Well, after a long absence I finally have something to say. Might be because there’s been some interesting discussion in the news. I’ve put some thought into what might be causing this.

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The PAP has a bit of an image problem that also affects recruiting. Ultimately it is known that you only really make a difference if you enter the inner circle, and you generally only enter the inner circle if you are:

  • privately successsful (increasingly rare);
  • have a uniformed services background (increasingly common);
  • or have significant public sector experience.

Whichever pathway you choose, you probably need a degree (or several) from top universities outside the financial reach of most Singaporeans.

This excludes a lot of people, and arguably the people it excludes the MOST are those that it most NEEDS.

I don’t think there’s much complaint (or understanding) about the PAP’s “high level” operations, in the sense of providing for the essentials of economic stability, military defence, a sound foreign policy, etc. It’s more the ground level stuff that kicks them in the gut.

The PAP’s problems may be broadly summed up as follows:

1) perceived lack of sympathy and/or elitism

2) an overabundance of faith in bureaucracy/procedural rules

3) an increasingly problematic moral platform, and

4) a culture of patronage.

I will explain.

1: perceived lack of sympathy and/or elitism

There are a number of reasons for this. You have the fact that they select only for one kind of success (financial/economic success).

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While some of them have come from humble beginnings, this is easy to forget when they’re now millionaires.

In some cases, it’s just bad PR. People remember Koh Poh Koon saying that he and his wife each need a car, which is jarringly out of touch with the government’s apparent interest in pushing for a car-lite Singapore. People remember Tan Chuan-jin saying that the elderly collect cardboard not for subsistence but for exercise, and they remember Khaw Boon Wan telling them to send their aged parents off to die in JB.

Part of why they remember this ties in with elitism: nobody ever says sorry for putting their foot in their mouth. Nobody demonstrates any awareness that they may have ruffled feathers or said something horribly insensitive and/or offensive. At the same time, MPs are generally quick to demand apologies from everyone else.

This feeds the overall perception that different rules apply to different people.

Part of this negative PR is also probably because a lot of MPs don’t really go that public with what they DO do for people. If the only thing you hear about people is bad, you can’t help forming a bad impression. I know it’s part of the PAP/traditional Asian ethos to do good works quietly and let your actions speak for themselves, but it’s very difficult for the party to attract people with the proposition of: “I want you to work super hard for people, and I’ll make you rich, but everyone will hate you”.

2: an overabundance of faith in bureaucracy/procedural rules

This ties in with the “never say sorry” attitude. Everything boils down to SOP and policy. Did so and so followed protocol? Then nobody did anything wrong, there’s nothing to discuss, there’s no apology or palliative measure for the public.

In a sense, this is a good thing. You don’t want to pander to public bloodlust all the time. As someone who used to work for the government, I’m glad that I had leaders willing to shield me in case I followed protocol and something bad happened anyway. You DON’T want a defensive civil service/public service that refuses to take chances for fear of public backlash.

I’m sure people want heads to roll whenever the MRT breaks down/there’s a security leak/an NS Man dies, but anyone with a lick of literacy will recall that Mme Guillotine is ALWAYS thirsty and we have a finite stock of capable leaders.

That being said, there has to be a middle ground between public seppuku and being completely blase in the face of a glaring error.

I suspect that part of this problem has to do with the difficulty of separating public from private concerns. As long as the public perceives that something is a public service, it’s the government’s fault whether the service provider is directly within the government’s (or the party’s) control or not. SMRT etc are ostensibly private companies, but because these entities tend to have close ties with the party (see “Patronage”, below), every imaginable fault eventually redounds to the PAP.

Still, it is possible to lean too heavily on procedural safeguards, especially when you do so PUBLICLY. “People followed procedure” is cold comfort to someone whose son died during a training incident.

This is probably also a PR issue.

3: an increasingly problematic moral platform

This is a political and philosophical problem more than merely a PR one. Like it or not, the PAP is the party for the moral conservatives, where “moral conservatism” can easily mean “whatever is popular”.

Firstly, the claim to conservatism isn’t consistent. The PAP’s attempts to invoke conservatism to justify things like criminalising homosexuality fall flat when seen in the context of its past willingness to throw conservative morality to the winds and allow abortion and gambling. “We’re conservative until we aren’t” is a difficult position for anyone who intends to join the party with principles and values in mind, because who knows what the party will demand of you.

Secondly, its conservatism tends to rest on issues which alienate the young the most. Younger people are more likely to be politically liberal, and to favour free speech/equal rights/social welfare platforms, and to have a positive attitude towards LGBTQ issues, and this tends to make it difficult for the young to consider joining the party in a meaningful way (if they even can; see “Patronage”). Young people think of political change in broad, bold strokes, which makes the PAP a non-choice.

Thirdly, it hasn’t shed its troublesome history. Greater awareness has pushed issues like Operation Spectrum to greater prominence. There has been no unsealing of records to prove that such repressive measures were just or reasonable, and there has been no public apology. Perhaps more importantly, there has been no repudiation of such methods. The party that says it wants to protect you is also the party that wants you to believe it needs extraordinarily repressive powers to do so, and while the history of the use of those powers yields some positive examples (preventing the Yishun MRT attack), but also black spots like Spectrum. 

Perhaps an attempt to address the problematic past, with transparency and sincerity, would help people feel better about the future.

As a matter of principle, if you tell someone that “I want you to join me in making Singapore great, and also maybe I will require you to jail people for decades without trials or evidence”, I don’t think anyone who says “OK” is going to be anyone’s idea of a moral exemplar.

4: a culture of patronage

There is a perception that connections and loyalty are more important than ability, which is why loyalists get rewarded with appointments for which they seem woefully underqualified (will the real SMRT CEO please stand up). This doesn’t sit well with the broader Singaporean ethos which shuns nepotism. It probably doesn’t help that the private sector may also appear to be run by a shadowy cadre of loyalists, with appointees in Temasek Holdings, SPH, etc.

Now, one may argue that talent tends to attract talent, and the reason the national sovereign wealth fund is run by the PM’s wife is entirely because she’s the most qualified person for the job, but I’m not sure this is terribly convincing to the man on the street. Firstly, this appears to happen far too often, since the revolving door of public appointments admits military personnel quicker than a BMT change parade. Secondly, it may be that organisations play their cards too close to their chest: the appointment of such persons is surely a matter of public interest, so why not be more transparent about the candidature and the selection process?

A case in point would be the failed leadership transition at Temasek Holdings, with some troubling intel on what happened behind the scenes.

Ultimately all of this suggests a great reluctance to share power. You want to join politics, it’s because you want the power to change things, but they’re not giving it to you unless you become one of them, at which point you either can’t or won’t want to make the changes you set out to do.

Arguably, that’s not sinister. When you get the experience and put in the hours, you’ll see things their way. All you need to do is trust the system, keep your head down, and sooner or later you’ll see things their way, and then you’ll be rewarded for your loyalty!

That’s the sort of thing leaders like to hear, right?