that some of the leaders could have accumulated staggering assets legitimately so it may be that revealing it could embarrass them, offend the general public and pave the way for their political demise. But it may not be so in fact with their asset worth being humble enough. But suspicion and perception can override reality. I am sure that new Ministers like Heng Swee Keat, Liu Tuck Yew, Tan Chuan Jin and Lawrence Wong, all having been in civil or military service with normal pay and no wealth to show, will be more than happy to declare their assets to the public thereby register a political point. But the system does not allow it. Older Ministers say they hold the guillotine to safeguard the privacy of Ministers as without that newcomers will be put off from entering politics. The reality is that if new Ministers were to declare their assets, the older Ministers will have to too. Therein lies the problem perhaps.

    Our pioneer leaders took up politics to build the nation and to serve the people. Money never lured them. Sense of purpose, commitment and the burning desire to create a new and prosperous Singapore for the people to live a decent life did. People like Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Keng Swee, Rajaratnam and Hon Sui Sen were highly motivated and talented and yet very disciplined and frugal.

    What changed everything?

    Mao said power grows from the barrel of the gun. Today’s world is different. In capital market economies like Singapore, power grows more from power of office. Once you lose power you are dead duck. I don’t wish to elaborate but one can figure it out.

  21. 35 Saycheese 18 March 2014 at 20:29

    We know they do care about dignity and their predispositions to talk down to anybody and everybody.

  22. 36 AnT 19 March 2014 at 20:54

    It is very shameful indeed that Cambridge produced not one but two uninspiring publicly funded scholars who only return to their homeland to act like the feudal mandarins lords that many of ancestors of the local population including their own family migrated to SE Asia to escape from the oppression. Talk about being back to square one.

    And to add insult to injury, the people practically paid heavily for not two but 3 generations of their family luxurious lifestyle while the majority continue to slave on for measly wages and being told to endure foreign dangers, insults and criticisms.

  23. 37 BeeHoon Goh 22 March 2014 at 17:13

    Our Pioneering MP bypass term limit and chose Nominated MPs system as Questionings can be regarded as advice or noise. While Term Limit will act like a timed noose, limited lifespan as PM / deputy PM
    Qn is the ship has left the dock without the moral compass. Who or What or Where will the ship decides it need such a tool?
    Should the opposition comes to majority, will they pass this timed noose policy? On themselves and
    for the good of Sg future? To prevent corruption and abuse from Cabinet MPs.

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