Most of the comments I see on blogs and social media about the sudden resignation of PAP member of parliament David Ong have a tinge of schadenfreude. “Karma’s a bitch” is a popular phrase. It points out how the People’s Action Party’s 2012 hounding of the Workers’ Party for its then-MP Yaw Shin Leong’s extra-marital affair has boomeranged on themselves, not once but twice. In 2013, the PAP’s Michael Palmer fell from grace for the same reason, and now it is the turn of their MP for Bukit Batok, David Ong.
Obviously, having made an issue of marital fidelity over Yaw, the PAP cannot possibly paper over any similar behaviour among its own MPs. But as was pointed out in the blog Alvinology, the law of probability should have forewarned the PAP that since they have far more MPs than the Workers’ Party, they will suffer many more instances of such embarrassment.
Party leader and prime minister Lee Hsien Loong wants his MPs to be whiter than white. Given these precedents, it is now impossible for anyone in the party to be even a wee bit free-spirited in matters of the heart.
Schadenfreude is always enjoyable, but there is a more serious downside to this nonsense of trying to be whiter than white. Once again, it is an example of the PAP prioritising short-term tactics, leading them to make bad long-term choices. I don’t much care if this bad habit leads them to destroy the party. But the same myopic style often leads to bad choices for Singapore as a whole.
Let me elaborate.
Firstly, we should bear in mind that cheating is pretty common behaviour. Almost exactly a year ago, there was an article in the Independent (UK) that said “Although studies vary, research has shown that almost 60 percent of men and over 45 percent of women will cheat at some point in their marriages.”
If this kind of ratio applies in Singapore — and I see no reason why not — then it means that we will disqualify about half the population from serving in politics. And not just in the PAP. Opposition parties, afraid of being made an easy target by the bigger ruling party, will naturally want to avoid nominating candidates who have tainted histories. Adopted as an unspoken rule, this seriously reduces the talent pool from which we pick potential leaders. It’s as bad and senseless as saying that only those whose heights are above the mean can stand for election; the half of the population who are short can count themselves out.
Leadership talent is not likely to correlate with marital fidelity; my guess is that they are totally independent variables. Sifting out half the population on the latter measure will mean sifting out half the talent on the former.
However, no trait stands in isolation. Traits often are associated with some other traits. There will be certain personality traits that are likely to be correlated with marital fidelity, even if leadership talent, as argued above, is not one of them. The selection process engendered by the “whiter than white” standard would therefore mean that Singapore will be selecting for these associated traits in our politics.
I’ll make a guess what these associated traits are.
Top of mind: placing great store in convention and conformity. Except for a lucky few who have found perfect partners, staying faithful in marriage is hard work. The PAP may say that therefore it is a good thing that they select as MPs individuals who are capable of self-discipline and hard work. But self-discipline and hard work are also choices we make. To which ends do we impose self-discipline and hard work upon ourselves? Every one of us is capable of these attributes, but each one of us choose slightly different goals to which to apply such labours.
If a person values convention and conformity, it is worthwhile to put self-discipline and hard work into them. If a person does not value these, why bother?
So, in creating a strong, nay exclusive, bias in favour of the maritally faithful, our political class becomes populated with people whose instincts and values are strongly in a conservative direction. Change, experimentation, innovation, and the celebration and acceptance of difference are harder for them to appreciate.
Between a valorising of convention and conformity, and a tendency to see themselves as representing the morally superior, we already see one simple outcome: a policy bias against single parents, with unjust effects on their children. Need I say more?
There is a second associated trait I’d be wary of. It springs from the way marital fidelity is cast as moral virtue. This is not to say it isn’t; deceiving and hurting one’s partner and children is nothing to be proud of. But there is a difference between doing right (or not doing wrong) and feeling egoistically virtuous for doing so. In our culture today, it is very hard to separate the two on this front. There is a strong tendency, reinforced by religious (and now, political) rhetoric to shine a halo on the maritally faithful.
Therein lies a danger: if we select MPs exclusively from this crowd, there will be a tendency too for them to see themselves as morally superior to others. Once on this slippery slope, it’s a short slide to seeing themselves as superior in other ways: We know better. We have the right answers. You should respect us for what we are (not what we do). Obey. We deserve a better standard of living. And higher salaries.