By Michael Lim
In a recent attempt to refute criticism regarding the PAP’s slate of candidates for the upcoming general election, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong alleged that corporate high-flyers were reluctant to step forward because of their aversion to risk.
He said it was difficult to recruit “established” candidates from the private sector because “politics is a new field” and the “risk of failure” was big.
Today, the PAP-controlled Straits Times ran a feature story on a poll it supposedly conducted with 45 individuals from the private sector, all of whom had job titles of Vice President or higher. Only 3 of the 45 polled said that they would be willing to join the PAP if asked, citing various reasons ranging from the amusing (a reluctance to change their lifestyle) to the outright ludicrous (the pay being ‘too low’).
One of the respondents also said that he did not want to placed under the scrunity of the public eye, citing the example of Tin Pei Ling, who has been roundly criticised by the public following her introduction as a PAP candidate.
Of the 24 new candidates introduced by the PAP ahead of the coming election, only 8 are from the private sector. Of these, one (Gan Thiam Poh) works for the state-owned DBS Bank, one (Ong Teng Koon) is the son of a current PAP MP, and one (Tin Pei Ling) is married to the Prime Minister’s principal private secretary.
The number of candidates from the private sector is one of the lowest in recent history.
The other 16 candidates – or two-thirds – were drawn from the civil service, the Singapore Armed Forces and the PAP-affiliated National Trades Union Congress (NTUC).
The Prime Minister’s latest justifications are little but excuses designed to cover up the fact that the PAP is growing increasingly out of touch with society. Critics have alleged that Singapore’s policy-making elite are drawn from an incestuous inner-circle cabal of bureaucrats, most of whom are former government scholars who have little or no experience outside of the civil service ivory tower.
Instead of reflecting on what the PAP can do to broaden its appeal, PM Lee has laid the blame squarely on the shoulders of the private sector, claiming that those who are doing well are too comfortable with their current careers to consider stepping out to heed the call of service.
His arguments are flawed on a number of levels.
First, the claim that joining the PAP carries a “risk of failure” is downright laughable. It is well-known that the PAP wraps its new candidates in cotton wool – allowing them to be whisked into Parliament on the coat-tails of experienced ministers in GRCs. Ms Tin is the perfect example of this – although the 27-year-old senior associate at Ernst & Young has been roundly derided for lacking substance, she is almost certain to be returned to Parliament because she will be fielded in Marine Parade GRC, where the incumbent ‘anchor’ MP is Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong.
Joining the PAP carries almost no risk of failure whatsoever, because the party does its utmost to spare its new faces from the rough and tumble of a genuine electoral contest. Mr Goh has admitted as much – he said that the GRC system allows ‘talented but politically inexperienced’ candidates to enter Parliament and learn from their more experienced team-mates.
Second, if corporate high-flyers are supposedly so afraid of failure, why have so many of them stepped forward to join the opposition?
Mr Chen Show Mao, a top corporate lawyer at Davis, Polk and Wardwell, holds degrees from Harvard, Oxford and Stanford, and was a former Rhodes Scholar. He sits on the advisory board of the SMU law faculty and advised the Bank of China in the biggest-ever IPO deal in Asian history. He will be contesting the coming election under the banner of the Workers’ Party.
Mr Tony Tan, Ms Hazel Poa and Mr Benjamin Pwee, all of whom are former top civil servants turned entrepreneurs, are armed with both ‘real world’ business experience and an inside knowledge of the workings of the bureaucracy. The former two will be standing for the National Solidarity Party, while the latter has joined the tiny Singapore People’s Party. Meanwhile, Mr Kenneth Jeyaretnam, a former hedge fund manager with years of experience working in London, will be leading the newly-formed Reform Party into its maiden election.
By choosing to join the opposition, all five candidates will have to seriously contend with the “risk of failure” – they stand a far smaller chance of being elected in their respective constituencies than Ms Tin does in Marine Parade, despite their credentials and experience being far superior.
As recently as 2001, it would have been unthinkable that candidates with such profiles would have joined the opposition. Back then, it was widely accepted that the PAP had a monopoly on talent, with former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew even calling the opposition a “motley crue” comprising of “riff-raff from the streets”.
The fact that the opposition has been more successful at recruiting candidates from the private sector is a sign that the PAP is becoming increasingly insular, with its head buried in the sand of an sparse and unnavigable bureaucratic desert that is far detached from the realities of the new economy.
Perhaps that is the precise reason why private sector talent is shunning the PAP – because the PAP has lost sight of its values and ideals, and instead become a party of technocrats, not politicians.
If the party can no longer boast of having the best minds, or, at an even more fundamental level, remain relevant in the context of an age of great economic uncertainty, then it ought to either refresh itself or just stand aside. Having its spin doctors make excuses in the subservient mainstream media and blaming others for being ‘risk averse’ is doing a great dissservice to Singapore.
–The author has more than 20 years’ experience in recruitment and strategic human resource management, having worked in multi-national companies such as BP and General Electric. He is currently a partner in his own HR consultancy firm in New York.