“PAP MPs HAVE been carefully selected, they are not ordinary people,” Mr Lee Kuan Yew taught us in 1994. Mr Goh Chok Tong further enlightened that Singapore’s rulers are of the “junzi” (君子or righteous elite) order while Mr Lee Hsien Loong ordained that they are “natural aristocrats” without whom “society will lose out”.
If nothing else, the sheer virtuosity of the hubris is something to behold.
The search for such leaders commences in school where children are screened for their intellectual prowess (or, in the Singapore context, good memorisation skills). The ones who come through the stiff scrutiny are nourished, primed and manicured to become scholar-mandarins, charged with the solemn duty of running Singapore Inc.
After graduation and a successful run in public service, which usually means a meteor-like rise through the ranks, many of these high-achievers are farmed out as corporate chieftains to one of a plethora of government-linked companies (GLCs). The brightest of these may ultimately be bestowed the high honour of donning the uniform of white.
Singapore’s success, so the brochure tells us, has come about because of its ability to attract exceptional people into government.
As with all colourful commercials, however, the reality is never quite as awesome. Many of our scholar-mandarins, without the state’s hand-holding, often find themselves floundering when faced with real-life adversity.
Take, for instance, Mr Ng Yat Chung. An army lieutenant-general and recipient of the Singapore Armed Forces Overseas Scholarship (SAFOS), Mr Ng rose to become Chief of Defence Force (CDF). In 2011, he stepped out of his uniform into the world of shipping where he helmed Singapore’s flagship carrier Neptune Orient Lines. Within five years of taking over, the company – once a giant in international shipping – listed and eventually sank, taking with it $1.5 billion.
In the real world, Mr Ng would have been tarred and feathered by shareholders. But in the PAP-managed one, the scholar-general was appointed CEO of the Singapore Press Holdings.
Such reward for non-performance is not novel. Mr Lui Tuck Yew, also a SAFOS scholar and former Chief of Navy, joined the PAP and stood for elections in 2006. He was subsequently appointed transport minister whose unfortunate portfolio included having to do battle with a devilishly uncooperative train system.
The trains won, of course. After a major system disruption in 2015 that caused much public unhappiness just before the elections, Mr Lui threw in the towel and chose not to stand for re-election. No worries, though, he was appointed ambassador to Japan in 2017.
Then there is Mr Desmond Kuek, another lieutenant-general, another SAFOS recipient and another CDF. Like his predecessors, Mr Kuek left the military for the world of GLCs. Following an array of appointments to executive posts and directorships, Mr Kuek eventually became CEO of SMRT in 2012.
Under his watch, SMRT’s problems went from bad to worse culminating in the company’s operating assets being taken over by the Land Transport Authority (LTA), a move that wasn’t exactly a celebration of Mr Kuek’s leadership.
Speaking of the LTA, Chew Meng Leong (you guessed it: another SAFOS scholar, rear-admiral and Chief of Navy) was appointed the organisation’s chief executive in 2014 but resigned his post barely two years into his tenure. He was embroiled in the controversial proposal to tunnel a MRT line through a nature reserve as well as the snafu over the secretive shipment of brand new yet defective trains back to China for repairs. It was reported that he faced “mounting pressure” to quit.
For those of you losing sleep over Mr Chew’s future prospects, rest assured. The former rear-admiral tells us in his LinkedIn profile that he is now the Chief Marketing Officer at Singapore Technologies Engineering.
There is a saying that in America, old soldiers never die, they just fade away. In Singapore, they join GLCs.
All this raises questions about the PAP’s model of grooming leaders. From the implosion of Micropolis in 1998 to the slow but inevitable death of the Suzhou Industrial Park, the performance of our scholars-turned-corporate people have not been exactly stellar.
In fact, they have been coming up short against the onslaught of innovative (foreign) enterprises. ComfortDelgro and CityCab, for example, are seeing their market shares getting chomped away by Uber and Grab. Internet content providers like Netflix are gaining much digital territory in their war with Temasek-owned companies like Starhub and Singtel. Singapore Airlines registered a net loss of nearly $140 million in the first three months of this year – its worst performance in six years – due to intense competition from its overseas rivals.
Credit Lyonnais Securities Asia (CLSA) recently called out this dismal performance. Analysing the country’s exchange-listed companies, including blue chips like banks and telcos, CLSA pointed out that these leaders “have been destroying value” rather than creating it.
Given their pedigree, so the thinking goes, these scholar-types also make gifted politicians. Hence, the disproportionate number of state savants in the cabinet.
But having a bunch of scholars sitting atop the political hierarchy hasn’t made the country’s circumstances any more auspicious. If anything, the groupthink has exacerbated our problems (read also The PAP is lost).
The recent debacles such as the outbreak of the Hepatitis-C virus in 2015 which killed eight patients, the woeful police response to the Little India riot in 2013, the explosion of the Zika infections in 2016, and the mismanagement of the hugely expensive Sports Hub are but a few examples of a lengthy list that attest to a rather ordinary political leadership.
At best, they make PM Lee’s use of the term “natural aristocrats” exactly one word too many.
But instead of recognising that the success of this country depends on the collective intellectual heave of the people, these scholar-mandarins continue to think that they, and only they, know what’s good and right. Instead of opening up society to harvest the rich diversity of thought and opinion, they continue to crack down on anyone who colours outside the lines.
The view from their perch is that we, the unlettered yokels, cannot be trusted to handle free speech, read a free press or enjoy free assembly lest our loutish minds cause us to run amok like those zombies in World War Z.
No independent thought or action can be tolerated; obedience and conformity must be unerringly enforced. Why else would a handful of activists who held a quiet vigil for a death-row inmate about to be hanged be interrogated by the police and prevented from leaving the country, a lone protester calling for the prime minister’s resignation be jailed, and a senior academic who spoke out of line undergo two rounds of verbal self-flagellation as penance?
We are even told that, for our own good, we have to chope the presidency for a Malay (or one thereabouts) Speaker of Parliament.
Such control may bring cheer to the permanent and parasitic ruling elite, but it is decidedly murderous on the spirit of enterprise in Singapore. While the people are called upon to build an innovative society, every demonstration of spontaneity and independent thought is mercilessly snuffed out. Our junzi don’t seem to realise that autocracy and creativity are as mixable as oil and water. Establishing order is one thing, bringing out a society’s innovative best is quite another.
Singapore’s current problems are a result of “not ordinary people” running the country unchecked for too long. It is this elitist model that poses the biggest threat to our nation’s future.
This article was first published on Chee Soon Juan’s website.