Monday, April 14, 2008

I'm No Longer in Charge

How do you know if a girl is a virgin? The answer is simple - ask her. If she says yes, chances are she's not. If she says no, she most definately is. The reasoning behind this piece of teenage wisdom runs as follows:

1 - If she says yes, it is because she needs to prove her virtue and how does a girl prove her virtue? She claims that she's remained pure and chaste throughout.

2 - If she says no, it is because she needs to show that she's interesting and nothing makes a girl seem more interesting than the number of sexual partners she's had.

I guess the point I'm trying to make here, is that there should be certain things we don't need to tell people, unless we're trying to prove a point. This is particularly true when it comes to the area of personal integrity. One of my favourite lines that people often use is:

a - Let me be frank with you. Now, I wonder people have to say that? I am by my nature, very trusting and when people tell me things, I take it that they're speaking from the bottom of their hearts. So, it always bothers me when people tell me that they're going to be honest in their dealings with me. I find myself asking - Why do they need to tell me that they will be honest?

History of full of interesting soundbites. Who can forget Richard Nixon's imortal lines - "I am not a crook!" Or George HW Bush's - "Read my lips, no new taxes." Then again politicians and governors have an interesing dilema. The needs of governing don't always meet the needs of politics and sometimes the politcians who have to do both end up breaking promises.

In Singapore, with our omnipotent government, we have our own political sound bite. That famous line is - "I'm No Longer in Charge." This phrase is spoken by non other than our founding Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who at the age of 84 has parked himself into a consultancy position known as "Minister Mentor." The title, as non Singaporeans might imagine has something to do with Mentoring Ministers.

To be fair to Lee Kuan Yew, his influence in Singapore would remain exceedingly high, whether he held a cabinate post or not. Although Singapore strives to be ruled by laws and political offices, Asian culture is such that prominent personalities rule. In China, Deng Xiao Peng ran China til the day he died as nothing more than - "President of the Bridge Club." Like Deng, Lee Kuan Yew or LKY is so prominent a personality in the psyche of Singaporeans that one commentator mentioned, "Lee Hsien Loong may be the Prime Minister, Goh Chok Tong may have been the Prime Minister for the past 14-years but this is still the era of Lee Kuan Yew."

So, I guess Mr Lee is right to make this statement wherever he goes. No matter what he does, Singaporeans will still feel that he is in charge, regardless of what office he holds. I remember watching him in person, the begining of the construction of the Marina Barrage in 2005 - "I have another challenge for you, even though I'm no longer in charge." With those words (which were not in the original script) he managed to cause panic amongst the corporate communications teams from the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources as well as the Public Utilities Board.

However, while its understandable why he keeps telling everyone that he's no longer in charge, the man doesn't seem to be acting that way. Study is movements carefully enough and you'll find that the Mentor to the Cabinate is acting more like the national leader instead. The best part is, he's pulling along his understudy, Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong. It could be me, but I don't recall either Minister Mentor or Senior Minister being described as Head of State or Head of Government.

OK, I've not stat down and done calculations about this, but in recent months, all the high-level activity seems to be conducted by either the Minister Mentor or the Senior Minister, while the President and the Prime Minister have been so low key, that one is left wondering where they've been. I do remember the Prime Minister waving a small flag back when we won the right to host the Youth Olympics and I'm sure the President will be somewhere to be seen when National Day comes about this August 9th. The Minister Mentor and Senior Minister are way to busy with such inconsequential things like, going to countries we are trying to open up, as well as entertaining leaders of the superpowers and keeping the nation in check when national disasters take place.

Just look at Singapore's relationship with Saudi Arabia. This is a relationship that has grown in leaps and bounds during the past three-years and Singaporeans are being encouraged to view Saudi has a nation that can build fortunes. Guess who headed up this inital push from the Singaporean side? Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong. Guess who has made two trips up to Saudi Arabia? Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew. The Senior Minister and Minister Mentor have made about three trips compared to one between the President and Prime Minister.

OK, this may make strategic sense. Senior Minister Goh has the people skills that are so necessary for dealing with a culture where relationships are so important. Minister Mentor Lee is of the same generation as the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosque, and Arab culture respects seniority. Then again, our President is of a similar age to the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosque and Minister Mentor Lee and our Prime Minister should have the people skills.

I shouldn't dwell into this too much. Both the Senior Minister and Minister Mentor have done an excellent job in ensuring that Saudi-Singapore relations are at a high, and this has been maintained by the efforts of the respective Ambassadors - Dr Amin Kurdi and Mr VP Hirubalan.

However one has to ask if this situation where the consultants overshadow the client is obviously healthy. No doubt, SM and MM have been very helpful to Singapore in the area of foreign affairs, particularly in the Middle East - where the Prime Minister has delegated responsability of managing the relationship to them.

But what about things like domestic affairs. Is it healthy that two retired politicians, no matter how good and experienced seem to have higher profiles than the head of government?

Look to the Mas Selamat affair. The Minister Mentor has spoken about this issue. I don't agree with the Minister Mentor's position. I think his comments before the actual findings of the completion of the inquiry were irresponsible. But at least he's said something. He's given some sort of direction to the general public. One may not agree with the direction, but at least he's provided it. Compare that the the Prime Minister who has been exceedingly silent, thus enforcing the impression that he's not providing leadership during a crisis situation.

Then let us look at the Olympic Games and the protest surrounding the torch. The Prime Minister has made a speech about not politicising the games. Yea, politicians make speeches all the time. But who is the one bringing Singapore's position on the issue into the International Arena - Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong. Shouldn't our Head of Government be promoting our position in the International Arena instead.

I'm sure both "retired" politicians are having fun doing what they're doing. Both were good for the nation when they were not retired and they're contributing their experiences to the current government. But one has to wonder if this is good for them and for the government in the long run.

How is this not good for the two retired politicians? I think the word legacy comes to mind. Retired politicians in other countries do contribute allot to society once they leave office. In retirement, Jimmy Carter is doing far more good than he did while in office through running his foundation. Margaret Thatcher, who, while physically failing and fading is becomming more iconic as people who would have been her opposition are adapting her philosophical ideas. Same with Regan, who died of Alzheimers not remembering he was President of the USA. How did they do it - they stayed away from government when they left. Time allowed people to forget their mistakes and remember the good that they left.

Unfortunately, those who stay in government beyond their sell by date find the opposite. Their mistakes become more prominent and people remember recent blunders more than they do years of public service. Look at Goh Chok Tong, a genuinely good Prime Minister for 14-years. But what do we remember from those years? In chats with a few friends, we remember him for:

a - Throwing his prestiege behind an effort to remove two opposition politicians and being shown the Middle Finger by the voters. There was a public embarrasment when he declared one of the gentlemen as being a little too "Old" to be a Member of Parliament and was then told by that Member that he was disrespecting Minister Mentor Lee who is 10-years older.

b - His wife's unfortunate remarks about a the high salary of a crook as "Peanuts." P Hirubalan
The same goes for the Minister Mentor. Check the internet positings and you'll find postings galore about his "Complacency" remarks. Nobody seems to be talking about his leadership that brought Singapore from third world to first.

Then there is the issue of the current leadership. Yes, it's always good to have experience. I don't have experience in allot of things and I've been lucky enough to have had mentors to turn too. But ultimately, who is responsible and acountable for my actions? I am, or at least I should be (though I'm learning the art of blamming it on everyone except myself).

Likewise with the Prime Minister. Both his predecessors are extraordinary men and their experiences are invaluable. Having your predecessors can be good. Its also delegate task to the best people for the job rather than trying to muddle along. But ultimately someone has to be responsible for the success and failures of a government and that person is.....The Head of Government. Is it healthy for a Prime Minister to be seen delgating leadership - obviously not.

Take the complacency remarks. Minister Mentor Lee has every right to make his views known and the public has an obligation to respond. But should MM's views be representative of the government? It's no issue when LKY thinks Singaporeans are complacent for expecting the government to contain and catch a terrorist(should be the otherway round but that's not how events took place). But it is a major issue when that's being presented as official policy and surely the Minister Mentor knows that as long as he holds an official cabinate post, all his public utterances are seen as official policy. Who should be responsible for the government's position?

By all means, the Prime Minister should utilise the resources and experiences available to him, even if they those of his predecessors. But surely, it's not healthy when they seem to be overshadowing him in everything that counts. He can use their experiences. He can delegate certain task to them. But ultimately he's responsible for the goverment's actions and he needs to be seen as the one being in charge. Much as I despise cheerleading fags, I take George W Bush who crossed party lines and personal feelings to get Bill Clinton and George HW Bush to raise funds for the 2004 Tsunami victims but nobody got the impression that Bill and Pops would be taking over everything.

As for the Minister Mentor and Senior Minister. Surely, they should realise that there are benefits to really being - Not in charge.

1 comment:

Panix said...

"b - His wife's unfortunate remarks about a the high salary of a crook as "Peanuts." P Hirubalan"

What remark is this and how did you get this quote?