In only 20 more years, the youngest minister today will be retiring and there will remain no more politicians who have any working memory of today’s leaders, much less the founding generation.
In the history of young nations, this is the most precarious period of transition, when new generations who have not the slightest personal memories of or connections to the founding generation take on the mantle of leadership.
Passing on policies is easy; transferring ideals and values requires continual collective connections between generations of living, breathing people.
To achieve consistent economic growth with broad-based gains for its entire people has already been a rarely scaled hurdle. To maintain exemplary, transparent governance with an entrenched ethos of incorruptibility is even harder. The People’s Action Party (PAP) has enabled Singapore to rise to the top of the list of successful newly independent states with these two accomplishments.
Its third challenge is not to just remain in power, nor to maintain its one-party dominance and deny the opposition its self-described role as a “co-driver” of the nation, but to do so in a manner which ensures that the party truly renews itself and retains its original vitality, vibrancy and vigour.
If history is anything to go by, this last task will be daunting. The fact is, democratically elected ruling parties have generally floundered after about a half century to three-quarters of a century. They become corrupt, riven by internal strife and eventually prompt a previously loyal electorate to vote them out.
One thought is that there are only three basic scenarios for the PAP in the next 50 years:
1. The Status Quo Scenario. As it suggests, this scenario sees the PAP controlling, say, 85 per cent to 90 per cent of parliamentary seats, with the opposition controlling at most a dozen seats. This is regardless of the popular vote, where support for the PAP has dropped to a record low of 60 per cent, and may even decline further because control of Parliament is what really counts.
2. The Dominant Party Scenario. The PAP retains control of an important two-thirds majority or, at the very least, an absolute majority, of parliamentary seats. Assuming there are still around only 90 to 100 seats in Parliament, that means the opposition parties will control around 30 to 50 seats.
3. Two-Party Pendulum Scenario. A single opposition party or a coalition wins an election. Power then shifts between the PAP and the second major party in Singapore. This is pretty much the norm in all other developed, liberal democracies. A variant of this scenario is that the PAP splits and new coalitions form which alternate in winning elections.
These scenarios are quite obvious and commonsensical. It is the likelihood of the various scenarios occurring which may be controversial. Let me rate these probabilities into three categories: Unlikely, Possible and Likely.
And let me divide the next 50 years into three sets of 15 years, with each set roughly comprising three elections. We can therefore create a matrix for the scenarios:
Status Quo Scenario: first 15 years, possible; second 15 years, unlikely; third 15 years, unlikely.
Dominant Party Scenario: first 15 years, likely; second 15 years, possible; third 15 years, possible.
Two-Party Pendulum Scenario: first 15 years, unlikely; second 15 years, possible; third 15 years, likely.
Basically, all these scenarios foresee that the PAP will face a challenge to retain the same degree of control over Parliament as it has had in the past. So long as the very popular current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong remains in control – not only as PM but as Senior Minister or Minister Mentor, like his predecessors – the mantle of legitimacy can perhaps be extended to younger leaders. But even Mr Lee will be in his 80s by three more elections. The challenge will be considerable from then onwards.
This is not actually a radical conclusion – almost everyone I informally surveyed agreed with it broadly, but differed in their estimation as to how many years it would take before the PAP would lose an election, and how many terms it would stay out of power before bouncing back.
In fact, Mr Lee Kuan Yew himself has publicly pointed out that the PAP will eventually lose an election, but he did not foresee a date nor a cause.
Causes for loss of power
SO FAR, historical trends elsewhere point towards an election loss by the PAP in the second half of the next 50 years. Or to put it another way, it would be extraordinary if that did not happen. The issue we should now consider is: What might cause the PAP to lose a general election, given its current overwhelming dominance?
There are three basic possibilities: First, an accidental or freak election. Second, a split within the PAP, resulting in a loss to an opposition party which might not otherwise be stronger than an united PAP. And third, an anticipated, outright loss to an opposition party.
Advocates of the freak election thesis note that the near-absolute control of Parliament by the PAP is not reflected in the total anti-PAP votes in every general election, which has averaged between 35 per cent and 40 per cent.
This has been due to the first-past-the-post Westminster system, which intentionally favours a strong ruling party rather than multi-party coalition governments. And so a party winning with only, say, 60 per cent of the total votes cast in an election may control some 90 per cent of Parliament – as in Singapore.
However, this can also give the PAP and its supporters a false sense of security. If sufficient voters want more opposition parliamentarians than the paltry 10 per cent at present, or are unhappy about a particular policy, but do not necessarily want a change of government, this might result in a relatively small swing in the total votes cast – say, 8 per cent to 10 per cent. This could result in a small majority still for the PAP of, say, 52 per cent against 48 per cent of total votes cast. But it could also result in sufficient constituencies – especially the big GRCs – being lost, to actually tip the balance and result in an unintended loss of power by the PAP.
Split in the PAP
The second cause of a loss of power would be if the PAP split into two. History shows that internal differences must be extremely severe to split a ruling party, because opposing factions are self-serving enough to thoroughly dislike each other but remain unhappily married in order to remain in power. Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party is an example of convenient marriages between extreme, divergent factions.
Currently, there are not any foreseeable issues nor distinct ideological rifts which can be so controversial as to cause a split. Over the long course of history, perhaps a reunification with Malaysia, or a complete halt to national service, might qualify as fundamentally radical enough to split a party, but these sorts of issues are hardly on the cards. It is hard to imagine issues of the scale of, say, Scottish independence or Hong Kong’s system of elections, on the Singapore horizon.
Massive Loss of Legitimacy
The third possibility, that of an outright, convincing and even widely anticipated win by an opposition party – such as occurred recently in the Indian general elections – is possible only if there is a long, irrecoverable and massive loss of legitimacy by the ruling party.
This is not likely to happen just because of honest policy mishaps, perhaps partly due to an innate Asian conservatism towards regime change and deference to authority. On the flip side, however, Asian electorates are increasingly intolerant about corruption in public office, partly because it is so prevalent.
Singapore achieved its enviable, probably unrivalled record of incorruptibility largely because Mr Lee Kuan Yew set a tone of governance which equated to an almost ascetic personal lifestyle.
If future political leaders become blase about corruption, accepting it perhaps as part of the general cynicism of the New Normal, and value their occupation as similar to that of the well-paid investment bankers against whom their pay is benchmarked, rather than as an almost-sacred mission, then Singapore indeed will no longer be exceptional.
And if Singaporeans become cynical about the absolute incorruptibility of their government and see their leadership as being no different than that of counterparts in Asean, in Hong Kong or Taiwan, or indeed in India and China, then the calculus of governance will change forever.
There is no evidence that corruption has increased in Singapore’s public life, despite a few scandals involving mid-level bureaucrats. Singapore remains exemplary among its neighbours and even its counterparts in developed countries, for its low level of corruption.
Of these three possible causes for loss of power, which have the greatest likelihood of occurring? I would rate the first possibility – a freak election – as having the highest chance, followed by an internal split, and the least likely is an outright, widely predicted loss. But this is a quite arbitrary stab in the dark.
In all likelihood, it is the interplay and combination of these three scenarios in different ways, which will pose a challenge for the PAP.
Just as I’ve highlighted three possible causes for loss of power, there are many factors which can either delay or accelerate these possible causes.
One is demography. Singapore is one of the fastest-ageing nations in the world. Old people are inherently more risk-averse than the young. They want to conserve whatever they already have, whether it be wealth, health or benefits. They are not likely to risk what they have for the sake of vague idealistic notions such as freedom of speech or more opposition in Parliament.
However, the silver vote can also be vociferous about protecting their own rights. Just before the last general election, an IPS survey showed that the percentage of elderly swing voters rose to 45.4 per cent, compared to only 35.2 per cent in the previous election. The only demonstrations at Hong Lim Park which have been attended by people over 60 were those protesting about CPF and Medisave issues.
Another factor is the PAP’s organisational structure. The cadre system mitigates against internal fractures. Of course, this can also lead to internal rigidity and intrigues. Yet another factor is possible loss of economic competitiveness. The trade-off in fast-growth, low-freedom societies is that the delivery of a rapidly improving material life will offset the relative paucity of civil rights. But as Singapore’s economy matures and the low-hanging fruits of economic growth have all been plucked, the social compact can start to fray.
A final and important factor is the relative strength of the opposition parties. Other than a freak election, a change of power can happen only if the electorate believes that, if given the chance, an opposition party can actually govern.
Having covered the politics part of this lecture, let me now talk a bit about governance. And a key issue here is governability – to what extent will Singapore be more difficult to govern, regardless of who is the ruling party?
I can identify several trends which will affect governability:
First, the ability of governments to control information will continue to erode, despite sometimes frantic and illogical attempts to stem it. Because knowledge is power, and the ability to control access to information is the key to power, governments instinctively want to be the gatekeepers. But, increasingly, social media and its incredible variety of means for people to connect even across a heavily censored Internet system is undermining the Government’s ability to shape how people think.
Anything censored is still widely available in alternative media, and therein lies the rub: At what point will control and censorship of the mainstream news, cultural and entertainment media become counter-productive by not really achieving the purpose of blocking access to information, but, instead, end up alienating the social activists who, despite their small size, are influencers beyond their numbers?
The Singapore Government has a counter-argument and it is that even if a control or censorship measure does not achieve its stated purpose, it signals the values of a society and must be enacted irrespective of the chances for success.
Against this backdrop, we now have gay penguins singing To Singapore With Love.
Second, it will be increasingly difficult to hold the political centre together in the midst of polarising extremes – liberals versus conservatives; local versus foreign; pro-life versus pro-abortion; gay versus straight, and so forth. While fault lines along race and religion have been contained and have still not cracked, the so-called culture wars are intensifying.
Third, diminution in the stature of political leadership will encourage the rise of so-called “non-constructive” politics. Future leaders simply cannot command the sufficient respect and moral authority to decree what is acceptable and unacceptable criticisms. To have the authority to simply deride wide swathes of criticisms as simply non-constructive is wishful thinking.
However, if political power in Singapore will increasingly be shared between competing groups, as it is now in Hong Kong and Taiwan, it is important that political discourse does not descend to the theatrical farces which now characterise their legislative meetings. In these territories, a political culture of mutual respect has not been established. It is imperative that this be established in Singapore in coming years, so that by common consent of all political players – rather than by ministerial decree – a consensual culture of constructive politics emerges.
Fourth, maintaining an ethos of egalitarianism in an increasingly unequal society will require more than just political oratory. While Singapore was never a socialist state, its ethos was fervently egalitarian and this helped to create a sense of common purpose. In recent years, the ostentatious pursuit of wealth rivalling Hong Kong standards has become fashionable. Extolling our casinos, Formula 1 Grand Prix and highest per capita number of billionaires and Lamborghinis in the world, as evidence that Singapore has now become a world-class city, could perhaps be dismissed as the crassness of the rich, except that this ethos of the elite is occurring just when income inequality has become the worst since independence.
The gulf between rich and poor Singaporeans, not only in terms of wealth but also in terms of values, is probably more than ever before, and is continuing to widen. Even the gap between old money and its sense of responsible philanthropy, and the nouveau riche’s penchant for affectation and bling, is widening.
Finally, the absence of a galvanising national mission and a sense of dogged exceptionalism as the little red dot that refuses to be smudged out, will lead increasingly to a sense of anomie – which has been defined as “personal unrest, alienation and anxiety that comes from a lack of purpose or ideals”. It is the disease of affluence which affects individual people as well as societies. We have arrived, only to find ourselves lost again.
If this seems unnecessarily pessimistic, it is because I personally think the danger of hubris right now is greater than the danger of under-confidence.
Inheritors of the Future
THE deepening of a shared national identity, the pursuit of a compelling social vision, and the shaping, articulation and moulding of that vision through a collective imagination is the central task of the younger generation. Stumbling into the future without a clue as to what are the promises and the perils is quite possibly the best way to ensure that we will encounter an accidental disaster.
Thankfully, I have not found, in my conversations with young people, either the hubris or the immobilising self-doubts which I was afraid of. It is not as if the young people I spoke to were very happy with the state of Singapore today. Far from it. Almost everyone was critical of one issue or another, and to varying degrees.
But what impressed me was the overwhelming sense of what sociologists call self-agency – the simple notion that I can change things; that I am in control of my life and my future.
This kind of political DIY, or Do-It-Yourself, attitude has in the past decade encouraged a participatory democracy which resembles Singapore’s early years, but which then surrendered to decades of developmental authoritarianism.
One striking example – which was not imaginable in my generation – was the response to the famous Gay Penguins episode – which will go down in Singapore’s history, I hope, as the kind of comic relief we need as a nation while we tackle the underlying big issues.
The fact that some bureaucrat banned some children’s books as pro-gay and anti-family is not unexpected, and not dissimilar in logic to the banning of chewing gum decades earlier. But 20 years ago, such bureaucratic actions – not necessarily about LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) issues but over anything, such as fines for this or that offence, or banning shoulder-length hair for men – would have been met only with grudging acquiescence.
But as a sign of the times, including the power of social media, the response this time was some 400 young parents decamping to the National Library to read the banned and to-be-pulped books to their children. It was not a strident political demonstration and more like a children’s outing. But the point was clear.
And the same is true for the unprecedented 26,000 people who gathered at the Pink Dot event – not to just celebrate gay rights nor to oppose the Government, but to celebrate the increasing diversity and self-agency of civil society.
Perhaps the most important point is that they were not organised by any registered political party, but were all connected by social media. So I conclude today’s talk with a hopeful view of Singapore politics in the next 50 years, simply because in the bigger picture, I do not see the ossification of an ageing political elite increasingly out of touch with a restless youth, such as led to the Arab Spring; nor do I see fundamentally divisive issues such as in Hong Kong over its relationship with China; nor the exhaustion of Old Europe unable to confront big, difficult issues.
At 50, Singapore is still a young nation in search of its future. I do not think there are more, or fewer, challenges ahead than in the past 50 years. They will simply be different challenges.
HO KWON PING
Ho Kwon Ping is founder and executive chairman of luxury resort operator Banyan Tree Holdings Ltd. He was detained under the Internal Security Act for two months for his pro-Communist activities. After his release, he continued his studies at the University of Singapore and graduated in economics and history in 1978