Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Incredible Shrinking Prime Ministership

Over the weekend I had a rather interesting discussion with a friend of mine who happens to be a senior member in one of the grassroots associations. During the conversation, this friend mentioned that the grassroots leaders had provided feedback to the government that there was a desire from the ground for at least an offer of resignation from the Minister of Home Affairs over the Mas Selamat case. This friend then went onto point out that, "The most noticeable things about the whole affair, is the fact that the Prime Minister is noticeably absent."

That really made me question one of the most important national issues - namely the question of leadership and what it means to be a leader. You can't escape the topic if you've served in Singapore for long enough.

Singapore has been very fortunate to experience two very distinguished leaders. Our founding Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew managed to take a small island with no hinterland by the scruff of the neck and turn it into a thriving metropolis. Singapore may be a small red dot on the global scale, but thanks to the work of Mr Lee and his team, Singapore is a blaring dot. Minister Mentor Lee as he is now known, stands out as one of the Asian leaders of his generation who has ruled wisely and most importantly managed to leave the hot seat on his own terms. The man has spent the last 20-years being a poster boy of how to retire - by keeping exceedingly active (He's an 84-year old man who checks his own emails).

Our second Prime Minister, Goh Chok Tong (Incidentally, my Member of Parliament) also proved to be a leader worth swooning over. Although less eloquent and often accused of being a seat warmer, Mr Goh managed to make his mark on Singapore for the better. On the shallow front, he cut an impressive figure on the international stage, thanks to his height. Unlike most Asian leaders who often get dwarfed by their Western counterparts, Goh Chok Tong, the leader of a small red dot, looked every bit the equal (if not greater) than the leaders of the largest powers in the world

On a more serious note, the then Prime Minister managed to keep the things that his predecessor had rightfully put into place but at the same time, he managed to bring the concept of government into the modern age. It was he brought in ideas like MediSave and Edusave, policies that smacked of "Welfarism" that his predecessor despised but have shown to have benefited Singapore by making education more accessible (thus maximising the nation's 'human resources.')

As a resident in his constituency, I believe it is Goh Chok Tong who planted the idea of government as an institution that "Takes Care" of people in Singaporeans. The estate he looks after remains one of the best kept.

So, how does our current Prime Minister, Mr Lee Hsien Loong measure up? Perhaps it's too premature to tell but I believe it's healthy when citizens make it a point to constantly measure the performance of their leaders. Like all human beings, PM Lee has made some important decisions that have been correct and some which have been less so.

Assessing political leadership in Singapore is tough, in as much as so many things in Singapore work so correctly that it would take a deliberately maligned leader to cock-up the situation. PM Lee has inherited a country that is doing well. The economy is growing and the people are well feed. Nobody is keen to go to war with Singapore and even in a region known for natural mishaps, Singapore somehow escapes (Not a scratch during the the 2004 Tsunami). So, amidst this background, it's hard to really assess the quality of leadership of this Prime Minister. Yes, the economy has grown and unemployment is at a historic low but ......

To be fair, the Prime Minister has made some tough decisions. Two casinos are being built, in spite of the majority being against it. The Prime Minister has also taken the unpopular decision to impose a hefty tax (a 40 per cent increase in GST), arguing quite convincingly that it was important for the government to build up reserves to make the city liveable for an increasingly elderly population.

The Prime Minister has also shown strength of character by being confident enough to delegate major task to his predecessors. He's placed handling growing relations with the Middle East with the Senior Minister (Goh Chok Tong), who is an excellent relationship builder. As such, Singapore has managed to remain a comitted ally to the USA and Israel but at the same time enjoying warm friendship with the Arab World.

To his credit, the Prime Minister also won an election by some 66 per cent of the popular votes cast. While this may be a bit of a come down from what the rulling party's history has given it to expect - this is a respectable margin of victory. What's more, the Prime Minister faced something his predecessors never faced - intelligent and hard working members of the opposition. While the opposition can hardly be construed as a "Threat" to the government, it did provide Singaporeans with something interesting - people whom voters could actually believe. The Prime Minister, as leader of his party can claim a "Mandate" from the people.

But having said all of that, how much of what our Prime Minister has done can be attributed to his leadership. The growing economy can be attributed to the electronics industry as much as it can to the Prime Minister. True leadership is always tested in times of crisis. Lee Kuan Yew survived the early turbulance of independence and military confrontation in neighbouring Indonesia. Goh Chok Tong lead us through the 1997 Asian Economic Crisis and the outbreak of SARS in 2003 into a stronger and more resillient nation. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Long has thus far dissapointed in the two periods of "Roughness" that his premiership has thus experienced.

Firstly, there was the 377A debate. For those of you who forgot, this was the bill on whether annal sex between consenting male adults should have been legalised. Here was a chance for the Prime Minister, caught between two powerful interest groups, to make a stand. And in the end....he didn't. He allowed political expediency to triumph over the rule of law - declaring in parliament that for this section, "Legal Ambiguity was best." In theory, the conservatives were told that 377A would remain and the homosexuals could be satisfied that they would not be prosecucted because the government had no intention of actually enforcing the law. Nobody seemed curious enough to check-out how many of SIngapore's laws they were violating free from the knowledge that the government would not actually enforce the law. Thanks to his resolution to keep the law but not enforce it, a dangerous precident has been set.

If the Prime Minister's leadership during the 377A debate was dissapointing, his leadership or his lack of leadership during the Mas Selamat affair borders of being dangerous. At the time of writing, it's been nearly five-weeks since the man escaped and in all those weeks, the only thing the Prime Minister has told the nation was some cheesy slogan about how all communities have bonded together.

Mas Selamat has made a mockery out of the government's repuation for competence. In spite of all our investment in anti-terrorism technologies, we've been unable to catch a 47-year old with a limp. The Minister of Home Affairs, Mr Wong Kang Seng has provided circus entertainers of the world with a new recruit. Every statement from the Ministry seems to make the Minister look more incompetent each day (Think of the story of Mas Selamat's mole coming out 19-days after the fact and on the day, Mr Wong told the world that details of the investigation would not be made to the public.)

As much as I think Mr Wong should do the decent thing and resign, I also believe that Prime Minister needs to take some of the blame for the failure to catch the man. If a Prime Minister sees a Minister is making a fool of him or herself, surely the Prime Minister has an obligation to act. The Prime Minister is showing that he is unwilling or unable to deal with Mr Wong.

Leadership is more than just taking credit for the good time. It's about reassuring people during bad times. Perhaps the bunker mentality does work, but it's quite disturbing that not only has a comitted terrorist escaped but the fact that the leader of the government responsible for his capture remains noticeably absent. Mr Lee could celebrate in public when the host of the next Youth Olympics was announced and yet he's noticeably absent when Mas Selamant escaped.


george said...

George says:
The cabinet is getting more and more bloated by the day!

Where else in the world do you have a cabinet with a prime minister, who is supposed to be in charge, yet flanked by heavy weights like the MM, his father and the SM, his predessor. On top of that, there are ministers at his beck and call in the PMO!

It is too obvious in many instances that the PM is forever avoid poor publicity for himself even when something happens/particular decisions were made during his watch. The recent parliament sitting where just before it Tharman was suddenly announced as the new Finance Minister. The reason for this became pretty obvious soon after with the announcement of the hugh (excessive)budget surplus, juxtaposed against a hefty 40% increased in GST ostensibly because of a projected deficit, when in reality the very opposite happened! Singaporeans are more than justified to look askew at the govt for such a serious error in judgement. The Finance Ministry under the PM could not see a budget surplus as big as the Singapore Eye looming just over the horizon! From now on we have to take all forecasts, good and bad, from the govt with a barrel of salt.

Is our PM only a fair weather PM?

Aaron said...


Remember how the GST hike was touted for helping the poor?

We all know how much help they got in the end didn't they?

Remember "What do you want to eat, hawker centre, food courts, restaurants?" when there was a proposed $30 increase for the poor from $260?

And now we have he's doing it again. In a time of high inflation, nothing is being done. Hooray~